Issue 4


On 9 June, the first Raceme poetry reading was held, beneath an archway, under the auspices of the Bristol Poetry Institute. Seven poets published in these pages held forth to a rapt audience reclining on the grass and perched on walls – a lovely summery occasion with poems on the theme of the natural world. We look forward to more such events and hope to involve further-flung poets too.

The natural world has figured large in previous issues of Raceme, and continues to in this issue. Beasts, birds and plants of many kinds inhabit and adorn its pages. ‘Life,’ as Paul Matthews says in his conversation with Fiona Owen, might depend – at least in the primal consciousness of fairytales – on ‘understanding what the crows are gossiping about’. But the counterpart to this life-enhancing preoccupation with nature, as Owen herself says, is a necessary ‘paring back to the bone’ of experience. She speaks of the ‘wintering process’, or the ‘narrow way’ of grief and loss, whose disenchantments can lead us back to the essential. Elizabeth Bishop was another poet acquainted with loss and, as Catherine Peters shows in her review of Colm Toíbín’s book about her, the tact and reticence she used in skirting round her griefs gave her work an essential integrity. Paradoxically, she employs an absolute precision of language in this practice of not saying everything, which somehow reinforces the powerful ‘unspoken undercurrent’ in her poetry. Similarly, in the work of W.S. Graham, to whom three pieces in this issue are devoted, along with reprints of four poems, there’s an effort to disenchant language: to strip away sensuous music (which he learned first in the school of Dylan Thomas) and create an almost naked space of abstract thought through which, by some contradictory grace, life pours in again.

Alongside the delight and beauty of natural things, and a poetry of delight in them, therefore, this issue does seem concerned with loss and with language that is equal to it – a lost son in Rachel Bentham’s sequence, or a world from which books are vanishing in David Hart’s ‘biblio-dystopia’. Awareness of loss is implicit too in our efforts at dialogue, as Tom Phillips puts it, ‘between the living and the dead’. One such dialogue in these pages – and nothing could be further from Bishop’s ‘withholding’ – is that between the 19th-century French prose of Baudelaire and an updated English ‘riff’ on it. A translation involves its own kind of losses of course, but gains as well perhaps. Very striking in this piece is a view of humanity that many will find unpalatable, in which one man’s savagery is used to ignite another’s lost dignity  – though this must be read as an ironic and needling challenge to, or mockery of, an inert, over-comfortable morality. (Echoes here perhaps of Swift's Modest Proposal…). Nature sustains us and all our language is drawn from it, but at some point, it seems, we have to lose, or be shocked out of, its solace and face the worst in ourselves. Pruning back the ‘verbiage of the false ego’ (Matthews), we may begin to sing creation again more truly.

In their very different ways, the poets in this issue are, in effect, talking to each other about how to shake up fixed perceptions and get closer to the heart of things – a process that may well lead into uncomfortable, challenging yet vivid territories.