“The Fifth Gospel” Ian Caldwell (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

The Fifth Gospel Ian Caldwell book cover

Set in 2004 when the dying wish of Pope John Paul II was to reunite Catholicism and Orthodoxy. An exhibit is under construction at the Vatican Museums but, before it is opened, the curator is discovered dead from a gunshot wound. The curator’s research partner, Father Alex Andreou, a Greek Catholic priest, discovers a break-in at his home that appears to be linked to the curator’s death. To complicate matters, the obvious suspect is his brother, Father Simon Andreou, a Western Catholic priest.

Father Alex had been stuck in a kind of limbo, single-handedly raising his son after his wife Mona left. (Later readers discover that post-natal depression seems to have triggered her departure. This information should have been included sooner because it leaves Mona as a malign mystery hovering over the early chapters.) Father Alex doesn’t believe Father Simon killed the curator and when the gendarmes reach an impasse, Father Simon is put under house arrest at an unknown location and the decision is taken that he will be tried under Canonical Law rather than criminal law. This won’t be a ponderous, lengthy process as the trial has to be completed before the exhibit is due to open, giving the plot an urgency. Father Alex has to turn detective. He knows the curator was researching the four Gospels plus the little-known Diatessaron, also known as the fifth Gospel, to uncover what they revealed about the Turin Shroud so he tries to reconstruct the research in order to try and find out what the curator had discovered and the consequences of that discovery for the world’s two largest Christian churches. In his research, he discovers that Father Simon had been secretly travelling to Eastern European countries to invite Orthodox clergy to the exhibit. When crucial evidence that would exonerate Father Simon is left dumped in a secure car part and excluded from the court, Father Alex realises his brother is caught up in a conspiracy to prevent information from the Diatessaron from coming to light. It trying to clear his brother’s name, Father Alex doesn’t realise that the evidence is pointing towards him as the guilty party.

Despite their separation, can both brothers somehow protect each other and uncover the truth or will they find themselves scapegoated by internal political struggles left by bishops jockeying for position under an ailing Pope? Can they protect Pope John Paul II’s wish against those seeking to keep the schism?

Fathers Simon and Alex are sympathetically drawn: two priests on different paths seeking to enable the Pope’s dying wish. Simon is an active man who prefers to do rather than think but feels a fatherly responsibility towards his younger brother. Alex is a scholar and a teacher trying to do the best for his own son, Peter, and trying to protect him from the gossip that implies his favourite uncle is a murderer. However, in his attempts to protect Peter, Alex prevents him giving a key piece of evidence that Peter was eyewitness to. In a moment of frustration, Peter blurts it out and Alex realises his mistake.

It’s a scholarly thriller as well as a detective one in a world where hierarchy and appeasement matter. As readers follow Father Alex’s research, prior knowledge of the Bible or the texts Father Alex studies is not required. Father Alex is a teacher and in that role explained to the curator what their research was uncovering and put it in context of the teachings of the Church. The reader is given the same clues as Father Alex and the key to the mystery does not lie in some elaborate, obscure research but in a letter from the curator to Father Alex.

Life in the Vatican is a very regimented one where everyone is treated according to rank. It’s also a very male world, which is why the lack of information and explanation around Mona’s disappearance and separation from Father Alex is frustrating: as one of the very few women in the book her words and actions are amplified. Her sole purpose seems to have been to emphasise the isolation Father Alex feels as the hunt for truth is underway. Mona’s role as plot device is further underline by her relatively trouble-free reunite with Father Alex and her son. Meanwhile the court’s attempt to establish the truth is frustrated by witnesses, who have taken an oath to a high-ranking bishop, being unable to break that oath to give evidence. Eventually it takes the intervention of the Pope to uncover the truth and both Father Alex and Father Simon discover the crime at the heart of the matter is worse, in the Church’s eyes, than the murder it seemed to be.

“The Fifth Gospel” is an intelligent thriller that makes the best use of its setting and theme without excluding a general reader looking for a pacey murder mystery.

“A Penance” C J Evans (New Issues Press) – poetry review

A Penance C J Evans book cover

CJ Evans has an assured tone that explores an uneasy world where violence lurks beneath the surface. He observes with tenderness, allowing details to build an impression, usually employing terse, controlled couplets. In “Hands Full of Sun”

“They shut the lights, stay in bed.

A book spine inks her breast
like a sickness. He takes walks

when he can’t avoid his anger
at how so little can bruise her

so badly. Outside, the people
are hooded and gray, but he knows,

no matter what, she is always
the soft yellow of petals.

He goes home and they shut
the blinds against the light, and curl –

first one the hand and one the pear,
and then the other way round.”

The title is taken from Nazim Hikmet’s “Istanbul House of Detention”. The violence here isn’t immediate and brutal but accumulative: the dampening effect of erasure and reduction. The soft endings and short consonants echo the poem’s sense, the edging towards inclusion as the couple lack the impetus to escape their diminishing world. In “Penitentiary” (complete poem) the prison is real rather than imaginary:

I dread sunflowers and the brown colt-legs of summer. Thirst
after hushes and hands held over lips. I dread sun-drenched

beaches; want angry letters, pistols, and two-by-fours. I know
fists clench in pockets. I know there are always people-schemes.

I desire nothing less than to be happy with the simple happiness
provided, because I’m a lover of failure: Icarus would be forgotten

if he hadn’t fallen; nobody would worship sun without
the world’s winter half; and I want to wake without you

from dreams of sick children and their sour water. I want
to be right that it can all be taken, even in daylight. To wake,

without you, for I dread your affection, which crashes in my ears.
But ominous as a cry cut short, its lack would be louder still.

It’s a poem that’s difficult to lift a quote from because the cumulative, complementary effect would be lost. It’s a part-romantic, part-real construction with the narrator wanting to reach out but fearing rebuttal because he understands rejection and anger more than love in his present situation, yet still hopes, understanding that light looks brighter when you’ve been through darkness. Other poems construct inmates’ stories from their nicknames, often based on inanimate objects such as wire or silk so the poems can be read as being about person or object.

Not all the poems use C J Evans’s signature couplets, eg in “The Work of Giants”

“I try to read newspapers to find the rapes
or watch television to wait for the coffins,
because rapes and coffins are the work
of giants and I don’t want to take my eyes
off the giants, but I’m ashamed, because all

I want is your skin against my skin.

I’m too tired for my anger. My fists don’t
clench like they used to. My teeth have stopped
grating, and the rapes and coffins and children
and tanks and car bombs and bullets
are in me, and with all I have left to feel

all I want to feel is your hips against my hips.”

Another title taken from another piece of literature, in this case from “Le Petit Auto” by Guillaume Apollinaire. Rightly these references and allusions are tucked away in the notes at the back of the collection so they don’t intrude on reading the poems and are presented as useful background information to be read as an afterword. “The Work of Giants” captures that feeling of compassion-fatigue when one individual simply can’t stand up to the evil done by many but wants to be lost in the inhibition of love.

What lingers after the book is shut, is C J Evans’s carefully constructed lyricism and controlled tension in the rhythm of each poem.

“A Penance” is available from New Issues Press.

Why do you read Poetry?

What makes you pick up a book or magazine and read?

  • A few moments of escapism?
  • A break from daily routine?
  • Habit?
  • To see something from another’s perspective?
  • For stimulation? To read something thought-provoking?
  • To be challenged by ideas that may be the opposite of yours?
  • To learn something new?
  • The comfort of immersing yourself in a favourite poem?
  • For inspiration?
  • From recommendation – either from a friend or a review?
  • How many of the above reasons look at the poem being read? How many look at the poet who wrote the poem?

If a poem is on a particular topic, you might want to know that the poet has the expertise or experience to write on that topic. But how much do you need to know about the poet to read the poem? Does it matter if you know nothing about the poet at all?

If you read a published poem about a bereavement, is it necessary for the poet to have been bereaved? Does it make any difference when you are reading a poem to know it was heartfelt and drawn from actual experience? If you know the poet has been bereaved, does that allow for a lower poetic standard because of the emotional investment in the poem?

I hope not. Recently I received an email from someone saying I should not have commented on a poem about a bereavement. The poem had been published in a newspaper. The author of the email was unable to separate comments on the poem from comments on the poet (I didn’t comment on the poet). In the email author’s eyes, they were the same thing: negative comment on the poem was also negative comment on the poet. In the email author’s eyes I should not comment on a poem’s standard because the of poet’s emotional investment but just accept it as it was.

Previously I had been sent an anthology for review. The anthology was of pieces written by people in a mental health setting. I absolutely support the use of writing in such settings. In times of emotional upheaval or in the aftermath of trauma, poetry can be useful. The discipline of writing down thoughts and feelings and then organising it into a formal structure can be hugely beneficial and a useful way of communicating with care-givers. However, publishing those pieces and putting them in a public domain needs to be handled with care. Creating an anthology of work in such workshops as a demonstration of what could be achieved or as something for participants to take way is good. However, this anthology had been sent to a poetry magazine for review. Some of the pieces included could not be judged as poetry. This put me, the reviewer, in a difficult position of having to say “this doesn’t work as a poem but was clearly immensely valuable for the author to write. That is doesn’t work as a poem is not a reflection on the writer or of the experience the writer was going through at the time of writing it.”

Why do you read poetry: for the poem or poet? Can the two be separated?

Poets and Pay

  • Would you enter a competition where the entry rules required you to product a work of art using considerable skill to meet a detailed specification where the prize was to see stonemasons carve your words in stone, something they would be paid for but you would not be?
  • Would you undertake a three hour journey to give a half hour reading and hang around for a question and answer session for the privilege of appearing at the event (and no expenses)?
  • Would you allow a publisher to have an original, unpublished piece of work for exposure (i.e. no pay)?
  • Would you be prepared to read at a festival which attracts generous sponsorship, where the organisers, marketing staff and people serving coffee are on a salary but you are expected to receive nothing?
  • Would you agree to be a poet in residence where you had to produce a predetermined number of poems and your pay would be free entry to the place you were doing the residency which has an entrance fee?
  • Would you agree to take part in a cultural event to raise awareness and funds for a charity, not one you normally support, when the organiser assumes you would want to donate your fee to the charity, i.e. this donation is their decision, not yours?

How many questions did you answer “yes”? How many did you answer “It depends…”?

Few poets earn money directly from writing and publishing poems. Most earn money through commissions, tutoring, lectures, giving readings and performances or through a secondary job. Therefore reducing the opportunity to earn money through commissions, workshops and performances affects poets. More time spent doing secondary activities means less time available to actually write poems, this impoverishes us all.

  • It might feel good to see your work permanently on display somewhere, particularly if the place is local or has special meaning to you, but your poem is your work. You may generate some local publicity on the back of your poem appearing, but you should also be paid. Without your poem, the stonemasons wouldn’t have work and it’s highly unlikely they’re working for free.
  • If you are reading as part of a book launch or doing a book signing, you won’t get paid because the purpose is to sell books. If you have been asked to appear at an event run by unpaid volunteers and no one is being paid, then you have to consider whether the benefits of appearing outweigh the costs – if a local event where your travel expenses are minimal and it offers an opportunity to network with other poets or publishers and sell your book it may be worthwhile doing. If you have to incur travel expenses, prepare a reading and for a session afterwards it’s not unreasonable to ask for payment.
  • Never fall into the trap of thinking exposure for your poem is worth donating an original, unpublished poem to a magazine/fanzine/anthology without payment, especially if the editor has a salary. If the magazine is being run on a shoestring with an unpaid editor, then a complimentary copy or a token payment will be all you can expect. But steer clear of publications which expect poets to work for free or expect poets to buy copies of publications their work appears in without payment for their published poem: your own reputation may be harmed by association.
  • Similarly don’t bother doing a reading where everyone involved is getting paid except you. It might feel good being able to say that you read at this festival, but feeling good and getting a bit of local publicity won’t pay any bills.
  • Always check the terms of any commission before undertaking to do it. In principle if you produce a poem or poems, you should be paid. A waiver of the admission fee isn’t payment, especially if all it’s doing is allowing you access to the place you need to visit to inspire the commissioned poems. You may be willing to accept a lower fee if the residency is in a place that has a special meaning for you or is connected to a charity or voluntary organisation, but take care not to devalue your work by becoming an unpaid intern.
  • If you are approached to work for a charity, be wary of those who assume you don’t want a fee. If it’s a charity you do support and are happy to work for without a fee, still produce an invoice but mark it ‘donated to charity’ or ‘waived in favour of the charity’. Whether you donate your poet’s fee or not is your decision, not theirs. Remember a not for profit or no profit organisation is not necessarily a charity, just an organisation that reinvests any profit back into the organisation’s work. This does not exclude them from paying for poems or readings. Again, reinvestment of your fee is your decision, the organisation should not assume you are willing to work for free.
  • Two more crucial factors in whether you accept a commission or agree to do a reading are a) copyright and b) publicity.

Does the copyright of any commissioned work remain with the poet or is it bought by the commissioner? Ideally you would retain copyright (or copyright would transfer back to the poet after a set time) so that you can use the commissioned poem(s) elsewhere e.g. in a collection or recording of a performance. If you do not retain copyright, the commissioner should pay you for buying those rights.

If you are expected to be available for interviews or for publicity events connected with the commission, beyond a mention in your newsletter or on social media, this should be taken into consideration.

All writers should be expected to get involved in publicity and help promote their own books and any events they are involved with, however, poets also have be on their guard against not being paid.

 

Introducing Poems

I was reading Sally Jack’s review of Word! in Leicester and wanted to pick up on a couple of things she mentioned. I agree with her on both points.

Firstly I’m pleased that Sally Jack picked up on Word!’s strengths: that it represents different genres of poetry as if they are on a spectrum rather than adding to the false page/stage divide and that exposure to different genres and standards (from newcomer to established poet/performer) encourages and provides inspiration to do better. She makes the point that the imagery used by some of the poets demanded the poems be read as well as listened to and the best poems work both read aloud and silently.

Secondly I agree with her comment, “It does not always instil me with confidence to hear in an intro that the poem was just written that afternoon.” It may be true, but it leaves your audience thinking:

  • It can’t be very good.
  • The poet is trying to head off critical listening by saying in advance that the poem’s not very good.
  • How much respect for the audience does the poet have?
  • Knowing that Word! has no difficulty in filling the open mic spots, why does this poet feel obliged to read something dashed off this afternoon which may not yet be ready for a wider audience?
  • Why should I pay attention to a poem dashed off in a hurry rather than doing something more useful such as finding the right money for buying a drink, checking my phone for messages, drafting a poem of my own?
  • It may be one of those extremely rare poems that went through numerous drafts over a lengthy period of time in the writer’s head before it got put down on paper so it arrived fully formed and polished, but why mention it was only written that afternoon?
  • Why be apologetic about a poem about to be read?
  • Surely when it was written is totally irrelevant to the poem?

The last question gets to the heart of the problem: the poet has taken attention away from the poem and focused it on the poet. It may be that poet was the only poet who could have written that particular poem in that way, but Word! isn’t about poets; it’s about poems.

Word! runs at the Y Theatre, Leicester on the first Tuesday of every month:

3 February – Penelope Shuttle with Kathleen Bell
3 March – Rosie Garland with support from Pam Thompson
7 April – Adam Horovitz with support from Sole2Soul
5 May – ‘Jarman in Pieces’ by Project Adorno
2 June – Salena Godden with support from Bobba Cass

#OnWriting: Read

Don’t have time to read? You’re not going to be a writer.

You might feel like a writer, you might put words on a page, read them back, edit them, take them to workshops or open mic slots for feedback, you might edit them again. But you won’t develop your writing skills. You’ll find yourself circling around the same material, writing in the same style and polishing your work to the point where not only has it lost its shine but also any spark or sense of energy that prompted you to write it in the first place.

Writers need to read:

  • Reading is the key way of learning writing craft. You can go on creative writing courses and attend workshops which will bring the learning aspects of reading to the fore and give you a deeper understanding of a writer’s craft, but you still need to do the actual reading.
  • Reading exposes writers to new ideas, new ways of approaching a topic or experimental ways of writing.
  • Reading exposes writers to failure: reading a poem that doesn’t work for you gives you the opportunity to unpick where it went wrong and avoid those errors in your own work.
  • Reading’s easy: books and e-readers are portable and audio books are a good alternative.
  • Reading doesn’t need a huge time commitment. Those minutes when you’re stuck in a waiting room, sitting on public transport, in traffic or develop the habit of reading a poem last thing at night or first thing in the morning.
  • Reading needn’t just be about works on a page. Next time you’re watching a film or your favourite soap opera, listen to the dialogue, think about the scenery and camera work. Would you have shot that scene from that angle? Would you have taken that indoor scene outside? How did the dialogue convey the information the viewer needed to follow the plot?
  • It stops you being that loser who gets muted on social media, who becomes the poet open mic organisers struggle to find a slot for or who doesn’t get invited for drinks after workshop simply because constant self-promotion and failure to engage with or support other writers signal that you’re a writer with no interest in developing craft.

Reading differentiates the writer from the wannabe. I’ve seen the excuse from someone that they didn’t have time to read because they had a full time job, time spent reading was time not spent writing and they were not a full time writer. Very few writers are full time writers. Income from writing and publishing has dropped and most writers have a secondary job to supplement their writing income and not all those secondary jobs are part-time.

But reading isn’t about the number of books read. Skimming 40 poems a week won’t make you a better writer. Taking one poem, reading it carefully, thinking about why you like/don’t like it, working out why a particular phrase or image stuck with you after that first reading, returning to it, working out why the less memorable sections weren’t as memorable, looking at the marriage between form and content, is what will make you a better writer.

“In the Cinema” Stephen Bone (Playdead Press) – poetry review

Image of In The Cinema
The ending of the title poem, “don’t tell me how it ends/ don’t spoil it for me,” echoes through this collection. Stephen Bone is good at giving readers the telling detail and leaving them to work out the ending. In “Unmendable”, a potentially valuable glass is dropped on the floor

“with a rich percussion,

a jigsaw of glass
at our feet.

For a moment like haruspices
we studied the red remains;

then the word arrived,
reached you first;

unmendable, you said.”

The word could be just as much about the relationship as the glass. The tone changes as the couple survey the broken glass and the “s” assonances stop and give way to the short ‘i’ vowels and ‘d’ endings. The pared-down, minimalist style continues throughout. One effect of this is to drawn attention to each word because, the fewer words there are, the more significance each one has. In “78s”, the narrator comes across a gramophone in a loft with collection of vinyl records and naturally tries it out:

“Their voices

now and slurring
under the drag of the needle
as the turntable slowed. Like
grotesque recordings from their
deathbeds.”

This seems uncharacteristically overwrought until the final stanza (over the other side of the page),

“Until, with a few turns
of my arm – as if cranking up
a vintage car – their lungs filled
again with thirties’ air. Resurrected
to the prime of your life.”

Although the poem names some of the artists, I’d have liked a little more context, more detail on music style or the significance to the previous owner who is not named and simply addressed in the second person. Did they dance to the records or sit in still reverence when listening? Did they openly talk about how the music made them feel or was coming across them more like uncovering a spider-webbed photo album of people whose names have been lost in the mists of time? The reader doesn’t know if “you” is a distant relative or a mother. It’s definitely a different “you” to the one with the broken vase.

Not all poems are in second person however and one of the most moving is “A New Kind Of Rain”, where a boy calls his grandmother to be picked up after a game is rained off (presumably football but not specified).

“not hearing the flatness
in her voice, the intake
of breath, on the edge
of saying something
but didn’t.

Her eyes were red
and she was wearing
more powder than usual.
He could smell its rose-like
scent as she gently pulled
him to her, before
he heard the slow, quiet
sentences…

On the journey home
he sat silently beside her,
digging a fingernail deep
into his thumb;
watching the wipers
frantic
to keep up
with a new kind
of rain.”

It captures that teenaged self-centredness that fails to notice the grandmother’s grief until she tells him and his concerns pale against hers. Again the end is not spoiled for the reader. Occasionally I’d have liked a change in tone, but these poems are written with care and appreciation of detail. The poet clearly understands how to choose details to focus on and allow to accumulate into a story.

“In the Cinema” is available from Playdead Press.

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