2017 Forward First Collections Reviewed #4 – Ocean Vuong

This is the fourth in the series of reviews I have been posting over the summer months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2017 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 21st September 2017. Click on these links to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique)  and all 5 of my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The 2017 shortlist is:

Maria Apichella – Psalmody (Eyewear Publishing) – reviewed here

Richard Georges – Make Us All Islands (Shearsman Books) – reviewed here

Eric Langley – Raking Light (Carcanet) – reviewed here

Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree Press) – reviewed here

Ocean Vuong – Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry)

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In living with Ocean Vuong’s book over the last week or two I have on occasions mistaken its title for Night Sky with Exile Wounds. It will become obvious why. But it has also been hard to ‘see’ this collection because of the accumulated material – interviews, awards, perhaps hype – that already surrounds it in a way that affects none of the other Forward First Collections this year. Vuong has already appeared on the cover of Poetry London and been interviewed by The New Yorker. He has been nominated as one of Foreign Policy magazine’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers. Such recognition is even more extraordinary given that Vinh Quoc Vuong was born in 1988 on a rice farm outside Saigon and, at the age of two, he and six relatives emigrated to Hartford, Connecticut, where they lived together in a one-bedroom apartment. On learning that ‘ocean’ (in American English) is a body of water that touches many countries – including Vietnam and the United States – his mother renamed her son.

Ocean Vuong is also gay. Hence his exile – the word that kept coming into my mind – is one not only from his birth country and culture but also from the mainstreams of his adopted country. It’s no surprise there are several Ocean Vuongs in this book in terms of subject matter as well as in its use of a variety of poetic forms. This might – reflecting his given name – be an essential, protean, shape-shifting style or it might reveal the kind of casting around in the sea of form and content one might expect from a first collection. I think it is more the latter than the former, though the thrashing and contortion involved in such self creation (we used to refer to ‘self discovery’ – the book title has ‘self portrait’) is now a topic of such ubiquity in Western culture that Vuong’s personal struggles may come to be considered as representative in themselves.

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Saigon 1975

Though 13 years before his birth, ‘Aubade with Burning City’ portrays the American withdrawal from Saigon in 1975. Apparently, Armed Forces Radio played ‘White Christmas’ as a sign to commence the withdrawal and the poem assembles a montage of the song lyric, events on the streets of Saigon and a sinister, coercive-sounding male/female dialogue. The result reflects the chaos of such a moment of violent transition (though the ironies of the sentimental song are a bit obvious) and introduces a recurrent thread in Vuong’s work, the uneasy alliance between power and sex. ‘A Little Closer to the Edge’ seems a reminiscence, perhaps of his own conception (Cape’s cover image of the young poet encourages this biographical approach). Among bomb craters and anticipated domestic violence, a young Vietnamese couple are at first “hand in hand”. Then:

 

 

He lifts her white cotton skirt, revealing

another hour. His hand. His hands. The syllables

 

inside them. O father, O foreshadow, press

into her –

 

For his mother’s part, the narrative voice asks her to show “how ruin makes a home / out of hip bones” and also to “teach me / how to hold a man”.

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Vuong with his mother and aunt -refugee camp Philippines, c.1989.

Once in the USA, there are poems that treat both parents with some tenderness. In ‘The Gift’, the son teaches his mother the alphabet. She can hardly get beyond the third letter, the fourth, gone astray, appearing only as

 

a strand of black hair – unravelled

from the alphabet

& written

on her cheek

 

Several portrayals of Vuong’s father suggest violence and drinking but in ‘In Newport I Watch my Father Lay his Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back’ he is seen to express concern for the creature, “the wet refugee”, though the poem is fractured by bullets, Huey helicopters, shrapnel and snipers as if to suggest the root of the father’s violence and his inability to express affection for his own family.

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Ernest Hemingway and his son (plus guns)

Or perhaps such things innate to a man? Another major theme in the book is masculinity itself as expressed through father figures and a young gay man growing up. The former is seen in two poems involving guns. ‘The Smallest Measure’ has the father instructing the boy on how to handle a Winchester rifle (it reminds me of a photograph of Hemingway and his son). ‘Always and Forever’ (Vuong’s note tells us this is his father’s favourite Luther Vandross song) has the father substituting himself with a Colt.45 in a shoe box: “Open this when you need me most”, he says. The boy seems to wonder if the gun might deliver a liberation of sorts: “[I] wonder if an entry wound in the night // would make a hole wide as morning”. This image of an aperture being made in darkness – most often through an act of violence – to let in light recurs in these poems. I can’t quite see what is intended here but there are again links to the erotic/violence motif. Later, the gun barrel must “tighten” around the bullet “to make it speak”, making further obscure, but interesting, links to violence and the ability to speak (or write).

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What it is to be a (young, gay) man is explored in the second part of the collection. Andrew McMillan’s physical comes to mind in reading these poems (McMillan interviewed Vuong for Poetry London recently). ‘Because It’s Summer’ is a more conventionally lineated poem in the second person singular (some distancing there) of slipping away from a mother’s control (and expectations) to meet a boy “waiting / in the baseball field behind the dugout”. It’s particularly good at conveying the exciement (on both sides) of a desire, previously played out alone, being mutually gratified: “the boy [. . .] finds you / beautiful because you’re not / a mirror”. ‘Homewrecker’ evokes the energy of erotic discovery as well as the ‘wreckage’ it threatens (to some) in the “father’s tantrum” as much as the “mothers’ / white dresses spilling from our feet”. ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’ is particularly inventive in its form. The poem – set as prose, but with line break slashes included (a baggy, hybrid form Vuong uses elsewhere) – appears as a series of footnotes. The footnote numbers appear scattered across a blank page. The poem deals with the murder, by immolation, of two gay men in Dallas in 2011. The mainstream silence is cleverly played against the passionate love poem only recorded as footnotes.

Elsewhere, Vuong hits less successful notes and styles. There are some dream poems – like ‘Queen under the Hill’ – which don’t always escape the hermetic seal around an individual’s dream world. On other occasions, he wants to use mythic stories to scaffold his own. ‘Telemachus’ is probably the most successful of these (the materials again feeling dream-like to me) as the son pulls his dead (shot dead) father from the ocean. Elsewhere we find allusions to Orpheus and Eurydice (and to Lorca’s ‘Sleepwalking Ballad’ and Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’). Certainly, Vuong is not fearful of taking on big subjects such as JFK’s assassination (‘Of Thee I Sing’), the murders of Jeffrey Dahmer (‘Into the Breach’) and 9/11 (‘Untitled’).

 

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Archaic Torso of Apollo

 

But actually I think ‘ordinariness’ and those poems which show the influence of O’Hara and the New York School prove a more fertile direction. In an interview, Vuong has discussed the Rilkean imperative to look, what the young poet calls the “inexhaustibility in gazing”, something with which we might “resist the capitalist mythos of an expendable gaze”. So ‘On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous’ (I do hope Vuong thinks, as I do, of Jay Gatsby whenever he uses that last word) the fragments of vivid perception amount to more than the sum of its parts. ‘Notebook Fragments’ – which appears to be precisely what the title says – works better than some more crafted poems in the collection. And ‘Devotion’ – with its concluding placement suggesting Vuong knows how good it is – rises out of the sometimes conflicting biographical currents that by his own admission have buffeted him. It’s a beautiful lyric (the form, tripping, delicate, this time not drawing attention to itself) about oral sex; its debatable claims made with utter conviction:

 

there’s nothing

more holy than holding

a man’s heartbeat between

your teeth, sharpened

with too much

air

 

The lilting lineation, the brush-strokes of punctuation, work better here than in some of Vuong’s more Whitman-esque streamings of consciousness. The enviable, insouciance of youth – “& so what” – is thrillingly conveyed. Yet, it turns out,  this is not really about the provocative challenges of a variety of states of exile and  ‘otherness’, but about the need to feel anything “fully”, however transient it may prove to be:

 

Only to feel

this fully, this

entire, the way snow

touches bare skin – & is,

suddenly, snow

no longer.

 

 

 

Forward First Collections: Some Early Results 2015/2014

The 2015 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for Best First Collection (with its £5000 cheque) will be awarded finally on 28th September. I have been reviewing the shortlisted books this summer as follows:

Mona Arshi – Small Hands (Liverpool University Press) reviewed here;
Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus); reviewed here;
Andrew McMillan – physical (Cape Poetry); reviewed here;
Matthew Siegel – Blood Work (CB Editions) reviewed here;
Karen McCarthy Woolf – An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet) reviewed here.

Who will win?  I can give you what blog-mathematics tells me and I can give you my own modest opinion and I can give you a prediction of who I think might be picked by the judges who are A L Kennedy (Chair), Colette Bryce, Carrie Etter, Emma Harding & Warsan Shire.

  1. Judging merely by hits on the reviews on this blog (statistically wholly unreliable) the winner will be Andrew McMillan – agreed this might just reflect the fact that he and his supports are more social media savvy than others but I suspect it reveals an real interest in his work out there. (And for completists among you, the remaining rank order was then Arshi, Howe, Siegel, McCarthy Woolf).
  2. Who do I think should win? All five books have been hung on topic-hooks by their publishers (illness, ancestry, cultural difference, sexuality, miscarriage) though only Howe and McMillan really justify this as complete volumes. It’s a sign of the need to market a book these days and I’m sure this trend will grow more powerful though I don’t think it’s a great idea for either writer or reader (is it an appeal to the ‘general’ reader?). But the ground being broken by McMillan has been thoroughly ploughed by his (acknowledged) hero Thom Gunn and Howe’s cross-cultural explorations and formal experiments I find interesting but not necessarily volume-coherent. My favoured book was actually the American one, Blood Work by Matthew Siegel which I thought was a wonderfully coherent, moving, funny and achieved collection (despite being a first book). So he’s my pick – and I’ll be wrong on the night!
  3. Who will the judges choose? McMillan – that combination of (sufficient) controversy and accessibility.

Whoever it is in the end, congratulations to them and to all the shortlisted poets.  It’s been a feast and thanks to those who have been following my travels through these books.

As a final footnote, in October last year (somewhat after the event, I confess), I reviewed Liz Berry’s winning first collection and as a bit of context I’ll post that again below. For the record, I think her book is better than any of this year’s five.

Liz Berry, Black Country (Chatto Poetry, 2014)

If a reputation can be earned through the writing of half a dozen poems of real worth then Liz Berry has probably already written them, earning her place in the landscape of early 21st century British poetry. Her debut collection (containing 14 poems from the earlier chapbook The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls (tall-lighthouse, 2010) has charm, accessibility and a humour that belies the serious ways in which she exerts pressure to counter the hegemonies of language, gender, locality, even of perception. Berry is a teacher by profession and will, no doubt, have equivocal feelings about her work appearing in classrooms – but it will rapidly and rightfully find a place there.

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We resist what tries to define and suffocate us in part by declaring who we are. Berry’s confident, natural, even uninhibited use of her own Black Country dialect is one of the most superficially striking things about this book. Against “hours of elocution”, she opts for “vowels ferrous as nails, consonants // you could lick the coal from” (‘Homing’). Variously her grandmother and mother influence her in this and, in ‘The Sea of Talk’, her father also urges her never to forget the place of her birth with “its babble never caught by ink or book”. The definition of a community against the pull of a conventional linguistic centre is explicit here. Her grandmother is a frequent role model and the growing girl studies “her careful craft”. “Right bostin fittle”, the older woman declares (ie. great food – brains, trotters, groaty pudding) and the budding poet willingly touches her “lips to the hide of the past” to inherit the authentic gift.

Other poems, making it clear that locality is as much a component of who we are, record and celebrate the Black Country as “a wingless Pegasus” composed of scrub, derelict factories, disused coal shafts, yet still a “gift from the underworld” whose nature and fate is enough literally to make grown men weep (‘Black Country’). Berry takes huge pleasure in enumerating the details of her locale. “Come wi’ me, bab, wum Tipton-on-Cut” invites one poem which then takes a tour of waterways, allotments, parks, mosques, steelworks and canals (‘Tipton-On-Cut’). Similarly, ‘Christmas Eve’ seems to improvise from the great concluding paragraphs of Joyce’s story ‘The Dead’, using the ubiquitous fall of snow to lead the reader across the landscape of Beacon Hill, Bilston and Molineux.

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We elude being imposed on and defined by others by changing. This, for me, is the more profound aspect of Berry’s work; so many poems unfold as processes of self-transformation. A mark of the book’s self-confidence can be found in ‘Bird’ which announces this motif of liberation: “When I became a bird, Lord, nothing could stop me”. Here, it is the mother’s voice urging, “Tek flight, chick, goo far fer the winter”. In keeping with this, the poems display a formal variety – free verse, short-lined quatrains, couplets, tercets, ballad forms, punctuation comes and goes. This is further reinforced by Berry’s bold, category-dissolving imagination which instinctively reaches for metamorphic possibilities. In ‘Birmingham Roller’ the escapee is a bird again, “jimmucking the breeze, somersaulting”; people become dogs, trees, pigs, fade to mere echoes, girls become boys. The donning of a pair of red shoes invigorates, eroticises: “rubies that glistened up a dress, / flushed thighs with fever” (‘The Red Shoes’).

Sexuality features so prominently in Black Country in part because of its potential for transgressive energy. I’m sure ‘Sow’ is anthology-bound with its “farmyardy sweet” female narrator, rejecting external definitions (“I’ve stopped denying meself”), accepting her true nature as a “guzzler, gilt. / Trollopy an’ canting”. This is a real tour de force of dialect, imaginative transformation and downright feminist self-realisation that “the sow I am / was squailin an’ biting to gerrout”, even daring the reader to “Root yer tongue beneath / me frock an’ gulp the brute stench of the sty”. Berry’s power of imaginative transformation is so powerful that the book creates mythic figures at will: the sow girl, the Black Country pegasus, the patron saint of school girls, Carmella the hairdresser, the Black Delph bride, the last lady ratcatcher. ‘Fishwife’ presents another of these figures like something from a quasi-pornographic Grimm’s tales. Attending a 17 year old girl’s wedding, she brings the gift of oysters, erotic energy, transgressive flirtation, power and ultimately pleasure:

                                            I slipped
from my bare skin
alive oh alive         all tail           all fin
how the tide tossed
until alive ohhh alive
the waves flung my shining body        upon the rock

She kisses the bride with “her tongue a plump trout” and other poems also resist categories to the extent of a sensation of gender-bending, or more accurately gender neutrality. I’ve already mentioned the girl who becomes a boy. ‘Trucker’s Mate’ reads like a homosexual “romance” and ‘In the Steam Room’ positively drips with sexuality – but of an explicitly “sexless” kind in which “any body / might give you pleasure”. ‘The Silver Birch’ achieves the extraordinary feat of evoking “sex [. . .] before sex” (eroticism before gender), “when I was neither girl or boy [. . .] a sheaf / of unwritten-upon paper”.

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With so much dissolution of the normative, Berry dallies with the surreal and there can be dangers if the work does not also bear a weight of darkness. A poet like Tomaz Salamun writes in the tradition of Rimbaud’s systematic disorganisation of the senses, but combines, as Ed Hirsch suggests, “exuberant whimsy and fierce rebellion” to resist too easy a relationship with the pressures of the real. Happily, Black Country encompasses some richly productive tensions between the real and imagined, home and away, past and future, conformity and rebellion, sex and death. The latter rises to the surface through the middle of the book in poems like ‘The Bone Orchard Wench’, ‘Echo’ and the murder ballad ‘The Black Delph Bride’, acknowledging that the traffic between real and imagined contains plenty of irresolvable grit, impossible to wish away in any facile manner.

The collection concludes in more plainly autobiographical terms with the approach of the birth of a child and perhaps there is less imaginative pressure here, a risk of sentiment, “waiting [. . .] for the little creature that grew inside me”. Nevertheless, in reviewing first collections it’s traditional to look forward to achievements to come but this is inappropriate with Black Country simply because there is so much confidence, focus, shapeliness, already achieved uniqueness. Rather, this is a poet whose work presently demands our admiration. Oh yes . . . and what about those half dozen or so poems of real worth? I’d suggest ‘Bird’, ‘Bostin Fittle’, ‘Black Country’, ‘Tipton-On-Cut’, ‘The Silver Birch’, ‘Sow’, ‘Fishwife’. You’ll hear more of these in years to come.

Forward First Collections Reviewed #4 – Andrew McMillan

This is the fourth in the series of reviews I will post over the next two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2015 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 28th September. The shortlist is:

Mona Arshi – Small Hands (Liverpool University Press, Pavilion Poetry) reviewed here;
Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus); reviewed here;
Andrew McMillan – physical (Cape Poetry); reviewed here;
Matthew Siegel – Blood Work (CB Editions) reviewed here;
Karen McCarthy Woolf – An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet) reviewed here.

Andrew McMillan – physical (Cape Poetry); author’s website here.
Article from The Independent on Andrew McMillan here.

A man’s torso, from just below the shoulder to half-way down the rounded buttocks, tastefully lit from the back to catch the curves, his left hand visible clutching (quite hard) his own right flank. It’s sexy and lonely and longing and anonymous. It’s a bit Fifty Shades but Cape Poetry’s cover image does say something about Andrew McMillan’s first full collection, though it’s too confining. It’s the sort of sharply targeted thing marketing people come up with and the author (who is achieving cleanly-shaped, clear, bold things in terms of subject-matter and form) may squirm at.

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But the image is flauntingly male (and happily the skin blemishes have not been air-brushed) and what it is to be a man is certainly one of McMillan’s concerns. In ‘strongman’ a nephew wants to be bench-pressed by the male narrator and (even from the young child) this is a clear challenge as “his mother’s lover” often does it, the boy has declared the narrator’s boyfriend “illegal” and he brings with him the freight of traditional masculine values: “his dad’s voice and jaw”. The narrator obliges “because / what is masculinity if not taking the weight // of a boy and straining it from oneself?” It’s not just the bench-press requiring careful balance here in the close masculine contact, the show of strength, the carefully maintained distance in the preposition “from”. The inculcation of traditional male values starts early as in ‘The Schoolboys’ who clamber onto a bus, all bulge and muscle and “sprints of growth”, wrestling “to impress the girls”. The poem ‘things men take’ is one of McMillan’s lists, articulating a more adult version of this: they take “the room above the ceiling / the better pay the jobs / your space at the bar”. But it’s with a poem like ‘the men are weeping in the gym’ that we begin to see this poet’s determination to challenge the status quo in its brief fantasy of male affectiveness: “their hearts have grown too big / for their chests their chests have grown too big / for their shirts [. . . ] they are crying in the toilet”. There is real humour here as the gym is turned from a place of physical exercise to a place where emotions are released and flexed, a re-definition of those traditional ideas of ‘strength’: “they don’t hear / the thousands of tiny fracturings / needed to build something stronger”.

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But masculinity as in what it is to be a gay man in love is even more central to physical. A definition of love emerges at the end of one poem which begins with awkward fears of (literally) bumping into men in a urinal, causing spillage, splash, a turning, the revelation: “neither of us will look / or he’ll look at me avoiding looking / feigning interest in the hard cream tiles”. This is funny again though halfway through the bluntly titled ‘urination’, McMillan considers the privacy and intimacy of “the toilet”, the poem lifting into praise of waking to hear (and smell) a lover pissing “the morning’s pale yellow loss” into the toilet “and take the whole of him in your hand / and feel the water moving through him”. Such intimacy of contact is one of the provisional definitions of love: “the prone flesh / what we expel from the body and what we let inside”. Poems that explore the physicality of the male body make this book remarkable, even given McMillan’s acknowledged debt to Thom Gunn. Much after the pattern of ‘urination’, ‘yoga’ begins with the physical stretching and breathing of the class, but shades seamlessly into a love-making which echoes the breath, control, weightlessness and absence of “judgement” in the discipline of yoga. ‘Saturday night’ takes lines from Gunn’s poem of that name this time to explore a more roaming, disjointed experience of love and sexuality. The rule of ‘Boss Cupid’ is no more reliable than in the straight world, of course, and McMillan gives us other images of sleeping with “Thom night after night / open at the spine”, rather than any flesh and blood lover. And ‘screen’ imagines how even a gay porn star, so perfect and capable on screen, in real life “without direction” struggles to express himself, “stopping mid kiss pulling back mumbling”.

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As my quotes suggest, McMillan abandons most punctuation in these poems, using only line and stanza breaks and long spaces to create pauses and some sense of syntactical form. This works well – it doesn’t for me interrupt or confuse at all – and contributes to the often passionate flow of the poems. It’s hard to convey this in short quotes but ‘choke’, running for just 22 lines, takes us rapidly through a relationship break up, weeping, talking, loving and next day reflections, managing to evoke the agitation, fluidity of feelings, and final resolve “to tough it out” and the lack of pointing is part of this success. Elsewhere, the flow and even blurring achieved syntactically is just right for the loss of self-consciousness associated with sexual pleasure.

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Jacob and the Angel – Jacob Epstein

What is interesting is that beside the passionate and “carnal” (Michael Symmons Roberts) nature of much of this book and alongside Thom Gunn as mentor and role model, McMillan also name-checks C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. The opening poem of the book portrays gay sexuality with Jacob wrestling the angel and I’ve mentioned the paralleling in ‘yoga’ and those beefy men crying in the gym are said to have “God” entering them as they weep. Furthermore, ‘revelations’ argues that each subsequent love is only a searching for the first, “in the manner of the humble saints who make / the worship of a nameless god relatable”. Each lover is renamed, Saint Gavin Saint Ged Saint Unknown / of Manchester Bedsit”. Humour is used here but it hardly disguises the poet’s interest in the more spiritual implications of the physicality his poems work so hard to evoke. This religious sensibility emerges in the brief foray, moving from Eros towards Thanatos, in poems in the third part of the book. The deaths of a grandfather and a young girl strike a very different note and suggest that McMillan may have found in Gunn not merely ways to explore his own sexuality in verse but also (from early Gunn) that existential sense, so wonderfully expressed in ‘On the Move’ (1957), that movement (whether on a motor bike or in bed) is at least one way towards self-definition: “astride the created will / They burst away [. . . ] Reaching no absolute in which to rest, / One is always nearer by not keeping still”.

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Thom Gunn

There is something of this in the final poem of physical. Ironically titled ‘finally’, it evokes a new morning in “the xylophone / of sunthroughblinds”, but the lover is gone, not to return and the poet is like the birds who, though it hasn’t rained, pretend that it has, so “they can sing”. Earlier, the longer sequence ‘protest of the physical’ noted “there is beauty in the ordinary” but this is a pallid observation in contrast to this poet’s determination towards self-definition through loving, through singing when the loving is over.

In a collection full of humour and sadness alongside the plain-spoken eroticism, I really like what McMillan is doing with the fluidity of his form. I don’t think the longer sequence ‘protest of the physical’ is as good as the other sections of the book (I believe it preceded them in terms of date written) but here is a really talented and bold writer and I can see further areas of exploration opening up and it will be exciting to follow him there.

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