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Review: Where The Road Runs Out, by Gaia Holmes, Part 2: The 7 Reasons

It was always my intention with my earlier review of Gaia Holmes’s third poetry collection that I would need to revisit it, as the appreciation of the poetry developed in my mind.

When I posted the link to the earlier review on Facebook, I said I could think of at least 7 reasons to buy the collection.  Michael Stewart has since asked what the 7 reasons are.  Some of those in the following list have already been touched on in the previous review.

  1. It represents a much better treatment of poetry based on place than one is used to seeing.  Furthermore, the place in question is part of Scotland, which I regard as notorious, along with Yorkshire and the Lake District, for prompting mediocre poetry of place.  Holmes has not allowed the location to put her technique off balance.  Too many stanzas in poems of place might as well be struck out and replaced by the words, ‘It was amazing.  You should have been there.’  This criticism does not apply to any of the poems in WTRRO.  Holmes at all times applies the same craft to conveying the location as to any other subject. 
  2. The cover, by Hondartza Fraga, is a masterpiece, which suits the content of the book, perfectly.
  3. The treatment of the subject of dying, which is dealt with honestly and sensitively, but without sentimentality.  Holmes gives the feelings related to dying a personal identity, which is vitally important.  Feelings about death are useless if they are impersonal.  If I want to gain insight into how it feels to have a parent who is dying, then I want to read the impressions of another, real person: I want to know how you feel, to give me a bearing on how I might feel.  Anything which attempts abstraction is going to sound like a Hallmark sympathy card and be, at best, cloying, and at worst, oppressive.
  4. Even if you take away the body of poems of place, and poems about dying, there is a substantial range of other subjects.  The breadth and balance of subject matter is one of the collection’s outstanding features.  I am not going to try to convey this in a review: if you want to appreciate it, buy the book.
  5. It is yet another Holmesian masterclass in how to build the treatment of complex ideas out of the details of everyday life.  I am not merely repeating item 3: Holmes does this throughout. 
  6. The sheer skill and ingenuity in the use of language.  When a poet reaches the stage of publishing a third collection, and when the blurbs on the back are written by Sara Maitland and Helen Mort, it is easy to overlook how the poet does the simple things.  In spite of the fact that Holmes generally uses a wider range of vocabulary than I do, there are pieces in which she produces something quite remarkable out of next to nothing.  An example of this is ‘Leaves’. 
  7. Accessibility.  There are about 60 poems in the collection.  As I read them, they affect me in a variety of ways.  Not one of them has made me say, ‘What the hell was that about?’

Review: Where The Road Runs Out, by Gaia Holmes

ISBN 978 191097 445 2

GBP 9.99

90 pages



Where The Road Runs Out is the third poetry collection by Gaia Holmes.

In one respect, this review is easy to write, because it is such an outstandingly good collection.  There is Gaia Holmes’s accustomed craft, and her ability to choose a completely unexpected word or phrase, while reinforcing the meaning of a poem, and not bewildering the reader for the sake of sounding poetic.  There is a secure foundation of universal themes, and a range of overlapping subjects which is very well balanced.  There are lines, and stanzas, and whole poems which will give individual readers back something of themselves and their own experiences, or make them realise that they have just read an articulation of something that has been bothering them for years.

On the other hand, this review is very difficult to write, because Gaia Holmes is one of my oldest writing-related friends, and some of the pieces in this collection are ones of which I have personal, prior knowledge. I have written a companion poem to at least one of them.  Even though I have not yet managed to attend any of the launch events, I have heard Gaia reading some of them, live.  But those personal associations only lend additional strength to my appreciation of this collection, because the collection is so good in the first place.

The themes the book opens with are the setting of the Orkney Islands, particularly Shapinsay, and the fact that the writer’s father is dying.  The subject of mortality is one that Gaia Holmes handles with a combination of honesty and acute observation.  There is an unfailing courage which is completely un-self-conscious, and is the kind of courage which is manifested by facing up to one’s fears.  There are details: lots and lots of important details.  Gaia Holmes is a more figurative poet than I am, and so some of these details refer to things that only exist in the imagination, but they are no less important or powerful for that.

I won’t tell you what the other themes are.  The collection continues beyond its starting point, which is poetic in itself.  The narrative voice throughout is feminine; acutely observant; somewhat overwhelmed and put upon, but fed by her own, quiet determination.  If you love contemporary poetry, then buy it.  If you don’t understand or think you do not like contemporary poetry, then buy it, because it is a superb set of examples of how contemporary poetry can demonstrate artistry and craft.

WT-G radio reminders

My short contribution to BBC Radio 4’s ‘Feedback’ was broadcast on Friday 3 February and will be repeated on Sunday 5 February in a programme which begins at 20:00 GMT.  You can listen over the internet at www.bbc.co.uk/radio4 (just look for ‘Feedback’ in the alphabetical list of programmes).  This episode will then be available on the same website via “Listen Again” for 7 days.

Also on Sunday 5 February, I will also be appearing on ‘Themes for Dreamers’ on Radio Phoenix (www.phoenixfm.co.uk) from 16:00 to 18:00 GMT.  The theme of the programme will be “renewal”.  Gaia Holmes and I will be playing a varied selection of tracks and reading poetry.  One of my poems will be one never previously heard.  The Radio Phoenix website has instructions for sending email or text messages to the studio while we are live on air.  It would be great to hear from a few listeners.  I hope you can join us.

WT-G to appear on internet radio 05/02/2012 16:00-18:00

Radio Phoenix is broadcast from Halifax, West Yorkshire on 96.7 FM.  If you don’t live near Halifax, you can listen to it on the internet.  Visit  www.phoenixfm.co.uk and click on ‘Listen Live’. 

The show will be on Sunday 5 February 2012, from 4pm to 6pm.  It is broadcast live.  It is called ‘Themes for Dreamers’, and is hosted by the poet and tutor, Gaia Holmes. 

The theme of this edition of the programme will be ‘Renewal’.  The programme features an eclectic mixture of music (rock, jazz, folk, world, classical), poetry, and conversation. 

I am a recently-converted listener to this programme, and I find it to be the perfect antidote to everything I don’t like about mainstream radio.  This is radio based on quality of content, not on presentation style or the propagation of earworms. 

Let’s hope that I do considerably better at this than I did on ‘Brain of Britain’ on BBC Radio 4.  At least if Gaia asks me a question I don’t know the answer to, I’ll be able to just make something up.

Gaia Holmes has a new collection of poetry coming out in (I think) April 2012.  I expect more details of this will appear on the programme.  Gaia’s poem ‘It’ is possibly the best poem I have ever read.