‘Passerine’ by Kirsten Luckins (Bad Betty Press, 2021)

#7/31 The Sealey Challenge

This collection is a memorial to friendship, a nature journal across a year from summer to summer and a series of epistolary prose-poems and poems all addressed to ‘Dear Sophie’, following her death. There are 51 poems separated into six sections: Pollen, Pyre, Green Ghosts, The Night Inside Our Chests, Cometlight, The Cliffs at the Edge of the World.  Like all lyric poetry, ‘Passerine’ addresses someone who is not there and for whom the reader becomes a substitute, the receiver of emotion locked into the language of longing and loss.  The subtext is the precarious state of the natural world. 

At 2 am my skin was a tarmac road wobbling the air with heat.
Fifty/fires were burning above the Arctic Circle, they were a 
tyre necklace/flaming, and all the birds dropped from the skies
like Vietnamese/ monks. The sun tightened its cincture and the
equator ignited. The/ cradle of life reinvented itself as pyre,
and out of immolation came the/future, demanding an explanation

What is so refreshing in Luckins work is how clearly, gently and persistently it celebrates life, while mourning the death of a friend and acknowledging the Anthropocene. It achieves this element of hopefulness by reporting the detail of days which imbues the poems with movement, time and space. 

The clouds today roll smartly right to left, a hoop bowled
by a high-up breeze. It occasionally drops into the garden,
quick as a goldfinch, Then, the vine shakes its clamour of
elastic arms. Then, the cherry tests one heavy leaf at a time…
                                         [‘Dear Sophie’ p.29]

The letters include memories, most vividly of when Sophie had her son. Others are letters about the natural world reporting back to Sophie about the shape of clouds, the visiting birds and smell of weather.

Luckins experiments with form and memory to realise a vivid, sorrowful collection of poems that move and provoke,  that cry out against the jeopardy in which the world turns because of human destruction.  It is also a celebration of friendship and love, the threads that we must continue to weave in spite of death.

To buy the book:

The Room Between Us

#6 The Sealey Challenge ‘The Room Between Us’ by Denise Saul (Liverpool University Press, Pavilion series, 2022)

My mother-in-law, Mary, lived with us for the first ten years or so of our marriage at which point, on the birth of our fifth child, she said she’d had enough of the noise of our house and moved to live with her eldest daughter. I only knew Mary post-stroke, as an elderly woman with disabilities of speech and movement. Her aphasia made her creative with language so that there were coded ways in which we all communicated between mind-reading and translation. I offered my support as best I could as a daughter-in-law who disappointed her in many ways (but that’s another story). This is relevant to my reading of Denise Saul’s first collection as her poetry reminds me of the daily detail and necessity of care for our disabled elderly and how this ubiquitous work is invisible not just in our national economic reckonings but in cultural work and literature.

Saul’s poems navigate the experience of a daughter caring for a mother whose words are disappearing, and becoming fixed or unreliable after a stroke:


I was talking about the doctor or you were. I can't recall who 
spoke first even though I said clopidogrel and you said cabbage.
In the afternoon, you mentioned cardigan and did not budge
from this word.

These poems also consider how love holds on as the life of a beloved one slips away, ‘sans teeth, sans eyes, sans teeth, sans everything’, as words bind us and fail us.

This is not only a document of witness and love that gives a voice back to her late mother but also a small manifesto, a poetics against the clamour and noise of words. Saul shows us that human communication, and poetry, is not only about words but also about gesture and experiment, breath and the space (or the room) between us, in the spaces where language is silent, where the human spirit still resists:


I have grown tired of combing mother's unkempt hair.  I do
not know how to plait and the house is in a mess. Rather than
using a comb, I pull my fingers through her hair. I tell mother
to bend her head forward, You have to lean forward if you want
me to comb your hair. Mother tilts her head back because she
does not want to surrender to anyone.

‘The Room Between Us’ has been well received and endorsed by a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, as with Saul’s two previous pamphlets. It also needs to be widely shared and read by the army of carers and the politicians who ignore them.

To buy the book:

And here’s a photograph of my late mother-in-law, Mary Rowe

Mary with our youngest child in 2013

Metaphysical Dog

For #5 of the Sealey Challenge: Frank Bidart’s Metaphysical Dog
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013)

I chose to reread Bidart’s eighth collection (if you include the first collected and also Music Like Dirt) because it’s my favourite, I think. It embodies his history, aesthetics and high modernism in a way that gives the reader reassurance somehow about existential doom and human tragedy. Bidart is a poet with a deep sense of original sin and an equal distrust about the dogmas of faith that formed his much younger self.  His work expresses deep emotion and serious intellectual concerns.  He also provides a body of work that explores and represents gay experience and struggle.

It’s enough to reread a Bidart collection without trying to write a commentary or response to it in the same day. What I would like to do is convince British readers to read his work.

He is one of the last great high modernist American poets. He was mentored by (and supported) both Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop as a young poet. He writes about embodiment, intellect, soul, hunger, sex, sin, the loss of God, history, madness, America and psychological filial inheritance like no one else. His poetry is how he lives.

Seduced not by a book but by the idea
of a book

like the Summa in five fat volumes, that your priest

in high school explained Thomas Aquinas
almost finished, except that there were,

maddeningly, "just a few things he didn't

have time, before dying, quite 
to figure out"

...         [from 'Dream of the Book' p.47]

Watched this recent film of Bidart’s interview with Garth Greenwell to learn more about his work:

Sealey Challenge #4

Bloodlines by Sarah Wimbush (Seren, 2020)


‘Bloodlines’ won the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet competition in 2020.  In 30 pages it introduces readers to the unreachable, enchanted world of Romany/traveller experience through travel, food, labour, exclusion, distinctive language and family.   The discrimination and distrust travellers face is deep-rooted and reflected in Wimbush’s characters, as in ‘Carroty Kate’ (p.9):

Time was,
you would have slapped me in irons,
dragged me to York Tyburn in a hay cart sat on my coffin,
where I'd be dropped
from the Three-legged Mare –
just for being.

Wimbush’s poetry uses language that is full of energy, resistance and life and pays tribute to the long respect for the earth known by travellers, the need for movement and the resources of survival:

I pause by the tog's blooming furze,
twilight unfolding its flittermouse wing
till I close a hand into a fist.
Tethered to the seasons –
winter's cub on my skin, our jib in my song,
the drums roll skywest beneath my heels.

Here I take only what I need
from the borrowed earth, hold gorgios
in my needle's eye, ask no favours.

These poems are full of voices, paths, stopping points, meals, ancestor-characters and stories of an ancient culture that carries mystery but avoids sentimentality. There is more soil here than silver, more appetite and celebration than hunger.

Wimbush is a poet working in new ways with old language best exemplified in the glorious ‘Meat Puddin’ (p.18) that might just inspire us to prepare a delicious meal (if we listen hard enough)as well as learn something about the Romany/traveller culture and identity:

Take shin, kidney, an onion. Dice.
Cradle beef suet in your palm; shred
into flour with Daddy's rabbit knife
lace-edged with rust. Add spring water.
Pullt goo into a ball.

... Ease the moon into an Imari bowl
haggled to a farthing from Black's pot barrow
on Retford market. Cut into a clock.
Add cooking liquor and salt –
n' then lass, eat wi carrots, tattoos, swede.