2018 Forward Prize First Collections Reviewed: #1 Abigail Parry

This is the first in the series of reviews I will post over the next two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2018 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 18th September 2018. Click on this link to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong) and here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique) and here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The full 2018 shortlist is:

Kaveh Akbar – Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Penguin UK)
Abigail Parry – Jinx (Bloodaxe Books)
Phoebe Power – Shrines of Upper Austria (Carcanet)
Shivanee Ramlochan – Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting (Peepal Tree Press)
Richard Scott – Soho (Faber & Faber)

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Jinx stands out for its level of vigorous inventiveness which emerges as rapid-fire, Raine-like, Martianesque figurative language on the micro level and a fecund spawning of memorable characters such as Mr Chop, Spook, the Jewel Thief, Geraldine, the Goatman and the Courtesan Jigoku Dayu. Parry also likes to experiment with form, though thankfully she steers clear of the current modish favourite, the prose-poem. In fact, she’s a poet’s poet evidently passionately in love with words (their sounds as much as meaning) and her use of rhythm and line is always – again this word is best fit – vigorous. The poem I repeatedly hear behind Jinx is Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy’ as much for its repetitions, its inventiveness of image (remember “Marble-heavy, a bag full of God, / Ghastly statue with one gray toe / Big as a Frisco seal”) and its tonal muscularity as its sexual politics. Surprisingly, Parry’s book’s focus is fairly narrow: male/female relationships, the fragility of the self and self-knowledge, the equivocal power of words (for truth or falsehood).

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All these elements feature in the book’s opener and Jane Austen tribute poem, ‘Emma, you’re a gamer’. Austen’s heroine’s often skilled gaming/manipulation of situations is celebrated in listy short phrases: “Emma, you’re a dreamer. You’re a strategist, a schemer – / the metagame of manners, / all those formal misdemeanours, / the compliments, charades. / Emma, you’re a charmer.” Both rhythm and rhyme carry an energetic admiration for the skilled player though the poem records her eventual defeat (in the games of “amore [. . .] same old story”). Her climb-down, self-recognition and accusation in the face of Mr Knightley concludes the poem: “Give it up now, little ego, / there’s a prize for second place, / and Emma, you’re an amateur, you’re up against a pro”. Parry’s poem adds little to our response to Austen’s book, though the up-dated lexis yields some increase in accessibility. The poem’s life is in its verbal vigour especially because Emma is seen from such a distance by an amused, disengaged narrator who can use a phrase like “same old story” and leave it at that. It’s a good poem, even a likely anthology choice, but Parry is much better when she pours more emotional petrol onto her linguistic flames.

61L1aFcVHTL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Mr Knightley is an absent figure in that poem, but Jinx is repeatedly visited by powerful, seductive, dangerous males who – in ways now very familiar since Angela Carter started the ball rolling – are morphed into animal figures. ‘Hare’ is an early example, leaning invasively over the female narrator at a wedding party, “those fine ears folded smooth down his back, / complacent. Smug. Buck-sure”. As in ‘Daddy’, the woman is drawn to the man despite (or because of) his obvious threat but unlike Plath’s powerful final repulse (“Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through”), Parry’s narrator is fatalistic: “Your part is fixed: // a virgin going down, / a widow coming back”. Elsewhere, ‘Goat’ and ‘Magpie as gambler’ work similarly and ‘Ravens’ is a particularly Plathian version: “In fact, every man I thought was you / had a bird at his back / and a black one too”.

Creature-From-the-Black-LagoonFor all the frenetic playfulness of the book, Parry’s mostly female narrators and subjects are beset by threats. ‘The Lemures’ re-Romanises the creatures into psychological pests, aspects of self-doubt perhaps, appearing on the furniture, at the roadside, in a reflection in a lift door: “They will steal from you. Pickpockets, / rifling the snug pouches at the back of your mind”. Parry is evidently a fan of mid-twentieth century film and she explores Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Wolf Man from the perspective of dark powers surfacing. The question being asked is whether such forces represent the overturning of the real self or the manifestation of it in contrast to what a later poem calls “the dreary boxstep of propriety”. Locks and keys recur in the poems – are we confined, or about to set something loose, or to leap to real freedom?

In the same vein, Parry loves the idea of masks. ‘The Man Who’ is a David Bowie tribute (with Plathian allusions), asking what happens when the mask becomes the man: “then you’ve got to burn out – / down to the fingers, down to the quick, / to the quick quick heart of a white-hot / boy like you”. ‘You Know Who’ also plays on the idea of masks/roles becoming a reality, in this case actors fearing that playing the role of Sherlock Holmes risks a displacement of their real selves. Like a psychic supermarket shelf, ‘Milagros’ lists 20-odd types of hearts that might be possessed though, interestingly, the effect on this reader is less of individual fragmentation (which one am I?), more a sense of a multiplicity of human natures – each with their own particularities – simultaneously existent, in fact, a vision of a society at large. I’m not sure if this was intended but it is an aspect of Parry’s work that might be developed.

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Abigail Parry

Three of the very best poems (two of them prize-winners elsewhere) are unprominently placed on pages 48, 62 and 78. All three are what might be called Bildungs-poems – narratives of growth and education. ‘The Quilt’ is the more conventional poem deploying Parry’s fizzily-listed details and internal rhymes to describe a quilt embroidered with various incidents from a life, including discarded men: “the dapper one, the rugby fan, the one who liked his gabardine, the one who didn’t want to be    another patch in your fucking quilt / but got there all the same”. ‘Arterial’ also has an autobiographical glow to it, the narrator discovering her own heart stranded on the M4 motorway (“This is not, / as you might think, a metaphor”). The heart is transmuted into drum, room, tyrant and the Plathian “rope-bag full of blood”. It’s a desperate account in many ways, perhaps only grounded by the fact that the poem turns out to be written to “you”, an addressee presumably ready to listen. Perhaps this is the couple who feature in ‘Pasodoble with Lizards’ though they turn out to be (as many of Parry’s individuals have been) haunted by bestial mirror selves, as in lines ironically re-writing Robert Frost’s ‘Two Look at Two’: “The two of us, / the two of them, and two eyes looking, looking back / at two eyes looking”. Using long lines and triplets, Parry let’s rip in this poem, sailing a narrow line between the nightmarish and the merely histrionic, both speed and volume to the max: “Here they come, ATOMIC MONSTERS!” But the distress and seeming hopelessness is real enough: “these hooligans, our lizard others. / They think they’re us. We don’t know any better”.

As to the title, the word ‘jynx’ can be traced to the 17th-century word jyng, meaning “a spell” and ultimately to the Latin word iynx (or jynx) referring to the Greek name of the wryneck bird, iunx, itself associated with sorcery. There are certain word spells which, through naming a thing in a variety of ways, power is hoped to be gained over it. It is an aspect of many poems and Abigail Parry seems to me to be majoring in this. Interestingly, the wryneck became a symbol of passionate and restless love and was given to Jason by Aphrodite and, ominously, by pronouncing magic words, he roused the love of Medea. So Parry’s Jinx carries deep resonances concerning magic, love and lust, male and female power, the emitting of persuasive, deceptive and potentially ruinous sounds: it’s powerful poetry, then.

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Wryneck or iunx

The Cool Clean Shirt of Herself – review of Bryony Littlefair’s ‘Giraffe’ (Seren Books, 2017)

It was a great pleasure recently to read for Poetry in Palmer’s Green with several other poets who have various sorts of north London connections: Kaye Lee, Briony Littlefair, Jeremy Page and Marvin Thompson. Kaye is planning her much-anticipated first collection; Jeremy edits The Frogmore Papers and his most recent book is Closing Time from Pindrop Press; Marvin has recently appeared to great acclaim in the Poetry School/Nine Arches book Primers II. Bryony’s first book publication is the 25 page chapbook, Giraffe, recently published by Seren Books, the contents of which formed the winning submission to the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Competition 2017. I’ve not seen it noticed enough in the reviews, so I thought I might try to say something about its considerable strengths. Littlefair also blogs here.

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Giraffe, despite its weird title – which becomes clear only at the end of the collection – opens in familiar territory with a speedy, no-nonsense contemporary feel, using the title as part of the opening line: “‘Tara Miller’ // doesn’t have Facebook”. Her neglect of social media is one of Tara’s admired, unconventional aspects as the narrator recounts her (not so long past) school-days encounters with this girl. The narrator’s mother clearly feels Tara is not quite ‘our sort’ and in free verse lines of short, breathless colloquial phrases, the narrator paints a picture of the girl as a bit of a bully, as well as a little bit Byronic, being unpredictable and darkly “interesting”. Without really being aware of what her feelings are, the narrator is drawn to Tara, her “wavy, almost black” hair, her defiance in the face of boys, “her warm, / Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit breath on my neck”. This is a great double-portrait poem and sets up one of Littlefair’s recurrent themes, the tension between venture and routine.

wrigley-s-juicy-fruit-chewing-gumAnother young female narrator deliberately stays at home while her parents (conventionally) go to church on Sundays. She’s a teenage rebel without a cause as “The truth is I’m not sure what I did / those mornings”. The poem is built from a list (one of Littlefair’s favourite forms) of what she did and did not do. Littlefair is almost always good with her figurative language and here the girl is variously an undone shoelace, an open rucksack, a blunt knife. The urge to non-conformity outruns her imagination as to how she might spend her growing independence and there is an interesting tension at the last as her parents return, “whole” having “sung their hallelujahs” while the young girl is till restlessly revising her choice of nail polish, as yet unable to find what she’s after.

The third poem in this very impressive opening to Giraffe is ‘Hallway’. Despite declaring at the outset “I can’t imagine how it must have been”, the young female narrator on this occasion does manage to achieve an insight into something ‘other’ than herself. What she can’t imagine at first is the impact of herself as a new-born on her young mother: “The constant interruptions, / the mess, the uncontrollable outpour of love / like a reflex, a weeping wound”. There follows a curious moment and a great simile. Imagining the years fast-forwarding, the world is compared to “scenery in a video game, pulling itself together / in front of me as I moved through it”. There’s an odd shift here, like a crashed synchromesh, in the switch from the mother’s point of view to the daughter’s but it does prepare for the second half of the poem which indeed is from the daughter’s perspective. The centrifugal, self-absorption of the child is broken at last on returning home from school early and finding her mother at the piano, “small / in her cardigan, eyes closed, somewhere else”. I’m not sure Littlefair’s image – comparing the child at this moment to a “just-plucked violin string” –is original enough for the circumstance, but the poem survives and the child’s expanded imaginative life is signalled as she stands “washed up in the hallway, wondering at her [mother’s] life”.

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Another poem similarly explores a girl’s view of her Grandmother, wondering, in yet another list form, whether the older woman has had any sort of a life beyond the routines of socks and carrots and not gazing into mirrors. The solipsism of the young is a good subject and one Littlefair does well, but she’s as much interested in the other side of the coin: trying to imagine the lives of others. ‘Dear Anne Monroe, Healthcare Assistant’ does this, though the imaginative grain is a bit coarse perhaps. The Assistant’s life – beyond the present moment – is imagined as a mix of poor pay, weary commuting, casual racism and cheese and lettuce sandwiches. This is contrasted to her attention to her patients where she is steady, fierce, calls people sweetheart and is “magnificent”. The sentiment or feeling is right (not something anyone might disagree with) but the poem is sailing very close to caricature.

ClutteredDesk_OfficeI think I find this with some other poems too, though it’s partly because Littlefair is admirably intent on presenting the working world, the world of labour, as routine in contrast to the allure of a more adventurous life. ‘Assignment brief’ presents itself as an old familiar’s introduction to a new girl’s routine office job; the lists and proffered options are funny but they slowly run out of steam. Likewise, the promisingly titled ‘Usually, I’m a different person at this party’ flags latterly. I’m imagining this as narrated by an older version of the girl who half fell in love with Tara Miller. Here, she shadow-boxes the risks  of conventionality by over-insisting on her own sweeping and glamorous life, in the process claiming all sorts of ‘interesting’ aspects of herself: “I only ever have large and sweeping illnesses. / My lymph nodes swell glamorously. I never snuffle”. But the contrasts here are again rather roughly hewn and, in the end, close to cartoonish.

A far more original poem is ‘Maybe this is why women get to live longer’ in which a man-splaining man dominates a watched conversation, the woman “holding her face in different positions / to signify reaction: empathy, humour, gentle and agreeable surprise”. This is acutely observed and the point is well made in the serious-surreal twist of the rhetorical question, “Is there a place / the time goes that women have been / listening to men?” Even better is the imaginative act of the details of the woman now left alone, returned to the “cool clean shirt / of herself”. A really effective line break there, followed by the naturalistic details of her leaving the bathroom door open “as she wees”, then the more disturbing one of her pinching “the skin on her forearm – lightly, / and then harder”. I guess she’s pinching herself awake after the soporific conversational style of the man, but more disturbingly she may be harming herself as a symptom of deeper psychological troubles.

Sylvia Plat_The Bell Jar cover 003.jpegThe latter view is more than a possibility given that Littlefair’s poems also boldly explore the self’s relation with itself. The encounter between self and future self is plainly and humorously told in ‘Visitations from future self’ and it finds the present self in trouble, pleading “I can’t go on / like this, my life a tap that won’t / switch on”. Here, the present self’s cliched and optimistic hopes for a “rain-before-the-rainbow thing” are denigrated and stared down by the future self. ‘Sertraline’ echoes Plath’s The Bell Jar in its evocation of a summer spent on an anti-depressive drug. And ‘Giraffe’ itself is a prose poem (there are 3 prose pieces in the whole book) in which a voice is offering reassurances to someone hoping to “feel better”. In a final list, images of a return to ‘health’ are offered. Particularly good is the idea that suffering will remain a fact but “your sadness will be graspable, roadworthy, have handlebars”. And lastly, “When you feel better, you will not always be happy, but when happiness does come, it will be long-legged, sun-dappled: a giraffe.”

15998895The designation ‘a young poet to watch’ is over-used but on this occasion it needs to be said loudly. Giraffe contains a number of fresh, intriguing and fully-achieved poems. It’s well worth seeking out. I well remember reading and being very impressed by Liz Berry’s 2010 Tall Lighthouse debut chapbook, the patron saint of schoolgirls, and this selection from Bryony Littlefair’s early work runs it close. My review of Liz Berry’s subsequent, prize-winning full collection, Black Country, can be read here.

 

 

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):

They Will Have Their Rights: Ted Hughes’ ‘Her Husband’

My AS level students are in the last throes of revising for exams coming in May. One question will be on a selection of Ted Hughes poems and what follows is an essay in the style required of them by the exam board (a single poem analysis of the Practical Criticism kind). ‘Her Husband’ first appeared in 1961 and then in Hughes’ 1967 collection Wodwo which mostly contained poems written before Sylvia’s Plath’s suicide in 1963 but also a few others (such as ‘The Howling of Wolves’) written after it. Hughes’ next major publication was Crow in 1970. Leonard Scigaj has noted how many of the Wodwo poems contain “recurring feuds and destructiveness” and ‘Her Husband’ is a domesticated, Lawrentian version of this.

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Her Husband

Comes home dull with coal-dust deliberately
To grime the sink and foul towels and let her
Learn with scrubbing brush and scrubbing board
The stubborn character of money.

And let her learn through what kind of dust
He has earned his thirst and the right to quench it
And what sweat he has exchanged for his money
And the blood-weight of money. He’ll humble her

With new light on her obligations.
The fried, woody, chips, kept warm two hours in the oven,
Are only part of her answer.
Hearing the rest, he slams them to the fire back

And is away round the house-end singing
‘Come back to Sorrento’ in a voice
Of resounding corrugated iron.
Her back has bunched into a hump as an insult.

For they will have their rights.
Their jurors are to be assembled
From the little crumbs of soot. Their brief
Goes straight up to heaven and nothing more is heard of it.

 

Introduction

Ted Hughes is more renowned for his portraits of animals and natural landscape than people. Especially early on, he is more interested in, as he expressed it, capturing animal and natural life in language as he does so brilliantly in poems like ‘The Jaguar’, ‘Wind’ and ‘Thrushes’. However, it’s not true to say Hughes does not write about human life and some would argue that a poem like ‘Hawk Roosting’ though on the face of it about a creature is really about human behaviour. In ‘Her Husband’ Hughes is clearly focussed on the human in a marriage which is full of bitterness and resentment.

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‘Her Husband’ is written in the third person, giving a distanced but vivid portrait of a marriage through the events of one evening. The title of the poem forms part of the opening sentence so the poem’s opening line, starting with “Comes home”, already gives the impression of the husband as an almost impersonal force, unnamed perhaps because already all too familiar to his wife. The thumping alliteration of the opening line (dull – dust – deliberately), reinforces the man’s brute entry into the house. As a working miner he spreads “coal-dust” about the house but Hughes emphasises his inconsiderate nature with the adverb “deliberately” and the forceful, unpleasant verbs associated with his arrival: “grime” and “foul”. This opening quatrain flows quickly, being unpunctuated from start to finish, evoking an arrival which is sudden, sweeping, unstoppable. The ugly internal rhyme of “foul towels” also contributes to the impression of his disruptive arrival and Hughes conveys the husband’s resentful attitude with the idea that he intends to teach his wife about the “stubborn character of money”. This personification of money as a person difficult to deal with, to persuade, cleverly conveys the husband’s own difficulties with the exhausting character of his day’s work. But he intends to impress this resentment on his wife who he wants to work (repetitively) with “scrubbing brush and scrubbing board”. This is not a relationship in which we see any love, compromise or mutual respect, though we have yet to be shown much of the wife’s perspective.

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In fact the second quatrain continues in much the same vein with a repetition of the phrase “let her learn”. All this repetition conveys the husband’s determined intentions. Lines 4-8 also introduce a vocabulary of a more moralistic kind. The narrative voice echoes what must be the husband’s thoughts about the way he has “earned” the “right” to go drinking in the pub before he returns home. He regards the earning of his wage as a physical and personal “exchange” of his physical “sweat” for cash and the hyphenated phrase describing money as possessing “blood-weight” particularly conveys the sense of his personal sacrifice as a working man, how he feels the day’s work metaphorically costs him “blood” (as a miner this might be sometimes literal too). I think Hughes goes some way here to encouraging sympathy from the reader for the husband’s situation but the quick return to his aggressive, even vicious, attitude to his wife in the heavily alliterated and emphatic phrase “He’ll humble her” (line 8) definitely lessens any sympathy I may be feeling.

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The simple metaphor of casting “new light” on his wife’s role is used in line 9. There is a sort of tired familiarity throughout this poem (on both husband and wife’s sides) and I suspect this sort of encounter is not the first of its kind so the idea of him casting/teaching “new” light probably really reflects his sense that however much he tries to do this she does not “learn” to behave as he expects by more obediently taking note of what he sees as her “obligations”. I doubt whether he himself would have used many of the moral terms that the third person narrative voice employs in these lines, so the distancing voice Hughes has chosen to use enables these more abstract points to be made. It’s only at line 10 that we get a sense of the wife’s “answer” to her husband’s demands. As has been implied already, her reply to his demands is not at all submissive. We are told “part of her answer” is the disgusting-sounding meal with its “fried, woody chips” though it’s partly unpleasant because it has had to be kept warm in the oven “for two hours” (the fact that he’s so late home increases our sympathy for his wife). But her fight back is sustained it seems; the other “part” of her answer to his demanding and bullying attitudes must be spoken to him or probably shouted. Interestingly, Hughes gives us none of this directly as it is only implied in the brief phrase “Hearing the rest” in line 12.

The husband’s corresponding response to his wife’s uncooperative (surely complaining) reply is immediate and violent. The husband’s vigorous determination causes Hughes to run-on sentences at the end of both stanza 2 and 3. Here, the violent verb “slams” shows how he disposes of her cooked meal in the fire and sweeps out of the house and “away round the house-end” all in one flowing, swift, uninterrupted sentence. The husband’s singing voice is described as “resounding corrugated iron” in a typical Hughesian metaphor (linking the organic with the metallic or industrial). Also the song he chooses to sing is full of irony and deliberately insulting as it is a romantic song of lost love. Line 16 gives us a brief last glimpse of the wife’s response, her body language suggesting her own stubborn resentment, “bunched into a hump”. Hughes adds a simile to make her antagonism even more clear: “as an insult”.

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The final quatrain now departs from the specific actions of the married couple and returns to the more moralistic and even legalistic language that I noted earlier in the poem. Here the narrator’s distance from the domestic argument is clear again. This poem was first published in Wodwo (Faber, 1967) and, as a relatively early Hughes poem, it is unusual in its focus on individual people though this distancing effect suggests he may be observing their behaviour in the same way as he does a jaguar in a cage or the power of the wind. Line 17 is the shortest sentence in the whole poem and declares, in firm monosyllables, that both sides in this conflict “will have their rights”. This makes it clear there is no room or desire for compromise. The final three lines introduce the language of the law court (a divorce court perhaps?) though the jury are “to be assembled / From the little crumbs of soot”. This soot reminds us of the coal-dust he brings into the house in line 1, but also of the burnt dinner thrown into the fire-back in line 12. These tiny black specks suggest to me that such a jury will never come to any clear conclusion in this dispute. They suggest the hopelessness of the couple’s situation. This rather depressing ending to the portrait of a marriage is confirmed in the final line and a half as we are told that the legal “brief” (a technical term for one side’s case in a law court) follows the smoke and soot up the chimney. This suggests that the arguments on both sides metaphorically go up in smoke. Hughes concludes in the plainest language: “nothing more is heard of it”. The way in which the events of the dismal evening vanish up the chimney suggest the likelihood that something similar may happen again tomorrow and the day after.

Conclusion

So Hughes’ portrait of a marriage is very bleak indeed. The narrative voice describes events at a distance and though there are occasions when the reader does feel sympathy for the people involved, the language of the poem itself is not at all emotional. The poem’s voice sees events from both husband and wife’s perspectives though it’s interesting that we are never given any actual dialogue in this domestic row. Hughes’ irregularly-lined and unrhymed quatrains suit the poem’s plain description in a mostly colloquial tone: this is not a poem or situation where any lyricism or poetically-charged language would really be appropriate.

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‘The Bell Jar’, Lakes, Doors and Identity

I’ve had a major dose of the flu recently and have been too busy catching up with teaching and marking missed to devote much thought to blogging. So please forgive this brief and slightly self-absorbed effort. Talking about my own poetry is not really what I want to do too much of here. Nevertheless . . .

I gave a reading a couple of weeks ago in which the main focus was the idea of identity. It has been on my mind since and this week we have been looking at Sylvia Plath’s fictional self, Esther Greenwood. She is seen struggling in 1953 to appreciate she ought to be “the envy of thousands of other college girls . . . all over America”. She has won the opportunity of working for the summer as what we might now call an intern at a leading New York women’s magazine. In one of those flashes of figurative language that marks Plath the poet-novelist, Esther confesses she ought be “steering New York like her own private car”. Instead: “I wasn’t steering anything, not even myself”.

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Esther’s ensuing breakdown – closely following Plath’s own –  can be interpreted as her searching for a clearer sense of her own identity as she ponders and then rejects role models offered by Doreen (the wild girl), Betsy (the traditional), Joan (the lesbian), Cee Jay (the older career woman) and her own mother (hard-working single parent with no prospects). If we can manage to ignore the subsequently brilliant then tragic ten years of Plath’s own life after 1953, The Bell Jar, her only-completed novel, ends on an upward trajectory. Esther is re-born in the end: “patched, retreaded and approved for the road”. She finds a more sure sense of herself. As she waits for her release from the psychiatric ward she listens to her own heart beating: “I am, I am, I am”.

To borrow from Wikipedia, identity is defined as the distinctive characteristic belonging to any given individual or shared by all members of a particular social category or group. Identity, then, is a label. However, the formation of one’s identity occurs through one’s identifications with significant others (primarily with parents and other individuals during one’s life and also with identifiable groups). These others may be benign – such that one aspires to their characteristics, values and beliefs (a process of idealistic-identification), or malign – when one wishes to dissociate from their characteristics (a defensive contra-identification).

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Plath’s Esther Greenwood seems initially to have lost or never really determined or had no faith in her identity though I suspect this is a common enough feeling among adolescents. In retrospect this seems to be the point of one of the poems I read (first published in Hurt (2010)). It features a bunch of adolescents walking in Cumbria, one of their number too pre-occupied with fretting about a fading relationship. ‘Riders on the Storm’, the song by The Doors which they choose to put on the pub juke box, operates as a sort of mock-heroic image which the main character signally fails to live up to. Heroes know who they are; he does not. The point seems to be that the pain caused by the dissolving of the fledgling relationship is an early opportunity, perhaps, to define himself a little more clearly.

 

Riders on the storm

 

With no schedule to drive us,

we wait for rain to stop beside Ullswater’s

 

southern lip, for the landlord of The White Lion

to determine when it’s time to open.

 

Ducking through the door, Helen, Clive, Steve,

each a few weeks shy of university,

 

and I’m there too, heart awash

with absence, her love letters at looked-for drops,

 

the girl I feel leaving gradually

as the tedious route past Thirlmere to Catstye.

 

But it’s OK for a while – passing midday snug

in a deserted pub

 

while outside the downpour gurgles, begins to blur

and double with the torrential roar

 

of the juke-box: The Doors the only thing

we key in, its electric piano’s limpid fingering

 

like the give and tender recoil of water,

the lugubrious voice . . . Fifteen years later,

 

at his paint-spattered Pere-Lachaise stone,

I remember that wretched lunchtime

 

under the wettest rain in England,

when I was too ill-formed to understand.

 

I barely displaced a drop of local weather,

could only conceive of myself as either

 

a body slumped beside a dry stone wall

or drenched and raging on the dramatic fell

 

on the path to Ambleside bus station,

its oily tarmac smoking under black rain,

 

her blonde voice fluent on the phone:

‘You hear me?’ I could not even hear my own.

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Myra Schneider’s ‘Circling the Core’ (2008)

Myra Schneider is an old friend from the North London circuit, a tireless worker for poetry and a poet of significance who has also proselytised for the therapeutic impact of creativity in relation to both physical and mental illness. She has a new book out and I saw her read from it recently. I have yet to commit my thoughts on her new work to the keyboard and screen but I thought – by way of an appetiser – this might be an opportune moment to post the review I wrote of her previous collection Circling the Core (Enitharmon Press, 2008)

Also, here is a recent interview with Myra conducted by Maitreyabandhu at Poetry East:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5WfI7Bx_7Uo

The interview begins with Maitreyabandhu asking why she selected ‘The Windhover’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins and ‘Morning Song’ by Sylvia Plath, as two poems which had influenced her. He then asks about her life and the different areas of her poetry and writing.

Reading Myra Schneider’s Circling the Core, there are many things that remind me of Edward Thomas’ review of Frost’s North of Boston (1914). Thomas praises his American friend’s poems because they lack “the exaggeration of rhetoric”. He applauds his language as “free from the poetical words and forms” that harmed so much poetry in the early twentieth century. Frost avoids both “old fashioned pomp and sweetness” as well as its opposite – “discord and fuss”. The revolution that Thomas and Frost were pursuing is the recurring one of poetry’s return to common speech and this has long been one of the chief pleasures of Schneider’s work too. Since the mid-1980s, she also has pursued a voice that refuses to flaunt gratuitous formal innovation, nor does she play fast and loose with syntax, lexicon or typography. It might appear that Schneider prioritises a truth to things more than words and her conclusion is an admirable and observant humility before the world, its creatures, domestic objects, weather and places – though her attentiveness to detail is not the whole story.

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Schneider herself also refers directly to Thomas’ example in taking the epigraph to this collection from his poem ‘The Glory’. Thomas hopes to find this glory in the “beauty of the morning”, the natural world, the acutely observed details of the “pale dust pitted with small dark drops”. Yet what draws him remains elusive and he concludes that he may have to remain “content with discontent” since he “cannot bite the day to the core”. Schneider’s poems echo many of these concerns but – despite the tentativeness of this collection’s title – she tends to be more optimistic about the search for the “core”. The book opens with a marvellous response to a Barbara Hepworth sculpture which, after tracing the curves and lines of the material reality, worms its way to a centre, a still point, “jewel, kernel, womb, unshielded self, / a promise of continuance. / We lay hands on profound silence.”

In Schneider’s work the kernel usually is that “unshielded self”, the authenticity of lived experience rather than the accumulations that can obscure and denature it. In ‘The Mnajdra Temples’, the narrator is interested in and even impressed by information associated with these Maltese Neolithic ruins, but it is “what the humans who worshipped here thought” that is the real goal: “how the human brain began making / complex plans, conceiving deities, temples”. Elsewhere, a viaduct cannot be encompassed by its dictionary definitions; it is always more than its “bare facts” (‘Images’). Similarly, personal identity is more than the sum of its material parts: a bowl created by the poet’s mother-in-law “goes deep but not deep enough to hold everything / she lost” (‘Larder’) and on a return visit to childhood landscapes in search of self, it is ironically “when I leave / the present peels away” (‘Going Back’). A poem like ‘Goulash’ is so good just because it manages to capture this core of subjectivity, the thinking mind in process as it moves from the details of cookery, to love, to landscape, to a contemplation of “darkness” which lies ambivalently at the heart of things, triumphantly ending with a celebration of friendship which is not overwhelmed by placing it beside the longer historical perspectives of the jewellery of the Sutton Hoo burial ship.

Schneider’s interest in psychological truth leads inevitably to the use of dream materials as the starting point for a number of these poems. ‘Naming It’ opens dramatically with collapsing buildings but, even after the dust settles, the “panic is all in the rubble”. The possibility of escape from such chaos is intuited when the narrator discovers a blue pool and realises it is “crucial to capture the exact word for its colour”. As well as suggesting the essential nature of her work as a whole, this also confirms that Schneider’s vision encompasses a good deal of darkness. Though there are occasions when grief, pain, injustice are countered by little more than wishful thinking, as in ‘Journey’ with its repeated “What I want . . .”, a poem like ‘Nothing’ confronts it head on in the “vacant cradle /  of delicate bones that was once a bird’s head”, an object that seems to be demanding to know how to “face nothing”. Something of a reply to this is given at the end of the sequence ‘Larder’, with its finely judged observation, defining life itself as “a series of small makings / to stack up in larders against death”.

It is less of a leap than one might imagine from this to Schneider’s re-working of the myth of Orpheus, an ambitious poem that stands up impressively alongside Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Eurydice’. In ‘Eurydice’s Version’, Orpheus is a stunningly beautiful but selfish, spoilt man-child, beside whom his wife is initially no more than an “adjunct”. His music is presented as a compulsion she would like to resist. Her association with the shepherd, Aristaeus, is reinterpreted as a relationship in which her “actual” self is recognised in contrast to Orpheus’ chauvinistic, insistent projection of “bedmaker, breadmaker, whore / babymaker, milk-breast, childminder, nurse, / comforter, slave, mystic maiden, high goddess, // muse”. But Aristaeus’ interest in her true “core” frightens Eurydice away, allowing the snake bite that kills her to be regarded as “punishment” for turning her back on such a moment of possible honesty. Orpheus’s turning is likewise re-interpreted as a relief for Eurydice, who prefers the darkness of the underworld where, she says, “I’ve learnt to listen, to think, / for myself and when I speak I am heard” – in other words, where she lives with the virtue of truth to her inner self which this collection explores.

At one point, Eurydice wishes Nature might resist Orpheus’ melodic pushiness too and Schneider is admirably unapologetic about the importance of the natural world in the process of salving some of the harm she encounters. Those who have read her poetry in the past will recognise features of locality such as Pymmes Brook, the Piccadilly line viaduct to Arnos Grove, Arnos Park itself in north London and Schneider’s south-facing garden overlooking it. She has worked this landscape into almost mythic significance, its details able to reflect and evoke the inner experiences with which she is really concerned as in ‘Seeing the Kingfisher’, the ‘Drought’ sequence and ‘Skywards’. A little more exotically, ‘The Oyster Shell’ explores again this poet’s characteristic movement inward, a movement for which “prayer” offers no help but which, pursued with the kind of vigorous honesty that fills this book, can reach an almost Blakean intensity:

I retreat to the cradle of this shell,

creep in, unclothe my self, tread

on milkwhite and mother-of-pearl,

follow faint pools of sandgold

to the sullen indigo sea lying below

the hinge as its core. Here, I let go.

Myra’s new collection is called The Door to Colour:

http://www.enitharmon.co.uk/pages/store/products/ec_view.asp?PID=645

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Michael Donaghy – 10 Years On

With the South Bank in London about to stage a celebration of Michael Donaghy’s work (http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whatson/michael-donaghy-a-celebratio-85980) and several new publications forthcoming, I remember reading with him around 1990 at that same venue. I’m sure the event was recorded but I’ve never heard it since. He was reading from Shibboleth (1988) and I must have been reading from Beneath Tremendous Rain (1990). I reviewed his posthumous book Safest (2005) for Poetry London (I think) and thought it might be appropriate to post it here unchanged. My intention was to review his work as a whole as well as commenting on the short collection that Picador had then produced.

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Michael Donaghy’s death in 2004 is rightly regarded as a great loss to English poetry. With the publication of Safest – poems he had been preparing for a fourth collection – we can see his work over 30 years forming a tragically curtailed, but significant whole. I wonder if he tired of the early ‘metaphysical’ label, so easily applied to a poem like ‘Machines’ which opened his first book and remarkable in 1988 for its elegance of form and delicate wit. What is really distinctive in the first two books is his pursuit of the dramatic lyric. Donaghy is a terrific storyteller and a key part of his success is the irresistable address of his narrators. This is usually combined with astonishingly fluid transitions from colloquialism to the complexly erudite (the metaphysical bit). Drama lies in Donaghy’s precision of voice, the accessibility of character and narrative and his superb, often comic, sense of timing. His deployment of these various devices results in the other distinctive property of a Donaghy poem – the sheer distance it can travel from start to finish and the surprises on the way. Particularly for those who saw him perform, these are the elements he triumphantly combined in feast-like poems such as ‘Smith’, ‘Letter’, ‘Cadenza’, ‘Liverpool’, ‘The Hunter’s Purse’ and ‘Erratum’.

In retrospect, the traditional nature of his subjects is clear: love, art, death, time. Perhaps the absence of politics will come to be seen as a bar to real greatness, though the opening 20 pages of Shibboleth and the first two sections of Errata are very powerful evidence in his favour. Perhaps all his concerns are subsumed in his continual meditation on the temporal – how identity is composed of past events, how the past can seem more real than the present, how “the past falls open anywhere” (‘Black Ice and Rain’ from Conjure). Always restless, Donaghy’s third book seemed significantly darker in tone and contained fewer stories. What the blurb referred to as his most “vulnerable” work is a series of heart-broken love lyrics and a number of poems on his relationship with his dead father. Of the latter, ‘Caliban’s Books’ is outstanding and need give no quarter to Plath’s ‘Full Fathom Five’ in the evocation of parent/child relationships and Donaghy’s poem is full of tenderness and astringent nostalgia for the lost man and his Irish childhood.

Now Safest gives us 24 new poems – barely half a full collection – and one can only wonder at what might have been. Maddy Paxman’s note on the contents suggests these were the pieces Donaghy had approved for publication, but even so the repetition of a brief passage in two quite different poems (page 21 and 27) suggests an inevitable lack of finish. The book seems to have been shaping up more to resemble Conjure than the early work. Vintage Donaghy can be found in poems like ‘A Darkoom’, an imagined/remembered portrait of Klein, a holocaust survivor and photographer, visited in the garrulous narrator’s youth but whose memories of the man are at risk of being forgotten. The opening poem’s image of a Claude Glass (an 18th century device for creating picturesque images of landscapes that lie at the viewer’s back) is a perfect vehicle to articulate Donaghy’s retrospective habit of  “squinting to recall some fading pleasure, / or [being] blinded by some private scrim of tears” (‘Upon a Claude Glass’).

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‘From the Safe House’ is another narrative tour de force, blurring the boundaries of memory and imagination, compacting time to an eternal instant in writing a letter from Reagan-era Chicago to send in the present day to a friend who has just died prematurely but imagining him a happily married father in Vera Cruz! Against all the odds this works – and is deeply moving. This is an almost baroque extension of earlier modes, but Donaghy’s bold re-writing of the original in ‘Akhmatova Variations’ looks like a new direction. As does ‘The Moko’, which reads as a hypnotic paean to some whale-like creature: “Muscles of silence are rolling miles offshore at night”. Such environmental concerns are new in Donaghy’s work and his lyricism invests these creatures with grace and nobility:

They knew the stars and steered by singing them

and when the stars were dark, by wind,

and when the winds died, by wave swell,

bird flight, swirled shoals of luminous algae,

by phosphorescence a fathom under the outrigger.

The fact that the moko turns out to be a Polynesian mythical beast of the sea only adds to the poem’s intrigue.

Donaghy’s art – as far as it was allowed to develop – owes its success to contradictory impulses. It thrives on tensions between fluid and formal, colloquial and erudite, humour and seriousness, personal and impersonal. It strikes me there was a movement over the years from the first of each of these contrasts towards the second – whether a permanent sea change or mere local turbulence we will never know. Of course, hindsight tempts us to see the darkening as prophetic but, as I have said, this was under way in his third book. Safest has its preponderance of troubled and troubling lyrics, less love-torn this time, more concerned with the dissolution of self. ‘Midriver’ is a bold language experiment in which the lyric voice is almost wholly stripped of its personal pronoun and identity seems lost in a swirl of the temporal and spatial: “so stops halfway and, neither there nor there, / but cold and rained on and intransitive”. Even more explicitly in ‘Exile’s End’ and ‘Disquietude’, it is death that lowers and Donaghy writes not with Larkin’s horror, nor Thomas’ raging, but from an intrigued distance: “No recording devices are allowed in this hall. / The lights dim . . . / for the next movement / which features no one and is silent”. (‘Disquietude’).