The Soil Never Sleeps, Adam Horovitz, Palewell Press, 2018, ISBN 978-1-911587-05-7, £9.99
Twitters for a Lark, Robert Sheppard (ed), Shearsman, 2017, ISBN 978-1-84861-565-6, £9.95
Dear Mary, Rupert Loydell, Shearsman, 2017, ISBN 9781848615199, £9.95
Burdlife, Kevin Reid, Tapsalteerie, 2018, £3.00
Romanesco, Andrew Fentham, Eyewear, 2018, £6.00
All the Relevant Gods, Robin Houghton, Cinnamon Press, 2018, ISBN: 978-1910836958, £4.99
One of the minor oddities of the bizarre post-Brexit UK landscape was seeing a photograph of arch-Brexiteer Michael Gove holding a copy of AdamHorovitz’s The Soil Never Sleeps taken at the launch of the book. Horovitz rationalises the photo by talking about the book’s balancing of conflicting points of view as a necessary condition of its faithfulness to its matter, but seen from Ireland, where the prevailing view is that the Brexit vote and process represent a kind of collective insanity on the part of our nearest neighbours, and one with potentially catastrophic consequences for the people of this island, it is difficult to take quite such a sanguine view.
Horovitz spent a year and a quarter as poet in residence for the Pasture-fed Livestock Association, and the book explores the various ways in which farmers across England and Wales are working to restore more traditional, ecologically sustainable ways of farming. Unfortunately, he was unable to include views from Scotland and Northern Ireland, the two regions most opposed to Brexit, which somewhat limits the perspectives available to him. In his introduction, Horovitz expresses regret about the absence of Scotland, meaning that the ‘book does not cover the entire island’; an interesting reminder of the fact that Northern Ireland is excluded from the category ‘British’.
The book is constructed as something of a seasonal poem, with the first four of its five sections taking their titles form the seasons, but in the odd order spring, autumn, winter, summer. The fifth section, which shares its title with the book as a whole, ‘investigates the ethics, politics and future of farming’ and is, inevitably, concerned with the impact of Brexit.
The irregular ordering of the seasons seems to be a device to reflect the rhythms of the working year, with the lambing/calving of spring linking to the fatted, market ready livestock, feasts of windfall apples and cider-making of autumn, as the two busiest seasons of the farm year, while the relative stasis of winter and summer mirror each other; the seasons of doing followed by the seasons of tending.
In their nature, the poems tend to the documentary and narrative, with a momentum often built around the relationship between the clumsy but willing vegetarian outsider learning to fit with a way of life that is alien but attractive, a narrative of learning, of challenging preconceptions, as in a poem marking a visit to an abattoir:
There are always choices to be made. To eat,
or not. To live. To help each other do the same.
[from ‘The Abattoir’, in the final section]
But Horovitz is a fine poet, capable of producing delightful verbal music that lift the stories onto another level:
A green shimmering of germinating oats
hangs over a raised lip
of ploughed earth, heavy
with the last weight of a well-timed rain.
[from ‘Feeding the Pigs’ in the spring section]
There’s a lot going on in lines like these, from the obvious alliteration (g/g, h/h, w/w/w) to the spine of murmuring ‘m’ sounds that links the first and last lines of the stanza. The two long runs of unstressed syllable in the first line (SHIM|mer|ing |of |GERM|in|a|ting OATS) contribute to the sense of expectancy while the clustering of stress in the final line enact the ‘well-timed’ weather.
This poet’s ear for the detail of language is evident throughout:
True hunger begins at the roots
of want. I have felt its brief touch,
elusive as the rasp of soil on my teeth.
[from ‘The Abattoir’]
The Kind of farming celebrated in the book is, of course, the kind that would be most under threat form a post hard Brexit deregulated Britain, with floods of cheap, additive-laden imported meat from the Americas and elsewhere, and the poems, especially in the final section, reflect this reality and Horovitz’ clear discomfort with the aftermath of the June 2016 referendum:
Everything’s an experiment in these
discordant, Brexit-weighted times.
The world seems stranger than it’s ever been
on the surface. It moves so fast that soil
is an irrelevance, in certain circles.
Unworthy of complicated thought.
[from ‘The Abattoir’]
Those circles must include Michael Gove, who clearly hadn’t read the book he was holding in that photograph. Or perhaps he had; who can tell the depths of duplicity a politician is capable of?
Twitters for a Lark, the latest volume of Robert Sheppard’s world of invented European poets represented in the European Union of Imagined Authors (EUIA), is, if anything, even more explicitly engaged with Brexit. This is an anthology of imaginary poetry from the 28 member states of the EU, with the UK represented by a made-up Robert Sheppard. The ‘poems’ are collaborations between Sheppard and a number of collaborators (he is involved in all 28 collaborations) and, as with the rest of the EUIA work, it is a plea for the recognition of a unified European literary culture, particularly as expressed in poetry. And the full range of that tradition is hinted at, with work that is romantic, classical, modernist, formalist and concrete on display.
It is, in places, almost too successful as a fictional multilingual anthology, with some of the work included teetering, intentionally or otherwise, into a kind of translatorese:
Invincible dust shakes most furiously from flesh
because no one is to be born after.
But then again, readability almost isn’t the point in this book, as I see it; this is a kind of conceptual work, an object more than a book. Of course, all books are objects, but objects intended to be read. Twitters for a Lark does its work without being read at all, the idea of what it is, what it stands for, takes precedence over the contents.
And what it stands for, I think, is resistance to the nonsense idea that the UK is, or can be, anything other than European. The main theme that emerges is an interwoven history, from the classical world through the fall of the Berlin Wall to the Greek bailout, and it is fitting that the final country represent ed is the UK, the country that proposes to turn its back on that shared history, the ‘fictive cartography’ that is all too real, and that binds us all together.
You’d need a reviewer with a far broader and deeper knowledge of European languages and literature than I have, so I’ll just comment on two of the virtual contributors. Spain is represented by the bilingual Catalan/Spanish poet Cristòfol Subira, whose very readable contributions, written by RS in collaboration with Alys Conran are possibly an echo of the real-world Joan Margarit. The ‘Irish’ poet has the ludicrous name of Sean Eoghan (John John) and his ‘poetry’, a bastard child of late Joyce and early Yeats, seems inspired by Father Ted more than anything else.
But, as I said, the contents of the book matter less than its being. Nonetheless, I can’t but wonder if it’s getting near time for the EUIA to disband.
Rupert Loydell’s Dear Mary is a set of ekphrastic poems on the Annunciation in European painting. Although there is no reference to Brexit and many of the poems were written before the referendum, we are again reminded of our common European religious and artistic traditions. At the core of the work is the, often exasperating, relationship between visual and verbal art:
How does paint speak
down the centuries,
flaking from a forgotten wall
or crumbling in a shadowed chapel,
overlooked by tourists and guides?
we have names for only a few
of the thousands of colours
around us. We improvise and
negotiate, compare and group,
neatly divide the spectrum up
But then again, if your subject the invisible, the not yet present, then perhaps it’s fair to say that your language should be inadequate, your poems a series of graspings after articulation. Annunciations concern both immanence and absence, that which is perpetually about to be, and the task of both painter and poet is to suggest what lies outside the frame. In this context, it’s interesting that Loydell frequently writes about paintings he failed to see; the locked church or museum under repair is another form of annunciation.
He also adapts the language of other contexts to approach his subject, giving us prose poems and lyrics, collage and/or parody, the annunciation as a UFO sighting and as online dating:
When he disrobed, it was a bit of a shock to see what he’s kept hidden. He folded his wings around me and we made love all afternoon. I’ve never been so fulfilled, so satisfied. It was heavenly. Then he departed from me.
What an angel! I long to see him again.
[from ‘Online Dating Annunciation’]
The question arises as to what these paintings mean to those of us for whom they are simply works of art and not objects that lead us to religious meditation; they have no more ‘spiritual’ content than, say, ‘The Birth of Aphrodite’ and perhaps less than ‘Guernica. For many of Loydell’s readers, annunciations are no longer doorways into the numinous, unless we redefine the numinous as a purely aesthetic experience.
This question is addressed in ‘Evidence’, the final poem in the book:
Here, I commandeer the patio table,
despite the morning mist,
and wonder what David meant
in his surprise email this morning
about whether or not it is possible
to write about faith today.
To which the immediate response is ‘well, I’ve just finished a book on the subject’. It isn’t, of course, that simple, and David, whoever he be, has a point. Loydell is writing in a context where the same science that makes emails and print on demand books possible, also leads us to question, and in many cases reject, angels and virgin births. It’s not surprising, although it may be disappointing, to find him address science later in the same poem:
Our explanations are to do with science
and how things were first made, what
they will become. There is no room
for wonder or any sense of doubt;
the grey that fills the valley
is just moisture, not an obscuring veil,
and if we get a rainbow it is water
acting as a prism, not a sign from God.
Disappointing because he misrepresents what science is. Science is full of wonder, full of doubt, an arena of provisional, improvable models of the world, in contrast to the certainty of religion. And the facts of how droplets of moisture form a mist or a rainbow are no less full of wonder for being explicable; if anything, the opposite.
That said, Dear Mary is a book of great interest, perhaps Loydell’s finest to date, and one well worth reading.
Meanwhile, Brexit or not, the unbusiness-like business of small independent presses producing more or less tiny chapbooks of poetry goes on, as it must. Kevin Reid’s ‘limited-edition micro-pamphlet’ Burdlife takes as its starting point Ivor Cutler’s ‘Birdswing’ and is a short set of equally short burst of dialect birdsong. These are poems that are a delight to read but are almost impossible to write about, so the best thing to do is to give you one and send you off to buy and read the rest:
Andrew Fentham’s Romanesco, from the always interesting Eyewear imprint, is somewhat more substantial and varied than Reid’s little book. In fact, it has the appearance of a young poet playing with form, ranging from concrete poetry to the sestina. It’s refreshing to see such an experimental approach from a new (to me at least) writer, and it should be said that the experiments are invariably interesting and, for the most part, successful. The two longest poems in the book, ‘Supplément au Voyage de Gauguin’ and ‘Au Hasard Pantomime’ are the most successful. The latter is a kind of reworking of the story of Balaam’s ass in the style of Beckett, the former uses extracts from the artist’s letters in English translation;
Robin Houghton is a blogger and co-founder of the Telltale Press, whose books I have previously reviewer, so she knows a thing or two about small press production. All the Relevant Gods is her second pamphlet. The poems here are tinged with gentle surrealism, sometimes veering into a kind of magic realism.
Sagra’s office walls flare chilli and lime.
To enter is to firewalk:
my dry skin reddens.
[from the title poem]
Her main subjects are places and the mundane world of daily work; the places include offices, hotels, conferences, commuter trains and the kind of displaced activity they entail:
Our wheels sharpen on a drawn-out mass
of points and then we’re stationary, our heaving
carriage balanced over Union Street arches,
hearts beating up out of sleeping bags below
where once packers and platers lit their fags,
off to the Rose & Crown, after the factory closed.
[from ‘London Bridge to Waterloo East’]