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 Noon’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.
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 poet 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 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.
The 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?
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 written 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 by 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.