Exploring the world of children with rare sensibility Richard Lance Keeble In ‘Among children’, the Sufi poet Paul Sutherland tells of teaching creative writing to a class outdoors. He is clearly entranced by the children’s constant quips. Sutherland sports a long, distinguished white beard so it is not surprising that they first shout: ‘Your chin’s camouflaged.’ Ali, picking off daisy petals, says: ‘They smell like lavender.’ Jane insists she loves her dentist: ‘I got 10 stars to stick on my top.’ Beau utters enigmatically: ‘But when lost … you don’t know who you are.’ Sutherland goes on to admit that ‘to make this poem/I’ve pilfered words from children’. In the end, calm mixes with melancholy and a sense of young lives disoriented: ‘at night they will dream/whether their homes serene or/torn apart daisies.’ It is one of 53 poems in this new collection which explore the world of children – and, by extension, parents and grandparents – with a rare sensibility, originality and frankness. There is humour and the celebration of youthful vitality and beauty here, but also terrible grief, wistful nostalgia and even horror. In ‘A little girl by the lake at Biyyam Kayal near Ponanni’, the poet meets a girl – ‘colourful/as a fanned peacock’ – and he is quickly captivated: ‘Her eyes stare up straight/seeking contact...’ But the connection is all too transient: ‘And leaving the place/she’s there by our car with her/last wave through the glass.’ A similar scenario appears in ‘A traveller’s vignette for Emma’ where the poet chances ‘to meet a five year old/who sought the scent of everything/picking off a petal she breathed’. Again, enchantment follows: ‘Her face’s rosy chestnut eyes/must have dazzled me to silliness/I succumbed to each act of anarchy.’ But this time, fun and games follow and as she punches and shoves he falls – clearly without a care – into the river: ‘Against her little fury I lost my footing.’ Amidst all the delicate sensuality, horror can suddenly intrude. ‘Fractions of children’ ends: ‘A guy from Western Australia/at a Sydney midnight party said/My wife committed suicide/I had the shotgun in my mouth/before I realised/only I could care for our daughter.’ While in ‘The children … the children’, the brutality and senselessness of war is captured with a bleakness that makes for uncomfortable reading: a child is raped and ‘when the heroes have had/enough sex, they slice off her head/and go outside, find a stray dog and/sever its furry head then they bring/that canine’s snout and all and fix it/on the stump of the girl’s body where/it slumped against her corner bed’. Some of my favourites in the collection are the prose poems in which special moods and themes are captured delicately and precisely. In one, his granddaughter remarks: ‘This time hide things so I can see them’ and the poet goes on to reflect on the surreal logic of child talk. ‘For my four and a half-year-old, the intention/of hiding is more important than hiding. It is enough to/be playing a game involving the act of concealment than/to achieve the objective. Her aim is mysterious but not/unfathomable. …’ In the tender and moving ‘Papa and Grandma’s place’, Sutherland remembers, in loving detail, the sites of his own childhood: ‘A giant garden in the back/with fish pond and dove birdbath
two guardian trees with/thick trunks, a wooden bench between, near the lawn’s end …’ He continues, observing carefully: ‘Papa’s mouth full of tacks for upholstering/armchairs. Upstairs, Grandma’s hands churn, flour-coated/with butter in a mixing bowl, making best cakes, Yorkshire pudding on Sundays.’ At the end, he ponders, as if trying to avoid the terrible pain: ‘I slip from my homeland, a teenage man, before their home becomes a place of deaths.’
In ‘On Kollam Beach’, Sutherland marvels at kids playing with kites hoist ‘higher than imagined. The colourful stretched rectangles/shuddered with paper tails shimmying’. And he captures the ecstasy of the moment: ‘I sank into the sand from the pleasure/of observing. A hundred danced above the percussion of/pounding surf.’ But the mood shifts suddenly in ‘Graves of the guileless’ in which a stroll by two friends through Bucharest’s ‘children-filled, blossom-filled parks’ leads to reflections about the youths slaughtered during the 1989 revolution. Many of them were ‘fresh students at the university/who had rushed from lamp-lit reading desks out on to/the explosive streets, who went from gazing over project/papers to encountering the rattling fire of machine guns that/left on city walls, when bullets missed their targets, a crude artistry of thumb-sized holes’.
The collection ends with ‘Red Streamers’, a poem with 124 delicate two and three-line stanzas first published in an English-Romanian bilingual edition in 2019. Here fleeting observations and voices, narrative diversions, evocations of the natural world, images and (forever bubbling) ideas take us on a fascinating journey – via the Wash, J. F. K. Airport, the River Trent, St Cuthbert’s Bamburgh, Mostar, the Bosphorus, Newark and beyond – to our final resting place: ‘home’.
Children’s Routes and Red Streamers, published by Chaffich Press, Ireland. ISBN 978 1 9161545 1.
Richard Lance Keeble, as well as reviewing poetry and non-fiction works for a number of publications, has more than 40 books to his name on a wide range of media-related issues. He is joint editor of George Orwell Studies and Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics, Professor of Journalism at the University of Lincoln and Honorary Professor at Liverpool Hope University.