/ 10 July 2019

Week of the Festival: Ledbury Festival, Ledbury, UK

Probing the Imagination

Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critic Jade Cuttle reviews poetry titles by three emerging page poets reading at this year’s Ledbury Poetry Festival: Margaret Adkins, John Lawrence and Brenda Read-Brown.

Margaret Adkins’ debut poetry pamphlet, Mingled Space, celebrates myth, folklore and witchcraft with impressive care and control. The poet commands a highly evocative use of language, which occasionally forages into formal playfulness, as in ‘Wilderness’, one of the most compelling poems in the collection. The title crowns the poem with a certain magnificence, pandering to the presumption that wilderness is wild, namely, stunning and sublime. This expectation is fostered by the pleasantly surprising arrangement: shuffled into the lower right hand corner, the piece is preceded by a wide plain of pristinely unconquered blankness. However, the dramatic suspense is soon undercut, brutally albeit quite beautifully, as the banal comes bounding into focus: “grave-coloured graffiti and flattened carboard” of McDonald’s junk in tow. Delving into darker depths, the poem begins to betray the poet’s fascination for the bloody and brutal, as even the honeyed rays of the rising sun are styled as razor-sharp and deadly: “Curved sun thrown from the / side, gathers and shatters like a glass / pocket of frost on bricks”.

There’s a strange charm to these poems, caught in the captivating throes of violence, that becomes especially redolent in the blood-splashed treatment room of ‘Your Quarrel’. Here, eyes linger and lean into gazes with “deliciously long” enthusiasm, despite resting “on the other side of the fetid bucket, watching / you smell what I had been inhaling for the last hour.” The landscape is routinely represented as battered and bruised, as in ‘A Narrow Path’, where the rain is “wrapped like a tattered sail / around roofs”, or ‘St Agnes Eve’, which opens in stifling “tongue-slicing silence”. However, it’s the “parched, lightless tomb” in ‘Roman Charity I’ that triumphs them all. With a death sentence and starvation hanging over the imprisoned subject, and notably, his fungus-ripped throat, the poem is packed full of poignant yet thought-provoking imagery about this unfortunate predicament, such as “punishment quarries / his mind”. This is a poem where “mouldering cherries / fall to dust, hooked by the same rusty chains / that keep him still” between the blades of a “scissor / of cold air”. Despite the danger and harm that lurks behind these bizarrely vivid poems, there’s a great deal of gentleness at work, tending to the shadows and silence of the world.

The boy who couldn’t say his name by John Lawrence is a darkly entertaining debut, bristling with humour and heart in spite of the heart-wrenching story behind the title. The poems cast their light upon a series of uncanny experiences. These include everything from plotting to murder a tragically misunderstood, shape-shifting man crafted from marzipan in ‘Marzipan’, to being led away by one’s fins and told the truth about one’s true nature in ‘How truth can hurt a fish’, namely, that one is really a fish. “I’ll make no bones about it, / I was bloody gutted.” Rummaging, one moment, through reality TV archives in which celebrities trace their ancestry, as in ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, to a repository of body parts from the World Trade Center 9/11 the next, as in ‘Repository’, the poet is skilled in switching his attention to a diverse range of subjects that are both silly and serious.

All the while, these poems remain deeply attentive to musicality, finding rhythm and magic even in the mundane. ‘Cornet Player on the Run’, for instance, narrates the experience of deserting from the Salvation Army, with keen memory for melodic specificities. “Somewhere between a perfect B flat / and a truncated C sharp / I decided to detach”. However, it’s ‘Frost Flower’ that boasts the most captivating rhythm of them all. Taking pointers from the “clarity of cut grass” in this poem, a mysterious sensibility for tuning into the true wonders of the world comes into play with pitch-perfect precision: “you will listen // to the white-on-white rhythm / of winter, hear the crackle / of cold in the ribbons of ice.” This talent even extends to being able to “read / clefs, rests and accidentals in the wood grain” in ‘The Piano Tuner’. Elsewhere, a comical tune rings loud and true, as in ‘Hair Loss: The Musical’. “It opens with second-glancing the mirror / turning my back with a deluded shrug / tra la la”. Or ‘In the Museum of Air Guitars’, offering “a welcome release for someone / raised on a diet of silent rebuke”. These poems succeed in probing the imagination, with a maxim that might be summed up quite fittingly in the self-reflexive poem entitled ‘Poetry in Motion’. “I don’t feel the urge to catch it, flail it, skin it, / to search through the entrails until my hands are bloodied / and the swan is no longer a swan.” Here, the speaker praises the power of poetry, which is idealised as a swan pecking furiously at the speaker’s legs. 

In Like love by Brenda Read-Brown, there’s a powerful negotiation of feelings at play, as flesh and fantasy intertwine with spine-tingling and sinister results. These poems are refreshing in that they comment on romance with a cynical somewhat comical tone. The fickle and fleeting truth of desire is exposed from the start of the collection, almost as soon as the first page is turned, with ‘Non-interventionist’, detailing a once shimmering garden shed that slips into disarray. “He could still save it; / it wouldn’t take a miracle. / But the truth is, / once he’s made something, / he loses interest; / indifferent as the weather.” Elsewhere, in ‘Keyed’, for instance, the brassy tint of an unfamiliar key betrays a dark secret, namely, a suspicion of infidelity, albeit shrugged off by the speaker with nonchalance, whilst ‘How to choose a man to travel with you’ conducts market research into choosing the right man with disturbingly thorough dedication. “You could pop down the market / and pick one up for a tenner, / but it won’t be a keeper.” There’s also the title poem, ‘Like love’, weighed down by the “payday loan of pleasure, / with penalties”. Elsewhere, as in ‘One in a million’, the myth of having just one true love in a lifetime is debunked, not with the swift turn of hand that signals dismissal, but with the sort of attitude that hints at hope. “How many times / have I returned / a stranger’s smile, / and felt gears change / somewhere within / the universe?” 

Besides the romance, these poems are beautiful odes to family love too. ‘Empty rooms’ plunges into the pain of clearing up a child’s bedroom after they have left home, whilst others trace the decline of loved ones, then deal with the gaping hole that’s left once they’re gone. At the same time, the book proudly carries the stamp of superficiality that contemporary society has been conditioned to crave, as poems are complete with selfies, supermodels, and street buskers, elsewhere, littered with last week’s junk-food cartons, chart music and crazy kitten videos trending on YouTube. There’s a light-hearted glee and glamour to this writing.  


Jade Cuttle is a poet and plant-whisperer, Jade has performed her poetry on BBC Radio 3 ('The Miracle of Mould') and in association with BBC Proms ('The Art of Splinters'). She has been commissioned to write for other BBC podcasts such as celebrating Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary through song ('I can’t fall in love with the night') and spoken word specials on BBC Introducing ('Contains Strong Language'). A double recipient of the Foyle Young Poet Award, Jade also won 1st place in the 2014 BBC Proms’ Poetry Competition and the National Seafaring Limerick Competition 2014 judged by Ian McMillan. She won 2nd place in the Ledbury Poetry Festival Competition 2011 (Young Category) and 3rd place in the Poetry Book Society's National Student Poetry Competition 2013, judged by Daljit Nagra. She is a winner in the 2018 Creative Future Literary Awards for her short story 'Hearts for Sale', selected by Lemn Sissay, and will receive her prize at the Southbank Centre in London as part of the London Literature Festival.