Reviews of Poetry books

Wendy Klein wrote this review of A Handful of Water that appeared in The North, Aug 2014.

‘From the opening poem, a sonnet, ‘Keepsakes’, Rebecca Gethin’s second collection, the reader is certain of being in safe and skilled hands. The first line offers up a mystery: ‘But I keep some unanswered letters in a drawer. / laid flat they look like windows into the homes / of my past…,’ but one does not know until the turn that the mother who wrote the letter has died the night before. The sonnet is sealed, pressed firm with the father’s kiss, leaving that sense of wanting to know more, but willing to let it rest.

Gethin is a poet who knows when to let a poem rest. Every piece of this beautifully presented collection is achieved with economy and precision and delivered with delicacy. In a Petrarchan sonnet of sublime neatness, ‘The Old Country’, the protagonist returns to Ireland from America after the famine: ‘…He tries to work out the number / of children schooled in the dialect of hunger / , remembers his mother …standing by as / one by one, they packed up their stuff / and kissed her goodbye…’ finds a photo of himself in school uniform.

The sonnet seems an ideal size for this poet’s tightly constructed narratives, but there is no poem in the book more than thirty lines long and most are shorter. There is a sense of completeness in every poem from the stunning nature poems where her feeling for birds shines through: ‘a gust of crows. (Choughs), …the still hunter heron in its cloak / of water’ to her stark WWI narratives: All at Sea, which in eighteen lines conveys the execution of a young soldier for desertion:

Knowing which day he was to die
he sent a card home that read
‘I am quite well.’

and ii Theatre of War: Nov 11 1918 where ‘a German machine-gunner finishes off his ordnance / firing into the air…/…before walking off stage / No leaves are left / to sound their applause.’

Gethin always surprises with her language. In Stag Oak ‘A herd of trees,’ where the images of trees and deer are deftly switched and the landscape is evoked in flesh and blood ‘…the held-breath of a tawny pelt’. Cornish dialect pops up to delight the reader: ‘dimpsey’ the time of evening just before dusk, in Fleeting. Every page displays a new example of this poet’s scope and skill. I found the scene evoked by her departure from work in a prison particularly haunting:

I unlock my way out of the prison
in winter dark,

cries of men hurl themselves
from the cell windows,

and the final poem about the carver of The Mermaid of Zennor, rounds off the collection perfectly:

To bind her to him, he carved
the shape of water in the oak.

I would urge any reader to hold tight to this exquisite collection; enjoy it again and again, and wait eagerly for what the fearless poet and novelist Rebecca Gethin will produce next.’

This review of River is the Plural of Rain was written by Bill Greenwell.

See his blog at    (Thanks, Bill)

Before I write about Rebecca (Becky) Gethin’s debut collection, River Is The Plural Of Rain (Oversteps Books, £8), I ought to admit that I know nothing – no, really, nothing – about the natural world, whereas Becky, who lives in the middle of Dartmoor, has a keen eye and a keen feeling for it, and knows the landscape like the back of her eye (trying to pull off a complicated metaphor there, and maybe not succeeding). I also ought to stress that the collection is not merely a country almanac, but also contains several poems about her Italian forebears, and, most movingly of all, poems about a sister she had who died young, and whom she can hardly, if at all, recall.

And anyway, I love the book for its sure-handed language, the way she raids her considerable mental dictionary for exact and exacting images. There are bats ‘fletched on my retina [which] quiver the air’; she writes of the ‘rapids’ hurleygush’; the way, at an estuary, there are ‘wriggling creatures/ which the sea has left in its sheen’; about midges which are ‘dancing electrons’. There is a terrific poem about a man called Foale, whose name only survives in maps which describe his ‘Arrishes’ (enclosed fields), and which finishes with a fantastic description of permanence growing out of impermanence:

When another man thought to rebuild/ the inn, repair the walls and till the arrishes again// the land thought different, sucked him/ into its maw, digested him/ into sundew, frogbit, butterwort.

A poem about a blizzard watches swans ‘stream across pewter water/ thickened with curds of snow’. This is nature so tangible you could probably chew it: and better still, it’s nature rendered in a clear, colloquial and accessible tone. If you want to find out how to write poetry in a clear, conversational and contemporary way, start here. Nothing jars about the rhythms. All the surprises are in the images and the ideas behind them, which is how it should be.

But the most startling and tender poems are about her lost sister, Emily: poems which might make you cry without trying. She is a ‘ghost sister’ for whom the writer searches

along the water’s edge/ before I found she’d left behind/ some history I forgot we’d never had.

Best of all the poems in this collection – which includes others meditating on figures like the Italian resistance fighter Rosselli, and re-creations of figures from the Dartmoor graveyards and churches – is the pantoum ‘How to forget’, in which the repetitive form captures the obsessive problem of the lost sister, a poem which subtly alters the phrasing of each line, beautifully subverting the form:

Don’t knock on the door and invite yourself in.
The rooms all seem empty except a shadow
lies in wait for you upstairs,
even when the house is full of people.

The rooms all seem empty except that shadow
hides in the silences between the sentences.
Even when the house was full of people
someone breathed beside me.

Hiding in the silence between sentences
I brushed the skin of her absence …

This is a poem which ought to find its way into anthologies, and into prizes. It was even better to hear it read at the launch, in Ashburton. This is a terrific collection.

This review was written by Jan Fortune and was published in Envoi –

Rebecca Gethin is another name well known in small press journals and anthologies. In River is the Plural of Rain we see her at her strongest, writing about nature, particularly as it unfolds on Dartmoor, in lucid language that shares a transparency with the water from which, as the epigraph to the title poem reminds us, we are all made and which inhabits these poems. Gethin is a poet who clearly has all her senses open and who can find the succinct metaphor; exactly right and quietly original, ‘The river is whey below a milky sky,’ (Abracadabra of hats). Her language is also precise, ranging from taut muscular phrases to subtle, lucid images so that her poetry, particularly her nature poetry, is visceral and lyrical. So, for example a river can be ‘luminous with steam’ while ‘Light thickens’ (Transparency).

The short collection (52 pages) is divided into four sections. ‘Here and There’ deals with nature poems, characterised by strong imagery and careful sound patterns, precisely pared down, as in ‘Riverine’:

An elver of stream
flicks over stones and mud
in the deepening channel,

squirms its way down
to suckle from the muscled
eel of mother-water.

In ‘Unwritten Stories’ the language is pushed further to give voice to the ghosts of Dartmoor’s landscape, former occupants of Gethin’ family home from 1794 or a thirteenth century milk-maid, but also ghosts further afield, often ghosts from the places inhabited by Gethin’s Italian ancestors. In the third section, ‘Clues’ the peopled lyrics become more intimate, more directly family-centred; the poems become less anecdotal, more urgent,

I think I hear her listening
where darkness fills the spaces. Don’t look. (How to Forget)

The final section, ‘Lives of leaves’ returns to the landscape, though with an undertone that is more charged than the simple, elegant poems of the opening section; an awareness of the complexities that bind people, land and language:

Some words exist on such fragile margins—
only a breath away from being extinct. (Dialect)

Or the powerful, but well-controlled ‘Turning Point’:

Bone trees—
their voices are lost,
all their languages fallen,
tongues gone cold

This is an assured, intelligent first collection.