Poetry Review: In the Dark, Soft Earth

Firstly, I am very grateful to Plum White Press for sending me an advanced copy of this collection, however, this does not influence my review in any way. 


Frank Watson is an American poet who has written collections including; The Dollhouse Mirror, Seas to Mulberries and One Hundred Leaves. In the Dark, Soft Earth, is his latest work, due to be published in July 2020, it describes itself as the, “poetry of love, nature, spirituality, and dreams.” You can pre-order the collection on Amazon.

The Review

Title: In the Dark, Soft Earth

Poet: Frank Watson

My rating: ★★★★

In the Dark, Soft Earth captivates the essence of human experience with the forces of nature, intense romantic relationships and draws on a sense of shared history. The prose is beautifully captivating, honest, and full of images which will light up your soul. In a way, it takes the reader on a journey of what it is to be human, through the surges of different emotional experiences tied in with nature. 

I found the collection had a significant element of flow in the way each poem bleed into the next. Some poems were more short and snappy and at first appeared to be more devoid of meaning, but viewed collectively, they had a shared meaning. This gives the collection an element of motion which I really loved, as there was something so hypnotic and dreamy about it. 

For me, despite each poem having a different feel, the collection is united by a common theme that explores the idea that our human experience and emotions are universal. Poems such as ‘shores of millennia’ illustrate this, in pointing to the idea that our feelings and thoughts have been lived before, and in this, this is how we are connected to our past,

“these rocks

of a million years

and all the fleeting life

that’s graced their shores…”

shores of millennia

The idea that love is a timeless human emotion is explored captivatingly in this collection, with drawing upon images of the history of the earth. When we walk, when we love and when we explore the earth – we are doing something with an ancient history. I loved this image and feeling that Watson conveys and its sense of grounding of the human experience is unique and wonderfully demonstrated.

Photo by Kenneth Carpina on Pexels.com

In ‘continents’ we really get the exploration of this theme and how nature, love and history are all tied together. The feeling of love is likened to a, “sensual sea” which has the ability to carry, “across the continents” and, “into centuries, / of cracked earth / with stories told..”. I love the beauty of this image and the sense of timelessness from it – it again, points to the idea that human experience is historic.

The theme of nature is as persistent as love itself, as a reader you really get the sense that Watson is enthralled by it. Nature is the driving force behind his portrayal of love and the ‘soft’ element of earth. In making such a connection between love, nature and human experience, it feels like Watson implies that nature itself can be a carrier of emotions – and this is such a lovely sentiment. I think partly, nature is so heavily drawn upon as it makes readers re-consider their perceptions and connections to the world.

Aside from the interconnectedness of themes drawn upon in this collection, the writing itself pays homage to the sense of effortlessness in which we can all feel and have the capacity for love. The flow is beautiful, crafted with a simplicity of language and littered with complex images. Some poems are almost lyrical and roll of the tongue which makes the collection entirely digestible. Watson uses little punctuation in many of his poems which creates a kind of breathlessness  – perhaps mirroring the intensity of human emotions.

I found the reading experience itself to be incredibly addictive, soothing in parts, but also cutting in places – especially towards the end which features the darker elements of human experience. It feels as though the collection is meant to get increasingly darker as you read on, to demonstrate the cycle of life and renew an appreciation of the ‘soft’ parts of the earth. 

I really enjoyed the collection as a whole and felt touched by the portrayal of love being intertwined with the forces of nature. However, I struggled with the end in getting to grips with some of the images about death and religion – I understand it had to end on this to convey ‘the life cycle’ theme, but I felt this part was disconnected to the rest. The heavy, religious images didn’t seem to match up with the delicacy of imagery used for the majority of the collection. 

Image: Pieter Bruegel, Tower of Babel, 1563

Also, this part increasingly uses historic works of art and religious pieces including the “Tower of Babel” by Pieter Bruegel and “The World” by Bonifacio Bembo. Although these point to the element of shared, historical experience, I didn’t think they added to the collection. For me, reading poetry is an individual experience about creating your own images from interpreting the language. In providing images, I found it took away from this. However, this said, perhaps this is more of a personal preference. 

All in all, I enjoyed reading this collection. I found the way Watson captured the human experience enlightening and beautiful, and the images of nature really resonated with me. The language is simple, but the images are complex and enduring. It is a celebration of life itself and everything in between. The simplicity of language and limited use of punctuation enabled a certain rawness to be conveyed – which I liked. For me, this is important, as poetry has to be honest and accessible, so it can reach people and touch them in various ways. 

In a time of great turbulence, anxiety, and concern, this collection restored my faith in humanity and our capacity to appreciate the world. It will soothe your soul and carry you to other places. Its breathless sense of urgency will charge your present with the instinctive human necessity to love, be grounded to the past, and have an abundant appreciation for nature. 

Beautiful to read: a timeless assessment of what it means to be a human in a world with an ancient past, charged with an undercurrent of urgency.

My favourite poem in the collection,

“in the garden of dreams

a little orchid bathes

unseen in the rain

violets

in the midnight scent –

stars in her eyes

a wall within

a wall where all

the secrets grow

in a world of fragments

we piece it together

in the walls we make

gardens

Thanks again to Plum White Press for sending me a copy!

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Lemn Sissay: “Going Places”

Image: Pixabay

After my first poetry post, I have since read two new poems. One being, “The Salutation” by Thomas Traherne (1636-1674), and the other, “I am” by John Clare (1793-1864). Although I enjoyed both, it was the fourth one I read that I felt the need to share.

The Poem

Going Places

Another
cigarette ash
television serial filled
advert analysing
cupboard starving
front starving
front room filling
tea slurping
mind chewing
brain burping
carpet picking
pots watching
room gleaming
toilet flushing
night,
with nothing to do

I think I’ll paint roads
on my front room walls
to convince myself
that I’m going places.

Immediate thoughts

Wow. No, seriously. That’s exactly what I thought. It might not be comprehensive, or insightful, but nonetheless, that is what I thought.

In these few lines and words, Sissay manages to convey a feeling not too dissimilar to what I have been feeling at the moment. Daily life when you have nowhere to go, or no distinct direction can be draining. The routines of life can suck the hopes and dreams out of you if you’re not careful.

With a form mirroring breathlessness urgency; this poem manages to bring to light the vulnerability of being young and trying to make it for the first time. Being a recent graduate trying to find work and not giving up on my ‘hopes and dreams,’ this poem really resonated with me.

The sense of repetitiveness it creates with alluding to routine human actions, “tea slurping,” “cupboard starving” and, “toilet flushing” mirrors the sometimes emptiness of being alive. The simple language reinforces this lack of variety that having a busy schedule can bring. Days are counted by how much tea you’ve consumed, and how much food you can eat from your cupboards out of boredom, rather than countless office dramas.

For me, as I am struggling to get a job, I am taking note of the more mundane things. As a result, I can empathize with the, “mind chewing” Sissay so portrays. Your mind is constantly “chewing” over not being good enough, comparing yourself to others and trying to fill your empty days.

For me, this is a poem about losing hope among the relentless mundane aspects of everyday life. It is a poem that feels vulnerable, lonely and sad. The fact the protagonist feels they have to “paint roads” on their walls instead of having a set path or journey, is revealing. I feel like every young adult, struggling to try and make it for the first time, can relate to the vulnerability which seems to be expressed in this poem.

Lemn Sissay

Before reading, I hadn’t heard off Lemn Sissay. But upon a quick google search, I realized I have read his work before. I am slightly familiar with, “Love Poem,”

You remind me
define me
incline me.

If you died I’d.

however, I had never visited his work properly, or taken the time to find out more about him. His work is exactly the kind of vulnerable, honest poetry that I love to read (and attempt to write.) Sissay had a difficult start in life, he was put in foster care between the ages 12-17 and upon leaving, used his unemployment benefit to self publish his own poetry.

Local authorities placed him in the care of a deeply religious foster family in Lancashire, as his birth mother (who came to the UK from Ethiopia) tried to pursue her own education back home. Being subject to abuse in care assessment centers and racial slurs; Sissay has used his poetry as an outlet to portray life in care and the still ever present stigma’s that are attached to having this background. As care leavers; these individuals are naturally assumed to not have the drive that other young people do. It’s a stigma and generalization that still remains.

He became the official poet of the London Olympic games in 2012, and many of his words feature on public monuments.

Image: The Guardian

As well as being a successful poet, Sissay is also the Chancellor of Manchester University and is a major advocate for increasing care leaver access to higher education. As a care leaver myself, this is a cause very close to my heart.

Austerity continues to affect Britain in many ways, but particularly among care leavers. Cuts to local governments have meant that foster careers and children’s center’s have received less grants over the years, and the support given to care leavers has been slashed. Stepping out of foster care for the first time as young adults, many of these individuals have no idea where to start in life and do not have a family network to support them.

The ‘life’ skills so many of students learn whilst we are at university; are simply not something many care leavers will have as they start independent lives.

I think Lemn Sissay is a real credit to the poetry world and to championing the importance of widening care leaver access to higher education. I’m sad I hadn’t heard of him sooner, but will no doubt be seeking out more of his work.

Reading more poetry

Image: Pixabay

As someone who claims they love poetry, my range tends to stick to those I know, (or studied at A-level) such as Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Carol Ann Duffy and William Blake. During these years I enjoyed studying poetry but was consumed by having to memorise it for an exam.

I’ve decided that I want to read more poetry and have set myself the challenge of reading a new poem every day. Using the book, Poems for Life, I am picking at random a poem everyday to read.

Part of my appreciation for poetry comes from the process of ‘unpicking’. On the first read, sometimes things don’t stick out. On the second, comes the realisation that certain phrases, lines and images are of importance to the central message. I like the fact that the more you read a poem, the more you understand. Above all, what I like is that poetry can have so many different interpretations.

I won’t always be writing a post about each poem I read (as that might get a bit much!) but I thought I would share with you the first one.

Flicking through the pages, I stuck my thumb at a random spot and fell on the poem, “Casabianca” by Felicia Dorothea Hemans. Upon reading it, I had no prior knowledge of the poem (or even when it was written.)

The Poem

The boy stood on the burning deck,
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck,
Shone round him o’er the dead.

Yet beautiful and bright he stood,
As born to rule the storm;
A creature of heroic blood,
A proud, though childlike form.

The flames rolled on – he would not go,
Without his father’s word;
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard.

He called aloud – ‘Say, father, say
If yet my task is done?’
He knew not that the chieftain lay
Unconscious of his son.

‘Speak, father!’ once again he cried,
‘If I may yet be gone!’
– And but the booming shots replied,
And fast the flames rolled on.

Upon his brow he felt their breath
And in his waving hair;
And look’d from that lone post of death,
In still yet brave despair.

And shouted but once more aloud,
‘My father! must I stay?’
While o’er him fast, through sail and shroud,
The wreathing fires made way.

They wrapped the ship in splendour wild,
They caught the flag on high,
And streamed above the gallant child,
Like banners in the sky.

There came a burst of thunder sound –
The boy – oh! where was he?
Ask of the winds that far around
With fragments strewed the sea!

With mast, and helm, and pennon fair,
That well had borne their part,
But the noblest thing which perished there,
Was that young faithful heart.

Reading “Casabianca” for the first time

Before researching , I believed this poem was about the departure of childhood, set against the natural rhythms of nature. The poem features a father and son on board a ship in the middle of the sea. Thus, the passing of nature could be related to the certainty of the end of childhood. Lines such as, “The boy stood on the burning deck, / Whence all but he had fled” and, “Yet beautiful and bright he stood, / As born to rule the storm” suggests the idea of departure with words like, “fled”. Additionally, the image of a boy ruling nature suggests an element of leaving childhood behind.

The poem also contains the repetition of a heroic like theme, words such as, “heroic,” “brave,” and “gallant” which suggests the idea of conquering. Whether that be over nature itself during the sea storm, or over the eventual eradication of one’s childhood. Thus, the conquering of childhood, as it were.

In sum, I read this poem to be about the gradual but relentlessness transition from childhood to adulthood, mirrored by the undulating rhythms of nature presented in the waves. The timeless image of a ship sailing away, relates to the human life cycle passing into the next phase of life, from childhood to adolescence. Like nature – life always has a next stage, or ending.

History and impact

Image: Felicia Dorothea Hemans National Portrait Gallery

Although this poem does contain a considerable element on childhood, it also documents an actual event.

Published in 1826, this poem details events that occurred on the Orient during the Battle of the Nile in 1798. It was a French ship commanded by Louis de Casabianca. The poem features a scene between a 12 year old boy and his Father; whereby the boy refuses to abandon the ship during a series of attacks. It becomes clear during the course of the poem, that the young boy tragically dies, he only ever wanted to protect the ship and perform his expected duties.

Thus, the poem explores elements of death, as well as transitional life. It’s a tale of commitment, resilience and dedication from a young boy, but also the bond between father and son.

The poem became a classroom staple throughout the United Kingdom between the 1850s-1950s. It is therefore, a classic example of classroom poetry recital. It explores a sense of military prowess by featuring the 1798 Battle of the Nile, between the British Royal Navy and the Navy of the French Republic. Hence, I suspect it was chosen for classroom recital due to its demonstration of patriotism and British victory.

Felicia Hemans was a known poet in her day, whose major collections included: The Forest Sanctuary (1825), Records of Woman and Songs of Affections (1830). She was known to be quite popular, especially among women. It is welcoming to note such a successful female poet during this period. Sadly, she died from dropsy in 1835. Despite the beauty of this poem (and probably the rest of her work) it was often used for school children – due to its discussion of morality and patriotism, and easy to remember rhyming rhythm. (see what I did there…)

Upon reading this poem and unpacking it, I was able to reflect on the many things I had learned just from reading these few lines. I had no idea to begin with that it was written so long ago, and about a true event I wasn’t even aware of. I nearly always learn something when I read a new poem, and this one didn’t disappoint!