The Last Recent Reading of 2017

Language of Objects, Text & Images: Murdo Eason, Sound: Brian Lavelle, Blind Roads Press 2017, ISBN: 978-1-9997718-0-5, £10.99 plus P&P.

Bone Ink, Rico Craig, the now defunct Guillotine Press, but available from the author for 20.00 Australian dollars.

The Orchard Keeper, Susan Connolly, Shearsman 2017, ISBN 9781848615601, £6.50

A Day that you Happen to Know, Nic Stringer with illustrations by Lucy Kerr, Guillemot Press, £8.00

Broken Stories, Reuben Woolley, 20/20 Vision, ISBN: 9781907449031, £9.50

Lang_obj.jpgLanguage of Objects is a collaboration between Murdo Eason of the Fife Psychogeographical Collective and Brian Lavelle, sound artist and the Edinburgh Drift project. It consists of a book containing photographs and texts by Eason and a CD of a sound piece called Sullen Charybdis, the Blue of Scarabs by Lavelle, the music responding to, and in some ways mirroring, the book rather than accompanying it in any narrow sense.

Eason’s images are mostly of two kinds. Many are of abandoned or closed off apertures of one kind or another that have been defaced by human activity or, more frequently, time and natural process, so that they end up resembling framed easel paintings featuring a palette of rust, lichens, peeling or faded background paint and the play of light on weathered surfaces. These often remind this reader of the works of the Catalan painter Antoni Tàpies. The objects photographed are, in one sense, decaying or disintegrating, but in another they are reintegrating, becoming an organic element in the wider landscape they inhabit, and as such the work is profoundly ecocentric.

The other main group is made up of skylines, sometimes rural, sometimes urban (and often, in this case, architectural in subject and construction) and generally claustrophobic in effect; Eason’s skies enclose rather than opening out, and like the doors and windows of the other images, frame vision in a confined range. Many of the architectural images see buildings take on organic forms: a tiled roof becomes a series of waves; a spiral staircase takes on the nature of a sea shell, so that they actually for a continuity of concerns with the other group.

The texts that accompany these images are attempts to live up to the book title, to give voice to the objects Eason’s inquisitive eye falls on, to inhabit, for a moment and imperfectly, their ‘thingness’:

 

It is only on close inspection

that my imperfections become clear.

 

An index of expansion and contraction.

Not quite perfect circles.

Lavelle’s composition reflects the concern with ‘thisness’ and integration, as it folds birdsong, the sound of flowing water and other background ‘noise’ into carefully constructed patterns of information. He deploys the kind of scrupulous poverty of means you associate with European Minimalist music to create the same sense of respect for the found that informs the book. Language of Objects represents an interesting extension of many of the concerns that cut across Eason’s big book of his blog, From Hill to Sea, which I reviewed last year, albeit on a smaller, more intimate scale. His is one of the more interesting landscape projects out there, and well worth following.

boneinkOne of the personal pleasure of the old Poster Poems series I did for the Guardian was discovering a lot of fine Australian poetry via the Australian Poetry Library website. It struck me that there were many parallels between (white) Australian and (white) North American ways for writing verse, due, in part at least, to the similar colonial histories and, in both cases, the resurgence of interest in the poetry and world views of the indigenous populations of both continents.

Rico Craig is one of the younger Australian poets I’ve come across, and his debut collection, Bone Ink, is literally a book of two halves. The first section, Bone Ink, is primarily set in Australia (with some forays into the poet’s Malay childhood) and is primarily concerned with the drinking, drug taking and car expropriation of the disaffected youth of suburban working and lower middle-class Sydney. There is no doubting the skill in these poems, or the authenticity of the voice; indeed, the authenticity is part of their limitation, as it is a voice we’ve heard so often before, think early Bruce Springsteen, for instance. The problem is to bring new insight to the mythology of dislocation, and for all his abilities, Rico doesn’t convince.

The second part of the book, The Upper Room, is a different matter. Here the landscape is London, and the poems revolve around the problems of migration and integration; the Old World is discovered as something new, which also enables a more integrated view of ‘home’. The book ends with an extraordinary poem sequence, ‘Lampedo’, in which an urban London fox, Amazons, a lover visiting from home and a mythic hunt fold into each other to remarkable effect:

I have your feather behind my ear

and the pouch you gifted, unclutched

 

from the heat of your sternum. Inside

are chunks of jasper, obsidian, chert

 

from them I pick the shape of my first

arrowhead. Our fox sleeps in her blanket

 

earth; she waits for the strength

to shepherd me through our streets.

 

Here the patterning of long and short vowels around a spine of ‘s’s sounds show a poet coming into their own voice, their own control of verbal music. It’s enough to leave you impatient to see what Craig might do next.

223_6443Susan Connolly’s The Orchard Keeper is a pamphlet of two halves, or two sequences, rather. The first, eponymous section is a six-part exploration of the life of Irish poet Francis Ledwidge. The second section, Woman in a Black Hat, also consisting of six poems, remembers female friends and relations of the poet.

Despite a recent revival of interest in his work sparked off by some praise from Seamus Heaney, Ledwidge was a distinctly minor Irish Georgian poet who is best remembered for the circumstances of his life rather than his writing. He was one of the few Irish poets with Republican sympathies who did not take part in the Easter 1916 Rising, but went off to fight in WWI, where he died in Ypres in 1917. He was also something of a star-crossed lover, as the girl he courted, Ellie Vaughey, married another man and died young.

Connolly’s poems revolve around Ledwidge the man, and build up a minor-key portrait of his friendships with Vaughey and with fiddler and orchard keeper Matty McGoona, whose cottage, and a visit Connolly made there, lies at the centre of the sequence. Connolly’s tone is appropriately restrained and ‘Georgian’ throughout:

 

Late September, the smell of ripe

apples filling this overgrown

orchard where six horses graze

near moss-covered cherry trees

 

The Woman in a Black Hat sequence is tonally quite similar. Here the poet draws on people she knows to portray women alone, in love, as mothers and female friendship. The most interesting of the poems, Cycling to Renvyle, is, because of its open typographical layout, pretty much impossible to reproduce here. This is a very slim volume indeed, and makes an interestingly convergent companion piece for Connolly’s visual pieces I reviewed previously.

a-day-coverNic Stringer’s debut collection circles around questions of faith and power, especially as they affect women. Her method is to show believers ‘cold’, as it were, but to use technical means, ‘exploded’ text, palimpsest, and so on, to undermine what they tell us. Her writing works best when pared back, as in these lines from the sequence Sisters:

 

Oh Temperance

 

Whatever we love ritual matters

I am back in my separation phase

 

I don’t think on it

I don’t say it out loud

I don’t do anything

 

Unfortunately, some of the work here tends towards unwarranted verbosity that teeters towards the most prosaic of prosiness at times:

 

Dominated by the chorus, she has lost

the intellectual focus of the fanatics.

Resistant to the sound and shape of fate

she must regret them all, but Chloris.

[from Niobe]

 

There are just too many words here, obscuring the music that undoubtedly lies beneath them. However, this is forgivable in a young poet who is finding their own voice, and when she gets it right, Stringer can be very good indeed:

 

Human agony has no redemptive power,

there is no reward. it is a votive offering,

concerned with anatomy rather than technique.

[from Laocöön in the Vatican]

 

This is a debut of great promise.

broken storiesReuben Woolley tends to a much sparer use of language in what I think of as classic free verse form, with hints of jazz and Imagism throughout. Woolley is from the UK and now lives in Spain, and there are some direct references to the poetry of his adopted home on display in his Broken Stories

 

green

i want you

breathing

 

However, the poet he most reminds me of is Carl Rakosi. Like Rakosi, Woolley foregrounds the lyric ‘I’, with the first-person pronoun featuring in almost all the pomes here, frequently as the first word of a poem or stanza in a poem. However, this is a modest I, not a shouty one, and Woolley seems aware of his own human limitations, his place in a larger world:

 

the treasured deaths

 

one day i’ll know

the wearing of all these spaces / the places

of questionable safety

 

i’ll see the agreement

of bones / the bare

worlds opened

 

my sands run through

to end & time

still comes in torrents

 

Woolley champions political poetry, or rather poetry of protest, through his popular I am not a silent poet blog, but here the politics are implicit rather than overt, consisting of the effort to reclaim our ‘broken stories’ from the control of those who, as a note on the flyleaf says, would ‘use them for their own ends’, an effort that again chimes with Rakosi’s work.

 

in taken cities a cold wind

they’re hacking the wings

off angels

tuberculous

[from perishables]

 

This is a solid collection from a poet whose work is far more neglected than it should be. Read it.

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7 thoughts on “The Last Recent Reading of 2017

  1. Many thanks Billy for this thoughtful and perceptive review and on a wider note for introducing so many interesting works and poets through your blog. I doubt I would hear of many of them without your reviews. Such a valuable resource and highly appreciated.

    Liked by 1 person

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