Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Catching the Cascade by Paul Lyalls

David Floyd on Catching the Cascade by Paul Lyalls (Waterways/Flipped Eye, 2009)

Paul Lyalls has probably been around on London’s poetry scene for longer than he can remember, let alone anyone else, but this is his first book.

Lyalls is best known as host of the Express Excess spoken word evenings at The Enterprise in Chalk Farm. Express Excess regulars will have heard some of these poems but not many of them as, observing the etiquette that the MC shouldn’t upstage his invited guests, Lyalls usually restricts performances of his own poetry at Express Excess to a few tried and tested crowd-pleasers.

Discovering Lyalls’ lesser-known work is one reason why Catching the Cascade is worth a look. Another is that he’s a true master of writing in a conversational style – so much so that in the poems that work best, you’re almost tempted to talk back.

Amongst the better-known performance hits, is ‘’Only In The Movies – no real confusion over what it’s about – a heavily gag-laden rhyming poem which, like much of Lyalls’ work, proves to be more than the sum of its gag:

All bombs are fitted with big red digital timers
that show you exactly when they are about to blow
and all bombs can only be defused
with three seconds to go.

(From 'Only In The Movies')

In ‘Fulla’, his poem about the first Muslim Barbie doll, Lyalls finds some unusual subject matter and a gently credulous angle to shed light on it:

Her makes claim
this isn’t just another Barbie doll.
Fulla is honest, loving and caring
And she respects her father and mother.
Just wait till she becomes a teenager.

(From 'Fulla')

There’s several poems about poetry and the people who produce it. The least positive but funniest is ‘Byronic Soul’, a send-up of the modern tortured poet:

I wandered lonely as a traffic warden
feel these tortured feelings
I’ve seen the best minds of my generation
destroyed at poetry readings.
Yeah, I’m tortured, I really burn,
I’ve suffered for my art
And now it’s your turn.

(from 'Byronic Soul)

Readers who don’t enjoy poems written in uncomplicated language, containing undisguised gags and the odd goofy rhyme probably shouldn’t bother this book but anyone likes that kind of thing done well should look no further.

* David Floyd's first full collection Protest will be published by Hearing Eye in June 2010.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Unexpected Weather by Abi Curtis

David Briggs on Unexpected Weather by Abi Curtis (Salt, 2009)

Unexpected Weather is the first full collection from Abi Curtis, an Eric Gregory Award winner and Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Sussex. At the heart of the work is an interest in the numinous and insubstantial quality of atmosphere and mood, most often rendered by elemental forces, predominantly air and water. This requires a deft touch. Curtis divides the book in two sections: Fata Morgana and Ignis Fatuus, both willo-the-wispy types of light-mirage seen in the sky, with the difference that the first kind is airier, and the second found closer to the ground, especially in marshy landscapes. Indeed, the few poems with an earthier quality, ‘Mole’ and ‘Mycelium’ in particular, are placed in this second half of the book.

A recurring image is that of liquids and gases, immiscible or otherwise, mixing and coalescing. In ‘Loom’ the approaching weather comes slowly, “stretching its limits like milk in a bowl of water”; in ‘Soliloquy of a Molecule’ the speaking molecule (a character that seems to discover itself through the course of the poem in a style similar to that of Ted Hughes’s Wodwo) claims: “spin us fast enough in the guise of ink: / we’ll form arabesques only we can discover”; in ‘Tantric’ the persona speaks of many kinds of embrace, and one “where the kind of love / combines milk with water”; and in ‘George Gabriel Stokes’ the eponymous scientist stands on the Giant’s Causeway observing “the turning sea” thinking of a doctor who “pushed morphine through his blood”. Indeed, this last poem, concerning itself with a man who helped to develop equations used to understand motion in gases and liquids, takes as its subject the scientific backdrop to the book’s signature image of gases and liquids in motion. A later poem, ‘Cloud’, also immerses the reader in a “boneless … haberdashery of vapours” just as the speaker, in flight, imagines the grit and sediment of the ground as its opposite.

The slow-motion unfurling of milk in water, or morphine in blood, is an ideal image with which to illustrate Curtis’s poetic style. The predominant use of free-verse pentameter lines allows for long, detailed stanzas in which Curtis builds a slow accretion of detail, making the poems unfurl with a mesmeric quality. Similarly, in another poem dealing with unexpected weather, Curtis slows the pace at the moment of describing a woman she has witnessed being struck by lightning:

“…if you watch anything through flashes
of lightning, it appears suspended
as if life were frame after frame and never moving.”

But these atmospheric effects are also a way for Curtis to examine something more bodily – the coalescing of lovers, with rain, thunder, lightning, wind and cloud all functioning as fallacies for the amorphous shiftings in relationships. The opening poem, focusing on the painting of Lady Jane Grey’s execution, kept in the National Gallery, transforms the canvas to a portal between the persona and a loved one, both of whom have imagined themselves into the scene, albeit at different times. The executioner is depicted as looking on his next client with “a kind of love”, thereby mirroring (through Shakespearean punning on the loss of maidenhead and cutting off the heads of the maids), the consummation toward which the female persona is being led by her lover at the end of the piece.

And this exploration of what it is to be joined to someone, to trust them, is continued in another of the book’s threads: the depiction of circus performers. The trapeze artist, who must trust her life to her partner, watches him walk away from each evening’s performance in the arms of another woman. The lion-tamer and the bareback rider both seem to display an uncanny closeness to the animals in their act, yet also share a form of death-wish, bringing their intimacy with the creatures to a dangerous pitch: each night, after the show, the lion-tamer rests “head and hands / in [the lion’s] dangerous halo”; the bareback rider imagines how a simple slip when careering round the big-top “might be enough to free us”.

This is a striking collection, full of moody, breathy language. The emphasis on the natural world is counterbalanced by a number of scientific poems and references, but the whole thing is concerned with cloudy movement and transformation: whether that’s a ghost in a nature reserve detailing the decomposition of its former body, the Scarecrow from L Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz waking to find his “temples thrumming”, a cranefly being wrapped by a spider like a ham in a larder, or a werewolf failing to remember how it made it home “smoky and besotted”, Curtis clothes her mutable and airy themes in rich, earthy language.

* David Briggs' first collection The Method Men is due soon from Salt

Poet of the Clay

James Goodman on the Cornish poet Jack Clemo

You might have seen the clay country while driving through Cornwall on the A30. From the bleak acid-soil plateaux, the land domes upwards and is crowned with shapes reminiscent of desert scarp or volcanic landscape, the moulded dumps of white sand-waste from the china clay pits.

For me it’s a starkly beautiful place: lonely, ruined, practically abandoned in parts. Even when it was worked by upwards of 8,000 men in a dozen huge pits or more, nature was able to prosper in between the workings. You can wander off pathways hedged-in by tall gorse and rhodedendron and discover silent, overgrown quarry-lakes surrounded by white cliffs. Or climb conical waste-tips shot with rabbit burrows, for buzzard-like views over the pits and the broken-up scraps of heath and moor. The altered landscape talks to me of the resilience of nature.

But Jack Clemo’s response to the clay country was quite different. He was a twentieth century recluse, an intensely spiritual, uncompromising Calvinist, anti-church and anti-nature. He grew up in the isolated hamlet of Goonamarris in the clay-country, with his widowed mother. The isolation was compounded by his religious views and social awkwardness – he wrote of a school trip to the beach, “the other boys knew I would not play with them on the beaches, and they ignored me. I would sit with mother on the rocks, staring out over the sea, miserable and fretful as the day wore on, longing to be back among the clay-dumps, at home”. Then compounded further from the age of 19 by becoming deaf and finally by going blind in his thirties.

His poetry describes his religious convictions using a lexicon of the industrial landscape: “My rebel vision, kindling the scarp/…amid the sand-bruised furze/Was moulding my separate prophecy,/Climbing the ridge with my thunderbolt/To answer the worshippers.” ('Beyond Trethosa Chapel'). The clay-country’s industrial workings, rather than the natural landscape they pushed aside, forms the backdrop to his personal faith: “I feel exultantly/The drip of clayey water from the poised/Still bar above me; thrilling with the rite/Of baptism all my own.” ('The Excavator'). It’s a metaphor that runs through much of his work, the bleakness of his Calvinist faith well-matched by the bleakness of the clay-country workings.

I described Clemo as anti-nature. His later poems show a reconciliation with the natural world, but his early work, before his marriage in 1968, clearly prefers the violence of the clay-country. In 'Neutral Ground' he explains this:

God’s image was washed out of Nature
By the flood of the Fall:
No symbol remains to inspire me
And none to appal.


I will turn to a world that is ravaged,
Yet not by His Will.

Christian truth for Clemo is to be found in the working pit, the effacement of nature. In Christ in the Clay-Pit he writes:

I see His Blood
In rusty stains on pit-props, waggon-frames
Bristling with nails, not leaves. There were no leaves
Upon His chosen Tree.

Clemo’s father was a clay-kiln worker, his mother the daughter of a preacher. He was something of a prodigy. He writes that “before my father’s death, when I was only eighteen months old, I could recite not only all the usual nursery rhymes but the Lord’s Prayer, from beginning to end, without a mistake”. He published his great novel Wilding Graft in 1948 and a first collection of poems The Clay Verge in 1951. An auto-didact and mystic, his career is about as alien to us in the twenty-first century as that of Simon Stylites, the 3rd-century pillar-occupying ascetic.

He died in gentle Dorset in 1994, but the Cornish clay-country provided a deep well of imagery that he would always draw on, “turned back, reluctantly/To a savage Cornwall – scoop’s bite, earth-rind peeling” ('Wessex and Lyonesse')

He didn’t live to see the decline of the industry that forged his faith. As the hills become empty of china clay, the clayworks are being wound down, the workforce laid off, and the sky-tips landscaped and planted with conifers. I wonder what he would have made of that.

Jack Clemo's Selected Poems was published by Bloodaxe in 1988.

* James Goodman is also from Cornwall and is working on his first collection.

Collected Poems by Robert Hayden

Marianne Burton on Collected Poems by Robert Hayden (Liveright, 1996)

The blurb on the back of this book says ‘Robert Hayden (1913 – 1980) was one of the most important African-American poets of the twentieth century’ which is putting it mildly. Hayden was appointed first black American laureate in 1976 (they called it Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress in those days). He is much better known in the US than the UK, not surprisingly, and is superb.

You can Google him and look at his wide-eyed thick-spectacled photographs: he had terrible eyesight all his life. You can also Google a couple of poems and have the top of your head blown off in true Emily Dickinson fashion.

Where to start? Well, let’s start quietly with ‘Those Winter Sundays’. I’m not going to comment; quality speaks for itself here. I’ll just print the whole sonnet:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Look at the alternating vowel sounds in the closing couplet. It’s a poem about understanding and forgiveness, but that line about the ‘chronic angers’ is interesting. In the Collected Poems it faces a poem called ‘The Whipping’ where the narrator buries his head in the ‘bony vise’ of his knees remembering his childhood as he hears, ‘The old woman across the way/ … whipping the boy again’:

Wildly he crashes through elephant ears,
pleads in dusty zinnias,
while she in spite of crippling fat
pursues and corners him.

His poetry is full of violence and attempts to understand why people are violent; the poem ends as the woman :

…leans muttering against
a tree, exhausted, purged –
avenged in part for lifelong hidings
she has had to bear.

In ‘Night, Death, Mississippi,’ Hayden writes of an ‘old man in his reek/ and gauntness’ who hears a cry in the night and wishes he out nigger hunting with his son:

Be there with Boy and the rest
if I was well again,
Time was. Time was.
White robes like moonlight

In the sweetgum dark.
Unbucked that one then
and him squealing bloody Jesus
as we cut it off.

As the poem concludes with Boy’s triumphant return, Hayden intersperses his dialogue, and his wife’s dialogue, with italicised lines, that could be meditations, or lines from a prayer or a negro spiritual:

Then we beat them, he said,
beat them till our arms were tired
and the big old chains
messy and red.

O Jesus burning on the lily cross

Christ, it was better
than hunting bear
which don't know why
you want him dead.

O night, rawhead and bloodybones night

You kids fetch Paw
some water now so's he
can wash that blood
off him, she said.

O night betrayed by darkness not its own

Hayden is a formal, technically assured, concise, and careful poet. The Collected Poems is a modest sized paperback; like Elizabeth Bishop, Hayden re-wrote constantly, and different versions of his poems are used in Creative Writing courses in the States to teach editing. He is lyrical, passionate, sometimes adjectival, often spiritual. He wrote about the Vietnam War and race and slavery, but always argued that there are only good poets and bad poets, not black poets and white poets. This is a wonderful book.

* Marianne Burton's pamphlet is The Devil's Cut (Smiths Knoll).

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Hannah and the Monk by Julia Bird

David Briggs on Hannah and the Monk by Julia Bird (Salt, 2008)

Julia Bird’s first collection excavates folk legend, urban myth, idiom and popular culture with sharp-edged tools. The book opens with an apologia for the urban myth that

“every breath you or I or anybody takes
contains a single molecule of air
expired with Caesar’s dying words”;

an argument that succeeds not by logic, but through charm, wit and the seductive power of precise language. Like Donne’s exaggerated claims for his flea, Bird’s wit and sensuality draw you into a world where “hoping it might be so” becomes “an article of faith”. A similar concern with the what-ifs and just-supposes of contemporary culture – the notion that the world’s population might fit on the Isle of Wight, coded messages over the tannoy in public spaces, and the strange power of the passport-photo booth – lead to playful explorations that avoid spinning off into whimsy, pegged down as they are by some weighty lines. The man with the clipboard who checks the world and his wife through Portsmouth docks sits, his face set toward the needles, while “the world hangs hollow at his back”. And when a jaded usherette reveals the theatre’s code for a fire, Bird visualises the scene in the dressing-room with startling clarity:

“… the lit ciggie set too close to the spirit gum
for the second act moustache.

Their dialogue. The two beat breath

and the sticky flame which treacles off the table

and into a wicker skip
of doublets, hose and tennis whites,
how it rhubarbs to itself a while then roars –

the heat so fast and loud it blows the light bulbs
round the mirror, one after the other,
a pyrotechnic chorus line of pop and shatter.”

Bird is equally intrigued by language and idiom as by urban myth, with several poems making use of a range of Englishes. A poem about hunger, ‘Monoglutton’, is spiced with idioms from French, Welsh, Hungarian, and British Sign Language. Two poems provide translations of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 and T S Eliot’s ‘Preludes 1’ using the vocabulary of the fridge magnet poetry kit:

“Let me not to the boy-girl-melt of good selfs
Say die.”

And, the final poem of the collection re-writes the picture book for modern babies using the soundscape of London:

“And what’s that sound from the underground?
It’s the tube trains calling ‘Minda GAP …

And what about this great-grandfather clock?
He’s chiming Heerizda NEWS
Bong Bong – Heerizda NEWS.”

The ludic irreverence continues in the games Bird plays with poetic form. A sequence of prose-poems provide a series of ‘Short Films’, the aforementioned poem about the passport-photo booth uses shape to evoke the required sense of claustrophobic framing; there are Lumsdenesque sevenlings, sonnets and a great deal of inventive ‘free verse’ throughout. Everywhere I turned I found form wedded to theme in a range of inventive ways that brought imagery to the foreground.

And Bird’s sharp eye creates some stunning images. I loved the bold assertion at the end of ‘Your Grandfather Would have Wanted You to Have This’, and the image of a Jim’ll Fix It devotee receiving from his idiosyncratic patron a chandelier that

“swung in the room all the wrong scale,
like ladies’ earrings on a little girl”

is a charming evocation of the bathos that characterised that particular show. The subjects are eclectic, but reading this book is to be charmed by a poetic imagination that transforms everything it touches. This is a witty and inventive book, its face set against the detritus of contemporary British culture.

* David Briggs' first collection The Method Men is forthcoming from Salt

Suit of Lights by Damian Walford Davies

Dai George on Suit of Lights by Damian Walford Davies (Seren, 2009)

In ‘Kilvert’, a sequence of twelve short poems inspired by the journal of a nineteenth century Welsh clergyman, Damian Walford Davies describes a bumblebee crawling over an altar cloth as ‘Tiger- / striped furzeball, louche / half-ounce of real / presence’. He then confesses to ‘half wishing / it would sting / through each faint / dress.’ Perhaps the Reverend Kilvert, perhaps Walford Davies himself, the voice of the poem relishes disturbance and harm, viewing the bumblebee as a near-literal gadfly come to shake up the complacent congregation.

Compare this with the opening poem of the volume, ‘Bee’, in which we find the title insect ‘humbled, downed, its body // pulsing on the gravel’. Not only has the bee itself been rendered touchingly innocuous, but the attitude of the speaker has altered. In place of the titillated fear of ‘Kilvert’, ‘Bee’ remembers being caught out by a moment of compassion, in which the speaker wrestles with whether he ‘should / have opened up and let her in’. The swift, almost imperceptible change from ‘it’ to ‘her’ invites a wider allegorical reading: that the poem is about overcoming phobias and mistrust in human relationships.

Geoffrey Hill famously characterized poetry as a struggle between ‘menace’ and ‘atonement’. Although he doesn’t engage with the intricacies of Hill’s argument, or the idiosyncratic shades of meaning that Hill teases out of his key concepts, Walford Davies has a sound understanding of these polarities in their colloquial sense. In the crudest but most affecting fashion, the bee is deployed at different times to be a harbinger of menace and a symbol of atonement, as something that has the power to terrorize and a pitiable object of empathy.

But Walford Davies has other, subtler modes of understanding Hill’s dialectic, suggested by his terrific phrase ‘The threat of foliage’ (‘Composite’). What’s alluring or lovely can always be rendered ominous with a trick of the language, a skewing of emphasis. And, like Hill, Walford Davies’s poetry draws a charge from acknowledging language’s tendency to finesse cruelty and commit callous indiscretions. Early in the volume, we encounter a loose progression of monologues, several of them inspired by specific historical situations, most of them giving colourful voice to a range of charlatans and egotists. So ‘Iconoclast’ brings us William Dowsing, a Protestant zealot charged with stripping Catholic churches, who provides an unctuous inventory of his pillaging:

Seven friars

at Sudbury St James, clinching

a nun. My Meat is Flesh indeed,

and My Blood is Drink, indeed.

The repetition of ‘indeed’ nudges the word from divine affirmation to a very human cocked eyebrow, demonstrating how much can turn on a tasteless common usage.

Unusually for a poet so involved in parody and destabilization, Walford Davies has no problem with sometimes playing it, as far as I can tell, straight. ‘Groundsman’ is a quiet tribute, containing the beautifully tender description of the title figure ‘botanising at silly- / mid-on’. With poems such as these, one can detect the softer influence of Walford Davies’s contemporary and compatriot Owen Sheers, whose latest volume, Skirrid Hill, is brought to mind by the fine honeymoon poem ‘Duomo’. Unfortunately, the Italian theme is carried through less well in ‘Chopping Board’, a poem that commemorates a piece of souvenir kitchenware bought in the Tuscan hill town San Gimignano. For the most part of this excellent debut collection, such inconsequentiality would not be allowed to pass without strong irony and interrogation.

* Dai George is studying for an MFA at Columbia University.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

'A Responsibility to Awe' by Rebecca Elson

Katrina Naomi on A Responsibility to Awe by Rebecca Elson (Carcanet, 2001)

It was hearing Rebecca Elson’s ‘Antidotes to Fear of Death’ being read at The Troubadour recently that made me head straight out to get a copy of A Responsibility to Awe. The opening stanzas really grabbed me:

Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.

Those nights, lying on my back,
I suck them from the quenching dark
Til they are all, all inside me,
Pepper hot and sharp.

I love the imagery, how Elson saw stars, how she could bring her work as an astronomer into her poetry, and make space - something I have previously had no interest or understanding of - attractive.

While many of her poems concern the planets, her reaching out and up also coincided with the knowledge of her terminal illness. A Responsibility to Awe was published posthumously in 1999, after Elson’s death at the age of 39. The editors - Anne Berkeley, Angelo di Cintio and Bernard O’Donaghue - have assembled a fantastic collection. Moreover, they have also extracted draft poems and entries from her notebooks, which are as impressive poetically as they are insightful. I am incredibly envious of her ability to write notes that seem, in many cases, to need little more to become fully fledged poems. I also enjoyed the glimpse into her editing processes, to see some of the workings that went into several of the poems at the front of the book, giving the lie to the sense that these poems were easily won. For example, from notes made on 10 June 1996:

The sky like a firework
Stopped mid-shower
A bee causes a shower of rose petals provokes an avalanche of petals

Unusally, A Responsibility to Awe ends with a short autobiographical essay entitled ’From Stones to Stars’, which describes her Canadian childhood and her life as an astonomer. I’ve never read anything on ‘dark matter’ before, or nothing I could hope to understand, and it gives a real insight into her love of astronomy, and her poetry - and how hard she had worked to achieve all that she did. I was left with the impression that Elson’s years of looking into, and really considering, the various galaxies, had really paid off in her poetic observances too.

A Responsibility to Awe has also made me start looking up at night. All good poets enable us to see or consider life differently. Here is just such an example from ‘What if There Were No Moon?’:

There would be no months
A still sea
No moon songs
Terror of eclipse
No place to stand
And watch the Earth rise.

Katrina Naomi's first full collection The Girl with the Cactus Handshake will be published by Templar Poetry in October 2009.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

The Devil's Cut by Marianne Burton

David Floyd on The Devil’s Cut by Marianne Burton (Smiths Knoll, 2007)

There’s a darkness lurking beneath the poems in Marianne Burton’s debut pamphlet, published as part of the Smiths Knoll Mentoring Scheme.

While some of the poems are based on specialised knowledge or unusual experiences, many are based finding the strangeness or wonder in seemingly everyday occurrences or situations.

The real grimness in ‘Identifying Mr Barr’, a poem about a dentist called to identify a suicide victim from his dental records, is not the gruesome sight of the dead body in the mortuary but the contemplation afterwards:

“He lay in the bath, watched his own skin swell,
wrinkle, and thought about Mr Barr. Thought about
the lack of a note, about heavy lunches.

Thought about the wife who couldn’t recognise
the body, not even the lower front gap.
Moved slowly through his own teeth, body, wife.”

Where Burton’s subject matter hovers between the unusual and the mundane – a fridge dumped in the street becoming ‘The Landmark’ or the witty reflections on the modernisation of local pub in ‘Making Over the Arms’ – her success is in taking the reader in one direction rather than the other.

Burton packs a phenomenal range of subject matter and ideas into 21 pages of poetry. She experiments with language in ways that are both simple and inventive. In ‘Staying at the Embassy’: “’Don’t worry,’ he said, arranging caracul on a double word,”
is followed with further Scrabble references including: “Is there serious danger?’ I ask, adding –atic to phlegm. He nods,”

This poem sees the cosy, English pleasures of a game of Scrabble and a ‘seventies dinner’, existing uneasily with the hints at what’s going on outside the embassy walls. We don’t find out where the embassy is.

Burton is both interested in things and in possession of the skills to make those things interesting to a reader who knows nothing about them. ‘Delivering the Foetal Dioramas to Peter the Great’ is a darkly hilarious take on the practical challenges faced by the 18th century Russian leader in acquiring items for his wunderkammen.

The Devil’s Cut is a very different collection of oddities to Peter the Great’s but it’s equally worth a look.

* David Floyd is a co-editor of Brittle Star magazine.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Habeas Corpus by Jill McDonough

John Clegg on Habeas Corpus by Jill McDonough (Salt 2008)

Capital punishment is a well-chosen subject for treatment in poetry. Each case is unique, and each one is a story: or rather a web of different stories, all with claims on our sympathy and demands on our understanding. Into fifty sonnets, each taking as its subject matter a particular execution in American history, Jill McDonough crams an enormous number of these stories. I never felt as though I was being told what to think (the obvious fault with a great deal of political poetry); nor was there any abdication of responsibility from the need to think. Instead, I was being given a body of material to think with, or think about, or think through.

McDonough gives a lot of space to the precise words of the people whose stories she tells – not just the condemned, but their victims, and the words of judges and journalists and eyewitnesses. (Direct quotations are given in italics, which picks them out without allowing them to distract.) She is a magnificent listener, who notices nuance in text with the same finesse most of us have for speech. It is impressive, for instance, to spot the latent poetry in the words of an onlooker at the execution of Timothy McVeigh: ‘There’s no facial expressions on him, so there’s / no way of knowing exactly what he is.’ Much of the more lurid material is given in quotation. McDonough’s own voice is more subdued, but noteworthy for being precise, painstaking and impersonal:

The next day, readers could look
at the front page of the LARAMIE BOOMERANG
to see Cooke face this headline: HE DIED GAME.

McDonough’s gift for telling details is on display obviously here (Cooke’s body turned to face the headline compacts a lot of image into a tiny space). Even better is how unexpected her narratives can be, how much they can twist in a mere 14 lines (which is really testament to how honestly they tell their complicated tales). ‘August 14, 1936: Rainey Bethea’ is a case in point – a different poet describing the last public hanging in the USA (in 1936!) might be expected to canvas sympathy for Bethea. McDonough opens the poem with ‘He raped a grandmother to death’, and a close-up of Bethea’s bloody penis. By the end, the readers’ sympathy is not really anywhere; the system which permits public execution only because Bethea ‘raped a white woman’, the mob which rise up and tear him apart, are all hard to understand. But the poem resists an equivalence between the murderer and the system: even though, as McDonough records in the book’s large and comprehensive appendix, ‘the black community’s call for his hanging’ was partly ‘to help prevent retaliatory lynchings’.

There are a lot of botched and brutal executions described, but equally there are moments when the staunchest opponent of the death penalty is likely to be rooting for the hangman: ‘November 10, 1865: Major Henry Wirz’ is a case in point, describing the execution of a Confederate major who ran a concentration camp-like regime at Andersonville Prison in the American Civil War. ‘September 3, 2003: Paul Hill’ permits a continuum between Hill (who murdered an abortion doctor) and his executioner, by means of a Bible passage justifying capital punishment (this voice is one of the protestors at Hill’s trial):

…the Bible justifies his work, his way
to rescue babies: whosoever sheds
the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.

This collection is political poetry at its very best, and it knocked me back to see it was McDonough’s debut. A voice which can do this can potentially go anywhere:

cut hemp, tore and hackled it by hand,
baled fiber, shipped it to Tubbs Cordage factory
where men still shake out tangles, dirt and sand
and feed hemp to successive combing machines
until it pours as water from a hose.
Slivers spin clockwise into yarn, then double
back in strands, reverse again to rope,
so all good rope is absolutely neutral.

* John Clegg has a chapbook forthcoming from tall-lighthouse in 2010.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Los Alamos Mon Amour by Simon Barraclough

Andrew Boobier on Los Alamos Mon Amour by Simon Barraclough (Salt, 2008)

Los Alamos Mon Amour. You know from the initial title poem, a disturbingly eloquent fusing of sex and death through the imagery of a nuclear explosion that the reader is in, as Mae West might say, for a ‘bumpy ride’. Simon Barraclough is a highly skilled and somewhat discomfiting writer who can easily take his reader outside their comfort zone. His vision thwarts the obvious and banal through a mixture of shocking subject matter (nuclear war, drowning cats, peeling dried-on contact lenses, voyeurism through a fitting room door, mental instability, trapping a childhood friend in a fridge…) and shockingly good writing. The poetic line is as muscular as it is musical with a strong sense of the alliterative tradition that informs his northern roots. He also has a keen ear for a rhyme and can turn a sonnet as well as anyone. But there is something more to this collection than an out-of-kilter imagination allied to a strong formalist command of verse.

Barraclough is a highly intelligent and playful writer who is not shy of the odd allusion. Clive James has noted his 'readiness to make a knowing reference to the popular arts twice per line'. The collection is littered with references to the movies of Alfred Hitchcock, The Godfather, Jaws, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, the Queen Mother, Hannibal Lecter, Yuri Gagarin, Ted Hughes, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Dario Argento, Desert Orchid and no doubt many more. For some this is a point of criticism, as if the poet is trying to hoodwink the poor reader through his own smart-arsed cleverness. It’s the kind of thing you still hear undergraduates railing against the likes of Joyce, Eliot and Pound and misses the point altogether. Yes Barraclough is, as Clive James put it, 'knowing' but his work is grounded in the real world of human drama and emotion and his formal craft as a poet demonstrates it is possible to be culturally allusive without being intellectually elusive. All the reader has to do 'is follow the argument and the rhetorical rhythm'.

Some readers have accused Barraclough’s work being ‘detached’. To an extent, but this does not mean it lacks emotion or feeling; ‘Fusing the Braids’, for instance, and the longer, finely paced, ‘Nato e Morto’ are both touched with a deeply-felt tenderness. What it means is that Barraclough uses poetry as a field of imaginative possibility in order to see the real situation of his emotion as in 'London Whale':

Look how sentimental you make me;
we're a city of visitors, you see.

There's a genuine empathy for with the plight of the Thames whale but Barraclough understands that his own deep-felt sensitivity is a form of nostalgic sentimentality informed by both the wider cultural symbolic value of the whale (noble intelligent creature brought to almost extinction by human greed) as well as his own state of impermanence in the world (or London). This image of the whale's place in the world of the human cultural consciousness and its physical displacement in the river Thames might stand for the position of Barraclough's own poetic vision and the sense for the reader, as one Amazon reviewer succinctly put it, 'balancing headily between two viewpoints'.

Barraclough is from Huddersfield and when he’s in ‘Northern mode’ one finds the obligatory ‘ginnels’, ‘millstone-gritty’ walls and regional accents (‘Corrie Sonnet’). These are fine moments but less successful if only because they are snickets well trod and the influence of Simon Armitage and Hughes lie a little too heavy. Besides, Barraclough is more than a mere regional voice. He is much more in place in his metropolitan surroundings: London, Rome, New York.

The poems about St Paul’s are particularly satisfying and original. The building and its surroundings morphing, for instance, between a protestant London and a catholic Rome (via Marilyn Munroe) as in ‘Wearing St Paul’s’:

I stride through town in my giant skirts,
trailing their fringes through the London dirt.
Like subway draughts in The Seven Year Itch,
the winds of modernity gust and hitch
the hoops right over my head, revealing
canon and clergy hurriedly fleeing
down to the docks to sail back to Rome
to cling to the hem of that wider, safer, dome.

Los Alamos Mon Amour is a sparkling debut and this review barely scratches the surface of this remarkable, multifaceted work. Barraclough is a laconic observer of 21st century life and his place in it – in many ways reminding me of Larkin – he is a poet of genuine skill, sensitivity, intelligence and a wicked sense of humour. There’s a filmic quality to the work and, fine lyric poet that he is, I’d love to see something longer with a more sustained narrative in the future. On this outing the future bodes well.

* Andrew Boobier's first collection Reader, help me was published last year by Graft.

The Parthian Stations by John Ash

David Briggs on The Parthian Stations by John Ash (Carcanet, 2007)

In this recent collection Ash returns to some familiar themes and territories, albeit, in the first part of the book, by means of the ‘short’ poem. It begins with ‘An Apologia for an Earlier Book’ which sets the tone—a self-effacing voice of dyspeptic world-weariness that assures the reader he produced the poems simply because he “had nothing better to do”, and persevered with them to the point of publication because he had to “stand by these damaged creatures”.

This faux self-consciousness takes us into the process of writing, causing us to question the way we’ve been reading, the assumptions we’ve come to. These provocative little punctuations in the reader’s hermeneutic arise most pointedly in two of the sequences, the poems entitled ‘Short Poems’ (of which there are three) and ‘Book’ (of which there are four). In ‘Book II’, for example, he continues the ironic assertion that he has “no idea what [he’s] doing”, that we shouldn’t be fooled by the “apparent confidence / of the progression”.

But there’s too much weft and weave in the patterning to allow us to believe this. The book is littered with sequences that have been broken up, dispersed among the rest of the collection, often stitched together with single lines or images. The poems ‘Evening II’ and ‘Evening III’ are separated by seventeen pages, but end and begin respectively with the same typical Ash understatement: “It is a pleasant evening in March”. Others form a series of elegies for lost friends and relatives. ‘Leaving New York’ runs to four parts, each one contributing to the central travelogue motif of the book—the extent to which in moving to the East Ash did not

“move from one
city to another
[but] between different
versions of the same city.”

Some of these sequenced pieces are given playful sub-titles, such that the poem called ‘Shard’ is subtitled (Glass II); ‘Terrorist’ is the second piece in the ‘Hero’ sequence; and, ‘Arrival III’ is sub-titled (Departure). While it is tempting to skip back and forth through the book reading these pieces in sequence, to do so would be to miss the book’s central concern: it is the nature of travel that we find ourselves in unfamiliar cities remembering loved ones, and favoured haunts, from a former stage of life, from other times and places: it evokes the unpredictable intrusion of memory into the travelogue. While the sequence traces loosely the route of the Parthian Stations, from Istanbul to the borders of India, Ash is transported back to memories of New York friends, his dead sister, or his Manchester childhood; hence, the preference for shorter poems, which, as he announces in the final poem of the first part, was part of his design, part of his desire to be “pithy”.

Everywhere on this journey among the familiar and the exotic, past and present, there’s a sense of civilisations ending, of eroding monuments to former imperiums, which set the personal meditations on mortality in context. Typically for Ash, there’s a search for consolation in the historical long-view, a sense that there’s nothing new under the sun, and he melds classical and contemporary references to highlight the paradox of familiarity and exoticism in being a traveller east of the Mediterranean in the twenty-first century. Each one of us is “a Janus of the crossroads” viewing the “Byzantine rotunda / converted to a mall”.

Ash clearly seems pleased to be away from the West, nowhere more so than in ‘Hero II’ where he goes to Syria, not Beirut, but deems the difference insignificant as both locations are viewed by the present “imperium” in the same undesirable light. He wonders whether all those American males called Brad would view themselves differently if they knew it was also the name of the largest Byzantine town in Syria. Yet, there is a strong English sensibility to these poems. In ‘Drinking’ he complains that “It would be ridiculous / to appear angry at things / I cannot alter”. It’s also typical of Ash to use so many abstract relative terms, words like “agreeable”, “charming” and “affectionate”, as though completely assured of a shared set of values between reader and writer (although this too is ironic). He can sound like the gentry discussing mutual acquaintances at a garden party in Berkshire: a revolt in ‘Samarkand’ is described as having been “injudicious”; in ‘My Death II’ he claims to have outlived his peers “to an absurd degree”.

Ash wants us to believe he is trying sincerely to communicate. In ‘Things’ he admits the ideas may be difficult, but he assures us they are “real”, like “gloves in a coat pocket/ or a thorn in a hem”. In a parody of the philosophical thesis: “If we are dying, and we are…” he issues a Marvellian plea exhorting us to “drink wine … drink coffee … make conversation”. With its constantly shifting mode of address—from the reader to the poems; from particular places and people to a personification of the twenty-first century; from one part of the poet’s sensibility to another—the art of conversation is what this book demonstrates so well.

* David Briggs' first collection The Method Men is forthcoming from Salt.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

The Runner of Little Races by Ray Diamond

David Floyd on The Runner of Little Races by Ray Diamond (Black Box/Vintage Poison, 2008)

Imagine one of those Is it just me or is everything shit? books as a collection of poetry written by somebody who was genuinely unhappy, as opposed to cynically satisfying the market for mildly amusing Christmas presents for people you don’t really know.

Imagine that and you could end up with The Runner Of Little Races by Ray Diamond. There’s some strong recurring themes running through the collection: death, decay, loneliness, resentment, self-loathing and fear – fear of everything and everyone.

Diamond is a popular (or at least well-known) figure on the London poetry scene. In person, he’s known as Raymond Blake and some further confusion is provided by the use of this name on the Amazon cover image. Blake’s regular party trick is to do an extremely long, increasingly angry, open mic slot – replete with politically incorrect references and grimacing, and often prolonged by reading several poems without a break as if they’re one poem – and then engage in a darkly comic battle of wills with the promoter as they attempt to either coax or shove him off stage.

This can get a bit wearing but the book works. This may be partly because - when reading it to yourself - it’s clear where one poem ends and another begins, and you can stop reading at any time. But it’s also because - taken as a whole - Diamond’s consistently grim worldview amounts to strong combination of downbeat social commentary and self-deprecating character portrait. Some of the social commentary is prescient, some of it is utterly ridiculous but it fits the disgustedly despairing everyman persona.

‘Real Estate’ is a darkly comic poem about the general state of terror inhabited by the winners in our recently extinguished property boom:

“Where I’m living now
We’ve all clubbed together
For our own private police-force,
And executioner

I’m followed everywhere
By my claims solicitor

Got three kids –
They’re still in the womb
Privately-educated, of course
We communicate by ultrasound –
Quality time!”

While the grimly typical ‘It’s been a good year’ is an exemplary combination of self-deprecation and deprecation of the entire universe:

“No lasting damage from the recent mugging
Psychologically speaking

The head wound’s coming along nicely

Haven’t made any friends yet
In life

But I’m on talking terms with the traffic warden

I speak to her

Been a good year
On the whole
So far…”

Engagingly grim.

* David Floyd is a co-editor of Brittle Star magazine.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

One Secret Thing by Sharon Olds

Katrina Naomi on One Secret Thing by Sharon Olds, (Cape Poetry 2009)

Having devoured a good number of Olds’ books, her latest doesn’t disappoint. As I read a collection, I tick the poems that I enjoy. Most books get 6 or even 10 ticks. ’One Secret Thing’ got 17. It’s a crude system and it’s fair to say that there are some poems that I enjoyed far less than others, but those that work (all 17 of them) are outstanding.

Olds has divided the book into five sections: War, The Cannery, Umbilicus, Cassiopeia and One Secret Thing. Umbilicus and Cassiopeia scarcely managed 3 ticks between them, surprising as I usually like poems that (critically) examine relationships with parents, but the poems in these sections generally don’t do it for me. The poems that I feel are by far the strongest in this new collection are the War poems. This is Olds at her best - visceral, knowingly unpleasant yet also touching (loving even). See, for example, ‘a look of pleasant exertion’ from ‘The Smile’, about a man stabbing another; or the last lines from ‘His Crew’ about a pilot sacrificing himself to save his crew: ‘and saw the earth coming up toward him,/green as a great basin of water/being lifted to his face’. Several poems use extended metaphors, as with ‘Woman with the Lettuce’ which forces the reader to consider ‘an oversized lettuce, its white stems and/great, pale, veined leaves/unfolded in the dense air’ as a substitute for the fate that will befall a truckload of people, and specifically one woman, from an unspecified country.

Olds’ signature line endings, forcing the reader breathlessly on to the next line are here, as is her wonderfully vivid imagery, and her usual subjects of sex, violence and family (most in the school of the ‘apparently personal’). Some poems still feel to me as if they could be edited back (perhaps another of Olds’ signatures)? I imagine most poetry workshops would suggest a cull of the repetition of a title in the first line, as in the poem ‘At Night’, which opens ‘At night my mother tucked me in, with a/jamming motion’, but then follows this further down with a wonderful metaphor describing the house as ’my mother’s bashed, pretty ship’. Another signature is that almost every poem here is one free verse stanza.

Two of my favourite poems in this collection are elegies: ‘Western Wind’ and ‘Nereid Elegy’. The ashes from the narrator’s mother’s cremation are carried on the wind in the former ’flying/slowly, low, up over the hills/on their way to the ice fields’ and in the latter, where the narrator scatters the ashes:

my mother/was violet-gray, she was blue spruce,
twilight, fur, I ran my hand into the
evening talcum of her absent action, and there
came, sharp up, with shards, and powders,
a tangle of circles soldered together,
the triple-strand wedding ring
from her finger touched me, now, on the other
side of the fire.

Olds has lost none of her powers to move or inspire.

Katrina Naomi’s first full collection ‘The Girl with the Cactus Handshake’ will be published by Templar Poetry in October 2009.

Music For Landing Planes By by Eireann Lorsung

Michael McKimm on Music For Landing Planes By by Eireann Lorsung (Milkweed Editions 2007)

Minnesota-born Eireann Lorsung is a well-travelled young poet, having spent lengthy periods of time in Venice, rural France and Japan, all of which provide locality and inspiration for her poems (‘Every place I’ve been/is on fire with words’) while creating a contrast for what I imagine is a Midwesterner’s sturdy faith in landscape, in grounded hard-working, and clear-thinking, plain-speaking honesty.

There is a clear environmentalism in Lorsung’s care for the world. The marked increase in direct environmentalism in poetry is a sign of our times, and is tackled in all the different ways that poetry allows. Here, what I admire is Lorsung’s blunt plain speaking, her call to arms:

Places like this

are dying off. Between land & ocean
you stop thinking of it and it’s gone.

lack of birds. Pitch pine. A bog quaking
to life, with life, you had better

listen to this disappearing land, you had better
be quick, keep it trimmed,

(from ‘The Way to Really Love It’)

Alongside this comes a certain type of spirituality; there is a thread of John Burnside apparent in her style and earthly devoutness: ‘I believe in the resurrection and the life of the world to come,/but I want this one.’

While full of so many exaltations, prayers and alleluias to the pleasures of the world, it should also be noted that Lorsung’s work is still entirely rooted in the everyday (though she is able to take daily moments and make them transcendent). The poem ‘Doing’, about her mother’s illness, is a moving portrait of a real relationship, brought to a close with a gravitational jolt:

I can’t pretend it’s something distant
anymore, some glamorous thing to die
like girls in movies. I know what it is:

six prescriptions. The insurance company’s warning.
My father holding my mother’s hand
where the cracks run deep and bleed of their own accord.

(from ‘Doing’)

The scattering of lines and words across white space seems to be on the rise amongst contemporary poets, and Lorsung’s work carries this off to great effect, with nothing clumsy or random in how she places the words on the page – to put it plainly, it does not jar. This is seen especially in her longer poems, such as ‘In the Wide World’, a beautifully fluid list of the multiple objects and occurrences in the modern world, and ‘How My Name Came to America’, a fractured, documentary reckoning with the poet’s ancestors. I love Lorsung’s style in these poems, her faith (again) in where to let lines find their own length, how to let thoughts linger.

Lorsung is an accomplished printmaker, a dressmaker, a photographer, a painter, a keen gardener, a lover of making things, all of which are stitched beautifully into her poems. Music For Landing Planes By is, above all, a testament to artisanship, a belief in carefully crafting not just poems, but clothing, a cake, a piece of music (worth noting, too, are the incredibly high standards of Milkweed Editions – poetry books as brilliantly produced as this are hard to come by). Part of this artisan spirit is concomitant with the staunch anti-materialism and avid care about the environment. In ‘Knitting’ she writes ‘There is forgetting in the density of raw new wool,/yarn shop one block from your apartment,//the cheap scarf—you don’t value things/because you never make them’. This collection is a celebration of making things, and so a valuing of them and the world. It is ebullient, generous, tender verse.

* Michael McKimm’s debut collection Still This Need was published by Heaventree Press in 2009.

Monday, 29 June 2009

First Things When by Robert Rehder

John Clegg on First Things When by Robert Rehder (Carcanet 2009)

For such a funny book, First Things When is startlingly bleak. Rehder’s theme is vacancy – physical, cultural and mental – and he rides it with a mixture of bemusement and anger. Most of the poems are in unrhymed, free-flowing couplets, giving them a conversational looseness; he can gossip about colleagues, fantasise about his ‘Larsen Boredom Meter’, demand a Nobel Prize, and tell long stories about ranch dressing that don’t go anywhere: but then suddenly the poem turns on a dime, and that same familiar voice (cranky, acerbically witty college professor) is saying something like ‘We work all the time, / Because nothing has any meaning’ or ‘Not caring is also like freedom, / And there are fewer choices’.

The most immediately striking poems are the ones about American popular culture, especially films: ‘I worry // Whether the chemical factory in I Love Trouble is / The same set as in Demolition Man. // I brood over this as if I were Proust.’ There are pages of this and it is as habit-forming as the movies it describes. ‘These details are probably lost on you / And in a hundred years // They’re going to drive the scholars crazy. / They’re driving me crazy now.’

At the other end of the scale are the poems about memory loss. In the series of philosophical meditations on snow, vacancy is a stepping-off point: ‘The snow has something to say / About everything’. But the idea of mental vacancy pulls Rehder in the opposite direction. The best of these poems, ‘Entropy’, uses Venice as a metaphor; a city gradually sinking into a swamp, ‘the fading splendour of an unknown world.’ This is an abyss that can’t be joked out of existence, and Rehder becomes more subdued around it. (It’s not a coincidence that the ‘Snow’ poems open the book, and the ‘Entropy’ poems close it.)

With so many poets nowadays employed by universities, it surprises me how few have taken university life as subject-matter. (I’m sure there are thousands and I’ve just not read them. In any case, John Berryman comes to mind. But bear with me here.) Rehder – perhaps because he’s now retired – is a joyful exception. He attacks Cultural Studies (‘That’s the wonderful thing / About Cultural Studies. // You stop thinking / And have all these great ideas’) and bitches about staff meetings and bad hiring choices. The anger is all somewhat in excess of its target, which is pretty funny.

If you want a proper taster of Rehder before you commit to anything, I recommend this damn fine essay (which reprints several of his poems in full), but First Things When is curt and savage and hilarious and well worth £9.95 of anybody’s money. Finally, an open call for assistance: Rehder’s website promises a free autographed poem to anyone who can correctly identify all of these citations, and I’ve got all of them except for #7, so if you know who said and in what context ‘Our bed is full of dry cereal’, please let me know.

* John Clegg has a chapbook forthcoming from tall-lighthouse in 2010.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Shadeland by Andrew Grace

Mark Waldron on Shadeland by Andrew Grace (Ohio State University Press, 2009)

I found a rough location for Shadeland, the farm where Andrew Grace grew up, from an online Illinois agricultural journal. The farm is just north of Urbana and east of Route 45. In fact, with Google Street View you can make out what may be the building on the book’s cover half-hidden behind trees, a buckshot spatter of tiny birds in the grey sky, spooked maybe by the Street View camera car as it drove north towards Thomasboro.

Grace sounds like an English name and reading this book I had the feeling that even though people of English ancestry may have farmed in Illinois for generations, they’re still in some way new to it, and so is their language - as though this vast, flat land of locusts and steel silos hasn’t yet and never will absorb a language born in a place like England.

This is contemporary American poetry, but its pastoral subject matter and lyricism made me think of the Midwest of James Wright but also of English Romantic writing – as if John Clare had been on an MFA program. In fact the “third way”, between the mainstream and the non-mainstream finds a home in this rural context that seems to suit it particularly well. Perhaps a farming landscape, half-tamed as it is, exists in another kind of middle ground between the familiarity of the urban and the dissociation of the wilderness.

There’s also the sense in these poems of how the Christian God of the Midwest might mesh with this world. Two of the poems in the book start with lines from Hopkins who believed that a thing’s nature, it’s “inscape” might reveal its purpose in creation, a thing’s sanctity. Grace’s observation of the natural world has a similarly rapturous quality and the sense of a religious undercurrent gives his work a rooted intensity.

The death of Andrew Grace’s father is the background to all the poems in this book, and grief seems more exposed in the appallingly wide fields. In this fabulous, disturbing and gentle book, the young man shows himself and how he is this place.

* Mark Waldron's first collection The Brand New Dark was published by Salt in 2008.