Statement of Prejudice: None. “Leaf Graffiti” doesn’t strike me as a brilliant title, mind. A first collection.
Reality: Leaf Graffiti opens with a long, free verse series of connected pieces called “Variations on an urban monotone”, the prospect of which immediately gave me the howlers, but happily it takes a good two-thirds of its forty-odd sections before it starts to drag, which is no mean feat. The poem comprises 17-line sections, each concerning a image or theme from the previous section, in which LB does impressive work corralling the unpunctuated and often unsyntactic thoughts, and sounding pretty good doing it; this being a good (and rare) example of a discernible rhythmic pattern surviving free-verse formatting and of some slightly ostentatious page layout working in concert with the content. Otherwise, some of LB’s extended ruminations on summer afternoons and public transport are delicately painted, and show care and neat attention to detail that make the more clichéd passages worthwhile (see ‘vulpine ticks of thought’ or ‘girning drizzle skull clouds’ as examples of LB’s facility with the odd but logical turn of phrase).
The downside, however, is that the attractive statement of the poem is mostly surface level, and the few occasions on which LB approaches the topical (a political conference, tenement housing, her bank statement), the work noticeably flounders. There is little editorial statement, save for some rote decrying of ‘politicians’, while the ‘urban’ strain of the monotone is largely decorative, and slightly more troublesomely, there’s little emotional engagement with all its passing scenery.
As the book progresses, there’s scant deviation from the tone of the opening section: LB persists in a free-associating series of thoughts and visual descriptions, and very few poems carry a discernible thesis. Some of the individual pieces are pretty enough, particularly when the action switches to the natural world, but few bear re-reading, and the cutesiness (eg in “Pond life”: ‘On the mantelpiece a horse is asking me for words / but I keep on only making sounds of horses – / read this book I say. James Joyce, it’s good for you.’) grates. If you read the review of Emily Berry previously on this site, it’s a noticeably similar scenario. Few poems stand out, there is little for the reader to grab onto emotionally, there’s a creeping sense that we are not being addressed but rather overhearing a mind talking to itself.
As an aside – I’m finding it difficult to come up with fresh talking points regarding Leaf Graffiti – there is of course a rich tradition of the overheard conversation/monologue in poetry, it’s one of the form’s fundamental modes of address. But the importance of the fact that an audience is looking over your shoulder as you write your love letter/reverie/etc cannot be overestimated. With all the good will in the world the poet must work especially hard to cover the piece’s emotional heavy lifting, particularly intense in the particularly active medium of poetry (as opposed, say, to the relatively passive video games or television). That’s the assumed contract. You get your name on a slim volume and, provided I fully engage with what you’ve given me, my understanding of life is enriched, I am better equipped for its endurance. If that seems a bum deal consider an alternative: you get your name on a slim volume and I waste a few hours of my day listening to you describe sunsets and your noticeably sniffy distaste for the underclass. Being a poet is not glamorous, or at least it shouldn’t be. As a message to all poets, and as a decent touchstone to anyone consistently reading these reviews: remember: it’s not about you.
Tl;dr: back to the text at hand, if you don’t like haiku-style non-sequential thinking, there’s little to enjoy. Each poem feels much like the last, and a commendable sense that LB sees the natural world as something sacred and inherently valuable is shouted down by the book’s sheer volume and scattershot focus. Leaf Graffiti is worth picking up and skimming for neat turns of phrase and clever descriptors (“The chickens were with the gold at the furthest outer limits of the rainbow”; “i love a smoking glaswegian / strawberry in concrete”), but far too often these neat turns are rather incidental, and poems have an irritating habit of leaving their last line hanging in ostensibly significant white-space-come-silence. The goal suggested by its title –I assume an attempt to comingle the urban and the pastoral – is not achieved; the two remain largely segregated and there is a clear split between LB’s attitudes to the exalted trees and the repellent streets. At just under 90 pages, this is too long a read for too little reward.