Published by the Lucy Quieter Press, Wendy Holborow's tenth poetry collection, Shipwrecked, contains poems written over a number of years and many have been successful in competitions or previously published in respected poetry journals. Although problems encountered in today's broken society are a common theme and many poems address such dark subjects as unrequited love, war, poverty and death, the poems themselves are anything but depressing and readers are likely to readily identify with the poet's distinctive take on universal issues.
Inevitably, the older you get the more likely you are to encounter such grim realities as illness and death. This latest collection by Wendy Holborow may centre on such themes but there is also much tenderness and universal appeal as she recalls lost love, rich childhood experiences and less personal but equally thought-provoking issues. An impressively diverse range of styles and subject matter are to be found in this collection. It's a great read.
I loved it. Super-apposite now, of course.
Like lots of things about the book actually - great to see an elegy for Nigel Jenkins, really admire 'Chercher le mot juste', like the Pessoa poems too, and enjoy many others. Some of those I liked most took off from juicy epigraphs - Ibsen, Brecht, etc. Also realised how much colour there is in your writing! Congratulations on another fine collection.
Your poem "Sponged Out" in Bewildering Stories, is simply beautiful! Your use of color and light is absolutely fantastic! Your transition to emotion, to pure passion, and then to something cold and dark is extremely well-done! I really love those last two lines: "cadaverous as the trees"! Man, that's something special! Really excellent work!
Andrew L. Hodges
Rowena Sommerville for The High Window Press August 2020
This collection, the author’s tenth, is entitled Shipwrecked and and features one of her own paintings, with the same title, on the cover. That word, and the imagery of the painting, suggests disaster, turmoil and fragmentation, and the dedication is to ‘family and friends who have died’. However, the poems – while many address heartbreak and the loss of those who are loved or admired – are instances of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ (as Wordsworth deemed poetry to be) and speak of the survivor’s sadder, wiser strength, keeping on keeping on, in the face of life’s turbulence. The poems of loss of love acknowledge the love that was, the poems in memoriam offer a heartfelt and sometimes celebratory valediction; the collection is a testament to survival, rather than a cry from the wreckage, so reading it is essentially uplifting, whilst acknowledging the reality of grief.
The poems have been written over a number of years and, of course, subjects and styles are varied, but the fragility of love is a recurrent theme – whether that love be romantic, familial or of friends. Sometimes I found that rereading a poem which I had first assumed to be addressing an errant or lost lover, revealed that it might equally be exploring the loss or betrayal or the diminishment of some other kind of relationship – the ‘you’ might be any significant other, might even be the poet addressing herself – the stereotypical pattern of thought had been entirely mine.
I have become your whole life’s bane
as once your belief and trust I breached
so I readily bask in your disdain.
All protestations have been in vain
you spit in spiccato, enunciate, preach
that I’ve become your whole life’s bane.
Pour yourself an ouzo,
clink ice to cloud the drink.
You are sitting outside your house,
writing those eternal lists of things to do,
staring at tomorrow’s date
then scribbling with intent.
The in memoriam poems speak strongly and warmly of those lost. In the poem i.m. Mark Montinaro she says,
So, I am having imaginary conversations with you
and I hope you can hear me when I say
the world is a much more dismal place
without you in it.
but let me be as clear as a mirror
that reflects nothing
I had a good life a great life
and I was afraid of death because
I had a life worth living
Several poems address the final stages and eventual deaths of her parents, her father passing first,
Only in the last months of his life
was my father aware of the trees
near his window.
the changes, from spring green
to autumn fall.
His lungs a dry crackle,
his death quicker
than the last fall of leaves
She speaks warmly of her parents’ love for each other,
Their love was loud and boldly spoken,
the years danced by so fast
and of her place in the family history,
By giving me life, my parents
have condemned me to a certain death and sometimes, fuck is
just the right word.
Da Capo al Fine.
Wendy Holborow has evidently travelled extensively (her collection ‘Janky Tuk Tuks, set largely in Africa and India, was originally published by The High Window Press in 2018) and her writing has an alert wider world view. Her poetic vocabulary is enriched by other European languages (as above) and by classical allusion.
In that primrose light I am Melissanthi for a while, you, Apollo –
I can almost hear the lyre you play,
tinkling across the hushed unbridled white horses of waves
in that nectar sea where I believed my heart was whole.
Her vocabulary can be challenging. Sometimes this is acknowledged, as in the poem ‘Sesquipedalian’ which uses (and explains) the subtitles: Anthocyanin, Crytoscopophilia, Deipnosophist and Paraskevidekatriaphobia. My computer required me to add these words to my dictionary (demonstrating the limitations of Microsoft), but she uses these (defined) subtitles cleverly, and each of the poems clearly exemplifies its subtitular definition.
Elsewhere I found some of the rarer words rather a barrier to my initial enjoyment of the relevant poems (eg acheiropoieta, ecdysis, plouter) but once I had discovered their meaning, I could honestly say that they genuinely were the best possible words in the best possible places, so the poetry gods had been well served, and I had learned something worth knowing, so who could complain?
One of my favourite uses of an unusual word was not of a word that I didn’t know, but of a word I knew but generally had encountered only in scientifically appropriate circumstances. Here it is used in an unexpected but very descriptive way (I think most of us will have seen this mechanism in practice at least once) –
I kept away this time
asked friends politely
how is he?
distanced, detached because
I did not want you to
leave me heaving on the shore
of the osmotically insane.
Shipwrecked contains poems of loss and grief, but for the reader the experience is not painful but rather that of fellow feeling, of being alongside someone exploring their own sorrows with honesty and clarity, whose poems can help us examine and survive our own jagged feelings, our own stormy seas.
London Grip Review by Alex Josephy. October 2020
It’s two years since I re-viewed Wendy Holborow’s An Italian Afternoon for Envoi magazine. I very much appreciated her evocation of place and her skilful use of varied forms to trace a narrative set in Italy, my own adopted country. Since then she has published several collections, most notably Janky Tuk Tuks, a sequence set in India and Africa. Reading her latest book in these changed times, it was a pleasure to rediscover Holborow’s infectious interest in words and language, this time played out across darker emotional territory.
The jacket image is a Holborow oil painting, its bold colours and confident brush strokes well suited to the poet’s themes; it looks like a wrecked ship going down (or perhaps staying afloat?) in a defiant blaze. The techniques and conventions of painting recur metaphorically throughout the collection, as in ‘Sponged Out’, where a rejected woman
…goes to where the cypress trees are black
and stripe the landscape like brush strokes…
…and she is sponged out of all vibrant compositions.
Many of these poems have an interestingly dual focus; Holborow deals with loss, death, betrayal and abandonment, while she also gives rein to a fascination with obscure diction. In ‘Iced Over’, for example, a spurned lover complains of
tugged into the esurient
As with many words in this collection, I had to resort to the dictionary to learn that ‘esurience’ is an archaic word for a greedy kind of hunger. Later in the same poem, the lovers’ life is described as ‘immiscible’ (incapable of mixing or attaining homogeneity, according to Merriam-Webster). What are these words doing in a modern, otherwise fairly colloquial poem, I wondered? Are they a form of self defence – a way for the disappointed lover to gain higher ground? It is as if the long, unfamiliar words used in many of the poems provide a kind of bulwark against pain.
Somewhere near the centre of the collection there is a delightful sequence of four poems that specifically revel in Holborow’s sesquipedalian tendencies. A definition is kindly given as a gloss: ‘Sesquipedalian (A word that’s very long and multisyllabic)’ – though could it be one without the other, I wondered? Further investigation was irresistible, and in the event it added to my appreciation of the poet’s self irony; I discovered other definitions, including ‘given to the overuse of very long words’. The slightly lighter tone of the four poems in this sequence offers a welcome counterpoint to earlier meditations on loss and grieving. The poet threads a delicate narrative across four uncommon words; my favourite is ‘Crytoscophilia – the urge to look inside people’s windows.’ Here, the long words seem to hint at a vain attempt to communicate or make a connection; the poet is a peeping Tom (‘the inquisitive, lonely me’), excluded from ordinary conversations, perhaps because of the distancing effect of grief.
As in her earlier work, Holborow employs a range of traditional poetic forms, as well as free verse and visual effects. On the theme of death (of parents and of other friends and companions) there’s a ‘Pantoum for the Dead’, a touching ‘Triolet of Dance’, a prose poem taking courage from Dylan Thomas (‘I bow before shit, seeing the family likeness in the old familiar faeces’), which challenges the ‘taboo to think of one’s parents having sex’. There’s a villanelle ‘I Bask in your Disdain’, a witty idea which for me becomes weighed down by the form’s hunger for rhyme. On the whole I found the simpler free verse poems the most moving, for instance the slender lines and pared-down imagery in ’Trees Outside Montuschi Ward’:
Today it is clement, but cold.
The trees are still,
stark sticks of charcoal
against a grey canvas of sky
as snow ticks the windowpanes.
I love the way that word ‘ticks’ quietly conveys both fragility and a wintery serenity.
Holborow also plays with concrete effects, layout, words within words, and multiple meanings. At times, I found the poems based on wordplay a little overladen with their own cleverness – as if taking it that step further becomes a dangerous temptation. For instance, in ‘Chercher le Mot Juste’,
poetry is I am(bic) (m)etre I am(b)
what I(amb) enjamb
I did appreciate this approach, though, in other poems such as ‘The Dance’ where a partner’s inconstancy is mirrored in the unreliability of words:
childhood sweethearts –
two red he(art)s instead of the br(own) upon black
black for you who cheated
brown for me the conspirator
conscripted to y(our) love
Holborow’s canvas is broad, drawing on cultural references from Ozymandias to Ibsen, David Hockney to Fernando Pessoa. There are poems on war and displacement, and on altered states brought on for instance by senility or ‘swings in mood from grey mania/to the depths of the blues’. These don’t always land where you might expect, as in the final lines of ‘Medication’:
The medication takes her
up spiral staircases of space
to an errant jubilation.
This makes reading Shipwrecked a stimulating and on the whole uplifitng experience. There are many trails to follow, and a consoling sense of how the arts can offer companionship, virtually if not in person, in times of isolation or difficulty. I loved the three poems for the Portuguese poet Pessoa. What does Pessoa mean by ‘doored’? To me it’s a great example of negative capability.
How he wonders if the people
across the road, in that room
are as lonely as he is,
so he sits to write a poem for his Ophelia
that love’s large power is also doored.
I SEE HER
I see her through a cubist’s eye
chiselled planes & angles mingle in black & white
disentangled, broken up & rearranged
in geometric form.
I see her through an impressionist’s eye
rapid dabs of paint, dots, distorted,
sparkling patches of light & colour,
I see her through a miniaturist’s eye
minute, modelled like a doll held in the palm
of a hand, such infinite patience,
I see her through a surrealist’s eye
confusion, un-recognisable in shape or form,
her reality disguised in the triptych mirror of art,
I see her through an icon painter’s eye
dark image illumed by silver & gold, a halo
above her head, so exquisite it is considered
I see her through a portrait painter’s eye
perfect in every detail as she gazes
out of the canvas of imperfection, her inner essence,
a slight smile, gentle contentment,
no smudges of a dark fanciful world apparent
in her reasoned demeanour as she sits,
The Cha Ca Cha that was Danced in the Early Hours of 24th March 1961.
A Painting by David Hockney.
I didn’t know you back in ‘61
things would have been different –
childhood sweethearts –
two red he(art)s instead of the br(own) upon black
black for you who cheated,
brown for me the conspirator
conscripted to y(our) love
your name worn on my sleeve
not on my upper thigh
as we dance – not the cha cha cha,
in each other’s arms
your voice wrapped around me
aware of the warped jealousy
of other women wanting you
only have e(yes) for me
I love every mo(ve)ment
quavers dance across my neck
The trees are cadaverous in the early morning,
sponged out of the vibrant composition,
until the emergence of a bright nerve of colour –
not the sweeping trails of deep pink bougainvillea
climbing the walls of apartment blocks, nor the violent
blue of jacaranda near the gardens of Mon Repos –
but the vivid memory of when she danced under the cupola
with its glass dome shivering splinters of light
across the floor
picking out colours in the gypsy skirt
she’d worn to impress him when infatuated.
She must take care her imaginary conversations
when he’s around
so she goes to where the cypress trees are black
& stripe the landscape like brush strokes on a heavy,
dark & disturbing oil painting, devoid of colour,
where her bitter orgasm empties icicles
onto the brittle needles
& she is sponged out of all vibrant compositions
she has become as cadaverous as the trees.