Let Our Voices Mingle

Tom Conaghan (ed.), The Poet & The Echo

Scratch Books, 128pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781739830144

reviewed by Phoebe Tee

Birdsong caws and chirrups through the stories in Scratch Books’ new anthology, The Poet & The Echo, each of which was written in response to an existing poem as part of Radio 4’s programme of the same name. Harry Josephine Giles’s gothic tale, ‘The Grey Eagle’, whistles with ‘the wicked cries of innumerable gulls’. In Hannah Lavery’s ‘The Idler’, the narrator’s son listens ‘to the birds. Not for the credit, but because they’re singing'. But it’s not only birdsong that brings this collection together. It is the fact that each story was written in response to — the ‘echo’ of — a poem. 

Kirsty Williams tells us in her introduction that, in order to create ‘hooks in time, works that make connections and show old ideas in new ways’, each writer selected ‘an out-of-copyright poem they would like to respond to, drawing inspiration in whatever way they wish, to create a new short story’. Her reference to the ‘out-of-copyright’ status of the poem — which are published in part or in full beside the stories — is the kind of acknowledgment of the backstage logistics of writing that might be expected from Scratch Books, whose previous two projects, Reverse Engineering and Reverse Engineering II, both edited by Tom Conaghan, paired short stories with interviews, delving into how each story was created. But while the stories in these anthologies were paired with retrospective questions of process, these stories are brought together by their shared starting points.

It is notable, then, that the collection holds together so tightly, with themes of childhood and sickness, enslavement and escape, wilderness and protection echoing across the stories themselves. Leila Aboulela’s ‘To Enter the Garden’, an ‘echo’ of ‘The Union of Minds’ from the Diwan-e Shams-e Tabrizi by Jalal al-Din Rumi, tells a story of power imbalance and profound connection between two young people — Selim, the sultan’s son, and Fatou, who has been enslaved. Whilst Rumi’s poem invokes the lasting connection between a pair, and the lasting sound of birdsong — ‘With two bodies but one soul, you and I/The colours of the grove and the sounds of the birds will be forever’ — the grove in Aboulela’s poem seems haunted by loss and absence, and it is ‘[s]trange that there were no sounds of birds. At home there would have been parakeets and redwings, curlews and kingfishers'.

Pippa Goldschmidt’s ‘The Lamb’, meanwhile, ‘echoes’ William Blake’s poem of the same name. Although the poem is only two stanzas long, it is not printed in full — a choice that suggests that the collection’s focus is placed firmly on the ‘echoes’ rather than the ‘poets’ of its title. Instead only two lines are printed, forming something of an epigraph: ‘Little Lamb who made thee/Dost thou know who made thee.'

The story itself centres on questions of motherhood, naming, restriction and freedom. The narrator’s mother clings tightly onto names and numbers, onto life itself ‘imprison[ing] food behind the glass door [of the microwave] so she can keep an eye on it’. Working at an agricultural institute, she converts all of the ‘births and lives and deaths’ of the sheep that live in the hills surrounding their home into ‘figures’ in her database. The narrator, however, seeks the freedom that comes with being unnamed and unknown, longing to ‘run my hands against more stalks of grass than I could ever count, to watch a nameless bird beat its wings high above me'. But this tension around naming and knowing is not only a difference in temperament but the consequence of family secrets, since, ‘[w]e can know a lot more about sheep families than our own, Mum tells me'.

David Almond’s story, ‘Musical Speeches’, an ‘echo’ of Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Nest Eggs’, follows a teacher torn between wildness and restriction. His school life is constricted by Ofsted inspections and the presence of property developers; but his emotions follow a dreamy, jumpy, childish wildness. In a nod, perhaps, to the project itself, the teacher has written stories which ‘appeared in little magazines’ and ‘were broadcast on Radio 4’. But he longs for poetry, wishing ‘to become Orphic, to exchange my throat for the throat of a bird’ — again the trill of birdsong echoing through this collection — a wish embodied by a child in his class, Robin Greed, ‘a tiny fragile wild thing’ who might ‘fly away’.

It is fitting that this Orphic longing is followed by Jenni Fagan’s ‘Philomel @ Nightingale’, an ‘echo’ of ‘A Nocturnal Reverie’ by the aptly named Anne Finch. In this furious song of a story, the narrator monologues her well-founded distrust of the police (‘Who even turns to them now?’) and fear of her sister’s violent husband; to this she adds her dislike of the postwoman, the sun, and technology. Against the backdrop of mysterious broadcasts by a group calling themselves 'the hallowed', she waits for ‘a night for things illicit and vital’ when song will have its ‘chance to pour out of me’.

The next story in the collection is Hannah Lavery’s 'The Idler', written and named after Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson’s poem about the idler’s mission ‘to lounge and sun,/ And dreaming, pass his long-drawn days away.’ The story, written in the second person, addresses the narrator’s ‘idler’ son and muses on the ways that children and their parents shape each other. Following this is Jessie Greengrass’s ‘The Garden’, an ‘echo’ of an extract from Christopher Smart’s profound and eccentric poem ‘Jubilate Agno’. The story is set amid the silence of a secluded religious community. This very silence, punctuated by bells, is an exercise in both ‘reaching’ and ‘futility’. The precise, habitual silence, is ruptured when the silent figures are ‘outside, in the garden, we are no different to the birds in the branches, and so we let our voices mingle with those of the sparrow and the pheasant, the blackbird and the swift’, leading some to dream of escape from the titular garden.

Cathy Forde and PK Lynch’s stories both deal with love in a time of sickness. ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’, P.K. Lynch’s ‘echo’ of WB Yeats’ poem, is a detailed description of the process of sewing a memory blanket, addressed to the speaker’s mother. As the speaker stitches they track their mother’s ‘fleeting comprehension’. We see the stitches that go into a life and the ways that offspring curate and narrate the lives of their parents. Desperately sewing symbols and initials that evoke their mother’s pasts, the speaker feels shut out, like they are chasing their mother and cannot reach her: ‘it’s your memories I’m trying to catch, Mammy.’

Similarly, Cathy Forde’s ‘Carpe Diem’ – an echo of an uncredited translation of Horace’s Ode, Book 1, Poem 11, which urges its reader to ‘scale back your hopes to the brief span of life’ and ‘seize the day’ — deals with love and sickness. Her narrator struggles to navigate the difference between ‘Real Joe’, and the reality of her husband Joe, now ‘[r]aging because he’s gone but he’s not and I’m left with what he’s not’. Birdsong is the site of contemplation, the jumping-off point for the volta of this story: ‘a robin keeps his eye on me. Sparrows let me eavesdrop their chat and, before long, I find I am smiling.’

The avian imagery continues in Harry Josephine Giles’s ‘The Grey Eagle’, which ‘echoes’ ‘The Vision’ by Fiona Macleod — a poem that presents an otherworldly encounter with something ‘beautiful and wild’. This epistolary gothic story, filled with ‘fervour’, ‘spiritual frenzy’ and ‘second consciousness’, reveals ‘the matter of Miss Malvina Mackay’ to its recipient. 

Last in the collection is Fred D’Aguiar's ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’, which ‘echoes’ and calls into question the poem by Phillis Wheatley, an enslaved African-American poet. D’Aguiar’s story is particularly powerful and deals sensitively but critically with the poem, whose first line is ‘’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land’. The story presents the playful, wheedling relationship between daughter and father in an environment of immense cruelty and depicts the brutal erasures of ‘name’ and ‘tongue’ and ‘everything that belonged to her’ that were part of the translatlantic slave trade. It is the girl’s playfulness which offers some slim hope at the end of the collection. But, truly, this is ‘swallowed’ amidst the suffering that surrounds her. 

Just as the figures in Greengrass’s ‘The Garden’ ‘let our voices mingle with those of the sparrow and the pheasant, the blackbird and the swift’, the very different voices of the poems and their ‘echoes’ harmonise and ‘mingle’ with one another. Each story rewards rereading and points back towards the reading of the poem it is ‘echoing’. At the end of the collection, one is left with the reverberations between each of the texts, which continue to ‘echo’ long afterwards. 

Phoebe Tee is from South London. Her stories and reviews have appeared in Best Small Fictions 2021, Litro Online, IFLA!, Brixton Review of Books, Lunate, Short Fiction and 3:AM Magazine.