A World Where, Paul Brookes, Nixes Mate Books, 2017, ISBN-13: 978-0999188217, Kindle Edition £2.30.
The Headpoke and Firewedding, Paul Brookes, Alien Buddha Press, 2017, ISBN: 1548371858, free on Kindle Unlimited.
The No Breath, John Goodby, The Red Ceiling Press, 2017, £6.00 inc. p&p (UK), £7.50 inc. p&p (Europe), £9.00 inc p&p (World).
Appropriately enough for a poet I came across for the first time on Twitter and WordPress, Paul Brookes seems to specialise in being published online. The two e-books under review here represent the boundarylessness of the Internet as medium, being the work of a Barnsley-based Englishman published in the United States and distributed online.
Brookes describes himself as ‘a shop assistant, after employment as a security guard, postman, admin. assistant, lecturer, poetry performer’ and his work reflects the breadth of this life experience, coming, as it does, from outside any kind of mainstream British poetry.
A World Where comprises a series of imaginings of a world where an inversion of norms is the norm, in poems whose title often take the form ‘x is y (‘Youth is Age’, ‘Loss is Good’) or otherwise express humorous paradox. This strategy allows him to reflect on the absurd unfairness of many aspects of the world as is, of lives lived in the margins, but without the ‘romance’ of liminality:
I’ll keep it short.
Folk don’t reckon.
Soft in the head.
To share’s forbidden.
Grip my hand, lad
and livelong pain.
(from ‘Before “Get Lost!” Nobody Tells Me’)
These poems are full of disease, decay and death, of death, especially, in life:
He touches me. His skin
warm. An abnormal
response. I can tell
he is dead. His heart
will beat. He will walk and run.
This is how death shows itself.
(from ‘A Movement is Death’)
But they find hope in the simple power of language, the power of simple language, as in this poem, which defies extraction and cries out to be quoted in full:
Unwalk the walk,
Step back the step forward,
unstride the stride,
exhale the blossom,
unspring the spring
unsprung the sprung,
unsee the seen,
untouch the touch,
unsmile the smile back,
unlaugh the laughter,
unlive the life,
undead the dead.
While A World Where is made up of a series of discrete short poems revolving around a single idea, The Headpoke and Firewedding is a more ambitious work. It consists of two longish sequences, the first of which, ‘The Headpoke’, hovers around the theme of fire, in its domestic and primeval emanations. Where the language of the earlier collection is quotidian, here Brookes plays with mythic, almost ritualistic, registers. In the opening set, the quotidian act of lighting a fire in a grate takes on the weight of a solemn ceremony, undercut somewhat by the voice of the grate urging a return to the everyday.
Old ash and cinders block gust makes for
poor-burning, makes for poor-thinking
prepare my gob for my tongues my gob
packed with ash piled ash in my grate
piled ash in my head crumbles like walls
from incendiaried homes
stop wandering off when I’m talking to you!
ash up against my fire-bars makes them
overheat makes you overthink
so they sag and “burn through” make me
virginal something to focus on something
for focus recall collecting ears of spelt in
The use of formatting to weave other voices and registers to the text is used here and elsewhere to great effect. There are strong echoes of Anglo-Saxon poetry in places:
Heart-ship tugs at its harbour.
My imagination in mere-flood,
in whale plunge, wide in its turns
eager for seas vastness. Gannet yells
as whale-way spirit quickens over holm’s deep
At other times, the influence of Finnegans Wake is apparent:
of the waterbride
of the waveskin.
Her inner lips of the river,
spring and waterfalls,
fermented honey drip.
The second section, ‘Firewedding’, moves away from the domestic world of grates to the natural order. It consists mainly of sections in Brooke’s South Yorkshire dialect followed by versions of the same text in ‘Received English’, the latter generally being longer than the former, which may be part of the point.
breathe in mistletoe oak, rowan, and fir.
watch massive sticky full moon rise amber an gold as if honey outa hive
yon balefires r small suns
t’ massive blaze nar set this short neet
Inhale mistletoe oak, rowan, and fir.
watch massive sticky full moon rise in amber and gold as if dipped in honey out of a hive
These balefires are small suns to the massive blaze above now set this short night
It’s a potentially interesting idea, but it tends to lose impact after a couple of iterations and you’re left thinking that the dialect sections might have been more powerful left to stand on their own merit. Nevertheless, Brookes’ voice is his own, and it’s a voice worth reading for its own sake.
John Goodby is an Englishman living in Wales who has written some of the most important critical responses to innovative Irish poetry. He’s also a leading Dylan Thomas scholar, as evidenced by his immaculate editing of the Centenary Collected Poems. He’s also a fine poet in his own right. His most recent collection, The No Breath, is published by The Red Ceiling Press in an edition of 40, so the review copy I have is digital, one of the interesting possibilities that new technology allows to small publishers and their authors.
Goodby’s poems tend to be small, disjunctive snapshots of energy, in a disembodied diction that evades the idea of a single speaking voice. He favours the lightest of punctuation, and often the main or only punctuation used is initial capitalisation of every line:
Blue silk slats slander perfume
Tied with a fist conversation
A fishbone in the mirror a grave
Walking in the dark turning-point
It is a lion cathedral decline
Which has the odd effect of causing each line to start with a missed beat, start-stopped rather than end-stopped. This is a key part to the distinctive music of these poems, but Goodby is not averse to more conventional notation, including alliteration and assonance, creating sound patterns that are almost lyrical, while mirroring the disjunction of the syntax, s in the ‘w’ and long and short ‘e’ sounds in this passage from ‘Morn’.
At three with the secrets of the world
We turn when you come to bed
From the well I had not understood
The breath you have been working
Goodby, like Brookes, has a developed a distinctive voice, low key, minor key even, but there’s nothing wrong with that.
Finally, a wonderful mixed bag of goodies of the kind that I suppose we have to call ephemera came from Rupert Loydell when I asked for the rest of the Smallminded Books series after reviewing Anna Cathenka’s Prayerbook for Tree a while back. The full set includes work by Loydell himself, Martin Stannard, Robert Shepherd, John Phillips, John Martone, Sandra Tappenden, Patricia Farrell, Andrea Moorhead and a host of others, including the excellent Sarah Cave, whose work is relatively new to me. Her tiny folded book, Cat on Ice, is a sequence about a fox, Slava:
Beneath a ridge of granite
Slava fashioned a limpet crucifix
and sucked his fingers clean
tasting sea-life to death.
The bold formatting calls out words on six of the seven pages that form an additional poem, whether intended or not I cannot say:
a solitary spruce
Also in the packet were 5 other folded A5 booklets, these of four A6 pages each, with images front and back and inside two poems with the same titles as the images. The series goes under the collective title Joyful Mysteries, numbered #1 to #5. In the first and third, the poems are by Loydell and Peter Gillies, the second and fourth feature Loydell and Cave again, and the fifth has two poems by Loydell, and the whole thing circles around the Annunciation. The final lines of the last poem, ‘God Thoughts’, capture something of the tone of the whole:
God hated being nagged by words.
They’d bugged him from the beginning,
then teamed up with consciousness
in an attempt to make people think.
He used to know how to walk on water.
Finally, there are five A5 card covered saddle-stitched pamphlets under the Analogue Flashback Books imprint that do what they say on the tin; they are a bit like time travellers from the 1970s and 80s, the great era of the photocopier and long-armed stapler for little presses. Three of the five are anthologies of sorts, one a set of responses from various poets (including a number of those who appear in the Smallminded series) to a photograph called The Poet; another is a set of prose pieces on albums that were formative in one way or another to the writers; the third is a kind of mock theology reader. Of the remaining two, Loydell’s Inner Space Ghost Machine is, apparently, a reworking of a book by Daniel Y Harris, but as I don’t know the original I felt like I was missing the point somewhat.
The fifth, Impossible Songs: 21 Annunciations, is a collaboration between Loydell and Cave that covers much the same ground as the Joyful Mysteries set, even referring to some of the same images, but in more extended form. The individual poems here are not attributed to either writer, but there are some possible clues as to authorship. Ten of the poems have titles printed on bold, title case while the rest are in regular, all uppercase, with one of the first group being dedicated ‘for Rupert’ and one of the second ‘for Sarah Cave’. This may, of course, be a complete red herring; one way or another, it’s a very interesting little book:
Your cousin’s child
came to die. Mary’s father says, ‘we all come to die’.
He came to die for our sins. ‘We take our sins with us’.
John’s hear lies half-formed
on another woman’s salver.
Salome looks smug over the reception desk.
She thought you wouldn’t want to say goodbye.
This parcel of paper is a fine celebration of the joys of quick, small-scale analogue poetry publishing at its best, long live print.