‘From Palette to Pen’ – a bit more ekphrasis

My blog post a couple of weeks ago on ekphrastic poems (ie. poems stimulated by visual art) proved to be one of the most popular I’ve ever written. This was in part the ‘how to’ aspect of the blog. In preparing to run a workshop at the Holburne Museum in Bath in February, 2017, I’d been reading a wide variety of poems derived in some fashion from the poet’s encounter with visual art and I tried to categorise the various approaches. I came up with 14: 

  1. Describe – and do no more.
  2. Describe but imagine beyond the frame
  3. Describe but incorporate researched materials
  4. Make Main Figure Speak – the most common approach
  5. Make Minor Figure/s Speak
  6. Make Objects Speak
  7. Make the Artist Speak
  8. Interrogation of the Artist
  9. Interrogation of illustrated Figure/s
  10. Interrogation of Yourself
  11. An Account of Your Encounter with the Art
  12. An Account of Gallery Visitors’ Experience
  13. An Account of Others’ Experience
  14. Come at a Tangent – the ekphrastic experience as after-thought or illustration

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While at the Holburne Museum I was given their recent anthology of ekphrastic poems, From Palette to Pen, edited by Frances-Anne King in 2016. It contains 20 poems stimulated by art objects in the Holburne and as well as recommending it as a great resource for ekphrastic writing, I thought I’d use it to test my earlier analysis of the form to see if it held water.

It did pretty well. It goes without saying that all the poems engaged to some degree in method 1 – description of the art object itself. But beyond that, by far the commonest approach was method 4 – making the main figure speak. This was adopted by Anna-May Laugher, Claire Dyer, Carrie Etter, Frances-Anne King, Pascale Petit, Linda Saunders and Lesley Saunders. Petit manages to make Adam speak, remembering his naming of the animals; Claire Dyer makes Rosamund Sargent speak from her own portrait by Allan Ramsay; Lesley Saunders makes one of the sisters, Alicia and Jane Clarke, speak and so betray their “little sisterly difficulties”.

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Another common approach was my method 8, an interrogation of the artist (without getting the artist to actually speak for themselves (method 7)). Jenny Lewis’ poem on a 17th century Rosewater basin began in this way, inquiring “What’s on his mind as he hammers / the silver, makes light flower”. Her poem goes on to incorporate some obvious research into the object too (my method 3) which takes her poem away from a narrow view into the colonial world of “London, the world, New England” in which it was made. David Hale, writing about Jan Asselyn’s ‘Landscape with Drover’ also imagines and interogates the artist’s approach, gazing at his own picture in process:

Ah, the south. He feels the heat of it

on his face and hands, smells dust, dung

and crushed thyme as he sips his coffee,

wonders again what the bull is looking at –

where time and life have gone.

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I’d be tempted to widen this category of approach – or even introduce a new one – because several poems in the anthology interrogate the artist specifically about the artistic methods used to create the art object. Sue Boyle does this in detail about the making of Antonio Susini’s bronze figure, ‘Crouching Venus’: “Coated in plaster, lowered into fire, / she must be negated, melted from her mould”. There are also elements of this approach in the poems by Dawn Gorman and Phillip Gross, the latter dwelling as much on the making of a Beadwork Basket as on its illustrations of Charles II and Catherine of Braganza. Gill Learner’s poem also looks over the artist’s shoulder as he glazes a 15th century earthenware dish.

My method 9 – interrogating or engaging with one of the figures in the art work – was used by Caroline Heaton, Wendy Klein and Tim Liardet. Klein and Liardet both directly address figures in the image (for example, “Someone chose the best for you, Mary Bourchier” and “You let the baby grip his fingers”). Heaton’s engagement with Plura’s marble statue of ‘Diana and Endymion’ is a bit less direct, using the third person (rather than a second person address) to think herself into Diana’s state of mind:

Confined to the island

of the self, she laments

the chill of her lunar circuit,

its lonely eminence.

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Rosie Jackson approached a piece of furniture, ‘The Witcombe Cabinet’, via a brief description of it but quickly developed thoughts about her own mother and indeed herself which I’d take to be my method 10 – using the art object to interrogate or enquire into one’s own life: “”My mother would have loved it here, / the roped off beauty […] But I ask questions of locked drawers”.

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I think Claire Williamson mostly used method 3 – describe and make use of researched materials – in her poem on Thomas Barker’s painting of ‘Priscilla Jones’. The relationship between the sitter and the artist is the focus here, their romantic engagement and subsequent “passionless” marriage. In fact, I’ve not checked details of the painting/poem and I suppose it maybe that Williamson is making all this up – in which case she’s adopting method 2 – describe and imagine beyond the frame as George Szirtes does in anticipating the adult life of the boy in ‘Garton Orme at the Spinet’.

So the methods used in this anthology are fairly limited – seven of the fourteen I proposed. Those not adopted here are several varieties of ventriloquism (getting minor figures or objects to speak up; getting the artists to speak directly), the kinds of poem that more narratively describe encounters with art objects in a gallery or other location and a more tangential approach.

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Finally, Lawrence Sail’s poem describes a Mantuan School ‘Female Head’ and is probably the ‘purest’ ekphrastic poem in the anthology in that it does little more than describe the image – method 1. However, Sail addresses the woman imaged as “Our lady of the liminal” and as such he breaches the borders (“offstage”) a fair bit, beginning to imagine beyond the frame to some degree (method 2). It’s a lovely poem and deserves quoting in full:

Female Head, about 1525

Our lady of the liminal –

witness at her back the margins of

the unruly forest,

and the focus of all her attention

being offstage.

 

But the heart of the story is locked

in the ghost of her gaze – its candour,

the early signs

of grief, a drift to the verge

where hope wavers.

 

And everywhere, time on the make –

in the darkening turquoise of the sky,

the slow swell

of the trees, the craquelure moving up

to infect her soft features.

What Have I Been Reading: December 2014 – March 2015

Up-dated March 2015

Too little poetry-reading time recently has meant I’ve been thinking a lot about two texts we are using for A level coursework at the moment:

Tennessee Williams’ first great success, the autobiographical The Glass Menagerie, seems to strike chords in most modern teenagers and contains one of my favourite quotes: “I know I seem dreamy”, Tom says to Jim the Gentleman Caller, “but inside – well, I’m boiling!”

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This is being read alongside Sylvia Plath’s only completed novel, The Bell Jar. Plath divides students every time – poetry or prose – my one observation is that with repeated teaching the book thins rather than deepens.

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I’ve eventually got to read Colette Bryce’s recent new book, many of the poems about her childhood in Derry: short, focused, honest and managing memorable things within a very narrow linguistic palette.

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Anna Robinson’s new collection also works within a narrowed range of language choices. She produces strange folk-tale-like poems, which keep rubbing their eyes, not sure whether what they are seeing is contemporary London or some mythic rural past. Mysterious poetry.

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I’ve been dipping again into The Book of Love and Loss, eds., Rosie Bailey and June Hall (Belgrave Press, Bath, 2014), in part because I am reading from it at the end of next month at Heffers Bookshop, Cambridge.

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Blake Morrsion’s Shingle Street is his first full collection since 1987 and while there are flashes of the poet I once admired (I thought Dark Glasseswas very good) the book is full of rather dull thoughts – nature, ageing – and language that fails to lift off the page.

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Up-dated February 2015

Jonathan Edwards’ Costa Poetry prize-winning first collection from Seren is as accessible and diverting as the front cover would suggest and any poet inspired to write by the Simpsons is OK with me. Whether the jokes, caricaturing, a rather sit-comy stories survive repeated reading is something I’m still debating.

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Rose Auslander’s minimalist gems are hewn out of the silences associated with her suffering in the ghetto in Czernowitz (and influenced by her friendship with Paul Celan). I am pleased to be reviewing this refreshed collection from Arc for a future Poetry London alongside Volker Braun’sRubble Flora – see below .

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Peter Robinson’s most recent Shearsman collection continues his lyric exploration of the profundities to be found just beneath the surface of the everyday.

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Mario Petrucci’s Crib from Enitharmon extends his experiments under the influence of Black Mountain. Poems sometimes stunning and economical, at others too self-consciously aware of language as an object (blocking the reader’s view). There’s certainly not much else like this around British poetry at the moment.

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Emily Berry’s poems don’t attend much to Glyn Maxwell’s concerns with the tension between black ink and white space (see:https://martyncrucefix.com/2014/08/13/the-art-of-the-line-break/). The poetry is in the connections or lack of them and therefore leans to the surreal, with some palpable hits and other dead passages.

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Up-dated January 2015

Patricia McCarthy’s chunky Agenda issue on The Great War is full of fascinating original poetry, translations and essays on French, German and Italian war poetry and reconsiderations of Edward Thomas, David Jones and Ivor Gurney among others.

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Josh Ekroy has been appearing on prize lists all over the place recently and his debut collection from Nine Arches Press is full of engaged, disturbing poems, capable of dealing with militarism and warfare:

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I’ve been reading George Oppen’s work via Louise Gluck’s admiration for him; I’m still working on it . . . .

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Debra Albery, an American friend who works at Warren Wilson, recommended this book of new poems by Ellen Bryant Voigt, full of the natural scenery of Vermont and fascinatingly eschewing all punctuation (like WS Merwin) to track the little manoeuvring negotiations of mind with world:

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Wislawa Szymborska’s chatty, deceptively easy-listening poems in this 2010 translation make poetry writing look easy and able to encompass almost any topic:

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Up-dated December 2014

Nathan Hamilton’s big baggy collection of new poetry from Bloodaxe:672e5f96e2707467131a6f685241870c

Christine Keneally’s comprehensive review of contemporary ideas on the evolution of language:m000463281_sc7

Martha Kapos’ powerful new collection from Enitharmon:Kapos_Likeness_cover_final.indd

Brilliant selected poems from German poet Volker Braun, translated by Karen Leeder and David Constantine (Seagull Books):Layout 1

Pascale Petit’s powerful and strangely lit memorial to her father (Seren):

Two Great Days at StAnza Poetry

Writing is always a rough translation from wordlessness into words – Charles Simic

I arrived at about 8pm on the Friday evening. Leuchars station is not close to St Andrews itself and (it made me feel at home) there were roadworks disrupting the usual route so instead of 5 miles it was a 10 mile trip. Actually, it was dark and I had no idea where I was so I’m just quoting the chatty taxi driver here – who also lamented the decline in business in recent years. Lack of local money generally he said and the changing habits of students who go out less, pre-drink more and choose to stumble home rather than call his cab. We waited a few minutes for Pascale Petit’s train to arrive. She’d been travelling for 12 hours (from Cornwall) which made my 5 hour train ride feel like nothing much. Unpacking, I reflected north is a very long way north.

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I was staying at the Greyfriars Hotel but walked up to the Byre Theatre on Abbey Street, the main Festival venue. The headline reading for the evening was Lemn Sissay (who I’d just missed) followed by Don Paterson. I arrived at the interval and the talk at the bar was of a local heckler interrupting Sissay. I never got to hear how he dealt with it but it seemed to say something about the tone of this festival that there was as much talk about inclusion as there was annoyance at the interruption. The auditorium was sold out (typical of this StAnza while I was there – you needed to book your event fast). I had no ticket but Jim Carruth took me to the studio theatre to a live relay of what remained of the event. Paterson read mostly from 40 Sonnets including ‘Here’, ‘Wave’, ‘A Powercut’, ‘Little Aster’ and the curiously moving death-of-a-dog poem ‘Mercies’. He also read aphorisms from an iPad and I remember ‘Poetry is not a vocation but a diagnosis’. And (one for his students, he said) ‘If a poem is read slowly enough we begin to hear things – which – are – not – there’.

I was woken by seagulls in the grey dawn and through a gap in the Greyfriars curtains I could make out a CCTV camera on its right-angled gantry across the road, white and intent and about the size of a large gull. Perhaps I was dreaming. I was reading next morning with Tracey Herd in St John’s Undercroft, a long brick-arched room, with a great acoustic and atmospherically lit. Andrew Jackson generously introduced us and I read most of my A Hatfield Mass sequence which I think of as celebratory poetry about nature, perception, growing up/older, the body. Tracey’s book Not In This World was a PBS Choice and shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize this year and is her first collection for 14 years. She did not read those poems about film stars or racehorses for which she’s justly renowned but powerful, recent poems of loss: “Somewhere, someone much loved is leaving”.

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I was also reading in the afternoon at a ‘Past and Present’ event – where poets talk on writers from the past. This was the first occasion (in the Council Chamber of St Andrews’ Town Hall – where marriages are performed we were told) at which I could read some of my new, just-off-the-press versions of the Daodejing. Pascale Petit was also appearing and she talked about her enthusiasm for Tomas Transtromer, in particular the way in which his poems often use an aerial perspective; from his first published poem: “Waking up is a parachute jump from dreams”. I’m sure she said she’d consulted a Swedish friend who said his surname meant something like crane-over-water – ornithological crane obviously.

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Later in the afternoon, at the Parliament Hall, Fiona Benson and Andrew McMillan read. Benson was nervous in front of the large crowd (and who can blame her) but she was soon absorbed in the poetry itself and her demeanour was not at odds with the work. Sections of ‘Love-Letter to Vincent’ (Van Gogh) were read with great intensity. Other poems of pregnancy, miscarriage, birth and motherhood were more moving and (as Dave Coates has suggested) her book’s up-beat title, Bright Travellers, misleads. The contrast with McMillan was not to either poet’s detriment. I reviewed physical on this blog back in July 2015 and his (in various senses) naked poems, even when sad, manage to stir great pleasure in the audience. In person, he adds to this a wise-cracking, witty style of introduction and between-poem chat. Given his marvellous success this year I wasn’t sure why he wanted to discuss some of the negative criticisms he’s had but even that does not prevent me wanting to use that old Hollywood term ‘star’ in listening to McMillan perform.

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Nora Gomringer

It was another sell-out in the Byre Theatre on Saturday evening with an event indicative of the Director, Eleanor Livingstone’s innovative approach to programming (and part of the German poetry emphasis to this year). Nora Gomringer performed work (with percussionist Philipp Scholz) which reminded me at moments of Laurie Anderson, at others of the much-missed Bob Cobbing (who I saw read/sing in London in the 1980s), at all times evoking a jazz-like improvised feel. Quite brilliant. Jo Shapcott had the tricky job of following this and chose to read a number of ‘The Roses’ poems from Tender Taxes, her responses to Rilke’s poems in French. These are a bit delicate and brief to come over very strongly in a live reading and other new poems on pain (but without mentioning the word) I found not easy to appreciate. But the brilliant prose poem ‘Scorpion’, the touching ‘Somewhat Unravelled’ and the finisher, ‘Piss Flower’ ended the evening in style.

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I had a train to catch next day but managed to get to stride along the Chariots of Fire beach early in the morning plus take a peek at St Andrews Old Course before the Poetry Breakfast discussion on translation. Diplomatically and informally chaired by Annie Rutherford, the theme emerged that we ought to think more loosely, more liberally about the idea of translation.  Aurelia Maurin suggested we should think of it more  as we do cover versions of songs. Claudia Daventry opened the field up by quoting Charles Simic’s idea that all poems are translations from silence. Nora Gomringer remembered a professor urging her to find ‘the game’ of any poem she intended to translate not merely to work line by line. She’d been asked to translate Yoko Ono’s poems into German but felt unable to and the importance of the rightness of a translator to a source text was demonstrated when, on another occasion, she’d translated from Russian (I think) and had actually been spat at by a disapproving reader. I was struck – as before – by what powerful emotions the idea of translation stirs up, involved as it is with ideas of truth, honesty and fidelity. I especially liked Daniela Seel’s take on the process, stressing the almost chance meeting of suitable translator with appropriate source text and the way in which the linguistic and emotional ‘body’ of the translator (his/her resources) need to be matched to the varied demands of the source text.

But I had to catch my train and, though exhausted, I spent some of the six hours back re-reading Montale’s loving lament and memorial to his wife, Drusilla Tanzi, here translated by G. Singh:

With my arm in yours I have descended at least a million stairs,

And now that you aren’t here, a void opens at each step.

Even so our long journey has been brief.

Mine continues still [. . . ]

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Montale and Drusilla

Olivia Byard’s ‘ The Wilding Eye’ reviewed

I confess to being unacquainted with Olivia Byard’s work before I was paired to read with her at last year’s Cheltenham Poetry Festival. We had both just had new books from the always enterprising Worple Press. I read with her again last week at Oxford’s Albion Beatnik Bookshop. I wanted to try to convey something of her methods and concerns in this blog.

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In The Wilding Eye, Worple Press have gathered new poems and others selected from Byard’s previous two collections, From a Benediction (Peterloo, 1997) and Strange Horses (Flambard, 2011). Her work ranges from vivid evocations of childhood scenes, to mythic treatments of subterranean psychic hurt, sketches of domestic exchanges, more politically engaged poems and (recently) a more expansive concern with our relationship with nature. Her work is hard to pigeon-hole but acclaim from the likes of Les Murray and Bernard O’Donoghue is well deserved.

Some of those hyper-lit childhood scenes appear in ‘From Benediction’ which is a brilliantly detailed account of a child’s encounters with an eccentric, kindly grandfather. But even though his “disembodied” false teeth are more likely to be caught smiling “in their cut-glass jar”, it does not take a very close read of the poem to sense unease. The child is “trapped outside” her grandfather’s room, yet inside the furniture looms like “black giants” and dolls are trapped in “glass cases”. ‘Without Blessing’ reinforces this sense that all is not well. Why should the two sisters be sleeping in “Aunt Audrey’s bed” at all? Where are the parents? Are they perhaps part of the “razzle dazzle beyond the door”? Why should one sister be happily “abandoned” to sleep while the narrator eyes the mirror, all too awake, eying a “dark opponent” there? All she can think of are “stratagems for escape” yet memory reminds her any attempt at flight is “futile”. When the word “menaced” finally arrives as a way of describing her state of mind it is the wholly appropriate one.

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‘Theft’ is more explicit. “Her childhood was thieved”. These were bold poems in 1997, four years before Pascale Petit’s The Zoo Father (Seren). But Byard does not allow herself to be wholly defined by past events. Whatever their source, the wounds send out shock waves that surface variously. Here as a strange fascination with a schoolgirl’s traffic accident, now in the landscape of Lake Huron, now in the way Byard is drawn to characters from Christian myth (Christ, Mary, Mary Magdalene, Lilith, Lazarus) all of whom are co-opted into micro-dramas of pain and survival. Magdalene is just the most obvious example of this with her mouth’s “bruised hole battered / by harsh sounds” and in a second poem the character herself speaks out: “My nature haunts you; it wrecks / your peace”.

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Yet Magdalene is partly addressing men (surely the root of disturbance) and what she demands is some self-knowledge, or at least less blindness. She says “Search for where I reside in you”. But the re-making of the masculine ego is not really Byard’s preoccupation in her poems. Instead, there is an internalising of what she calls plainly the “dark side”. ‘Whores in Amsterdam’ is a memorable poem as the female narrator watches the sex workers closely, she imagines their thoughts – then returns the next day to do exactly the same again. Why? Perhaps “to learn the limits of my own dark side”. Or perhaps “to hide”. Many poems from Byard’s second book, Strange Horses, pursue this sense of the dark carried unwillingly, but inevitably within ourselves. ‘Mappa Mundi’ half-mockingly records the strange mythic creatures illustrated on the map but quite seriously concludes with the wish to forget “our roaming monsters”. ‘The Torturer’s Horse’ revisits Auden’s ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’ only to locate the root of worry, blood and unease in “you or me”.

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In another ekphrastic piece on Piero di Cosimo’s ‘The Forest Fire’, the beasts fleeing the fire – many of them with human faces – are plainly identified as our own nightmares, briefly dislodged but all too soon returning into the mind’s undergrowth, to lie in wait again, “for the dark dreams to quicken”. And such darknesses can be set loose at the slightest provocation. In ‘At the Kennels’, a casual comment about the dogs is made: “they never really / forget abuse” and a delirious, Plathian, nightmarish torrent of images is released, culminating in “a twitching thing” attached to an ECT machine. In part, it is the presence of, perhaps the responsibility for, the needy creature in the narrator’s arms that steadies the situation on this occasion, enabling a homecoming where, in a more assertive tone, deftly managing the shift from literal to figurative, we are told “I throw open the windows. / Everywhere, I throw open windows”.

Each of Byard’s collections contains cave dwellers. ‘At Ruffignac’ (1997) has the narrator time-transporting to watch the cave painters at their “serious joy”, secluded, secretive, their art a translation or distillation to be held aloof from the outer world. In ‘The Horse at Ystradfellte’ (2011) the outer world is again an almost fairy-tale-like, maze-like rummage and bustle in contrast to the small white horse image, “whole, complete, protected / from marauding eyes” in the cave. Interestingly, in ‘Homo Erectus’ (2015), the bustle of the world is this time presented more satirically through big-bummed, munching cave-men, who seem intent on excluding those who do not fit in. The poem notes the old, the hobbling, the dim, the infertile. And one other outsider: the needlessly observant one who stops, distracted from the merely necessary, to watch a bird, only to be “irredeemably entranced / by breath and song”.

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Poets like to dramatise themselves as neglected heroes; we like to believe our ‘useless’ art has its uses. In the unfolding drama of Olivia Byard’s speleological sequence of poems, I can’t help but read the more recent access to light and air, to bird song and branches, as a further metaphorical opening of psychic windows. And it’s not merely in the acquisition of a new household pet that the new poems lean upon the natural world. ‘Inheritance’ lists a plethora of natural details in a celebratory tone as something “not withheld” and nature’s gifts prove a likely “fresh furrow” in ‘Wood’. In ‘The Wilding Eye’ itself, the abandonment of the manicured lawn to unregimented disorder is in part ecological, part psychical as years of trimming, reserve and restriction give way to “great / gulping breaths, of sweet riot /  and tangle”.

There is real delight in Byard’s recent poems, all the more powerfully felt for the sense (after DH Lawrence) of ‘Look, we have come through!’ The gifts of nature (and the need to protect them) are foremost in this but ‘Besetting Sins’ (despite its title) also triumphantly expresses a far less corrosive, self-critical assessment of mankind’s – of this particular poet’s – “wonky wings, wrong angles, pratfalls”. We may know happiness begins in forgiving ourselves but it may prove an almighty struggle towards that point at which “it’s time / to turn, be returned” (‘Way Out’).

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Forward First Collections Reviewed – #1 Mona Arshi

This is the first in a 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.

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Mona Arshi – Small Hands (Liverpool University Press, Pavilion Poetry) Mona Arshi’s webpage

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Despite the ironic lack of capaciousness implied by its title, Small Hands is a brimming miscellany of poems. Many of them suggest interesting growing points for the future, but Sathnam Sanghera’s claim that Arshi is “Britain’s most promising writer” and Moniza Alvi’s talk of “genius” is premature and liable to drag the reputation of blurb-writing even deeper into the mire. A trying-on of various recognisable styles or voices is expected of any first book, compiled as they usually are over years awaiting a publisher’s call, but Arshi’s arrival at a full collection has been swift. Publicity suggests she only turned from a profession in law to poetry around 2008. It’s for this reason that her influences (Alvi, Petit and Khalvati most obviously, perhaps Emily Berry) are so clear.

Two early poems in the book allude to the idea of catastrophe. ‘Practising Your Skills’ faces an accusation about a “tendency to catastrophise everything” and this also emerges in ‘Bad Day in the Office’ where the narrator is trying not to regard rainfall as “catastrophic”. These instances may be ‘character’ points but such a ramping or ratchetting up of the ordinary is often evident elsewhere in the book and tends to caricature, a dramatic arc-lighting, unexpected (literally cata-strophic) links between disparate ideas or images and hence a love of listing: in other words, forms of surrealism. This is something Arshi has spoken about, regarding and admiring poetry as a discourse utterly counter to the kind of language-use she once employed in the law. So ‘The Lion’ is out of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber via Pascale Petit and evokes a strange relationship between a woman and an older man. It’s a powerfully disturbing poem because the male figure is accorded such power, language, sensuality, wisdom and a sort of droit de seigneur over the female narrator who seems disinclined to question the set up. As with several of the quasi-pornographic pieces by Sam Riviere, the critical question here is where lies the irony? Hard to tell, especially as this is the book’s opener.

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Arshi’s somewhat whimsical surrealism is better seen in her portraits of female figures alone. ‘Cousin Migrant’ is a visitant “from the skies” as well as a paradox (“her arms are thin as margins yet she can lift my children / with ease”). The Cousin’s transgressive – or more accurately, indefinable qualities – are conveyed clearly, humourously, the narrator, in contrast, is nothing more than “a storm in a tea-cup”. The confines or otherwise of female lives are treated in more conventional poetic form in the object and memory piece, ‘The Gold Bangles’, evoked as a cultural inheritance of value though the narrator prefers to think of their owner’s wrists before the gift, “still unadorned and naked”. As here, there are several other poems that draw on Arshi’s background, born to Punjabi Sikh parents in West London. ‘Jesus Saves’ is also a more conventional poem of childhood memory, on this occasion hearing a racist speaker in 1979, on Hounslow High Street, “long after Enoch”. But elsewhere, Arshi prefers to construct enigmatic poems, hovering just beyond the edge of anything one might regard as a clear and present body of evidence. This is especially so in what seem to be ‘relationship’ poems like ‘Entomological Specimens’, ‘Practising Your Skills’ or ‘Insomniac’ which cryptically advises: “Never marry an insomniac. You will have / to mind yourself”.

At the centre of the book are several poems about the tragic loss of Arshi’s brother, Deepak, at the age of 41. These poems are moving and suggest contrasting aspects of her work: deep levels of tact and restraint. Moving through the experiences of learning of his death and the family’s adjustment to his loss in slant poems about a phone call, practical details of the mourning process, officialdom, the family garden, the urn, the loss still feels raw and unresolved and there will be more poems to come on this topic I’m sure.

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The other prominent and enjoyable aspect of Arshi’s work is its sensuality and awareness of the body; this is a collection full of hands, feet, mouths, lips, eyes, wrists, hair and, ubiquitously, skin. In ‘Lost Poem’ she talks of “taking in language / through my skin” and there is a clear project developing here in that, at their best, these poems unfold through a language of the senses rather than the intellect. Elsewhere, Arshi writes of wanting to “sequester” and “foreignate” words, de-familiarising them, wresting them away from conventional denotation. I first heard her read aloud when she won the Magma Poetry Competition in 2011 with the ghazal-like poem, ‘Hummingbird’, here tucked away at the back of the book. I now read that poem against ‘The Lion’ and this is the one I prefer for its originality. The narrative voice (undefined) addresses the ‘you’ which is mostly the hummingbird itself, though as with ‘The Lion’ the creature is also interchangeably / metaphorically human. The tender, persuasive imperatives almost immediately carry an erotic charge, though where the “fingers” probe and slip is mostly into “spaces”, lacunae. But the hummingbird figure has none of the over-bearing masculinity of the lion; we are told it is capable of “curing”, dissolving, even pronouncing the speaker. But the speaker here is not as passive and compliant as in the earlier poem. Though she will allow him/her to open the “bone-zip of my spine”, the insistence of her voice gives her an active role in the relationship. The hummingbird is invited to “anoint” the speaker, a significant contrast to the shallowness of the lion’s crude “undressing”. (Arshi discusses this poem on the Magma website here)

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George Szirtes’ rather more restrained blurb observations suggest that he reads in Arshi’s work an “erotics of the spirit”. Without doubt, ‘The Hummingbird’ is a sexy, enigmatic, yet precisely expressed poem that is going to repay our re-reading of it. And if that is not the case with many other poems in Small Hands we should not be surprised. Arshi combines a liking for obliqueness, sometimes even coolness, with a desire to push what language can do and a willingness to experiment with form. Her cultural background is relatively unexplored here, yet promises much if that is the way she wishes to go. Not a winner of the 2015 Forward First Book award for me, but an intriguing writer, potentially a unique voice if she can achieve the right distance between herself and her powerful formative influences.