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and we have these lines from the poem “Hoar Frost”:

We wake
to a new world, white and shatterable...

...a brilliance of crazed white pages; a collage
of crinkled manuscripts.

There's always a danger in this type of writing of overdoing it, and there are one or two places when Goodwin does this; but overall, this poem, like many others in this collection, shows a skillful handling of pace and sound judgment about how far he can push the phrasing. About half-way through “Hard Hoar Frost, January 2001” he lets the language take over:

the shatterable world - electrifies
ice-hair into wintry
punk-pinks and oranges. A birch becomes
a shivering fibre-
optic costume...

On the back cover of the book Catherine Byron writes "The poetic constant, throughout this collection... is the quality of his acts of attention: to the moment, the place, the person, the animal..." But these poems are more than 'acts of attention'; it is the sculptural nature of Goodwin's language and his handling of rhythm which is the most impressive feature of this collection. Writing of his - presumably real-life - baby daughter, Goodwin says:

My man's fingers & thumbs circle
the glass bones of her ankles

The second line here, with its faint echo of a Grimm's fairy tale, beautifully captures the sense of fragility that small children can engender in their parents. The effect here comes out of the special features of language as an artistic medium, and not from accuracy of observation. That Goodwin recognises this is one of the reasons for the strength of this book.

Some poems have a strangeness, an otherworldly quality, that is very appealing. In 'An Idea of Fire, West Penwith', there's a description of the ritualistic preparation of a meal round a camp-fire, which is laced with sexual and religious undertones, but which at the same time tilts into comedy and self-parody. There's also an 'Idea of Order at Falmouth', a tribute to Peter Redgrove; in both poems, the reference to Wallace Stevens' great poem doesn't quite come off, but does at least show ambition.

Ambition is an apt word in relation to two longer poems in this book, "Land's Send" and "Lewis". In the former, we have an invocation of the sea around granite cliffs interwoven with imagery of lovers, with quasi-religious symbolism, and with an image of a female climber on a rock-face. The language, typically dense and alliterative, is becoming almost abstract in places:

blackorange hardsoft fleshrock

person&stone meltfreeze through

and later in the poem, lines which, for me, have an echo of WS Graham's "The Nightfishing":

Only their cave and salival creatures breathe
whilst the rest of their flesh begins their deaths

Goodwin's skill, in this and other poems, is to merge the natural, physical world with the sexual, spiritual and personal human one. The poem "Bangs" is similar in its intent, though it doesn't work quite as well as "Land's Send", tipping slightly, as it does, into bathos; though “Bangs” is still an effective poem, somehow managing to turn the subject matter – the speaker’s brother putting on a firework display – into a dark, almost mystical happening.

As mentioned, there's a homage to Peter Redgrove, and Goodwin does incorporate elements of Redgrove's style and sensibility, and is equally hard to classify in terms of the contemporary scene. The book comes with an endorsement by Penelope Shuttle, and there's a connection there I think, though Shuttle's work has a lighter touch and is less intense than Goodwin's.

This being a first collection, there’s naturally a little unevenness. In 'Frightened in the Gap' for example, the persona intrudes into the poem in the way that it does in much British anecdotal poetry, and Goodwin has a weakness for rounded-off endings in this same style. But these are minor blemishes, and overall, there's great potential here for an abstract verse which can encompass complexity, but which is offset by a solidity of language and alliterative rhythms. The tension throughout the collection is between, on one hand, the demands of language as an abstract, musical entity, and on the other hand, the demands of a fictive persona, the 'I' (or sometimes 'we/you'). Goodwin handles this tension pretty well most of the time. It would be easy for poetry like this to slip into a New Age vagueness, but Goodwin avoids this by the concrete nature of his imagery, as well as by the solidity of the language and by an attention to form.

The quality of the final poem 'Own Words' seems to suggest that by the end of this collection, the poet is ready to strike out into new territory; a suggestion perhaps of where he might go next.

I take a paper of outstretched
hand my daughter’s I may crumple

but gently or interlock
ink of my older fingers with

absorbing fibres of hers

The musicality in this poem is balanced by abstraction, and the tension between the two is strong enough to hold ideas of some subtlety in finely-judged, well-balanced verse. I'm sure Goodwin has more up his sleeve, which this reader at least, is looking forward to seeing.


“Else” by Mark Goodwin (pub. Shearsman, 2008, ISBN: 978-1905700-97-4. £7.95)

I first encountered Mark Goodwin's poetry as editor this e-zine, and I thought it was striking, individual work that didn't fit into any current category. Goodwin's upbringing on a farm and activities as a climber and walker colour the poetry, which presents an unsentimental picture of the natural world. Some of this work could be seen as contemporary pastoral, in the sense that it contains social comment in the context of a rural, or urban/rural setting (the rural backdrop here offset by urban blight). In 'Ways Through an Outskirts Estate' the choice of detail holds the reader's attention, while the poem makes a tangential comment on social conditions:

where eight-year-olds of uncertain
ages wander in strangely dangerous
grubby packs

The language is rugged with Anglo-Saxon diction and alliterative metre, and in keeping with that, some poems are like riddles, particularly the intriguing “Peter’s Selfless Portrait”:

My paper is hard dark. Deep
as Said, yet smells of voltage-white;
the tingle of fish slipping.