2020 Forward First Collections reviewed: #3 Nina Mingya Powles’ ‘Magnolia 木蘭’

As in the previous five years, I am posting – over the summer – my reviews of the 5 collections chosen for the Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. This year’s £5000 prize will be decided on Sunday 25th October 2020. Click here to see my reviews of all the 2019 shortlisted books (eventual winner Stephen Sexton); here for my reviews of the 2018 shortlisted books (eventual winner Phoebe Power), here for my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The full 2020 shortlist is:

Ella Frears – Shine, Darling (Offord Road Books) – reviewed here.

Will Harris – RENDANG (Granta Books) – reviewed here.

Rachel Long – My Darling from the Lions (Picador)

Nina Mingya Powles – Magnolia 木蘭 (Nine Arches Press)

Martha Sprackland – Citadel (Pavilion Poetry)

 

EaFGv9OWkAE6KuFNina Mingya Powles’ collection, Magnolia 木蘭, is an uneven book of great energy, of striking originality, but also of a great deal of borrowing. This is what good debut collections used to be like! I’m reminded of Glyn Maxwell’s disarming observation in On Poetry (Oberon Books, 2012) that he “had absolutely nothing to say till [he] was about thirty-four”. The originality of Magnolia 木蘭 is largely derived from Powles’ background and brief biographical journey. She is of mixed Malaysian-Chinese heritage, born and raised in New Zealand, spending a couple of years as a student in Shanghai and now living in the UK. Her subjects are language/s, exile and displacement, cultural loss/assimilation and identity. Shanghai is the setting for most of the poems here and behind them all loiter the shadows and models of Ocean Vuong, Sarah Howe and, especially, Anne Carson. Powles refers to the impact of reading Carson’s Sappho versions but a much earlier book like Plainwater (1995) with its extraordinary inventiveness of form, gives an idea of what Magnolia 木蘭 contains. (See also Carson’s lecture, ‘Stammering, Stops, Silence: on the Methods and Uses of Untranslation’ (2008), revised for Poetry Review (2013)).

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Powles has said that the opening poem is the oldest. Called ‘Girl Warrior, or: watching Mulan (1998) in Chinese with English subtitles’, it is written sections of prose (though divided by / every so often as if to suggest line breaks). The Disney animation – about a young Chinese girl who pretends to be a man in order to fight and prove herself – turns out to be an important reference point for the whole collection. The Mulan figure is recognised as idealised (disneyfied) compared to the narrator who laments her “thick legs / and too much hair that doesn’t stay”. Mulan cuts her hair short; the narrator’s mother trims hers. The issue of the subtitles raises the language question (“I understand only some of the words” of the spoken Chinese). There are suggestions of early encounters with boys, her mother dressing her up as Mulan and (later, presumably) what sounds like a writing workshop comment: “Why don’t you ever write about yourself”. All this works well as a cryptic, cut up sort of a bildungsroman, though the ending fades away less effectively and the earlier hair-cutting episode ends with a disproportionately hyperbolic image of the trimmed hair falling out of place, “ungracefully caught / in the wind of some perpetual / hurricane”.

Nina-Headshot-credit-Sophie-Davidson-1-scaled-e1591794392875I don’t think the intriguing glimpses of an individual young woman in this first poem are much developed in later ones. The Mulan figure makes a couple of other appearances in the book and is reprised in the concluding poem, ‘Magnolia, jade orchid, she-wolf’. This consists of even shorter prose observations. In Chinese, ‘mulan’ means magnolia so the fragments here cover the plant family Magnoliaceae, the film again, the Chinese characters for mulan, Shanghai moments, school days back in New Zealand and Adeline Yen Mah’s Chinese Cinderella. It’s hard not to think you are reading much the same poem, using similar techniques, though this one ends more strongly: “My mouth a river in full bloom”.

71W8RjV7VrLUnlike Carson’s use of fragmentary texts, Powles is less convincing and often gives the impression of casting around for links. This is intended to reflect a sense of rootlessness (cultural, racial, personal) but there is a willed quality to the composition. One of the things Powles does have to say (thinking again of Maxwell’s observation) is the doubting of what is dream and what is real. The prose piece, ‘Miyazaki bloom’, opens with this idea and the narrator’s sense of belonging “nowhere” is repeated. This is undoubtedly heartfelt – though students living in strange cities have often felt the same way. Powles also casts around for role models (beyond Mulan) and writes about the New Zealand poet, Robin Hyde and the great Chinese author Eileen Chang, both of whom resided in Shanghai for a time. ‘Falling City’ is a rather exhausting 32 section prose exploration of Chang’s residence, mixing academic observations, personal reminiscence and moments of fantasy to end (bathetically) with inspiration for Powles: “I sit down at one of the café tables and begin to write. It is the first day of spring”.

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Eileen Chang

But there’s no doubting the range of reference in Magnolia 木蘭 is refreshing and bringing something new to UK poetry. Poems allude to writers like Hyde and Chang, filmmakers like Miyazaki, the actor Maggie Cheung, Princess Mononoke (a Japanese spirit figure) as well as images from her New Zealand home. Powles’ enthusiasm is also infectious when it comes to formal experimentation. There is little conventional ‘verse’ to be found here. Prose in various guises is frequent, lists and fragments predominate. There are instructional texts, quiz and QandA forms, text and footnote, quoting and re-purposing of other texts, two-column poems (read two ways) and (very frequently) a jotting or journalistic form. This latter gives rise to the best sequence in the collection, ‘Field Notes on a Downpour’. Its 8 short sections return to the question of what is real, expressing a fear of things/words slipping away: “There are so many things I am trying to hold together”. Powles’ time studying Mandarin is contributory here as each section explores the homophonic/polysemic nature of Chinese characters. The first character of her mother’s name, for example, also suggests rain, language, warm, lips and lines/veins. Such moments are fascinating and often poetically suggestive. Another character, ‘zong’, encompasses assemble, trace and the uneven flight of a bird; all aspects of Powles’ technique as a writer. The sequence ends with a sense of language having been lost, though the image of a dropped jar of honey perhaps suggests something holds, something remains: “The glass broke but the honey held its shards together, collapsing softly”.

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‘Nomenclature of Colours’

Indeed, another of the pleasures of Powles’ poems is her vivid writing about food. She has said the book is a love poem to Shanghai and it certainly does justice to its culinary offerings. There are four options for ‘Breakfast in Shanghai’, egg noodles crisping in a wok, dumplings, white cabbage and pork and a whole dishful of pink-hearted pomelo fruit. She also has a heightened sense of colour (reflected in Nine Arches’ cover perhaps) and there are ekphrastic responses to Agnes Martin, Lisa Reihana and Werner’s ‘Nomenclature of Colours’ (1814).

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Rothko’s ‘Saffron’

Mark Rothko’s ‘Saffron’ (1957) makes an appearance in ‘Colour fragments’ and, after a vivid evocation of the original image, Powles’ response is too unremarkable in that she  imagines climbing into the painting, “and you are floating or drowning or both at the same time”. This is not original (or originally expressed) and has something of an undergraduate feel to it. That’s harsh – but what Powles has to say at the moment does not live up to the impressive technical and referential aspects of her writing. I don’t think listing ‘Some titles for my childhood memoir’ (none of them very striking, all dealt with in other poems) or ‘Faraway Love’, a re-purposing of Tate gallery notes on a piece by Agnes Martin, should have made the cut to this first book. The book Nine Arches Press presents here is quite a feast – unselfconsciously delighting in colour, taste and a strong sense of place – but it’s also too self-conscious about its nature as poetry and hence I’m left with the less pleasing taste of a poet in hiding or at least one often arrayed in other writers’ clothes.

Everything Moving: Tamar Yoseloff’s ‘The Black Place’

Last week I attended the launch of Tamar Yoseloff’s new collection, published by Seren Books. Tammy and I have known each other for a long while, are both published by Seren and, in her role at Hercules Editions, she has just published my own recent chapbook, Cargo of Limbs. So – in the small world of British poetry – I’m hardly an unconnected critic, but I have the benefit of having followed her work over the years, reviewing her most recent New and Selected, A Formula for Night (2015) here.

In an earlier blog post, I spoke – in rather tabloid-y terms – of the tension in Yoseloff’s poems between the “sassy and the sepulchral”. In 2007’s Fetch (Salt), there were “racy, blunt narratives” which in their exploration of female freedom, restraint and taboo made for vivid, exciting reading. The other side of her gift inclines to an “apocalyptic darkness”, a preoccupation with time, loss, the inability to hold the moment. In A Formula for Night, the poem ‘Ruin’ invented a form in which a text was gradually shot to pieces as phrases, even letters, were gradually edited out, displaying the very process of ruination. Interestingly, The Black Place develops this technique in 3 ‘redaction’ poems in which most of a text has been blacked out (cut out – see Yoko Ono later), leaving only a few telling words. A note indicates the source text in all three cases was the booklet Understanding Kidney Cancer and the author’s recent experience of illness is an important element in this new collection.

But unlike, for example, Lieke Marsman’s recent The Following Scan Will Last Five Minutes (Pavilion Poetry, 2019 – discussed here), Yoseloff’s book is not dominated by the experience of illness (and one feels this is a deliberated choice). The book opens with ‘The C Word’ which considers the phonetic parts of the word ‘cancer’, as well as its appearance: “looks like carer but isn’t”. But – within its 12 lines – Yoseloff also considers the other C word, “detonated in hate / murmured in love”. The poem is really about how an individual can contain such divergent elements, “sites of birth / and death”. So unanticipated personal experience is here being filtered through the matrix of this writer’s naturally ambivalent gift.

Illness re-emerges explicitly later in the collection, but for much of it there is a business as usual quality and I, for one, am inclined to admire this:

I refuse the confessional splurge,

the Facebook post, the hospital selfie.

I’m just another body, a statistic,

nothing special. Everyone dies –

get over yourself.

So Yoseloff gives us a marvellous send-up of Edward Thomas’ ‘Adlestrop’ in ‘Sheeple’, a central place on the darker side of Yoseloff-country: “The heartland. Lower Slaughter”. There is urbanite humour in ‘Holiday Cottage’ with its “stygian kitchen”, bad weather, boredom and kitsch:

We stare at the knock-off Hay Wain

hung crooked over the hearth

and dream of England: the shire bells,

the box set, the M&S biscuit tin

‘The Wayfarer’ is one of many ekphrastic poems here – this one based on a Bosch painting – but the “sunless land” is patently an England on which “God looked down / and spat”. These are poems written in the last 3 years or so and, inevitably, Brexit impinges, most obviously in ‘Islanders’ (“We put seas between ourselves, / we won’t be rescued”) but the cityscape equally offers little in the way of hope. There is a caricaturing quality to the life lived there: everything “pixilates, disneyfies” (‘Emoji’) and gender relationships seem warped by inequitable power, by self-destructive urges and illness: “I’d super-shrink my dimensions, / wasting is a form of perfection” (‘Walk All Over Me’).

Perhaps ‘Girl’ shows us the figure of a survivor in such a hostile environment, her energy reflecting those female figures in Fetch – “a slip, a trick, a single polka dot” – but the darkness seems thicker now, the lack of lyricism, the impossibility of a happy ending more resolved:

She’s good for nothing because nothing’s

good: sirens drown out violins

and crows swoop to carnage in the street.

As the blurb says, the book boldly eschews the sentimental sop, the capitalist hype, for truths that are hard, not to say brutal. ‘Little Black Dress’ takes both the archetypal ‘girl’ and the author herself from teen years to widowhood in a dizzyingly rapid sonnet-length poem:

drunk and disorderly, dropping off bar stools one

by one, until the time arrives for widow’s weeds

and weeping veils, Ray-Bans darkening the sun.

And it is – unsurprisingly – mortality (the sepulchral) that eventually comes to the fore. A notable absence is the author’s mother, who has often been a powerful presence in previous books. Here she re-appears briefly in ‘Jade’. The stone is reputed to be efficacious in curing ailments of the kidneys and a jade necklace inherited from Yoseloff’s mother leads her to wonder about the inheritance of disease too: “a slow / release in her body, passed down, // down”. Both parents put in a fleeting appearance in the powerful sequence ‘Darklight’, the third part of which opens with the narrator standing in a pool of streetlight, “holding the dark / at bay”. She supposes, rather hopelessly, that “this must be what it’s like to have a god”. Not an option available to her; the dark holds monsters both within and without and not just for the child:

                                                Back then

my parents would sing me to sleep;

now they’re ash and bone. Our lives are brief

like the banks of candles in cathedrals,

each a flame for someone loved;

It’s these thoughts that further the careful structuring of this collection and return it to the experience of a life-threatening illness. ‘Nephritic Sonnet’ is an interrupted or cut off – 13 line – sonnet that takes us to the hospital ward, the I.V. tubes and – as she once said of the city – the poet finds “no poetry in the hospital gown”. Except, of course, that’s exactly what we get. The determination or need to write about even the bleakest of experiences is the defiant light being held up. Yoseloff does not rage; her style is quieter and involves a steady, undeceived gaze and also – in the sequence ‘Cuts’ – the powerful sense that (as quoted above) “I’m just another body, a statistic, / nothing special. Everyone dies”.

It’s this sense of being “nothing special” that enables ‘Cuts’ dispassionately to record very personal experiences of hospital procedures alongside the contemporaneous facts of the Grenfell Tower fire and (another ekphrastic element) a 1960s performance piece by Yoko Ono called ‘Cut Piece’. These elements are ‘leaned’ against each other in a series of 13 dismembered sonnets, each broken up into sections of 6/3/4/1 lines. The fragmentary, diaristic style works well though there are risks in equating personal illness with the catastrophic accident and vital political questions surrounding Grenfell. Ono’s performance piece offers a further example of victimhood, one more chosen and controllable perhaps. What’s impressive is how Yoseloff avoids the magnetic pull of the ego, displaying – if anything – a salutary empathy for others in the midst of her own fears.

The book is titled after a Georgia O’Keefe picture, reproduced on the cover. O’Keefe’s steady gaze into the darkness created by the jagged relief of the Navajo country is something to which Yoseloff aspires, though it “chills me / just to think it into being”. It is the ultimate reality – a nothing, le néant – though like the ultimate presence of other writers (Yves Bonnefoy’s le presence, for example), can at best only be gestured towards:

We’ll never find it; as soon as we arrive,

the distance shifts to somewhere else,

we remain in foreground, everything moving

around us, even when we’re still.

Along such a difficult path, Yoseloff insists, O’Keefe’s art found “the bellow in a skull, / the swagger in a flower”. And, even in the most frightening brush with her own mortality, the poet will follow and does so in a way that is consistent with her own nature and work over many years.

A Robert Frost Primer or ‘All Life is Cellular’

A few weeks back, I was asked to contribute to an afternoon event in Palmers Green Library, north London, with the title – from Robert Frost’s poem – ‘The Road Not Taken’. It was introduced by Maggie Butt, with readings of their own poetry around the theme by Mark Holihan and Denise Saul. I was also asked to deliver a few thoughts on the work of Robert Frost. What follows is an edited transcript of what I said then and I think of it as a basic introduction for the general reader to Frost’s work and some of the ideas which I see recurring in it. As previous posts have mentioned, I’ve been teaching Frost for a few years recently – thanks to all those students who made me go back and read the poems again!

Despite the apparent simplicity of many of his poems, the real identity of Robert Frost (1874-1963) is hard to pin down. Though raised in late 19th century America, his first book was published in England. Though on the brink of the Modern, a year before the First World War, these poems used plain language and traditional forms. He loved Europe, befriending Edward Thomas – stirring him from prose into poetry – yet Frost sailed back to the US, to farming, north of Boston. By all accounts he was never a very successful farmer, though he often presented himself as talking downright farmer-like common sense. Some find his work consolatory; but he was famously called a ‘terrifying’ poet, a bleak Modernist.

If all this sounds slippery, then Frost took it into his poetics too. He said that, while writing a poem, he was conscious of saying two things at once. But he always wanted to say the first thing so well that any reader who liked that part of the poem might feel able to rest there. Yet, he implies, for those interested in going further, beyond the particular, overt or explicit meaning – say, two farmers re-building a wall between their properties, a man stopping to watch snow fall in a wood, a mower and a butterfly – there is always an ulterior meaning (at least one) that might also be opened up.

At all levels, such defining walls, barriers and boundaries – physical, mental, spiritual – proliferate in Frost’s work. But his view of them is complex. These walls are often porous. But sometimes they can seem impenetrable. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of his biological knowledge, but here is something else Frost repeatedly jotted down in his Notebooks: “All life is cellular. No living particle of matter however small has yet been found without a skin – without a wall.”

On one side, these secure boundaries seem necessary for a successful life – like the wall round all cellular organisms. He would say: “I want to be a person. And I want you to be a person”. But the dangers are obvious. The cellular wall of identity becomes more than a means of self-definition and grows to become an exclusion zone, a solitary place, a state of solipsism. Many of Frost’s figures and narrators are found to be struggling with this state. Yet Frost’s comments about identity, wanting to be a person, wanting you to be a person, in fact continue: “then we can be as interpersonal as you please. We can pull each other’s noses – do all sorts of things”.

So the presence of these cellular walls do not necessarily hold us back. They are as often porous or permeable. Yet they seem also to offer a firm foundation from which we may reach out, we can humanly interact. We can pull each other’s noses. And there is indeed much pulling of noses in Frost’s poems. In particular, he liked to pull the nose of the person he chose to narrate many of his poems. There is very often an irony at work against the speaker. His poems are often more dramatic than lyric.

We might ask why is Frost so concerned about being a person, about the relative security of identity? Because, in other moods, he knows the dangers posed by the absence of any functioning cellular membrane: the leaking out of personality into the surrounding world, of identity dissipating to become nothing, the risk – as it were – of personal extinction.

There is a little poem called ‘The Cow in Apple Time’ which (on the face of it) is about a cow who is driven by an unspecified desire to disregard the walls about her pasture. The wall is no more than an open gate to her. She charges through and greedily eats fallen apples, growing intoxicated, her face splattered with apple juice. But in this kind of gluttonous state she grows sick, in pain:

She bellows on a knoll against the sky.

Her udder shrivels and the milk goes dry.

It’s a perfectly satisfying poem about a rural incident – perhaps Farmer Frost, had once witnessed it himself. But there is Frost’s ulteriority too. The cow is consistently described using terms which anthropomorphise her. The wall breaker is perhaps on one level really human, a rebel, a sinner – written in 1914, some have even suggested the cow is an invasive force. However we see her, she is punished for her disregard of, her undervaluing of, those walls and boundaries which perhaps ought to serve to define her life.

Remember this is the same Robert Frost who disparaged the writing of free verse, by many of his more obviously Modernist contemporaries, as trying to play tennis with the net down. The same Robert Frost who disparaged the, then fashionable, interest in Surrealism with its wild leaps over convention, its dislocation of the senses, the shock value of the illogical. For Frost such practices could lead only “to undirected associations and kicking ourselves from one chance suggestion to another in all directions as of a hot afternoon in the life of a grasshopper”.

The cow with the aching stomach is paralleled by a dying peach tree in ‘There Are Roughly Zones’. The narrator has moved “far north” and has transplanted a peach tree and now the northern winter is threatening it. He sits indoors and frets about it, trying to blame the weather rather than himself. But self-criticism arises all the same and it is human “ambition” that gets the blame, that “limitless trait in the hearts of men”. More precisely:

[. . .] though there is no fixed line between right and wrong,

There are roughly zones whose laws must be obeyed.

I love the messy pragmatism implied by “roughly zones”. One of his recurring concerns, Frost said, was with “the impossibility of drawing sharp lines and making exact distinctions” – no red lines, lines in the sand, defined boundaries, but zones of negotiation, places calling for compromise, no fundamental clarity, rather a feeling-out, a region requiring a dialogue.

As in a poem like ‘The Tuft of Flowers’. A man comes to a mown field to turn the cut grass, the hay, to help its drying. He looks about for the man who had earlier mowed the grass:

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,

And I must be, as he had been, – alone,

‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart

The hermetically cellular, or as we would now say, atomised nature of society seems to be assumed by the narrator. It looks like there is going to be no breaking of boundaries here. But a “[be]wildered” butterfly passes him, looking for flowers that grew there yesterday, now cut down. The butterfly leads him to a “leaping tongue of bloom” left deliberately, out of “sheer morning gladness” by the mower. The narrator hears the message from this “tongue of bloom” which speaks of each man as a “spirit kindred” to the other. It’s as if they now enter into a dialogue, revising the earlier solipsistic observation. Now:

‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,

‘Whether they work together or apart.’

There is a rosy-edged hint of sentimentality here perhaps. But the fanciful dialogue between the two men (who actually never meet) represents a successful negotiation into that rough zone between individuals, the cellular membrane is actually permeable, and the result here is consolatory.

In ‘Mending Wall’, two farmers meet to patrol on either side of a dry-stone wall marking the boundary between their farms. Parts of it are always falling down. They build it back up. But the paradox is that the action of building up what separates them, brings them together each year to perform the task. The wall does not prevent or act as a brake on their relationship – rather it facilitates it – it perhaps is their relationship, what links them. From their respective sides – from their respective identities or persons – they are free to become ‘interpersonal’. But the mischievous, sceptical, modern-minded narrator expresses doubts about the importance of walls, particularly when “He is all pine and I am apple orchard”. His neighbour is a more traditional, unquestioning man, who likes to repeat his father’s advice: “Good fences make good neighbours”. The narrator mocks him (though in silence, in his head) as “an old-stone savage”, lost in actual and intellectual “darkness”. But it is significant that the wall-believer has the last word. For me, it is the moderniser is the one being ironised. If he was a versifier, he’d be trying to write poems with the net down.

Why Frost’s concern with the importance of walls? Because – in still other moods – he has looked into the abyss of experience without them. One example is given in the 16 terrifying lines of ‘Desert Places’. The narrator here seems to have taken the more modern, sceptical wall-mender’s view to heart. It seems there are no bounds here – all have vanished under “Snow falling and night falling fast oh fast”. That note of fear there adds to the nightmare feeling and when the outward-looking eye turns to look within – to find himself – he finds nothing: “I am too absent-spirited to count”. That phrase is an echo of ‘absent-minded’. There is a vacancy within and without – no mind, spirit, self, identity. There is only the concluding, devastating rhymes of “empty spaces . . . where no human race is . . . my own desert places”.  

And if ‘Desert Places’ evokes the desolation of a world viewed in the absence of a relatively secure cell-walled self, then ‘The Most of It’ shows us the horrifying effects of being walled in. In this poem, the narrator “thought he kept the universe alone”. There seems nothing else but him, only a “mocking echo of his own [voice]”. Yet he does remotely feel a desire for dialogue – perhaps just in being human – and does express a desire not for “copy speech. / But counter-love, original response”. But when the universe does eventually break into his consciousness, it arrives not in the form of dialogue or a negotiated relationship but as an utterly alien thing.

It emerges only as a strange, vague “embodiment” that “crashed” and “splashed” towards him and is recognised only by means of a simile. Perhaps it is an elk.

As a great buck it powerfully appeared,

Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,

And landed pouring like a waterfall,

And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,

And forced the underbrush—and that was all.

There, Frost captures the egoist’s struggle to comprehend what is other than him; followed by the arrogance of his dismissal of it. And perhaps this is a particularly masculine thing. Yet there is no need to attribute these feelings to Frost himself. The speaker is best read as a dramatic representation of one extreme of Frost’s concern for borders and boundaries that are vital for our own selfhood yet must be porous enough to allow for knowledge and experience.

So in ‘Birches’ the narrator remembers – as a boy – climbing slender birch trees, to the top, only to leap out and bend them down with his weight. This swinging of birches can be seen – ulteriorly – as representing Frost’s belief in those negotiated rough zones of a life. We climb up, out of our element, but not too far:

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs                                   
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate wilfully misunderstand me                                                              
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

And if we find this frustratingly ambivalent – Frost sitting carefully on the fence – then he often rubs our noses in it. ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ famously concludes with two lines which are identical. For me, the repetition introduces greater ambiguity into the moment. Does the narrator stop, perhaps to die, entranced by the snowfall? Or does he shake himself up, turn back to his life in the village, his roles and responsibilities?

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though; 
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer                                           
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.                                                
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,                                                    
And miles to go before I sleep. 

Frost throws the question back to the reader. What Frost knows is that we do not keep the universe alone. We are parts of a whole – but the borderlands are uncertain – sometimes we cross them and lose touch with ourselves, at other times we too easily accept them and fall into egotistical isolation. There maybe be a happy medium – but Frost’s dynamic poems suggest the truth is we can never find and hold to that; we are always involved in the complicated fraught business of negotiation, of swinging birches, of chasing butterflies, of building walls that will promptly fall down again.

A Thief in the House: London Launch of Hjelmgaard’s ‘A Second Whisper’

Last night I was at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden for the launch of two new collections from Seren Books. Lynne Hjelmgaard was reading from A Second Whisper and Mary J. Oliver was launching her debut collection, Jim Neat: the Case of a Young Man Down on His Luck. Oliver’s book is a curious, thought-provoking mix of family research and prose/poetic fictions. But I’ve known Hjelmgaard for a few years now as a workshop colleague and as a friend of Dannie Abse and I wanted to gather some thoughts here on her new poems.

In her playfully titled poem, ‘Ode to a Danish Lamp’, Lynne Hjelmgaard constructs a paean to a piece of electrical equipment which ends rhetorically, “Why do you move me so?” Some clues to the answer are scattered through the poem; they lie in comparisons. The lamp is an example of “Nordic metallic cool”, beside which the speaker – “a mere human” – feels humbled. She and the rest of the room, we are told, arrange themselves about the lamp which hence serves as a focal point and even a source of “answers”. It’s as if the lamp is wired up to a clearer, less divided, perhaps purer world:

[. . . ] the charged interior, a territory,

where no country nationality race

or religion has any significance.

In contrast, the human figure is more embedded in a world of time, place and quotidian specificity while the lamp emerges with its “fine, oh so thin aluminium rim” as a denizen of a less troubled realm. The speaker is moved because excluded from such a realm and the majority of the poems in A Second Whisper focus precisely on our more compromised, familiar world, particularly the ‘merely human’ experiences of time, memory and loss.

Without being a particularly philosophical poet, Hjelmgaard writes as someone who is an “expert at loss”. Another less typical poem describes – in great detail – Brooklyn Bridge and the area around it (the poet was born in New York City). She remembers sailing out under the bridge:

Manhattan is a chain with many links,

some are broken, lost and never repair,

but others can be retrieved even at a distance.

For what can shine so brightly at sea

but a city, once loved, left behind?

Hjelmgaard’s focus on links lost or remembered is probably hard-wired into her constitution (these thematic roots usually are) but it has also been provoked by biographical influences. Her 2011 book, The Ring (Shearsman Books) was dedicated to the memory of her Danish husband, Stig – who died in 2006 – and followed an American woman’s travels around Europe, mourning and negotiating that loss. Dannie Abse, among others, praised those poems: “Widowhood allows them to acquire a poignant universality”. Five years later, A Boat Called ‘Annalise’ (Seren Books), was full of more poems of remembrance, evoking the sea journey the newly married couple made out of New York to Europe, via the Caribbean.

There are further poems written to and about her husband in this new book. In ‘As We Silently Agree’, the husband appears to the widow, “in some kind of afterlife”, and is seen busying with a boat’s anchor chain, searching the ship’s log and weather charts. This is perhaps a dream poem:

Our fingers clasp in recognition

as we silently agree:

what does it matter now

if you don’t keep the course?

And ‘Scorpion Hill’ may be another example of dreamwork, the wife this time revisiting a once-shared house in the Caribbean. Its final image is of many moths clustering round “a single light bulb / left on during the night”. These are fine poems of time and sustaining memory – that bulb still burning – in which the past and those lost within it are shown to revisit the survivor.

Hjelmgaard’s treatment of this traditional theme is neither religious nor consolatory in any facile way. The pain of great loss is heartfelt and yet she manages to persuade the reader – it’s less intellectual than that, maybe she draws her readers in to the actual experience – that what lies in the past still retains is power to evoke pleasure and even that the future’s gifts are to be welcomed, even anticipated. In ‘To a Chestnut Tree’, addressing the tree in its autumnal state, the narrator is sure, “There will always be another one. / And another. // Loss can be moved through like a room”. What a magnificent line that last one is. There is a wisdom in it, however modestly it may be presented.

Time takes – but time also provides. Another poem of trees has a fir leaning eventually into a “beloved palm” – though it may take a century or two of slow growth. A lonely tamarisk on a cliff top also has the capacity to “wait until it can drink / from the bay eighty feet below”. Hjelmgaard finds her themes in the smallest incidents. Unpacking a suitcase after a journey, she finds she has brought two extra items home with her. One is a fossil of a snail which seems to represent a determined persistence through time (60 million years perhaps, in this case). The other – a flighty stowaway – is a spider which she finds “already busy / making yourself at home”. The spider evokes an improvisatory optimism, an adaptability, even an adventurousness, which I see as some of the most distinctive elements in the themes of Hjelmgaard’s work.

It’s these qualities to which Gillian Clarke is responding in her comment on A Second Whisper, where she finds in the book “the story of a special late love after bereavement”. In recent years, the British poet who has written most powerfully and movingly about bereavement and the encroachment of the past into the present is Dannie Abse. This is from his poem ‘The Presence’ about the loss of his wife, Joan:

It’s when I’m most myself, most alone

with all the clamour of my senses dumb,

then, in the confusion of Time’s deletion

by Eternity, I welcome you and you return

improbably close, though of course you cannot come.

The opening 14 poems of A Second Whisper explore the loving relationship that sprung up between Hjelmgaard and Dannie Abse after the deaths of Stig and Joan. Her opening prose piece takes us directly into everyday details. The two bereaved poets meet: “And for a time it was the four of us. Though one day, without ceremony, we noted their absence”. Thus set free, the ones still living proceed, though along no clear path, “wherever poetry and Eros chose to take [them]”

Even at their first meeting – on a train journey back from the Torbay Poetry Festival – the presence and absence of time was notable. Minutes were not to be wasted in the presence of the older poet, says the younger narrator. But mysteriously – this is in late October – the waitress at the station café is seen taking away the clock to change the hour. A photograph of the two poets at a reading shows the younger woman “less sure of herself”, while Abse is more comfortable with the attention. But at 85 years old, Abse begins appearing in these poems as more and more in decline. “Aged and dying you grew more tender”, as ‘A Second Whisper’ puts it. In this poem – as in several others – Hjelmgaard is visiting Abse at home.

I knew just how to open your front door quietly.

Its lock a whisper, a second whisper to shut.

This image – absolutely precise in its remembrance, yet also powerfully suggestive – is like the earlier line about walking through loss as through a room. The first whisper has a respectfulness, concerned with quietude, with the sensitivity of the artist, the closeness of death. The second whisper is full of ambivalence: protective perhaps from the noisy, nosey world, wanting to secure the intimacy, wanting to defend the loved one from the inevitable, yet a foreshadowing of that very inevitability.

‘A Thief Is in the House’ has death portrayed as an invader, breathing heavily, thumping up the stairs to the dying figure whose “eyes [are] prepared // for nothingness”. But these poems are not overwhelmed by grief. As if taking a leaf out of Abse’s own poems of mourning and remembrance, Hjelmgaard’s predominant tone is one of recall and revisiting – even of re-visitation. Walking alone on Hampstead Heath, she hears the lost lover chanting a Lorca poem; because one day they sheltered under an awning on Golders Green Road, every time it rains now, “the rain /stops everything / to think of you”. And in an exquisite lyric, ‘Speak to me Again at Dusk’, Hjelmgaard yearns to resume her conversations with the dead poet, yet her tone – which might have been one of pleading and despair – in fact retains a clear appreciation of the lasting value of what has been and a pleasured openness to the present (hear those noisy roosters in a moment!). Such deep-grained attitudes seem to have been a mutual common ground between these two writers and perhaps was one of the constitutive elements in their late-flowering love:

These lines among many lines

are words just for you

and the roosters that speak them

just before dawn.

2019 Forward First Collections Reviewed #3 – Raymond Antrobus’ ‘The Perseverance’

As in the previous four years, I am posting – over the summer – my reviews of the 5 collections chosen for the Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. This year’s £5000 prize will be decided on Sunday 20th October 2019. Click on this link to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2018 shortlisted books (eventual winner Phoebe Power), here for my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

 The full 2019 shortlist is:

Raymond Antrobus – The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins)

Jay Bernard – Surge (Chatto & Windus)

David Cain – Truth Street (Smokestack Books) – reviewed here.

Isabel Galleymore – Significant Other (Carcanet) – reviewed here.

Stephen Sexton – If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin Books)

 

Raymond Antrobus’ The Perseverance has already received a great deal of coverage since being chosen as a Poetry Book Society Choice in September 2018. It is a collection that has achieved the difficult task of transcending the acclamation of the poetry world to a much more widespread appreciation, such as winning the Rathbone’s Folio Prize 2019 (awarded to “the best work of literature of the year, regardless of form”). In many ways it is a conventional book of poems – its voice is colloquial, it successfully employs a range of (now) traditional forms (dramatic monologues, prose poem, sestina, ghazal, pantoum), its forms, syntax and punctuation are nothing out of the ordinary (compared to the work of Danez Smith, for example, a comparison that Antrobus invites). Its subject matter is to a large extent dominated by a son’s relationship with his father, by questions of racial identity and (this is what is especially distinctive) the experience of a young Deaf man. Besides the latter, what really marks the book out as special is that impossible-to-teach, impossible-to-fake, not especially ultra-modern quality of compassion.

I think the portrait of the “complicated man”, Raymond Antrobus’ father, is remarkable. This is a warts and all portrayal as can be seen in the title poem, a sestina, in which the boy’s seemingly endless and repeated waiting for his father to come out of the pub called ‘The Perseverance’ is reflected in the repetitions of the poetic form. The neglect of the child (and of the mother of his child) is made perfectly clear; one of the repeating rhyme words is ‘disappear’. But another is ‘perseverance’ itself which sets up sweetly ironic resonances in relation to the experiences of both father and child. But a third rhyme word is ‘laughter’ which transmutes in significance as the poem develops. At first it is the distant din from the inside of the pub. It grows into a sort of paternal life-view: “There is no such thing as too much laughter”. In the end, after the loss of the father, it is what the son remembers, rather than the neglect: “I am still outside THE PERSEVERANCE, listening for the laughter”.

Raymond Antrobus

Antrobus’ epigraph to ‘The Perseverance’ quotes from ‘Where you gonna run’, a lyric by Peter Tosh: “Love is the man overstanding”. The latter word means a form of understanding that emerges after all untruths have been overcome. The poems scattered through this collection make it clear that a full overstanding of his “complicated” father took a while. The disciplining of his child often took the form of “a fist”. When Raymond knocked loose wires from his father’s sound system, the response was a beating. Yet, “every birthday he bought me / a dictionary”. His father could recite “Wordsworth and Coleridge”. He never called his son deaf, but rather “limited”, and he would read with him in the evenings (more of that later). But then he might regale his son with tales of his extensive sexual experiences, “three children with three different women”. In the end, as so often, the child ends nursing the infantilised father who is suffering from dementia. The father’s mind is filled with the past, his own growing up in Jamaica, his first kiss, his later, difficult life in England. ‘Dementia’ deploys a second person address to the condition itself:

 

you simplified a complicated man,

swallowed his past

until your breath was

warm as Caribbean

concrete —

In the final poem in the book, Antrobus again uses a traditional form – a pantoum this time – to evoke some of the moments of closeness between father and son as they read together. In ‘Happy Birthday Moon’ the father’s attentive, gentle, encouraging side is memorialised as is the Deaf child’s desire to please his father:

 

Dad makes the Moon say something new every night

and we hear each other, really hear each other.

As Dad reads aloud, I follow his finger across the page.

 

Much earlier in the book, Antrobus writes of clearing his father’s flat after his death. On an old cassette tape, stowed away for years, the poet now listens to a recording of his own two-year-old voice, repeating his surname: “Antrob, Antrob, Antrob”. The final syllable is missing because the child could not hear it. At the time of the recording, no-one in the family suspected there was an issue. Years later, Antrobus sits “listening to the space of deafness”. Other sections of this early sequence, ‘Echo’, document the Deaf child’s experiences of slow diagnosis (“since deafness / did not run in the family”) and the tests that finally revealed the truth. These are important poems for the hearing world to read; the lazy inaccuracies and limitations of our imaginations always need re-invigorating with the truth of lived experience. The first section of ‘Echo’ takes us straight into the experience of “ear amps”, of “misty hearing aid tubes”, of doorbells that do not ring but pulsate with light.

Antrobus’ subject is only partly the frustrations of Deafness (capital D refers to those who are born Deaf – hence a state of identity, a cultural difference – as opposed to small d which refers to those who become deaf, having acquired spoken language, whose relationship with deafness is more as disability, as medical condition). One poem uses the repeated refrain “What?” Another, with courageous humour, records every day mis-hearings such as muddling “do you want a pancake” with “you look melancholic”. But it is more often the capability of the d/Deaf that Antrobus wants to proclaim: whether the doorbell is heard or seen, “I am able to answer”.

Inevitably, there is anger to be expressed. We feel the heat of this especially in ‘Dear Hearing World’ which, as Antrobus’ note confirms, contains “riffs and remixes of lines” from ‘dear white america’, a poem by Danez Smith included in Don’t Call Us Dead (Chatto, 2017). Smith’s example – a prose poem full of frustrated anger and a desperate wishfulness for better race relations in the USA – seems to liberate Antrobus’ voice. He wishes – or rather demands – better treatment for the d/Deaf: “I want . . . I want . . . I call you out. . . I am sick of. . .” The hearing world is castigated for its mistreatment of the d/Deaf: “You taught me I was inferior to standard English expression – / I was a broken speaker, you were never a broken interpreter”. Antrobus also takes aim at some high profile figures for their attitudes to d/Deafness. I remember being asked (and refusing) to teach Ted Hughes’ poem ‘Deaf School’ (collected in Moortown (Faber, 1979)). Antrobus here reprints and redacts the whole poem, following it with an excoriating commentary on Hughes’ patronising and presumptuous comments. Elsewhere Charles Dickens and Alexander Graham Bell come in for criticism.

Of course, such blinkered prejudices about d/Deafness and race remain rife as ‘Miami Airport’, a fragmented account of an interrogation at the US border, makes clear. With Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, the British-Jamaican poet, Antrobus, would say, “I am from there, I am from here”. Born to an English mother, his father always tried to keep his Jamaican heritage alive. But even his appearance speaks two stories as in ‘Ode to my Hair’: “do you rise like wild wheat / or a dark field of frightened strings?” And the subtly shifting meanings of repetition in the ghazal form of ‘Jamaican British’ cleverly brings out the liminal spaces imposed on individuals who share Antrobus’ ancestry.

But despite the many issues raised in this book, it is not in the end to be praised for its campaigning zeal. In the wonderfully titled ‘After Being Called a Fucking Foreigner in London Fields’, Antrobus confesses, “I’m all heart, / no technique”. He’s talking about fist fights here, but it’s certainly not true of his poetry. There is plenty of technique and skill on show, but it is put to the service of the “heart”. Not in a sentimental way at all – these poems can tell brutal truths – but in the compassion, the love, that most of the poems exude. There are plenty of essays and definitions of identity around these days and there is rightfully plenty of blame-work, but Antrobus finds it in himself to forgive. Instead of punching his abuser in London Fields, he “write[s] until everything goes / quiet” and in ‘Closure’, addressing someone who knifed him years ago, he finds the strength to say, “There is no knife I want to open you with. Keep all your blood”. This is a first collection that barely puts a foot wrong and thoroughly deserves the praise that has already been heaped upon it.

Michael Rosen talks to Raymond Antrobus on BBC Radio 4

 

2019 Forward First Collections Reviewed #1 – David Cain’s ‘Truth Street’

As in the previous four years, I am posting – over the summer – my reviews of the 5 collections chosen for the Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. This year’s £5000 prize will be decided on Sunday 20th October 2019. Click on this link to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2018 shortlisted books (eventual winner Phoebe Power), here for my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The full 2019 shortlist is:

Raymond Antrobus – The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins)

Jay Bernard – Surge (Chatto & Windus)

David Cain – Truth Street (Smokestack Books)

Isabel Galleymore – Significant Other (Carcanet)

Stephen Sexton – If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin Books)

Truth Street FRONT Cover 8-2019_Layout 1

David Cain’s first book confronts its readers with questions about how we might witness traumatic events, about truth (and its distortion by the authorities and the media), about the language and forms of poetry. On 15 April 1989, during the opening minutes of the FA Cup semi-final between Nottingham Forest and Liverpool, 96 men, women and children died in what remains the most serious tragedy in UK sporting history: the Hillsborough Stadium disaster. Thousands more suffered physical injury and long-term psychological harm. For almost thirty years the survivors and the families of the dead had to campaign against the police, government and media who blamed the supporters for the tragedy. Eventually, in 2016 a second inquest ruled that the supporters were unlawfully killed due to failures of the police and ambulance services.

David Cain’s Hillsborough poem is dedicated to the 96 people who died and is wholly composed from testimonies heard at the inquest. Cain has said: “My ambition throughout has been for the work to listen to the resonances held in the collective memory of that fateful day, hear the poetry found in the hearts of the people who lived through this terrible experience, and try to weave these testimonies into a singular voice. Focusing on everyday life and language, grammar uncorrected, every line of the poem is drawn from over two hundred and sixty days of formal evidence.”

51ilBx8Z4aL._SY344_BO1204203200_Cain also cites the work of Charles Reznikioff and Svetlana Alexievich as models. The former, an Objectivist poet, developed work from court records and explored the experiences of immigrants, black people and the urban and rural poor in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Testimony, 1965). He went on to use a similar technique in Holocaust (1975), based on court testimony about Nazi death camps during World War II. Similarly, Svetlana Alexievich’s books trace the emotional history of the Soviet and post-Soviet experience through carefully constructed collages of interviews. Her work owes much to the ideas of Belarusian writer, Ales Adamovich, who felt that the best way to describe the horrors of the 20th century was not by creating fiction but through recording the testimonies of witnesses.

The colloquial plainness of the language (for the most part) of the Hillsborough testimonial material is clear from the start as the scene is set:

 

There was men, women, children.

 

There was lots of families there.

 

They were very happy.

 

Lots of people eating chips, milling around.

 

Many of the pieces have this same staccato rhythm, often end-stopped and Cain always lays out the lines with double spacing between. This works well. It gives the sometimes bland and cliched language a bit of the white space of poetry, giving the reader extra time and I think what we do with that time is add in our knowledge of the testimonial nature of what we are reading. These are not ‘composed’ words in the usual sense (about which we might quibble) but witness statements. Here are other lines before the tragedy unfolds:

 

I sat there reading my programme, mooching about.

 

Watching the world go by.

 

It was all happy.

 

It was a nice sunny day.

 

It’s an established cliché of (Romantic) poetic theory that people tend to reach for/create figurative language under pressure of emotional experience and that such moments make for powerful writing. In Cain’s edited versions this is borne out on some occasions. As the swelling crowd gathers outside the stadium, people are already being crushed against walls:

 

I ended up face blank stuck against the brick wall

 

A bit like rubbing yourself against a piece of solid sandpaper.

 

horrible sharp

 

nothing nice or rounded or polished

 

In another piece, the crowds now funnelling into the ground through the opened exit gates are described as “like sand into an egg timer”. Moments later, another witness struggled to describe fans now pouring onto the already crowded terrace:

 

The scene reminded me of pictures on television in the nature programmes.

 

Molten lava

 

Molten lava flowing down a hillside from an active volcano.

 

like a wave.

 

In this latter case, what is moving is less the image itself but the evident struggle to find a fitting comparison. The testimonies here tend to reach for cliché rather than startling figurative language but it is in the nature of the witnessing act that these are still deeply moving accounts in our awareness of their truth. (How often have we been told as writers that our self-conscious wish for novelty or reaching after effect is damaging to our work).

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As the men, women and children are suddenly crushed into the barriers by the press of fans behind, any thoughts we might be having about modes of expression evaporate. Unnamed voices bear witness to events. A son tries to protect his father being crushed against the railings, cradling him against the pressure. But a surge means his arms buckle, he’s twisted to one side, no longer able to shield his father: “That is the last time I had my father alive”. Another voice ends up in the small gym beneath the stadium which is being used as a make-shift sanctuary for the dead and injured. Also there is a young St John’s Ambulance volunteer, “A young lass, 14 or 15, longish blonde hair”. The poor girl, while in shock herself, is trying to help those around her and the narrative voice is equally full of compassion for the girl: “I just put my arm round her and said, // ‘You’re a kid. // You should not be seeing this.’”

As much as the horror of broken bones, suffocation and trampled bodies, it’s these powerful acts of compassion – the wish to protect, to help, to shelter others and, when people are found to be already dead, to show them some respect –which are built through the sequence. They are contrasted with witness accounts of the slow, insensitive, sometimes appalling responses of the authorities. Though there are a few reports of “Police and fans alike” trying to help, these are outweighed by incompetence, lack of training and worse. The fans being crushed in the caged areas ought to have been released, the gates onto the pitch opened, but:

 

We hadn’t any instructions.

 

We turned and we tried to find out who’s got a key.

 

We were saying to the sergeant,

 

‘Who’s got a key?

 

Who’s got a key?’

 

For critical minutes, police regarded the event as a pitch invasion. Fans kicking down pitch-side billboards to use as improvised stretchers were threatened with arrest for vandalism. Later, as families were being asked to identify the dead, they were pulled back from any physical contact with the bodies: “’Sorry, he’s the property of the coroner now. // You can’t touch him’”.

cain
David Cain

While we probably feel for almost all those thrown into an utterly unprecedented situation – the poorly trained individual’s recourse to rigid protocols – Truth Street squarely blames the media and the higher ranks of police. The role of The Sun newspaper’s subsequent reporting is well known. One witness is haunted by the thought that his actions on the day – taking out a dead man’s wallet to lay it on him so that he can be identified – might have been misconstrued, or photographed, as him “looting the dead”. Later, the press pack burst into a room where relatives “are trying to find out what’s happening to [their] loved ones”. They want their scoop.

Equally shocking are the testimonies which show the police inquiry trying to establish a narrative of drunkenness and disorder amongst the fans. Even as a dead relative is identifying a body, “The very first question asked was what had I had to drink today”. Another statement-taking pursues the same line: “did I have owt to drink? // did I see any fighting? // did I see anybody drunk?” And as we now know, this line of inquiry, this cover-up, was sanctioned from the top. The section ‘Norman Bettison’ is an account given to the inquiry in which the then Chief Inspector admitted to being asked “to pull together the South Yorkshire Police evidence for the inquiry // and we’re going to try and concoct a story that all of the Liverpool fans were drunk”. This internal review group tried to control media coverage, producing a 30 minute film narrated by Bettison himself that was shown to MP’s, which reiterated the claims of drunk, violent and ticketless fans breaking down the turnstiles, causing the disaster.

hillsborough-sheffieldstarIn fact – as Cain’s sequence shows – what was being covered up was the original decision of Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield to open the exit gates at 2.47pm. One of his officers spoke to the inquiry: “I was quite shocked // It was totally unprecedented. // It was something you just didn’t do”. This was what caused the inflow of fans – “like sand into an egg timer”. Only at the second inquiry, did Duckenfield revise his earlier false statements: “I didn’t say, // ‘I have authorised the opening of the gates’”.

Cain’s book ends with a roll call of the dead, giving their names and ages. He titles it, ‘Hold your head up high’ and is a good a way of concluding as any. But, immensely moving though the sequence is, I’m left with the desire for more. Such is the nature of this form of testimonial or witness account – there can be no natural ending point to such traumatic events. This is also why the opening of Truth Street feels very awkward – a scene is being set in the way (fiction) writer’s do. Reznikoff’s Testimony eventually grew to 500 pages over two volumes. Cain’s powerful work has been cut to the standard size of a volume of poetry. But its power is undeniable; in reviving, memorialising and bearing witness to individual Hillsborough voices, this book is a unique contribution to contemporary British poetry.

#WADOD – Day 7: March 7th 2019

Works and Days of Division – 29 poems by Martyn Crucefix

Drawing on two disparate sources, this sequence of mongrel-bred poems has been written to respond to the historical moment in this most disunited kingdom. Hesiod’s Works and Days – probably the oldest poem in the Western canon – is a poem driven by a dispute between brothers. The so-called vacana poems originate in the bhakti religious protest movements in 10-12th century India. Through plain language, repetition and refrain, they offer praise to the god, Siva, though they also express personal anger, puzzlement, even despair. Dear reader – if you like what you find here, please share the poems as widely as you can (no copyright restrictions). Or follow this blog for future postings. Bridges need building.

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Thursday 7.03.2019

‘days of over-turning the warmed earth’

 

days of over-turning the warmed earth

with a spade

 

each clod a rip in the moonlight

whether you propagate successfully or not

 

convalescent hours lost gazing into the woods

whether you see the trees

 

whether you see a particular tree

whether you find the snow falling there or not

 

hours spent carefully broadcasting lures

attempting long lines

 

choosing short lines

whether you deceive successfully or not

 

and cold nights ripened with strings of kisses

long kisses short kisses

 

whether you find them remotely arousing

or not a trouble of urgencies

 

in the speaking in the writing in the posting

of every comment whether

 

it’s read or not whether anyone likes or not

whether you accepted the cookies or not

 

whether the privacy agreement was signed or not

all the bridges are down

 

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In Memory of Tony Hoagland

The sad news of American poet Tony Hoagland’s death yesterday (23.10.2018), prompts me to post this brief review of one of his more recent books, Application for Release from the Dream (Bloodaxe Books, 2015). My review was originally written to appear in Poetry London a couple of years ago. Hoagland’s work punctures personal, poetical and political pretensions and I would highly recommend it to anybody who has yet to discover its great pleasures and profundities. His most recent collection – likely to be his last – will appear in the UK next year and be called Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God (Bloodaxe Books, 2019).

Priest-Turns-Therapist

The metaphorical dream Tony Hoagland’s book titles is applying for release from is the alchemical one: the search for gold from lead. Though Hoagland’s world is definitely leaden, quotidian, often spoiled, there are compensatory moments when the disappointed prospective alchemist recalls “the lute hidden in his closet”. And though Hoagland is always keen to ask big questions (this collection opens with “What is a human being? What does it mean?” (‘The Edge of the Frame’)), his poems travel through thickets of irony because language interferes and shit happens and our harking after absurd, abstract, definitive answers is wholly mistaken.

Many of these poems are laugh-out-loud funny and there are occasions when Hoagland reminds me of the Ted Hughes of Crow with its gallows humour spliced with admiration for a sometimes thuggish survival against the odds: “Underneath the smile is bitterness, and underneath the bitterness is grief, / and underneath the grief the desire to survive” (‘Airport’).

tony-hoagland-448

But, Antaeus-like, Hoagland always keeps his feet firmly on the ground. His language is accordingly direct, chatty, engaging, man to man (not afraid to be masculine), eschewing the hyper-economy of certain poetries. His verse forms are very free. He’s good company (and will remind you of Billy Collins); he’s drawn to the common man (and will remind you of Philip Levine). In ‘The Hero’s Journey’ the sight of a marble floor in a hotel lobby impresses on him that “someone had waxed and polished it all”. This, he characteristically tells us, “tempered my enthusiasm for The Collected Letters of Henry James, Volume II”.

The fact is, Hoagland’s heroes are cleaners, bakers, prisoners and the nurse “wiping off the soft heroic buttocks of Odysseus”. His ‘Little Champion’ is a butterfly that lives on the urine of a particular animal, its lifetime spent in slavish pursuit of it. Likewise, “Human beings are tough” declares a poem set in a hospital, “with their obesity, their chemo and their scars” (‘December, with Antlers’).

st_manholeNevertheless, some uncertain light can be cast on the human condition by ‘The Neglected Art of Description’. A man descending into a man-hole can remind us of “the world // right underneath this one” though Hoagland treats this idea with three doses of ironic distancing. He’s even more confident that the pleasures of perceptual surprise can “help me on my way” (even this, an equivocal sort of progress and destination; no golden goal).

This book’s title poem is as definitive and epigrammatic as it gets: “If you aren’t learning, you have not been paying attention. / If you have nothing to say, it is because your heart is closed”. But the disturbing truth, according to ‘Crazy Motherfucker Weather’, is that our precious selves are no more than “a burning coal // one carries around in one’s mouth for sixty years, / for delivery / to whom, exactly; to where?” Another poem suggests there is a place balanced “between irony and hope” where we might live (‘Western’).

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The humour of Hoagland’s poems punctures both personal and political pretension, targets the poet himself as much as others, makes for very enjoyable poems and ensures those few moments of pleasure or beauty that do emerge are all the more convincing. In ‘Because It Is Houston’, for example, there is no one “better qualified around”, so the narrator derives surprise and pleasure from the “little ivory trumpets” knocked from a honeysuckle bush by a brief shower of rain.

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What better way to spend 20 minutes than to listen to this recent reading given by Tony Hoagland at Ledbury Poetry Festival:

 

2018 Forward First Collections Reviewed #5 – Kaveh Akbar

This is the fifth (and last) in the series of reviews I have been posting over the summer of books chosen for the 2018 Forward Prize Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 18th September 2018. Click on this link to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The full 2018 shortlist is:
Kaveh Akbar – Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Penguin UK)
Abigail Parry – Jinx (Bloodaxe Books) – click here for my review of this book.
Phoebe Power – Shrines of Upper Austria (Carcanet) – click here for my review of this book.
Shivanee Ramlochan – Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting (Peepal Tree Press) – click here for my review of this book.
Richard Scott – Soho (Faber & Faber) – click here for my review of this book.

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More than most, Kaveh Akbar’s poems read like jointed assemblages of seemingly disparate materials – accumulations, aggregations, medleys, jumbles. Over 91 pages, some work better than others, but on first reading there is such energy, honesty and commitment on show that it’s easy to be swept away. After a while, you begin to think that most of the poems seem cut from a very similar cloth. Amazingly, despite the inventiveness in imagery, the experimentation in form, the mix of cultures (Akbar is Iranian born, now living in the US), a paradoxical same-iness begins to set in and each time I read the book I find myself flagging about half way through.

item_XL_10301052_31669501Akbar doesn’t generally do the more familiar, simply focused poem. There are a few in the book like ‘Learning to Pray’, in scattered unrhymed triplets, in which a young boy (Akbar allows a straight autobiographical reading usually) watches his father pray, “kneeling on a janamaz” or prayer mat. The wish to emulate the admired father is conveyed pin-sharp. A later poem also starts from childhood and (mostly in loose unrhymed couplets) traces the boy’s later maturing in an America “filled with wooden churches / in which I have never been baptized” (‘Personal Inventory: Fearless (Temporis Fila)’). This poem also attracts threads of two of Akbar’s other main themes: his personal addictions and the ubiquitous sense of living in a fallen world.

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Rainer Maria Rilke

The sense of a fall is very powerful and Akbar is often to be found addressing, berating or pleading with a God figure. To this extent there is a religious element to many of Akbar’s poems, but it feels more like Rilke’s address and concern for the angels in the Duino Elegies, for example, where their actual existence is to be doubted though their impact on the way we regard and live out our own lives is profound. Akbar’s opening poem declares God sometimes visits us, “disguised as rust” (‘Soot’). God’s imagined proximity then breeds new perspectives on our own existence, including images of the Heaven from which we must have fallen: “Upon landing, the ground / embraced me sadly, with the gentleness / of someone delivering tragic news to a child”. ‘Recovery’ is also resigned to seeing life as it is really lived as “graceless” and the poem ‘God’ – before it really gets motoring with its examples of economic decline, personal illness, futile work and sense of fear – cries out: “I am ready for you to come back [. . .] / you are needed again”. Once more the mythic paradise is alluded to towards the end of the poem – simply as something that seemed promised yet is signally lacking in this world, so that “I will settle for anything that brings you now”.

three-empty-beer-bottles-pile-16804845One of the main elements of this fallen state (again Akbar allows a simple autobiographical interpretation) is the damage caused by his past addictions, especially to alcohol. This is the main hook Penguin hang the book on (a cover of empty beer bottles, for example). Poems styled ‘Portrait of the Alcoholic …’ recur throughout the book, but the first section is most focused on this. A familiar comment from W.H. Auden is used to firmly yoke spirit to bottle: “All sins tend to be addictive, and the terminal point of addiction is damnation”. Many of the poems then have this sense of inebriation, muddling, confusion which Akbar’s style of writing is very at home with. ‘Portrait of the Alcoholic with Home Invader and Housefly’ presents the drinker waking up, seemingly attacked by a home invader with a knife. Memories of keeping a housefly on a string intervene, perhaps because in the fly’s death the young boy confronted the idea of death: “I opened myself to death, the way a fallen tree // opens itself to the wild”. The poem returns to the threatening situation, then to more abstract thoughts of scale, a TV programme and the speaker passively returns to sleep. This is a great poem of the self as both endangered and paranoid, distanced from danger, the blurring of perception, thought and memory.

The title poem of the book seems to follow the alcoholic as an in-patient, this time in broken up prose. Thoughts meander again till they find a foothold in the self-recognition that “I answered every cry for help with a pour”. He sees this as a coldness, a turning away and tries to name it and therefore control it better: “if I called a wolf a wolf I might dull its fangs”. But rather than effective combat the wolf has become evermore part of the alcoholic, like two coins on a train track crushed together. ‘Stop Me if You’ve Heard This One Before’ likewise takes the reader into the addict’s mind, the thrill-searching (“I don’t / have drunks, sirs, I have adventures”), the sense of life as boredom without the booze (“we live / on an enormous flatness”). These poems are certainly – as a blurb quote suggests – additions to the “canon of addiction literature”.

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Though Akbar’s choices of form in the book are legion and each one works well enough (which is impressive in itself), form and content don’t always seem inevitably linked. What so many of the poems do have is a forward propulsion which is quite breath-taking, assisted by the frequent absence of punctuation. There is a frenetic restlessness, often matched by leaps of imagery close to the surreal (interestingly one of the poets acknowledged by Akbar is Tomaz Salamun). But I worry there is something close to programmatic about all this. Poems often draw together threads of philosophical musing (several from Rumi), then mix in (tangential) aphoristic-sounding or plain informational statements, then throw in what will be read as direct autobiographical elements. These various constituents are sequenced alongside each other and Akbar’s formal and linguistic energy (like the “old battery” delivering jolts in ‘An Apology’) whirls them round before the reader. In the best poems, there is a strong centrifugal force holding the parts together; in others they are simply spun apart and the reader ends wondering about coherence and consequence.

Texas-early-26But when it works, these are marvellous poems – and, for my money, this book would make a worthy winner of the 2018 Felix Dennis Prize. ‘Wild Pear Tree’ – as if in one breath – conveys a wintry scene/mental state, recalls halcyon days (of spring) and ends lamenting the forgetting of an “easy prayer” intended for emergencies: “something something I was not / born here I was not born here I was not”. ‘Exciting the Canvas’ is much more risky in its jig-sawing together of disparate elements – a bit of Rumi, the sea, a child’s drawing, a drunken accident, the Model T Ford, crickets, snakes – but somehow manages to hold it all together to make a snap-shot of a troubled, curious, still-open consciousness. And finally, ‘So Often the Body Becomes a Distraction’, dallies with the Rilkean idea of dying young, alludes to recovery from addiction, then grasshoppers, ice-cubes, personal ambitions and the self-image of “rosejuice and wonderdrunk” (which is merely one side of Akbar’s work). This one ends with the not-infrequent trope of a re-birth from burial in the earth. I like these images, suggesting that, for all the fretting about lost paradise, the absence of God, the self-destructiveness of the individual, whatever redemptive re-birth may be possible is only likely to come from our closeness and attentiveness to things about us, an eschewing of the “self-love” Akbar struggles to free himself from in ‘Prayer’: in a lovely phrase –though I’m still figuring it – he concludes, “it is not God but the flower behind God I treasure”.

2018 Forward First Collections Reviewed #3 – Richard Scott

This is the third in the series of reviews I am posting over the next two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2018 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 18th September 2018. Click on this link to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The full 2018 shortlist is:

Kaveh Akbar – Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Penguin UK)
Abigail Parry – Jinx (Bloodaxe Books) – click here for my review of this book.
Phoebe Power – Shrines of Upper Austria (Carcanet) – click here for my review of this book.
Shivanee Ramlochan – Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting (Peepal Tree Press)
Richard Scott – Soho (Faber & Faber)

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311zpyQouQL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The gateway to Richard Scott’s carefully structured first book is one of the most conventional poems in it. It’s a carefully punctuated, unrhymed sonnet. It is carefully placed (Public Library) and dated (1998). It’s the kind of poem and confinement Scott has fought to escape from and perhaps records the moment when that escape began: “In the library [. . .] there is not one gay poem, / not even Cavafy eyeing his grappa-sozzled lads”. The young Scott (I’ll come back to the biographical/authenticity question in a moment) takes an old copy of the Golden Treasury of Verse and writes COCK in the margin, then further obscene scrawls and doodles including, ironically a “biro-boy [who] rubs his hard-on against the body of a // sonnet”. Yet his literary vandalism leads to a new way of reading as – echoing the ideas of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick – the narrator suddenly sees the “queer subtext” beneath many of the ‘straight’ poems till he is picking up a highlighter pen and “rimming each delicate / stanza in cerulean, illuminating the readers-to-come . . .”

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It’s a moment of personal as well as lit/crit revelation, a funny poem and the flood-gates open in accordance with the Whitman epigraph to section 1 of the book: “loose the stop from your throat”. From here on, punctuation and capitalisation become rare breeds in Scott’s exploration of gay love, shame, trauma and history. It’s only 3 years since Andrew McMillan’s Physical graced the Felix Dennis shortlist but Scott’s parallel collection is far darker, more explicit and brutal (but not always at the same time) and with a fierce sense of obscured queer history and its literary canon.

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It’s an exhilarating, uneasy, accessible, relentless read. Section 1 goes some way in the bildungsroman direction. ‘le jardin secret’ declares “boys were my saplings / my whiff of green my sprouts” while ‘Fishmonger’ perhaps is set even earlier as a young boy is taken into a man’s “capable arms” in the back of his Transit van. A more aggressive and unpleasant encounter is evoked in ‘Childhood’ in which a seedy children’s entertainer (in a “caterpillar-green silk jumpsuit”) half-bullies a young boy to take him home for sex. But the poem’s perspective also suggests the child is an agent, making the decision himself: “I nodded and gingerly led him home / by the path that winds through the cemetery”. This is difficult territory (“makes for uncomfortable reading” Scott disarmingly mimics in a later poem) but erotic desire is powerfully acknowledged and (with a more caring partner) is later more satisfyingly experienced and expressed in ‘plug’ which, tenderly and very explicitly, records the moment of the loss of virginity (in fact, to a dildo).

Interestingly, the child takes the clown “through the cemetery”. Scott won the 2017 Poetry London Competition with ‘crocodile’ which also elides, blurs, even equates sex and death. The extended simile of the crocodile dragging a young man to his death is really “that man / who held me from behind / when I didn’t know sex”. The violence and destructiveness in this case is very evident but so again is the young man’s desire: “I have these moments when I / know I wanted it asked for it”. It’s in this way such poems can make for uncomfortable reading. Scott does not simplify either the allure or the destructiveness of the erotic.

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In two poems, Scott himself raises questions of authenticity. ‘Permissions’  reports, in choppy prose paragraphs, reports observations from a poetry audience, at first in admiration (“how daring how dark”), then more uneasily (“surely not this writer wasn’t”). This fragmentation evokes fleeting comments, half-finished thoughts but also an awkwardness because one of the burning questions seems to be “is the I you”. It’s as if the audience want to know if these are poems of witness, meaning of authentic biographical experience. Poems of witness also in the sense of the often traumatic nature of much of the material. ‘Admission’ is even more clear: “he asks if my poems are authentic [. . .] and by this he means have I been a victim”. In neither poem do we get a direct record of what the poet’s replies might have been and surely it hardly matters. One of the unassailable liberties of the poet is to make things up. But whether fiction or fact the resulting poem has to possess the feel of the truth and Scott’s work has this in spades.

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Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

As I’ve already implied, many of the truths these poems convey are dark and shameful ones. The third section of the book is titled ‘Shame’, again quoting Sedgwick: “Shame, too, makes identity”. Here are untitled poems which make the queer pastoral of ‘le jardin secret’ rather more complex; another boy’s look or look away prompts “the hot-face / trauma the instant rash-jam” of embarrassed blush, made even more painful by a father’s verbal abuse. Elsewhere the father says, “don’t tell anyone you’re my son” and the narrator himself bitterly opposes any easy sloganizing with “the opposite of shame is not pride”. There is some support to be found in reading books by “leo / paul / mark / jean / eve / michel” and source quotes and allusions are noted in Scott’s margins here.

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Detail from the Warren Cup (BM)

It’s this very self-conscious sense of these poems appearing within a canon of queer literature and experience that jet-propels ‘Oh My Soho!’, the long concluding sequence to the book. Whitman again presides in the epigraph and in the free-wheeling, long-lined, detail-listing paean to the present, past and future of Soho itself. The narrative voice becomes a self-appointed “homo-historian” and Scott’s love of word play (which elsewhere can feel too self-conscious) here finds a suitable form and tone. The historical element takes in a discussion of the Warren Cup (in the British Museum) but is never far from subjective and exclamatory moments too. The vigorous, secretive, once-unlawful, now legal, still persecuted, lives of “homos” is noisily and slangily celebrated:

We, too, are not immune to this shameful progress; us homos are no longer revolting!

Too busy sending dick pics and I saw Saint Peter Tatchel shirtless [. . . ]

We are a long way from that library in 1998, but “normativity” remains the enemy against which Scott takes up weapons (one of which is his own body). ‘museum’ is a superbly sensual poem, expressive of a man’s desire for the damaged male body of a Classical statue. Here normativity re-appears in the “giggling pointing prodding” of a family also viewing the statue; their ridicule is self-transferred to the gay man who stands observing in silence. The persecutions pursued in the name of normativity are also disturbingly clear in ‘Reportage’, the reports being of the immolation of a gay man somewhere in Europe. And Scott’s own revolutionary and erotic zeal are unforgettably conveyed in the poem opening “even if you fuck me all vanilla”, going on with characteristically explicit descriptions of the ironically, self-consciously, unprovocatively, vanilla-ish act, he still declares at the climactic finish, “napalm revolution fuck- / ing anarchy we are still dangerous faggots”.

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