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 references to 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 culminates 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.