There’s a lovely little review of Spearmint & Rescue in the current issue of The Frogmore Papers [No. 89]. Jeremy Page writes: ‘‘Mark Russell’s first collection dispenses wit and wisdom in roughly equal measure. The starting point of a Russell poem is often some mundane encounter or incident, but the beauty and craft of this writing lie in the unpredictability of what follows. In this accomplished debut, poems characterised by wry observation consistently ring true.’
The Red Ceilings Press (http://www.theredceilingspress.co.uk/) limited edition chapbook series is in A6 in format and a joy to read and collect. Recent publications in the series include Fidelities by Ian Seed, First & Last by Rupert Loydell & Nathan Thompson, Taxi Drivers by Paul Sutton and Unnecessarily Emphatic by Kathrine Sowerby. They are pocket size booklets are easy to carry around and read as part of your daily routine.
Poet and dramatist, Mark Russell’s 2015 chapbook with Red Ceilings Press, Saturday Morning Pictures has sold out. His latest, (the book of seals), effortlessly draws the reader into a disturbing dystopia, where the first person, singular and plural, narratives are imbued with insecurity, uncertainty and lost innocence. Each poem in the sequence falters under the strain of dislocation, denial of anger, seemingly self-inflicted disasters and drought. The social landscape somewhere in Eastern Europe appears close to a police state, divided, under arrest and dominated by fear:
fear of bottleneck fear of fire fear
of crème anglaise fear of the eggs
that bind it fear of blindness and
light fear of being a suspect fear of
fear of the fingers in the ears fear
of the dried river bed fear of fools
fear of three days and nothing to
show for it fear of now fear of then
fear of now now now
The fear of three days may be an echo of Othello’s demand to hear of the death of Cassio from Act 3 Scene 3 of Othello, or some revelation of three day shortage or darkness, or another connection going back to the Book of Revelation. The narrative uncertainties serve to propel the reader forward. Each poem, inventive and plaintive, works serially in an evocative and suggestive manner.
It won’t be long now.
Three days at most.
Time enough to tie up the runners.
Time enough to close the books.
It won’t be long.
We are surrounded.
We ask for torments.
We fear belonging.
The poems echo and interrogate recent protest movements, extreme migrant
experience and dislocation through circular repetition of limited data from the perspective of the victim. The first person narrative voice, knowing, dramatic and pleading, comes across with force and musicality.
when we can no longer take the
amount of blood on the walls stairs
and carpets on the windows and
mirrors in the cups and saucers on
the plates and forks and spoons
and knives when we can no longer
accept the amount of blood sold in
the marketplace when we can no
longer agree to the amount of
blood discussed at committee
meetings when we can no longer
drink another drop of blood
The ‘when we can longer’ refrain echoes throughout the poem, disintegrating into ‘when we can take no more’ and ‘we can take no’ and ending ‘when the / blood is blood nothing but its own / blood nothing but blood’.
This compelling sequence is a worthy addition to the Red Ceilings Press output and comes highly recommended.
David Caddy 28th July 2016
(the book of seals) by Mark Russell
– Reviewed by Sarah Watkinson –
The Book of Seals is a hugely enjoyable read, like an evening in the company of an erudite, soothsaying, greedy, slightly drunk, linguistically gifted sage. Composed of a long sequence of poems, untitled but each headed by a mysterious typographical symbol, its themes of gourmet cuisine, political dystopia and ecological disaster are juxtaposed into a continually surprising tapestry of moods and language, peppered with intriguing allusions. For a start, this:
O central oxhead
O variant mothers
the good skins beckon
the trains are leaving
behold the eating
or in three days
they watch as we slaughter our
and put them in the pot with garlic
I would love to hear the whole book read aloud, with the variation of mood and tone between sections that the shapes on the page suggest. Right-justified idea-centred prose poems are interspersed with spaced-out reflections, a scatter of letters, and free verse in couplets and tercets. The narrative voice is resigned and witty:
I suppose what I’m saying is living
things should not be used as
except if they’re trees; it seems to
me that trees are all right to use as
And oil. And gas. And coal. And
some forms of uranium. And
maybe even the Sun.
Because though these things are
living, I’ll admit that, they have no
Fire is one of many recurrent motifs and phrases. There is a wild exuberance in the food-related surreal, with its acknowledged debt to Douglas Adams:
It is confirmed. Message reads:
Before we can believe the
message ‘Not the First’, at
no price will Mr Small
News entertain the
We are aware that by the
day of the 42nd Truth,
bashfulness will be
blended with Big
Whopper, thus reducing
Therefore, as you must by
now have surmised, you
either cough up the
baksheesh or suffer
the impish tremors.
As well as suggesting the mundane/surreal world of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the numinous/political tone of Paul Simon lyrics, The Book of Seals challenges the reader to disentangle more modern, zeitgeisty allusions. Does ‘Tusk’, here, lead us to Brexit?
Common sense might equate
‘education’ with ‘thinking’.
It might even be a top priority,
the last and most authentic
Evidence has not been found
in the timescale offered.
The Intimidates are miscreants,
we will not give them what is fair,
and we are unlikely to allow them
to play on the island you gave
away after the eruption.
It’s another 59 points
to the summit.
Have your papers ready.
Altogether this is a joyful dish of rich, compressed language from an expert chef, in which rare words and phrases mingle on the page in a delicious exotic casserole.