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Chapters of Age by Peter Riley

In Pamphlets, Poetry on October 14, 2013 at 10:33 am

-Reviewed by Billy Mills

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The heart of Ireland is the great limestone lowland plain that stretches more or less all across the centre of the country and which, in combination with the temperate climate helps make the country so suitable for growing grass. There are areas where a combination of natural processes and human activity have denuded the underlying stone, producing strangely fascinating karst landscapes, the most famous of these areas being the Burren region of West Clare and its offshore extension on the Aran Islands.

It’s a landscape of extensive limestone paving with, in the Burren at least, a unique combination of Mediterranean and Alpine flora growing in the cracks of what, at first glance, appears to be a hostile dry and barren environment. And despite this hostility, the area is full of signs of human habitation over a period of some six thousand years. These range from the dolmens and stone huts of the Burren to the great stone ring forts of the islands.

Peter Riley’s poem Chapters of Age is set in this landscape and formally reflects the semi-regular patterning of the limestone paving in its use of stanzas of three lines of irregular length broken up into sections of anything from three to ten stanzas. As you might expect from Riley, there is a good deal of walking involved (his Alstonfield is one of the great English walking poems). In Chapters, there is more than a hint that age is making the process more painful and difficult than it once was.

‘Use of walking stick to lessen this pain,
Inclined to the side of the road.’

There’s also a good deal of singing. Clare is renowned for its traditional music, but the poet weaves the words of English folk songs into his text, along with bits of Yeats, Tarjei Vesaas, William Carlos Williams, George Simmel and a tourist information noticeboard. Reflections on aging weave their way through references to the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger and to older shadows on the island’s history:

‘Finding the way to the bathroom
In the middle of the night half asleep
Strange shadow, shed door ajar again.

*

……………………………heroes

Who died for a free Ireland
Now
Mortgaged to international finance

*

Unbaptised children set in separate graveyards
Mere bits of walled-off moor’

The poem is typical of Riley’s mature work, the tone is deceptively quiet and unshowy, almost, but not quite, conversational. While he is often associated with the Cambridge poets who formed a key element of the British Poetry Revival, he is neither an experimental nor a mainstream poet, he’s just a poet, albeit one of exceptional intelligence. Chapters of Age is, in the true sense, an ecological poem, a poem about an entire ecosystem in which neither the human nor the non-human element is given primacy. Amongst other things, Chapters of Age explores the possibility of our continued co-existence, and the conclusion is not altogether optimistic, as Riley plays with the twin aspects of fear as verb and noun:

‘…….what is the answer to fear?

For there are answers to fear,
Common or garden,
That singing up the coast.’

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Tearing at thoughts by Andy Harrod

In Pamphlets, Poetry on October 8, 2013 at 1:12 pm

-Reviewed by Rosie Breese

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As Andy Harrod’s website bio explains, he writes “not out of a desire to tell stories, but a need to understand, to develop meaning and connect with myself, others and life”. Fittingly then, his latest collection, Tearing at Thoughts from 79 Rat Press, is an unapologetically candid exploration of the workings of a mind – or series of minds – turning over experiences that are rarely talked about in public.

There’s no contents page, no numbering even. This is a book to get lost in, literally. Poems and photographs are collaged with story-fragments and snippets of text juxtaposed at different angles, making use of font and sizing to emphasise and defamiliarise. Perhaps this is why, when first flicking through Tearing at Thoughts, I was reminded of Marie Calloway’s divisive What purpose did I serve in your life. There’s a real openness about the way these collections are put together – a careful DIY layering of a variety of media in order to build a human picture that is as honest as it is unflinching. Both make the reader question their own voyeurism, their desire to keep reading.

However, where Calloway’s writing moves with cool precision between the external and external world, Harrod is concerned with memories, with the internal monologue, the stream of consciousness, as seen here in ‘Strangled by Fear’, a narrative fragment juxtaposing the contents of a letter with the speaker’s memories of a relationship and their own internal mutterings:

‘I had snapped. I had fizzed; I had pushed. I had smeared thick black lines across us. She stood on the doorstep, the tears dripped from her cheeks, in between the droplets she said she still loved me. I closed the door. She is wrong to believe still. I am too poisoned to be healed.’

The bulk of this collection plays with the form of the half-told story, the details given out selectively, the focus on the internal drama that is so difficult to articulate. The experiences of the speakers are overwhelmingly traumatic: a father is separated from his children; a victim of sexual abuse hides out in a wood; a counsellor listens to a client describing the horrific violence of their childhood. These longer episodes are interposed with shorter pieces that are bold in their attempts to articulate the incommunicable, as seen here in the aptly-titled ‘truth’:
truth

A particularly poignant moment is the appearance of three postcards – literally postcards, scanned in – that function as messages from a tortured internal world. The addresses are blacked out, casting doubt on the possibility of a reader, a sympathetic ear, a home for  these thoughts:

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Although Harrod’s experiments with form and medium are refreshing in their variety, the weight of the subject matter and the sheer volume of permutations of human suffering does get a bit much. On top of this, abstract, sometimes vague language is used to grapple with the inexpressible, resulting in phrases like ‘failure assumed’, in the example above, and ‘conflicted and lonely pain shot through my mind’, in opening piece ‘Care to dance?’ In particular, the word ‘black’ crops up so often that it barely seems to mean anything; it becomes a sort of shorthand for pain, to the point where you begin to wonder whether there are other words that could have cut to the chase more effectively.

However, this is a volume that deals with the difficult, the inexpressible. And the reality of these difficult experiences is that they are hard to talk about. Anxiety is nebulous and difficult to pin down; depression is a gradual deadening of the senses and emotions. Our thoughts get out of control; words quite literally fail us. So perhaps it’s as well that Harrod’s treatment of these subjects reflects their difficulty, their numbing effects.

Interestingly, Harrod’s blog is titled ‘decoding static’, and this is just what this collection attempts to do – to forge a path through the noise of a disturbed mind, exploring every diversion and dead end. Googling Harrod threw up a review that described this collection as a ‘perfect summer read’. I’m not sure I’d take it with me for a relaxing day at the beach, but it’s certainly a bold collection, and a passionate one.

Tearing at Thoughts is available to download for free from 79 Rat Press along with 5 other collections by Paul Askew, Sian S. Rathore, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Emily Harrison and Jared Joseph.

Hellsteeth by Jessamine O’Connor

In Pamphlets, Poetry on October 7, 2013 at 9:35 am

 -Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey

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Jessamine O’Connor is a relatively recent name to appear in the Irish poetry world, and after winning and being shortlisted in a number of competitions, she’s one to watch. The repertoire in her début chapbook, Hellsteeth is often physical, the poems populated by the elderly, the newborn, and everyone in between, as well as herself. By far the strongest poems for me in this chapbook were the well-placed first and last ones. In the opening poem, ‘Crows feet’, ‘Crow lands / on the blade/ of my shoulder, // Clambers in brambles,/cocks her beak, it’s time’. The pleasing metaphor and the bonding hinted at in ‘our’ almost act as an endorphin: ‘there is all / of our life / for her // to pace / and claw / my bread white skin’. I wish there had been more of this in the chapbook, but the energy displayed here, the wry tone, surfaces elsewhere, too.

Like Sharon Olds, she is not afraid to use the intimate details of her personal life in her poetry. These poems describe simple scenes that turn out not be so simple, a moment sliced open to hint at musculature and skeleton. There’s the ‘alien…spooky’ foetus who turns her bony back on them in an ultrasound scan and ‘I recognise instantly the child of my lover.’ Perhaps it’s the same lover who has onion-breath ‘so strong/ It would knock me down// If I wasn’t already/ On my back’.

You find yourself both wincing and grinning at the comparisons of the three fathers to her labours and the births of her three children in ‘Three new fathers’: the awkward, gotta-get-going first father, the absent, threatening second father, the ‘do as you’re told’ third father who endures her crushing his hand before ‘I roar, and push her out, / Just like that.’ The poems are instantly accessible, so you’d be tempted to read swiftly. But it’s the unsaid that allows mystery to be retained.

In ‘Regular’ the colloquialism of the writing style is appealing: ‘That’s the silver spoon in her mouth / has her talking like that…’ This would be an inconsequential poem if it weren’t for the slight shock of revelation in the final lines that redeems it: ‘Later, ntangling her hair from his hand / He wondered if he’d gone too far.’ This is O’Connor’s strength: the small frisson, the chill that accompanies each personal encounter in these poems.

She also shares something of Rita Ann Higgins’ feisty independence of spirit and clarity. Anything at all might come within her poetic orbit, including ‘Asimo – on Prime Time TV’ which describes a four-foot-three robot: ‘Of course they say you’ll do the jobs we don’t want./ As if a million-dollar-man like you will ever be wasted cleaning loos,/ Or down an aluminum mine,// Or picking over smouldering plastic/ to find pieces of re-useable metal/ Like our children do.’ It’s her politically vehement tone, more than anything else, that identifies O’Connor’s voice.

There’s the sense that she is immersed in the quivering moment of flux, latching on to a brief reflection, as in ‘To Samar Hassan’ after reading about the death of photographer Chris Hondros, who took the iconic photograph of the Iraqi child in a ‘spotlight of grief’ seconds after her parents had been shot in front of her. After seeing the girl’s image in the paper again, O’Connor needs to hold her own baby, ‘weigh that bulk in my arms, and squash/ my dry face against her clammy cheeks’. It’s always a challenge to attempt to write about someone else’s personal grief. Wisely, all O’Connor does is acknowledge what she can express, simply: ‘I see you, and hear that thing people say / How you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone’. It’s a trite cliché, the kind you hear in song lyrics, but she’s holding her own baby in her arms, and well, clichés become clichés for a reason. While the language is prosaic at times, and the content rather straightforward, it is also unaffected.

There’s a refreshing edge to the anecdotes she narrates, which ensures that she doesn’t slip into sentimentalism or self-pity. In ‘We’ve come to see her’ (a title that is oddly unimaginative), she describes a family visit to a hostile great aunt who’s in a care home:

‘The elderly eyeballs have spun
Round, clear and hard,
She’s going to swipe.
The tallest child looms awkwardly,
His sister teeters with pinking eyes,
The box of chocolates going off in her hands.’

What kept me reading was an undeniably voyeuristic curiosity about her revelations. Though there is a sense that these are confessional poems, like a strip tease, they show us enough but not too much. In ‘Fracture’

‘Close your eyes and lie back,
Shut your mouth,
Relax, just picture the money…

…until slowly we’ve coldly unclothed our skin,
Looked away,
And let them in.’

There’s a cold pragmatism here, that nonetheless evokes the hurt and bitterness of being coerced into this situation. I spotted a flash of resemblance between the speaker and the grand-aunt who’s been forced into a care home. This is a poet whose honesty is sometimes raw: When ‘he’ offers sympathy: ‘I snot on his shoulder, and my eyes drain pride/ Down the blue of his waterproof jacket’ (‘Surprise’)

The undeniable earthiness of her work is evident again in ‘Invisible art’ which describes an exhibition of empty canvasses, the audience reading the labels and nodding, while ‘a streaker/ jiggles barefoot/ through the crowd./ No one looks/ at his bouncing balls,/ his conductor’s hands,/ his Rubenesque flesh…’ But O’Connor makes the reader look. Not just fleetingly. In detail.

Yeats once said, ‘I am still of the opinion that only two topics can be of the least interest to a serious and studious mood: sex and the dead.’ In her final poem, ‘Hellsteeth’, (my other favourite), O’Connor’s evocation of her lover is in his physicality, not in the bedroom, but in chores: ‘he was springtime/ Up on rotten ladders’. Now, ‘He isn’t belly-deep in rushes/ Or chasing pigs…No one there/ Since he’s been gone/ Every day of the last ten years.’ It’s the vividness of the imagery and especially the impact of the last line, that makes this portrait, and this poem, so poignant.

While the chapbook is uneven in terms of quality (and editing), you sense that this is a poet who is going to develop. In her strongest poems, Jessamine O’Connor makes the reader stop and think. Read again.

Albion by Stephen Emmerson

In Object, Poetry on September 20, 2013 at 8:03 am

-Reviewed by Paul McMenemy

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Albion is the product of an artwork installed by Stephen Emmerson in Inland Studios, South London over two days in August 2012. Five typewriters were arrayed at the points of a pentagram drawn in the middle of the gallery floor, with names from the Blakean mythopoeia written in front of them. On the walls hung four “visual poems” – black and white arrangements of typewritten capitals, pencil and biro marks. A specially-written soundtrack looped in the background. On entering, participants were given printed instructions: “Please use the typewriters to help create a new poem by William Blake. // Write whatever you want.” Below this was a half-page “introduction” giving a brief, selective précis of Blake’s work and an explanation of what Albion was intended to be: “a poem-installation based on psychogeographical information and psychic and paranormal investigations that explore Blake’s complex methods of composition and mythopoetics. It is also an attempt to reconnect with the political aspects of Blake’s work.”

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The interest of Albion, the “poem-installation”, lay in the process, not the product. This is justifiable in an installation, but problematic in a poem. Consequently, Albion, the published artefact, reproduces as much of the installation as will fit in a hardback-sized box: the reader is given the instruction-sheet, the “visual poems” and six murky photographs of the installation for reference, and is advised to listen to the soundtrack (best described as “art installation music” – a polite industrial magnolia noise of strings and typewriter clacks) on CD whilst reading. Ideally, all this should prepare a sort of spiritual static, through which the poem can break like longwave radio.

Blake’s “new poem” (as dictated to his psychic typing pool) comprises 22 loose, roughly-cut, roughly A5 sheets of homemade-looking paper, each side of which contains some typewritten text. The typewriters provide another layer of interference – as well as the games that can be played with spacing and overtyping, there are the accidental effects of ineradicable typos, worn keys, dry ribbons, etc. However, text written in 6pt grey type on grey paper needs to be worth the eyestrain. It is a commonplace that those who want to write should “just write”; anyone who has ever followed this advice will recognise its results. Albion is 44 sides of blue-sky writing, apparently unedited – there are a couple of black marker redactions, but by whom they were made, when, and if these are the only excisions is unclear. We are also not told who (apart from Blake) wrote Albion – was everyone who visited invited to contribute? Did Stephen Emmerson play any role after providing the conditions under which it could be written?

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The questions arise because while Emmerson has presumably spent plenty of time thinking about Blake, psychogeography and the other things mentioned in his introduction, there is little evidence that anyone else involved in Albion’s writing has. If one is describing something, however fancifully, as a new work by Blake, one must explain in what way this is the case. Even if we accept the dubious notion that Blake would decide to disregard his writing style and most of his pre-existing symbolic idiom, why would he replace it with prose of the sort written by teenagers who have just read Ulysses and have not yet realised that stream of consciousness is a style, not a method?

There is the odd interesting underdeveloped idea, but there is only one page that engages with the remit in any detail. It begins:

“This ghost of a dead typewriter
A vision of the sun of albion
Luvah weeping by the thames
Asits chartered water pass by

“Urizen loom  loftily appo ite
Surveying the Scene, parcelling,
It up in consciouSneSS. But one
Sacred letter reSiSts hi  gaze” [sic]

It is entirely atypical of the whole. I cannot say it was definitely written by Emmerson, nor that it was written, or gestated, in advance of or after the installation (while it feels more “composed” than the rest, it also makes a feature of the typewriter’s worn lower case “s”, which suggests spontaneity), but if one compares it to the previous page, which reads in full:

“DOULTOID Said the money bank
FALLAN criclking pallour and argent
COMMEN crieo eeioldemmeraldinth and
AD SO  SAD GO HOME SOME”

one may see what I mean. Of course, this being a book in a box, presumably the pages can be read in any order one likes, but would it follow any better on this page:

“Hercules and diogenes walk to the cafe and order beans on toast and hash browns.
the sun makes their eyes hurt so they wish they had  unglasses

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“the beans taste d lik  they had been sitin  in the fridge for weeks
absorbing the  smells of everythingaround

“hercules felt quite sick”

or the page which is a line of letters over which further letters have been typed making the whole illegible?

Typewriters might produce visually interesting results, but within the context of Albion’s conceit they present a difficulty: although ancient technology for most of Albion’s creators, they might as well be iPads for all the relevance they have to Blake. It could be argued that the physical act of imprinting ink on paper with metal provides some analogue to Blake’s practice, but it seems unlikely that the engraver would have appreciated the imprecise effects produced here. So again: what has any of this really got to do with Blake? Would this experiment have had any appreciably different outcome installed in North London in an unadorned room, the only soundtrack traffic and gallery-goers, Blake uninvoked and participants simply asked to sit down and type?

Of course, with no overarching concept to justify it, as an installation that would not have worked – which shows up the central confusion of Albion. Like This Press are attempting to sell the experience of two days last summer in a gallery in Camberwell, as so many pieces of paper. The two are different things: Albion may have worked as an installation; it does not as a poem.

‘Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontës’ (ed. A. J. Ashworth)

In anthology, Poetry, Short Stories on September 17, 2013 at 10:30 am

-Reviewed by Rebecca Burns-

A.J.Ashworth, the editor of Red Room – a collection of short stories (and a poem) ‘all inspired by the Brontës, their lives, their work’ – writes in her introduction to the collection that ‘[t]he Brontës fascinate us’. There is no doubt this is the case, despite the passage of over a hundred and fifty years since the death of Charlotte, the last Brontë sister. Such continued adoration was recently evidenced by a story in the Telegraph, concerning the sale of a Charlotte Brontë letter, written to an admirer of Jane Eyre, which fetched around £24,000. It was with interest, then, and a shared love of some Brontë texts, that I approached Red Room, a collection of stories ‘written by some of the best short story writers in Britain today’.

Red Room Bronte

A percentage of the sales of the anthology will raise funds for The Brontë Birthplace Trust in Thornton. Trustees and readers will not be disappointed by their efforts. This is a marvellous little book; the stories themselves only take up about 120 pages, but they are brilliant evocations of the Brontë novels, poems, or scenes from their lives. The book contains a useful list of biographies at the end and – cleverly included by the editor – a collection of notes recording the inspiration behind the stories, helping the reader understand how each writer came to construct their story, and the Brontë novel/poem/experience that they took as their springboard.

A couple of the writers in the collection I was familiar with – Man Booker-shortlisted Alison Moore and Saboteur-nominated Tania Hershman. Moore’s story, ‘Stonecrop’ takes its inspiration from a line in Wuthering Heights, and portrays a timid, dominated young girl who turns out to be not so innocent or naïve after all. Hershman’s story, ‘A Shower of Curates’, takes the first lines of all the Brontë novels to create a mid-Victorian remembrance; that is, a kind of diary entry written by a nameless male. A fun exercise for the reader would be to go back to the Brontë novels and see where Hershman used the first lines and how they inspired her.

David Constantine’s ‘Ashton and Elaine’ is a hauntingly brilliant piece of writing, one of the best stories I have read this year. His intention had been to provide ‘a sort of utopian answering back against [the] cruelty’. He is achingly effective in depicting a damaged, broken child in Ashton, who had been hurt by people unknown to the extent that he ‘shook as though under the skin he was packed with raddling ice’. Mute though not uncommunicative, Ashton is sent to a children’s home, standing on the moors in a ‘scoop of frozen stillness’, in order to recover. Surrounded by snow and ice, he does not see desolation or isolation in the moors; instead, the snowfall opens up chinks in his silent defence – ‘nothing very concrete or easily describable, more like a shift of light over a surface of ice, snow or water.’ The rugged landscape of the moors emblemised the passionate relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy in Wuthering Heights; in ‘Ashton and Elaine’, Constantine teases out the nurturing, less violent benefits of the moors. Ashton’s slowly developing relationship with Elaine and her family is handled tenderly, never mawkishly, even during the very moving scene when Ashton finally speaks. This is a lovely story, containing passages that I returned to and read again because of their understated beauty.

Equally powerful is Sarah Dobbs’ ‘Behind all the Closed Doors’, which ‘was written as an attempt to understand the grief that goes with losing a parent at such a young age.’ Dobbs doesn’t specify which – if any – Brontë novel or poem she singles out for inspiration, but the impact of her story loses none of its resonance for that. Through gradual hints and suggestions, we learn that young Henry’s mother has died. Random adults care for him, an uncle who ‘looks a bit like Dad. If Dad’s features had been smudged away like the numbers on the board’. Henry’s life has disintegrated. He goes to sleep dressed in his school uniform. In a powerful reflection of the family’s now-shattered life, he cuts his mother’s favourite book – presumably Wuthering Heights – to pieces. Although riddled with grief, the story has comic passages (said uncle, mashing eggs in the kitchen smells of ‘poo and pepper’), and captures the probing, inquisitive nature of a child’s bereavement.

Felicity Skelton’s imagining of an amorous meeting between Charlotte Brontë and Napoleon is also well written (‘The Curate’s Wife – A Fantasy’); Simon Armitage’s poem, ‘Emily B’ is disarmingly subtle yet powerful with its portrait of the Brontë sister. A gorgeous opening: ‘Too much rain/in the blood. Too much/cloud in the lungs.’

If I were a Trustee of The Brontë Birthplace Trust, I would be proud to have Red Room as a means of raising funds. This is a fantastic collection of stories, a real treat for all Brontë-lovers and for those who simply love a good read.

‘Mammal’ by Jared Joseph

In Pamphlets, Poetry on September 11, 2013 at 9:58 am

 -Reviewed by Rosie Breese

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Jared Joseph’s collection Mammal begins with a wall of sound – a riotous rattling-off of terms from the animal, human, and physical worlds; a litany that mixes all three into a kind of primordial soup laid thick over the page. It’s insistent, persistent. There’s no scanning, no skipping. There are rhythmic patterns of substitution and conflation, the animal for the human, the physical for the animal, and all permutations in between:

‘Animal-drowning noise, give me animal falling from sky, wax instead of wings,   glue-char instead of wax, hoof of horse instead of burnt, burnt umbra instead of half of anything …’

And there’s the recitation of a kind of idiosyncratic etymological genealogy:

‘like Christian comes from Christ, like Lazarus comes from rest, from lessness, like Islam comes from is lamb, like lamp comes from oil comes from holy-lubed revealed word, like the shower curtain…’

Here, we see what’s to come in the rest of the collection: the physical/animal world is brought up against the world of human concepts with a wonderful, boundless freedom – sonic links substitute for semantic ones, the visual for the conceptual.

The wall of sound soon gives way to a series of sections, each taking a different animal as a starting point, musing on its physicality, riffing outwards from the animal to the human, to the world of objects and back again, inhabiting all and collapsing the distances between them. The poems, or sections of the wider poem that is Mammal, seem to be drawn endlessly forward through a sheer joy in sound association, as demonstrated here, in the section beginning ‘Now I am a mule’:

‘We’re hot to trot on rasping coughs
The floor is hot.
The limestone floor is hot to trot.
The sock hop is an out of body experience’

There is a jangling percussiveness to this writing, as hypnotic as listening to a drummer jamming. There are lines that surprise, there are unexpected fills. There is something transcendent about the frenzied rhythms and repetitions and the hypnotic quality of these, together with the evocation and inhabitation of animal bodies and voices. A shamanic dance would be an apt way to describe it. It is indeed an ‘out of body experience’.

As such, these poems could be seen as places of metaphysical enquiry and contemplation, the themes of birth, sex and death frequently surfacing through their twists, turns and rhythms:

‘Cheryl’s death is all about.
The end line lies about the table with vermouth
the table is sopping with vermouth
the end is vermouth
drink death down the gullet!
death to vermouth’

These moments of physical transformation are ever-present, and the objects and sounds that surround them are repeated almost obsessively, mutated, turned this way and that, and incorporated into sonic-semantic fantasias that draw you in through curiosity and a desire to link theme with object with being. You’re then yanked through a set of steps so unexpected that you forget what you started with and realise that perhaps you’re just there to join the dance, along for a jolting and magnificent ride and that that is a joy in itself.

Even so, this constant riffing makes space for some wonderful moments of quiet drama:

‘..just load a gun & love
like a crushed bird too tired’

‘I’m son.
I’ve laid with everyone.
I’ve been the light weighed on their skin.’

And then there’s the moment something dazzles and distracts the drummer, who gets stuck beating a shining cymbal:

‘diamonds
diamonds diamonds
diamonds diamonds diamonds’

There are a zillion other treasures within this collection; enough for me to bang on for several more pages, but I want to leave some for you to discover for yourself when you go and download it and spend some good, long afternoons in its gloriously unpredictable company. It’s free, by the way.

The one thing that could be improved upon (and I’m really nitpicking here, but if you’re shallow like me, you do indeed judge a book by its cover) is the look of the physical copy that came bounding through my letterbox. The shiny black cover, the vaguely bondagey artwork and the translucent paper all combine to give this collection the look of something less professional than it is. That said, it *is* primarily available as an ebook, so who the hell cares. It’s what’s inside that matters, right? And what’s inside is really, truly exciting.

Jared Joseph’s irreverently dazzling collection forms part of 79 Rat Press’s  ‘NOTHING TO SAY’ series, which showcases the work of six uniquely inventive writers. 79 Rat Press is a publisher of conceptual ebooks, established, as their website states, with the worthy intention of ‘creating moments in contemporary literature that bring an awareness of the glorious, spectacular possibilities of words’. This is something that this collection achieves in showstopping style. I certainly look forward to reading more from this series.

 

Mammal is available to download for free at http://79ratpress.wordpress.com/ along with 5 other collections by Paul Askew, Sian S. Rathore, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Emily Harrison and Andy Harrod.

‘Livid Among The Ghostings’ by Anna Percy

In Pamphlets, Poetry on August 22, 2013 at 9:32 am

-Reviewed by Dan Holloway

LAGweb

Livid Among the Ghostings, Anna Percy’s first substantial pamphlet (published by Flapjack Press) has the best title of anything I’ve read in recent years. It contains thirteen prints by the illustrator Sarah Peploe, each of which complements the poetry and contributes towards creating something as beautiful on the eye as it is on the ear. Percy, who co-runs with Rebecca Audra Smith Manchester’s Stirred Poetry Collective, an inclusive feminist performance and workshopping space, has one of the most distinctive delivery styles I’ve heard, with an incredibly nuanced use of lilt and varied cadence to carry us across the surface of her work. It’s a subtle, skilful, and highly effective technique. I can’t read Percy’s poetry without hearing her deliver it which is my only qualm about a truly marvellous book. It’s difficult to imagine what it would be like for someone who has never heard her to find themselves with a copy of Livid Among the Ghostings in their hands. But I’ll try – though I would recommend readers to search her out on YouTube before reading.

I haven’t spoken to Percy about the title. I wanted to come at the book without preconceptions, so maybe I am thoroughly misguided, but the image it, and the poetry, conveys is that of layer on layer of the history of brilliant women, greyed by a history that speaks for them, each clamouring to be heard and given glorious voice at the moments of intersection with the most deeply confessional revelation of the poet. There is a rhythm to the flow of poems inspired by women from history and intimate, personal pieces. But rather than dancing around each other without connecting, each brushes against the other, and we feel Percy’s breath give life to the dead and the dead provide the context for Percy’s life. Nowhere is this very clever structure clearer than in ‘Painting Her Cast’, dedicated to Frida Kahlo, and the next, deeply personal, poem ‘There Are Always Desiccated Flowers at the Bottom of My Handbag’. I’m wary to use words like fetish or totem, with their Freudian overtones, but these poems are both about the way we make ourselves manifest in our treatment of external objects. Frida, trapped and institutionalised for so long by her body, nonetheless creates

“verdant flowers and birdsong in a hospital room”

by painting her casts, whilst the narrator of the subsequent poem

“plucked a fat-headed flower”
And spits
“petals on the pavement
torn tattered battered
useless as my heavy head and heart”

There is a sense of the poet measuring herself against Frida, and yet it is not as simple as the one bringing life through nature to a place of death and the other bringing death to nature. It is the beauty of Anna Percy’s words through which Frida lives, and the careful structure shows us the poet’s pain in the context of Frida’s own pain, yet it does so without self-pity. These tendrils of connection are part of a very old and complicated history, and Percy never oversteps, or understeps, the mark in assigning her place within it.

It is not just the skilfully overarching construction that marks this book out. Anna Percy has an uncanny knack for creating perfect phrases such as “she walked disguised /pinballing street corners” and “you had to steal those narcissi poking / through fence posts so teasingly / and Morissey it down the street.”

But for me the strongest poems are those that play lyrically on a low melancholy refrain such as “Matisse”, an ekphrastic meditation on the artist’s painting of blue women. The word blue is endlessly riffed and toyed with, the subtly shifting meanings held in balance and anchored by the sound of the word until the beautiful last couplet – “Blue women are too sharp: / walking blades they cut swathes unnoticed.” But the finest example is the closing poem, ‘For Ruth Betty Blue and All the Fucked Up Women I Ever Knew’, the best slam poem I have ever seen performed. This begins with a Ginsbergian structure of achingly drawn snapshots of the women patriarchy has silenced, each anchored by an opening “who” but it opens out into something far more expansive, which takes the heartbreaking particularity of what has gone before – in the poem and the whole book – and turns it into a universal lament and call to action. Gone is the long, low “who”, replaced by an string of ululating “bones” that reminded me of the pages-long dirge at the end of Dubravka Ugresic’s Ministry of Pain. The last lines, “bones riddled with sickness eating them from the inside out / they have been down to the bare bones of their person / bones hang round their neck of dead mothers / brothers, friends, strangers, lovers” turns the poem brilliantly – those who have been oppressed through history have survived history itself – and provides an apt image to take us back into the world.

‘London Cityscape Sijo And Other Poems’ by Robert Vas Dias

In Pamphlets, Poetry on August 20, 2013 at 11:42 am


-Reviewed by Paul McMenemy

london-cityscape

As Robert Vas Dias points out, many Korean poets treat the conventions of sijo form selectively; working within a centuries-old tradition understood by their readers, they can subvert or reshape it as they like. Most readers of “London Cityscape Sijo”, unaware of these conventions, and where Vas Dias departs from them, will only see that he has written a sequence of 21 similar-looking poems. Sijo are three-line poems, each line containing four stress-centred syllabic parcels and a caesura (like an Old English distich, sans alliteration); the last line should contain a volta; the whole should come to a syllable count in the mid-forties (some leeway is allowed). Here, these rules are observed or ignored as is convenient – poem 5 even runs to two stanzas – akin to writing a narrative in run-on haiku. Poem 10, “Balloon Variations”, also contains more than one stanza, but in this case, as the title suggests, each is self-contained: indeed, the poet appears to have written the same poem three times, and been unable or unwilling to decide which was best. In his notes, the author tells us that he only settled on the sijo form some way into the writing process; I suspect that 5 was written before this point, and would be happier in another format.

This superficial formal continuity need not be an insuperable problem, however, providing the sequence is tonally consistent. Have you ever read a haiku and thought, “It’s amazing how little can be said in seventeen syllables”? Western readers of eastern poetry often forget that it includes a wealth of cultural and literary allusion which cannot be conveyed in the body of a translation. Failure to understand this can lend a pseudo-Zen naivety to western essays in eastern forms. Vas Dias does not always avoid this, describing “poetic” experiences, rather than making poetry of experience: the “Balloon” poems mentioned above are examples of this; another is the first poem in the sequence, reprinted below. I would suggest that your reaction to this will give you a notion of your likely attitude to the whole:

‘A Canada goose walks down
    my street, does not fly, he

steps aside to let cars pass by,
    we bring him milk-soaked bread,

the churchwarden and I, which
    he finishes. Then he flies.’

Rhythmically, it has an engaging haltness; the honking internal rhymes will not suit all tastes, but, again, they lend an auditory interest to the poem. Beyond this, however, it is difficult to see what to take from the poem. I do not doubt that it was a personally moving experience for the poet, as any interaction with a wild creature must now be, but I am uncertain he successfully conveys this to the reader, let alone any larger point about human gratitude and animal indifference.

As Vas Dias says, sijo allows the poet room to be “more subjective, lyrical, and personal” than the popular Japanese forms. When this works, it can be really exciting – the beautiful descriptive burst of haiku, but with an authorial investment which carries the reader inside the experience, as seen in poem 14; or poem 9, below:

‘Two stately Buck Mulligan
    police horses clattering

on the tarmac, their long equine
    faces I look up to, like

fathers, make me feel lower,
    that I’m up to something.’

A nice piece of Freudianising. But if barmen are poorly-paid therapists, in this instance any trained bartender would ask, “Why the long equine face?” It appears the loose sijo form is here slightly too baggy – the poet needs a two-syllable adjective to fill it out and tautology be damned.

Also, “personal” does not necessarily mean original: poem 19, “Oasis in the Park, Highbury Fields” begins with “Yummy mummies sipping lattes”, takes in “designer dogs” before concluding sniffily, that this is “a certain sign of what passes / here as spring in the city.” Take that, matrons of Hampstead! Redundant satire aside, this poem highlights a larger problem with the sequence: its title contains the only place-name in all of “London Cityscape Sijo”. Almost every poem could take place, not only in any other city in Britain, but any other suburb. It has no sense of place, which would be fine, if the piece was called “Suburban Sijo”; but the poem is advertised as being not only place-specific, but actively topographical in intent.

Speaking of titles, the “And Other Poems” in this collection, occupying the second half of the pamphlet, feel very much that, trailing in the wake of the main feature. Designated “Poems Integrating Quoted Text”, two are straight cut-ups, others incorporate only a few lines or words of quoted text, and one merely takes inspiration from its “text” without directly quoting it at all. The most successful is probably “Some of the Notes Were Tricky – Stage 3”, a cut-up of a newspaper article about an art installation in which people impersonate birds, which produces its own twittering, edge-of-meaning effect.

This is illustrative of the strengths and weaknesses of the whole: whilst often sonically effective, it rarely signifies: Sijo 20, with its clever footstep/heartbeat rhythm, but negligible nutritional value, is characteristic. The final poem of the collection, “Waves”, begins similarly:

‘Dream still body-
      surfing crests of wave
ecstasy of hoist and thrust
      foam-rush pummel
to skin-scraping shore’

Evocative enough, but never surprising. At half-way it introduces the idea that now, in old age, exhilaration has been replaced with fear of “broken bones, or worse.” And so,

      ‘the dream become Sendai,
Aceh tsunami nightmare,
       lofting houses off foundations,
cars, boats, bodies tossed
       in black waters’

The analogy seems off, tasteless. Yet the metaphor is subjectively accurate – old age is a natural disaster – but it does not feel earned: nothing in the previous thirty pages of risk-free audio entertainment has prepared for it. The problem is not that the reader is made to question what poetry is allowed to do, but that he is only made to do so in the pamphlet’s final lines.

‘parallel texts’ by Dai Vaughan

In Pamphlets, Poetry on August 12, 2013 at 10:00 am

-Reviewed by Fiona Moore

pamphlet_01_parallel_texts

The structure of this small pamphlet is unusual: the title’s texts are two sequences of love poems, one written in the early 1960’s and the other nearly 50 years later. Fourteen Love Poems and Hindsights don’t form a narrative; nevertheless they contain a story, all the more intriguing for being left mostly untold. As the poet asks in Hindsights: ‘Do loves never return? / Into what are they translated?’

The parallel text concept can’t not raise questions in the reader’s mind: how will the early and late work compare, and will the style of each reflect its times?  Each text is an extended meditation, in 14 poems of varying lengths, on life and love. The voice is intensely personal, so it seems right to refer to ‘the poet’ rather than ‘the speaker’. In Fourteen Love Poems, he’s often walking through London, mostly at night, alone or with his lover:

‘foliage putrescent
In green flood-lighting, the lions
Of the Water-gate corroded
Shapeless as a cough, the voyeurs
Of the law probing the bushes’

These descriptions have a strong period feel. Here the poet has missed the last bus home:

‘youths
On bicycles with airguns had
Extinguished all the lights with well-
Aimed shots; and as I came upon
The bomb-site with its smitten arm-
Chair’

Despite clues such as the line-end hyphens above, it took me a while to realise that the whole book is written in syllabics – eight syllables a line throughout, short lines which must have been hard to sustain. It’s skilfully done, and helps to unify the two halves of the book. Strong enjambment gives the poems urgency, and adds a curtness to the tone which cuts across the stream-of-consciousness flow. The form doesn’t hinder lyrical passages, as in poem 7 whose five lines read like an extended haiku:

‘A cinder falls in the grate, and
An ember fades in the gloom. What
Has happened to the spilt fire of
Our two-hour-old communion?
You lie asleep, away from me.’

The initial capitalisation may get in the way – I suppose it’s of its time for the earlier text, and Vaughan must have decided to keep it for Hindsights.

Hindsights includes less walking and some complaints about old age and modern times. There is a quote from Apollinaire, flâneur of both river banks, as an epigraph: ‘… the days go by yet I remain’. Minor themes from the earlier text recur – the dawn chorus, street lamps. The style is flatter as the poet enacts his own awkwardness.

‘I haven’t written a poem
For three decades; yet some still dub
Me bard, which I find a trifle
Embarrassing. Must try harder.’

We know that the two lovers parted: ‘Life that’s carved a course without you…’  In the final poem, they meet again.

‘And you whom I have not seen for
Forty years sit opposite me
And pick up the conversation
As if our coffee had scarcely
Cooled.’

This poem and the book’s postscript give a sense of completion. Yet they are lightly done; we are told very little, and almost nothing about the forty years in between, or the affair itself. What’s most poignant is that there’s already a strong sense in Fourteen Love Poems of love’s transience and the nearness of death, so that those early poems prefigure the nostalgia in Hindsights.

Vaughan was a distinguished editor of documentary films, which explains one of the stronger late poems, a lament for the pre-digital age:

‘No, I dream on equipment knocked
Together from scrapyards, from crashed
Lancaster bombers, found in crypts
Beneath abandoned studios.’

Vaughan died in 2012. I feel sorry that I won’t be able to bump into him at some poetry event and ask about his two texts, question his theory that there can’t be left and right banks on tidal rivers, and say that his opening three lines made me think I was reading W.S. Graham:

‘In an after-image you stand
By the switch as I feel the warmth
Of you slip down by my cheek.’