Fay Musselwhite, Matthew Clegg and Michael Haslam: A Review

Contraflow by Fay Musselwhite, Longbarrow Press, 2016, ISBN 978-1906175306, £12.99

The Navigators by Matthew Clegg, Longbarrow Press, 2015, ISBN 9781906175269, £12.99

Scaplings  by Michael Haslam, Calder Valley Poetry, ISBN 9780993497384, £7.00

contraflow-cover-6-aprContraflow is Fay Musselwhite’s first collection, a substantial book of over 100 pages in Longbarrow’s typically handsome, pleasingly designed hardback series. It’s a book full of people doing things and the writing is suitably muscular and physical to reflect this. Often the activity is heavy with a sense of necessity, things done to ensure survival, be it foraging for firewood:

Alone or in pairs by dark we go,

every day or so, for armfuls that warm us

twice at least – as we handle it home,

cleave it apart for the hearth brought to light

by peeling back years of emulsion, paper, tin

and a squatting of soot.

[From ‘Firewood’]

or visiting a friend in a block of council flats:

I spiral up the concrete stairwell,

and my footsteps reverb – I can hear them

gaining on me half a floor below.

At the landing I push on through the wired glass

to carpet that clings to my soles,

a grin for Min’s spy-hole and I’m in.

[From ‘Tales from Min’s and Other Storeys’]

There’s a heft to the writing that enacts the action here, a pleasure in sound patterning that is absent in so much contemporary poetry. Musselwhite’s use of assonance, internal rhyme and alliteration lends a musicality to her verse, and it’s not in any sense fey music, this is full-blown orchestration and it makes for invigorating reading. There is, I think, more than a trace of the influence of Dylan Thomas, but Musselwhite’s voice is all her own.

And despite her interests in walking and rivers, the landscape of these poems is essentially urban, or more correctly fringe urban. Musselwhite is drawn to marginal places: deprived estates; disused industrial sites; hidden rivers; abandoned mill races. There is a sense of people and nature surviving, but not thriving, everything just getting by, an open, questioning narrative pulse that lifts the ‘I’ centred poems to a level way above the curse of the closed, self-satisfied anecdote that infects so much contemporary verse. Another strand in the book is the decline and death of British post-war liberal optimism: planned Modernist ‘rational’ housing intended to usher in a Utopian equality of opportunity becomes so-called sink estates; the Welfare State, designed to act as a safety-net against poverty becomes a poverty trap; the 60s drug culture dream of opening the doors of perception actually opens a trapdoor to despondency and addiction.

At the heart of the book there are two rivers, the Rivelin and Loxley, especially in to sequences, the long ‘Memoir of a Working River’, in thirteen sections, and the shorter ‘Flood Tryptic: The Loxley’. In the former, the course of the river is tracked from source to its confluence with the Loxley. Musselwhite draws on the historical record of the Rivelin’s industrial past as power source for corn and steel mills, as well as her apparent personal familiarity with the valley as source material. She chooses to exemplify the river as an old man, a device that can be a bit clunky at points, but the poem contains some of her best verbal music, as in this evocation of water tumbling over a weir and into a mill race:

while the risen elite, fleet

silver-lick shifting, race keen

is chicaned to a side lane

 

to slip along thinly, spit gravel, he’s shallow

arrives in a vast mud-lined vessel – pent

seething, he swells

And, in the eleventh section, there is a glimpse of that accidental rewilding that happens when we abandon places we can no longer derive economic benefit from. It’s perhaps the most optimistic, Edenic even, passages in the whole book:

 Trees steal back to comfort healing land –

banished for centuries by grind’s fear of flame

– as wheel-gates close he’s dappled again.

The Flood sequence also draws on documentary sources and personal knowledge, this time to focus on a flood that caused havoc and death in 1864 when the river burst its banks. The writing is so immediate and vivid that on initial reading without reference to the notes, I thought it was a more recent flood that the poet had been immediately involved in. In these poems, Musselwhite is a particularly vivid archaeologist, drawing on such shards of evidence that are available to her to evoke an entire world with an admirable economy of language.

Contraflow is a formidable first book, carefully constructed, generally very well written, and very nicely produced. It leaves me looking forward in anticipation to what comes next from Musselwhite’s pen.

navigators-openThe Navigators is Matthew Clegg’s second full-length book, both again from Longbarrow, and again it’s a handsome piece of bookmaking. The book circles around the North of England, and as with Musselwhite, rivers flow through it, as it were. Carrying on from the poems in the final section of his previous collection, West North East, Clegg uses more open, freer forms for many of the poems in this newer book, a fact that he recognises in a note at the end. His original poems are bookended by versions of short passages from Greek epic, opening with Odysseus in Hades from Book 11 of the Odyssey and closing with the effect of Orpheus’ song on Jason’s crew from near the beginning of the Argonautika.

It is impossible to preface a book of poems with that particular passage from Homer without inviting comparison with Pound’s Cantos However, Clegg’s choice of epilogue makes it clear that he does not share Pound’s epic pretentions. Apollonius was the first Greek epic poet to place an almost clinical dissection of love at the centre of his work, and it is a different Pound quote, again from Clegg’s note, that reveals what is at the core of this book; the line quoted is from ‘Exile’s Letter’: ‘there is no end of things of the heart’. The Navigators takes us on a trip around Clegg’s love of particular places and people: his grandfather, the boat he built in retirement, and the canals they sailed it on; the Lake District, the waterways of South Yorkshire; a handful of women who shared some of these experiences with him.

The writing is clear and understated:

The thought of sleeping on my granddad’s boat

would tie a little reef knot in my gut

in case it might be true what my cousin said

about the earwigs squeezed in every nook

that scaled your neck and face when you dozed off

and crawled into your ears and eyes and mouth.

[from ‘The Passage’]

There is a tendency at times for the poems to veer off into somewhat inconsequential anecdotal chatter, but in the best poems, such as the haiku-like ‘Trig Points’ sequence and the very strong final ‘Cave Time and Sea Change’ set, there’s a pleasing supple strength:

Today

you’re a mollusc

and we’re

squawking gulls.

 

You draw

your shell down

tight

and suck.

[from ‘Counting Stones’]

and:

Greens and ochres and cobalts ink the walls,

but offer no windows of light, no icon.
Your mania was stilled here in these pools.

 

You’d almost forgotten your slow approaches
to the sloshing cave mouth. Those seagull flocks
were grace notes rising from new-scored horizon.

[from ‘Cave Time and Sea Change’]

Overall, despite some unevenness that you would expect from a collection of poetry that runs to over 123 pages, this is an interesting book and a clear advance in range and technique from West North East. The ‘Trig Points’ sequence, written when Clegg was poet in residence at The Wordsworth Trust, is one of the most accomplished new haiku sequences in English that I’ve come across for some time. The sequence, or renku, maps the inner and outer worlds with a musicality that is all too uncommon in the form:

Lit coals crack and fly.

Later, dim, they’ll give nothing

To their next of kin.

scaplingsThere’s a half line in the 36th and final numbered section in Michael Haslam’s Scaplings that could almost serve as a stand-alone review of the book: ‘With where I live I do love to be friends.’ The sequence is a declaration of love for the country around Haslam’s home in Hebden Bridge and the words and phrases used to name its features in the local dialect. Haslam’s first book, Continual Song, is one of the key texts of the later stages of the British Poetry Revival and announced the arrival of a significant new voice in British verse.

That book was, in part, an investigation into the nature of soul, and this is a direct link with Scaplings. In ‘A brief glossography’ appended to the end of the book, Haslam remarks that ‘Soul is that classic oxymoron. An immaterial substance’. As I read these poems I found myself reflecting that if soul is a function of the mind and mind is, for a poet at least, achieved through language, then the soul of this poetry is to be found in Haslam’s exuberant, joyous wordplay that opens up the spaces between words to let the world in:

 The sweet tea tastes eternally ephemeral as fairy cake,

a light confection, as to play is like to laik, as plea is pleased

to plead for pleasure, prayer for the revenue, unmeasured praise

in reverie, a sheer lake glade, a risen rose, a misted

forest mere

[from ‘7’, and once you start quoting, it’s almost impossible to stop]

 

Like both Musselwhite and Clegg, Haslam shares a fascination with the particularities of the landscape of the North of England, and as with Musselwhite, it is possible to suspect the influence of Thomas (and British surrealist/apocalyptic poetry of the 1930s/40s):

The invisible worms in the visible words may squirm within

an invalid homology between the workaday world

and the demonic cobblers tampering with pins

the blethered soles.

[from ‘20’]

As I said above, Scaplings is a love poem, and a poem to spring, with its own aisling figure in ‘april in a flowered apron’ (in the glossography, Haslam is at pains to point out that he uses lower-case initials or proper nouns to create fruitful ambiguities). The flowered apron will, depending on your tastes and reading, summon up images of La Primavera by Botticelli, the Welsh flower goddess Blodeuwedd, or even Samuel Ferguson’s ‘The Apron of Flowers’, a poem that owes much to the old song ‘Do You Love an Apple’.  Haslam’s Calder Valley is known intimately through both immediate experience and his understanding of how it is named, and his relationship is priapic, its fecundity issuing in the language of his poem.

 Wick quickens, growth regrows; thickets thicken; birkenshaws explode

their nodes in filamental delicates from root to leaf in blue cerulean

along lines of genetic codes. A thunder showers from high heaven

to the green lungs sprung from earth beneath the flowers of the heath

all under powers gathering their lower lower glowers o’er the hearth,

the heart of hillfog heathen hovel home, to puddle in the peaty loam

in muddy muddle.

[from ‘35’]

Haslam also invokes the twin shades of Blake and Newton, poles of opposing views of the world, and despite the visionary nature of his language, Newton is not really rejected; how, after all, could a dedicated glossator reject science? Indeed, there is a fine irony, a kind of double bluff, in lines like these:

Apology. I graduated from a college with small knowledge of what

frequency and wave meant, And I haven’t even heard of hymenopteran

vespology. The oakleaves fall and my imagination of the real has failed.

A scattering of spangle galls lay patterning a shining causey pavement.

[from 29]

with their fine observation of a crucial stage in the life cycle of the cynipid wasp. And this in a section that earlier alludes to the fate of Blodeuwedd’s husband Lleu Llaw Gyffes, who can only be killed in the most peculiar of circumstance by a spear that had been ‘a year in the forming’. Haslam associates the spear with an abandoned mill, ‘depressive-manic’, in an echo of Blake. Clearly, he is as aware as anyone of the eco-political dimension of our relationship with the earth, something that he specifically calls out in ‘16’:

… When water passed

to private hands the heart deflated and evaporated from the state.’

The reality is that each reading opens up new ways of engaging with Haslam’s marvellous, engaging, infuriating, baroque lyric. What holds it all together is an innate musicality, as, for instance, the perfect balance of long-short-short-long vowel sounds on the alliterating stresses of this half line from ‘18’: ‘Flayed by fangs how her fur flies.’ Thirty-odd years of listening to the sounds of the world lie behind a phrase like that. We must be grateful to Haslam for sharing the results of his investigations and to Calder Valley Poetry for publishing them with an unfussy elegance. Read this book.

Recent Reading Five: More Short Reviews

The Noise of Everything at Once, by Chris Burke, Happy House Press, paperback and Kindle, ISBN: 979-1091619073

at vacuum’s edge, by Michael McAloran, Black Editions Press, ISBN: 9781326772123, 7.00 euro

Bridge of the Ford, by Susan Connolly, Shearsman Press, ISBN 978-1-84861-465-9, £10.95

Da Capo al Finne, by Krzysztof Bartnicki, ISMN: 9790902013109

CBurkeChris Burke is a Paris-based English journalist and poet whose work in this, his first collection, is a curious amalgam of a kind of Anglicised version of hard-boiled American and straightforward English whimsy. Typically, the poems in The Noise of Everything at Once use wit as a distancing device, a refusal of seriousness that might be seen as the dominant mode of post- movement English verse. This tone, for want of a better word, can be illustrated by these lines from ‘Columbo’s last case’, a poem about Alzheimer’s, addressed as the culprit in the case:

And here’s the bit

you think I’m done

then I stop, turn in the doorway

only Mrs Columbo

she lays trash bags on the doormat

keeps me from walking out

and I’ve been stuck in this spot

15 years, trawling for some line to say

It’s a tone that becomes problematic in a poem like ‘La Mort aux Juifs’, a meditation on the European tradition of casual Anti-Semitism set as a parody of ‘Adelstrop’:

Yes. I remember Death to Jews –

the name, because one afternoon…

because the name. It was ‘Juin’

I imagine it must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

Such lapses aside, Burke can write well and interestingly, and, when he drops the ironic mask, movingly, as in the very fine poem ‘Gravid’:

No fault of yours

the word, its strain of burden,

load, stone

to be engraved, cold

gravity

reaching up to pull

your child from weightless

space to ground

then grave. Blame me

who found the root in Latin,

lost, shivering,

something of my own to raise.

Here, with the carapace of wit stripped away, Burke finds a voice to call his own. It would be nice to think that having found it, he will produce more work in this vein.

atvacuumsedge-jpgat vacuum’s edge is composed in Michael McAloran’s characteristic disjunctive prose, a single block of italicised writing some 33 pages long, divided in to bursts ranging in length from one word to several lines, separated by slashes. These can be seemingly random phrases – ‘/dressage blind orchid/’ or almost entirely conventional sentences – ‘/time’s passage given to mark the flesh as if it were/’.

There are a number of recurring motifs that emerge: the title phrase and variants on the idea of vacuum, including ‘vacant’, ‘absent’, ‘hollow’, ‘nothing; the double ‘echo-echo’, again with variants; the idea of the human as meat, along with copious quantities of bodily excretions of all sorts. In the first third or so, imagery from the Christian mythos is prevalent, with particular emphasis on the word ‘chalice’, which is, additionally, another empty container with echoes of all sorts clustered round it. Several of the themes of these opening pages come together in the phrase ‘chalice of bone’, after which the religious language gives way, although not quite completely, to images of the body as site of decay, ‘a vacancy of meat’ with desire reduced to ‘a vacant lot of burnt bones a vacant cityscape’.

Much of this links with earlier work by McAloran that I reviewed last year, even the titles of those books, EchoNone and In Absentia, attest to a continuity across his writing, a continuity underscored by the ellipses that open and close edge. As I said in the earlier review, it would be easy to mistake McAloran’s stance for nihilism, but this would be a serious category error. Despite the surface bleakness of the work, there is an urge to persistence that denies the null. We are, after all, at vacuum’s edge, not in its suffocating heart, and the edge of a vacuum is marked by that which is full. Where there is an echo, there is a voice, and where there is a voice, there is not no thing. The act of writing is an act of affirmation in the face of the void of incomprehension, or, as the book ends, with at abundance of nothing that is still an abundance:

/it is said alone/said alone yet foreign and unsaid/undone/(an empty
echoing abounding)..

Concrete or visual poetry is not particularly common in Irish verse. Apart from Some short pieces and the epic Monster by Brian Coffey and a few pieces by Trevor Joyce, I struggle to think of any instances. Given this unfortunate circumstance, the appearance of an entire collection of visual poems by Drogheda poet Susan Connolly is, almost by default, something of an event.

Bridge of the Ford is the English for Droichead Átha, the Irish name for Connolly’s home town, and the bridge is over the Boyne,susan con the Irish river that is richest in mythological and historic freight. Indeed, the first half of the book is a sequence of images in words tracing a journey down the Boyne, through the town and out to the sea. The texts draw on place names and the visual appearance of local monuments as the material from which they are built.

The second section of the book is less unified, although religious themes predominate. The absence of a central conceit allows for a greater range of forms to emerge in this section, as Connolly plays with the words of carols, or single letters repeated in geometric patterns derived from medieval manuscripts.

In her introduction, she cites Ian Hamilton Finlay as an influence, which may have been an unfortunate thing to do. While the pieces in this book are highly competent, they lack that spark of imaginative genius that make Finlay’s concrete pieces exceptional. In fact, with the street-name map poems, the lists of names on the facing pages are more alive than the visual representations opposite.

In a note for the blurb, Paula Meehan notes that among the ‘charms’ of Bridge of the Ford ‘are the glimpses in this book of a fugitive Irish lyric poet flitting through the pages.’ Although this was clearly intended as praise, I think Meehan inadvertently highlights the main problem with this work. Connolly is, indeed, an Irish lyric poet and, like most Irish lyric poets, she is focused on locality rather than place, with the poet as actor, not recorder, the ‘I’ as an unproblematic identity, with no need for recuperation as it was never really questioned. Connolly’s decision to move to a visual mode of writing is a brave, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt at transcending the limitations of the tradition her writing voice is embedded in. She clearly understands and enjoys playing with concrete techniques; however, pouring lyric content into a visual poetry jug cannot transform that content into something it isn’t. These poems, for all their virtues, are made as visual pieces not from necessity but from volition, and ultimately that just isn’t enough.

da capoKrzysztof Bartnicki’s Da Capo al Finne is an extraordinary, uncategorizable work of conceptual something or another. It is, on the most literal level, a reading of Finnegans Wake, but a most unusual reading. In the introduction to this English-language edition, Bartnicki declares the Wake a failed novel, based on what he sees the essential criteria that literature should ‘convey information, didactic patterns, or emotions’. He argues that despite the best efforts of the book’s exegetes, it cannot be fitted into and available literary model, and so is, in essence, unreadable as such.

Further, Bartnicki’s view is that this frees the Wake to a much wider range of uses as an object. It’s a variant on the old canard that Joyce’s great work is unreadable, a view that simply does not stand up when one considers the simple fact that people have, and continue both to read it and to report on the experience. This odd hybrid of Gothic cathedral and Baroque palace of mirrors may not be a novel in any conventional sense, but it is literature, just not as we know it.

However, discussion of the rightness or wrongness of Bartnicki’s premise is neither here nor there. The real interest lies in what he has done with it. And what he has done is to present the Wake ‘stripped of all spacing, punctuation, digits, letters except for lower- and uppercase A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s, E’s, F’s, G’s and H’s’. The result is 122 pages of unbroken and literally unreadable text, which is also a long string of variations on the scale of C-major, plus B.

Bartnicki’s practice is to use this bank of potential music to extracts matches, or near matches, to pre-existing musical works, with some of the results being available on his SoundCloud page. |It’s a bit of a mad project, almost as mad as Finnegans Wake itself. It also fits into a wider movement towards using digital media and the Internet to remake Joyce’s book, a movement I discussed in a piece for the Guardian a couple of years back. It seems possible that the Web will finally make the Wake accessible to a wider range of readers, writers and artists. Bartnicki’s sceptical-inventive approach is an interesting element in this process, and I highly recommend it.

Plays and poems in Icarus by Maurice Scully: A Review

sp18playsPlays, by Maurice Scully, Smithereens Press, free e-book (plus additional material published in Icarus)

Maurice Scully is consistently one of the most interesting poets writing in English today and any new work from him is to be welcome, and this short e-booklet along with some associated/overlapping material published in the TCD literary journal that Scully once edited, is no exception. Plays comprises a series of eight interrelated texts, two of which reappear in Icarus, along with a ninth, and a short prefatory note written especially for the magazine. The Smithereens sequence is literally framed by play, a dog playing with a ball on a pier, in brief at first, and then a more extended treatment at the end. These texts call out the deliberate nature of play as a rule-bound activity, much like language. This parallel is developed in Placed, the second piece in the sequence, which starts from a game of tiddly-winks, moves through a kind of painterly abstraction:

Slim textures

in circles squares

diamonds cylinders –

 

I heard

you rang

you answered

you

and moves, as the prose note calls out, from this ‘motley’ to thoughts of Yeats, Easter 1916, and the ‘decade of commemoration’ and all it implies.

At various points Scully’s language draws on ‘canonical’ lines form what many years ago he dismissed as ‘the gem school’ of poetry.

The poets in question are Patrick Kavanagh:

O co memor

or emco morat

may by water

vat or em

 

rald grass.

Followed by Wordsworth and Heaney:

I wandered lonely in a crowd

as a meaning-bearing creature digging

over vegetables flashing signals to

light-sensitive weed-seeds in the dark.

Between yr fingers & yr thumb, humble

ambition.

These reworkings are, as I read them, sardonic comment on the persistent myth of the poet as Romantic hero, grappling with ‘significance’, the solitary purveyor of the profound. Scully, by inference, favours a more modest, social, and fruitful view of the process of writing as being in the world. In this work, the poet is both solitary and connected, exploring life as it is, not as it ideally should be, dancing in the weave of things.

The action of

burning’s a

complex action.

Crumpled

 

paper napkin

with a base

pattern of

indentations

 

overlaid with

a pattern of

pumpkins

 

mushrooms

peppers

their names

in clear letters

 

under circular

stains where a

cup was placed –

the action of

 

fending for yrself.

Scully’s control of verbal music is evident in, for example, the patterning of the sounds represented by the letter ‘a’ in the second quoted stanza above, which play across the variable single and double stress lines. The result is a complex simplicity that perfectly enacts the ‘sense’ of the lines.

The implications of this approach to writing are profoundly political, precisely to the extent that it avoids didacticism. In the note in Icarus, Scully speculates that the book-in-progress to which all these texts belong ‘might be about “power”. But I don’t know yet.’ There is a cliché in wide circulation that art (and everything else) should ‘speak truth to power’, as if truth were that simple and that power didn’t know it. The indeterminacy of Scully’s approach is, I believe, ultimately more effective. The business of poetry is to explore questions, not present answers. Scully’s restless art does this better than most.

Recent Reading Four: More Short Reviews

The Kerosene Singing, Alistair Noon, Nine Arches Press, ISBN: 9780993120169, £9.99.

A Tug of Blue, Eleanor Hooker, Dedalus Press, ISBN: 9781910251225, €11.50.

Like A Fish Out Of Batter, Catherine Graham, ISBN 978-1-910834-30-5, Indigo Dreams £6.00.

The Tender Map, Melanie Challenger, Guillemot Press, £8.00.

The Swell, Jessica Mookherjee, Telltale Press, ISBN 978-0-9928555-4-3, £4.00.

Not exactly recent, having been published in October 2015, The Kerosene Singing is Alistair The Kerosene Singing cover web.jpgNoon’s second first length collection, the first being 2012’s Earth Record. That book included a sequence of 40 sonnets, which may have exhausted the form for Noon, as this second volume features none. Instead, it is formally varied, with poems in quatrains, tercets and longer stanzas, as well as freer forms, and the stanzaic poems are metrically varied, using a range of full, half and no rhyme, showing a high degree of technical accomplishment and control.

These stanzas frequently consist of collages or collage-like patterns of language items ‘borrowed’ from a wide range of areas of jargons, so that a ‘typical’ Noon quatrain might look something like this:

“Delete all words”, wrote a Chinese sage,

“and then you will have the true poster.”

“There is no such thing as a statement.”

“Am I asking too many questions?”

[from ‘Introduction to a Congress’]

The apparently random phrases will be all too familiar to readers who have ever attended a business conference, but there is an artful deployment of sonic affects (sibilance, alliteration) that lifts the poem beyond the merely representative and into the sphere of verbal music, an effect that points towards the multiple meanings of ‘congress’.

Noon is primarily a poet of the city, of urban life, but he is also, on the evidence of his poems, an inveterate traveller, and one who wears his travels on his sleeve. His journeys sometimes take him to liminal margins, borders, tombs, of the Oblast of Kalingrad, a Russian enclave on the Baltic coast, whose defining feature appears to be a salt-water lagoon.

They sow the alders

To halt the dance of the dunes,

The lagoon smooth as a salt plain.

Cattle gaze from the tarmac

And a pig is loose in the village.

The coach will take us

Under the turnpike

And out of the National Park.

[from ‘Oblast’]

Here, as in other poems, the natural world is a place to visit and leave, an attitude that is held up to irony in the opening poem of the book, ‘Encounters’, a poem about desk-bound workers who go hiking in summer (and only in summer), with the narrator demanding that they ‘remove [their] office arse/from its roundabout chair’.

In ‘The Milan Duomo’, the liminality is of a different order. The cathedral is one of the greatest works of the Italian Renaissance, a landmark of Western art. But for believers, one imagines it to be more, a place where one comes to commune with another realm.  Noon looks at it keenly, and sees the economic basis of culture exemplified:

five centuries of surplus value transformed

into a thousand stories in stained glass

Another poem to deal, obliquely, with economics is ‘The Burbage Valley’, which is, amongst other things, a meditation on the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the landscape of the English midlands. Here, ironic distance is set aside, and form, language and intent become fully integrated, resulting in a poem of great engagement, not in the narrow political sense of ‘engaged poetry’, but as a mind engaging with the world through words and with that most old-fashioned of virtues, sincerity. The voice engaging with the natural world in this poem is not a tourist, but an attached observer, and the result is the most complete poem in the book. It’s is such an integral whole that quotation is almost impossible, but fortunately a video of the poet reading it is available online here.

The lightly ironic tone of ‘Oblast’ is perhaps the single most characteristic aspect of Noon’s work, at least as presented in this book. At times, it is to the point, but too often there is a sense of irony without an object, a reflex condition of post-modern ennui. Noon is understandably wary, it seems, of anything that might smack of self-expression, and is well-versed (pun intended) in the art of deflection via an ironic mask, and the poems he writes are masterly examples of this approach. But perhaps the mastery is over-achieved? Clearly, here is a poem that has found a voice he is comfortable with, one that he is in complete control of, a kind of poetic ‘safe space’, in a way.

However, I can’t but feel that he is selling his ability short by accepting the limitations of the safe, the uncertainly certain. Noon can write, and write well, and on the evidence of this book, he has a poet’s instincts. It would be interesting to see him push himself beyond comfort, to take more risks with the technical skill he clearly possesses. Poems like ‘The Milan Duomo’ and ‘The Burbage Valley’ may perhaps indicate the way for this to happen. They lift an otherwise interesting collection onto another level. I’m left hoping that they point something as a way forward, into more uncertain territory, for Noon as a poet. A recent review of Philip Rowland’s haiku-like short poems is interesting in this context.

A Tug of Blue is also a second collection, and like Noon, Eleanor Hooker has also settled into a-tug-of-bluea comfortable personal voice, one that is characterised by a kind of whimsical sense of the absurd everyday. The poems in this book are very well made, distinctly Irish, with the land, rain, family and a troubled relationship with god at their core, all seen through Hooker’s distinctively quirky eye. The problem for me at least, is that they are closed systems, in which the world behaves as it does only in poems. Take, for example, the opening of ‘A Calling’:

The night is a drowned woman

in off the lake to waken me.

She is filled with stones and moulded

by the weight of fog.

Which is perfectly well-written, but the night is no such thing. The same problematic personification, the anthropomorphic fallacy, is present in the very first poem in the book, ‘Weathering’, which is nominally about rain:

Rain enquires if I’ve brought questions.

I am allowed four. Four only.

Before I can deny it, she presses

her sodden lips to mine.

Not now, she says. They are come.

This way of writing about the natural world as if it were human is so widespread as to be almost invisible. It is also, as I have argued elsewhere, deeply anti-ecological, a way of making valid a relationship with nature that is possessive and exploitative, regardless of the poet’s best intentions. It is tempting to dismiss this criticism as trivial, but in my view it raises a vital question: what is it that we want from poetry? Closure or restlessness? The pleasure of recognition or the challenge of disorientation? The first choice leads to a poetry of explicit simile and metaphor, underpinned by the reassuring illusion that the world can be made comprehensible in a neat box, the poem. The second takes us down a different root, a poetry whose humility in the face of the world’s complexity imposes a sense of restless inquiry that, paradoxically, results in a poetry that is considered difficult because it insists on looking at the world as it is in and of itself, where the thingness of things is the organising principle, a poetry where rain is rain, the night is night, in all their rich complexity.

Hooker comes nearest to this position in the most satisfying poem in the collection, ‘The Shout’, which is grounded in her experience as helm for the Lough Derg RNLI lifeboat.

After an unpromising first line (The wind is inconsolable.), the poem unfolds in a narrative of ordinary detail:

I ease us from windward.

A crew climbs across, carrying

a radio, a smile, First Aid.

Eight on board, all below

except the skipper, luminescent

in his orange lifejacket.

In this poem, where the mechanics of the poetic are least evident, Hooker achieves the best writing in the book, and, as with Noon, perhaps has discovered a less comfortable but more rewarding voice.

batterThe organisational principle behind Catherine Graham’s Like A Fish Out Of Batter is ekphrastic. The pamphlet consists of a sequence of poems taking off from paintings by LS Lowry, but Graham does not set out to describe or evoke the pictures themselves; instead she creates and peoples an imagined world based on them. This world is an unromanticised version of Lowry and Graham’s shared working-class urban North of England. She creates characters who weave their ways in and out of the stories she tells, stories of the everyday fabric of life as they lived it.

These interlaced stories are redolent with the anxieties of their place and time, which generally happen to be anxieties of any place or time: sex, and ignorance about it, pregnancy, abortion, money, difference, death.

I never wanted kids; never wanted to be

a father, I’d rather bat for the other team

than turn out like my old man. He can

go to hell. All I wanted was a bit of fun,

she knew the score, where’s the harm?

[from ‘Shift’]

The writing is apparently simple, but it is not artless, and there are echoes of, among others, that great poet of the local, Dylan Thomas:

She donkey-stoned her doorstep on Thursdays,

polished George on Wednesdays and if it wasn’t

a good drying say, gave Mondays a dirty look.

[from ‘Nancy Dreever’]

Graham clearly takes pride in her roots, and these poems are ultimately warm and affectionate portraits of the world she grew up in. But she has also, in a sense, grown out of it, if nothing else by being a poet, an observer more than a participant. This need to escape is captured in two poems towards the end of the pamphlet, ‘Head of a Young Man in a Cap’ and ‘A Letter From London’. The former concerns a French pen-pal and a disapproving father. The narrator’s Par Avion relationship with Segre allows her a sense of sophistication that seems to extend beyond the end of the poem. The latter is a found poem from a letter from Lowry to his mother, and is more restrained in its response to the exotic, a bit distrustful, lonely even. These different reactions to escape act, in a sense, as the poles of the world Graham creates in this enjoyable little volume.

The three books reviewed so far are all serviceable, readable and attractive paperbacks; The Tender Map is more consciously a book to be admired almost as much for how it looks as what it contains. As with Guillemot’s other publications, it marries text and visual art to create thought-provoking conversations.

This is Melanie Challenger’s first poetry publication in almost a decade, although she has Tender map.pngwritten several librettos and prose on the subject of environmental history, and this concern feeds into the poems here. I say poems, but in fact these small texts interpermeate to create an interesting, if not entirely successful ecosystem of meditation on place and people. Initially, I was concerned that the strategy of naming each piece on the model ‘Placename or Emotion’ signalled an overdose of the pathetic fallacy, but Challenger is a more subtle thinker that that. She skilfully weaves place and emotion so that the emotions are understated, emerging from the placing of the human in the place, not bending the place to the service of the emotion.

The heron feigns death, its shadow flies

across the river. Memories

of the fens move unfluently between us.

We chase the dark horse of night   cut the waters

and curse our luck.

[from ‘Fidwell Fen or Nostalgia’]

The uncertain strength of the writing is apparent in these lines, but so is the single flaw that I find in it, in the somewhat clunky metaphor in the third line. In fact, near the start of the series, Challenger cleverly calls attention to and simultaneously undercuts stock metaphor, the stock metaphor, in the lines ‘a plough hums,/a reprisal of the endless tides’. Unfortunately, scattered through the book there are a number of implicit and explicit comparisons that call far too much attention to themselves:

‘The river is black as the blown candle of our embrace’

‘time giving ground/like a frightened sea’

‘A slow dusk smokes the kill through the day’s memory.’

But these are relatively minor blemishes, and anyone who can write a line like ‘those thin tongues of grass thrashing his little death’ quite clearly has a poet’s ear.

The Swell by Jessica Mookherjee is the most recent in Telltale Press’s short first collections dustjacket-theswellby emerging poets. The writer’s coop model of publication is admirable, and these little pocket-size booklets are fine examples of the sort of thing that only small presses can really do.

Mookherjee has an interesting background, the child of Bangladeshi parents who grew up in Swansea, she occupies a space between two cultures, and the poems here reflect the tensions of her position as a woman making her own way in that space. In some respects, these are poems of a misfit, uncomfortable in the skins that family and society intend for her, intent on small, or large, acts of rebellion.

Suspicious of prayers to invisible gods, I stared

at vicars and asked them who would go to hell,

whether they worshipped thunder.

[from ‘The Liar’]

She also embraces the physicality of female identity, as in the title poem about, apparently, her mother’s pregnancy:

Drum tight, she looked about to burst.

He made a fuss of her for a change,

waded in wearing galoshes

as her waters broke, flooding

the house, leaving us to stay with strangers.

In the acknowledgements, Mookherjee thanks her teachers, and I do detect something of the workshop about these poems., Nevertheless, I also sense an interesting voice emerging from that marginal space that she occupies. An interesting little book.