logbook, Hiromi Suzuki, Hesterglock, £10.00
some time we are heroes, Reuben Woolley, Corrupt Press, €15, ISBN 979-10-90394-58-2
A Long and Hard Night Troubled by Visions, Tom Jenks, if p then q, £8.00, ISBN: 978-1999954710
The Balthus Poems, William Minor, Coracle Press, €10.
Hiromi Suzuki is a Japanese visual poet/collage artist who is associated with the VOU group of Japanese poets founded by the surrealist Kitasone Katue and whose work I first came across in the excellent Empty Mirror. The work collected in this enterprising volume from Hesterglock consists for the most part of collages using scraps of images and text from magazines, newspapers and other ephemera in a style that is highly reminiscent of certain Dada artists, including Kurt Schwitters. Interspersed between these are a number of prose statements that act as commentary on both the work assembled and Suzuki’s methods.
Interestingly, she appears to reverse the Surrealist cliché by working at night before going to sleep, and seeking not to record the content of the dreams she has had but to influence the content of dreams to be had, both her own and those of her reader/viewers. the resulting work comprises fragments of the everyday made over, with apparently random associations of objects acquiring a new logic by dint of simply being laid beside each other. The fact that Suzuki labels these works ‘logbook’ is, I think, telling; they are both a record of a journey as it happens and notes for a potentially expanded later recounting. She favours neutral, sepia-like tones, where the occasional splash of bright colour is rendered all the more vivid by contract to its setting. But it’s almost impossible to do this work justice in words, so here’s a picture to look at, from a series called Seasons:
The source material behind Reuben Woolley’s some time we are heroes is the Ladybird series of John and Mary early readers, and again these ‘ordinary’ materials are made over by the poet. Woolley is concerned with what happens to the dull, conventional middle-class respectability of the 1950s-style Ladybird universe when it encounters harsh reality. The result is a study of the tensions that underlie the dilapidated circus that is Brexit Britain.
The poems are a kind of muted call-and-response between the central figures, with images of violence and dislocation surfacing regularly:
& sleepless.she makes
that john will speak & night
without a grin
we write with knives
gouge words on skin
There are occasional flickering glimpses of redeeming beauty:
i hold light
but the overall tone is of quiet despair, of people surviving in a cheap dystopia gone to seed. As befits poetry, the hope, such as it is, resides in the quality of language, the sound of the poet’s art on the page. Woolley’s characteristic music is a kind of spiky percussiveness, and it is evident here in moments of crisis:
a certain state
of sanity / a wholly health
no hallowed hides.are
louder now.they speak us dry
It is, I think, impossible not to see the poet’s name and identity behind the wordplay of these lines, a nod to the fact that the question of identity is central to our resistance to the everyday oppression that is the subject/object of this collection. The idea of the actor is a recurring theme, with both Mary and John slipping in and out of roles, costumes and masks not as alternative selves, but as disguises; john considers/who he’s wearing/today. They have grown up and away from the simplicities of the easy reader into the more complex, difficult and rewarding realm of poetry, thanks to Woolley’s art.
Tom Jenks is another writer whose focus is on the mundane, and like Suzuki, he views it askance via a kind of surrealist lens. And like Woolley, there’s an element of call and response across the four sets of prose-poems that make up A Long and Hard Night Troubled by Visions (note that the title also implies the importance of dreams here). So that on page 16 we read:
Up early picking plums, I spotted the mermaid perched on the edge of the pond. She slipped into the water as I approached, disappearing among the knotted weeds, leaving only a thin string of bubbles.
and then on page 63:
I waited ten years to be objectified and now it’s boring, like poetry is boring. This is just to say I have written a note about writing a note about eating the plums in the fridge, in that Tupperware box, There’s no point in saying things like that, says Topaz. People just don’t get the reference, like calling your imaginary horse Ceefax.
With these two brief extracts, we get a fairly comprehensive idea of Jenks’ concerns. The intrusion of the fabulous into the everyday; the references to technology from one imagines, across the poet’s life (Tupperware and Ceefax echo reference Instagram, Google and the near forgotten image of TV sets that have to warm up that are found across the book); the insistence, repeated elsewhere, that poetry is boring (which raises a number of questions, including but not limited to ‘is this poetry? ‘is this boring?’ ‘is Jenks attempting to transcend or subvert poetry/boredom?’); following on from this, the telescoping of time into a continuous present; the difficulty of communicating anything in a world where shared points of reference cannot be assumed; an interest in mass media and entertainment that cumulates in ‘’strikes’, a logbook of every instance of someone smoking in season 2 of Mad Men.
Like Woolley, Jenks adapts texts intended for children to new ends; in this case the Strawberry Moshi stories become a set of poems in which language is stripped of all literary connotations and becomes all the more odd and oddly menacing for it:
I am always asleep. I am always cleaning. I am always crying, I am always flying. I am always studying. I am always hiding. We are always carrying something. We are always playing an instrument. We watch over the couples. I am always upside down.
(As an aside, I wonder if Jenks has read Maurice Scully’s work.)
The cumulative effect of the book is to remind us that we live in a world that is constantly in flux, yet constantly static. Everything changes, and nothing does.
William Minor’s work is new to me, I have to confess, The Balthus Poems being the first of his work that I’ve read. This little book from Coracle slips neatly into your pocket, which is apt given that the writing is epigrammatic and fragmentary, texts of one to five lines with, even in this format, loads of white space around them. The poems, if such they are, are reflections on the work and attitude of the titular painter, ranging in general from the mundane to the banal:
In Balthus, one can sense an action taken.
a lot of people
going in and out
and occasional flashes of insight:
What could education and society bury in Balthus
that he couldn’t resurrect with absurdity and dream.
But there is a disturbing silence, an absence, at the heart of this little book, that is perhaps barely hinted at in one of the poems:
In painting a woman as a woman
Balthus must have foreseen the results.
For the reality is that Balthus’ ‘women’ were all too often prepubescent girls painted in highly sexualised poses. The Balthus Poems might have been a far more interesting book if Morris had confronted this uncomfortable, unsupportable reality.
Of And, Keith Waldrop, Guillemot Press, 2018, £6.00
like fragile clay, Sarah Cave, Guillemot Press, 2018, £9.00
The arc of Keith Waldrop’s poetic career is a movement from verbosity to minimalism, a paring away of the extraneous. His early work tends to follow the logic of prose, of sentence and paragraph, but his mature poetry removes this scaffolding to let the silence out. However, while the method has evolved, many of Waldrop’s central concerns have remained constant, especially how ‘the spaces between things/all but make up for the intervening/entities (The Space of Half an Hour, 1983).
In that same book, Waldrop wrote
Many years ago
I wanted to write about
prayer, but was hindered by centuries of
practice – also my religion
got in the way. Am I finally ready?
And now, 35 years later, it seems he is, as prayer is at the core of this tiny recent book from Guillemot. These prayers are offered to ‘gods one need not/believe in’, an idea that, to me at least, summons up that New England Transcendentalist tradition with which Waldrop seems to have so much in common, as when Emerson wrote ‘We have no experience of a creator, and therefore we know of none’.
A little later, Waldrop writes
those who believe in God have
no reason to pray
And so these poems are prayers to an unacknowledged god who has no need of them, an exercise in perception with the inward looking eye of the ‘god in ruins’. What Waldrop seems most to believe in is the act of writing, the word isolated for emphasis:
I decline my soul in
old eyes now in my
just where lights are
The word ‘decline’ here acts, I think, as fulcrum for multiple puns around ideas of refusing, leaning in (as opposed to ‘incline’) and conjugating, as one would a verb. Of And has the feeling of something ending, of being both coda and codicil. If so, it is a fittingly quite, voluminously quiet, closure to a remarkable poetic career.
Religion is also in the mix in Sarah Cave’s like fragile clay, with the title apparently deriving from a letter of St Paul in which the human body is described as a fragile clay vessel containing the divine light or grace, and Job’s ‘What then of those who live in houses of clay, who are founded on dust? They are crushed as easily as the moth’.
Cave’s exploration of our fragile clay is constructed in a framework of Tove Jannson’s Moominvalley stores, a body of work that I am almost entirely ignorant of. This is, I think something of a disadvantage when reading the book, as the distraction of working out who’s who served as a distraction from Cave’s undoubted qualities as a writer. There are four main figures at play, a family consisting of Moominpapa and Moominmamma and their son Moomin along with Snorkmaiden, Moominpapa’s lover.
The poems circle around this affair and the sense of grief and loss it brings to the protagonists. At the core of the book, Snorkmaiden is conflated with the Virgin Mother of the Christian mythos in a poem called ‘Moominvalley Annunciation’, presumably an offshoot of the Annunciation poems she worked on with Rupert Loydell:
Heavily pregnant, Snorkmaiden
fills her basket with the tide’s
clutter. She sees the world
endlessly rocking through
the keyhole of a pebble
or transparent sea glass.
Elsewhere in the book, Cave uses typography and the full resources of the page to create interesting tensions, but the Moomis keep getting in the way, and the most successful poem in the book, for me, is ‘Moomin visits the Rauschenberg Exhibition at the Tate Modern’, where they appear only in the title and where Cave’s ekphrastic are allowed free rein in a set of chant-like theme and variations:
in a painted
dirt and mould
dirt and mould, thorns,
thorns and snail shells
in a wood box
It’s worth reading like fragile clay for this poem alone.
Red Bank, David Annwn, 2018, Knives Forks and Spoons, ISBN: 9781912211197, £7.00
David Annwn’s latest book is a study in the mind’s ability to hold multiple heres and nows simultaneously. Specifically, the poems in Red Bank bring together late 1960s Beatles, the Battle of Red Bank in the English Civil War, 1970s Lancashire and the now of their composition in a set of three interlocking sequences that are mutually illuminating.
Each sequence centres around one or two Beatles’ songs; in the opening section, Red Bank, the songs are ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Golden Slumbers’, the first drawing on Bach’s early 18th century 2nd Brandenburg Concerto, the second on Thomas Dekker’s early 17th century ‘Cradle Song’, the two bracketing the mid-17th century titular battle.
‘Penny Lane’ is a song of community located in the ideal world of 1960s optimism. It represents the home to which the singer in ‘Golden Slumber’s once had a way to get back. Later in the book we see surviving Royalist troops fleeing ‘to Renfrew, to Linlithgow’, also trying to get back home.
At the time the Beatles were writing and recording the songs, Red Bank was also a different kind of community, a school for young offenders and home to some of the most notorious child ‘criminals’ of the 20th century, the flip side of the hippy dream. Annwn weaves a flexible verbal music to bring together these disparate documentary strands as poetry of great fluidity:
Cromwell’s fenland grey-green eyes
weighed this incline
came as silent suns to night.
Too much of it lost
under work and study though we hid
on the bank with our willow-herb spears.
Red Bank assessment unit
for young offenders – once we knew
a way – kept them fit
and away from their families.
Their dormitories backed our
bungalow road; each mode
and splay of their sleeping minds
precious – though not a screw
I was a screw’s son.
The title of the second sequence, The Last Masque, refers to the Stuart Court’s delight in the masque as a form of propagandistic entertainment. The sequence opens with the Beatles’ famous rooftop performance of Get Back, a song that brings the homecoming theme to the fore. That concert coincided with a wreath-laying at the statue of Charles I at the distinctly unromantic nearby Charing Cross Road traffic island to mark the anniversary of the king’s execution. In one sense, this death was the last masque to be performed in the Stuart era, but the conjunction also calls out the parallels between the ‘Cavalier’ 1960s counterculture and their ‘Roundhead’ contemporaries, the office workers who had the music cut short by complaining to the police. This is underscored by the appearance of Paul, George and Ringo in carnivalesque Sgt Pepper’s costume on horseback in the promotional film for ‘Penny Lane’:
To read these fields by the king’s
festivities, a reinvention
As in the habit of masquerade
Sgt Pepper’s reflective wit
establishment. Even Hendrix
in his black hussar’s jacket.
The carpe diem element in ‘Get Back’ is accentuated by a reference to Herrick’s ‘Gather ye rosebuds’ as song ‘with William Lawes’ lunar music/remote and incontestable,/those vast distances’. Herrick’s poem is directly contemporary with the battle, and links it, a chance encounter in the early 1970s with Prince Charles (‘Carolus Hic Rexque Futurus’) and Red Bank school in another multi-layered ‘now’ that encompasses the Matter of Britain, albeit aslant. The placement of both battle and school in the vicinity of Hermitage Green Lane serves to underscore the mythic element while linking back to a possible bus destination from ‘Penny Lane’ in the first section of the book (‘Anyone is free to Hermitage Green Lane.’)
The final sequence, Harvest, opens with a conflation of the harpsichord-like sound of Paul’s Lowrey organ at the start of ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ with William Davenant’s Salmacida SpoliaI (the actual last Stuart masque) and John’s notorious ‘Jesus’ remark:
A harpsichord prelude
descent into spell
a pavane with
triple tempi for chorus
Lucy’s in the sky with diamonds
again and so is the queen:
‘a huge cloud of various colours
and within a transparent brightness
of thin exhalations, such as the gods
are feigned to descend in’
“We’re more popular than Jesus”
‘from over her head dart
Lennon’s ‘Lucy’ lyric was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice. Carroll, another Cavalier among Roundheads, created a topsy-turvy logic that might serve as a suitable prism for Annwn to focus his multiple nows:
It is another England
streaming backwards over
of 70s Lancashire
through grey corridors
and bus terminals
to (where else)
Carroll’s church at Daresbury
not far as you might think
as the raven flies
-triple tempi for chorus-
where Lennon caught a walrus.
This other England, one that can hold both flamboyant musicians and drab princes, Wonderland and schools for young offenders (Liverpool Reformatory Farm School for Boys, later the Red Bank secure unit opened just four years after Alice in Wonderland was published in 1865 and finally closed almost a century and a half later) is other because of what happened in the battle of Red Bank. The country’s odd blend of democracy, puritanism and hedonism, tradition and experimentation derives from the Civil War period and lies beneath the tensions, from rioting to Brexit, that break the surface of British society at regular intervals. In Red Bank, Annwn explores the roots of these tensions through the lens of a set of moments in time that exemplify them. At the back of it all is the expectation of past glories recovered, the return of empire or the reawakening of the Rexque Futurus, the sleeping lord and his hermit knights, a Beatles reunion rendered impossible by death. The book ends on an acknowledgement of this note:
To have seen seasonally the farm bonfire
with its acrid toffee and raked potatoes
and a calf, with sacs pulled around it,
and Fawkes’s effigy flare
and stranger things
a schoolscape lasting one hundred and fifty
to walk the track
and then forget
Requiescat in pace
Where is the well’s hermit
of this green Hermitage?
Red Bank is a book to come back to, each reading unpacking new layers of engagement with a society ill at ease with itself. Annwn is in full control of his technique and the materials he has assembled to make these poems and the result is a deeply satisfying read.