These reviews take the form of recommendations - a selection of the books I favour that come my way. The rest I leave and am happy to return to sender if they include SAE.
Martin Malone's powerful meditation on the century in the aftermath of World War One.
The Fragile Bridge
An overdue selection of poems by the much-respected Merryn Williams.
The Unknown Civilian
Antony Owen takes an acute eye to different perspectives of war and its repercussions.
Anthologies from Ireland and Shetland: 'The Children of the Nation' and 'Almarks'.
C D Boyland's debut pamphlet from Scottish publisher Stewed Rhubarb.
Stories from the underworld
User Stories by C D Boyland, Stewed Rhubard, £5.99, ISBN: 9781910416136
You know you're in the company of a naturally musical poet when you can hear the lines tumbling about your inner ear - no hiccups of cadence or straining of form. Chris Boyland grabs my attention from the outset with his debut pamphlet, 'User Stories', for being so attuned to the sonic values of poetry. His pairing of short lines and phrasing keeps the eye moving and paces the reading of the poems to concentrate meaning and impact. There's nothing slack here, though there's an appealing lightness of touch.
Which wouldn't serve much purpose, of course, unless he had something to say to excite our notice. In this, he's a smart observer who buttonholes the reader with his opening lines to interrogate submerged perspectives of culture, mythology, religion, music. You'd be hard pushed to find a snappier description of cultural colonisation than the first stanza of 'The Owner':
"We were evicted
from our language,
the home we were
born into, the words
that grew in our
User Stories fans out to explore this sense of detachment and alienation. In societies where we are all now classified as consumers, or users - of politics, sex, relationships, technology and the arts as if we were filling up groceries - the very language by which we interpet our lives becomes commodified, or coded speak for attitudes and group affiliations. It's something he teases out in several poems. There's the depersonalised dystopia of the everyday, with the digitised listing of saturation surveillance in 'The Copies', a snapshot of a world in which individal privacy is not only dead but is the playground of anyone on a distant computer screen with the inclination to spy on us. Our personal worlds are no more private than a letter posted in a transparent envelope.
Elsewhere, in 'The Film', the reader is invited to
"look down at the
costume you are
"wonder who it was
that wrote this
And in 'The Settlement'
"I stole some of your words - 'pride'
'dignity', 'self-respect' . . ."
"& I found some of our old words, ones
I've not seen or used for ages - ones
I'd forgotten we had - 'peace', 'hope'
'quiet', 'happy'. They had been put in a
box, left to gather dust."
These are smart insights delivered with uncluttered fluency. Boyland can be oblique, but resists the temptation to load the language with unnecessary or distracting complexities. He's good on that underrated value, accessibility, whilst also eschewing the obvious. It's impressive to encounter the redeployment of mythology, allegory and fairytale in contemporary settings without feeling as if you're drifting into the realm of the obscure or academic.
There's the celebratory in 'The Fiddle', which plays with the hyper-reality of fairytale:
"in your breast a nightingale nested
an orison with hollow bones"
And there's the sinister in 'The Puppet', which cleverly inverts the rationale of the Pinnochio tale so that the demands of the increasingly humanised puppet are a source or contempt and irritation, rather than delight:
"Before, it was pleased to
have nothing; now nothing
pleases it. It wants things
to be clothed, fed, schooled
Best of all, there's 'The Sirens' which, again, subverts and updates the common interpretation of mythology:
"of course, we are not the heroes of this
tale, heroes need swords, blood, war &
death to make a world, we only need song"
At twenty-two poems, User Stories feels substantial, though that also owes much to the thematic progression of the poems and the concentrated exploration of their ideas. I'm left intrigued to read and hear more.
Next: How to Wear a Skin by Louisa Adjoa Parker
Islands in the thick of it
The Children of the Nation - An Anthology of Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland, edited by Jenny Farrell; Almarks – An Anthology of Radical Poetry from Shetland, edited by Jim Mainland and Mark Ryan Smith (both Culture Matters, www.culturematters.org.uk)
It takes some chutzpah – or hot-headedness – to announce yourself as a radical publisher. It’s almost an invitation to be shot down for not being radical enough, indulging postures, or for taking licence with the ambivalence of the word’s meaning. Bravo to Culture Matters, then, for embracing the cause. The publisher, based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, wears its radicalism on its sleeve, producing of late a series of anthologies that extol what most publishers too often neglect – politicised poetry at the crux of cultural responses to the world. The best to date that have come my way are Children of the Nation, with poetry from every back alley and hedge of the island of Ireland; a book as well that anticipated the incendiary outcome of the Republic’s general election – let alone the impending centenary of the ‘Free State’ treaty with Britain that forfeited the North. The title itself is a barbed riposte to an Irish body politic that betrayed at its inception the socialist vision of its founders, and children and women the most grievously. In her introduction, editor Jenny Farrell quotes the 1916 Easter Proclamation from which the book takes its title: “The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally.” She continues: “This oath, we feel, has not been fulfilled. The poems contained in the volume bear witness to this.”
Not fulfilled is some understatement. Bearing witness is what gives this book its bite; an,d for my twopenny’s-worth, it could be taken as an Irish guide to the kind of priest-afflicted, abusive and corrupt state/country you don’t want to inhabit (not that there are any shortage of candidates for that prize) – and the kind of state that could be created as its opposite, its alternative. With a contents list of more than 65 poets, there’s plenty of scope for topicality and historical excavation. Farrell notes: “We tried to reach out to as many poets in Ireland as possible by using word of mouth, trade union and poetry networks. The contributors collected here represent the span of generations, women and men, North and South of the island, writing in Irish and English, from rural and urban backgrounds.”
They tell of an Ireland far removed from the blandishments of national sentiment and self-mythologising. It’s a country, from village to city, mired in extremes of inequality, suffocating orthodoxies and misogyny, and held hostage by financial empire builders; a country that sickens and spits out its people. As Gary Allen tells it in ‘Fifth Avenue’:
“My father is lost, though he doesn’t have the sense of it
rooted to the spot in the subway on Fifth Avenue
listening to a half-wit badly singing Danny Boy
he is stinking of flea-pits and fortified wine
this is the smell of the corpses decomposing
on the escalators taking them up to Fifth Avenue
to the piled slush and the burst water hydrants”
Some poets here are familiar, but many too are not (to me, at least), which is a compliment to the democratic range of this book, and might explain its unusual vitality: the poetry is unencumbered by that self-conscious smart-arsery that clogs up many academised or formulaic collections; the poems are often whip-smart, and thankfully eschew the agit-prop tendency to shout or sermonise, concentrating instead on unpicking harsh domestic realities and the dynamics of sexual power. The understatement packs a punch, as in Rachael Hegarty’s ‘The Witch Sniffer’:
“The welfare man’s a sleveen of a witch sniffer. I must smell
right if I’ve any chance of getting through the inquisition
for a School Clothing, Footwear and Book Allowance.
You’re not going up to that place smelling of petunia oils
and looking like Janis Joplin off out to the gig at Woodstock.
Ma smears lemon rind and juice on me wrists and sprinkles
drops of vanilla essence all over me second-best dress and jacket.”
I find it hard to pluck out highlights, as they come thick and fast and it’s a book that rewards return reading. In a cultural world in which so many middle-class poets affect working-class credentials, this has the smack of authenticity. It may not be definitive (it doesn’t claim to be), but if you’re looking for a guide to poetry as protest, political critique and agent provocateur in contemporary Ireland, The Children of the Nation is a darned good reference point
Similar could be said of Almarks, a gem of a book that deserves to excite attention – not least in Scotland – for exploring unfamiliar territory, and doing so with such aplomb. Shetland might not be everyone’s idea of fertile ground for radical poetry, but on this evidence that assumption could do with revision. The editors and poets do good service here in locating Shetlandic poetry in its own linguistic values whilst cross-fertilising with the wider world. In an assured introduction, Jim Mainland sets the tone by throwing off straitjacketed assumptions of what ‘radical’ means, asserting the place of poetry at the vanguard of cultural responses to a continuum of political concerns, from the Iraq War, the Bedroom Tax to Universal Credit. The editor deserves praise for dissecting the role of art in attempting to influence change or speak beyond the parameters of its most obvious, or usual, audiences. It’s a debate that, perhaps because of its immensity, its elusiveness or the insularity of many poets - too often gets dodged. As with Children of the Nation, there are a few familiar names: the Shetland makar Christine de Luca, Sheenagh Pugh and Christie Williamson, for instance – all strong and welcome voices. But again it’s their combination with lesser-known poets (to me) that gives the book its intrigue and urgency. These are poets who pluck insights from across the globe and pin them to their own experience – ‘Tongue’, for instance, by Beth Fullerton, which was inspired by a poem read in Ottawa’s Museum of Nations:
‘You tried ta tak my midder tongue
bit show is always dere
whan I wan hom
fae Bells Brae Skul.’
Siun Carden describes the grinding actualities of work, with ‘Return’, a poem that’s sure to resonate with many people beyond its particulars:
‘After summer’s long, smeared day
it’s back to headlights, hi-vis,
glitter-drip from shore,
more radio reminder, float to live.’
Those three words, ‘float to live’ capture concisely the chilling ordinariness of what is required of many people just to make a living. The poem strips away the distance between worker from Shetland and everywhere else. The experience is both individualised and common. This is a book that amplifies that, and more than earns its audience from islands to mainland. Poetry could do with more of this kind of radicalism.
Bridge in time
The Fragile Bridge by Merryn Williams, Shoesstring Press, £12. ISBN: 9781912524259.
At the time of writing, Merryn Williams is steering a poets’ project in response to the coronavirus crisis. It’s indicative of a writer for whom poetry is vital to the collective life of society, a poet for whom our personal and public domains are so often inextricable. It will also come as little surprise to anyone with passing acquaintance with her work. Williams is what you might call a compulsive poet, (perhaps the only kind worth bothering about) – someone for whom the act of attempting to interpret the world through poetry is hard-wired into their sensibilities; and restlessly pursued.
In ‘The Fragile Bridge’, her New and Selected Poems, that imperative directs her gaze over a stretch of time and experience – from child, mother to social observer – that is impessively expansive. Times changed, and still in flux, are chronicled here. Given the current crisis, this volume’s opening poem, Elegy for My Teachers, feels particularly timely: a tribute to the stoicism of her childhood teachers. The retrospective glimpse of an austere wartime/post-war Britain has a sparse ambience to it:
“Some of them were frightening – remember?
yet the Latin and the numbers stayed.
Other ghosts dissolve in glittering air.
Hastings had its quota of old maids.
“It had been the war, of course. Those women,
grey-faced, labouring over blackboards – can I
wonder if they sometimes snubbed us giggling
girls, we who knew nothing? I salute them.”
It’s hard not to admire the rigour and diligence of Williams’ craft. Phrasing is clean, adjectives are rare guests, there are no showy flourishes of poetics to obscure the point of what she is saying: the book’s a delight of taut lines, uncluttered language, and intellect. In several instances, her ability to turn a clarifying lens on everyday scenes and scenery reminds me of McCaig. It can be alerting. In Night Shift, for instance:
“He had seen at London zoo
a pavilion, where the cages
were plunged into artificial darkness,
watched them scurry back and forwards
through violent layers of black and white,
animals that feed by night.”
And it can be disquieting: the emotional thrust of ‘The Birthday of My Son’ owes much to its heightened conversational delivery, and the jarring mid-stanza of imagery:
“When the minute hand moves on,
when it passes midnight,
it’s the birthday of my son.
At this actual moment
in the brief midsummer night
he was dragged with forceps
into artificial light,
grey and almost dead.
I heard a feeble cry as they
got busy round his head.”
You have to respect a poet who can be so revelatory while bending technique and form to the intensity of experience. Art prevails – angst doesn’t get a look-in. She is similarly adept at describing life-or-death mundanity, as in ‘Overheard in the Cancer Ward’
“Lie back and look at the grey sky through the windows.
It’s done. I told you it was for the best.”
“You were so pretty when I first saw you;
when you look in the hands mirror now, remember this.
Well, got to go. Keep the ring. I’ll tell Jamie
you’re fine. That you send him a big kiss.”
Elsewhere, Williams’ political-historical reflections are informed and sceptical. It’s hard to escape the sense of lost promise that cast its pall over much of the latter part of the last century. ‘In Memory of Lyubov Popova and Olga Rozanova’ digs into the well-springs of the Soviet Union, individuating catastrophe through the death of two art-propagandists:
“It’s history, how they left behind
these bold and brilliant designs
on canvas or on fraying cloth;
talents hugely squandered, both
dead in their early thirties, one
of scarlet fever from her son,
the other in an aerodrome
turned exhibition, where she’d gone,
weak from diphtheria, to paste
posters up to celebrate
the transformation of the State –
the Revolution, one year on.”
That’s a rare overt excursion into politics for this book. For a poet of such obvious political involvement, (it was Williams, after all, who edited the anthology ‘Poems for Jeremy Corbyn’), this might be surprising. But there’s no sense here of territory overlooked, and a ‘Selected’ must necessarily represent a broad body of work. Her grasp of the weight of history is much in evidence. Her devotion to the memory and art of Wilfred Owen is explored with tender descriptiveness in ‘Wilfred’s Bridge’. Williams too is a poet of uncommon variation. ‘The Art Thief’ plays with a recurring sense of the fantastical:
“In my dreams, the theft always ends quite happily.”
And there’s no lack of wit, not least in curved missives on sex and power dynamics:
“No Katherine, you are not right for him, stewing
in your consumption. He will be
a great man, and you are far off, sourly-smelling
of disinfectant. What he needs is me.”
The “great man” resurfaces in ‘At the Literary Festival’:
“Your books are stacked with his; your photo grins from
the stands; perhaps one day you’ll mount his throne.”
Williams’ observational gifts permeate this volume, whether she’s unpicking incidents, character, or unravelling her own responses to them. We’re lucky to have her, firing away, rallying poets to capture the times as well as she has done.
Back from the unknown
The Unknown Civilian, Antony Owen
(Knives Forks and Spoons, £18. ISBN: 9781912211494)
War is always confronted from the unlikely or unexpected angle in Antony Owen’s
The Unknown Civilian. It would be easy to suggest this is a timely book – as extreme state violence, most devastatingly, is never confined to memory – but it’s Owen’s knack for turning up camera angles that might otherwise get obscured in the deluge of sorrow and outrage that gives it particular impact. In doing so, he invigorates our perspectives on this overworked yet tragically inexhaustible territory. Most poets at some time have attempted an observational comment on mass conflict, local or universal, and for all their best intentions have managed to add little to our general appreciation. Owen’s achievement is in jolting us. Snapshots from history, such as ‘A Black Nurse Tends to Wounds’, pinpoint the casual racist assumptions that belie so much of Britain’s interpretations of its past (and children’s education of it). It’s a poem of intimate descriptiveness that fills out airbrushed complexities of history, as she recounts in diary-like style:
“Today I was watching a crow steal lint and viscera from a man
last week he placed a name in my ear, so heavy it felt”;
“Last week the colours ran from war, Ceylon to Coventry, black to white”.
This book, in seven parts, is hefty stuff, and I was intrigued to see what a poet whose last collection, The Nagasaki Elder, was shortlisted for the 2017 Ted Hughes Award, would come up with next. No worries that the voltage of his anger might abate, or that he might be tempted to ease into comfortable career mode. This is a risky volume because of the scale of its ambition to traverse killing zones from the Western Front to the Falklands, Srebrenica to Yemen, to wring out the parallels between them, and also in its urgency to ring alarms where it finds normalities of political indolence. In ‘Yemen Tower’, he collapses the hierarchy on commonly held perceptions of the worth of human life:
“If we were in Grenfell would you see us?”
In The Munitionettes FC, he displays that talent for the sharp memorable line that has become a calling card of his poems:
“To this day those allotments you see were most likely dug by women.
In Passchendaele they pull marrows out of the ground with bones wrapped in root.
In Wembley the English women’s football team are behind, but they have already won.”
It’s a standard approach of poetry to re-imagine or revisit the familiar, and in other hands it might appear contrived or overworked. But Owen’s invitation to us to wonder at what lies beneath is compelling. His vision of what you might find is simultaneously bleak and redemptive. For all these poems perform the service of unblinking critique – not least of empire, militarism, and how they have been inculcated into public thinking and emotion – they surge with humanity. So it is in ‘Love Letter from a Kamikaze Pilot’ that he rehumanises a two-dimensional ‘enemy’ with nuance and self-reflection:
“Some flames pulse like your chest against mine.
I have dishonoured the wind with my blade.
Cut down men like pale sighing corn.”
In ‘The Surprise Welcome Home Party’, he plucks at the domestic, and how traumas of young men dispatched to advance Britain’s military adventurism find their ultimate repository in the ordinariness of family living rooms:
“At the surprise welcome home party of the son and fusilier
do not think salmon with cucumber fins will save him.
Do not let his sister’s cocksure boyfriend call him mate.
Do not exchange conversation with him when he is drunk.”
It would be tricky to single out highlights in a book that never slackens its grip on your nerves, but as a poet I’m never less than envious when I hit on lines that capture both the mundane and the absurd. ‘Belfast on Weather Reports’ seizes on how impressions of Ireland are reduced in England to thematic simplicities:
“I was eight years old when I first truly saw Ireland.
Michael Fish stuck sunshine over Belfast and it fell off.”
“I was eight years old when I first felt England invade me.
Bobby Sands bled from a mural on a once ordinary house.
Men who never went to Ireland clinked tankards in glee.”
The Unknown Civilian is one of those books that reminds you of what the distilled intensity of poetry can achieve when tackling the great themes and preoccupations of our times – or any times – and they don’t come bigger than war. You wonder what impact it might have if it could find a readership on the scale of its expression.
* Poets and publishers, please email email@example.com in the first instance with suggestions for reviews. I'm aiming for monthly reviews of favoured books only with parity between male and female poets.
Goodbye to all that
The Unreturning by Martin Malone (Shoestring Press, £10. ISBN: 978191224201)
Most poets appear to have gone AWOL during the centenary of the 1914-18 war. Few seemed keen to confront the hallucinogenics of official memorialising. Two exceptions stand out for me as we reach the end of this prolonged historical revisitation, (the war, after all, only formally ended in 1919): Martin Malone for The Unreturning and Antony Owen for The Unknown Civilian (which will reviewed here in January). It’s notable that both titles begin with that ‘Un’ stress, as these are resolutely anti-heroic volumes, intent on re-investing a discomforting edge to settled perceptions of what happened, why, how, to whom and by whom. That takes some doing in a literary tranche that’s dense with poetry from the frontline. You could be forgiven for wondering what more instructively could be said; what do poets have to say that hasn’t already been said with visceral brilliance?
Yet, as every conflict from The Falklands to Iraq reminds us, poetry’s task is far from done: it must respond contemporaneously even as it teases out the threads of the past. That purpose gained extra urgency in 2014. No sooner had the centenary commemorations began than former news inquisitor turned reactionary sermoniser, Jeremy Paxman, was delivering a revisionist view of the Great War for the BBC – complete with sneering asides at the Glasgow rent strikers. As if to synchronise the message, the then UK Education Secretary, Michael Gove, was taking smug potshots at cultural influencers that ranged from Wilfred Owen’s poetry to the heart-rending final scenes of Blackadder Goes Forth. The moral rearmament of militarism continues. It’s a treatment that is excoriated in Malone’s poem ‘Dear Revisionist’ :
"Thank you for your neoconcern
that we grasp the full facts
of this complicated matter;
for sending out, once again,
the officer class to explain
the subtle difference between
Blackadder and the nation's history"
It's a caustic volley of a poem that reminds us that Britain's wars are fought first on battlefields of class. That collision course underpins Ghosts of The Vortex, the first two sections of The Unreturning. In Trench Requisites, Malone tackles its delusional perversity with a sardonic reflection on how upmarket London department stores offered well-heeled officers select essentials for the Front:
"Yes, how we hate you, you cheerful young men
with your tinned kippers and today's Daily Mail;
the periscope from Harrods, the warm new boots;"
The detail does the telling: how the consumer-normalities of Britain's power elite are repackaged to promote savage adventurism; how even the smallest things are recruited to the task. It's an impressive attentiveness that tells of a poet who never shies from the hard hours of research; and always arrive with a flick of attitude that is unmistakable. Anyone who has heard him read will be aware of the effect - immediacy that draws you in to explore further. In Nostos, time itself is in flux. The title plays on Greek mythology's term for a soldier's homecoming from war, but there's no heroic fanfare here, only bewildering mundanity. The poem's pastoral quality emphasises the collision between extreme violence and death, no more than a few journeys behind, and a present in which quietness and normality pervade an untroubled landscape:
"To each hamlet a homecoming
and the ghost story it brings.
This, a slow train hauling back
the nightmare of Verdun
on his still muddy boots"
Malone is wily enough to know that shouting at your audience usually alienates, no matter the starkness or violence of the subject or theme - and it's his knack to surprise in use of form and delivery that gives his approach its voltage. In Ripon Work he repaints an interlude in Wilfred Owen's short life, when he took refuge in the Yorkshire town to recuperate from shellshock before returning to the front. It's the reader's 'dramatic irony' - our historical knowledge of the person and timing - that lends the poem its emotional clout as the poem unwinds like a pastoral excursion:
"Spring is pushing back through the hedgerow
with lesser celandines
and along the banks of the Skell,
a kingfisher's lyddite triggers
that ghost of a twitch"
In Part II of this book, he extends the subversion. It would've been easy to milk an effective settled format, but instead he shifts pace and structure, opting for the risky experimentation of short prose-poems. I'm generally hard to persuade about the merits of prose-poems as form, but there's a taut distinctiveness to this language, a heightened voice, that gives these poems immediacy and weight. Malone also makes virtue of what could be a disorientating twist: infiltrating past and present into the same lines. The effect is arresting. In War Poet: "Beneath this creeping barrage sits our chap, in his breast pocket the scribbled draft that sets off a vintage look: hapless subaltern, sick with sin, chewing pencil and pity onto notepaper doomed to be found on a mud-matted corpse". In Duck Face, a periscope glimpse over the trench is recast as this: "An inch either way with that selfie-stick and he'd have gotten his wish. Instead, the disfigured ghost hauled off the Salient gets a trip to Sidcup".
This is vital poetry in the battle for memory that has taken over where the last century's war poets left off. It's fit for the gravity and immensity of its subject. And hell - that is no small feat!
* Poets and publishers, please email firstname.lastname@example.org in the first instance with suggestions for reviews. I'm aiming for monthly reviews of favoured books only with parity between male and female poets.