More Recent Reading: Short Reviews

As I said in a previous recent reading post, small presses and journals are the lifeblood of new writing, offering opportunities to both emerging and established poets to test their work in whatever public arena is available to them. The publications mentioned below fall into this category.

reliquiae03Reliquiæ is the annual journal of Autumn Richardson & Richard Skelton’ Corbel Stone Press. The contents range from poetry, both old and new, to short fiction, translations, especially of ethnography and myth, and visuals. The focus is on the environment, folklore, animism and the esoteric. In its range and the editors’ ability to set old and new work in interesting conjunction, it has something of the quality of an updated Victorian miscellany; the intention is clearly ‘to move, to teach or to delight’ and generally all three outcomes are achieved.

Particular highlights in Issue 3 are: two new sequences by Thomas A Clark, ‘The Blue of Flax’ and ‘Yellow’; Ross Hair’s essay on Shoreham, Geoffrey Grigson and Ronald Johnson’s The Book of the Green Man; ‘Gathering’, some excerpts from a work of mapping the Cairngorms by Alex Finlay. However, it is invidious to focus on individual contributions. The measure of any literary magazine is normally that it introduces the reader to work they didn’t previously know, and while Reliquiæ does this (Richard Harms and Ken Cockburn are two poets who are new to me and whose work I will now be looking out for) there is also a good deal of pleasure to be derived from seeing, for example, Yeats’ prose folklore writing placed in conjunction with Icelandic myth and experimental place writing.

All three issues operate as organic wholes, each item illuminating what has gone before and comes after it. They are also physically handsome objects. If you are interested in how the world can be written, then Reliquiæ is essential reading. These volumes are treasure troves to return to, each new perusal bringing fresh pleasures.

umagthreeBelatedly, I also wanted to mention Uniformagazine No 3, published last spring by Colin Sackett’s Uniform Books. This is a neat, pocket-sized mag, unfussily designed and packed with text and images. This issue is roughly themes around a series of interventions in sound, image and/or writing in liminal spaces: a train commute; a prehistoric mound that wasn’t; an old, long-closed ’transport literature specialist’ shop; the Chalke way. The magazine is a quarterly, so there have been three more issues since. Well worth a read.


 page1derek beaulieu’s collection of essays and interviews, The Unbearable Contact with Poets, comes from James Davies’ ever-interesting if p then q press. beaulieu writes lucidly about potentially complex matters, and the book’s concerns range from women conceptual poets to Reznikoff’s Holocaust as a model for documentary poetry about the Shoah to the need for self-publication. Even when you disagree with what he’s saying, the disagreement tends to be fertile. Take this statement from page 47 of the book: ‘Writers are only writers when they write; when they cease to write, they cease to exist.’ Interesting, but, I feel, wrong. In fact, I would argue that writers are most fully writers when they are not writing. The act of writing is a performance that depends upon a sequence of conscious and unconscious mental processes that occur during periods of not-writing. For the writer, the writing/not-writing distinction has no real meaning. A writer is always writing, especially when they aren’t.

This train of thought leads me to question the whole idea of ‘conceptual writing’ as a valid category. All writing is conceptual, the working out of a concept, more or less clearly formed in the spaces between writing acts. Writing that calls itself conceptual is merely making this fundamental aspect of the act as explicit as possible and in so doing it risks losing the complex ambiguity that makes the business worthwhile. 


Finally, three poets who exemplify beaulieu’s call to ‘[m]ake stuff, hand it out, talk to people’. John McVey is a Cambridge, Massachusetts based teacher of graphic design. I’ve been reading a set of pamphlets from his Aguanga Press, centones / derivations, a strange) mixture of all sorts / derivations from John Macdonald’s Telegraphic Dictionary (1817) (Three vols), Mutilation Odes/The Tables/What New Fangled Notions, and trench codes. These were all published in paper form in 2015, but the work dates back as far as 2001 and is all available online.

McVey’s method involves working with digitally archived volumes of code language of one form or another, typically dating from the 19th and early20th centuries. The result are found poetry derived from their originals by processes of erasure, but they eschew purely random procedures; McVey’s poems are the product of choice.

Some of these texts are made by selecting passages to erase and constructing texts from what remains. Others by searching the digital ‘originals’ for certain words or phrases and then using the longer text contexts in which the search terms occur to form list poems. In the case of the first two volumes of a strange) mixture, the text consist of unerased sections of the scanned source volumes, with the imperfections due to the scanning process forming part of the visual effect.

I first came across this work when McVey started contributing telegraph derivations on the Guardian Poster Poems blog series, in response to specific themes. His work is often lyrical, with suggestions of narrative, and regularly fascinating. They are difficult to explain, so I’ll illustrate by posting the first few stanzas of ‘by the hand through the mazes of the merry dance’, from centones / derivations:

in his hand the model of a cow’s head

in his hand a couple of large burdock leaves

some bank-notes in his hand


the destructive hand of careless neglect


when palette and brushes are not at hand

and the house on the right-hand side

at the right hand, as you see


is now tenanted by a boat-builder

and as I have on my left hand

[ a ] more practised hand would give a few finishing touches


foxiness on one hand, and rawness on the other

ramification of the branches

by the right hand and lifted


try my hand


Now, go and read the rest.

cover-image-FireStation2The Fire Station by Sarah Barnsley is the latest in Telltale Press’s series of small calling-card pamphlets by emerging poets. Barnsely is a student of Modernist American poetry, although most of the poems in the chapbook show little sign of their influence. Most of them are very British anecdotes of childhood, a genre that is now so commonplace that it has become almost impossible for anyone to put their personal stamp on it; the personal, paradoxically, becomes subsumed into a generic ‘poet’s childhood, and Barnsley’s anecdotes are no exception.

It isn’t until the last poem, ‘Three States’ that an individual promise appears as Barnsley abandons her memories and yields to imagination:

between sand and air dropped the morning,

falling free and easy, full of substance,


solid and gas at the same time,

a blanket of cold across the beach.

James King is a Derry-based poet and performance/sound artist whose work I have only furrowed livesrecently become aware of. Furrowed Lives is a collaboration with artist David Hegarty who spent some time in a nursing home drawing the residents. King’s poems to accompany the drawings enter into the imagined linguistic universe of the people behind the drawings, each one an individual voice:



Where’s Alfie?

My Alfie

He left in a hearse

My Alfie, my Alfie

A grand affair

What hearse, what hearse?

O Alfie, Alfie

Where are you Alfie?

I don’t want a hearse

It’s Alfie, I want

A grand affair

Who cares?

Where’s Alfie?

The apparent surface simplicity of these poems masks a control of technique, of tone, that is the mark of a poet. Despite their clear differences, there’s a continuity between King’s performance practice and these poems, deriving from the immediacy achieved in both forms. There’s really not a lot more to say.