A Review of Poems from the Swamp
With grateful thanks to Rob Etty and the team at The High Window, an excellent online poetry magazine: https://thehighwindowpress.com/
In the intriguing Preface to her pamphlet (which is, appropriately, green, with semi-translucent endpapers) Josie Moon writes: The swamp is never wholly negative but is a useful metaphor for experience, some hidden, some mundane, some to be discovered … Certainly it is dangerous, certainly it can be unpleasant, but it is a place of great psychological imperative and creative impetus. … It is a place of origin.
The pamphlet is itself a place of origin. It is a poetic foretaste of a novel set in Grimsby, the author’s hometown, and the poems are voiced by four mystical and prophetic characters. These poets know there is a higher state of existence beyond the town’s dereliction, and are seeking justice and redemption for the swamp’s forgotten people, to whom the poems are dedicated.
The authors and titles are listed in the Contents. In the voice of artist, poet and editor George Lydda, whose Eliotesque ‘The Rising’ is the second poem, Josie Moon impressively creates the tension which underlies the sequence’s movement:
Hum, hum, shhh, shhh, listen, listen.
There is rain out there, still far away
but pattering off sea and estuary
bringing wet stings for morning.
There is ice in night’s kiss riming the street,
the sleeping street.
Deep, deep beneath the street, far away and fast asleep
dreaming begins as shadows gather on the corner
where the police station squats.
The next poem, ‘Carnival’, crosses from authentic Grimsby into fantasy. It reminds us that we are listening to successive voices, and is an early demonstration of the author’s versatility. Alisha Autrey’s aabb quatrains introduce the use of the first person, as the speaker reacts to a mysterious car driver who claims to be from 1949:
He points a long, green bony finger:
My dear, I really mustn’t linger.
The tune he hums is menacing, dark,
more the raven, less the lark.
I abandon thoughts of staying near,
turn to you and see no fear.
I say The Lord of Misrule is here.
You smile and simply disappear.
As the Preface reveals, the ideas for the sequence swam from the cracks in the pavements in the East and West Marsh areas of Grimsby, whose origins are in their names, and the sinewy phrasing, driving rhythms and intermittent rhymes of ‘The Gauleiter and His Pig’ maintain the reader’s unease about what lurks below:
The Gauleiter and his pig reside here
in the swamp, a septic, infected sty,
poisoned with wormwood for false prophecy.
The sty turns seamier, with deepening stench,
while mists from the quagmire writhe and hiss,
meander in serpentine gyres and twists,
layering the space where once light fell
with impenetrable shadows from boundless Hell.
And so we are guided through, enjoying shifts in form, tone, person, and a breadth of language that heightens descriptions and narratives. The closing poem, ‘Ursa Major’, in the serene unrhymed triplets of George Lydda, expresses a resolution. The lyrical final stanzas, especially, lodge in the memory.
No doubt in the forthcoming novel battle will play out across many more pages, but a cosmic spiritual conflict with mythological and Biblical references rumbles through these twelve poems: alongside broken lives lived among shopping trolleys, abandoned sofas and branded houses that sag exhausted against each other, we encounter an unseen hand that pushes a fool, a pirouetting jester and a blue-faced king, a lost lioness, Santa Maria and the Witch of the West Marsh. Josie Moon shows herself to be a wide-ranging, inventive, musical poet, and her live performances will lift the words vividly off the page.
Robert Etty lives in Lincolnshire. His latest collection is Passing the Story Down the Line, published by Shoestring Press in 2017. He is a member of Nunsthorpe Poetry Group, which meets in Cleethorpes.