Scotia Extremis


I’m delighted to say my poem ‘The In Pin’ was selected to appear in Scotia Extremis, a 2019 anthology published by Luath Press and edited by Andy Jackson and Brian Johnstone.

The In Pin

You brand me Very Difficult, as if I’m here
to challenge men who fritter days in stuffy

office blocks, evenings in provincial sheds
Sundays crawling up the backs of gods.

You peruse my Munro kin like bridies
on a buffet tray, but I’m the tricky bugger.

I make you strain with ropes. I don’t flinch
at your pitons. Gobs gape at my drop,

arseholes pucker tight as drawstring hoods.
I can’t be Bagged like a tin of shortie

or a bottle of scotch. I’ve felt the shifting
of tectonic plates, cracked and shuddered

through glacial drift. I’ve watched clans clash
like stags, flags indecipherable with blood.

Rain will rust your bolts, their fine red dust
tossed by the wind like ashes. You may fancy

your eroding steps superior to any other
Tommy Tourist’s, but watch your back.

I’m born of lava: my jutting jaw a blade’s edge,
my basalt skull treacherous when wet.

Book Review: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

This review first appeared in the Scottish Review of Books, 8th December 2018, as part of its Books of the Year Literary Advent.


The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

by Stuart Turton.

How to do this dark jewel of a book justice? An Agatha Christie-esque whodunnit set in a sinister stately home in the 1920s, featuring a Groundhog Day time loop and Quantum Leap-style body-hopping. The plot: tormented Aiden Bishop is trapped in the various bodies of the inhabitants of Blackheath House, doomed to relive the same day over and over again until he solves the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle. Thrilling, addictive, genuinely terrifying, utterly original and mind-fizzingly ingenious… I cannot do it justice, and nor can I get it out of my head.

Poem: Open House at Shady Pines

This poem was shortlisted for the Westport Arts Festival Poetry Competition 2016.

westport arts fest

Open House at Shady Pines

They trudge in, trailing cheap perfume,
parading polyester slacks and cut-
price crap from T K Maxx.
Not one of them is here to buy.

Ours is an ‘open house’; a free-for-all
where folk can snuffle through our smalls
and nary a nook is out of bounds.
There isn’t a thing I can do.

We’ve over twenty floral rooms,
well-groomed grounds, a spacious
lounge – yet still it’s on the market
and so still they tramp through.

I sit here in my winged armchair
(a wedding gift from darling Bert)
as strangers coo ‘How’re you coping
without him, dear?’ and slope past

on their way to visit Walter with claw-
hands, Marsha with pishy pants, Harry
with gammy foot or Deirdre, bald as a coot
(why these codgers linger here’s beyond me).

Away, I say, Shady Pines is up for sale,
Bert put it on the market himself.
He’s always been fit as a butcher’s dog,
but this place grew too big for two.

We’ll find a buyer, shake off these chumps,
and nestle in our bungalow. We’ll gather
in its cosy hall, allow the blessed latch
to fall, and bar the door to every soul.


Poem: Sycorax

This poem first appeared in New Writing Scotland 35 (August 2017)


I was a minnow of a girl, tossed
by the storm. Banished from Algiers
with the skin of my belly tight
as a drum, packed with the kicks
of my Caliban, whose diabolic
father knew a trick or two.

Many moons rose. I wove an eel-
grass cradle, chased mischievous
spirits from my driftwood door.
Waves curling behind me like claws,
I screamed him out. Beneath a squid-
ink sky he hit the sand as lightning struck.

I loved my moon-calf dear, stroked
the bristles on his cheeks, caressed
his crooked spine. I held him high
to pick our olives, figs and oranges
until my salty breath ran out
and I became pure essence.

Prospero offered my boy stolen fruit
on open palms, beguiled with wily
spells. Now Caliban bears wood
like a mule, weeps over his chains
until iron turns to rust and man
turns to beast with a poet’s tongue.

Ah, his words might be as sweet
as peaches. At night, he rocks
gently, sings lullabies; but they are
few, and brief, and soiled with curses.
Oh, he could be so tall if he would
only walk with unbowed spine.

Poem: Pennyroyal


This poem won the Neil Gunn Writing Competition 2017, judged by Michel Faber.


The girl holds out her cup and sinks onto the hearthside stool, gulps again the bitter tea beneath the midwife’s gaze. Those eyes, buried in skin crinkled as raisins, will have seen a thousand like her: those who chose the wrong time to give in, or didn’t choose at all. The walls gather close as gossips, windows weeping steam, flames tonguing the grate. Then comes the quickening in her core, the poker-heat, the rush of liquid, brown and slippery as cooking-oil. A vision ensues: a shrivelled underwater foot emerging; a boiled potato torso; four tuberous limbs… The midwife shovels the mulch into the fire, hands glistening like ham, as the girl inches towards the couch, packing a wad of cloth between her thighs, inhaling the stench of burnt meat, sweltering in the fug.

Of the Devil’s Party: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood

This review first appeared on The Scottish Review of Books website, 8th April 2017.

On 15 November 1959, Kansan farmer Herb Clutter’s throat was cut, his head blown open by a 12-gauge shotgun. His teenage son Kenyon’s final moments were spent bound and gagged yards from this scene, before he too was shot at point blank range. Soon after, Kenyon’s sister Nancy uttered her last words before turning to face her bedroom wall, which was seconds later sprayed with blood. Having endured the agony of listening to her family die, Herb’s wife Bonnie was shot dead as she lay in bed, her hands clasped as if in prayer.

Truman Capote has no interest in clichéd depictions of one-note monsters, so the killers of In Cold Blood – Dick Hickock and Perry Smith – are allowed to rage, laugh, despair, feast and dream; and therein lies the book’s moral dilemma. Does Capote’s overwhelming interest in his antihero Perry Smith veer into unhealthy territory, proving the author to be, as William Blake said of John Milton, ‘Of the Devil’s party without knowing it’?

In Cold Blood seeks to unpick the Clutter case from the inside out. In 1959, Capote visited Holcomb, planning to write an article for The New Yorker examining the aftershocks of these seemingly motiveless acts of barbarism. Instead, the story swelled into his seminal ‘non-fiction novel’ of 1965, in which Capote eschews journalistic tropes and utilises novelistic techniques of scene selection, layering, manufactured dialogue, dramatic tension and beautifully crafted language.

From the offset, Capote lumps victims and perpetrators together: ‘At the time not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them – four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.’ It may, then, seem as if the Clutter deaths are no more than a handy launch-pad for Capote’s psychological study of a murderer. Take, for instance, Perry Smith’s vivid description of his recurrent surreal dreamscape, an African jungle containing a stinking tree with blue leaves and diamonds big as oranges:

‘That’s why I’m there – to pick myself a bushel of diamonds. But I know the minute I try to, the minute I reach up, a snake is gonna fall on me. A snake that guards the tree. This fat sonofabitch living in the branches… We wrestle around, but he’s a slippery sonofabitch and I can’t get a hold, he’s crushing me, you can hear my legs cracking… he starts to swallow me.’

Perry is saved, as he always is in such dreams, by a vast sunflower-yellow bird who devours the snake and gently lifts the dreamer to paradise. The dream tells you everything you need to know about this fantasist who craves the discovery of riches, feels hunted by those he imagines seek to thwart him, and who desires the miraculous assent to some non-existent promised land.

Readers gain direct access to the rat’s nest of Perry’s consciousness. We hear how alcohol honed his mother’s tongue ‘to the wickedest point’, made her swollen and promiscuous before she ‘strangled to death on her own vomit’. We hear how he and his siblings lived off ‘mush and Hershey kisses and condensed milk’ before being disbanded and forced into care. Perry was placed in a Catholic orphanage where nuns beat him with a flashlight and doused him in icy baths as punishment for bedwetting. Two of his siblings committed suicide. His thwarted father tried to kill him.

We are made privy to Perry’s rich interior life, his un-nurtured capacity to learn, his musical ability, his desire to acquire a dazzling vocabulary, his exquisite handwriting. He is ‘an incessant conceiver of voyages’, fantasizes about ‘heaping caskets of gold’ and a land where the sun shines always and ‘all you wore was grass and flowers.’ We are led to envisage his ‘changeling’s face’ flitting between ‘impish’, ‘soulful’, ‘corrupt’, ‘gypsy’, ‘gentle’, ‘romantic’ and ‘roguish’, his ‘stunted’ legs making him ‘no taller than a twelve-year-old child’.

Compare this to Capote’s strangely detached account of Herb Clutter, which makes the man seem puritan and patriarchal. Herb eats ‘Spartan breakfasts’; shuns tea, coffee, cigarettes and alcohol; does not care for card games, golf, cocktails, buffet suppers or ‘any pastime that he felt did not “accomplish something”’. His word is law. He is a pillar of his baseball-and-bible-loving, white-as-a-picket-fence community.

Wraithlike Bonnie Clutter’s personality is reduced ‘to a series of gestures blurred by the fear that she might give offence, in some way displease’. Sixteen year old Nancy seems, quite frankly, too good to be true. She cooks, sews, arranges flowers, plays instruments, tutors younger girls, gets straight As, is class president, a leader in the 4-H programme and the Young Methodist’s League, can ride a horse, and yet ‘never brags’. To a girlfriend on the phone she says: ‘I just want to be his daughter and do as he wishes.’ Fifteen year old Kenyon is not given much of a look in at all.

And yet – there are dreams nestled in these pages every bit as evocative as Perry’s malodorous tree and yellow wonder-bird. Marie, wife of Detective Alvin Dewey, dreams that an apparition of Bonnie comes before her, wringing her hands and muttering frantically: ‘To be murdered. To be murdered. No. No. There’s nothing worse. Nothing worse than that. Nothing.’ In another dream sequence, Alvin Dewey chases the ghostly forms of the two killers, riddling them with bullets as they evaporate, laughing mockingly at him. The detective is ‘filled with a despair so mournfully intense’ that he awakes.

Nor is Capote’s sympathy reserved exclusively for Perry. Sue Kidwell, Nancy’s friend, is shown overwhelmed with emotion when Nancy’s beloved horse Babe is sold for seventy-five dollars to a farmer who will doubtless put the old mare to work. As Babe is led away, Sue ‘raised her hand as if to wave goodbye, but instead clasped it over her mouth.’ Capote, master of suggestion over statement, uses Sue’s small gesture of grief, sickness and horror to disturb us far more than weeping and wailing ever could.

Nancy’s boyfriend Bobby, too, is bathed in the light of Capote’s consideration: ‘grief had drawn a circle round him he could not escape from and others could not enter’. One sentence doing the work of ten, Capote’s deft phrasing illuminates the isolating power of loss. Nancy is shown to be extraordinarily brave before her death, ‘trying hard to act casual and friendly’ even as armed intruders breach the sanctity of her childhood home. Herb’s valiant efforts to keep himself and his family calm, to cooperate in order to avoid the very worst thing happening, are also profoundly affecting. A story from Herb’s boyhood, in which he drives a horse and cart through a snowstorm to deliver Christmas presents to his family, makes him so much more likeable than the pleasure-dodging killjoy of the opening pages.

Far from painting Perry as nothing more than the victim of hideous circumstances, Capote shows the man to be, at times, wholly despicable. True, Perry is revolted by brutish Dick’s paedophilic tendencies, and prevents him from raping Nancy before her death. Guts twisting, he can barely eat while Dick blithely wolfs chicken sandwiches, hamburgers, steaks, Hershey bars and gumdrops. Perry lies ‘embraced by shame’ in his cell while Dick tells dirty jokes and makes a shiv to stick in Undersheriff Meier’s neck. Standing in the courtroom in a borrowed shirt and rolled-up jeans, Perry is a pitiable figure, looking ‘as lonely and inappropriate as a seagull in a wheat field.’

However, Perry is also capable of terrible racist slurs, made more despicable by the casualness with which he spouts them. He claims to have once thrown a man off a bridge for no reason. On reading a newspaper article detailing his crimes, he wonders idly how much the Clutter funeral cost. He hunts, alongside Dick, for ‘a stranger to rob, strangle, discard on the desert’, and was able to converse genially with Nancy before – apparently – putting a bullet inside her. As Perry’s sister writes, he is ‘a human being with a free will.’ Nothing can excuse his deeds, not even the childhood from hell.

There is a wealth of detail in In Cold Blood, the symbolic power of which is never overstated: the two scavenging tomcats outside the courthouse who appear like incarnations of Dick and Perry; Perry’s chrysanthemum tattoo mirroring the chrysanthemums swaying in the Clutter garden; the exotic yellow bird of Perry’s dream contrasting with the dull ‘blonde chicken’ of prosaic Dick’s; the trapped bobcat of Marie Dewey’s recollections, sparked by a photograph of Dick: ‘though she’d wanted to release it, the cat’s eyes, radiant with pain and hatred, had drained her of pity and filled her with terror.’

Capote’s use of portentous statements at the end of sections creates a creeping sense of unease. On Bonnie’s final day, for instance, Capote describes the contents of her bedroom, including a bookmark, ‘a stiff piece of watered silk upon which an admonition had been embroidered: “Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is.”’ His use of the present tense and the way he cuts between scenes creates a dramatic tension reminiscent of a cinematic thriller. As the killers’ car crawls towards the Clutter house, time jumps to after the murder, and the gruesome acts are – for the moment – omitted. It takes over 200 pages until we hear the murderers’ accounts of what exactly happened that night, a hugely satisfying payoff after Capote’s tantalising drip-feed of information.

But more than this, Capote is unrivalled in his ability to capture personality in dialogue, from informer Floyd Wells describing bad checks as ‘a regular washline of hot paper’, to salty-old-broad Mother Truitt relating an act ‘so low a caterpillar could pee over it’. His evocations of the Kansan landscape elevate In Cold Blood above the mere thrilling or titillating: the ‘hip-high, sheep-slaughtering snows; the slushes and the strange land fogs of spring; and summer, when even crows seek the puny shade, and the tawny infinitude of wheatstalks bristle, blaze’. Whether he is describing ‘the pumpkin-season temperature, the day’s arid glitter’ or ‘the fields, lion-coloured now, luminously golden with after-harvest stubble’, Capote’s masterful prose reaches poetic heights.

Recently, much has been made of Capote’s special treatment of those inhabitants of Holcomb he liked (handsome, tenacious Dewey appears like a matinee idol) and his dismissal of those he did not (Duane West, a key figure in the trial, is dismissed as a pudgy, prematurely-aged nobody). Capote’s flamboyance and childlike voice endeared him to some but forced more conservative denizens to recoil.

Armed with nothing more than an excellent memory, he interviewed locals without taking notes, creating composite characters and inventing scenes. Abandoned by his own parents, and, as an openly gay man, on the fringes of society himself, he clearly felt an affinity with Perry Smith, a beguiling bond that led him to narrow his focus. Does this mean the author’s ego had a warping effect on his search for the truth?

If, as Voltaire wrote, we should ‘Judge a man by his questions, not by his answers’, Capote should be judged not by his tweaks, inventions and omissions but by the questions he raises, which remain every bit as pertinent today. Is the death penalty as cold blooded as premeditated murder? What happens when the American Dream turns sour? What makes people kill? Without offering any explicit moral judgment, Capote leaves his readers to decide.

In Cold Blood is a sophisticated whydunit written with extraordinary poetic power, tense as a thriller, stylishly bleak as a film noir. Perry Smith is undoubtedly the most vivid and complex character, but was Capote truly ‘of the Devil’s party’? Quite possibly, but if he was then he most certainly knew it, and used his insight into the mind of a brutalised, broken man to leave us with a startling thought: there but for the grace of God go I?

Book Review: Sarah Dunant’s In the Name of the Family

This review first appeared in The Scotsman (Books section), April 1st 2017.

Image result for in the name of the family

Corrupt, carnal and compelling
Sarah Dunant’s blood-drenched tale about the Borgias is gripping, writes Jacqueline Thompson

Was there ever a more notorious family than the Borgias? Using tactics more rotten than the corpses clogging the Tiber, Rodrigo Borgia thrusts his way to supremacy, becoming Pope Alexander VI and one of the most powerful men on earth. By 1502, Alexander’s bastard son Cesare is commander of an army, his daughter Lucrezia a plumptious piece of meat on the marriage market. The trio encapsulates the ‘violent pleasures’ of the Italian Renaissance; but is there any truth to the whispers of incest, murder and madness, or have the facts been embellished as heavily as Lucrezia’s pearl and diamond-studded gowns?

This is the intriguing territory explored in Sarah Dunant’s In the Name of the Family, the sequel to 2013’s Blood and Beauty. The exploits of lusty, capricious Alexander – ‘this monster churchman ripe with corruption’ – and restless, ruthless Cesare – ‘a bastard marauding philistine’ – are vibrant and arresting, but it is Lucrezia’s story which best reveals these sensual, dangerous times.

Lucrezia may wear bedazzling dresses, but she is scrutinized by ‘spies from all over the country, their mission to note her every gesture and to price each piece of jewellery, every yard of cloth.’ She has lost the love of her life through her brother’s brutal machinations, forced to leave her son in Rome as she travels to marry a stranger. The upkeep of her lucrative appearance is ‘hard work; all the plucking, perfuming, creaming, corseting, lacing, powdering…’ Sex is perfunctory, its grotty realities apparent as she mops the ‘leftover liquid’ from her body, noting how ‘women can bruise on the inside as well as out.’

And yet, her mental strength is a source of wonder, her courtly guile likened to warcraft: ‘conquering city after city with charm rather than cannon.’ After wounding trysts with her new husband, Lucrezia is stoic: ‘there is much to celebrate.’ She fights for every ducat of her dowry, knows her worth as the vessel of male heirs, and is adamant in her desire ‘to embrace gaiety’ in the face of sickness and grief. In an era obsessed with women’s wickedness, from Eve to pox-bearing prostitutes, has history slandered Lucrezia?

Meanwhile, Pope Alexander, a rapacious ‘bear of a man’, is ‘in love with women, wealth, orange blossom and the taste of sardines’. He is arrogant, believing himself impervious to a tempest as he stalks his ship’s deck, singing. He has ordered countless assassinations, is changeable as a sprite, but he is also funny and theatrical, embracing life with every atom of his being.

As for Cesare, seen through the eyes of Machiavelli, iconic inventor of ‘Realpolitik’, he seems to care for nothing but war and sex. Cesare’s mercurial nature can spill over into galling cruelty. He is treacherous and animalistic, laughing, alongside his psychotic comrade Michelotto, as they butcher innocents. His sexual jealousy towards his sister – the source of those rumours of Borgia incest – can erupt into acts of shocking barbarism.

Dunant’s poetic style raises the novel above titillating gossip, and her striking imagery renders it as rich as a Pinturicchio fresco, whether describing frosty ground cracking ‘like small animal bones’ or eels circling a fisherman’s wrist like a ‘living bracelet of snakes’. This gripping, sumptuous book shows that, excessive and ferocious as they doubtless were, the Borgias were truly something.

In the Name of the Family
By Sarah Dunant
Virago, 464pp,

Poetry Review: Tracey Herd’s NOT IN THIS WORLD

This review first appeared in The Glasgow Review of Books (22/02/17)


Tracey Herd Not in This World (Bloodaxe, 2015)

By Jacqueline ThompsonD8vo 64pp

On the 10th of June 1987, American actress Elizabeth Hartman threw herself from the window of her fifth floor Pittsburgh apartment. Haunted by depression, she was just forty-three when she died. It is Hartman’s face – young, smiling, impossibly fresh – that beams in triplicate from the cover of Scottish poet Tracey Herd’s third collection, Not in This World, a work inspired by Hartman’s struggles as well as Herd’s own experience of clinical depression.

Martin Colthorpe described reading Herd’s second collection, Dead Redhead, as ‘an intoxicating experience, in which you become thoroughly immersed in her world and her obsessions’. Not in This World is no exception, with Herd’s continuing ‘obsessions’ plotting a dark psychological landscape populated by doomed movie stars, broken girls and powerful racehorses, filled with images of blood, snow and wreckages.

As in Herd’s previous collections, the figure of the girl detective makes an early appearance as the speaker of ‘What I Wanted’ sets out:

with my magnifying glass
and pocket torch to follow
the tracks that led off as far
as a child’s eye could see.

In ‘Dreams of Lost Summers and Found Lines’, ‘old green and cream Penguin novels’ (detective stories) appear, as does Miss Marple in ‘The Living Library’, and in ‘The Case of the Inconvenient Corpse’, a Miss Marple narrative is retold from the perspective of a callous male figure. Fairytale heroines also return, with a raging, righteously bitter Snow White narrating ‘Nobody Home’, spitting out thoughts of the woodsman: ‘as if he hadn’t already fucked me over / by leading me into this foul, dark place’. In ‘Reverie’, Cinderella is once more evoked as the speaker refers to her bleeding feet: ‘Glass slippers were never made for dancing’.

There is also a Herd-esque profusion of Hollywood icons: Vivien Leigh, ‘her green eyes slanting in the fire’s feline rage’; Norma Shearer, ‘one eye cast about in a delinquent / skew that parodied beauty’; Joan Fontaine, to whom Alfred Hitchcock ‘casually let slip that the cast and crew / hated’ her, and who Laurence Olivier ‘had no time for’; Olivia de Havilland, whose ‘quiet strength’ pervades; Louise Brooks, her eyes ‘cool and sane’; Mae Marsh, ‘the girl with the bee stung lips, / bee sting, gentle bee sting, blonde, beautiful, bee stung’; and Clara Bow, ‘dancing her frantic Charleston’.

Other pop culture allusions abound, from James Dean and Buddy Holly to The Great Gatsby and the Titanic. Like a poem by T. S. Eliot or a song by Morrissey, these provide the delight of recognition, as well as the desire to Google topics – like the life of Hartman – that require illumination. Indeed, one of the most affecting poems is the final one in the collection, ‘Calling Card’, about Marina Keegan, an American writer who, in 2012, died in a car crash aged twenty-two, five days after graduating from Yale. Knowing the facts makes the poem all the more poignant, and more beautiful too:

Your words couldn’t protect you,
but they never left you,
swirling around your body like moths.

Recurring motifs create a strong sense of unity: champagne; flowers, especially funereal lilies and fairytale roses, their colours mirroring the blood and snow that lace these poems; cuts; ice; glass; mirrors; vehicular crashes; graves; stars; hearts; God; old movies; children; jewels; bullets; and violently removed skin. Indeed, so prevalent are Herd’s icons and so distinct is her voice that it would, quite often, be possible – à la Larkin and Plath – to identify her poems even if they were stripped of her name. This is what Sarah Wardle described as Herd’s ‘strong and singular voice’, and it is arguably the poet’s greatest asset.

However, there are notable departures from broken girls and dead film stars, and, in fact, a wide variety in terms of ideas and perspectives. ‘The Afternoon Shift Are Leaving the Port Talbot Steelworks’, an ekphrastic poem based on a photograph, presents the steady stoicism of these ‘anonymous men’, ‘their tread, heavy and tired, but their heads unbowed’ before the unceasing machines. The titular focus of ‘The Fortune Teller’:

…misquotes Macbeth with gloomy relish
running a ragged nail along lines that speak
of witches, massacres, wild-eyed horses

– foretelling miscarriage before holding out her ‘dirty hand’ for payment.

No matter how arresting the subject matter, Herd’s technical expertise should not be overlooked. Her adept deployment of first person perspective gives a directness and immediacy to poems, even when they take faraway figures and places as their focal point (many are set in America, with references to New York, Vegas, Nebraska, Kansas, Ohio, Idaho, North Dakota, Iowa, Eisenhower, Southern belles and diners). In ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, Herd-as-Hartman laments: ‘I am left behind, a failed actress, / holding the script – which is in tatters’, her pain palpable despite the gulf of decades and miles.

Herd’s use of rhyme is also skilful but unobtrusive, as in ‘Vivien and Scarlet’, which maintains its a/b/a scheme throughout and ends with a couplet, juxtaposing structural tidiness with the decidedly non-fairytale ending of the actress’s life. In ‘Leaving’, the regular aa/bb/cc scheme of its two-line stanzas creates a greetings card effect, encapsulating the simple but profound pathos of its subject: ‘the bow of a ship sailing out into evening. / Somewhere, someone much loved is leaving.’

Herd’s use of repetition, such as the phrase ‘eyes of the palest blue’ in ‘Norma Shearer’, is also artfully handled, with the internal rhyming of ‘white’ and ‘light’, ‘knew’ and ‘skew’, as well as the alliterative ‘sexy suffering in satin gowns’ and ‘Retire a rich woman, / royalty of sorts’, creating a musical soundscape that is both jaunty and strangely unsettling, evocative of the dark underbelly of old-school fame.

In ‘Five Seconds’, Herd deploys a conversational tone that belies the horror of the sheer bad luck of Ritchie Valens dying in the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly (Valens, a support act, won a coin toss for a seat on the flight, a flippant gesture that determined the teen’s fate): ‘Funny how five seconds…never mind’. Continuing this theme in ‘The Music Men’, Herd’s arresting imagery takes centre stage:

Out into the dark, star-laden night,
the snow piling up like gambling chips
all over the state.

Buddy’s horn-rimmed glasses merge with the unseeing eyes of oculist ‘Doctor / T.J. Eckleburg’, the looming billboard from The Great Gatsby which gazes blindly over the soul-sapped inhabitants of America like the God of Mammon.

Herd’s greatest strengths are, perhaps, also her greatest weaknesses, depending on how one approaches her poems. Her strong narrative drive can occasionally feel as if plots are being retold, as in ‘The Case of the Inconvenient Corpse’ or ‘Joan Fontaine and Rebecca’, in which the events of Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca are described at length, albeit from intriguingly skewed angles. Her persistent ‘obsessions’ with dead girls and forsaken icons mean that some readers may feel at a remove from the poems. Andrew Neilson commented of Dead Redhead that Herd too often wears ‘the mask of personae’ and that ‘it would be nice for its sequel to feature a little more of Herd herself.’ Any reader hoping for a radical departure from the themes of Herd’s earlier collections will be disappointed.

However, it could also be argued that every poem betrays something of its creator, no matter how veiled in persona that poem may appear, and Herd’s own experience of depression suggests that she dominates these poems as surely as Hartman does. A poem like ‘The Unicorn Seat’ has a distinctly personal feel, written as it is ‘for Elsie and Lucy’:

…I have one little hand
in each of mine and you both stare up
at the arching evening…

So, too, does ‘Just One Request’, whether the figure who walks

slowly out into the waters of the Mar de Plata,
the malignancy blooming for a second time
without cease, as unstoppable as spring

is known to the poet or not. Either way, the figure’s grace and stoicism in the face of illness is just as powerful: ‘There is a dignity in knowing when to leave’.

Not in This World is further proof of Herd’s enormous talent, her ability to draw her readers into the hinterland of her fascinations and surprise, challenge and delight us with the blistering force of her perceptions. Dark they may be, but these are poems that are a joy to savour, beguiling enough to bear repeated readings, each one throwing up fresh ideas thanks to Herd’s keen wit and kaleidoscopic knowledge of popular culture. The most potent element of the collection is the solidarity between Herd and Hartman, uniting as it does these artists from different worlds. The closing lines of ‘Cemetery in Snow’ are eerie and sad but ultimately redemptive, encapsulating Herd’s power to simultaneously unsettle and console:

Somewhere, I think, someone has lit a fire.
The warmth comes from another world entirely.
Hold my hand, friend. We will not be lonely.

Poem: ‘Housekeeper’

‘This poem first appeared in Poetry Ireland Review (ed. Vona Groarke), December 2016.

Issue 120










I put eyes and tongues into every
dumb object I encounter, finding
smiles in fire-grates, laughter
tinkling in the servants’ bell.

I console the long silver spoon
as I polish her and all her daughters.
I stroke the cheeks of dusty clocks,
wipe sweat from leaky windows.

As I scrape up luncheon crumbs
he grumbles again: his women left him
out of spite. Tears mottle skin as dry
as moths entombed in wardrobes.

My cuckoo master laid his eggs
in umpteen nests: wife,
stepdaughter, chambermaid;
but never prune-fleshed me.

I used to hear his grunts then watch
them scuttle from his room. Now
I cannot shake the cat-in-the-wall
ache bricked-up in my chest.

I have stayed here too long.
I am as dried out and stuck
as rice abandoned in a pot.
I’ll never leave.

Poem: ‘The In Pin’

This poem first appeared in Scotia Extremis (ed. Andy Jackson and Brian Johnstone) 07/11/16


You brand me Very Difficult, as if I’m here
to challenge men who fritter days in stuffy

office blocks, evenings in provincial sheds
Sundays crawling up the backs of gods.

You peruse my Munro kin like bridies
on a buffet tray, but I’m the tricky bugger.

I make you strain with ropes. I don’t flinch
at your pitons. Gobs gape at my drop,

arseholes pucker tight as drawstring hoods.
I can’t be Bagged like a tin of shortie

or a bottle of scotch. I’ve felt the shifting
of tectonic plates, cracked and shuddered

through glacial drift. I’ve watched clans clash
like stags, flags indecipherable with blood.

Rain will rust your bolts, their fine red dust
tossed by the wind like ashes. You may fancy

your eroding steps superior to any other
Tommy Tourist’s, but watch your back.

I’m born of lava: my jutting jaw a blade’s edge,
my basalt skull treacherous when wet.