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.