Jane Lovell & ‘Metastatic’

The Featured Writer this month is Jane Lovell and her pamphlet, Metastatic,  from Against the Grain Poetry Press.

This slim volume is a mysterious and beguiling work which draws you in and yet further in with successive reads.  Jane is a winner in Coast to Coast’s first single-author stitched pamphlet competition with Forbidden (in which I am also a prize-winner with my booklet Messages).  Our launch is on Feb 23rd in Liverpool. But, and you’ll see why, she wins many competitions! Not only that, Night River Wood published this beautiful book in 2018 .

What strikes you at first in Metastatic is her tender and precise use of natural imagery, how the accumulation of fragility builds and creates echoes. Small creatures thread their way through the poems – a blackbird, a spider, an owl, crows, fireflies, a hare, a vixen, thrushes all bringing with them vulnerability and transience, ‘all singing their minor key’.   There are ‘carcases of ideas’, ‘a grassblade of decision’, ‘insolence in the dead beat grass’.

Every poem is a kind of ceremony rendering all their creatures symbolic and sacred, but also entirely themselves in their particularity.   This poem, based on an illustration, so magically brings the bird to life but does so much more:

Thrush, Covent Garden, 1792

She has waited over two centuries
for sunlight, beak raised towards
the edge of the page

her nestful of eggs washed grey
and the song of lost days pressed
like a leaf in her heart.

I can tell by her eyes
she’s lived without cloud or sky:
they are earth-brown
and accepting….. 

Or these lines from Made certain by the sign of birds

… It’s bigger than angels, this updraught of life,
each burst of leaf, each hum of wing and song spilling
like beads of air, the rush of a flatstone creek,
its bellyrock slide and sparkle,
the backwash of blue light ….

Because I love fireflies I was very puzzled to find the phrase ‘nauseous bloom of fireflies’ ( from Two figures in an extensive landscape) but after looking up the word ‘spiculate’ I realised the poems’ craft and power as the series tipped me over the edge into the narrative of medical diagnosis in the first poem through heartbreak as in the poem ‘How do you do the right thing’

When landscapes are untied, hedges
slide into oblivion, fields flap untethered,
their edges fraying to dust,
a thin, uncertain moon pauses in its orbit
and stills the very sea
like breath held, or no breath at all


or in Lanterns with its unflinching gaze and expressed in delicately judged short lines,


In a small room, a tired man
shows us slides,
curls of bone and something spiralling
like DNA..


I hold your hand.
Each and every bone
to my fingertips

Later comes a feeling of comfort as in ‘Solace’ (which you can read in full here) and in all the poems thereafter:

……in that bright room, when it was spelt out for him
so that there was no further question,
it cut away the desperation like a small, curved blade,
left him clear and calm.

This heart-rending and yet understated  book  ends in a meditative way with this poised and beautiful poem like a prayer,  unpunctuated and composed with space and silence around each line:

Strange world

 where there is laughter
in some rooms

and sadness in others

and folded things
to be stored

roses in jugs on the sill
dropping petals

messages and silence

things unspoken

and then spoken
in the quiet dark

and every dawn
 the thrush in the park

with its thin bones
and its minor key
so pure and unpredictable

untying a new day

 I like the way titles are not capitalised and sometimes run-on to the first line, sometimes don’t. I love the white spaces in all of the poems, their surprising, almost surreal, imagery as if all moments are ‘balanced on a hilltop’, the poems’ quiet confidence.

Jane wins many competitions such as the Wigtown Poetry Festival, Hedgehog Press’ Shades of Fire Competition among others you can see on her website and you can see more of her work on Terrain whose annual competition she has also just won.  Whew, no stopping her!


Posted in Rebecca Gethin | Leave a comment

Maggie Mackay & The Heart of the Run

Maggie Mackay is the new Featured Writer of the year. Her debut pamphlet, The Heart of the Run, was published by Picaroon Poetry last year and you can see it here.



The first thing to strike you is the amazing cover design.  I tell you, the contents live up to the gleaming crimson heart!  I am particularly fond of poetry books where the title is buried deep inside a poem as if the germ of the book is nestled in the text.

Many of Maggie Mackay’s poems are like this in that they often concentrate on a thing or a place and in examining this from all angles they keep touching, lightly but firmly, on the abstract.  There is a breath of risk, a humanising humour and a great effervescence that surprises and delights all the senses.   Surprising turns of phrase grab your imagination.  For instance, a  gardener is a winter gale. He walks on air.  Her mother becomes a polecat and her father a zephyr. Metamorphoses are everywhere!  The generous spicing of Scots words adds to the magic.

 In Rope Walk you can feel the place, its layers of history and busyness, in the rich language, the way she has conjured it up like an alchemist:

Hemp-fuelled bottleneck, thick with guttural laughter,

the stramash of creameries and barges,

clang-echo of metal in the forge, the clop of cart horses.

Sparks spiral heavenward. Rough language.


Genesis of dangerous, filthy

demonstrations of tumultuous joy,

the Grassmarket Ball is an annual infamy.

From the roperie of the incendiary Samuel Gilmore,

he sets aflame a fiery-wiry turpentine football

swung, whirled, sling-fashion far into the air.

She describes this event with pitch-perfect concision: language for Maggie Mackay does just what she wants it to do.  As Mark Doty wrote, The pleasure of recognising a described world is no small thing. (The Art of Description)

The poems range from Malawi to Scotland along with family and friends with mortality stalking them all as well as a huge love of life embodied in every stanza.  Every one of them, however ordinary on the surface, takes a sudden plunge into depths, the title’s ambiguity adding to this:

The Last Carbonara


One ordinary, weekday teatime Sonia,

that friend with the stockpile of life force, rings:

‘I’ve made enough for two. Come over.’

She strains the pasta. ‘It’s not death,

you see, that worries me,

but how I’ll face the pain.’

She cuts the garlic bread, almost too neatly.

‘I suppose they’ll have something for that.’


And how is this for richness of language, a verbal sensuality from How to Distil a Guid Scotch Malt?
Acids blend with ethanol, transform into esters, fruity and aromatic.
A Hebridean sunset copper-pots your tongue, biscuit-beaches rise in your throat.

There’s a nip in the air, a lifetime of goodnights fermenting in a kipper fire.
Her arm entwines in yours. She comes home, full flavoured.

Task begun, the heart of the run is now, my middle years of fear and longing.


I haven’t heard Maggie read as yet but I can hear her distinctive voice in this book with its love of place and sense of identity. And that evocative, almost aromatic, phrase the heart of the run.








Posted in Maggie Mackay, Rebecca Gethin | 1 Comment