Drawing in Ash, William Stone, Salt Publishing, 112pp, £9.99 (paperback) The Game of Bear, Peter Bennet, Flambard Press, 72pp, £8 (paperback)

William Stone’s Drawing in Ash makes no apologies for its clear political agenda; he clearly wants to get people angry and change hearts and minds. Such a perspective always runs the risk of didacticism. For the most part, however, Stone manages to walk that dangerous line safely due to the sparkling images he uses to send his message. Indeed, it is this skill that evokes similarly edgy comments from those who endorse his work. Sarah Crown of The Guardian argues: ‘his jarring visions of a profligate civilisation trapped in a fatally debased environment are rawly compelling.’ What we get with Stone is an argument that starts out from the obvious fact that civilisation is self-destructive, but which ends with vivid images of the missed potential: it would not matter if we destroyed ourselves were it not for the complexity and wonder of what we are destroying.

We see this in ‘The Extinction Plan’. There is nothing subtle in the message here. In life our career is to die, and in the face of this rather depressing fact we do nothing but continue to make the same mistakes. In the conclusion though:

In one dive billions of krill find God.
Ghostly, like a low gas flame
they go on a while unseen, they exist
to explain the blue whale’s darkness.

This is a wonderfully eerie image of the world’s ocean. It juxtaposes our own inevitable end with an image to suggest how we remain at the point of extinction still mesmerised, mystified and moved by the world’s mysteriesas we attempt to ‘explain the blue whale’s darkness’. And it is this skill with imagery which makes one forgive Stone’s blunt approach. His poem ‘Christ on the Cross – Delacroix’ is similarly direct but one is then stunned by the visual accuracy of the Christ figure:

Above the broad bow of ribs
head hard back, taut, stiffened
like a strapped down lunatic.

Stone transforms the traditional, revered image of Christ as broken, yet still forgiving and passive, to this shockingly precise, highly original image of ‘the strapped down lunatic’. Thus he vividly conveys something of the real pain of crucifixion. In this description of Delacroix’s painting Stone provides two stories that move in opposite directions: the crucifixion as one man’s real suffering along with the deeply ironic account of Christianity as a destructive and flawed message:

yet still this moonlit weapon is carried down
the tributaries of mankind, primed,
and perfectly aimed, a harpoon still shining,
still standing in the sea-sluiced wound of death

Stone is almost too brash, too hot to handle as poetry – that last line, ‘sea- sluiced wound of death’, in particular. Nonetheless, he manages to steer clear of cliché due to the originality and shocking impact of some of the resulting imagery.

As one works through the poems it is as if Stone himself exists permanently affronted by an ever-present sense of the mass deaths that inhabit the environment. This comes across vividly in ‘The Lonely Ones’, which meditates on all those who fall victim to the sea. ‘Harrowing’, meanwhile, gives the impression that the earth itself is worn out by history’s endless interchange of swords and ploughshares:

Do you see the old moon waiting,
a tired gull tethered to the harrow
above the dawn reluctant field?

As Stone takes us on a European journey through history and culture we encounter specific victims of the ongoing cycle of bloodshed. In ‘Secret of the Picpus Cemetery, Paris’ one is provided with a distinct physical sense of the way the earth exists as layers of the dead. He contrasts the death of the murdered of the French Revolution with the natural, peacetime death of those who will ultimately ‘tumble more beautifully into the abyss’. We are all going to die but some will do it more pleasantly than others.

One also notes how Stone ranges between poems which universalise these experiences and those specific accounts of the experiences of famous figures in flight from repression, such as Montaigne or Walter Benjamin.

Many poets who have experienced the horror of exile or war convey a more wistful, mournful air. Lines come to mind like those of, say, Czeslaw Milosz, who experienced life in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Second World War:

You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed
of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.


Stone, however, is having none of it. He wants people to sit up and listen. Occasionally one feels he is edging into melodrama. At the same time we surely need poetry that does not sanitise or airbrush what we must accept as awful and true about human behaviour. And this is the valuable job Stone’s poetry is doing. Those who find this hard to handle should look away now:

‘And then the Reichsführer Himmler
moved closer to the pit, peered in
and as the execution commenced
had the misfortune of receiving
a splash of brain on his cheek.
He staggered back, turned pale,
was almost sick and at that moment
I was obliged to step forward
until his composure was regained,’
said Wolff, drawing in ash.

Peter Bennet, after working many years as an art teacher, moved to a remote cottage in Northumberland with the intention of dedicating his time to his art. He ended up discovering that he actually wanted to write poetry. By his fifth collection, The Glass Swarm (Flambard Press), he was writing work good enough to be shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize. This latest collection further develops many of the qualities seen in that collection where, as Sean O’Brien notes, ‘Mysteries occupy strangely familiar landscapes, where folktale and proverb intersect with the contemporary, and where nothing is as secure or simple as it seems’. Bennet himself tells us in an interview in The Journal (6 January 2009):

‘The beauty of poetry is that you don’t have to show the whole picture. It’s like showing things in half a mirror, they are suggestions. The poems require re-reading. I don’t stuff poems with references which make them difficult for the sake of it. On re-reading poems do become clear.’

Both these comments give a good picture of what one should expect from this latest collection. It is poetry that often needs to have its difficult references unpicked (ready access to Google is useful even though Bennet does provide some notes) and that also edges into the style of the Martian School with poems whose startling images often have to be worked out like a puzzle.

In general, though, Bennet’s idiosyncratic style and subject matter make it hard to place him clearly in any particular camp. He draws on a variety of forms and techniques: highly traditional end-stopped verse to freer run-on lines; rich sinuous consonantal syntax to plain diction. All are chosen subject to the needs of the poem. This versatility leaves one the feeling of having an experienced technician at work.

As Bennet himself so rightly says these poems need re-reading. In this respect it is difficult to do their complexity justice in the space of a review. There is an awful lot going on in the collection with various sequences and titles offering numerous interconnected meanings. The cards of the tarot pack, for example, act as intriguing titles. At times their connection with the poems is difficult to pin down. Bennet interweaves art, nature, history and, occasionally, personal experience in a satisfying way, but often only once one has given the poems three or four chances.

Take ‘The Moon’ for example, a poem that needs to be quoted in full to get a sense of how it works:

Rime and twilight whiten branches
outside the garden like an ossuary
and inside chill a waif in waif’s apparel –
picturesque but thin – whose freezing fingers
slip on the handle of the rake she pulls
to smooth a layer of cockleshells
across the fallow flower bed. She calls
in silence and invites us nicely
to wrap up warm and join her as she rambles
down through the orchard to the sunken barrel.
she drowned in once while deep in thought
and slimy water. There she lingers
to skip in bare feet on the ice to please us
then darts away to find a stile
she will negotiate with legs like scissors
that snip at splintering light until
reticulations of amazement part
and she skedaddles as she ought
to leave us where we’re always left precisely
whenever sentiment resembles art.

The sharp diction and precision of the poem give one the initial feeling of looking at an art object – something like the experience one has when looking at a willow-patterned plate as a child wanting to cross the bridge and enter the picture. This solidity is suggested in the image of the waif, ‘whose freezing fingers/slip on the handle’, who ‘invites us nicely … / to join her’. Yet as one looks again one realises that it is indeed a poem about the moon and that it is filled with various startling images to suggest numerous of her aspects. Her reflection is suggested in ‘the sunken barrel/ she drowned in once’, or the effect of her light in the image that begins ‘with legs like scissors/that snip at splintering light …’, before travelling a vivid journey to the poem’s conclusion supported by the driving use of enjambement.

By way of contrast Bennet can also provide an impact with simple, direct language such as ‘Unity in the Englischer Garten’. Here he tells the tale of Unity Mitford’s failed suicide attempt. This poem relies on half rhyme, a fairly regular beat and end-stopped lines. Together they provide a kind of matter-of-fact tone to present someone essentially silly, superficial, naïve and frivolous. One thinks of the kinds of characters one meets in an Evelyn Waugh novel of manners. Yet, he also wants to stress that she was young and beautiful. The message seems to be that maybe we care a bit about this tragic event – but not too much. Perhaps the tragedy is simply that there was so much less to her than met the eye:

The British consulate is off the phone.
There’s no one left to play with or to shock.
A green bench shimmers in the sun.
Wearing her crimped hair like a hat
she sits there to relax and points the gun
against her blank cherubic face.
She is a kind of saint. We need not care
nor spare the time to think of her again.

These two poems really act as tasters to this skilled, intellectual poet whose work is not the kind to be skimmed through. Rather, it provides something of a labyrinthine experience. The novelty and cleverness of the connections provide one with rich reading material that will not be quickly exhausted. Again as Bennet himself points out, the erudition is not there to be deliberately obscure but to take one on an interesting reading experience that will lead to satisfying results.

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