Reviews of the Ephemeral

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‘Natural Histories’ by Emily Hasler

In Pamphlets on October 31, 2011 at 1:39 pm

-Reviewed by Charles Whalley

Emily Hasler’s Natural Histories is ‘No. 9’ in the rather special Salt Modern Voices pamphlet series. (You can read the first five poems, including ‘Lubbock’s Box’ and ‘Maldives’, here.) Whilst the subject matter of much of the pamphlet is familiar ground – poets like birds – which, I confess, made the ‘Contents’ page disheartening on first approach, the eighteen tightly formed poems within show the work of a subtle and talented writer, and are striking above all for their art. Hasler’s technical abilities, in the simple process of putting together a poem, are beyond many of her peers.

Natural Histories is full of memorable lines and phrases. For example, from ‘Familiar Things’, when talking of a road in the rain: “The tarmac looks like wet paint on a child’s picture.” Or from ‘The Safe Harbour’, when Bonnie Prince Charlie is awoken: “For a moment he is forgotten / and then he finds his feet, where he had / neglected to take them off, in his haste.” Besides their sound and imagery, much of this memorable quality comes from Hasler’s unerring and  judicious word choice, such as in ‘Belle Isle’, when flying finches are described as “flippant between sky and foliage”. In being applied to the darting flight of small birds, ‘flippant’ is pushed towards its original, obsolete sense of ‘nimble’ – the OED appropriately gives its first usage as “It is a bird of the flippantst wing” – which suggests the almost onomatopoeic joy of ‘flip’, whilst retaining its modern colouring. The phrase “miscellaneous cells” from ‘The Safe Harbour’, which describes the detritus in a well-used bed, is another example of cunning word choice, as to see “cell” buried inside “miscellaneous” is to become aware of the letters to be shed around it. The more one reads these poems, the more of these clever little touches one finds.

Hasler is also sufficiently attuned to the subtlety of sentence structure to exploit it to say more than one thing at once. In ‘Lubbock’s Box’, for instance, the speaker says of the “bird specimens”: “There’s / not enough space for them all, / in a cabinet, in Kent.” Adding “in Kent” to the end of the sentence opens up the meaning, as it gives two potential readings: (1) ‘There’s not enough space for them all in a cabinet which happens to be in Kent’; (2) ‘There’s not enough space for them all in a cabinet, and there’s not even enough space for them all in Kent’. The first reading is to see the two clauses in series, as the second is to see them in parallel. The ambiguity causes the meaning to sit somewhere between these two extremes, and condenses a lot of ideas. This sort of artful efficiency finds its peak in what, for me, is the best poem of the pamphlet, ‘Maldives’:

‘It was there you first had Bacardi,

and now it takes you back.

That first sip is the sun on your face.

The last is your foot in the road; unsteady.

 

The rains brought the toads.

They must have always been there,

but now they made your path

a creaking, slippery bone-mash.

 

Big Kev hated that, his weight being

an inglorious, crunching death to toads.

One day he painted each amphibian

white, so they showed in the dark.

 

A kindness. Unable to bear, like the little

glinting bodies, the knowledge drawn from

the sole of the shoe, foot, and its

connected parts’ cumulative pressure.

 

The lacquer, or something in it, killed them.

They littered the street like crumpled tissues.

No crunch. As though their clockwork

had wound down, they stayed stopped.’

 

It is not enough for a poem to display scattered cleverness, as some of the weaker poems of Natural Histories rely on. ‘Maldives’ is threaded together as part of a single structure, with the climax in the fourth stanza. The simplicity of the poem lures the reader into the ambiguities of these four lines, unexpectedly opening up various interpretations (and giving a glimpse of submerged mass). Is it the painting of the frogs that is a “kindness”? Is it the kindness that is “[u]nable to bear”? Who is unable to bear this kindness? Is it the speaker, meaning that it is irresistibly affecting, because the act is both unexpectedly tender and child-like for someone called “Big Kev”, but also strangely tragic, as it involves the death of all the frogs? The next clause, “like the little / glinting bodies”, suggests the surreal and vulnerable sight of the white frogs. Is the kindness unable to bear for the frogs, because the paint kills them? “Unable to bear” also suggests being crushed, as the stanza works the phrases’ literal or metaphorical ambivalence, so is the “kindness” referring to frogs being trod on, or at least, since painting also results in the frogs’ death, is the painting being equated with being trod on? What is “the knowledge drawn from / the sole of the shoe”? Is that what is unable to bear, and for whom? When one treads on something that one very strongly doesn’t want to crush, one tries quickly and awkwardly to take the weight onto the other foot, and so, like the “unsteady” drinker, the leg which held the “connected parts’ cumulative pressure” is suddenly unable to bear one’s body (like staggering after treading on an upturned plug); is the knowledge (if it is knowledge of having trodden on a frog), then, literally unable to bear for the speaker? and so the ambiguities in this stanza continue, involving all of the poem’s threads to form its emotional nexus.

Hopefully (although it has possibly been rather dull for some readers for me to get here) it should be clear that Hasler is a remarkably skilful and incisive poet, able to produce vibrant and powerful poems out of deceptively simple parts, which is an achievement only made possible by her attention to subtle, finely-crafted detail. It is an impressive debut pamphlet and an introduction to a very gifted poet.

Emily Hasler has been featured on Michelle McGrane’s Peony Moon. There are five poems by Emily, including ‘The Paragliders’ from natural histories, on the Days of Roses blog. The poem ‘Wet Season’ for which she came second in the Edwin Morgan Poetry Competition in 2009 can be read here. & here, finally, is a video of her reading two poems about herbs.

Unthology #2

In anthology, Short Stories on October 28, 2011 at 12:20 pm

-Reviewed by Elinor Walpole-

Unthank Books’ second Unthology opens with the note from the editors: ‘We are sure that all of these stories deliver on the surprise factor, engender in us real thought, and enable us to look at the world with different eyes and our balance readjusted’. The collection is formed from a broad sweep of styles, subjects, and lengths with the only unifying motif being, apparently, ‘surprise’.

It is surprising however that Unthology 2’s first short story, ‘Stuck’ by Sarah Evans, seems so normal: a tale about a man who becomes disengaged from the reality of his impending nuptials while at a stag do in Prague. Psychological distance from his bride-to-be and what she means to him (as well as physical distance, the title ‘Stuck’ referring to his being trapped in a foreign country, among other things) is expressed through our narrator’s self-consciousness, an awkwardness that allows us to sympathise and even find reasonable his growing resentment of his fiancée. The story is easily accessible in a melancholy way, casting his marriage as a product of his stumbling through life from one happenstance to another rather than the romanticised result of fate. And if you follow my logic about stumbling there’s a bit of an ironic twist (ahem) at the end…

Unthank Books' Unthology #2, reviewed for Sabotage by Elinor Walpole

From being firmly reminded of the dependably uncertain nature of relationships we are transposed to ‘Differences in Lifts’ by Lander Hawes, a punchy follow-up that investigates what might happen if human nature’s inclination toward self-preservation should be warped into the institutionalised refusal to take responsibility for anyone else, and what happens when someone rebels against the code. Hawes’s vision is a humorous read with the disturbing edge that it’s fairly credible that some of his imagined societal regulators could easily be the next logical step for some of the systems already in place. Take for example an incident our narrator witnesses between a gang of youths and the police ‘it was clear that they’d strayed into a higher credit zone than they could afford, or that they’d stayed too long in a luxury credit zone and their accounts had depleted to zero’. In her ‘127 Permutations’, Stephanie Reid deals with the complexities of relationships by strategically disrupting the harmony of a shared household, occupied by characters A – G, whose acts remain nameless as Reid cleverly strips out character detail to build a skeleton tale peppered with wry insights.

The stand-out story for me in this collection however is ‘The Swan King’ by Ashley Stokes, a longer contribution than most in this book and one that gently turns, delicately playing with assumptions about the narrator and the story that unfolds, capturing a period of time where our protagonist is ‘Living through an interlude, an anomaly’ to throw him into (albeit) hazy relief against the background events. I confess I had to read this story twice to really feel I had a grasp on it, the first time to take pleasure in the mystery, and on reading it again to appreciate the subtle way the reader is challenged to accept or dismiss stereotypes in order to get to the heart of the tale. This theme of people not being quite what they seem is picked up again with a less sinister overtone in ‘Nine Hundred and Ninety Something’: ostensibly a bawdy traveller’s anecdote about a brush with a band of gypsies or ‘Romanies’ as the narrator calls them, loathe to offend the reader, conjuring up a story replete with almost David Foster Wallace-like asides and snappy cultural observances and reflections.

Many of the stories share the theme of alienation in some form or other, and seem set in places where human beings find it hard to connect and express themselves appropriately. We veer from dealing with addiction and alcoholism with a comic touch in ‘Gottle o’ Geer’ where the protagonist reveals quite frankly about his drinking ‘I do it because it makes me who I’m meant to be’ to an insight into the minds of the bereaved in ‘Hang Up’ by Shanta Everington, where a lonely woman who visualises herself as a child unwittingly converses with a bereaved father working as a telephone counsellor. ‘Hang Up’ follows a conversation that is unravelling through the counsellor’s distraction and inability to deal with his own issues, and we are left with the uncomfortable thought that the results of his ineptitude could be terrible given the context. ‘Gottle o’ Geer’ is more brutally in your face, creating a caricatured cast of misfits who’ve been flung together haphazardly to rehabilitate while our protagonist decides to make his own use of the ‘therapy’. ‘The Poets of Radial City’ by Paul A Green again deals with appropriate expression – but this time for the identity of a City that proudly declares itself to have an ‘ongoing pulse of literary invention’ while it investigates its own artists on suspicion of verse as a tool for radical sedition. It also presents one of the most interesting uses of the short story form in this collection, breaking the story into chunks of action that run parallel to the Bureau’s close analysis of poems for their potentially dangerous content.

Unthology 2 does, I believe, what it has set out to do; there are such a variety of short stories in the mix that perhaps may not surprise incredibly in all instances but will amuse, disturb and give pause for thought. Not all of the 13 stories on offer are equal in quality, with those that go more down the meanderingly descriptive path or those with a self-consciously abrupt style leaving me a little cold. However the majority made a more substantial use of the form to challenge snap judgements and play with preconceived ideas. With such a variety of styles, voices and visions of what it is to be human, I believe that this makes up a very decent and edgy selection of ‘resonant tales for anxious times’.

‘Starry Rhymes: 85 Years of Allen Ginsberg’ (edited by Claire Askew and Stephen Welsh)

In anthology on October 24, 2011 at 8:33 am

-Reviewed by Chris Emslie

Best to begin honestly: I came very late to the Allen Ginsberg party. On my first look-through of Starry Rhymes, a collection of responses and reactions to his intimidating body of work, my exposure to Ginsberg was limited to the compulsory rushed reading ofHowl in the first year of my undergrad. Arming myself with a Selected Poems, I set myself to write a review I felt horrendously underqualified for.

Editor Claire Askew is careful to point out in her introduction that “not one of the pieces here needs to be read in tandem with the poem that inspired it […] to make sense”. This I will not dispute: the thirty-three poems in the Starry Rhymes chapbook rest secure as coherent pieces, indebted to but not dependent on their spur-poems. However, it is certainly easier to grapple with this collection if we keep the man himself fresh in the mind. What Ginsberg conjures is a fevered rush of enthusiasm – most strongly evinced by the breakneck holler of his most famous piece, the aforementioned Howl. There is a dirty-fingered energy to Ginsberg’s work that any replying poem must acknowledge, if not attempt itself.

It is interesting, then, to see how the Starry Rhymes poets answer back to Ginsberg’s famed exclamation. In the opening poem, Marion McCready takes a magnifying glass to Ginsberg’s early ‘The Bricklayer’s Lunch Hour’, distilling his narrative to a few closely-observed moments. The psychic space of the poem is beautifully handled as McCready addresses the “cellar nature” of a brick wall “tempting [a] kitten” and the unexpected softness of the titular bricklayer: “He strokes the kitten / the way he strokes his chin”. This poem is in essence a slowing-down of Ginsberg, the effect of which is a more surprising opening than the most raucous yelp of “starving hysterical naked[ness]”. The clarity which gives McCready’s poem its distinction stumbles a little over the final image (“an unlikely new-found womb”), but the strength of others (the bricklayer “voiding the cradle of bones” in his lap) keeps the piece afloat.

While this chapbook is intended as an homage to Ginsberg – a celebration of “the 85th anniversary of the great man’s birth” – its strongest poems are those which recall their starting points from a distance. Clever relocation aside, Kevin MacNeil’s ‘Allen Ginsberg! I’m with you in Scotland’ falls a little flat, not because of its borrowed refrain but because it tries too hard for synthesis. MacNeil’s attempt to reappropriate the “Rockland” of ‘Howl Part III’ seems to grow from a desire to critique “Scotland / where the madness is banal and institutionalised”. Mirroring Ginsberg’s structure allows MacNeil to adapt the poet’s relationship with America into a reiteration of the old Scotland-England dialectic:

“I’m with you in Scotland

where we hug and tongue and caress England

under the bedsheets the England that

snores all night and won’t let us sleep”

Here MacNeil uses Howl as a template for what Frances Leviston has called the “spiky insularity” of Scots writing, and the poem ultimately comes off as more agenda than tribute.

This is offset, however, by the playfulness we find elsewhere in Starry Rhymes. Ryan Van Winkle is wonderfully self-deprecating in his response to ‘America’, asking himself “Ryan, // Why are your poems not bombs? // In your poems men get nowhere in cars, speak like graduates.” Francis Wasser’s ‘Planet Earth, I’ve Taken This Very Literally’ adheres to Ginsberg’s structure but applies a wicked sense of humour that relieves any influence anxiety. Wasser addresses the planet like it’s a personal oracle, or a teacher who’s grown used to a pupil’s impertinence:

“Planet Earth please make popular culture unpopular.

Planet Earth which god made men?

He’ll never do it again.

Planet Earth what is meta for?

Planet Earth what is metaphor?

Planet Earth we could learn a lot from that.”

This poem stands out because it has no apparent ultimatum. It responds to its inspiration without taking itself (or indeed Allen Ginsberg) too seriously. Similarly, Suzannah Evans replies to Ginsberg’s ‘Personals Ad’ with a light-hearted charm which her poem affords to pets and inanimate objects: “Me: The Yorkshire terrier at number 15. / Take me away from this place. / Throw me a frisbee.” Karen Head, meanwhile, addresses Ginsberg himself with obvious affection, arguably the entire point of the project:

“and, ultimately, I’ll read some line

you wrote years before my birth

and I will feel the reproach

meant for those you knew

would be inclined to listen.

Nevertheless, you are always welcome here.

Try not to step on the cats.”

Starry Rhymes is a loving testament to the work of an undeniably important poet. This shows in the care with which the chapbook has been conceived and collated. Its most powerful moments do not, however, rest in the flattery of imitation. I have met several young writers and readers for whom the Beats – and  consequently, Ginsberg – are the beginning and end of great American literature. Fortunately this does not seem to be the overwhelming ethos of this collection. Co-editor Stephen Welsh contributes a cut-up facsimile that is a compelling retrospective on Ginsberg and his contemporaries, if a little inelegant in this context. For the context is one of mixed and palpable talent. Undaunted by the not-small task of responding to a giant of modern American poetry, this assembly of thirty-three voices reflects (or possibly refracts) Ginsberg at his most feverish, human and heartbreaking. It is Michael Conley who best summarises how the poet himself might reply to a birthday gift like this: “I am grateful / you have kept me alive. / I am. Listen to me.

‘Anatomically Incorrect Sketches of Marine Animals’ by Sarah Dawson

In Kindle chapbook, online chapbook, Pamphlets on October 20, 2011 at 9:42 am

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

Since this is a review of a chapbook designed for the Kindle, in the interests of full disclosure I should mention that I have never owned one. Nor do I plan to, no matter how shiny the various companies make their e-readers. (To be fair, I do read on my iPhone, but mainly stuff on McSweeney’s Small Chair app that has been specially formatted for it.) I probably own enough books to start my own library lending service, and though my bookshelves at home and at university are groaning under the weight, I would not have it any other way. This is less a case of my hating the digital revolution, and more a case of my remaining largely indifferent to this aspect of it.

 

Frankly, the experience of reading Sarah Dawson’s chapbook, Anatomically Incorrect Sketches of Marine Animals, has not changed my mind about e-books. This, however, has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the poetry or its presentation, both of which are excellent. On her blog Poetry After Ink, Dawson states that her goal was to self-publish a group of poems she was proud of. As for choosing the Kindle format? In her own words, ‘I kept reading that formatting poetry for Kindle was close to impossible, and I wanted to prove it wasn’t.’ I read the chapbook on both the Kindle for iPhone and for PC apps, and I have to say that whatever Dawson did in terms of formatting (details in this blog entry), it works perfectly, e.g. line breaks are preserved when resizing the text.

 

Turning to the poetry, there will always be those who remain sceptical about the quality of self-published work. This is not the place to rehash the debate, apart from registering my assent to Dawson’s comment that ‘[t]he ideas that digital formats cheapen poetry, and that all self published writers are terrible are self perpetuating’. Far from being terrible, Dawson’s poems are lyrical observations, shot through with imagery that is tactile and visceral. The opening poem, ‘Barceloneta, May 2010’, is short enough to quote in full:

You were mining breaststroke – the universal

sign for swimming. Found the beach, whilst I was

 

watching silken laundry sea that lapped the

pillars. Beneath, fish were sewn from thousands

 

of silk scraps – seams that faced out, unhemmed

loose threads, labels, that you ached to cut

 

they brushed each other; coats they ached to shrug off

 

There is a patterning of sounds in this poem, an ebb and flow to the manner in which they appear, go away, reemerge in new configurations. The image of the ‘silken laundry sea’ introduced in the second couplet regulates the rest of the poem’s sounds. The fish become transformed into ‘silk scraps’, as if they have merged with the sea at an essential level. Yet when the poem performs its own merging by pulling in the ‘m’ sound from the first couplet, a curious moment of linguistic play occurs. Pronouncing a word like ‘unhemmed’ presses the lips together, but the meaning points to something coming undone. Cleverly, ‘seam’ is also linguistically janiform, since it can mean both a junction and a fissure. The tension between these two impulses, to join and to separate, is caught up again by the last line, where ‘brushed’ echoes ‘breaststroke’ in the first, even as the fish are still trapped in ‘coats they ached to shrug off’. It is inconceivable not to acknowledge such patterned economy of language as deserving admiration.

 

Another example of Dawson’s craftsmanship occurs in ‘Lug worms, rag worms’. On her blog, Dawson mentions that this poem began life as a pantoum, which she subsequently edited down. The version that appears in the chapbook has been pared down further, and while no longer recognisable as a pantoum per se, still does something interesting in the way bits of the repeated lines seemingly ‘burrow’ into each other, like ‘worms’ moving through the ‘sand’ of the poem. As the poem comes to a graceful finish, ‘Plucked from / our burrows, now exposed, our frayed threads / antagonize each other’, the compass of its central metaphor expands to connect worms and people in the same predicament, the threat of being ‘exposed’, of being made vulnerable. Where a lesser poet might have worked in a pun on ‘bristle’ and linked it with ‘antagonize’, Dawson’s use of the unrepeated ‘exposed’ stands out as a moment of subtlety.

 

Earlier, I stated my lack of interest in e-books. (At least when it comes to buying my own reading material. I read plenty of digital stuff for reviews!) To reiterate, this has never been a value judgement, but purely a question of personal preference. Perhaps then, the highest compliment I can pay Dawson’s chapbook in closing is to say that had it been published as a physical chapbook, I would have happily bought it, which is what I normally do anyway when I read something I like online that is also sold in hard copy. As it stands though, in the case of Dawson’s chapbook e-reader converts certainly have one up on people like me, and I am glad to admit it.

‘Another Use of Canvas’ by Angus Sinclair

In Pamphlets on October 18, 2011 at 10:00 am

-Reviewed by Rosie Breese

Angus Sinclair is a modern-day Renaissance man. Not content with being a gifted poet and photo-artist, he is also known in certain circles as professional wrestler Johnny Snott. And it’s the world of professional wrestling which is the focus of his first major publication, Another Use of Canvas, the first in Gatehouse’s new pamphlet series.

Wrestling, as Sinclair himself points out, is concerned with telling “physical folk tales” – the audience comes to see the villain vanquished and the hero triumphant. The poems in this collection inhabit the gaps between everyday life and the fantastical world of professional wrestling. Hence, we get glimpses into interim spaces such as the practice ring or the dressing-room where “You slowly become your neon-clash leopard-print costume”.

‘Narcissus’ is a meditation taking place during one of these pauses, namely the wrestler’s ride home, his costume bundled on the back seat: “Narcissus checks the rear-view mirror / where the leather face seems to droop, / to pine.” This poem, exuding the chilling, clarifying air of a night drive, draws together many of the themes that arise throughout the collection. The leather face in the mirror is the reflection he is in love with; without it he is empty; a “mannequin” once more. This unmasking represents the scenes of metamorphosis that come up again and again as the wrestlers switch between identities.

Another thread woven into ‘Narcissus’ and many others is the idea of self-definition – the trying, testing and out-and-out pummelling of the borders between the physical self and other people, ring ropes, the surface of the canvas: “every night in some delicious rumble / in every clatter of every bodyslam / a little life rattles out..” Here, Narcissus is a being whose life is defined by wrestling, his body battered at the edges, its life leaking out “like change”.

Sinclair’s language is characterised throughout this collection by a muscular physicality. This is present in measured, constrained poems such as the carefully wrought pantoum ‘Muscle Memory’, which describes the punishing process of training: “rope burn across your back again and again / faster and faster, hit the corner-buckle”.  Then there is the breathless, live-action intensity of ‘The Saint versus Lord Nelson’, in which the words seem to tumble over one another like the wrestlers themselves: “..The Saint side-steps, little matador working / Nelson’s weight against him, all that power / sent crashing to the corner. The Saint strikes..”

It may be said that these particular lines, which seem in some instances to have been cut brutally early, have lost something in terms of their individual coherence: “..This slight-of-hand artist works / the ring so the referee only sees what Nelson / wants him to see (discreetly strangles The Saint..” but for me, this chaotic sequence seems to be perfectly in keeping with the ringside atmosphere. These are the flashes of action that make little sense on their own, but in sequence are the artistry of the match.

This artistry is particularly evident in the skilfully realised final lines that these poems tumble towards – in this case, a powerful, double-edged summary of the wrestler’s position in the scheme of things: “The glorious un-unionised fighters, without the power to strike”.

The poems are arranged in such a way as to guide the reader through early obsessions (‘Saturday’) to practice sessions, to matches, to the lonely aftermath of a wrestling career (‘Meeting Lord Nelson’). It is this ability to place the reader right in with the sweaty, roaring crowds that is a key strength of Sinclair’s work. Adept at switching identities himself, he is skilled at drawing the reader into the world of the avid wrestling fan retreating from the injustices of the real world into fantasy: “..you got a real hiding. Eyes closed, / the audience in the Winter Gardens / cried out at each crack of the strap.”

Another stand-out poem that places the reader right inside the wrestler’s headspace is the poignant and beautiful ‘Looking Up at the Lights’, in which the wrestler, injured and helpless, sees spectators as “soft peripheral shapes”; “visual murmurs” and compares the wrestling arena to an operating theatre. These in-between spaces, these moments of strange calm, are where this collection truly shines. Like the body of Narcissus transformed into coins, the riches of this strange, exciting world spill out of each pause like treasure.

Another Use of Canvas is available from www.gatehousepress.com and has recently been shortlisted for an East Anglian Book Award. The winners will be announced on November 3rd 2011. 

‘Brumaire and Later’ by Alasdair Paterson

In Pamphlets on October 17, 2011 at 10:21 am

-Reviewed by Alex MacDonald

 

When President of the European Union, and former President of Belgium, Herman Van Rompuy, announced in 2010 that he would be publishing a limited run of his book of haikus, the news was met with surprise. Few people outside of Belgium knew of his poetic preoccupation, and even fewer people would have guessed he had it in him.

 

Poetry and politics don’t often mix. To Van Rompuy, his poetry was entirely separate from his matters with the state – in a BBC Interview, he stated that the haiku was, to him, “an aversion to the sophisticated and over-complicated world”. Alasdair Paterson’s collection Brumaire and Later, one of his first after a 20 year gap in writing, shows that when politics instigates poetry to order this ‘over-complicated world’, it often contradicts reality than enforces it.

 

Paterson’s collection is in two parts and takes both the French Revolution and post-revolutionary Russia as its focal points – both of which utilised a calendar where every month and every day was renamed after food, fauna and other objects, on the suggestion of a poet. But what comes across immediately throughout Paterson’s collection is the turbulent and often unsettling conflict between reality and the aspirations of poetic revolution.

 

The first section, Brumaire, focuses on the slow unravelling of lives in the face of the Revolution. In the first poem ‘Apple’, it just as easy as those tending the land to “walk sure-footed in the dim russet” as it is to “unwrap the weapons”, Paterson can even afford to be humorous at this early stage – ‘Celery’, the second poem, starts “Today we’ll be looking through / what’s called the revolutionary window / Each time it opens and shuts / the view is bound to change”.

 

But one of the strongest qualities of this book is a sense of foreboding and danger. Take the opening to ‘Pomegranate’, one of the best poems in the collection:

 

‘The soldier boys know nothing

of the world but how to end it;

nothing of books but how they burn.

Fire’s another slow reader

to begin with, then it skims,

remembering all it knows already.’

 

What we see in Brumaire is that the ‘Revolutionary Window’ can throw up some horrifying images amongst the initial revelry and overthrowing of a government – ‘Pomegranate’ ends with a mother pleading with ignorant soldiers for her daughter back as ash clogs up the public fountains. Revolution, too, is a slow reader.

 

In the second section, Later, this helplessness becomes acute – we are given scene after scene of the homeless masses, orphaned from Mother Russia in the deep snow in the name of revolution.

 

Upon reading this section, it clearly stands out as the stronger of the two. Here, Paterson’s writing is emotionally nimble. Take a poem like ‘Bones’, which starts with a gambit worthy of Hughes:

 

‘Over the pine needles,

over moss and mushrooms,

over assorted bones,

snow grows plump and smooth

as bedtime stories’

 

Only to end with “The note by my bed: I am not dead. I am only sleeping”. Over only a few lines (I have already quoted eight of the eleven lines of the poem) Paterson’s pathos and black, frost-bitten black, humour to display the destitution of those left behind in the revolution is very gently measured and is executed perfectly.

 

The masterstroke of this section, if not the whole collection, is the tender ‘Swifts’, where a narrator watches a flock of birds “trapped in their velocities” and describes them becoming disbanded, how their togetherness falls apart “like old infatuation”. It’s hard not to draw comparisons with the Soviet regime, how those left behind are trapped in a Government’s velocity, but really, in this poem Paterson displays what poetry, when done properly, can do – distil complex emotions into pithy, memorable phrases that stay with the reader, regardless of time and place.

 

Unlike Van Rompuy, Paterson does embrace political history in his work and I couldn’t help feeling that the emphasis put on the source material, although crucial to the ordering of the collection, got in the way of me enjoying the verse at times. I was left thinking that if I knew more about both Revolutions I would enjoy it more.

 

Despite that, my only criticism, I think the verse in this collection is strong, the second section in particular. It left me thinking of the work of Ian Hamilton – tender yet reserved. Above all, it makes me glad he’s broken a 20 year silence.

Farrago National Poetry Day Slam 06/10/11 @The Rada Foyer Bar

In Performance Poetry on October 12, 2011 at 7:47 pm

-Reviewed by James Webster



Farrago

The last time I went to Farrago I was unimpressed. For an event with such a strong reputation and long history, I found it supremely underwhelming, so it was with some trepidation that I chose to spend National Poetry Day at Farrago.

I was pleasantly surprised. There were some really talented and entertaining features, and the slam itself had some real high points. However the problems that undermined it when I last attended were still annoyingly present, seeming to buzz around like annoying wasps that no amount of poetical bug repellent would soothe.

The main problem is simply that there are too many poets of too varied abilities. The features (some of whom made my ears nearly explode with joy) were a mixed bag and with seven of them performing, none were given enough time to really shine. While the slam was far too long with 14 poets lining up and the judges scores were wildly disparate from beginning to end (thank to a phenomenon known as ‘score creep’). And John-Paul O’Neil, lovely as he is, needs to start explaining how a slam works.

Let’s break it down:

The Features

The Good

  • Ollie Brown was the pick of the poets for me. His first, a poem on a relationship storming with hurt (the girl ‘has the rain inside her’), but finding comfort in each other was touching and heart-wrenching. His earnest delivery was coupled with a captivating way with words made me melt inside.
  • His second was a choked cry of a poem, all forlorn, war-torn and dispossessed. A simple delivery, flowing rhyme, it was a poem that reached into your chest and squeezed.
  • Amy McAllister was also superb. ‘Roleplay’ on a woman seeking to fill awkward silence with sex, was funny and lovely, ‘come wander in my jungle of distractions’ indeed.
  • Her other poems from an ‘accidental series about this fucking guy’ were equally funny and heartfelt. Her joyous turns of phrase equally good for comedy and pathos.
  • Abraham Gibson wowed me with ‘Tottenham Girl’ a viscerally dirty poem of a girl in an abusive relationship, who ‘thought she could run, but had no smiles left’ eventually finding the strength to run out was equally raw and uplifting.
  • And his poem on ‘Margaret Thatcher and her African Lover’ was funny and cheekily satirical, I especially like the idea she ‘tightened up on immigration just to spite me’
  • And of course Niall Spooner-Harvey is a bit of a monster of the spoken word scene. ALondonandUKslam champion his ‘Good Words and Bad Words’ was amusingly juvenile on business jargon.
  • ‘I’m an Awkward Man’ was hilarious, summing up its own awkwardness brilliantly with professions that he ‘prefers the number 584 to people’, latterly breaking into tremendous awkward song.

The Not So Good.

Siam Hurlock showed some promise, had a very professional manner and made some good points with her poetry. But needless repetition, generalisations, cheap shots at easy targets (like religion) and annoying actions that didn’t seem to express anything meant it failed to reach me.

Jade Anouka again wasn’t bad. Her ‘There Once Was a Monster Who Bumped His Head’ was a charming childish rhyme. But other poems seemed a bit self-indulgent, with some phrases sticking out and interrupting the flow.

Rachel Pantechnicon was surreally funny, with amusing props, her poem on being into Protestant Reformism as a teenager ‘with posters of Calvin on the wall’ was very good. But ultimately the jokes ran a bit thin when she got to the ‘Centipede’s Book of Inn-Signs’ which was regrettably dull.

The Slam

Again a real mixture. It did not get off to a great start when Jean-Paul forget to explain there was a time limit, or how exactly the scores worked, or about ‘score creep’ (a phenomenon whereby as the night goes on and the judges are drunker/have warmed up they give out better scores). He was, however, very clear that every poet wins a prize, which is a nice feature of Farrago.

The Highlights

Eleanor’s ‘Dear Hertford College’ (on her Oxford rejection) was well-rhymed, self-aware and witty, with a dash of social satire and class commentary thrown in. Apparently ‘the joke’s on you Hertford, as [she] pissed in your sink’. That’ll learn ‘em. 25.5

Jez had some very neat poems. Very droll and well-observed, his ‘I Want to Tell Myself How Much I Love Me’ was particularly fun. 23.3

Carmina Masolivier to my mind was the rightful winner, her ‘Ragdoll’ was all funny and sweetly desolate and ‘Fancy Dress’ was a multifaceted and fragile tale of self-creation. Her score 24.7 should’ve been higher.

Nia, the eventual winner, gave a tremendous performance, with a fantastic grasp of comedy. The refrain of ‘I know I’m not supposed to be with you’ (because you’re shorter than me) is well used and she manages to stop the sentiment from becoming trite by juxtaposing it with other aspects of femininity (e.g. motherhood and first-time-sex). Performing last, I felt she benefitted a little from ‘score creep’. 28.5

The Lowlights

Lionheart. This was second time I’ve seen him perform and while his performance is excellent, all his poems seem to boil down to ‘I’m lovely and respect you for who you are, baby, so why aren’t you sleeping with me?’ In my opinion: insulting veiled misogyny. The phrase ‘a man’s woman is his wealth’ was especially bad. His 27 I put down to following the excellent Carmina.

Lloyd’s unfortunately short-sighted take on religion had clunky rhyme, seemed to miss several points and ultimately didn’t seem that poetic. 21.5

Summary

With so many poets it’s not been possible to mention everyone, and there were some other good poets in the mix, enough that I will come back again for the frequent gems amid the sprawling event that is Farrago. With a bit more focus, fewer features and slammers, then this would be a great night. As it is, it did just enough to draw me back.

‘Anger Mode’ by Stefan Tegenfalk (translated by David Evans)

In Novel on October 7, 2011 at 12:48 pm

-Reviewed by Ian Farnell-

I know it’s a translation, but I’m not sure about the title. Vredens Tid is the original Swedish title of Stefan Tegenfalk’s debut novel, which translates literally as Wrath Tide, so David Evans’ translation is an improvement.

My first thought upon receiving this novel (apart from the title) was “Oh, it looks like one of those books they advertise in train stations”. Now, I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but – well, it really does.

Anger Mode Stefan Tegenfalk Massolit Publishing

Regardless, Anger Mode (yup, still not sold it to me) is the debut novel by Stefan Tegenfalk, the latest Swedish author to make the translation into English, and the first of a trilogy. Wave hello, everyone.

The plot: there’s a drug out there, and it is making people angry. It is putting them into a mode in which they kill people. An anger mode, if you will. This promising idea is rather quickly delivered to us, and sets up what could be an interesting police procedural with some scary advances of science on the side. In the background is a shadowy antagonist, whose dark thoughts the reader occasionally glimpses, though nobody else does.

Anyway, nobody knows where this drug is coming from, or how to stop it. Enter frumpy yet dedicated Detective Inspector Walter Gröhn, and his new assistant Jonna de Brugge, a woman from RSU (which I’m told is an acronym for the Swedish Special Investigations Unit, although the best that Google gave me was Roehampton Students’ Union, and I doubt that’s it). She’s a young, by-the-book sidekick who asks helpful questions to keep the plot moving and show Gröhn’s experience of the Swedish justice system. Together they attempt to wade through murder and bureaucracy in order to solve the case. And it is round about here (ie. the beginning) that things start to get silly.

The writing is not inclined to give us depth, usually telling rather than showing. Often it is Dan Brown-esque, almost a thriller-by-numbers. Intent and emotion are expressed bluntly through internal monologue, filled with boring rhetoric and self-satisfied waffle, and characters do not get a chance to portray themselves through dialogue or action. Thus, interactions feel forced, sounding stilted and unconvincing – one man (a real hardcase) brusquely asks “Now tell me, what the fuck have you done with the multimedia evidence?”. The narrative is similarly droll, and littered with strange, empty similes; at one point we are told that ‘the room was as packed as a Bruce Springsteen concert. There were fifteen people round a table’. Clang!

The dialogue is matched by a similar ridiculousness in plotting. Somewhere along the way, the police procedural is whipped along so fast by the thriller pace that it gets left behind. There’s a sharp gear change, and Anger Mode is suddenly more political thriller than crime novel. The story jumps erratically from our protagonists to people we have never met before and have no vested interest in. This is only made worse when Walter Gröhn takes his investigation in a direction disliked by the powers that be and is suspended from duty, which leads to a large section of the novel focusing on a variety of other characters who seem to operate on an increasing level of farce.

The new head of the investigation, Martin Borg, is a raving anti-Islamist who, without any evidence whatsoever, blames the murders on Saudi-funded terrorists intent on destroying the Swedish legal system. He then arrests five Muslims that he found in a house somewhere, and uses torture to make them talk, which of course they don’t (one of them dies). And at this point nobody – not the other officers, not the chief prosecutor, not the lawyers or anyone else at this Bruce Springsteen concert – stops for a minute and says “This is insane! You’re making it up! You’ve got no proof! And stop killing people!”. I guess they were too busy singing along to Born in the U.S.A.

We also meet Jerry and Tor, two felons who swear a lot and talk in clichés about spilling your guts and nailing you to the wall – you know, hard man talk. Jerry and Tor are sent to kidnap a man, which they manage to accomplish. They then let the man escape, and go home because they are tired. You know, like hard men do. They’re not exactly the Krays. More like the Marx Brothers.

I could stomach most of this if I thought there were a point. But it doesn’t feel like there is. It feels like the protagonists were sidelined because the story needed spinning out after a promising start. That’s a shame, because Tegenfalk has a potentially strong story trying to get out and be told.

This is a book that can’t make its mind up. Is it a political thriller or a crime novel? A light read or a social commentary? Alas, we may have to wait for the second and third instalments of the trilogy to find out. The confusing and erratic nature of the story makes this first one quite a fight to endure. Even writing this review is something of an effort. And there are so many more interesting things I could be doing.

All together now: ‘Born down in a dead man’s town…’