Harpic and Gravy: a review of Sean O’Brien’s ‘Europa’

Sean O’Brien’s recent book, Europa (Picador Poetry, 2018) has made it onto the 2018 T.S. Eliot award shortlist. Earlier in the year, I was asked by Magma magazine on-line to write a brief review of the book (alongside Vahni Capildeo’s Venus as a Bear (Carcanet Press, 2018) and Alice Miller’s Nowhere Nearer (Liverpool University Press, 2018). What follows is an expanded version of my original review of O’Brien’s book.

 

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You know why they chose to do it but Picador’s presentation of Sean O’Brien’s ninth collection as a book about Brexit does nobody any favours. It’s a far more heterogeneous set of poems – there’s a good dose of elegiac texts, for example – though the opening 19 pages certainly does have the UK and Europe steadily in their sights. It turns out, what these two blocs share in O’Brien’s view, is a history which is ironically mostly one of conflict (a view also reflected in O’Brien’s Robert Graves Society lecture recently published in P.N. Review 244) . The opening poem, ‘You Are Now Entering Europa’ repeats the line, “The grass moves on the mass graves”. The poem goes on to ask how many “divisions” the grass has at this activity and the play on words manages to evoke both military logistics as well as peace-time political conflicts. The narrative voice is downcast, speaking in short breathless little phrases as if anything more lengthy would be beyond him or not worth it. The steadying recourse is merely “my work” which serves to sustain but for no other obvious purpose than to arrive at “the graveyard I become”.

Other poems draw on material from the Great War or the Balkan conflict while ‘Wrong Number’ looks back to visits to the divided city of Berlin, visits that read like a catalogue of failures ending in a self-regarding and (later) self-ironised “species of moral exhaustion”. How effectively poetry – or a literary sensibility – can engage with what is really existing in political terms is one of the themes here:

 

I chose not to mention this

Because it was too obvious or literary,

Like making something out of nothing

 

For the sake of poetry, as if that were a sin.

 

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But O’Brien is always at his best engaging in his love/hate relationship with England. ‘Dead Ground’ explores who owns the English countryside. It describes a ‘theme park’ landscape, a fantasy “[w]here things are otherwise” than what they really are, yet an exclusive park round which ancient walls “will be built again, but taller”. O’Brien’s second person addresses are always discomfiting, levelling an accusing finger at the reader more than most contemporary poets though it’s effect is complicated by the clear sense that he implicates himself as well. Art again gets short shrift – here it is batted away as “[t]he never-was and never-will” in contrast to the brute facts of ownership and possession. Is it the sensibility of the artist/poet again being prodded and provoked here: “The liberties you think you claim / By searching out the detail / In the detail”? Again, this is a task that seems to end nowhere better than “your six-foot plot”. In fact, in O’Brien’s vision of contemporary England, the most vital activity is wholly mercenary, “counting the takings”.

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Those who live outside this country’s circles of possession and privilege, those to be found in “Albion’s excluded middle”, are more than likely to end up in the kind of neo-Nazi meeting so brilliantly described in ‘The Chase’. Here, in Function Rooms where “gravy fights it out with Harpic” O’Brien finds “[w]ould be Werwolfs” who are planning to make Britain great again. The narrator’s antagonism to them is clear enough – the poem enjoys mocking their “banal resentments”, their abortive calls to phone-in radio shows, their “bigotry” – but the moral stance is complicated by his inability directly to confront such attitudes, though he acknowledges that he should: “Too bored to laugh, too tired to cry, you think / These people do not matter. Then they do”. Here too, the “you” does a great job of skewering the complacent reader.

O’Brien’s smokingly apocalyptic visions, familiar from earlier collections, recur in Europa, though (again) to pin these to the shameful, self-wounding moment of Brexit is surely too reductive. ‘Apollyon’ is a scary vision of destructive power as a “[g]ent of an antiquarian bent” and ‘Exile’ relishes the blunt pessimism of its given-and-snatched-away conclusion: “It is from here, perhaps, that change must come. / You are garrotted by a man your hosts have sent”. One of the instigators of betrayal and disaster, in what begins to heap up in the book as a modern wasteland, is recognisable in her “leopard shoes and silver rings” and it feels particularly pointed that O’Brien has to go as far as Mexico City (and a more mythopoetic mode) to find a strange man/beast at a bar who suggests the possibility of “living in hope despite the mounting evidence” (‘Jaguar’).

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As I have already hinted, the equivocal role of the artist has long bothered O’Brien and – it’s my impression – that he beats himself up more frequently nowadays over the poet/artist’s impotence. The hilarious but ultimately cynical account in ‘Sabbatical’ of university life (especially Creative Writing) paints a depressing scene:

 

Apres moi, Creative Writing, dammit.

Good luck, my friends, my enemies,

And those of you to whom in all these years

I’ve still not spoken. Now I bid farewell,

Abandoning my desk, my books

And thirteen thousand frantic e-mails

Enquiring about the Diary Exercise

On which the fate of everything

(To whit, this institution) hangs

 

The collection ends with ‘A Closed Book’, a poem which has clear echoes of Shelley’s apocalyptic, unfinished last poem, ‘The Triumph of Life’.  Someone – it’s “you”, of course – impotently watches a parade (“a cart”) rolling through an unspecified European square where he is sitting like a tourist (or someone on a sabbatical). The figure does little other than observe and wait, “As if this one venue would give you / The secret entire”. But here too, the knives are elegantly brought out. It is for such a moment “you spent your life preparing”, we are told, and though hopes of “transfiguration” and “perfection” are voiced, the sense is more of an exhausted spirit, of self-delusion.

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Drowned Shelley’s melodramatic memorial at University College, Oxford

Europa is full of such unflinching, incisive moments, combined with a breadth of vision and dark sense of humour that few contemporary poets can match. But I worry that in so frequently denigrating his own art (ironically because he expects so much ‘achievement’ from it), O’Brien ironically runs the risk of allowing darker agencies too much influence in a culture that, for its many faults, permits a high degree of liberal civilisation. A civilisation, in the interstices of which (at the risk of sounding too complacent), pass lives of relative peace and achievement, where even art with fewer explicit political designs should be lauded and encouraged, since it too plays an ethical/political role, as if to say, ‘this is what must be protected’.

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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).

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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’).

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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:

 

Lorca’s ‘Sleepwalking Ballad’ – a new translation

Two weeks ago, I was invited to deliver a brief, personal talk about Lorca’s poetry, particularly from the perspective of translating it. Last week I blogged part of this talk, looking at the poem, ‘Reyerta’, alongside my new translation of it. I confessed then, I have always found Lorca’s poems difficult to work on – though they are superficially both alluring to the translator and seemingly straightforward – though, in what I said last week and in what follows, I hope to show I have made some headway with them over the years. Here, I am discussing Lorca’s well-known poem (also from the Gypsy Ballads collection) called ‘Romancero sonambulo’ or, as it is usually translated into English, ‘Sleepwalking Ballad’. My full translation of the poem appears at the end of the post (an earlier version of it was published in the magazine Dream Catcher).

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Later in the lecture about the Gypsy Ballads that I referred to in my earlier post, Lorca talks about other aspects of the style of these poems. He says ballads have always depended on narrative – if the ballad poet veers too far towards the lyrical, without an echo of the anecdotal, the result is not a ballad but a song. Lorca was consciously looking “to fuse the narrative ballad with the lyrical without altering the qualities of either”. And he believed he had achieved this especially in the poem, ‘Sleepwalking Ballad’. As he says of it, the poem provides the sense of an anecdote within a very dramatic atmosphere, but this lyrical ballad is also marinated in the most amazing atmosphere of mystery. A mystery that even he, the author, would not penetrate. It opens:

 

Green how I love you green.

Green wind. Green branches.

The ship out on the sea

and the horse on the mountain.

Shadows about her waist,

she dreams at the balustrade,

green flesh, hair of green

and eyes of chilly silver.

Green how I love you green.

Beneath the gypsy moon,

all things are watching her

and she’s unaware of them.

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As narrative this is mysteriously brilliant and brilliantly mysterious. Unlike ‘Reyerta’ the narrative voice is expressive through the technique of repetition – 10 ‘greens’ in the opening 13 lines – suggesting an obsessive love or fascination with the colour green which seems immediately linked to a woman. The balance of the mystery is achieved with the first references suggesting fertility and fecundity, but later ones a rather queasy, uneasy discoloration of flesh and hair. The word ‘green’ almost becomes the woman’s name – “I love you green”. She is the focus of “all things”. As yet, we don’t know why she might not be aware of their gaze. The images of the ship on the sea and the horse on the mountain do little more than extend the horizon of the poem – they suggest this is more ballad than love song. There is a specific context – and, as we’ll see, it’s an important one.

1200px-Agave_americana_R01The next section of the poem displays some of Lorca’s startling, surprising images: the “stars of frost”, the “fish of shadows”, the fig-tree’s “sandpaper branches”, the mountain is a “a thieving cat” that “bristles its sour agaves”. These are good examples of Lorca’s technique with metaphor: to place together two things which had always been considered as belonging to two different worlds, and in that fusion and shock to give them both a new reality. But these lines are perhaps really more about raising the narrative tensions in the poem through rhetorical questions such as, “But who will come? And where from?”

Making things no clearer, there follows a section of dialogue, apparently between the house owner and a young man, who is perhaps on the run from the authorities as he is “blood-stained from the Cabran passes”. The young man says what he seeks now is domesticity, to settle down – to exchange horse for home, saddle for mirror, knife for blanket. But the house owner cannot oblige. Not because he does not wish to, but because he cannot. Cryptically, he says “I am no more as I am, / nor is my home my home”. Only later do we (perhaps) understand his utterly compromised position.

It turns out the blood-stained youth is really hurt, from chest to chin. Another of Lorca’s great images: “Three hundred dark roses / spatter your white shirt. / All round your belt / the blood reeks and oozes”. What the two men do agree to do (though the reason for this is not obvious) is to climb to the top of the house – here I imagine a flat roof with balustrades. Here the colour green returns (paint, twilight, treetops?) and a daubing of romantic moonlight. But also – and how ominously we have yet to learn – they begin to hear the sound of water.

downloadSo up they climb. We don’t know why, but the atmosphere here is dripping with ill omen: they are “leaving a trail of blood, / leaving a trail of tears”. Then there is another of Lorca’s images yoking together unlikely items. As they climb to the roof-tiles, there is a trembling or quivering of “tiny tin-plate lanterns” and perhaps it’s this that becomes the sound of a “thousand crystal tambourines / [that] wound the break of day”. Lorca himself chose this image to comment on in his talk. He says if you ask why he wrote it he would tell you: “I saw them, in the hands of angels and trees, but I will not be able to say more; certainly I cannot explain their meaning”. I hear Andre Breton there, or Dali refusing to ‘explain’ the images of the truly surreal work. In each case the interpretative labour is handed over to us.

The reason for the climb to the roof-top perhaps only now becomes clearer. One of the men – I take it to be the house owner addressing the youth – asks where his girl is, a girl who used to wait for him on the roof top: “fresh-faced, her black hair, / on the green balustrade!” So the rooftop was one of the lovers’ meeting places. Then there’s another of Lorca’s jump-cuts of overwhelming drama. Up on the roof, as they reach it, over a rain-water tank, hangs a body:

 

Over the face of the cistern,

the gypsy girl was swaying.

Green flesh, hair of green,

with eyes of chilly silver.

A slip of ice-frosted moon

holds her above the water.

W-I-handrailDid they know this? It appears not. But who is she? Daughter? Lover? Both? Is this really what the two men find there? For sure, there is some mystery about the chronology because the seeming explanation of the killing is couched as a flashback: “The dark night grew intimate / as a cramped little square. / Drunken Civil Guards / were hammering at the door”. But Lorca often plays fast and loose with verb tenses. Was this earlier? Were they in search of the rebellious youth? But they found his girl-friend? Hanging her on the rooftop? Is the house owner her father? Does he know what has happened? Is this why his house is not his own anymore? Is this why he is no more what he was?
icarusThe only certain thing is that the poem does not reply. It ends with a recurrence of that opening yearning – now it’s read as a more obviously grieving voice – though it’s not necessarily to be read as the young man’s voice. It’s the ballad voice, the one I took so long to really grasp in Lorca’s work. It is a voice involved and passionate but with wider geographical, political and historical horizons beyond the individual incident. Like Auden’s ploughman in ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’, glimpsing Icarus’ fall from the sky, yet he must get on with his work, ‘Sleepingwalking Ballad’ returns us in its final lines to the wider world:

 

Green how I love you green.

Green wind. Green branches.

The ship out on the sea.

And the horse on the mountain.

 

In passing, the poem refers to the dead girl as a ‘gypsy’. By gypsy, Lorca said he intended to allude to Andalucia itself, because “the gypsy is the loftiest, most profound and aristocratic element of my country, the most deeply representative”. So there’s certainly a political element to the poem, but that’s an aspect I’ve no time to explore here.

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Here is the complete text of my translation:

 

Sleepwalking Ballad

 

Green how I love you green.

Green wind. Green branches.

The ship out on the sea

and the horse on the mountain.

Shadows about her waist,

she dreams at the balustrade,

green flesh, hair of green

and eyes of chilly silver.

Green how I love you green.

Beneath the gypsy moon,

all things watching her

and she’s unaware of them.

 

Green how I love you green.

Great stars of frost appear

beside the fish of shadows,

making way for sunrise.

A fig-tree scuffs the breeze

with sandpaper branches.

The mountain, a thieving cat,

bristles its sour agaves.

But who will come? And where from?

Still she’s at the balustrade,

green flesh, hair of green,

dreaming of the bitter sea.

 

“Friend, I would love to change

my horse for your home,

my saddle for your mirror,

my knife for your blanket.

Friend, blood-stained I come

from the Cabran passes.”

“Young man, if I were able,

I’d seal this bargain.

But I am no more as I am,

nor is my home my home”.

“Friend, I would love to die

so decently in my bed.

Steel-framed it would be

with sheets of fine linen.

But you see this wound

running from chest to chin?”

“Three hundred dark roses

spatter your white shirt.

All round your belt

the blood reeks and oozes.

But I am no more as I am,

nor is my home my home”.

“At least then let me climb

to the high balustrades.

Let me climb! Oh, let me

reach the green balustrades,

the handrails of the moon,

where the water’s echoing.”

 

So two friends climb

toward the high balustrades,

leaving a trail of blood,

leaving a trail of tears.

A quivering of the roof-tiles’

tiny tin-plate lanterns.

A thousand crystal tambourines

to wound the break of day.

 

Green how I love you green,

green wind, green branches.

Two friends, now they climb,

with the slow wind leaving

a strange taste in the mouth

of bile, mint and basil.

“My friend! Where is she, say?

Where is your bitter girl?

How often she’d wait for you!

How often she’d wait for you,

fresh-faced, her black hair,

on the green balustrade!”

 

Over the face of the cistern,

the gypsy girl was swaying.

Green flesh, hair of green,

with eyes of chilly silver.

A slip of ice-frosted moon

holds her above the water.

The dark night grew intimate

as a cramped little square.

Drunken Civil Guards

were hammering at the door.

Green how I love you green.

Green wind. Green branches.

The ship out on the sea.

And the horse on the mountain.

 

 

Lorca’s Gypsy Ballad ‘Reyerta’ – a new translation

This week, at the Omnibus Theatre on Clapham Common, I was invited to deliver a brief, personal talk about Lorca’s poetry, particularly from the perspective of translating it. I have always found his poems difficult to work on – beyond a superficial level – though, as what follows suggests, I hope I have made some headway with it over the years. There are plenty of very poor translations around. I’m posting two blogs on this and including two of my own translations, the first, unpublished as yet, the second appeared  a while back in a small magazine. I’ve left my talk pretty much as . . . My translation of ‘Reyerta’ can be found at the end of the posting. I will post on the even more astonishing poem, ‘Romancero sonambulo’, next week.

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My personal story with Lorca maybe begins even before I’d read him. When I did come to read him – in a Penguin Modern Poets collection with (quote) plain prose translations – I didn’t get it. Later – as I often calculatingly do with a poet I don’t get – I tried to translate a few poems. To begin with, I didn’t get it then either.

Actually, my problems are genuinely surprising, in retrospect, as I’d long before this responded powerfully to something which I can now see had a strong Lorca quality to it. Let’s go back to the early 1980s. Imagine the beard, the much longer hair. The ignorance . . . A friend of mine loved his Irish folk music. He told me to listen to a song sung by Christy Moore. I say a song – a ballad really.

The song’s voice (a young man) tells us he went to a wood, he cut a branch of hazel, went fishing with it and caught a trout. What drove him was the fire in his head. The scene is vividly conveyed, neat turns of phrase like the white moths and moth-like stars and, as he lights a fire, the trout turns into a girl who calls to him but runs off.

Then the youth’s narrative jumps – the kind of moment that really does take the top of your head off. The voice concludes:

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

download (1)I really didn’t know it at the time, but the song’s words are, of course, by W.B.  Yeats. It is his poem ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’, from The Wind Among the Reeds (1899).

But I knew well enough that I found it moving – the yearning of the narrative, the devastating presentation of time passing, the strange images and most of all the mystery that spread itself over the whole like endlessly suggestive moonlight.

II

And so eventually, in Lorca too, I began to understand three big things – his poetry’s sense of generative mystery, the strange unexpectedness of his images and the boldness – the jump cuts – of his narrative development.

I’m focusing on these things tonight and what better place to start than a lecture he gave. Lorca typically (both self-deprecating and boldly idiosyncratic) calls it rather a talk about something no one has taught him – a lecture about the collection of poems called Gypsy Ballads. He published this best-selling book in 1930 and here he is speaking in October 1935. Of course, within the year he would have been murdered, his body dumped somewhere never to be found.

But in these lecture comments, we catch the man very much alive, I think, plus the poet’s love of outlandish metaphors. He says that lectures, in the traditional sense, tend to “fill the audience’s eyes with the pinpoints where Morpheus hangs his irresistible anemones”. For those of you already nodding off, he means in such talks we often fall asleep. Or at least, the speaker inadvertently fills the hall with “yawns too big for even the mouth of an alligator”.

hqdefaultI have now translated a number of Lorca’s poems and one of the great difficulties is to carry over such metaphorical leaps into English where they risk sounding very silly indeed. Fair enough, the alligator is, on the face of it, obvious enough: its gaping jaws give a good jolt of comic hyperbole to his image. But it’s still surprising in the context of a be-suited, bespectacled lecture hall in Spain. There is an exoticism there on the verge of surrealism and is characteristic of Lorca’s images. This search for novelty in image is clear when he argues later that a real poet must “shoot his arrows at living metaphors and not at the contrived and false ones which surround him”.

The Morpheus image does something else which is typical. Lorca takes up a creaking old mythic figure and with his sustained and vividly specific imagination, a vigorous verb, plus the kind of adjective on which he always liked to turn the volume up to 11, he brings the god of sleep and dreams to modern life: “the pinpoints where Morpheus hangs his irresistible anemones”. This sort of thing really is at the heart of Lorca’s project to take up traditional forms and stories and invest them with a modern vitality. One of his fellow students in his brief time at Columbia University reported that for Lorca, “new metaphors were the core and mainstay of any new poetry [. . .] Lorca’s central idea in writing was to employ phrases which had never been used before [. . .] an attempt to place together two things which had always been considered as belonging to two different worlds, and in that fusion and shock to give them both a new reality”.

This is the root of his belief that by means of poetry “a man more rapidly approaches the cutting edge that the philosopher and the mathematician turn away from in silence”. Never a proper, card-carrying surrealist, we can see why his work was working along that same grain. The well-honed, well-trodden, conventional, empirical/logical grooves of the philosopher or mathematician need a down-right shake up and poetic images easily seize the liberty to do this.

III

The Gypsy Ballad called ‘Reyerta’ or ‘The Quarrel’ or ‘Fight’ shows a lot of this for me. Lorca’s own comments on the poem suggest his interest in the way groups attack each other for unlikely reasons – a glance, a rose, a love affair centuries old, a man feeling a bug on his cheek. It opens:

Halfway down the gulley,

knives of Albacete,

beautiful with enemy blood

glinting like fish.

Like fish? A surprising image – but perhaps the silver and red (of fish fins; of steel and blood) makes this a vivid visual opening to the poem. But the surprise holds my attention; I can’t dismiss the slipperiness of the fish, the literal and metaphorical slipperiness of knives in a fight, perhaps the speed of movement of fish/fighters.

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The images of the next quatrain are vividly expressive but hard to be literal about:

In the crown of an olive,

two old women mourn.

The bull of the brawl

heaves itself up walls.

The women weep but to see them apparently perched in a tree top explains less and reveals more. So – they are far from the quarrel, putting distance between themselves and the ruckus, and where better than an olive tree, symbol of rootedness, domesticity perhaps, a long rural history, the bark’s wrinkles echoing their old weeping faces. Then the quarrel as an utterly non-literal, aggressive bull might seem an obvious image but again Lorca fixes our attention and conjures an independent life for it – as in a bullfighting ring – crashing into walls, even beginning to climb them.

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Mysterious black angels float through this poem at various moments. They are partly obvious, ominous, harbingers, though not of salvation but doom. Again, Lorca commits to them, commits details to them which tend to deepen the mystery of their significance: they are “bringing / meltwater, handkerchiefs. / Angels with wings as wide / as these Albacete knives” and, at the conclusion of the poem, they are seen “wheeling / in the air to the west. / Angels with trailing braids / and with hearts of oil”. With hearts of oil? Golden, greasy, liquid, melting, fast-beating, lacking healthy blood, anointing the earth, the good stuff spilling everywhere? Its meaning is a mystery and I suspect one Lorca would not venture to explain himself.

images oilJust one last detail from this great poem. Juan Antonio de Montilla is killed in the fight and – in one of Lorca’s characteristic jump cut edits (more of that in a minute) suddenly (it seems) the “judge and Civil Guard / come through the olive groves”. Somebody – a participant, one of the old women? – gives them an account of events in the form of exactly one of Lorca’s startling metaphors. This may have been a quarrel over a card game, or a girl, like so many others, but Lorca dizzyingly elevates it into an historical, even epic context:

Just as they always do:

four Romans have died

and five Carthaginians.

Here is my translation in full – the original Spanish follows:

.

Fight

Halfway down the gulley

knives of Albacete,

beautiful with enemy blood

glinting like fish.

a harsh playing-card light,

silhouettes on sour green,

the infuriated horsemen.

In the crown of an olive,

two old women mourn.

The bull of the brawl

heaves itself up walls.

And black angels bringing

meltwater, handkerchiefs.

Angels with wings as wide

as these Albacete knives.

Juan Antonio Montilla

rolling dead down a slope,

his body full of irises,

pomegranate on his brow.

He rides a cross of fire now

down the road to death.

*

The judge and Civil Guard

come through olive groves.

Slithering blood moans

a serpent’s mute song.

Masters! Civil Guardsmen!

Just as they always do:

four Romans have died

as have five Carthaginians

*

Evening crazed with figs

and hot rumours falling

faint on the wounded

thighs of the horsemen.

And black angels wheeling

in the air to the west.

Angels with trailing braids

and with hearts of oil.

 

Reyerta

En la mitad del barranco
las navajas de Albacete,
bellas de sangre contraria,
relucen como los peces.
Una dura luz de naipe
recorta en el agrio verde,
caballos enfurecidos
y perfiles de jinetes.
En la copa de un olivo
lloran dos viejas mujeres.
El toro de la reyerta
se sube por las paredes.
Ángeles negros traían
pañuelos y agua de nieve.
Ángeles con grandes alas
de navajas de Albacete.
Juan Antonio el de Montilla
rueda muerto la pendiente,
su cuerpo lleno de lirios
y una granada en las sienes.
Ahora monta cruz de fuego,
carretera de la muerte.

*

El juez, con guardia civil,
por los olivares viene.
Sangre resbalada gime
muda canción de serpiente.
Señores guardias civiles:
aquí pasó lo de siempre.
Han muerto cuatro romanos
y cinco cartagineses.

*

La tarde loca de higueras
y de rumores calientes
cae desmayada en los muslos
heridos de los jinetes.
Y ángeles negros volaban
por el aire del poniente.
Ángeles de largas trenzas
y corazones de aceite.

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 #4 – Shivanee Ramlochan

This is the fourth in the series of reviews I am posting over the summer 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) – click here for my review of this book.

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Shivanee Ramlochan’s book is full of rebellions and unexpectedly, simultaneously manages to evoke the unholy trinity of Jean Rhys, Garcia Lorca and Garcia Marquez. But it’s not an easy read with its long lines of free verse transiting rapidly from person to person, place to place, from the demotic to the magical, from material to spiritual and the poems are also liberally peppered with Caribbean and Hindu references and allusions (many of which the likes of myself are going to have to look up). Ramlochan also invents many different characters, not giving all of them distinctively differing modes of speech but, in many ways, the (literally) presiding spirits here are the duenne and the soucouyant.

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Soucouyant

The former, in traditional terms, are spirits of children who died before they were baptized, who are fated to roam the forests of Trinidad, practicing their repertoire of dangerous pranks. They are sexless, their feet are turned backwards; they have no faces (though they have small round mouths) and they wear mushroom-shaped straw hats. The soucouyant is a shape-shifting Caribbean folklore character who appears as a reclusive old woman by day, but by night she adopts her true form as a fireball, flying across the sky in search of victims. These are outcasts, liminal figures with strange, threatening powers. Interestingly, Jean Rhys’ Antoinette, in Wide Sargasso Sea, is compared to a soucouyant and Ramlochan has spoken of Rhys’ character, “carrying her arsonist’s candle through the empty, cold halls of her oppressor’s mansion, ready to raze it to the ground”, as an important inspiration.

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Jean Rhys

As with Rhys, the oppressor/Rochester figure represents the status quo, the loaded dice of orthodoxy and patriarchal power, and so – in modern parlance – what Ramlochan is pursuing is the “subversion of the hetero-normative value system”. Accordingly, ‘The Abortionist’s Daughter Declares Her Love’ draws on a grandmother’s experiences as an illegal abortionist, often faced with the disapproval of society (the church especially): “They have called me many things between these aisles”. The facts of gender inequality are made clear because when “men aspire to terrible jobs, we offer them hushed respect”, whereas women doing the same are felt to deserve nothing more than an “acreage of sorrow”. The word “acreage” is picked up on. Its limited nature is explored, ironically, suggesting that even in their degrees of sorrow, the experiences of such marginal women are strictly limited: “Give her enough land to hang herself”.

minotaurThere is a sequence in the middle of the book which offers a clearer view of Ramlochan’s approach. ‘The Red Thread Cycle’, on the face of it, explores the traumatic consequences of rape. How to articulate the event is one theme and there is a magic-real quality which initially seems to add to the horror: “Don’t say Tunapuna Police Station. / Say you found yourself in the cave of the minotaur”. But this shifts quickly instead to reflect how police and authorities fail to take such a literal description seriously, even blaming the woman herself: “Say / he took something he’ll be punished for taking, not something you’re punished for holding / like a red thread between your thighs”. Other poems trace improvised rituals (real and semi-real) to expiate the crime and trace the passage of years. Some moments suggest the lure of suicide with allusions to Virginia Woolf’s death by water, carrying “pockets of white stones”. Seeing the unpunished rapist at large eventually becomes possible: “Nothing drowns you, when you see him again”. The sequence is a lot less chronological than I am making it sound, but what the woman has been doing over the years is, in a striking phrase, “working to train the flinch out of myself”. This has been achieved partly through art. Ramlochan certainly sees such pain as an essential part of the artist’s apprenticeship, that it will “feed your best verse”, and the sequence ends with her reading poems in public as an act of strength and self-affirmation, marking the psychic death of the aggressor: “applause, hands slapping like something hard and holy / is grating out gold halleluiahs / beneath the proscenium of his grave”.

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Lilith

But such possibly-biographical writing is not really typical of this book. Ramlochan transgresses beyond the confines of the Caribbean status quo by writing about her spirit figures who more easily and boldly express resistance. ‘Duenne Lorca’ seems to be an address to an unbaptised Caribbean Lorca-esque child. Like the Spanish poet, Ramlochan loves colour and a boldness of image almost to excess. The mother recalls how she “damped my dress with your purplish blood and rinsed you in the river, / stained my mouth / with the placenta of your leavings”. She rinses religion from his clothes each week and wishes him well in the forest he must haunt as an outcast but one who achieves freedoms unavailable within really existing society. It’s no surprise that Ramlochan is drawn to write about Lilith too, the Christian religion’s air-brushed female rebel. Even the Virgin Mary gets a poem, her character and role re-written as a jungle-haunting rebel, surviving weeks of deprivation. Eventually, she celebrates the “statues of the men who spoonfed us English [being] ground to glassine”. In this alternative history, the hoped-for liberation brought about by rebellion is successful: “We ate the words for marriage, for sacrament, for lawfully wed”.

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Kali

The collection opens with ‘A Nursery of Gods for my Half-White Child’ which – apart from sounding like a poem title from heaven to the likes of ACE – challenges the teaching of religion (Ganesh, Kali, Krishna, Saraswati) to children and tries to offer the freedom to invent and self-invent in its place. I think the book would have opened better with ‘All the Dead, All the Living’ which is a much more enjoyable, energetic, colloquial celebration of such freedoms of choice. Set at Jouvay or Carnival, the poem invites all and sundry to “play yourself / or somebody else”. More idealistic wish-fulfilment than serious life-coaching, this is a message of liberation – to play grandmother, mother, all the dead, the living, even a soucouyant – is infectious. In a blurb, Vahni Capildeo notes Ramlochan’s poetry’s resistance to having an “identity” forced upon it and she’s right that the poems wilfully refuse any easy, specific biographical reading. Towards the end of the book, poems are in the voices of gay men. ‘Crossdressing at Divali Nagar’ is a more quiet and tender poem than most in the book, as two boys dress and paint henna patterns on each other.

The final poem has the character Vivek naming his various male lovers after religious festivals (because his father had told him not to make love to “faggots”). Ramlochan’s challenge to orthodoxy is obviously working on several fronts here. Though narrated in the second person, the voice is really Vivek’s and it’s an impressive piece of sensual, tender and funny, ventriloquism. But the book’s last lines are full of the book’s more characteristic serious intent. A “glock” is a pistol and Vivek here seems to make a firm, final choice of his festival-named lover and in doing so manages to challenge patriarchy, religion, family, gender and what we might consider ‘nature’ all in one go:

The day you marry Hanukkah is a glock pointed to your father’s face.

You tell him

I am the queen

the comeuppance

the hard heretic that nature intended.

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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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