Monday, March 7, 2016

Memo random

I recently reviewed Vanessa Gebbie's Memorandum, poems for the fallen, published by Cultured Llama. I thought it would be memorable to write the review on memos and post to Twitter under the hashtag #Memorandum. I was thrilled to see Cultured Llama have gone to the trouble to write a lovely thank you for my efforts, including "This has to be the most unusual and beautiful review format of any of our books." and this. But just in case you have trouble reading my handwriting, here's a transcript:

poems for the fallen
Vanesa Gebbie
Rachel J Fenton
Memorandum (memo)
from the Latin memorandum
est, "to mention, call to mind,
recount, relate,"
"it must be remembered (that)
a document that helps the memory by recording events or
observations on a topic, such
as may be used in a
business office
The title evokes
Tennyson's requiem
for his friend
Hallam, "In Memoriam".
Like Tennyson's poem,
Memorandum is a
meditation on grief,
mortality and nature
in light of the
Cenotaph, the first
poem in the collection,
pays respects to its
literary heritage as it
sets down its themes.
"Under duress, " the poem
begins the process of
dissolving the elements of a
monument as though
describing the erosion of
crustaceans on the sea bed.
But these are "Veteran shells"
and the reader is presented with an
understated question about
the nature of war.
With Gebbie's guidance, the
reader undertakes an
imaginative journey into
the fabric of the memorial
itself. So subtle is the
transaction that the
realisation it has taken
place is as startling as
discovering the sea bed is
There's irony with this act
of disarmament. It's only
with "Transfiguration" the
reader becomes certain
they are where their
guide intended:
"accompaniment to
serious alchemy".
Then it's "us" in "The
Soldier's ragged choir,
St Pancras New Church",
and here Gebbie's short
story apprenticeship becomes
evident in the colloquial
narrative via which she
demonstrated her aptitude
for ventriloquism.
From St Pancras to
Euston Station, these
poems are crafted like
inter-linked short stories
and could feel contrived
were it not for the
obvious emotional investment
the author has with her
subject matter, and the very
real people who inhabit it.
Gebbie's sincerity is
palpable in the care
with which she details
the employees of
Waterloo Station, Smithfield
Market's meat porter, and
"The Quarryman and the
Fusilier" - ordinary people
paid heroes' respect.
It's in the second section
of the collection where
Gebbie's mimicry comes
into its own. There's
no longer the feeling
of participation here
but witness.
"Suppose / Alf Norman
wasn't really here?"
(Alf Norman
Grangetown Memorial, Cardiff
But he was. And the
reader is and must be.
This is necessary
Of the sixteen poems in "Other
Memorials" "Remembrance,
Sunday" stands out with
devastating singularity. Perhaps
it's an effect of "something
I wrote in blue biro", the
unpretentiousness of the fact -
for this is fact as opposed to
feigned inhabitation. Gebbie is
not imagining, she is
remembering her father, all
the more poignant as his own
long goodbye is revealed,
eleven poems in.
The final section of the
collection takes the reader
through "Western Front
Battlefields" and is more
in keeping with the war
poetry many readers may
be familiar with: Ivor
Gurney and Siegfried
Sassoon spring to mind.
A number of these poems
were previously published
in The Half-Life of Fathers
(Pighog Press) and are
familiar to this reviewer,
though it is a testament
to the richness of Gebbie's
writing that their placement
here channels new
It is in this final section
that the theme of cost
that has been steadily
building really begins to
weigh on the reader.
The book's central segment
now seems like a fulcrum.
Money is in one pan, in
the other the reader must
balance the cost.
There's a last echo to
"In Memoriam" in
"La Boisselle pastorale,
diversionary tactic,"
written in memorial of
Gebbie's "second father".
"A few short weeks and
Christmas will be here.
I'll miss my father's face at table
Again and again, Gebbie
catches the reader off
guard with the intimacy
and familiarity of these
memorials. The headstones
may be worn but the
names, in Gebbie's hands,
walk among us long
after the book has been
laid to rest.
Like "In Memoriam",
these observations
are not presented in
the order they were
written, but it is
hoped they offer
the reader comprehensive
Tennyson emerges
from "In Memoriam" with
his faith in God
What does
Memorandum leave the
reader with?
After so many wars,
its a challenge for a
poet to say something
new about this too
often tried subject. It is
credit to Gebbie that
she not only manages to
bring war's aftermath
into fresh relief but that
she does so with such
sharp focus as to make
the reader  reconsider the
fallen as if knocked-off-
their-feet with them.
This is a meditation
for those of us left
behind. For whom do
we grieve the most?
These are poems
for the fallen
but not forgotten.
They will be remembered.
Cultured Llama Publishing
ISBN 978-0-9932119-4-2


Kass said...

You are so creative, insightful and imaginative.

Rachel Fenton said...

And you are so very kind and supportive of all I do, Kass - thank you! xx

Lori said...

I would read reviews all day if they were all this fun!

Rachel Fenton said...

Thank you, Lori - maybe I should just stick to reviews :)) xx