The Poems of Mary MacRae

I knew Mary MacRae as a member of a poetry workshop we both attended in north London. She came to writing poetry late and published just two collections – As Birds Do (2007) and (posthumously) Inside the Brightness of Red (2010) both from Second Light Publications. Her poem ‘Jury’ was short-listed for the Forward single poem prize and was re-published in the Forward anthology, Poems of the Decade (2011). That anthology is now set as an A Level text and it was through teaching from it recently that Mary’s work came back to mind.

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Mary died in 2009 at the age of 67. As a writer she was just beginning to hit her stride. Mimi Khalvati praises her as “a poet of the lyric moment in all its facets” and judges Mary’s ten years of work as an “extraordinarily coherent” body of poems. Khalvati goes on: “Because of the natural ease and grace of her diction, it would be easy to overlook Mary’s versatile formal skills, employed in sonnets, syllabics (à la Marianne Moore), numerous stanzaic forms, but nowhere evidenced more forcefully than in her ‘Glose’ poem, inspired by Marilyn Hacker’s examples, in which she pays homage to Alice Oswald, as in a previous glose to Mary Oliver – a trinity of wonderful lyric poets, in whose company Mary, modest but not lacking in ambition, shyly holds her own.”

In 2009/10 many friends and writers contributed pieces in memory of Mary to the magazine Brittle StarMost of this material can now be found here with prose contributions from Jacqueline Gabbitas, Myra Schneider, Lucy Hamilton and Dilys Wood. I wrote a poem at the time (remembering meetings of the poetry workshop in London) and I have more recently revised it more than a little. I’m posting it here alongside the review I wrote of Mary’s posthumous collection with the idea of making the review more easily available and perhaps encouraging others to seek out Mary’s published work.

 

Before the rain arrives

i.m. Mary MacRae

 

Perhaps five or six of us standing there

at the familiar purple door

those afternoons we lost beneath poetry’s

red weather our voices and lines

 

while the genuine thing built unremarked

beyond the window’s diamond panes

till it was time to depart

then our turning back in the familiar porch

 

our repeated goodbyes being called

our uncertain bunching

that coheres and delays until one of us

breaks loose and we are each free to disperse—

 

yet on that day there were raindrops

on the back of a hand on another’s cheek

and though we fiddled with car keys

we fidgeted in trainers and faded jeans

 

we were an ancient chorus for a moment

crying the single syllable

the drawn-out sound of r—a—i—n

because we were weary of weeks of drought

 

and now it came and we saw where it fell

the raindrops beginning

to shrill their high-pitched release

from interlaced shadows

 

from the skirts of clouds

and what none of us knew until we’d seen

one more year was that one of us there

despite our sharp eye for openings

 

and endings would have to face last things

like the white vanishing of panicked doves

into dark thunderheads—

on these more recent afternoons

 

just four or five of us here perhaps

in our minds her shrewd observations

her words urging us closer to listen

for the noise rain makes before the rain arrives

 

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Review:  Mary MacRae, Inside the Brightness of Red (Second Light Publications, 2010), 96pp, £8.95, ISBN 978-0-9546934-8-0

Mary MacRae’s 2007 debut collection was titled As Birds Do. It is true that birds feature variously in that and this, her sadly posthumous new collection, but if we are unaware of the earlier title’s provenance, we might anticipate no more than a delicate, poetic take on the natural world, the kind of thing that fills so many small magazines. But MacRae alludes to the moment in Macbeth, when Lady Macduff and her son contemplate death. The mother asks, “How will you live?” and the son, with a wisdom far beyond his years, replies, “As birds do Mother . . . . With what I get I mean”. MacRae’s poetry is full of such emotionally-charged, vital identifications with natural creatures and, more profoundly, with the sense that what can sustain us in life must be derived from everyday common objects.

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As a title, Inside the Brightness of Red, also flirts a little with poetic affectation, but once inside the book’s covers, it is MacRae’s precise, even astringent, penetration that is so impressive. She reads the world around her and finds spiritual meanings. It is no surprise that R.S. Thomas supplies the epigraph to this new collection: “It is this great absence / that is like a presence, that compels / me to address it without hope / of a reply”. So a poem called ‘Yellow Marsh Iris’ promises to be a naturalist’s observation then startlingly wrong-foots the reader with its opening line (“It’s how I imagine prayer must be”) and proceeds to its seamless business of combining accuracy of observation with an emotional and intellectual narrative. She studies the flower stems crammed into a glass vase:

 

their stiff stems magnified

by water, criss-crossing

white, pale green, green

in a shadowy coolness

 

We are reminded that there is a kind of intensity of observation that succeeds in prising open our relationship with the outer world in such a way that while encountering the Other, we more clearly glimpse ourselves. MacRae concludes her process of “looking and looking” at the flowers that has given rise to the sense that “they seem to hold / all words, all meaning, / and what I’m reading / is a selving, a creation.”

MacRae’s visions are almost always peripheral, fleeting, askance. The unfolding of daffodils – which, in a quite different age, Wordsworth could contemplate steadily and then stow away for future use – here can never be more than something

 

waiting for us somewhere in the wings

like angels,

 

your darting after-image

between the pear-tree

and the brick wall.

(‘Daffodils’)

 

In the same vein, MacRae has Bonnard, paint his mistress, Marthe de Meligny, and declare that his sensibility is triggered by “looking askew”. The visionary moment occurs only when “Glimpsed through the half-open door / or the crack of the hinge-gap” (‘Bonnard to Marthe’) and this collection’s editors (Myra Schneider and Dilys Wood) have drawn it to a close with yet another such moment: “Turning back to look through an open door” the narrator sees an ordinary room “utterly transformed, / drained dry and clear, unweighted” (‘Un-Named’).

book 2It may be that this ability to be sustained by scraps and glimpses, the sense that the self is most fully resolved in a lack of egotism, in its encounter with ordinary things, can diminish some of the sting of mortality. In a poem like ‘White’, MacRae manages to celebrate again the ordinariness of familiar things while at the same time sustaining a contentedness (or at least an absence of fear) at the prospect of the self’s vanishing: “You can disappear in a house where / you feel at home; the rooms are spaces / for day-dreams, maps of an interior / turned inside out”. Rather than Macbeth, it is Hamlet’s resolve to “let be” that comes to mind as this calm, accessible, colourful and wonderfully dignified poem concludes:

 

Let

it all go; soon the door of your room

 

will be locked, leaving only a slight

hint of you still, a ghostly perfume

lingering in the threadbare curtains and sheets.

 

But MacRae’s contemplation of her own death, most likely, was no such safely distanced envisaging. Dying at 67 years old, she’d had only 10 years of writing poetry, but it had evidently become a vessel into which she could pour her experience without ever abandoning herself to artistic ill-discipline. ‘Prayer’ is almost too painful to read. The narrator is emerging from the “thick dark silt” of anaesthetic to hear someone sobbing and a second voice trying to offer comfort. As her befuddled perceptions clear and the poem’s tight triplet form unfolds, the second voice is understood to be saying “’Don’t cry, Mary, / there’s no need to cry’”. The collection’s title poem can bluntly report that “the cancer’s come back” yet artfully balances such devastating news with the landscape of Oare Marsh in Kent where colours “are so spacious, / and have such depth they’re like lighted rooms // we could go into” (‘Inside the Brightness of Red’).

untitledFor MacRae’s interest in and skill with poetic form, we need look no further than the extraordinary glose on a quatrain from Alice Oswald (the earlier collection contained another on lines from Mary Oliver). For most poets, this form is little more than an exhibitionist high-wire act, but MacRae’s poems are moving and complete. Her use of poetic form here, particularly in some of these last poems, reminds me of Tony Harrison’s conviction that its containment “is like a life-support system. It means I feel I can go closer to the fire, deeper into the darkness . . . I know I have this rhythm to carry me to the other side” (Tony Harrison: Critical Anthology, ed. Astley, Bloodaxe Books, 1991, p.43). Appropriately, in ‘Jar’, she contemplates with admiration an object that has “gone through fire, / risen from ashes and bone-shards / to float, nameless, into our air”. Here, the narrator movingly lays aside the wary scepticism of the Thomas epigraph and rests her cheek on the jar’s warmth to “feel its gravity-pull / as if it proved the afterlife of things”.

This inspiring collection contains a short Afterword by Mimi Khalvati who MacRae frequently praised as a critical figure in her work’s development. Khalvati lauds her as “a poet of the lyric moment in all its facets”. She judges MacRae’s ten years work as an “extraordinarily coherent” body of poems, suggesting that, among the likes of Oswald and Oliver, MacRae’s work is “modest but not lacking in ambition”. For me, her two collections certainly exhibit a modesty before the world of nature that is really a genuine humility, allowing both the physical and spiritual worlds to flower in her work. This was her true ambition, pursued in full self-awareness and one that, before her sad leaving, she had triumphantly fulfilled.

 

 

Two Cat Burglar Poems Compared: Copus and Crucefix

Here are two poems about climbing in through windows. I’m sure it’s ill-advised to pit something of one’s own against one of the best poems appearing in the Forward Poems of the Decade anthology, but the similarities were so interesting that I decided to lay good sense aside. I hoped also to put aside any spirit of competition and to further that you will find that I have adopted a very impersonal tone towards my own poem. That poem – ’17 Britannia Square’ – was first published in 2004 and it certainly feels remote from me now, as if written by someone else. The following essay zig-zags to compare the two poems as students are asked to do in the Edexcel A level examination (9ETO/03). The text of Julia Copus’s poem can be found here. My poem can be read by scrolling down the page on this link.

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Both poems convey details of the climb into a house which, in each case, is taken to represent something about the progression of individual lives, about developing identity. Copus’s climbing girl is on the brink of womanhood, a journey into “the way of the world” and her poem implies the difficulties ahead, especially, perhaps, for a woman in a patriarchal world. Crucefix’s poem is altogether more male and concentrates more on what has come to divide the two men, the surprising shift (“strangeness”) in identity over time. The forms of the two poems are similar: continuous blocks of unrhymed verse, though Copus uses a more variable line length and flowing syntax that evokes the ‘ease’ of the girl’s passage. In contrast, Crucefix’s verse halts and re-starts on several occasions, suggestive of the disjunction between his two characters.

Julia Copus’s 13 year old girl is repeatedly imaged in border territory, a “halfway” stage, a liminal state of age, sexuality, friendship and her literal broaching/breaching of “the warm flank of the house”. The journey or passage she is taking is into adulthood, a transition presented as exciting, anxious and relatively “easy”, though what awaits her is more uncertain and even forbidding. The opening descriptions emphasise her vulnerability (crouched, trembling, narrow windowsill, sharp drop). Yet she continues to find reassurance in the presence of her (similarly aged) friend, though this is precisely what she is climbing away from. For further reassurance, she dwells on the tangible details of the moment: “the fact of the open window, / the flimsy, hole-punched, aluminium lever”. Crucefix’s ‘17 Britannia Square’ also opens with a concern to keep things “steady” but here it foreshadows the narrator’s growing awareness of changes in personal identity and relationships. The details and onomatopoeia of line 3, quickly settle us into a concrete situation, but the simile of the “coins being scraped together” is the first indication of one of the poem’s divisive elements, material wealth. Given her age, Copus’s girl was not trusted with the keys; Crucefix’s narrator readily accepts responsibility for the lock out (he forgot to pick up the keys) and self-deprecatingly confesses his own inadequacy which is again linked to the material successes of his friend: “I could not manage ten minutes / in charge of your tall, Edwardian house”.

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Copus’s girl’s physical position, perched perilously on the porch roof with its rough asphalt like “a square of petrified beach” is marvellously conveyed. The word “petrified” works physically and psychologically, evoking both stoniness and felt fear simultaneously, but it also foreshadows her eventual dive through the window, mermaid-like, into the ambiguous ocean of her future. The omniscient narrative voice asks, “What can she know / of the way the world admits us less and less / the more we grow?” The narrative voice knows the future as the girl does not and the personal pronoun (“us”) probably implies the voice is female and is making a comment on the patriarchal nature of the world of adulthood into which the girl is moving. It is a world that will “admit” her less and less. The choice of the word “admit” suggests the future will acknowledge the girl’s existence less as well as give her less literal admission to what it might offer. By contrast, watching his friend climb the ladder, it is the past that preoccupies Crucefix’s narrator. It’s interesting that the “cat-burgling high-jinks” are already distanced by being something they “might” have done, though it seems likely they did not in reality. It’s not clear whether this suggests their earlier relationship also had its limits or whether the familiar image of the wall-climbing wayward students is itself being ironised – a cliché that is displaced by the later more painfully honest assessment of their relationship. The elaborate, polysyllabic phrase used to describe what the two students hoped to evade – “vigilant authority” – also suggests the way the poem looks to evade accepted modes of presenting such male friendships.

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This is even more clear when we reach the narrator’s statement about the subject of their earlier, collegiate discussions. They focused on personal identity and the allusion to John Keats points to that poet’s ideas about Negative Capability. Keats records the sensation of feeling annihilated in a crowded room because “the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me”. Yet this absence of a resolved (what the poem calls “determined”) self, pushing confidently outwards, facilitates delicately perceptive encounters such as catching a glimpse of a “fieldmouse peeping out of the withered grass – the creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with it” (229). The resultant freshness and truth, the absence of pre-judgement in such a moment, is what Keats valued and perhaps it is what this poem strives for in its examination of male friendship. The startling simile introduced here (“how a man / could possess no determined self, like a state / that sees no need of a constitution”) also gestures towards an underlying concern about national identity too. This is reinforced by the title of the poem and suggests that the issues of identity and division on a personal level might be reflected more broadly in contemporary Britain and the narrator’s observation that such a view now “looks as much risk as opportunity” indicates he sees subsequent developments (personally or politically) as putting closeness and cohesiveness at risk.

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In ‘An Easy Passage’, lines 19-22, create a dramatic pause or lull in the poem, a briefly “lit”, but still present, paradise of innocence. The statement that “for now the house exists / only for them” pre-empts the most significant change in perspective in Copus’s poem. Their innocence is indicated by the girls’ small scope of vision and the second half of the poem enacts its innocence / experience theme by drawing away to the wider perspectives of the street, the absent mother, the workers and finally the secretary. It is the latter who is said to be “most far” from the girl. The phrase ironically has the effect of associating the two characters, perhaps implying that the girl’s future can be seen in the older woman’s present situation. If so, the portrait is not inspiring with her small plans for an “evening class” or contrastingly improbable plans for the “trip of a lifetime”. The tone adopted about the “stirring omens” in an astrology column comes close to a sarcasm at the secretary’s expense. Growing distance and division are also indicated in lines 19-27 of ‘17 Britannia Square’ via the vivid details of the friend’s climb to the top of the ladder and his awkward tipping in through the bathroom window. The paralleling of the climb up the (social?) ladder and the reflections on identity are made explicit in the yoking together of literal and psychological facts: “I see you pull up the sash, begin to wriggle /into your bathroom and it seems less a truth / to last beyond our teens”. The simile describing the damage caused by the friend’s flailing foot, as he slips through the window (breaking it and making a “white star-burst like a rifle shot”), perhaps implies the demise of the earlier self. This is again reinforced by the forcible linking of immediate, physical events with more personal developmental vocabulary: “you vanish at last, absorbed to your house, / your job, your family”.

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But ‘17 Britannia Square’ is not really a poem about envy. In fact, the narrator waits below, watching his old friend vanish into his house/life, yet remains “in love with mine”. Furthermore, the closing lines of the poem present an act of Keatsian sympathetic imagination as the narrator melds past and present, himself and his friend into a moment of alertness to the possibilities of life, even if the possibilities are of growing alienation. The tone is not dark – the friend will re-appear at his own front door “laughing” – and the explicit birthing image of line 30 is equivocally described with the phrase “bruised and quivering”. The poem leaves the reader with a heightened sense of the unpredictability of individual lives as expressed in the choice of the word “strangeness”. The word implies estrangement but also of the richness of mutability and the unexpected, perhaps reminiscent of Ariel’s song to Ferdinand in The Tempest: “Nothing of him that doth fade, / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange”.

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By contrast, I think the youth and still-retained freedom of Copus’s two girls is described (from the secretary’s perspective now) with some envy (silver, neat, shimmering, flash, gracefully). It’s not clear if this is mere personal envy or that of an older generation viewing the more secure freedoms of younger women. Certainly, Copus loads ambiguity in at the close. The “shimmering- / oyster-painted toenails” re-evoke the beach image of line 16 and the graceful movement of the girl into the house suggests an assured transition into another element/time. Yet the simile of the nails flashing like “armaments” complicates matters. Is the suggestion that she will need not only grace and beauty but also an arsenal of weapons with which to defend herself in the adult world? Does the simile persuade us that the girl does possess such means to defend herself? Or that she lacks it (what use are painted toe-nails)? There is something surely ominous in the very last phrase, as she drops “into the shade of the house”.

So ‘An Easy Passage’ is full of the girls’ grace and beauty on the verge of adulthood. Through predominantly concrete description, the poem conveys complex emotions about their likely transition into the adult world and Copus leaves the nature of their future experiences carefully undefined. Crucefix’s poem is equally honest about what divides his two male figures as they have grown into maturity. It is largely money but also the divergent demands of house, job and family. Yet the poem develops ideas about the fluidity of personal identity from Keats’ thoughts on the matter and concludes that the human heart draws its sustenance as much from distance as closeness, pain as much as pleasure.

2017 Forward First Collections Reviewed #5 – Eric Langley

My work here is almost done . . .  This is the fifth and last 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 below

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

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

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Do poets owe their readers explanatory notes? The pro-accessibility reply is ‘On principle, no!’ The googlers reply is ‘Not necessary – let your fingers do the walking’. Others might concede, ‘On occasions, maybe, for clarity’s sake or to take the piss out of critics and academe (see T.S. Eliot). But reading Eric Langley’s debut collection – if it’s proving hard to hang on to his erudite coat-tails – perhaps you cry ‘Yes, yes, for goodness sake!’ In fact, such pleas have already been answered by a curious, anonymous website that has sprung up to explicate many of these poems. Talk about poetry moving from the writer’s desk to the academic lecture hall without passing through an ordinary reader’s hands! It’s because Langley scrupulously offers us no help at all in positioning ourselves to read about the Chinese tradition of walnut gambling, Ancient Greek painter Zeuxis, Picasso’s father, Stephen Grosson’s 1579 book Schoole of Abuse, Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, Derrida on postcards, Argus, Eurydice, Zeno, Edgar Allen Poe and (twice) the art historical term pentimenti. And that’s mostly from the opening 50 pages of this 128 page book (I think it’s about 40 pages too long).

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On the other hand, Langley often writes with a vigour and robust rhythmical quality to perform (all these poems are very performative) a sort of Elizabethan riffing to scatter-shot effect. He has a slightly annoying, almost reflex habit of sampling bits of Shakespeare mid-poem (especially from Hamlet) but Ted Hughes wrote of Shakespeare’s language that it was “an inspired signalling and hinting of verbal heads and tails both above and below precision, [a] weirdly expressive underswell of musical neargibberish” (‘The Great Theme: Notes on Shakespeare’ (1971)) and at his very best Langley catches some of this. Literally born into the Cambridge school (Langley’s father, R. F. Langley, with his son, would often holiday with J. H. Prynne), Langley junior invigorates that difficult style with a 1590s fizz and gristle (his day job at UCL is studying the bard and more obscure Elizabethan texts) in poems whose image field is most often ekphrastic, whose emotional stance is often surprisingly sentimental and whose dominant atmosphere is one of loss.

The loss is key. Fundamentally this is about language (Cambridge School again) as the poor relation to ultimate reality. Our every living moment is a catalogue of loss; certainly our every communication is a clumsy moon-shot at a too-fast moving target, a shot also plagued by the drag of our words’ etymologies. But this is also (like the Forward short-listed books by Nick Makoha and Ocean Vuong) a book about lost fathers (Langley talks about this and other things and reads a poem in this interview). In addition, Langley’s sense of loss is elsewhere associated with the recall of a romantic attachment, what he refers to at one point, transmuting Anthony Burgess, as “memory’s ultraviolence”. This stirring of long-buried materials is what the book’s title alludes to. Raking light is used in art historical investigations to reveal the artist’s false starts and abandoned intentions – a sort of alternative historical version of the final painting. In fact, it’s that often over-done, old poetical favourite, the palimpsest, in art historical terms.

So ‘In raking light’ the narrative voice explains “in the beam’s fetch / the urgent silt sits up”. Perhaps my ‘explain’ is not the right word here – there is a sort of querulous (lover’s?) complaint going on in the tone as if the voice resents this uncovering of the past.

 

Once, there was life here –

residual and errant –

hushed since, shucked under

the thick skin, the tough slough.

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The vowel music in these few lines illustrates one of the pleasures of Langley’s work, but the “thick skin” is a gift to those who might accuse him of tending to bury hurt and loss under an avalanche of erudition rather than bringing it to the light. Indeed, it’s debatable whether this poem (in 8 sections), as it continues to offer multiples of synonymous formulations of this buried/hidden trope, manages to express a humanly complex emotional state or simply obscure it in a playful, bravura performance. The poem to read alongside this one is ‘Eurydice in Euston Square’ which – once it has got past its tacked-on allusions to Orpheus’ lost wife and Proserpina – proceeds much more nakedly and accessibly:

 

Come back up stairs

if you read me

 

up in the subway

missing the tube travel,

 

missing the coach trips,

all the seaside rides,

 

the telephones, the postcards,

telegrams on spun wire;

 

come back up stairs,

and I’m hanging on

 

subjunctives, hanging on

superlatives, hanging on

 

the sound of someone

long gone to static

(apologies for some loss of formatting here – blame WordPress)

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The more linguistic and epistemological losses that preoccupy Langley are clear in the opening line of the opening poem, ‘Glanced’: ‘You lovely looker on and by and by and.” The interruptive full stop is (ahem) the point (Langley’s love of puns can be infectious). The idea is then played out (again in a riffing, repetitive style) via another old favourite, Zeno’s arrow, though this time the target is Zeuxis’ painting of grapes which (in legend) was so realistic that birds swooped down to peck them. Art imagined to be closing on the real – of course, it proves a delusion. The arrow does strike the canvas but penetrates what is really nothing, then slams into a “wall”. The final section of the poem, in fact, does suggest some possible success (see Hughes’ comment on Shakespeare’s ultimate expressive achievement through signals and hints). The concluding lines display Langley’s vigorous use of anaphora, rhyme, punning and Shakespearean allusion:

 

So glancing blown by,

so palpably hit away, so

 

keep so lovely looking still

keep lovely looking till

 

until each hungry bird

has flown and had his fill.

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The sequence, ‘Albada: Pigeons on pink’, starts (once we’ve done the googling to find out) with Picasso’s painter father, Don Jose Ruiz y Blasco. He liked to paint pigeons and for a few sections he sounds pleased with the results. But then young Pablo asks for a pencil and his father is astonished at the boy’s skill, or the degree to which his art seems to approach reality: “all these real these / really real pigeons”. Via another allusion to Hamlet, Langley then morphs the poem into an address to his own father (who wrote a poem called ‘Jack’s Pigeon’) though the two sons – Pablo and Eric – are blurred together, avoiding filial arrogance in a burst of filial piety: “it’s all still yours, still yours to say, Jose”. An albada is a Spanish love poem – this one has been re-geared into a piece about the son’s love of a father.

The two poems called ‘Pentimenti’ return to the ideas linked with raking light. The Italian word means ‘regrets’ and in art history it refers to changes an artist makes and covers over in the process of creation. The first of the poems is shorter and mixes images of painting with those of telephoning and it’s the latter that suggests this is really driven by a broken relationship in the modern world: “lost out here – dialling, dialling”. Such loss of contact and communication trips all Langley’s switches. A similar instinctive, welling up, or inundation, of potent material can be seen in the over-long, repetitive sequence in the middle of the book. This springs from a detail recounted by Galen of Pergamon that Ptolomaeus, King of Egypt, in assembling his great library, would take books from any ship that sailed into port, have them copied, then give back the copies, retaining the originals for his own book shelves. So language, knowledge, forgery, copies, signs, semiotics, morse code, the Dewey system of classification, plus Hamlet on the pirate ship and the final Alexandrian conflagration – Langley throws it all into the mix  and gives it a good stir.

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For me, the second ‘Pentimenti’ is a much greater success, presenting itself as a literal palimpsest of the earlier poem – the thoughts, drafts and revisions that might have led to it. The performance here is not the dazzling, often impossible to follow footwork of other poems in the book, but rather one of hesitations, lines of thought taken up, then dropped, crossings out and (literal) fadings out. For me this expresses the difficulties of expression more effectively than many other poems, especially in the revisions we witness which involve a switch of verb tense from present to past. Most of these observations seem (again) to be focused on a romantic relationship so that what is the case (first draft) is being transformed into what was before our very eyes. I think (actually, I’m not sure) the sequence drifts latterly towards the relationship with the father again but even the obscurities here play an affecting role and the collection’s final lines remind me of the tragic, closing moments of Brian Friel’s play, Translations, in which the Gaelic language, culture and memory seems to be fraying and withering to nothing even as we watch and the lights dim.

Langley’s book will infuriate many and please the few. There is an impressive peculiarity here, a performative jouissance concerning language and learning which the Forward short-listing committee must be responding to. But I do wish he’d had a tougher editorial voice to cut the length of the book which – especially in the mid-sections – indulgently outstays its welcome.

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2017 Forward First Collections Reviewed #3 – Nick Makoha

This is the third in the series of reviews I will post over the next two 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)

Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree Press)

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

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Many thanks to Peepal Tree Press for providing a copy of Nick Makoha’s book for review purposes.

Poetry is an art of the relative, but the ability to write about contemporary events beyond one’s personal sphere always strikes me as an absolute and rare talent. Yet it always turns out the poet’s individual circumstances contribute to such escapes from the personal and this is so with Nick Makoha who has talked of writing in exile from Uganda. He fled civil war and the rule of Idi Amin as a five-year old boy in 1979. Many of the poems in Kingdom of Gravity are shocking (and so powerful in particular ways as art) and their obsessive subject is power without justice in post-colonial Africa.

There are moments when early Auden seems a useful comparison. Each poem creates its own world of suspicion and unease, often of violence. Each poem is spoken by a human subject – I thought of Glyn Maxwell’s phrase “the presence of a human creature” (On Poetry, Oberon Books, 2012). This is maintained even though the materials of the poems are journalistic, clogged with stuff, hawked up, hacked off incidents that most of us are only familiar with from news, TV and film. The forms are often shaped but roughly so; Makoha’s voices often make use of anaphora/repetition and tend to the epigrammatic. Such patterning is mostly ironic because if there is one thing this collection expresses it is a sense of exile and disconnect, a loss of all moral compass. The construction of the book seems to encourage this sense of disconnect. Three poems evoking Uganda’s 1979 turning point (after Amin’s 8 year rule) are scattered across 2 of the 5 sections of the book. Each of the 5 sections are introduced by poems linked with airports and travel, distance, arrivals, departures – exile again – and these set the tone.

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The figure of Amin – and those in the ensuing years who have resembled him – recurs. The book is full of father figures, often distorted, corrupt, vicious, God-like, their hands covered in blood. A crocodile is considered in one poem, the creature imagined as Idi Amin’s teacher:

 

Wrath the only nature of God you taught him.

What of mercy, peace and Uganda?

 

Our bodies still rest in your jaws.

 

The book’s opening lyric, ‘Highlife’, praises the power that comes with “Presidency” and these include the power to throttle another man, to spare a life, to change perception by force, to be acknowledged as “God”. Such big men always promise much to gain adherents but in promoting themselves they soon threaten far more than they deliver:

 

This man is a firm knot in our chest. A landlord draped

in Savile Row suits, who uses our towns as a race track.

 

Mark the length of his shadow; where it reaches,

men fall.

(‘Big Nation’)

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The book’s title poem is like this. Re-writing Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ and Auden’s 1939 ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’ from the inside, Makoha speaks as a man wanting to create a world wholly in his own image: “What makes a man name a city after himself, / asking bricks to be bones”. His conviction is that he has been spoken to by “an oracle”; he claims to be searching for “a place to call home” but ominously is equally “in search of fire”. The kingdom of gravity is the condition of “having the world at your feet” and Makoha’s analysis of tyranny looks deceptively open-ended, asking if once the world is believed to be fully known, a reflection of the power-hungry self, then “how will you be sure that nothing is lost?” Such absolute control is an impossibility, of course, and for the tyrant the only solution is a call to arms: “Smear your bodies in red oil. Tonight we split the darkness. / We will be remembered as the wild cats // who smeared their bodies in blood” (‘From the King’).

As this makes clear, tyrants need followers. They are well represented in the book – both as victims and as the breeding ground for the next wave of tyranny. ‘Watchmen’ seems voiced by a man in whose calculations his wife, children, contraband, money, beer and a prostitute all seem interchangeable counters in his mind’s equations. Hard to follow what happens next – the border between fact and fantasy is uncertain – but a powerful male figure rips a sheep to pieces, offers it to other men if they become his “true bloods”. There are plenty of takers:

 

Some say he had promised land, others positions,

and yet others gold. The truth is we all wanted

to be kings with wives and cars.

There is a drone in our voices.

 

The night’s coolness has not yet gone.

The apparition snatches a Kalashnikov from a shepherd’s fist

and slips into the river. What’s weird is we all break rank

and like a swarm follow singing his incantations

and like a swarm follow singing his incantations.

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The willing yielding up of individuality implied in the choice of the word “drone” is driven home in the final lines which repeat Frost’s repeating trick in ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ but turn his swooning/determined ambiguity into an unambiguous, threatening, weaponised, overwhelming “swarm” of humanity.

The speaker’s sense that something “weird” is happening, the potentially redemptive sense of the growth of evil is reflected in a few other poems such as ‘The Liberation’ where someone who “used to be a boy” now moves “like smoke across the red dirt towards the second terminal”. In this case, such drastic shifts in human behaviour are considered “a costume” to be worn when the earth “erupts” but the potential reversal of the process implied by this metaphor elsewhere looks like liberal wishful thinking. ‘Candidate A’ seems voiced by a tyrant selection committee, enumerating an individual’s qualities, making him suitable for elevation to “His Excellency, Field Marshall, / Effendi etcetera”. Love of his own reflection, unprovoked violence, rejection of the rules, an appetite for acclaim and acquisitiveness replaced by “immediate gratification” mark out this fanatic among the ranks for a bright future though ultimately he’s to be used by whomever is speaking: “in his effort to be remembered, we will make our mark”.

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I was reading this book partly while visiting Guernica in the Basque region of Spain. In the commemorative museum, I was struck by a quotation from Gandhi: there is no way to peace; peace is the way. As in Picasso’s painting of the bombing of the town in 1937, Makoha’s poems give us more of the horror of when things break down, but also remind us that peace is more than just the absence of war. Poems like ‘Resurrection Man’, ‘The Dark’ and ‘How to Make Blood’ ask great determination of the reader and also ask us where we stand as we read them. The poet’s stance is driven by a form of survivor guilt. His escape to the UK meant an equivocal freedom:

 

My own country rebukes me. I hold the world on my back.

 

Look for me in translation. In my own language you will go unanswered.

My Ugandan passports are a quiet place of ruin.

 

One of the airport poems, set at Charles De Gaulle, Paris, perhaps speaks in something like Makoha’s own voice. It is about the impossibility of telling a story fully. He has no problems with endings – the difficulty is that “I have lost where I began”. The condition of the exile is always liminal, not living fully in either of two places. In Makoha’s case this gives him the space to contribute to English poetry a dark, knotty, often difficult kind of music, plainly relevant in its response to some of the horrors of the contemporary world. The book’s cover has been well-chosen by Peepal Tree Press: a grey scale image of a child standing beside an utterly devastated tree trunk. Hands by her side, she seems to be waiting for something to happen. Something else to happen.

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Charles De Gaulle, Paris

2017 Forward First Collections Reviewed #2 – Maria Apichella

This is the second in the series of reviews I will post over the next two 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)

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

Eric Langley – Raking Light (Carcanet)

Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree Press)

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

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Many thanks to Eyewear Publishing for providing a copy of Maria Apichella’s book for review purposes.

A psalmody is a collection of psalms – sacred hymns or songs – or the act of singing such songs. In Reflections on the Psalms (1964), C. S. Lewis argued the psalms of the Old Testament are poems: “not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons [but] lyrics, with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry”. Maria Apichella’s Psalmody adheres to this to some degree but also comes with a massive dose of narrative and characterization which too often conjures up bad romantic novels. This uneasy cocktail is integral to the whole project. Apichella has said she wanted to “write my own Psalms; that is, poems as authentic prayer [. . .] speech acts which called out to God, the self and the world [. . . ] without being kitsch, or ironic”. She also intended to tell “a contemporary story about the love between an atheist and a Christian”.

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She chooses to do this in a very readable, even racy, form of free verse in the voice of the young Christian woman (like Apichella, she seems to be a post-graduate student, studying the Psalms, at Aberystwyth University). The love interest is David, a Welsh squaddie, home on leave from a vague posting “in flatlands, sand, thudding heat”. The 93 poems make a great play of being rooted in the everyday, most notably through an almost obsessive itemizing of food and cooking, a delight in everyday slang and bathetic details – Lidls, Barclays, the Bus Stop, Aberystwyth in general – while also addressing Apichella’s chosen religious questions. When it works the effect is brave and begins to heal the rift between the material and spiritual that deforms our modern world; when it doesn’t work it’s like watching your Dad dancing. Psalmody sacrifices a lot to appear relevant. Surprisingly, this collection reminded me of Ted Hughes’ Gaudete – also a mix of speedy narrative and spiritual intent. These days most critics don’t rate Hughes’ narrative but they do praise the brief, prayer-like poems (based on Kannadan vacanas) that conclude the book. Apichella’s more psalm-like pieces are scattered throughout the narrative, but are worth searching out (for example, poems 26, 28, 44, 45, 55, 57, 72, 74).

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So – girl meets boy. Besides gender, the two are set up as complete contrasts. She is a “pale believer”, he’s a “Godless” folk singer; he’s a “narrow-minded atheist”, she’s a “holy-roller”; he likes jazz, she likes the psalms; she likes The Protecting Veil, he still likes jazz (Miles Davis especially). She’s angsty, tense, rather reclusive; he’s calm, kind and talks domineeringly. And couples are like this – and I can see these stereotypes have a larger, symbolic purpose – but the female narrative voice slips so easily into a Mills and Boon mode. David’s face is like “corn-stubble”; he is “chisel / copper / grizzle”; he’s a “pebble of strength” (this when he introduces her to his middle-class mother); he likes his coffee strong, though he’s “soothing / as tea, strong as a leather arm / chair”. The term ‘mansplaining’ might have been invented for David and our heroine often feels “he’s right (about so many things. / More clear and kind than I)”. To give Apichella her due, there are limits to this, especially later on. David is called a “wife” because, though he does fix a dripping tap, he also “roasts chicken / for a saffron paella”. The narrator does begin to challenge David as the relationship develops, but the first half of the book can feel like wading through some very thick, treacle-y, gender stereotyping at times.

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The challenge initially is that David’s bluff, masculine, physical, atheistic presence troubles and changes the female narrator. To begin with, she is clear that her faith defines her. Driving to a party, psalms run through her head, “whispering like a cassette”. Her interest in David is expressed through asking “Does he know the Lord?” As much as he is defined and confined by his military role, she also believes the same about her religious belief: “Love’s the law I obey”. In Poem 10 she describes herself as “a Monastery carved into a granite hill” (she also compares herself to Aberystwyth’s Constitution Hill, another rocky outcrop) and the psalms surface once more: they “bubble / with words free from context, emptied of time and place, / as I wish to be”.

 

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Constitution Hill

 

The self-regarding quality of such comments and their absolutism prepare the reader for change. David arrives in cycling shorts, hairy legs, noisily spilling things, liking raw mushrooms, not following recipes, quoting Dylan Thomas’ “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower”. The two are surprisingly drawn to each other. David besieges her in an unlikely conversation:

 

Stony one. You are

no monastery.

They are full of men,

mutts, beggars.

If you are,

you must let me in.

I am all these and more”

 

She explicitly grapples with what is happening as a battle between Eros and Agape, the former initially termed “ridiculous”, the latter is “the anchor / I cannot lose”. Perilously echoing a thousand romantic novels again, she slowly accepts Eros and the body as “good” and ultimately “Holy”, though Eyewear’s blurb’s promise of “vivid eroticism” is hardly accurate; more typical is the comment, “Why will you kiss me but not finish the job?”

A second gap in the text is exactly what sort of religious faith the young woman adheres to. Poems 45 – 47, record her taking David to church, insisting “If David won’t hear me worship / he’ll never know the core of me”. David surprisingly seems embarrassed by the expressiveness of her worship and the occasion distances the lovers from each other. Her personal faith is discussed using the catch-all term “numinous”, glossed as a sense of interconnectedness, of “webbed dimensions”, a filling of “all that can be filled”, a “merging” and perhaps the slow unlocking of the monastery to a stronger erotic sense is consistent with this. But the woman also retains her belief that David himself is in need of religion. For me there’s little in the text to suggest this, other than her insisting that he is “blind”, that he “may be lost”, but more importantly perhaps – and a third gap in the text – is the absence of any discussion of the nature of evil, in contrast to the numinous good, and David’s military connections would surely offer fertile ground for such a debate.

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David returns to his military duties later in the book. What he does is again left vague, if not downright evasive:

 

[His] job’s all jargon, bullet-

holed paper work.

[. . .] plans to occupy, re-make cities,

countries, traditions, bedrooms.

 

His own description is “cartographer” or “paper-pusher”. The book ducks the real challenge here. As a woman of faith, the narrator’s issues would surely be more with David’s complicity in war, death and destruction than with whether she takes him to bed, to church or gets him to like the music of John Tavener. Unfortunately, David’s singing and his warrior status have more to do with linking him symbolically with David, the singer of the Psalms, and they create complications for the reader that Apichella does not engage with.

It’s a surprise when the relationship resumes. David returns (vaguely, “Wounded”). I take Poem 88, making a virtue of his bluntness, to be recording his voice:

 

So,

it turns out

I want you,

after all

the fannying about.

 

He now seems to accept his need for spiritual guidance: “Your words are direct as a good map”. She accepts him back in the most cryptic line in the book: “David’s an atheist after God’s own heart”. I like the paradox; but I can’t make much sense of it. Apichella’s recurrent and usually grounding food imagery also reaches a strange apogee here. She is imaged as a fallen apple; David a carrot. The powerful, pleading imperatives of the Biblical Psalms are re-deployed here to ask for a greater power to turn them both, to merge them both, into an apple and carrot salad. I kid you not.

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I  have tried hard with this collection. Its intention to interrogate “love and faith in the contemporary world” interests me. The idea of re-writing the Psalms for a modern context is exciting. But the artistic choice of the romantic narrative proves inappropriate and exerts too much of its own stereotyping gravity. Nor do I feel Apichella is wholly in control of the tone, irony and symbolism she uses or takes David’s military role seriously enough. Her ambition is to be applauded but a recent collection like Hilary Davies’ Exile and the Kingdom more successfully tackles many of these issues. (I reviewed Davies’ book in January 2017 and have also posted an interview with her).

 

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Apichella’s narrator concludes by admitting her talents are not in music but her ambition is still to “roar / a song” and her greatest strength is her ability to “respond”. Psalmody is not yet the roar but if really responsive – if Apichella can more convincingly come down off the “granite hill” – I will be eager to read her next collection.

2017 Forward First Collections Reviewed #1: Richard Georges

This is the first in the series of reviews I will post over the next two 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)

Richard Georges – Make Us All Islands (Shearsman Books)

Eric Langley – Raking Light (Carcanet)

Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree Press)

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

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Many thanks to Shearsman Books for providing a copy of Richard Georges’ book for review purposes.

The seed if not the full, rich fruit of Richard Georges’ Make Us All Islands can be found in Derek Walcott’s 1979 poem ‘The Sea is History’. The mostly unwritten narrative of the Caribbean slave trade, the colonial and post-colonial experience of the transported peoples is the subject of Walcott’s poem: “Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs? / [. . .] Sirs, / in that grey vault. The sea. The sea / has locked them up. The sea is history”. Born in Trinidad and raised in the British Virgin Islands where he still lives, the sea is also the depository of the brutal struggles and stories of the Caribbean past for Richard Georges, though the ubiquity of the sea in these often painful, often very beautiful poems, means its symbolic burden deepens and broadens to something nigh-existential without losing any of its historical or political power.

To begin with, Georges makes poetry from some of the very few records that have survived. The words of one transported African – known by the name Abednego – lie at the heart of ‘Griot’. The poem title (pronounced gree-oh) is a West African word for a historian, storyteller, praise singer or poet and, placed at the opening of this book, is both a confident declaration of intent by the poet and an erasure of the Western tradition’s Homeric image of the bard. Rather than heroic military exploits or mythical wanderings, the “cross of the griot” is to “speak for the speechless, / to grip the stem of the bone and coral sceptre, / to be mounted, to sing light into the bleakness”. And the words of Abednego that come down to us turn out to be a dismally familiar, devastating precursor of the 2013 Black Lives Matter movement: “Abednego the griot, the spectre / speaks: In slav’ry days, the black man’s life count for nothing”.

 

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A griot

 

Poems like ‘Offering’, ‘Birth’ and ‘In the Moment Freedom Comes’ make some of those black lives count through re-deploying details of Spanish or Portuguese slave-ships wrecked or captured in Virgin Island waters. In the latter poem, the woman Ungobo languishes in the hold of the Atrevido until it is attacked by an English ship. But her sense of a liberation into sunlight and salt air seems brief if we give due weight to the concluding image in which the English sailors pluck the slave-ship’s cargo “from the hold like fishermen / clearing their traps”. Many of the figures focused on by Georges are survivors, the kind of “folk” who built the church for the community of liberated Africans in Tortola, Kingstown. Their dramatic survival from the wrecking of the slave-ships is vividly imagined:

 

Dream them gripping

snarling rocks as black sea claimed the broken hulk

of their prison. Amidst angry sea-spray coral

heads rise in watery light, their minds routeless,

home as far as Babylon

 

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Richard Georges

 

Likewise, George’s post-colonial figures are survivors too, of injustice and straitened economic circumstances. In ‘The Fisherman Measures Life’, the man’s labour and his rickety boat are un-romanticised in the steady-paced, long-lined tercets. This man carries with him a sense of the island’s history, recalling the “griefs” of the slave-ship Donna Paula, but his observations of nature prove no more consoling. Recalling the hunter/hunted imagery of the mid-twentieth century German poet Peter Huchel, the Fisherman watches seabirds chasing fish:

 

“It is much the same on land,” the fisherman thought.

Shark suited men sweat and chase American cash

like fishhooks, mouths transpierced with incandescent lures.

 

And in the end, he is as much a part of this brutal economy of hunter and hunted; as he pulls up his fishing pot, “its wooden frame comes to view / the cloudy depths dissolv[ing] in slippery shadows”.

Interestingly, in his recall of the wreck of the Donna Paula, the fisherman sees both “black and white hands” trying to survive. This is more than just a fleeting image in this book. Elsewhere, George carefully considers both “mariner and cargo”(‘The Heavy Anchor’) and this, alongside his concerns for survivors as much as fatalities, begins to transmute the rolling, destructive, slavering image of the sea in poem after poem into an elemental force (while still representative of historical/political forces), becoming one of the conditions of human life more generally. The opening section from ‘Proverb’ puts this succinctly: “God / fashion man / from mud / and put him / right back / when he / done.” This is a sentiment to make even Beckett’s pessimistic view – that we are born astride a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more – look sanguine. So the body of rooster lies rotting on a river bank; a stone lies in the water.

 

The stone smoothed by flood or famine if asked

could tell of slave and tsunami, or of when it was

a rough rock perched on the hillside

 

and a radiant rooster crowed

 

In the vivid and fertile Caribbean landscape, time passes and erodes; death dominates. Here are the key words from the tiny lyric ‘Light Sound Land’: deafening, spat, lose, scatter, bending, splinter, lose, bowing, shrinking, din. The sea is usually the agent of these grim conditions and the book’s title – make us all islands – emerges not as a plea, imperative or warning but as a resigned statement of fact, the consequence of the conditions in which we live.

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The title phrase appears in ‘At the Waterside’, a brilliant, sustained, survivor’s meditation in 5 parts, drawing together many of the themes in the collection. The sequence has an unusually clear and stable lyric ‘I’, a man who sits watching ferries arrive on the Virgin Islands. Unlike the “white-capped tourists” (but like the Fisherman), the narrator sees the present day through the lens of history or, to be more precise, the general neglect of the island’s history. The authorities prefer to construct “concrete totems where [the island’s] cedars groan”. But for the narrator:

 

It is here where the Empire unravels, crumbling

in Ozymandian ruin – preserving only

an ancient anger held by hands burnt black in sun.

 

Perhaps it’s the same fisherman here who sails perilously out to Buck Island, to where “sparkling blues betray the reef’s lying rocks”. The narrator twice cryptically insists that “something greater” covers the fisherman. It is partly history (the clouds hang like “ghosts of slaves”) but also (and in a poetic defiance of gravitational logic) it is the ocean itself, the “whipping waters”, an omnipresence in these poems, suggesting that, whether mariner or cargo, all individuals are both authored and erased by the sea.

 

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Buck Island

 

When you buy this book, I suggest you begin by reading the final poem, ‘Oceans’. Here too the sea is “effervescent” with history – “the bones // of slaves, of sailors” – but it also represents a more existential “abyss consuming even light in its depth”. The narrator demands to know what language might express it, how it may be securely held. The ocean also lies in the lover’s body: “And so we all remain. Divided. / Like the shores of islands”. To counter-balance such division and alienation, the little poem ‘Draining’ suggests one of humanity’s constituent drives is “a life / desperate to drink / the air outside of / us”. The metaphor is quickly switched; what runs through us is a river intent on returning to the sea. In ‘Mural’, a second ‘griot’ figure in a bar directs the poet to watch a turtle rolling and turning in the ocean. The man in the bar is a seer. Like the Fisherman and like the narrator of ‘At the Waterside’ too, what he sees is the “writhing mural / of hope and history / always carrying on”.

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The stoic instinct to hope emerges in these poems as powerfully as the poet’s instinct to speak. Perhaps surprisingly, what remains with me after reading Make Us All Islands is the great beauty of Richard Georges’ language and verse. Battered by the power of his literal and symbolic ocean he humbly suggests the difficulties of articulation, imagining only a “broken book of poems”. But time and time again, he successfully evokes the light and dark of past and present and he takes on the “cross of the griot”. The rightness of each word and line-break in the poem ‘A Place in the Earth’ is a case in point:

 

The dumb bodies

lie like leaves

in the dirt.

 

Death drags

the drying lips back

drawing mouths

into snarls

 

bracing the teeth

against the whistling

flute of the throat.

 

The living

philosophise

over the bones

 

while the yellow love

laughs from the trees

above.

2016 Forward First Collections Reviewed #5: Harry Giles

This is the fifth and final installment in the series of reviews I have been posting of the collections chosen for the 2016 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 20th September. Click here for all 5 of my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The 2016 shortlist is:

Nancy Campbell – Disko Bay (Enitharmon Press) – click here for my review of this book

Ron Carey – Distance (Revival Press) – click here for my review of this book

Harry Giles – Tonguit (Freight Books)

Ruby Robinson – Every Little Sound (Liverpool University Press) – click here for my review of this book

Tiphanie Yanique – Wife (Peepal Tree Press) – click here for my review of this book

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Thanks to Freight Books for providing a copy of Harry Giles’ book for review purposes.

I’d only come across Harry Giles’ work as a Guardian featured poem in June in response to his Forward short-listing. The chosen poem was ‘Piercings’ and suggested Giles was working the same area that Andrew McMillan did so successfully last year. What might be an autobiographical masculine narrative voice recognises a passer-by as an old encounter: “four years since / he hauled me into a lift with / Want to make out?” But the man had then been sporting various body piercings which have since been removed in order to become “employable, less obvious” whereas the narrator has continued making “more holes”, continued to accumulate the badges of a rebelliousness the other has given up on. The final question, “So what do you do now?” is therefore made poignantly redundant, each, surely, reading the tell-tale signs of the other’s body.

But ‘Piercings’ is by far the most conventional poem in Tonguit and Giles is no McMillan, nor does he want to be. On the facing page is a poem made from extracts from One Direction’s Harry Styles’ fanfiction. The title, ‘Slash poem in which Harry Giles meets Harry Styles’, gives a feel for its playfulness though the poem itself does not seem to amount to much. Perhaps it amounts to more if read in the context of Giles’ other manipulations of texts and discourses which have a more obviously seditious intent. The last poem in the collection offers ‘Further Drafts’ of a phrase often used by Alistair Gray: “work as if you live in the early days of a better nation”. Giles works various rhyming turns on the first and last words of this phrase eventually to arrive at “lurk as if you live in the early days of a better sedition”. It’s ‘Harry Styles’, manufactured pop idol and X Factor/Simon Cowell cash cow, that is the real target of Giles’ poem (though it lurks with some seditious intent, it’s still not among his best).

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Giles is interested in the processing of texts, sampling from George R R Martin’s A Game of Thrones, or creating cut-up texts from information associated with Abu Dhabi’s artificial island and cultural centre, ‘Saadiyat’.  The satirical effects are delivered through simple repetition and disjunction, questioning the original source’s coherence and integrity, where ecological sustainability becomes “a core value integrated into the design approach / in terms of throughout the the the concept design” [sic]. ‘You Don’t Ever Have to Lose’ does something similar with advertising text from IT services company Atos. ‘Your Strengths’ is a more powerful text in its own right, this time using source material from the Department of Work and Pensions Capability Assessment, the UK Citizenship Test and other psychometric tests to make a thunderous barrage of questions ranging from the invasive, absurd, profound, squirm-inducing and piddling to the politically loaded. Giles also works textual legerdemain in ‘Sermon’, based on a speech by David Cameron in which the word “terrorism” is replaced by the word “love”:

 

We must make it impossible

for lovers to succeed. We need to argue

that love is wrong. To belong here

is to believe in these things.

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This processing of texts, often randomly, often derived from the internet or Google searches, sometimes with editorial influence in the final result is presented as politically subversive. As the Tonguit blurb suggests, it derives from the belief that we are all warped and changed by the language/s that surround us and inhabit us. The hope of the lyric poet working towards his/her own truth is devalued, considered delusional, impossibly bound up in Blake’s socio-psycho-political “mind-forged manacles”. We liberate ourselves by breaking these, unpicking or smashing the dominating discourses around us. And if our deliberate intention is already suspect then we must achieve it randomly, perhaps via a machine. It’s a form of surrealism which profoundly questions our use of language and owes a lot to the Oulipian experiments of Raymond Queneau. Giles’ collection title, Tonguit, productively seems to hover between an urgent imperative to individual vocalisation – tongue it! – and more passive implications about the way other people’s language/s oppress the individual – we have been tongued!

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The more imperative mood is obvious in ‘Curriculum’ which takes aim at normative education and gives it both barrels:

 

Mix me a metaphor of noble gases,

economic engines and avant-garde

taxonomies, with Kingdom Phylum Order

gone to bloody Dada. Get down and dirty

 

with transects, quadrants.

 

There is a Wildean element to this sort of systematic over-turning though there is no doubt about Giles’ seriousness beneath the often funny, ludic quality of these poems and there is none of Wilde’s self-regarding quality. Harry Giles himself – as a recognisable, recurring, coherent, autobiographical figure – is curiously absent from most of these poems though I don’t doubt the sincerity of a poem like ‘Waffle House Crush’:

 

I’ll have you smothered n covered

diced n peppered n

capped n lathered n

lustred n smoothed n

spread

 

Giles’ various linguistic masks don’t hide so much as free him into more liberated forms of expression. I’ve deliberately not yet mentioned his most obvious, deliberately chosen mode of expression: what he calls his own “mongrel and magpie” form of Scots. Dave Coates has pointed out that, as in Kathleen Jamie’s The Bonniest Companie, Giles provides no glosses in the book on his particular Scots, “an implicit assertion of the language’s place within the broader spectrum of Englishes”. Giles’ Scots sets itself deliberately against discourses like those of the DWP and Atos as a declaration of variousness. Nor is he averse to something like a declaration of war:

 

Let’s be arsonists. Let’s birn the year.

[. . .]

Let’s mak like airtists

n birn the leebrars [libraries] acause we shoudna, n birn

Pairlament acause we shoud.

 

What follows is an apocalyptic conflagration of all things, down to the “thocht o fire”.

But the sheer vigour of Giles’ intent means his Scots is a lot harder to follow than Jamie’s. In fact, he does provide his readers with a full gloss/translation on his website. I needed this to be honest to deal with a lot of the Scots text, though the ‘translations’ then read as somewhat awkward, watered down versions of a quite different language (rather than a form of English). But it is worth the effort to really appreciate the tour de force of national- and self-assertion that is ‘Brave’. Like some Highland Whitman, making himself and his nation through singing (I’m losing some of the lay-out here):

 

A sing o google Scotland

o laptop Scotland,

o a Scotland sae dowf on [dulled by] bit-torrentit HBO

drama series n DLC packs fer

paistapocalyptic RPGs

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But also the Scotland “whit chacks the date o Bannockburn on Wikipaedia” and fears “o wan day findin oot / juist hou parochial aw hits cultural references mey be”. ‘The Hairdest Man in Govanhill’ takes all the clichés that phrase might suggest and instead describes a man who “has thay lang white scairs on / baith sides o his mooth fae smiling that damn wide” (my italics). This is of a piece with the Cameron subversion as we hear that the man is “that bluidy haird he’s a hairt tattoed wi Dulux on his bicep n aw hit says is A LUV YE”. There’s a risk of this getting as caricatured as the cliché it intends to subvert but Giles’ Scots is put to terrific seditious intent in ‘Tae a Cooncillor’ – a kind of one-sided flyting in which the local councillor who wants to close down a swimming pool is mocked mercilessly:

 

Wee glaikit, skybald, fashious bastart,

whit unco warld maks ye wir maister?

Whit glamour has ye risin fest as

projectile boak?

Hit’s time tae gie yer feechie fouster [nasty fester]

an honest soak.

 

This is committed, bolshie, rebel-script done with great skill and immense energy but Harry Giles is too interested in too much to settle merely for this. I was interested in his Scots (or rather specifically Orcadian) versions of a few chapters of the Laozi’s Daodejing. He astutely titles these ‘Aald rede fir biggin a kintra’ [Old advice for building a country] again recalling Alistair Gray’s dictum. The opacity of the language makes Giles’ versions a hard read but (if I may) here’s his boldly economical version of chapter 53 (some indentations lost here again) followed by my own recently published version:

 

53

a bit wittins

whan waakan the wey

are a rod tae dree

 

the wey is snod

an fock cheust fancy the ramse

 

govrenment divided

sheens growen-up

kists empie

but heidyins’ claes are braa

thay’ve barrie blads

are stecht wi maet

gey rowthie

 

caa this the darg o reivers

an no the wey

 

Crooked avenue

chapter 53

 

—perhaps you have begun well

one step after another along the way

 

yet you walk in fear of side-tracks

the great way running level and plain

 

still who can resist those side-tracks

soon as good governance is in place

 

we’re liable to neglect our business

too soon the tall barns lie empty

 

sooner wear fashionable clothes heels

daggers for glances glut on food and booze

 

have more than we can sensibly use—

dawn breaks on some crooked avenue

 

what was it happened to the way

 

Tonguit is a bubbling cauldron of a book, willing to take risks that don’t always come off, but guided by a belief in the need to challenge the assumptions and languages of the status quo. Harry Giles is a fascinating figure (go to his website here ) and his characterisation of his Scots as “magpie” is as much applicable to his multifaceted work in theatre, software, twitterbots and visual arts, all forms of “art about protest and protest about art”. Whether contemporary poetry, as in books like this one, will prove sufficiently interesting and flexible for his creativity remains to be seen.

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