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Guest Review: Almond On Ruthen and Dullaghan

Liz Almond reviews
Jetty View Holding
by Philip Ruthen
On the Back of the Wind
by Frank Dullaghan

These collections introduce me to two writers new to me – Philip Ruthen and Frank Dullaghan – and they’re as different as dark from light. Philip Ruthen’s (from Waterloo Press) has a nervous energy that moves with a heightened speed around the globe. Frank Dullaghan’s is more quietly contemplative, taking time to notice every small detail that adds to the whole effect. The syntax of each title gives you a sense of what is to come in terms of use of poetic language.

Philip Ruthen’s debut collection Jetty View Holding demonstrates that “there is more than one way to write” The past is the letter rack. From the calm centre of his love poems, with their moment suspended in time, there are ripples out to other places, times, contexts, so that from poem to poem there is always a tension or ambivalence between speaker and the world of which he speaks. The most powerful and memorable of these is 'Who will take this away from me?' with its acute awareness of conflict and war from which there is no imaginative escape as “we kiss in the float warm Aegean”. At times though, I find this tension manifests itself in a rather arbitrary way that is mirrored by a structurally arbitrary form that often isolates individual words on the page with no apparent rationale.

In other poems this experimental approach complements the subject of the poem – as in 'Swift' with a kinetic, acrobatic quality pulling the reader along with its swooping movement across space and page. Again, in 'Sustain – Flowers for Kefallinia' , the final poem in the book, the writer dives into pre-history in a whirl of thought that seems to scatter in all directions, but principally down the page in a list of thought provocations bouncing one off the other to reach a finale of dispersion and wild motion.

As a collection, I find the book a little unbound – again, what is the rationale for the sequence of poems? Perhaps the book is a protest against those ideas of order and design. I am left with a sense of breathlessness, admiration for a daring approach to form, but in places a longing for a little more control.

Frank Dullaghan’s collection On the Back of the Wind is more composed but no less arresting for that. He explores a rather more circumscribed and possibly more conventional world of family, memory, nostalgia – personal narratives haunted by the poet’s father although this is not revealed until later in the book.

Rooted in particular places whose features are lovingly delineated, we are moved inexorably to his first place, the family home, which he left long ago but has to return to due to its emotional hold and the urgent demands of a funeral.

"and I, always coming home in my head
taking every road back”

The details of memories shine from the page with luminous clarity –

“bread hot and yellow with butter”

“the white kiss of milk on my lips”

the rough tweed of his father’s greatcoat with a buttercup in its buttonhole.

Between the luminous imagery the poet talks of “passing-places, portals, touch-points, gaps in hedge” where he comes on his father, a presence known by the “sweet smell of his pipe”, or “I’ll sense a shape at the door” trying to find a way to bridge the gap between the living and the dead, “trying to find a new language of light and shade”. It is this new language, a balanced chiarascuro, that Frank Dullaghan has achieved in his collection which coheres in a way that resonates in the reader’s mind long after the reading – much like the presence of a dead loved one.

Liz Almond was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, grew up in South London, and has lived for many years in Hebden Bridge.  She has taught creative writing at various universities.  She has published two poetry collections with Arc - The Shut Drawer (2002) and Yelp! (2009).  Yelp! will be reviewed at Eyewear later this year; and her work will also be featured on a forthcoming Friday.
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