Poetry does not have a lot going for itself these days – it needs all the help it can get – so when the postman arrived with a package and it wasn’t my eagerly expected new hard drive I can’t pretend I wasn’t disappointed that it was only a book of poetry and one I hadn’t ordered personally, i.e. a review copy. Me being me of course I then felt guilty for feeling that way so I had that to overcome too.
And then there was the presentation, which was nice, don’t get me wrong, but it was also a little too nice, a slick, professionally-produced hardback on good-quality paper with a glossy dust wrap – very nice you might think so why was this an obstacle? Because I immediately wondered who the book was being marketed to. I don’t know about you but the number of hard-backed poetry books I own I could count on one hand. People would like us to believe that no one buys poetry these days which simply isn’t true but I would like to know who buys hard-backed poetry books.
Then I made the mistake of flicking through the opening pages, those pages where you get to list the magazines you’ve been published in – looked like nothing but university magazines (okay so you list your best stuff) – and the awards you’ve received – first prize American Poetry Association two years running (sounds impressive) – and the radio stations that had broadcast his work (the BBC no less) … all of which felt like an obstacle to overcome rather than a recommendation, a reassurance that I was in the hands of a master of his craft. Perhaps it’s an American thing, perhaps it’s just me, but I felt I was being sold the guy.
The contents page listed the poems but I didn’t pay a blind bit of attention to it. It was just a list and I didn’t fret about it. I jumped straight to the first poem, ‘The Love That Passed Us By’, not exactly a title that excited me but what the heck, it’s just a title. The poem begins:
Fallen riders from the carousel of dreamers,
tumbled, humbled – hurled by make-believe,
be our own phoenixes – rise to splendorous life
– the love that passed us by! Too late we learn
that rainbows fade from showers of the eyes.
at which point I put the book aside and thought to myself: What the hell have I got in my hands here? This read like something one of the Romantic poets might have penned. I was probably fifteen the last time I mentioned a phoenix in a poem.
This did not bode well.
So, I read through the publicity materials that came with the book. (Yes, it had publicity materials.) There was a quote from a Dr. Ernest Kay at Cambridge who said that “Jonathan Russell” – that’s the author’s name by the way – “is reminiscent of the late and great John Masefield.” Kay is actually the Director General of the International Biographical Centre in Cambridge. (Yes, I googled him.) Masefield is known to me (I didn’t need to google him) – we did ‘Sea Fever’ in Primary 7 (you know the one – “I must go down to the sea again…”) but none of this helped. Comparing a 21st century poet to Masefield (who only died in 1967 I was surprised to discover), great though he might have been (he did manage to get appointed to the position of Poet Laureate), still made me wonder. The publicity material says that “Whispers is a collection of poems that celebrates love and the natural” and, if you add in the dozen or so nautical poems it’s easy to see why Masefield might just leap to the good Doctor’s mind; personally I kept coming back to Wordsworth who was not adverse to poems of a seafaring nature himself.
Of course there is very little poetry written that is not in some way derivative. I’m just not sure when ‘derivative’ got to be a derisory term: everything derives from something. No doubt Masefield was inspired by Wordsworth who was in turn inspired by Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton.
There is not a lot of decent nature poetry being written these days and I’d be hard pushed to remember the last poem about sailing ships I’ve read so I was surprised to find a poem in this collection that began:
O give me a ship, the wind on my neck, a deck
at my feet, tall masts to scratch a sapphire sky
and what cradle of peace rocks to the maternal sky.
from ‘Great Call of the Sea’
The problem I find with nature poetry in general, despite its often overt sentimentality, is that it so often relies on language that we now regard as clichéd. It’s not that Nature has become irrelevant, far from it, it’s just that its relevance has changed; Nature is now something we talk about preserving for future generations, it is something “out there” that we have to travel to rather than something that surrounds us. The 19th century poets were forever yearning to merge with nature. Our aesthetic appreciation of nature nowadays relies less on contextual knowledge than on a spectator’s sense of being within a landscape. Nature is something we escape to but at the same time we recognise that we’re really just visiting.
That sense comes across in many of these poems and yet there is also an awareness of Nature standing up for itself as in the poem ‘Oonala and the White Ants Sleeping’ which talks about how Nature thwarts the attempts of oil drillers in the Australian outback:
The pendulum had momentarily swung to a stop,
Dame Nature had played havoc with the clock
Further on in the poem – it’s a long one, 10 pages – we see the chief now happy with the results and this provides a good example of the kind of rhyme scheme that Russell uses the most with lots of internal and half-rhymes and plenty of alliteration:
Chief Oomala rose, and gloating with satisfaction sat
like a squat messiah frog agog with his own sagacity
on a pond’s brink, blinking blissfully to freckled kin
bubbles blowing across the dark water rippling.
What is also a little different about this particular poem is that it has a definite sense of place.
There is no doubt that Russell is a capable technician though he keeps his palette limited to the more common poetic techniques. Metaphors are prevalent, the occasional onomatopoeia and although he mostly he handles his rhymic language with care he does drop the occasional clanger with his use of full rhyme:
How can we drop anchor
In heavy seas of rancor?
from ‘Shipwrecked Mariners of the Heart’
Nature – as in trees and animals – is not the only subject matter in this collection. Like Wordsworth before him Russell also comments on the nature of Man from poems on childhood experiences till considerations on death and dying. I was struck by the ending to this particular poem:
Through our mother’s tunnel of love we squeeze
and smack into life loud as the dawn chorus.
Ultimately, silently and reluctantly, mostly we depart
as a mole of Faith in its tunnel blocking the light.
from ‘The Older We Grow’
You’ll note the capitalisation of ‘Faith’ in the last poem. This is a trend he adopts in a lot of his poems, words like ‘Future’, ‘Love’, ‘Youth’, ‘Time’ and ‘Faith’ and is certainly not something I would expect from a 21st century poet but there is an undeniably old-fashioned feeling to these poems, a pining for older, better times. Classical references abound – Zeus, Apollo, Venus, Cupid, Morpheus, Pandora, Titan, Artemis, Atlas, even Cerberus and I could go on – in fact every time there was as much as a puddle in a poem I fully expected to see Neptune bursting out of it on the back of a dolphin (why no references to Poseidon or Triton?) – and there were also a few biblical references in particular to the Good Samaritan. Really his source material is the kind of stuff most well-read – and even not that well-read – people will be able to connect with.
Dogs appear in a number of the poems. As Russell is blind I suspect a great attachment to guide dogs may have prompted this although he manages to avoid the cloyingly sentimental when talking about them except for ‘Paws in Paradise’ – I couldn’t get over the image of a winged Coco ‘begging from Saint Francis / at the Lord’s table’. ‘Valhalla Hill’ fares a bit better as does ‘A Hole in the Darkness’.
The most poignant for me though was ‘The Last Waltz’ which begins:
In the park, deserted-dark – two seated figures
haunt the rippling lake. Night sleepwalking
on the moonlit liquid, reflects of Eleaze
like a beautiful flower gone to seed – the tight
thin petals of her unseeing eyes are closed for ever.
Otto, her devoted Labrador, is harnessed to her darkness.
and ends with the couple dancing in the dark:
“Otto, dearest, on my carnet de Bal* I’ve reserved
for you the last waltz.” And as if to assist Eleaze
to her feet, Otto lifts a gallant paw.
The strange couple linked, foot to claw.
hand to paw, burnt umber to pearl
facing each other, bridging the tacit void,
the doppelgangers of Past and Present coalesce.
* a dance card holder
You’ll note the use of ‘haunt’ in the first quote. This is something that struck me about the collection as a whole, I counted at least twenty poems that contain references to ghosts, phantoms and other spectral phenomena, all – bar a couple I think – as metaphors. It is perhaps a weakness of the collection that I kept coming upon similar imagery over and over again. I was particularly struck by these three:
the crabs came rolling home to their tea.
from ‘By the Sea of Crabs and Crocuses’
with stingray on skin and crab in my rolling stride.
from ‘Sea Peace’
We watch the drunken crabs staggering home
from ‘A Day to be Free’
Notwithstanding Neptune’s nine appearances and a good seven dolphins (there’s even a poem called ‘Sleeping Dolphin’), half-a-dozen swans (one of which also is sleeping), some phoenixes, albatrosses, lots of purple flowers, moons that look like melons (or in one case a lemon) and even a few angels. Oh, and more references to Glamorgan than I rightly expected to see. Oh, and talking about ‘O’, according to W.D. Snodgrass every poet has the right to begin a line of poetry with an ‘O’ at least once in his life (even I’ve managed it), but, for my tastes Russell overdoes it. A small selection:
O what trysts to keep with our love-in-the-mist!
from ‘The Love That Passed Us By’
O awaken the mistaken! Beneath our shining gold braid
from ‘When the Moonlight Breaks’
O jealous forgettable wallflowers sighing bouquets
from ‘The Last Waltz’
O blow me home to the whales, the beautiful fountains
from ‘Endless Horizons’
Shelley wrote that the poet’s job is to refresh language for their society and that’s true of both Masefield and Wordsworth both who contributed significantly to making poetry accessible to the man in the street. Jonathan’s Russell’s poetry is without a doubt accessible, so we can tick that box, but I'd have to say that it fails to advance the cause of poetry. I don't mind that his influences come through but it's what he does with his material, or fails to do, that bothers me.
The next question I would ask is: Is it relevant?
Yes, some of it is. Russell doesn’t write ‘I must go down to the sea again’ but he does say:
…we flee on our fleet rubber wheels to the sea
from ‘A Day to be Free’
and, once there:
…such a joy to cast off
from the wharf of life and rejoice to the tongue of the sea
under the shrieking clouds kissing the shingle goodbye.
For at sea, what comradery, at the table taboo
politics and religion, for more sins are brewed in the pot
of these heavenly twins than by their virtues rise to Paradise.
from ‘Great Call of the Sea’
And what are they running from?
Concrete pasta, the marvellous mortar mix
by Rome invented by phallic Manhattan inherited
rising to the plumes of pollution…
from ‘The Beef and Pasta of Art’
Yes, just as Blake could bemoan the ‘dark Satanic Mills’ of his day so we have a lot to take issue with today. Yes, that is relevant. Some of it is not. The gentleman-of-the-road cropped up not infrequently in the works of 19th century poets. I remember as a child, along with the aforementioned ‘Sea Fever’ being introduced to Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Vagabond’:
Give to me the life I love,
Let the lave go by me,
Give the jolly heaven above
And the byway nigh me.
and it’s really impossible for me not to think of lines like that when I read Russell’s ‘Nature’s Travelling Gentlemen’:
Nature’s tramping tortoises of the tarmac
were slowly nibbling up the mileage
by their shark mouthed boot leather.
But the romanticised tramp is a thing of the past. Perhaps people take less to the road these days. They simply retire early and relocate to the Continent.
The question I have to ask is: What if someone like Masefield had kept writing poetry down till this day? Masefield himself had become unfashionable as far back as the 1930s though his star is somewhat in the ascendant at the moment. Yes, he would include things like cars and bus stops, even though of course they had both in his day, but would he have anything new to say or would he still be regarded, as he is by many, as a Georgian relic despite living through the reigns of four monarchs?
One of the main problems I had with this collection, despite the fact I think it contains too many poems that are too similar, is that it could do with being organised differently. I would have liked to have seen the dog poems, and the sea poems, the love poems and the humorous poems grouped together. And, yes, there were humorous pieces here:
The tiger in Niger is gloriously glamorous to a tigress
in striped pyjamas making amorous overtures.
from ‘Fateful Attraction’
There once was a lady from Niger
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger
The bottom line is that this is not a bad collection as long as it finds the right home. My mother would have loved it. That may sound like a put down saying that I would give it to my mother but there are a lot of mothers out there and they need something to read.
Up till now I’ve only offered snippets of the poetry on offer in this collection and so I’d like to leave you with a couple of complete poems to help you decide whether this guy’s for you. I think his humorous verse is his best work so here’s ‘Prudence Pimm’ first of all and, since he mentions the spectral so often, tell me there’s no Poe in the last poem in the collection ‘Shadow’ and I’ll eat my hat.
Prudence was a prim collegiate blue-stocking,
a spinster devoted to her catechism – akin to a church
nibbling at Christianity. As candles on the altar flicker,
occasionally did her Faith. She took cat-comfort
in her lap. Tom was stuffed to the tips on his whiskers
with tuna, and spoonfuls of cream to fortify his milk
till purr inflated into fur. She was the most consummate
unconsummated lady of her locality, with Heaven’s price
heavy on her virginity – closing the gap to opportunities!
Sadly, she prayed for a suitor of purity to replace
Tom who’d gone missing without leaving a trace.
Months lugubriously lapsed, then Thomas returned
with his bride, plus kittens – rekindling her Faith.
In her pew sank to her knees, staring above
Eyes like saucers – at her priest as if seeing God.
Sleepwalking through the window, a moonlit phantom
whispered: “I’m your shadow, I shall thee follow.”
I awoke and spoke: “O true ghost, why do you?”
“Because I love you,” answered my faithful shadow,
“I follow thee everywhere.” I inquired, “When I quit this
will you follow me still?” “Indeed I will,” assured
the clinging fly of a wraith – it now kneeling on the
The grandfather clock tolled from its tower below,
calling the hours to prayers. I asked the ghost
(beginning curling like smoke) above my bed: “Do you
for my soul?” And it shook its darkness negatively. “But
you believe?” I exclaimed, “Don’t tell me we pray in vain
– there has to be a Heaven?” The spectre, as it vanished
“Not to my knowledge – but until we arrive we never can
Russell, by the way, is an Englishman who has become a U.S. citizen. He holds an Honorary Doctorate of Literature from the London Institute for Applied Research and Docteur des Lettres, Pyschologie et Litterature, from the Academie Des Sciences Humaines Universelles in Paris. He is an Honorary Professor of Humanities at the Institute of Higher Economic and Social Studies in Brussels, Belgium and was chosen International Literary Man of the Year for Services to Poetry by the International Biographical Centre of Cambridge (England). In 1998 and 1999 he received the grand prize from the American Poetry Association and has been admitted to the Academy of American Poets.