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”. Here is Richard Georges reading from this poem. 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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2016 Forward First Collections Reviewed #4: Tiphanie Yanique

This is the fourth in the series of reviews I am posting of the 5 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 CampbellDisko Bay (Enitharmon Press) – click here for my review of this book

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

Harry GilesTonguit (Freight Books)

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

Tiphanie YaniqueWife (Peepal Tree Press)

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Thanks to Peepal Tree Press for providing a copy of Tiphanie Yanique’s book for review purposes.

Early in Tiphanie Yanique’s book there is a moment (which happily turns out to be misleading) when, in a series of prose passages, she gives the impression that precise, once-and-for-all definition is what she seeks. Imitating something of the tone and style of a dictionary, she explores the meaning of ‘wife’, ‘wifey’, ‘get wife’ and ‘to wife’. Yet even here, Yannique’s point is that the simple word ‘wife’ has a plurality of meanings from married woman, to woman plain and simple, to types of relationships between men and women, to “a direct translation of ‘sex’”, to a verb suggestive of securing a heterosexual relationship, preferably with a rope “made of gold [with] a diamond at the knot”. Early on, Wife flashes up its warning signs not to trust any simple reading of language, much of which has its roots in historical, patriarchal attitudes, nor to go looking for a single coherent lyric voice in this collection.images

Proving to be a clever ironising of the book’s epigraph from Coventry Patmore’s The Angel in the House (“She casts her best, she flings herself”), the book turns out to be a babel of different voices, casting perspectives across the territory of heterosexual relationships from dating to divorce, via sex, marriage, marriage counselling, children (a bit), broken families and glimpses of modern forms of marital happiness. There is something rather systematic about the way Yanique ensures the ground is thoroughly covered, the variety of angles, which reminds me of those analytical Cubist paintings that so invite close-up observation that it’s easy to neglect the wider view. From the Acknowledgements page, some of these poems appear to be 10 years old, so the collection is the fruit of much writing and accumulation of materials: the overall impression is of Yanique’s impressive range of experience and imaginative projection, her reluctance to side once-and-for-all, as suggested by those poems which wrestle with such dichotomies as intimacy versus individuation (‘Feminist Methodology: a found poem’) and instinct versus contrivance (‘The Falling Out’).

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But Yanique – who was born in the Virgin Islands and now teaches on an MFA programme in New York City – is coming firmly and deliberately from a post-colonial and feminist place as can be seen in the book’s opening poem, ‘Dangerous Things’. The narrative voice slides from what seems a neutral tone (“This is the island”) to a more confident self-awareness in the course of 21 short lines (“And so I am the island”). The woman is at first a “small and vulnerable” geographical feature to be inhabited/colonised by the “you” addressed in the poem: “the space / that you take up / is a space where she cannot exist”. The colonising power, who is also the husband, is given due warning. In being an island, “dangerous things” live within the woman, as well as “beautiful things” which are said to be “most dangerous”. History is alluded to twice in the course of the poem (what makes the writing so good is that its huge freight of ideology does not unbalance it). Colonial as well as gender history is implied here and though “we will never be / beyond our histories”, the warning stands: the self-awareness of the island is awakened and whatever power or person positions itself in relation to her, her own selfhood and identity needs to be duly considered.

In a later, whirling, chant of a poem, another more assertive female voice declares “I am both body and nation” (‘Last Yanique Nation’). In contrast, ‘I try’ is a delicate lyric sequence in which a haunted-sounding female narrator believes she sees a bride’s veil in a tree like the bodies swaying like ‘Strange Fruit’ in Abel Meeropol’s 1936 poem/lyric. Such marital victimhood is more obviously self-willed in ‘To Fall or Fly’ where the woman declares “I don’t want to survive. I want to die of my Diego”. This contrasts ‘A note to the couple’s therapist’ where the woman self-diagnoses her problem with the relationship: “It’s just this body” she declares. Yanique is very good at the urgencies of the body in relationships and here she develops a water metaphor. The woman does not want to be left to rust; she’s too young to “flake away”. But when touched, she feels she is no more than “a pail of water” beneath the man’s advances. She has ambitions beyond her current relationship: “if I am water then I plan to be the ocean. / I’ll leave salt behind”.

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More often the addressee, there are very few male voices in Wife. One speaks with great reasonableness only to dismiss any notion of marriage as a partnership because “we are one body, mind and all”. It’s not long before such high-sounding notions crash into the assertion that “husband means the one who cares”. Such self-regard is not only spoken from the mountain-top but, he declares, “we are the mountain”. ‘African Animal’ is a more interesting poem which analyses aspects of masculinity through a voice taken from a TV nature documentary. We are told the son is eventually driven out by the community, being dangerous, likely to “turn bull” and attack the young. Yanique balances the voice delicately between observations about natural history and more human details. The poem arrives, chillingly and seemingly logically, at a place where violence against all-comers seems the only result:

 

In battle there is recognition among the bulls.

Is this his son, now grown and come to challenge him?

Is this his brother?

 

But perhaps surprisingly it is the traditional institution of marriage that Wife really wants to explore. “There is always blood at a wedding” starts one poem expressing a familiar, feminist scepticism about the institution. Not only blood, but bones too, the world filled by “phantoms of all us amputees”. A zuihitsu is a genre of Japanese literature consisting of loosely connected personal, ideas and Yanique writes a ‘Zuihitsu for the day I cheat on my husband, to my fiance’. As this title suggests, the fluid, random quality of the (prose) form allows her to begin to question the traditional categories of the marriage arrangement. There is much switching of verb tenses, into future and past, which undermines the rigid categories of terms such as fiancé, husband, lover, adultery, monogamy and marriage.

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Something similar happens in ‘The Story of our Elopement’ which adopts the free-wheeling style of a fairy tale with kings, kingdoms and princesses but remains grounded in the reality of a Brooklyn marriage bureau. The couple wait “among couples coming together for reasons / not always concerning love”. This is a point made throughout Wife: the sheer variety of human relationships which can be found in the baggy tent of marriage. This particular couple consider themselves different to “the others at the bureau” and it is a sense of freedom gained within marriage that marks them out:

 

We were fleeing

to make our own kingdom.

Now any myth

could be true if we communicated it:

I said, I am a princess

I said, you are charming

I said, I will witness

you.

 

The penultimate poem is a ‘Traditional Virgin Islands Wedding Verse’, a form focused on the idea of ‘belonging’ to father, town, land, church, tribe. Yet it’s a story of “self-creation”, the climax of which is marriage in which the partners “belong / to each other”. As in the elopement poem, Yanique’s proviso is, of course, that the marriage is “by your own choice” though her collection has been raising questions all along about the nature of choice. Even this traditional verse emphasises the power of each individual’s history. It would be too cynical to suggest that only the well educated, reasonably wealthy can experience such freedom of choice, but the emphasis on “self-creation” does reinforce an uneasiness I have about the book’s willed and systematic qualities. I am struck by how few of the poems involve children. Two poems suggest the loneliness and grief that result from broken families, another records the abandonment of unwanted babies. ‘Things that baby put into his mouth’ suggests, in its movement from the realistic to the hyperbolic, that the child devours almost everything, a sensation familiar enough to all parents who are perhaps not always prepared for the need to lay “self-creation” aside in the face of such demanding, dependent vulnerability.

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2016 Forward First Collections Reviewed #3: Ruby Robinson

This is the third in the series of reviews I will post over the next two months of the 5 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 CampbellDisko Bay (Enitharmon Press) – click here for my review of this book
Ron CareyDistance (Revival Press) – click here for my review of this book
Harry GilesTonguit (Freight Books)
Ruby RobinsonEvery Little Sound (Liverpool University Press)
Tiphanie YaniqueWife (Peepal Tree Press)

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Thanks to Pavilion Poetry/Liverpool University Press for providing a copy of Ruby Robinson’s book for review purposes.

It wasn’t until his second book that Don Paterson was inviting his reader into the “little church” of the poem. Ruby Robinson’s first book’s opening poem ushers us in through “the trap / door of a modern barn conversion” and though full of apparent comforts (paintings, chairs for guests, soup, bread, socks, duvet) it’s really a decidedly unnerving place. The walls are explicitly said not to have eyes, but the narrative voice surely knows too much about us: our loneliness, right down to our “deepest thread, like a baked-in hair”. And even if the walls do not watch, they are full of the “shadows of stags [. . .] cast like stalking giants”. There’s a lot in Robinson’s book which reminds me of another debut collection from way back in 1983 where the lovers describe themselves as “fascinated by our own anaesthesia, / our inability to function”, the TV buzzes half-watched in a corner, emotions grow ever more dysfunctional, “shorter and faster now”, and there is talk of separation in halting, heavily punctuated non sequiturs.

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That was Michael Hofmann’s Nights in the Iron Hotel (1983) and Robinson’s book shares an interest in disconnected scientific facts to express the troubling gulf between thought and feeling. One of Hofmann’s characters moves “the fifty-seven muscles it takes to smile” and Robinson’s ‘Time’ sets out from the knowledge that with a stethoscope a rodent’s heart murmur can be divided into “constituent beats”, spurring the lovers to analyse themselves as closely, as if that might reveal something important about their emotional lives. Stethoscope and heart-beats recur in ‘Love’ where again the biological processes of nerve impulse and ventricles are searched for something resembling meaning. ‘Breathe Deep’ does the same with the stomata on the undersides of leaves and this close observation (of a certain type) lies behind the collection’s title. The process of ‘internal gain’ occurs when we are under threat and is an increase in our perception (of sound especially) so that we hear Every Little Sound. As with Hofmann, Robinson’s attention to detail – a sort of hyper-perception – is really a symptom of a soul in trouble. Reading these poems is often like watching a fragment of material caught on a barbed fence, trembling and thrilling hopelessly in the wind.

The world of Every Little Sound is a thoroughly deracinated one – most everything has been torn up by the roots. Amongst snow, bluebottles, the word ‘thanks’, the remains of a kebab, ‘Hope’ notes “one IKEA bag like a dead bird whose wings won’t die”. All these items, hardly more than listed, seem to be thrown “overboard” into uprooted, meaningless chaos yet the human mind still despatches its uncertain “search party”. The emotional impact of many poems in the book lies in this: the continuing desire to make some sense in the face of chaos. In the midst of a discussion of romantic feelings, a narrator reflects, “I am // in touch with my feelings” but the line-break subverts the truth of the statement and the poem ends in disconnects of feeling, a brusqueness of tone, the brutal chopping of punctuation: “I could tell he felt like crying / and I didn’t mind. We finished our beer, shook hands, went home”.

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Another poem’s narrator talks of her “nerve endings in exile (‘Love II’) and in ‘This Night’ (which might be a distant parody of Lorenzo and Jessica’s “In such a night” speeches from Act 5 of The Merchant of Venice) the narrator confesses she is “more in love tonight, with ideas / and arbitrary things, / than I am with you”. Even in the throes of sexual ecstasy, there remain “two glazed eyes, observing it” (‘Orgasm’). ‘Winter’ uses both right and left justified lines to create an unnaturally evenly-spaced robot-toned prose passage about keeping a tortoise in the fridge through winter. This is where the real originality of these poems is to be found alongside several pieces which evoke the inevitable consequence of such deracinated perception – the fragmentation of the sense of self. Robinson has named Ted Hughes as one of her influences and, in one of the best poems here, ‘Unlocatable’, we hear him in the representation of psychic fragmentation through the physical. The narrator records her dismemberment at her own hands; at one point “a crow on a hard shoulder / delicately inspect[s] the entrails”. Her head is sawn off until the self lies in fragments, “half-witted, unpicked, flaked / out, half a leg, a spewing mouth, brittle hair, / scooped-out heart”.

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There are moments in the book when this sort of Hughesian shrillness and hyperbole-ramped-past-10 is reached for too easily. But ‘Unlocatable’ also  hints at the real life grounding for the edge-of-panic, urgent, deadly serious nature of Robinson’s shattered vision. In the poem’s penultimate stanza we are told:

 

My mother, somewhere,

like a drowned fish on the very end of some

fucker’s very long line

smashing herself against the floor

to an unnatural beat

 

To her great credit Robinson does not use past dislocations in her childhood and family relationships to pursue poetic confessionalism or misery memoir. This potentially gossipy backdrop is aptly sketched only in a fragmentary manner across several poems (the reader left to piece things together as must the family).

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‘Truth’ seems to be an ars poetica of sorts and it is the finding of the mother’s voice “behind the sofa”, the gathering up of this “small voice” and handing it round (as poems?) that spurs the writer on. In particular, the mother’s experiences seem to find echoes in other people, in the media, in the family. A reference to the “death of a violinist” seems obscure but is surely to Frances Andrade whose history of sexual abuse by a music teacher led to her suicide. As I’ve said, the exact events of the mother’s life are left unclear but there is no doubt that men have played a destructive role. One of the more explicit poems, ‘My Mother’, records tragically self-destructive attitudes in her belief that men “cannot be blamed” and that a woman must “know her place, should wait”. Robinson is more clear elsewhere that comments made by her mother have yielded material for poems (including the book title). The images of men are seldom appealing or sympathetic: both ‘Undress’ and ‘Ire’ suggest manipulative and coercive figures, more often than not treating women as sex objects: “He peeled the duvet away // slowly, dragging heat from the flesh / just as you’d freeze-dry meat or fresh fruit”. Robinson mostly treats these issues on a personal level though in ‘Flashback’ the wider context of sexual abuse and domestic violence comes into view with allusions to Radio 1 DJs, another woman’s suicide, courtroom scenes and the earlier image of the fisherman reappears: “He keeps her on a line like a fish / against a rip current”.

All these elements feed into the major poem in this book, ‘Apology’. This seems more explicit about the relationship between mother and daughter and is a howl of survivor guilt, regret, anger, apologising to her mother that things in their lives have turned out as they have. The book’s jacket blurb talks about the poems’ expressions of connectedness and a capacity to love but it has to be said there is precious little of these themes and most of what there is comes in ‘Apology’. Written in spilling, rolling 3/4 line sections (like Ginsberg’s Howl perhaps) the narrator obsessively apologises (mostly for things beyond her control, of course): “I’m sorry you’ve had to withstand such torrents of knowledgeless advice and legal toxification”. More than anywhere else in this painful book, this poem manages to ask, “Is it too ambitious to hope?” The answer given is not reassuring or confident: “We learn to accept the clouds for what they are and wait, patiently”. For the end of a major poem this is undramatic and anticlimactic but Robinson’s aim throughout is more concerned with telling the truths as she and her family have experienced them than with crafting something more consolatory. The final poem is addressed ‘To My Family’ and enacts an interesting withdrawal from such painfully personal material. Robinson retains/regains an artistic distance that augurs well for future collections which will have to draw inspiration from other materials. There is a quiet, deserved, hard-won confidence here: “I’m just words. And you have not the tenacity / to smother me, so I’ll wait here, written, biding my time”.

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2016 Forward First Collections Reviewed #1 – Ron Carey

This is the first in a series of reviews I will post over the next two months of the 5 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 CampbellDisko Bay (Enitharmon Press)
Ron CareyDistance (Revival Press)
Harry GilesTonguit (Freight Books)
Ruby RobinsonEvery Little Sound (Liverpool University Press)
Tiphanie YaniqueWife (Peepal Tree Press)

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Thanks to Revival Press for providing a copy of Ron Carey’s book for review purposes.

On the cover of Distance a male figure has already travelled well down a track through flat, open countryside. He’s heading determinedly away from us, hands thrust in his coat pockets. I think this is Ron Carey and though the image pretty literally evokes one aspect of the book’s title, it contradicts the stated direction of the poems within which hope to “bring us a little closer”. An epigraph from Elizabeth Burns suggests a more philosophical “sense / of time and place dissolving” so that (in an image that would have pleased Antonio Machado) “we are all / drops of water in this enormous breaking wave”. Ron Carey’s first collection sticks more firmly to the former, more commonplace, more personal of these formulations but is at its most interesting when it ventures an almost magic realist evocation of the latter.

The dissolution of strict linear time provides occasions for many of the most appealing poems here. They are acts of recall of a twentieth century childhood in Ireland (in this Carey invites comparisons with Heaney and, before him, Kavanagh). The boy who is the focus of these recollections is both highly observant and very imaginative. His conviction that there is a leopard in the coal-shed as he is tucked up in bed is grounded in vivid details of it tiptoeing “through the tin-pot Dulux jungle, on / Quick, painted feet”. ‘Breakfast’ is also troubled by imaginary big cats (lions this time) who chase his father from the house, their “claws pinging the spokes of [his] bicycle”. The idea of a ‘water-table’, as discussed by Driller Flanagan and the boy’s father, unleashes images of a real “table of Marian blue; its top shimmering” but when the geological reference is clarified for him, the boy swears never to ask “questions that have / The possibility of such dull answers”. We see the birth of a certain type of poet here, though Carey’s long wait for a first book reassures us that such unbridled (if vivid) fantasy will not be the whole story. So watching Aunt Babbie wring the necks of chickens, while blithely questioning him about his day at school, gives rise to more troubling childhood experiences as the birds’ “squawking souls” pursue him home and (the writing of the poem confirms) continue to haunt him forever.

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Everyday remembrance seldom loses sight of the gulf between then and now, but Carey’s poems occasionally record more profound moments of the collapse of the temporal. ‘Moving’ records the day a family move to a newly built housing estate. All their belongings piled in a horse-drawn cart (old world), as they approach the house the boy’s mother runs ahead with a “100-watt Solus” light bulb in her hand (new world). The electricity that runs metaphorically through the boy’s hands as he is given the horse’s reins and literally through the bulb filament so that the “black eyes of the front-room suddenly blazed” form an instantaneous circuit in which the whole family experiences renewal, the mother now “a young girl” calling from an open window ahead. It is the intensity of the emotions which supercharges such changes in perception. ‘Kilkee’ sees the six-year-old boy partaking of the grief of another Aunt’s broken heart, lying like lovers themselves on sand dunes: “He put his finger into the ring of the sun / And pulled it down the sky till it entered the water”. This drawing down of blinds is a fantasy of sorts but far more profoundly linked to the truth of the moment than the boy’s water-table imaginings. It’s in ‘Upstairs’ that Carey brings this technique to its apogee where the boy (now grown but of an uncertain age) agrees to wear his father’s old coat and lie beside his ageing mother. It’s her desire to re-live earlier days and intimacies that dominates, but the poem cleverly reveals the boy’s own uncertainty of identity: “We pretend to sleep, Danny and me”. He feels he can’t get up, though she’s now asleep, “Because she will not let go of his hand” (my italics).

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The figure of the father is a powerful one and recurs throughout the book. We see him relishing “pig’s toes with a pint”; elsewhere he comes home from work: “Your cold, great hands shocking / Our new skins; your goat’s kiss rough as love”. Even more memorably, in ‘My Father Built England’, he works as an immigrant labourer, a “solid Paddy full of gristle”, learning how to harden his hands with urine, then with the onset of World War Two, returning to Ireland to work for Hogan and Son. He is one of many characters who populate this enjoyable book – Miss O’Mahoney, a pub quiz-master, an irregular Postman, several Aunts, Grandmother and Grandfather – most of them firmly enough grounded in close observation to avoid caricature. And it’s the quietness with which Carey achieves his aims which is notable. New technologies are alluded to in the context of the past. ‘Churchfields’ makes familiar use of a photographic image but in ‘Background’ an image of a Grandfather is set as background on a computer screen, allowing Carey to “click a short-cut icon on his broad shoulders” in another striking image of the collapse of time differences. Elsewhere, the sweep of a dry stone wall is compared to the curve of a “Large Particle Collider” (unlikely, but successful). And a visit to Patrick Kavanagh’s grave yields an encounter with his ghost, in fact on film, “rasping and jumping on a screen”.

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Unfortunately, there is a rather soft middle to this book in the sections titled ‘The Beloved’ and ‘New Oceans’. The first seems a rather brief, miscellaneous collection of poems only vaguely linked to the theme of love and includes an up-dating of the Icarus myth and an incongruously Yeatsian lyric, ‘Diarmuid and Grainne’. ‘New Oceans’ appears to be an ill-judged venture into exotic climes and idioms (I think Central America). But there are more interesting poems in the final section of the book, ‘The World Will Break Your Heart’. Here Carey is less intent on conventional narrative and (in contrast to the youthful recall of earlier poems) focuses on the moment as it passes and on last things. ‘Lineage’ is a confident celebration of the Irish landscape – confident enough to admit ignorance of names as well as to leave the poem more open-ended, with no evident pay-off. ‘Catching My Death’ is short-lined, elegant, unpushy. Sounding more like Michael Longley here, the boy has grown up, encountered much:

 

I find life now – much the same

As the robin does – wriggling

In my mouth

 

Mortality is now envisaged as a return to the earth, though some sort of reawakening into the future is imagined:

 

Until

The earth warms

And the soil opens

To the resurrection of the worms

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Philip Gross, Carey’s supervisor on the South Glamorgan Creative Writing MA course, has written of the tenderness and detail of his work and this is true. He has a long list of competition wins and placings behind him and individual poems are touching and colourful and well-done. Distance covers a great deal of ground between childhood and old age and Carey is above all honest. But as a first book there are trails here which come to nothing and others which promise poems of a more adventurous kind. I hope that’s where the man in the coat is really heading.

An interview with Ron Carey about his work can be read here. 

Choman Hardi: Review of ‘Considering the Women’

In the Recent Reading section of my website I observed that Choman Hardi’s “unsparing exploration of the plight and flight of the Iraqi-Kurdish people in the 1980s is poetry of witness of a high order. This is a body of work which is unique and deserves as much notice as we can give it”. I also blogged about her second collection, Considering the Women, where I drew comparisons between her poem ‘Gas Attack’ and Wilfred Owen’s well-known anti-war poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’. My thoughts were in part a spin-off from a review I was asked to do of the book (alongside collections by Tony Hoagland and Jan Wagner). That review has been published in Poetry London. But Hardi’s book has just appeared on the Forward Prize Best Collection Shortlist and the post that now follows is the discussion of the whole book from my original review. The “delicate deliberations” alluded to in the opening line refer to Jan Wagner’s work – in which I discussed his explorations of the self, definitions and re-definitions of it, through our honest encounter with the world.

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The kind of horrific experiences and seismic changes to human lives that Choman Hardi writes about make some of these more delicate deliberations seem inappropriate luxuries. Hardi does not write much about herself yet the locus of her life is critical to the work. Born in Sulaimani, she lived in Iraqi-Kurdistan and Iran before seeking asylum in the UK in 1993.  She has since researched women survivors of Saddam’s chemical warfare against the Kurds in the late 1980s and has recently moved back to Sulaimani. Her first book (in English) Life for Us (Bloodaxe, 2004) was remarkable for its evocations of a childhood shattered by war, persecution and exile. Her new collection also contains timely poems about exile, warfare, ethnic cleansing, but goes on to reflect on the pull back to the homeland.

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Hardi writes devastatingly about the Iraqi state’s genocidal attacks on the Kurds, drawing directly on her research in the central ‘Anfal’ sequence. ‘Gas Attack’ offers a mother’s account of “a chalky-yellow powder” settling on exposed skin, her own and her son’s. The boy dies, groaning “like a calf”, the mother still blinded, unable to see him or “say goodbye”. Hardi’s language is always sufficient to the task – plain, direct, rising to the occasional metaphor, natural enough to suggest a witnessing voice. In ‘Dibs Camp, the Women’s Prison’, another mother who has already lost husband and daughter, holds her son in her arms as he dies suckling on a green slipper because he has asked for a cucumber and “is beyond // knowing the difference”. ‘The Angry Survivor’ introduces a different perspective as yet another mother rails against the intrusion of journalists, officials, activists who want to probe her story, or as she puts it, “pick my wounds”.

The position of the researcher is a vexed one openly considered in this collection. The ‘Anfal’ sequence is begun by the researcher’s voice, earnest, naïve and well-meaning. It concludes with ‘Researcher’s Blues’ in which she is now haunted permanently by the women’s voices so that “all I can do is / pour with grief which has no beginning and no end”. Such hyperbolic language is carefully measured to the devastating subject but the impact of such traumatic events on a non-participant is perhaps better dealt with elsewhere in the collection in more autobiographical pieces. In ‘My English Years’ the narrator sketches the story of a mixed marriage in decline. One of the points of contention is her research which leaves her feeling “dispossessed”. The husband tires of what he sees as her obsession with “victimhood”, then he also grows “fed up with me” (‘Our Different Worlds’).

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The irony of a poem like ‘Before You Leave’ – flinging out imperatives demanding that language, landscape, neighbours, parents must not be forgotten in exile – is that it is precisely these things that are never really abandoned. ‘Blackout’ records a more ordinary scene, a woman lying on a flat roof on a hot summer night. As the electricity is cut, her husband stumbles around in the dark below in yet another of those “ruptures” that seem to be the condition

 

[of] life going wrong –

a house disappearing after a bomb,

a loved one not waking up from sleep,

villages being erased from a map

 

That such occasionally generalized images stand for a universality validated by lived and carefully researched experience means Hardi’s readers may lower their critical defences. It’s brave and right of her to reflect her own life’s travails in these poems as it is always the individual’s experience that is trampled by state power and any re-statement of its importance is a political act.

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 #5 – Sarah Howe

Stop Press January 2016: Sarah Howe’s collection has just become the first ‘first collection’ winner of the TS Eliot prize. A fantastic achievement. What follows is the review I wrote of the book during the summer of 2015.

This is the fifth and last in the series of reviews I have been posting over the last 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.

Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus); author’s website.

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Howe reading at the Southbank Centre:

Sarah Howe’s first full collection is packed with journeys, stories, bits of language, calligraphy, mothers and daughters – but mostly it should be admired for its readiness to experiment. The concluding poem, ‘Yangtze’, might be read as an evocation of the Daoist belief in the primacy of fluidity and the watercourse way. A moon glimmers uncertainly on water’s surfaces, a river flows, a diving bird vanishes into it, fishermen’s nets catch on something submerged, a bridge remains only “half-built”, a travelling boat merely “points” to its destination. What remains hidden and inarticulate predominates; as the Daodejing argues, our life’s journey often runs against the current because we mostly lack the proper perspective to see the world is really one, not the parts we think we know. Those 81 wonderful ancient Chinese poems also argue that our way forward is really backwards, to recover an understanding of what has always been: that sense of unity of being which underlies all phenomena. Their wisdom is a sort of nostalgia and this is what drives much of Howe’s work.

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Two nostalgic tributaries flow into Loop of Jade – one philosophical, the other autobiographical. As in Daoist thought, words are not to be relied on and this is why Howe’s epigraph is by Borges, out of Foucault. It is a mock absurd taxonomy of the animal kingdom, sub-divided into a) belonging to the emperor, b) embalmed, c) tame, and so on to n) that from a long way off look like flies. The butt of the joke is language’s categories, organised perhaps in such quasi-random ways. Several poems play with the pleasant thought that Chinese calligraphy can bring us closer to the truth. A scholar sits in his study and “lends his brush the ideal pressure – / leaves his mind there, on the paper”. Jesuit missionaries arriving at Canton likewise thought they’d discovered “Adam’s perfect tongue”, the language of Eden, an “anchoring of sign to thing”. The poems address the risk that we “might forget // words’ tenuous moorings” but as we are all signed-up postmodernists nowadays the joke ends at the scholar-poet’s expense in the poem ‘(k) Drawn with a very fine camelhair brush’ when his poorly tethered boat drifts away and leaves him helplessly marooned upstream.

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Yet Howe is poet enough (‘poet-scholar’ is more of a disjunction than a working synthesis) to allow a woman in a Bonnard painting to long for “someone who will teach her the names of trees” (‘Woman in the Garden’) and the technique of the banderole – those speech scrolls often included in paintings – makes an unusual subject for a poem because it is a way to “make / mute canvas speak” (‘Banderole’). Perhaps it even bears some resemblance to Chinese calligraphy. Certainly, we need names as a form of geography, “for knowing where we are and names / of fixed and distant things” (‘Islands’). Accordingly, Howe scatters brief lyric poems, mostly descriptive, through the book and these seem also to aspire towards the state of calligraphy – one way at least of negotiating with the recalcitrance, the difficulty of mooring words; but these are not among the most successful poems in the book.

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Wumen Huikai

Instead, Howe’s experimentalism is more iconoclastic as shown in ‘(m) Having just broken the water pitcher’. This poem draws on a story from Wumen Huikai’s The Gateless Gate in which the sage Baizhang asks his pupil ‘If you cannot call it a water pitcher, what do you call it?’ The correct reply, we are told, is to kick the pitcher over and leave! There are some fascinating insights buried in this book about the rebelliousness of Chinese bloggers reinventing forms of language to avoid censorship and there’s no doubt they can be seen as partaking in the ancient traditions of their country. To paraphrase the opening chapter of the Daodejing: the words you are permitted to use are not the words that will remain. The kicked-over pitcher – to shift the metaphor as the Daodejing does – breaks the paradigm, returns us to the uncarved block of wood, the original state, before words, government, censorship.

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This original state is characterised in Laozi’s Dao poems as the ‘mother of all’ and the second nostalgic tributary flowing powerfully into Howe’s book is an autobiographical exploration of her Chinese mother’s life and culture. This is the more immediately accessible and marketable thread of the book that the Chatto blurb draws attention to and these poems are very vivid and moving. Most of them build in a documentary style, full of specific, often period, details to demonstrate yet another way of negotiating between words and things. ‘Crossing from Guangdong’ (a poem that might be usefully read beside Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Arrival at Santos’) has the narrator arriving on a paradoxically “strange pilgrimage to home”, trying to imagine her mother’s earlier life:

Something sets us looking for a place.

Old stories tell that if we could only

get there, all distances would be erased [. . . ]

This search is as much philosophical/spiritual as autobiographical: “Soon we will reach / the fragrant city”, though arriving at the putative destination, there is still so much “you can no longer see”. The title sequence of the book itself is in this mode, becoming even more documentary in its largely prose passages, interspersed with lyrical folk tale material and ventriloquistic evocations of the mother’s speaking voice. It ends with a more conventional poem on the jade pendent itself , given by the mother, blessed by a grandmother. It is worn to protect: “if baby // falls, the loop of stone – a sacrifice – / will shatter / in her place”. Curiously, the final line suggests some sort of fall has already taken place though the jade remains intact and I guess this is the fall from cultural roots torn up in Howe’s childhood move to the West: “And if I break it now – will I be saved?’

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This is a fecund book, full of poetic ideas and a variety of forms. But it’s not exactly easy reading – Howe isn’t always inclined to swing her poems far across the chasm between writer and reader. But their richness derives from the twin sources of Howe’s thinking: on one side erudite and philosophical, on the other intimate and autobiographical and the use she makes of the myths, thinkers, stories and landscapes of her Chinese background means this is a book unlike any other.

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.

Jacob and the Angel - Epstein
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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Forward First Collections Reviewed #3 – Matthew Siegel

This is the third 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.

Matthew Siegel – Blood Work (CB Editions); Forward Prize webpage on Matthew Siegel: here.

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This is a really good first collection because of its remarkable consistency of tone and manner and it possesses what I, perhaps narrow-mindedly think of, as that American quality of confident fluency, indeed fluidity, which seems capable of encompassing so much experience without straining at the seams. In their very different ways, I find this in the work of poets like Billy Collins, Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, Robert Hass and Larry Levis. I’d trace it back to the big enfolding arms and lines of Whitman who, along with Rilke, are Siegel’s two declared influences. But this ‘all I survey’ quality of the book is rather undermined by the publicity surrounding it which narrowly focuses on the fact that Siegel was diagnosed at the age of sixteen with Crohn’s disease and that his debut collection is all about this. Mark Doty (no less) considers the book “a genuine contribution to the literature of illness”.

It may well be – but like Robert Lowell, Thom Gunn and more recently (Siegel’s CB Editions stable-mate) Dan O’Brien, Blood Work’s focus on a very specific milieu or set of experiences does not prevent the alchemical transformation into an art with which those not brought up in the upper reaches of New England society, in the West Coast gay scene, embroiled in modern war zones can identify. In old money terms, they find the universal in the particular and Siegel does this in poems that move beyond a young American with Crohn’s disease to explore family relations, love relationships, questions of self-definition and the tensions between speech and silence.

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The opening poem is important in carving out a certain distance, an ironic space, between the Crohn’s sufferer and the poetic voice (there are a few ekphrastic poems scattered through the book which do the same job). It is one of the few poems narrated in the third person and we are urged to “look” at a hospital attendee, back in what seems familiar territory (the chronic aspect of Crohn’s), the floral prints on the walls, the hospital gown “like an old costume / pulled out of a locked trunk in the attic / of bad dreams”. He feels sexless or desexualised, but is writing a poem “in lowercase”, particularly the first person pronoun. The writing of the poem becomes the subject of the poem but this self-reflectiveness is not rebarbative in the way it often can be (self-regarding, aggrandising, clever-clever) but more modestly self-mocking, an awkward self-consciousness. The patient/poet would rather be drawing a comic book, with himself as a “small mammal”. He sees himself as a fox and in the poem’s final line he changes the title of the poem he is writing which is the title at the head of the first page we have just read: ‘fox goes to the fox hospital’.

The space created by this poem around the very specific medical context gives the remaining book permission to range widely and introduces the idea of “containment”. What can or cannot contain the individual is a recurring idea (picked up by Doty in the cover blurb). The title poem has the narrator’s blood being taken from a vein (already a familiar experience to this young man – the context seems to be earlier in the poet’s life). The nurse allows him to hold the warm filled tubes of his own blood: “I nod, think about condoms, tissues / all the things that contain us but cannot”. Containment here means summation perhaps, but with overtones of imprisonment in the sense that a medical condition (a disability? a gender? a skin colour?) may determine much about the individual, yet ought not be allowed to fully define the person. This too is Siegel’s subject in the book; the spillage, or extension, we can achieve or are permitted beyond what might define us.

So ‘Sometimes I don’t know if I’m having a feeling’ may or may not be closely related to the poet’s own medical condition but it is a familiar experience for most of us. The uncertainty of thoughts and feelings, the sensation of having missed “the entire party”, of being known only as “a strange / version of the person you thought you knew”, the old question, “Who am I?” It’s a sign of the ironic distance maintained by these poems (not at all the same as cool inconsequentiality) that Siegel can answer that question with humour: “A question / for the Lord only to decide as She looks over / my resume”. Elsewhere, such questions are more difficult to answer. ‘Love Parade’ stresses the distance the narrator feels from others (‘I fear my body incapable of loving’) or he plays with the idea that the opportunity of a poem is little more than a late-night phone-in for the lost and lonely. The desire for contact with others (that wish for spillage and extension) can grow to “the size of a building”, taking Siegel down avenues of surrealistic imagery, creating a city-scape from the thoughts of a lover’s body.

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These ‘others’ do feature significantly in this book. We meet the heater repair woman, a Vietnamese masseuse, Nancy the dentist, a supermarket flower seller, stall-holders at a Farmer’s Market, a multitude of doctors and nurses, various romantic entanglements. Though all these dip and dance about the central consciousness, they are given individuality (more Whitman here, I think). Thirteen year old Bryan is a sleepy student and the narrator is the teacher who watches him doze at his desk, bored by a literature class. The poem is a lovely act of empathy with the boy, his awkwardness and uncertainties, concluding with the self-discovery that the boy may well become the watching adult who “instead of chastising him / wants to touch his hair”. Not what child protection might want to hear, but true enough for those who teach.

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But the book is also concerned with family, in particular a mother-figure who, like Bryan, is observed while sleeping and Siegel asks “What world / contains you”. In this poem, she dozes, exhaling “in little puffs” and perhaps it is her son’s inability to quite define her that means he can “only watch for so long”. She is a mystery, though in poem after poem she is shown crying, smoking dope to forget, mourning an ex-fiance, the son helplessly, left to “wonder if I could reassemble my mother”. In ‘Matthew you’re leaving again so soon’ we hear her reported voice fussing and trying to bestow love and affection through gifts of pens, an umbrella, socks, as he prepares to leave, in an effort to say what seems impossible to be said explicitly. We see her (smoking another joint) listening to the music of Enya (‘it’s in Gaelic’), tearful again, yet smiling “as if hurt is the balm”. For all the lack of specific detail about her life and loves, this mother-figure is a powerful creation we may hear more of in Siegel’s later work.

So the book does not duck difficult experiences, nor distance them defensively. Siegel’s watchwords are openness and a winning tenderness. Despite the questions of illness, he can apply such qualities to himself too and in ‘Overlooking the City’ there is a brief respite which amounts to something like redemption: “No, I am not hurting in this moment”. As the sun sets over the city, “red does not remind me of blood” and the imagined blessing of the sun’s rays reach “even me, surrounded here and alone”.

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Even in a poem that gets pretty explicit about his medical condition, some reconciliation seems possible. ‘Rain’ opens:

I thought I knew desperation until I found myself
tightening my asshole like a bolt,

gripping the banister and crossing both legs,
knees shaking.

I tried to read a poem on the toilet [. . .]

But still the narrator can elude such a total, imprisoning self-definition to find some pleasure in the view from a window to “see grass // glowing green in rain and streetlight – / so many bright beads of water”.

So a book I really admire for its capacity to encompass such variety without bursting into fragmentary utterances. It doesn’t do anything startling formally or linguistically, but its achievement is more emotional and empathetic, Siegel’s voice engages the reader at all times in just the way he seems to engage and commit to the many people who inhabit these poems with him. Would make a worthy Forward First Collection winner.