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).