Book Review: The Silent Letter

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“we’re this, we are a moment”

The Silent Letter is a collection of poems written as the author, Jaume Subirana, is reaching his sixties. They harbour an appreciation of the now – of everyday life’s vistas and minutiae. The language used is measured yet piercing, avoiding the guttural and the crude in favour of more gentle observations. This does not remove vivid emotion but rather exudes a personal, internal understanding of wonders to be found in any time or place.

The poems bring to life the beauty of nature and its ability to calm inner turbulence. Time is given over to watching raindrops catching light on a windowpane. Snow blankets the ground, bringing with it a feeling of peace.

“A silent pause next. Winter’s silent letter.”

Such visual pleasures are presented succinctly, avoiding the garish, leaving a contrail of enchantment in what many will fail to notice as they chatter and look forward to their next experience. The poems offer a cessation in the rush and noise – the fear of missing some opportunity that blinds to what is here already.

The words conjure an intimacy – gentle beauty. The images evoked are discrete while still touching the senses.

Settings are various, each valued for aspects that all could enjoy if they took the time to observe and absorb ambience alongside fixtures. Art is stepped into. Empty space offers relief between the impressive scenes depicted on the walls of a castle-cathedral.

The poems are presented in the original Catalan and then the English translation. Even those that cover only a few lines are given a full page. This spacing encourages the reader to pause and absorb each choice of word and stanza fully.

The collection is followed by a Vita Nova by Jordi Galves in which he describes Subrirana’s work, ‘as disconnected as possible from the blind gregariousness of mere sheep.’

It is a refreshing pleasure to read such carefully constructed and moving poems that remain accessible while avoiding both bland and fruitied phrasing.

“We sip a sacrament
of light and silence”

Any Cop?: In achieving balance and perspective – cultural resonance drawn from life, nature and simple observation – the author provides inspiration to pay quiet attention and live well.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Northern Alchemy

“Raised with two languages
is unconscious feasting: two ways of thinking.
One extends the other; can show us another world
yet how all worlds are just the same, but different.”

Northern Alchemy, by Christine De Luca, is a collection of forty poems that are printed in both the original Shetlandic and an English translation. This innovative format works well as readers may challenge themselves to understand the blended dialect of Old Scots and Norse before enjoying the translated version.

The sense of place in each of the poems is strong. There is an appreciation of the beauty and power of the natural world, and man’s place in it. Contemporary references exist but the overall feel is elemental, the language vivid and full-flavoured.

Not all are set on the Shetland Islands. This Material World describes an Icelandic volcano.

“earth rearranging herself, unslept, unsettled;
reminding us of her ways and timelines, our momentariness”

A feeling of timelessness permeates the collection. Beach work sees the narrator shunning the tasks they should be completing to appreciate the moment and treasure it. The importance of such prioritisation comes to the fore when considering the subject of What’s in a name? – the losing of memory when elderly.

“if the name I chose for you eludes me.
I’ll still sense mountain, water, love.”

Although poignant this is a reminder that parents can still exist, and find contentment, beyond their recognition of offspring.

Several of the poems explore the harvesting of nature’s goodness on both land and sea. There is a sense of freedom in walks taken as narrators observe and listen to birds, beasts, fields and streams. Those of different generations are appreciated, their lives leaving an imprint. Births are celebrated.

“The heavens themselves blaze forth nativity,
wrap a blessing round a little one whose first breath
reincarnates the dust of galaxies”

The beauty and pathos within these pages offers a strong evocation of people as just one, transient part of wider nature. Senses are heightened and what is of true value respected. Although never sugar coating, the poems are appreciative of the life and beauty of existence.

An uplifting and powerful collection. Recommended for all, not just those who already enjoy reading poetry.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Patrician Press.

Book Review: Shortening the Candle’s Wick

Shortening the Candle’s Wick, by Andres Ehin and Ly Seppel (translated by Ilmar Lehtpere), is a collection of poems written over a fifty year period. The authors married in 1975 and have published many books individually in their home country of Estonia, books that have been translated into numerous languages. This selection is arranged in the form of a poetic dialogue between the couple, offering a view of life in the Baltic state during the decades following the Second World War, alongside the lasting effects of occupation. The tone is often melancholy but includes an appreciation of nature – the flora, fauna and weather reflecting mood.

In Geese and Swans there is an invocation to the younger generations who leave their parents and homeland seeking a better way of life. They have taken flight, their hearts pounding with the joy of being alive, leaving those behind to suffer now empty spaces. Parents implore their children to return but are denied.

Long-Ago suggests that the land remembers those who leave, deep down, not just in the crumbling remnants of past endeavours. Perhaps this is what those who choose to return are seeking.

Odra Street Led To The Flea Market is one of the longer works, offering a polemic against war. A child slips away from their carer and encounters soldiers, captives, grey and hungry veterans with limbs missing. One urine stinking beggar, leg stumps festering, is trying to sell an Order of Glory medal for vodka. Pushed towards the child on the trolley that offers mobility he leaves a lasting, horrific impression.

Other poems describe moments of freedom – the sound of a cricket, flowers, moonlight, a chance to look upwards from the grey of the everyday. As well as beauty and hope, nature is presented with an intensity verging on violence. Pre-Autumnal Draught describes a dawn:

Drops of colour drip
straight into the mouths
of seagulls and lapwings.
They scorch the birds
and in their throats turn
into a painful screech.

In Over, the wind is described as raging above trees while below an old women quietly goes about her business gathering berries. It is a reminder that even in times of crisis food must be found – domestic life portrayed alongside national concerns. Day to day actions form the basis of many of the poems included, although the presentation is never mundane.

There is a palpable respect for the elderly, as portrayed in Old where the fragile men are still ‘full of boyish zeal’ within failing shells:

trudging onwards
above all gentlemen
who have seen times of hunger
who have won and given in
come through elation and humiliation

Many of the poems deal with men, survivors of conflict, but Here describes a woman’s role, always waiting:

for your husband back from the sea
your family for dinner
your children to come home
Here all at once
all yearning and wonder
hope and acquiescence

Animals Sense What Is Coming offers an interesting hypothesis to consider, although I disagree with the assertion that ‘war is a natural phenomenon too’.

My favourite in the collection was the title poem. The last to be read it creates a tranquil, more accepting echo than many of the previous works.

Don’t be daunted, believe
in your own understanding,
even if there is no hope
of ever meeting again.
Shortening the candle’s wick
I am only now learning
in the language of the sleep faerie,
how in a spirit of joyful gratitude
I can let go of you.

The differing styles of the authors’ writing makes this a fascinating collection to read. Their perspectives on similar subjects are evocative and add depth. As a dialogue between husband and wife one wonders at the colour of their private conversations. The poems are, as good poetry should be, thought-provoking, and allowing for layered interpretation.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Island Press.