June English 2 Reviews
June English’s versatility, striking imagery and subtlety of thought make her a poet you can learn from. Her subject matter, like Angela Kirby’s, is not unusual—Home Front memories, love and loss in marriage and family—but it is her shifts between sestinas, villanelles, ballads to freer forms, with both strong rhyming, end-stopped lines and elegiac free-flowing enjambment to provide variety of tone, that is so impressive.
One minute we have feisty, down to earth Yorkshire dialect, ‘come nussle close while I twiddle thy twat’, the next harrowing statements of vulnerability or grief. She frequently cuts sentiment with dry pragmatic comments, or provides startling images such as ‘Bunny girl’: ‘her woman’s eyes startled as a skinned rabbit’s,/ staring out, waiting for the pot to boil,’ or her sister’s yellow dress the colour of Colman’s mustard: ‘it leapt off you like gold coins/from a spendthrift…’.
Some of the most powerful poems are where she extends a metaphor, or explores the nuances of a single idea with subtle argument such as her criticism of religious platitudes in ‘Latintudes’. Note how the imagery suggests wonder and complexity as well as a need for honesty as we ponder the universe:
there’s life beyond the tudes of lat and Long,
unnetted seas where men have pearls for eyes,
where love comes first and all feel they belong
and no one needs to question their cap size.
No carrion crows to double-talk plainsong
or leach the scarlet dawn of clouded whys.
It’s impossible to do justice to Sorcerer’s Arc in this limited space. Buy it.
Belinda Cook, North 38, June 2006
John Whitworth, in his brief introduction to this book likens the poetry of June English to that of William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Stevie Smith and Philip Larkin. ‘Not all at once’, he writes, to our relief. What poet could contain that motley array?
I had never read her work before, but I can’t see anything Blakean about this poet unless he is thinking of the occasional use of gnomic quatrains. She is perhaps like Emily Dickinson in her lighter, more playful moods. There is here and there a colloquial flippancy which reminds me of Larkin, and certainly something of Stevie Smith, and maybe Wendy Cope. The influence of Stevie Smith, or the coincidence of styles, is a certain vulnerability; a casual, seemingly off hand manner of expression and a metrical wobble:
Grandpa wanted fragrant hyacinth
and daffodils - daffodils’ yellow lament.
This war is too much black and white,
- we need life’s beauty, colour, scent.
This could be more polished, but it is, I suppose, deliberately irregular: the second line is a pentameter, the others tetrameters; the first line trochaic, Sometimes the oddity breaks out in exuberant playfulness, as in this piece called ‘Backside Up’:
I’m a side out, side-in, side-down, ward-up
meet myself turning-re wards-back,
ears in armpits, teeth in nostrils,
eyes in earholes, past my by-sell
tidy-un, patient-im, hardy-fool
boy who never goes to school.
I’m pudent-im a noxious-ob,
a cal-ras, wag-scally, ward-awk yob,
a crack shot with an apult-cat
an obrill, perb-su, board-skate do-kid,
my Mam’s up-fed, me dad’s out fagged,
I’ll him dodge fore-be get I a clout,
too late, found I, dad mine’s no fool,
he’s kicked my side-back off to school.
Aside from the frolicking humour of this, it is an interesting if simplistic linguistic jigsaw puzzle; by confounding the prefixes and suffixes, she makes us think about how we glue words together and pull them apart. You this is not her general od-meth.
She has produced that rare thing: an art that might survive in a culture of commerce; a poetry stylized but accessible, original and compellingly readable. Almost every poem is a treat and has some curious quirk about it. There is often a device or mannerism that, structurally, makes a thing memorable, reminding us that a poem is an intentionally crafted construct a Foursquare fortified house of words. She is fond of interwoven motifs, which are ingeniously employed in varying contexts, which give to the poetry a nuanced and elaborate patterning, while retaining the limpidity of its content.
The themes are varied: there are Christian poems, war poems. familial elegies, dialect poems (there is a piece called ‘Hearts and Flowers’, written in dialect and rife with sexual innuendo; elsewhere she speaks of ‘darting’ her face with foundation). There are an ample variety of forms here too: rhyming quatrains. Petrachan sonnet, sestina, villanelle. These old forms are sustained because they are sustaining in themselves. The sestina is as good as any I’ve read, second only to Dante Gabrielle Rossetti’s heartbreaking ‘Of the Lady Pletra degli Scrovigni’. English, in her poem entitled simply ‘Sestina’, has managed the form with incredible ingenuity - it feels utterly inevitable, which, given the interlocking structures of the form, shows considerable skill and discipline. The poem is too long to quote here, and it needs to be read in entirety. It’s about how a story or a life can be predetermined from its outset, and how the end can eerily contain or return to the beginning—it is a subtle riddle, concentric, circular and therefore eternal, like the serpent with its tail in its mouth. As in the best poetry, the content is in complete harmony with the form. It makes one wonder whether there might not be a paradise of pure form, prefiguring words—an embryonic music that seeks its release in the unparaphrasable collocation of precise verbal sound-structures, and which has its roots in the pulse of our blood.
Jim Newcombe, Poetry Nottingham, 3, 2006
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