2017 Forward First Collections Reviewed #5 – Eric Langley

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

The 2017 shortlist is:

Maria Apichella – Psalmody (Eyewear Publishing) – reviewed here

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

Eric Langley – Raking Light (Carcanet) –  reviewed below

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Once, there was life here –

residual and errant –

hushed since, shucked under

the thick skin, the tough slough.

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

 

Come back up stairs

if you read me

 

up in the subway

missing the tube travel,

 

missing the coach trips,

all the seaside rides,

 

the telephones, the postcards,

telegrams on spun wire;

 

come back up stairs,

and I’m hanging on

 

subjunctives, hanging on

superlatives, hanging on

 

the sound of someone

long gone to static

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

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

 

So glancing blown by,

so palpably hit away, so

 

keep so lovely looking still

keep lovely looking till

 

until each hungry bird

has flown and had his fill.

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

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

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

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

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2017 Forward First Collections Reviewed #2 – Maria Apichella

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

The 2017 shortlist is:

Maria Apichella – Psalmody (Eyewear Publishing)

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

Eric Langley – Raking Light (Carcanet)

Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree Press)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Constitution Hill

 

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

 

Stony one. You are

no monastery.

They are full of men,

mutts, beggars.

If you are,

you must let me in.

I am all these and more”

 

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

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

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

 

[His] job’s all jargon, bullet-

holed paper work.

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

countries, traditions, bedrooms.

 

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

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

 

So,

it turns out

I want you,

after all

the fannying about.

 

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

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

 

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

Two-Headed Calf: Review of Jacob Polley’s ‘Jackself’

Of those people I spoke to, many poetry readers were surprised and delighted that Jacob Polley’s Jackself recently won the 2016 T.S. Eliot Prize against competition from the likes of Capildeo, Duhig, Oswald and Riley among others. Caught between a desire that prizes go only to the very best work and a wish that poetry’s few rewards be more equitably distributed, I was also delighted as this is a book which is bold and inventive, against the grain and successfully ambitious. (Apologies for some loss of formatting of any quotes that follow).

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The book’s novelistic aspects have been noted in reviews – they are easier to discuss than its poetic achievements. Jackself is a boy growing up in the rural north of England, befriended by Jeremy Wren who, within a few years, commits suicide, leaving Jackself to deal with the grief. As ‘novel’ material, both the opening and close of the book refuse to provide what a reader might be looking for but as poetry it delivers what Heaney characterised as the “superfluity of language’s own resources. It’s a kind of overdoing it. Enough is not enough when it comes to poetry” (Giving Their Word, 2002). Polley’s language is charged, improvisatory and colloquial. It is fluid and rhythmic (more modern, less ballad-like than some reviews have suggested). It has a crusted, superfluous quality to it that reminds me of Shakespeare, or what Hughes has described of Shakespeare’s excess, and Jackself is not thinned out by constant ironising, rather it’s thickened by a weight of language, history and imaginative hard work. It’s very impressive – but needs a few reads before it gives itself up.

It’s best to begin with Jackself’s birth poem, ‘Every Creeping Thing’, the second in the collection (I’ll return to the first, ‘The House that Jack Built’ later). The natural world is important to the boy and this book and his arrival “at the door / of the door of the door” is also a journey “by water mite / by the snail on its slick of light”. There’s a Hughesian feel to some of the poems (Crow’s ‘Examination at the Womb-door’ here?) but Jackself enters a childhood freshly and vividly caught in its exploration by mouth and “curatorial spit”, cat-watching, one-piece suits and sleep that ends by “mak[ing] / the world over again” (‘Jack Sprat’). All seems good and safe though by the sixth birthday party with its “six / goody candles” there is a noting of absence: “no wishing it wouldn’t be / or wasn’t or would better be / no wondering how so hard it hurts” (‘The Goodies’). This seems proleptic of darker questions to come and is also a good example of Polley’s vigorously colloquial style, full of dynamic sound patterning.

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It’s never easy to determine Jackself’s age in the book (occasionally I felt he was older than his responses suggested). I think Rimbaud suggests the detachment of self-consciousness kicks in around 7 years old so it’s perhaps at that age that Jackself is “afraid like snow he’ll wane or drift / before he can hold /  the road out front” (‘Jackself’s Quality’). He also explores “the lovely lofts / of Lamanby” – his house – showing a reflective, curiosity which is notably not catered for at school. ‘Lessons’ is great poem about the failures of education (I write as a teacher) with Jackself taken away to a corner, impelled to worship, to eat shit school dinners, to be humiliated before his parents. The thumbnail sketch of the Headmaster, Mr Workbench is worthy of Dickens as he “solemnly inclines / his one-thought- / at-a-time head”. Polley captures Jackself’s alternative headspace beautifully:

 

his mind a corner

of beehives

his fingers a box of matches

his nose the afternoon rain

[. . . ]

his tongue an earwig

before it hatches

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Where Jackself is at home is in the natural world. ‘Applejack’ has strong echoes of Hughes’ ‘Wodwo’ with its instinctual, open-minded, pre-language, exploratory movement:

 

by hedgehog path

and badger path, Jackself

happens with the clouds

into sunlight

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The book lights up differently with the appearance of Jeremy Wren, a more wise-cracking, cynical, entrepreneurial and ultimately more troubled young man than Jackself. The pair strike up a double act – they both respond powerfully to the natural world and their dialogues are both funny and poignant. In ‘Les Symbolistes’, getting drunk on “white cider and Malibu”, Jackself let’s slip for the first time an interest in poetry: “A POEM! Wren roars / you’re creepy as a two-headed calf”. This is also one of the early moments when we see Wren’s troubled side – his father beats him. The jigsaw pieces of the boy’s troubles are carefully placed by Polley. He and Jackself meet in a goose shed, as if both on the run from something; ‘It’ asks “tell us what’s wrong, Jeremy Wren”; in ‘Snow Dad’ Wren insists they make a replacement father snow-man but also recalls when he climbed into a chest freezer. He hangs himself in ‘Pact’. He “hangs thinking fuck I’ve left / no note until he’s fucking dead”. Maitreyabandhu has written of not dissimilar events in his sequence ‘Stephen’ in The Crumb Road (Bloodaxe, 2013).

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Jackself now becomes a study in teenage grief. ‘The Hole’ has Jackself contemplating Wren’s grave (this is one of the poems where the language seems less comfortably matched with the likely age of the boy). One way he tries to deal with the loss is by writing. ‘Jack O’Lantern’ is a deconstructed – or as they say of websites, still in construction – ballad with Jackself trying, then rejecting, lines in a fashion that is both humorous and touching (“no           again . . .  no          again”).

Polley’s achievement is to find a form and voice which can encompass all this . . . stuff. Long and short lines are scattered across the pages, poems often start in media res, often lack an explicit subject, dialogue is unmarked and the reader must sort things out. But this all adds urgency to the telling and a fluidity to the narrative perspectives. Polley’s Jackself often reminded me of David Jones’ protagonist, Private John Ball, from In Parenthesis (1937). The two share a mythic quality, representative but individualised. In ‘The Misery’ Jackself becomes/sees himself as a heroic dragon-slayer and the dragon he wishes to kill is his grief at the death of Wren. The disturbed psychological perspective implied by this is a result of his depression over the suicide of his friend – but the poem manages a marvellous mock-heroic tone:

 

from his weapon chest,

the sheath knife, Eglantine                      from his wardrobe,

his denim jacket, torch, tool belt, tin camping cup,

rucksack, horned hat and Gore-Tex breastplate

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What he kills in the end is just a rabbit but the ritualistic/symbolic nature of his action has an effect. It takes a while, during which he continues his (often hilarious) dialogues with the dead Wren and finds solace in the natural world but ‘Tithe’ indicates through its page lay-out, its vast white spaces, that Wren vanishes eventually, Jackself moves on.

Hard to end such a book and I confess I didn’t find the ballad-like ‘Jack O’Bedlam’ very satisfying, but perhaps I’m falling foul of the novel reader’s desire for narrative closure (though I thought we’d all grown out of that). This is in contrast to the opening poem of the book, ‘The House that Jack Built’, which I found powerful in its own right as a historical survey of the region in which Jackself’s brief story takes place. Polley writes of the trees being felled and used, re-growing through history, interactions with burgeoning human society, the Industrial Revolution, canal building, eventually to the construction of Lamanby itself. Critics will want to debate its relevance to the sequence of personal biography that follows it and concludes with no explicit ‘picking up’ of the opening poem’s themes. It is a problem; but the depth of history this opening poem implies, its focus on the natural world, its foregrounding of (for want of a better word) folk culture surely gains Polley permission for the way in which he tells Jackself’s tale, for it as a poem. Like Jones’ use of mythic, folkloric and Shakespearean materials in In Parenthesis, Polley raises the small-scale biographical to a type without losing anything of the minute particulars which enable its readers to read Jack as themselves.

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 #2: Nancy Campbell

This is the second 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)
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 Enitharmon Press for providing a copy of Nancy Campbell’s book for review purposes.

The concluding poem of Nancy Campbell’s collection Disko Bay is, I think, a good place to begin. In ‘Giving Up on Capitalism’, an unnamed boy makes kayaks and sells them for one, then two kroner (these poems are mostly set in Greenland). He hands his earnings to his mother who buys basics like coffee, sugar, needles, cotton and, more ominously, whisky. If this is the nirvana of capitalist enterprise it hardly gets beyond subsistence level and then only to poisonous effect. On the third occasion he instead decides to construct a kayak for himself: taking the few remaining skins, he “pegged them down deftly / and paddled away”. The point of rejection is simply made, but the simplicity has a mythic, typological impact. The poem’s form is simple, repetitive, like a piece of folklore, an oral transmission perhaps, and – characteristic of the whole collection – the vocabulary is plain to such a degree that the reader is impressed by a paucity or poverty or essentialism (depending on how successful you think it is). Certainly this is a book unlike any other you’ll read this year, drawing on myths and landscapes of the far north (the opening section of the book has poem titles in Greenlandic first, then English). Its impact is often impersonal but Campbell’s knowledge derives from her several residencies in the region and she deploys it in a skilful and poetically knowing fashion.

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Above all, these poems convey the harshness of scraping a human existence in the Arctic Circle, perhaps most obviously in the section called ‘Ruin Island’. An epigraph quotes the Eskimo, Osarqaq: “Our tales are narratives of human experience, and therefore do not always tell of beautiful things”. Several poems follow the exploits of Qujaavaarssuk, a heroic figure and general strong man, who is reduced to singing a dirge at the troubled fishing grounds and is advised by “a man who is not his father” (a break in traditional forms of transmission here?) that the one thing to be relied upon is that “hunger will come of its own accord”. ‘Hospitality’ in such circumstances may consist of feeding guests “the kidneys of a black seal / as the ice harden[s]”. Qujaavaarssuk’s immediate difficulty is the presence of too much ice (a deliberately ironic comment on the shrinking ice caps of our day): he sees the shadows of seals moving beneath it and sets out “to the ice edge to follow them” but what Campbell is interested in (these are contemporary poems, not slavish myth-reproductions) is the failure of the hunter. In ‘Danger of Snow Blindness’, Qujaavaarssuk returns for the first time “his sled empty, his kamiks [boots] clean”. ‘The Last Seal’ opens:

There was nothing left to feed the dogs.

Qujaavaarssuk shot them, one by one

and fed them to each other.

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To the contemporary reader, what lies largely unspoken beneath these chilly, often curt, unsentimental chips off a mythic block is, of course, our own awareness the adverse effects of climate change. ‘Ruin Island’ becomes apocalyptic in tone so that the words spoken by a hunter that conclude the sequence, words spoken by Jorsias Ammonsen in a real interview conducted in 2006, are presented as the reply of a hunter “who can no longer hear the question”. In this way, Campbell tragically ironises Ammonsen’s proud, nostalgic, heroic, perhaps hopeless comments:

When we were young

no place seemed too far away for hunting.

 

We travelled a long way,

too far to come back the same day.

We slept in stone caves

and were cold in winter.

 

Nothing is too harsh

when you are accustomed to it.

Nancy Campbell 2012

Campbell tries to remain true to the plain directness and dignity of such a voice in most of these poems. The figure of the poet seldom intrudes. When it does she is trying to learn the “soft uvulars” of a new language which seem like “dark flocks of sound I’ll never net, or say”. Difficulties of expression in one language are compounded by problems of communicating across distance to her own homeland: “Since I can’t post a letter this far north, / I’m sending you an Arctic snowstorm”. ‘The Night Hunter’ is typical in its use of a simple lexis – snow, door, harbour, boat, blood, sled, knife – and a repeating form of verse as if the polar climate has sheared away more baroque elaborations of language and form. At first this feels cramping, but as Campbell persists and insists this really is what she intends, the simplicity seems more likely to put us in touch with the elements, the elemental, the bottom line of harsh Arctic existence.

With figures like the hunter Qujaavaarssuk so prominent you might anticipate a macho sort of world but the harsh conditions seem to teach an underlying humility (even to men) and Campbell has a number of female narrators who are clearly no push over. In ‘The Seal People’ a seal hunter’s wife watches the vindictive spirits of killed seals approach by boat and though threatened by them her voice does not falter through three steady quatrains, the verse’s repetitions here expressive of her firm courage. ‘The Hunter’s Wife Becomes the Sun’ is a major poem (its form is a sestina with its obsessive recurrences). Here, a hunter’s wife gives him a tinny Christian memento for protection. The hunter is more concerned with the reality of death and an apocalyptic sense of the world’s end (Campbell’s chosen rhyme words are tin, angel, window, box, candle, darkness). But his wife insists on the need for “light”, transforming herself into a “vast white wake / of stars” which might be considered angels, though the man himself finds it hard to shrug off his pessimism: “At the world’s last window, I light another candle”. The shamanic implications of their exchange are more explicitly played out in three translations of crude Greenlandic Qavak songs, originally collected in the 1950s. They are spoken by a “terrible mother” a “female shaman” and an omniscient “wicked woman”, the latter advising the only way to tackle an enemy is to bite off and employ her clitoris as an arrowhead. Neither the blunt obscenity or implied moral judgement can hide the suggestion that this remote culture clearly understands the importance of the female in ultimate survival.

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One of the impressive things about Disko Bay is that it is eco-poetry without shed loads of landscape description. Those vindictive seal spirits carry a powerful ecological message in their “round, black eyes” – less for the Greenland hunter and his wife (whose place and role within a traditional, sustainable Arctic ecosystem is be unlikely to unbalance things) but to us with our petrol engines, plastics and carbon complacencies. Another success of the book is its use of myths redolent of Nordic and North American materials without distracting echoes of Ted Hughes’ trickster figure Crow. In ‘Fragment’ a severed raven’s wing in the snow is enough to imply the global problem: “Never to breed, never to scavenge / on scarlet seal hearts by the ice edge”. It is brave of Campbell to delay the more eco-explicit poems to later sections of the book. Part three sets off from the premonition that “the future is full of riddles” and ‘Conversations’ conveys both the mystery and the certainty of climate change: “I don’t think it is one thing / I think it is a combination of things / a combination of everything”. The riddle-subjects appropriately include a tsunami and an iceberg but not the dirty complexities of the ever-hungry, seldom-satisfying capitalism rejected by the boy who constructs a kayak not to be sold but for his own setting out in this fine, unusual book’s concluding poem.

Read more on Nancy Campbell – in discussion with Forward Arts Foundation.

 

Reading Archive: April – June 2016

Up-dated June 2016

This is turning out to be the place where I often admit my lacks and ignorance. Elizabeth Bishop – apart from 3 or 4 of the obvious poems – has always been something of a blank spot with me. I have been re-reading her Complete Poems and understanding maybe my problem lies in getting to like her earlier work before A Cold Spring (1955). What I do begin to appreciate more clearly is her modesty, accuracy of observation and own-furrow-ploughing determination as a poet.

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Anne Stevenson’s Five Looks at Elizabeth Bishop has been helpful with thoughts such as “Bishop’s instinct was to look hard enough at nature to lose herself in it – and thus, as in the Biblical paradox, find herself”.

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As has Seamus Heaney’s ‘Counting to a Hundred: on Elizabeth Bishop’ (from The Redress of Poetry). He argues, at her best, she reveals how “obsessive attention to detail can come through into visionary understanding  [. . .] intense focus can amplify rather than narrow our sense of scope” (something I have written about in recent thoughts on McGilchrist’s ideas about right/left brain work).

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I’ve also been reading two collections by friends . . .

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Lynne Hjelmgaard’s A Boat Called Annalise (Seren) is a sequence of love poems to a husband and a sailing boat and vies with Bishop in some of its evocations of tropical harbours: “We fell asleep with the roosters, / the waves, rumblings in the bay”. For a land-lubber like me, there are powerful portraits of life at sea such as ‘That Feeling of Boat’: “We confide and trust in twenty tons, / talk to it, nurture it”. ‘White Clover’ is a delicately symbolic poem dedicated to the late, much-missed Dannie Abse.

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Danielle Hope’s Mrs Uomo’s Yearbook (Rockingham), which I mentioned in an earlier blog, again shows how effective the Mrs Uomo character is (a near relation of Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr Cogito) as a vehicle for social commentary which is quirky, engagingly funny and incisive, particularly about the NHS for which Hope works as a doctor.

Up-dated May 2016

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Last month it was heavy-Hughes (as you’ll see from my April up-date below) so half following that lead and half influenced by the 400th anniversary celebrations across the media, I have been swimming my way through Hughes’ A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse. First published in 1971 and up-dated in 1991, Hughes is right in suggesting it’s been hard to “place” the bard amongst the “poets in English”. It’s not just because he wrote mostly drama (if mostly in verse) but also that critics retreat before his work feebly flapping and gesturing towards a special case. So Hughes’ “looting [of] portable chunks” from the plays serves largely to confirm two things: his plays consist often of the most astounding poetry and that – yes – special case status is hard to withhold.  But Hughes is onto something suggesting that Shakespare’s Catholicism in a world of Puritan jihad (Hughes’ word) has much to do with it. An astonishing read – whatever the rights and wrongs of the case.

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Gill McEvoy’s HappenStance chapbook, The First Telling, is terrific. Told with exquisite poise, it recounts the after-shocks of a rape, the adjustments, the progressive self-forgiveness, the therapy sessions. You need to know the sequence is punctuated by poems about birds – this is not a plain sort of confessionalism, but rather work of great artistry, to be recommended for its use of the blank spaces on the page as much as for its exploration of traumatic experiences.

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McEvoy’s book was noticed (winning the 2014 Michael Marks award); Simon Richey published Naming the Tree (Oversteps Books) in the same year and I’d not heard of it till I heard him read at Poetry in Palmers Green. Richey writes about abstract matters – language, time, consciousness – and material events with a wonderful precision and approaching a philosophical elegance. Something of the impersonality of TS Eliot is matched with personal attentiveness to detail – highly recommended.

Up-dated April 2016

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It’s been a heavy-weight Ted Hughes month since I’ve been reading Jonathan Bates’ biography over several weeks and then supplementing it with the poems themselves. The Bate is far more comprehensive than Elaine Feinstein’s earlier biography and if nothing else shows how much material Hughes left behind (100,000 pages of unpublished drafts) so the academic exploration of it will clearly take many years. On the poetry itself Bate gets a bit irritating in relating  just everything back to Plath –  even the late work apparently shows unmistakable evidence of his continuing obsession with her!

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Crow remains extraordinary though it makes more sense to see it as Bate suggests as the unfinished epic that Hughes had hoped to complete. There was to be a phase of restoration but Hughes never managed that – perhaps because this was too close to the two suicides of Plath and Assia Weevil.

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I’d missed Remains of Elmet when it was originally published. With Bate’s help and Hughes’ own Note from 1993, it’s clear now that this is a very coherent and powerful portrait of the region of his childhood.

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I loved Gaudete when it first appeared in 1977 as I was in the first flush of my Hughes period! Most commentators (including Hughes it seems) now consider the ‘filmic’ loosely-constructed narrative poems as not quite the real thing. It’s the strange, tough little songs of Nicholas Lumb that conclude the book that pay more dividends.

What Have I Been Reading: January – March 2016

Up-dated March 2016

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Tony Hoagland’s new collection from Bloodaxe introduces me to a poet I want to read more of (having missed him so far). Laugh-out-loud funny in the same breath as touching while being satirical and vividly descriptive of urban USA. Like Billy Collins, you relish the poem – then wonder how he managed to achieve it so apparently effortlessly.

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I read with Tracey Herd recently at the StAnza Festival (see this post) and was impressed with the emotional honesty of her writing. This is her first book in almost 15 years and was short-listed for the Forward as well as being a PBS Choice.

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In reviewing Choman Hardi’s recent Considering the Women for Poetry London, I also went back to re-read her first book, Life for Us (both published by Bloodaxe). Her 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.

Up-dated January/February 2016

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Macfarlane’s take on the significance of the loss of rural vocabulary and the danger that we will narrow our human experience as a result makes for powerful reading. Actually I found the word lists a bit dull (which I’m sure I shouldn’t as a poet) but perhaps most important of all he directs readers to previously little known writers about landscape like Nan Shepherd, J A Baker and Peter Davidson.

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Popa’s unpunctuated, economical, elusive poems, many of them drawing on Serbo-Croat myth and legends, can be hard going. There is little sentiment or surface detail to hold on to. But reading them you hear where Ted Hughes found the idioms of Crow. Poems like little hard pebbles giving lessons  to the more windy and verbose among us (I include myself of course).

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Addonizio can be verbose but what she evokes is a speaking voice, a chatting voice, driven on to revelation after revelation as if across a bar table littered with empties. She is a voice in your ear with all that implies about thrilling intimacy though on occasions I felt ‘give me a break’.

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Stephen Payne’s poems emerge partly from his job as a Professor of Human-Centric Systems. He observes what people do and he wants to discuss it. He’s looking for the patterns which present themselves ‘beyond chance’. If that sounds a bit cool there is something of that here but the book overall is delicate, always thoughtful and often very moving.