Magic Words

Olga Dermott-Bond, A Sky Full of Strange Specimens (Nine Pens, 2021)

Kali Richmond, Gradual Reduction to Bone (Nine Pens, 2021)

Poetry casts spells. Its practitioners traipse the landscape in search of ingredients. On the page, alchemical, they bring them together. They make things happen.

Nine Pens is a new kickstarter-driven poetry press based in the North Pennines. High in the mountains, it is a gathering place for rhymers and allegores. A secret coven, open only to subscribers.

My first two pamphlets, from Olga Dermott-Bond and Kali Richmond, provided much substance for rumination.

Although Nine Pens publishes a wide range of poetry, these two collections spoke to each other with great clarity, like an echo. Both use nature imagery, but made crooked.

Raven’s feathers. Spider’s webs. The patter of rain.

Dermott-Bond describes a kitten, “head perfect like a penny”.

Richmond implores us to “dig enough holes and you’ll find the bones / of wolf, of lynx, even of bears”.

Two poets’ journeys through our tired and tangled island are laid bare. We see their visions, feel their heartbreaks.

The ancient lore lives again among cellphones, hospitals, main roads; the whole “anthropocene chorus”, as Richmond memorable describes it.

I am particularly fond of short-lined poems. They are more epigrammatical. More punctuating. Both collections contain good examples.

Richmond’s “Toil” says:

Pebbles rubble boulders

Igneous sedimentary meta-


Pick them up one by one

Pile them into a trembling tower

Those little duosyllabic words with their bilabial plosive “b”s are like round rubble running around in the mouth. Richmond conjures them up and then reinforces them with latinate science words, armouring them, ready to be piled up.

The tower is narrow and high, like our delicate column of words.

Dermott-Bond’s “Mrs Florence Skelton’s House Falls into the Sea, 1946” is another thin poem:

The last thing I remember

Was the kettle calling.

I had always loved being

High over cliffs, waves

Crumpling like rock, paper,

Scissors […]

The crisp, clear images place us in an uncomplicated room; in uncomplicated relation to that room. Things are normal. Words are spared.

But we know from the title that this is not the case. So we are alert.

The first sign – the crumpling waves – are beautiful in their ambiguity. First, we think, they crumple like rock – tumbling, heavy, crashing – then they crumple like paper – white sheafs folding over each other – before, finally, the juxtaposing “scissors” send us back to the start.

We see the waves now as hands – children’s hands perhaps – competing, restlessly, in a tumult of movement and contest. Rock, paper, scissors, rock, paper, scissors…

Our plain domestic is complicated. Our scene is torn by poetry, just as the wallpaper will soon be torn by the falling masonry.

These poems are arcane, but careful. Ornate, at times, but also, when the crystal ball clears, they are crystalline and shimmering.

  • Zoe Islander-Bax

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