Simon Collings has reviewed ᚮ (the book of gatherings) for Litter. My great thanks to Simon and to Alan Baker, the editor at Litter. You can click to see it here.
Mark Russell, ᚮ (the book of gatherings), Red Ceilings Press, 24pp, £6.00.
Mark Russell’s latest pamphlet, ᚮ (the book of gatherings), is a book of ‘wisdom’, though the comfort it offers is circumspect, humorous, enigmatic. It is ‘sage’ advice, as the opening poem explains:
There is a herb made of words
it smells of sage
slips its seasons
removes our virtue
The author steers us away from worldly aspirations, false pride, regrets. The sixth poem opens: ‘doubt nothing but learning/avoid too many ambitions’ and ends ‘see off retrospection/kick it to the wild pasture/drink it within an inch of its life’.
But how much of this spiritual guidance are we meant to take seriously? Russell undermines our confidence as readers through subtle shifts of tone. Poem twenty suggests that the wise favour doing over speaking: ‘words are second to actions’. And in what reads like a parody of a Zen master, poem fifteen advises:
If you can carry a single thought
like a river carries a leaf to the sea
you may have a full life
If you cannot be content to be the leaf
you may never reach the sea
where all the leaves live together
Alongside the ‘philosophical’ verse are prose passages describing a mysterious ceremony involving the exhumation of ‘the grandfathers’ and the reappearance of ‘the grandmothers’. This is a ‘blue riband’ event, we’re told in poem eight, a kind of race. It’s filmed by a TV crew (poem nine), though with the appearance of the grandmothers ‘nobody has the heart to cross the tape’ and the contest proves ‘hardly memorable’.
The grandmothers are figures of power, the bearers of true wisdom. ‘The grandmothers know many things:’ says poem seventeen, ‘how to keep a man hungry; why her sons are easily distracted by horses and alcohol; why her sons use out-of-date fruit for the celebration cake; when to remain silent; when to resist correcting mistakes.’ The grandmothers choose their moments to offer counsel, though they ‘suspect the men may never take their advice.’
The world the poems inhabit is one of alienation and meaninglessness. Poem nineteen offers images of ‘many-tiered ornamental imitation temples’ and of ‘street signs…elevated to mythic status’, the paraphernalia of Debordean ‘Spectacle’. ‘You infuse each knick-knack with profundity/it is a hopeless cause/you know it is’, says poem twenty. Perhaps there is a sense here of a lost inheritance, a disconnection with past generations.
Eventually the grandmothers have to be reinterred, a process which is ‘exhausting but necessary,’ and ‘may involve’ the women’s sons having to overcome their own sons. The grandmothers’ last words are ‘stay on your feet, keep the lights on’, an exhortation simply to hang in there. Meanwhile the grandfathers have ‘stepped out’ and not come back. ‘Was it for milk and cigarettes,’ the poem asks, ‘was it for whoring and gambling. Everybody knows but nobody will say.’
I love the cool, deadpan humour of these poems, the critical awareness and lack of pretension. Russell has a great talent for highlighting the absurdities of life, the futility and emptiness of social aspirations. The dark comedy of his writing offers us a way to ‘keep the lights on’.
ᚮ (the book of gatherings), is the third pamphlet in a series of four. The first, ا (the book of seals), was also published by Red Ceilings, and the second, ℵ (the book of moose), was published by Kattywompus Press in the USA, both in 2016.
copyright © Simon Collings, 2020
Some of the highlights include:
‘A timely collection, Mark Russell’s Spearmint & Rescue opens with ‘The Girl of Boscastle’. A seemingly innocuous poem depicting the once-harmless hobby of people-watching, it reminds the reader how, with the rise of social media, the habit has become an unhealthy one; the drive to efface ourselves in our eagerness to construct and ascribe exaggerated narrative to those around us. An attempt to order and control a world that exists in increasingly unified and fractured states, Russell’s remedy for this epidemic of social deference is a collection that epitomises the intrinsic worth of the personal narrative; a call to move beyond the compulsion to ‘increase the prospect and consequence/ of love, of terrible loss and grief’ of others and to give quarter to our own lives.’
‘The concept of existing between two states of being is poignantly revisited in ‘Aisle Seat’. The speaker contemplates a recent funeral while sitting in an emptied cinema, waiting for the credits to finish ‘because I want to see who did what for whom’. His desire to create a ‘mixed media collage’ from the ashes is a powerful one, and the poem finishes with a sense of loss and regret that is devastating in its simplicity; ‘saying none of this out loud until/ the credits had rolled and everyone was gone.’
‘Spearmint & Rescue…reaffirms what is rapidly being lost: the value of the individual experience; the value of ourselves.’
My thanks to all involved at the House, especially Aoife Lyall and editor Martin Malone.
Here’s an interview with my publisher Sharon Black from Pindrop Press (‘Mark’s debut collection, Spearmint & Rescue, is a wonderful blend of poetry that is bittersweet, hilarious, tragic, sexy and poignant.’). It’s on Abegail Morley’s excellent blog The Poetry Shed.
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.