Luke Wright – Mondeo Man

Statement of Prejudice: I’ve met Luke once, briefly, and seen him read a couple of times, I reckon having seen him read live will make reading him on paper a lot easier. He’s a talented performer with an admirable social conscience. Slightly suspicious of the Essex-lad branding, but that’s more about branding than Essex-lads.

Reality: Satirical poetry is bloody difficult. Satire is tricky enough, but trying to wrangle that tension between humour and moralism, deconstruction and revolution while juggling meter, rhyme, sense and music a few clicks shy of a Penn and Teller skit. Mondeo Man is by no means perfect, but as an example of a genre few poets bother approaching, and even fewer well, it’s an admirable tilt at some worthy windmills.

To get one gripe out of the way: the book is a little too long. There are a fair few topical ballads, and a couple either reiterate an argument better formed elsewhere (‘The Meek’), hit a low-hanging target (‘SCANDAL!’), struggle for dramatic tension (‘The Ballad of Chris and Anne’s Fish Bar’) or stick out tonally from the rest of the book (‘The Ballad of Raoul Moat’, which casts too grim a shadow over the book’s more careful touches). That said, I’d struggle to identify any further pieces not pulling their weight, and I fully recognise the basic risk involved in making a single poem occupy ten pages of a ninety-page book.

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That aside, there are few recent books more viscerally enjoyable than Mondeo Man. It manages to balance a gleeful play with the richness of language (see ‘Jean Claude Gendarme’, mon dieu) with a straight-faced and fundamentally optimistic social consciousness. In clumsier hands ‘The Drunk Train’ might have become patronising or woodenly empathetic; by moving through the poem from apparent distaste for ‘Tie Rack ties’, ‘peroxide Oompa Loompa girls’ and ‘Richard Hammond dreams’ the poem reaches (or reaches for) a kind of admiring, if not secretly envious complicity. The implicit acceptance that the full, de facto community (certainly of SE England, arguably of many UK urban centres) involves not just the ‘Guardian readers, theatre-goers’ who form Wright’s assumed audience (and how many poets acknowledge that, much less that there exist other people besides?) but also the young men and women (although mostly men, the poem’s perhaps unspoken reality, but one can only fit so much into ballad meter) singing and puking on public transport. And Wright makes a forceful bid to understand these social phenomena: ‘they’ll sing until they can’t’. As a manifesto piece, ‘The Drunk Train’ sets the tone and makes for a convincing summary of Mondeo Man’s agenda.

Even better, by placing this depiction of widespread social, and explicitly underclass disorder at the head of the book, Wright invites comparison between these small-scale disturbances and the Little England corruptions at the very top. What’s the real difference? What is doing more damage? Where does the power lie and what can be done about it? Wright does not punch down. The grimly and joyfully subversive ‘Ballad of Mr and Mrs P Cartwright’ sends up inheritance culture and the continuity between baby-boomers and their offspring, with (perhaps unnecessarily?) macabre results, while ‘The Rise and Fall of Dudley Livingstone’ paints a composite Conservative leader (nine-tenths Boris Johnson) undone by a sex scandal which contravenes unwritten rules about sexual conformity. Though it’s arguable that many poems make their argument more with a hammer than a scalpel, generically speaking it would be ludicrous to make it otherwise. Difficult to unpick unexamined cultural mores while going de-dum de-dum. I would argue that the sheer paucity of cultural criticism in contemporary poetry gives Wright an unusually long leash, and the accuracy with which he makes the formal constrictions work are impressive.

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It’s notable that for the most part even the smaller, quieter and more thoughtful pieces interspersing are shot through with this awareness of broader social pressures. ‘Stansted’ explores familial pride and estrangement with a rare degree of intimacy and generosity, the well-observed and private moments (‘the way he’d rest his hands on his stomach’) in fairly simple opposition to the pressures of social status (‘Yeah, well, my Dad… built Stansted Airport’). The poem’s dynamics are straightforward, but effective, particularly when placed alongside the ballad pieces. In fact, the collection is remarkable in the degree to which it engages and deflates its own performing ego; which is, perhaps, egotism by another name, but it is significant that Wright recognises performance as a major conceptual strand in his work, and one that feels all the richer for a simultaneously self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating piece like ‘Luke’s Got a Joke’. See also the remarkable ‘The Royal Wedding, 1947’; Wright’s social media followers will know his republicanism, yet he (at the very least professes) to put it aside for a baker’s daughter’s story of making a wedding cake. The tension between systemic hierarchy and genuinely felt affection for that hierarchy is not easily unwound, and the poem dramatizes it carefully.

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Also worth mentioning are Wright’s paeans to Suffolk (read: engagement in local community), ‘Thaxted’ and ‘Get Parochial’; ‘Weekend Dad’, which comes close to rivalling Holly McNish in painting parenthood in explicitly and (somewhat) defiantly social tones; and the thoroughly unusual ‘About a Minute’, perhaps the only piece that abandons dramatic unity, and is instead a series of short, unrelated tableaux taking place in ‘the time it took you/to tell me what I already know’, a world of experience that contextualises and (maybe?) soothes the unmentionable romantic failure.

Tl;dr: Though not necessarily unusual fare for the spoken word scene, Mondeo Man’s capacity to move freely between spoken word and printed page should not be underestimated, while the book’s social conscience, despite its occasional lapses into over-simplicity, is of uncommon centrality in contemporary poetry. It’s a quality book.

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Helen Mort – Division Street

Statement of Prejudice: I’m a fan of Mort’s blog Poetry on the Brain, but haven’t read much of her creative work. Fairly optimistic though.

Reality: Maybe the most impressive poem in Division Street is a miniature, dreamy piece sitting unassumingly towards the end of the collection, ‘Thread’, into which the book’s concerns are quietly herded:

From now, your movement
is a kite’s: you have the sky
and yet you’re tethered
to a man below, an ancestor

who looks on silently
from an old print: your face
in his and his in yours.
Even when he yields the string,

he’s set your course. The breeze
may intervene, but you are lifted
by a finer thread, like all the living,
anchored by the dead.

There’s a tendency in poetry reviewing to ignore the physical presentation of the book (maybe because a lot of reviewers get advance copies without covers? lack of space?), and Division Street is almost actively hampered by its production. There’s an admittedly compelling cover photo, (a man /with a handlebar moustache and a Support the Miners badge on a home-made police helmet facing a row of actual police), but it has little to do with Mort’s book. The lines quoted from ‘Scab’ on the back cover do indeed refer to the miners’ strikes in Sheffield, but it’s the book’s only extended rumination on the topic; a few other poems note the closure of pubs and working men’s clubs, but the action takes place largely in the present. ‘Scab’ itself is a long consideration of the poet’s own feelings of betrayal on taking up a place at Cambridge, a deeply felt and angry exploration of the contrasting worlds of hometown and college; the politics of striking are secondary to the poem’s thinking about loyalty, family and social mobility so tightly composed in ‘Thread’. The close of the poem, and its hostility to closure, is among the book’s most powerful moments.

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Which is why it is so frustrating that the very book in which such an accomplished poem is printed should so distort the individual poem’s express intentions. Division Street is a sure-footed, occasionally excellent first collection, but Mort very clearly positions the exploration of a divided life (which is not the cover’s simple division of police (state? establishment?) and miners) in the epigram from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, with further essays into split allegiances throughout the book. Even the title poem is the story of a failed relationship and a near miss with an STD. I suspect positioning the book as ‘the one about miners’ was an easier sell, but frustrating nonetheless that the quality of the poems should be sold short by their packaging.

Division Street, as indicated above, is at its sharpest when animated by righteous (not in the pejorative sense) anger, as in ‘Fur’, ‘The Complete Works of Anonymous’, and the sort-of-sequence ‘Thinspiration Shots’, ‘Miss Heath’ and ‘Beauty’, which form a far more convincing thematic core than the strikes. ‘Thinspiration Shots’ is a deeply unsettling piece about the eponymous pro-anorexia sites centred around photographs of (especially young) women with eating disorders, justified in this case by ballet aspirations. The poem’s strength comes from Mort’s ability to understand and contextualise systemic pressures without judging or blaming the individual; the pictured ‘models’ are compared to a mermaid, a hummingbird, being winged, a doll in a music box; appealing, traditionally gendered images of unattainable physical refinement that erase the practical needs of the real-life person. ‘Miss Heath’ and ‘Beauty’ are close readings of the harm caused by such unrealistic expectations; Mort’s ballet instructor who ‘never made the stage’, ‘her eyes/avoiding ours’, using dance as a means of escape. ‘Beauty’ is a much stranger piece, one of several poems in the book that feature a kind of doppelganger (see ‘The Girl Next Door’, more or less a twin poem, appropriately enough). Here, the eponymous figure is an explicitly threatening one – the speaker hides when she knocks the window – and one quite obviously emotionally (if not physically) damaged. The poem’s blunt vocabulary and heavy rhyme give the piece a nightmarish nursery-rhyme atmosphere, the speaker’s incorrigible curiosity and realisation (‘it’s not the face we shrink from but the name’) hiding a complex understanding of the effects of homogenising beauty standards in plain language.

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Elsewhere there are a number of accomplished individual pieces; ‘Outtakes’ is a neat love poem that harnesses the strategies of filmmaking into emotionally framing unrequited love (‘Look close enough, you told me once,/and anything’s significant’), ‘Pit Closure as a Tarantino Short’ another nice example of cinematic technique in miniature, ‘Year of the Ostrich’ a Kay Ryan-y parable about not quite fitting the bill. There are just as many poems, however, that rely too heavily on the neat resolution of their conceits (‘The Dogs’, ‘Items Carried up Ben Nevis’) or that drift off more obscurely than mysteriously (‘Grasmere Oak’, ‘Fox Miles’), particularly towards the end of the collection, occasionally lapsing into that ‘I’m the teacher you’re the pupil’ tone currently plaguing contemporary poetry.

Tl;dr: Division Street is an unusually solid first collection, well-paced and in places satisfyingly disturbing. Well worth a read.

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Keston Sutherland – Odes to TL61P

Statement of Prejudice: Recommended by a couple of folk, having never heard of him previously, went on to write a paper partly focused on this book (see previous post), and so have read it perhaps more deeply than would otherwise be the case. Fair warning: the book depicts some graphic BDSM and the review discusses that.

Reality: This is a difficult book to write about. Essentially I had two completely distinct responses to it, the first, slightly exhilarating encounter with something entirely new, and the creeping realisation in the cold light of day that it doesn’t quite do what it says on its radical tin. So let’s do both.

Odes to TL61P is the most unusual book I’ve read in years. Its ambitious scope, its humour, its totally astute articulations of political abuse and the emptying out of meaning in contemporary culture; there are few writers in the poetry mainstream even similarly interested in politics, never mind capable of expressing with such clarity the scale of political malfeasance in neoliberal Britain.

The text itself is at times a surrealist nightmare, an assault of sensory information and white noise, a dramatized revulsion at living in a culture that so commodifies human life, subsuming it entirely to the whims of the marketplace and those who benefit most from it. All the while Sutherland renders this conflict in explicitly sexual terms, painting the world of politics as a reflection of capitalism’s sexual obsessions and corruptions. The first half of the book operates in this greatly discomfiting tone, and the deconstruction of police suppression of the Trafalgar Square protests in the middle of it all gives the critique a bit of a Dr Strangelove flavour, a logical unraveling of the unstoppable psychosis of military-capitalism reverberating from the macro-social to the intimately personal.

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This idea that power corrupts even in individual romantic relationships, at the site of our deepest ties to power (to quote Mathew Abbott) is central to Odes. It was also in exploring this idea, and Odes’ presentation of it, that alarm bells quietly started. On the one hand, Sutherland’s graphic relation of his youthful romances position him both in extreme dominant and submissive roles, as male sadist and male masochist, even, memorably, a fantasy in which he is his own perfect sexual partner, sending up macho masculinity by embodying its antithesis. But how much do these accounts in their playing out of power dynamics actually question or undermine commonly held assumptions about sex? Are they supposed to? It’s notable that the book’s extensive engagement with porn’s formulations of power (and the appropriation of its vocabulary) rarely strays from the mainstream; there’s an apt point to be made that the fault is not with pornography at a conceptual level (there are many kinds of porn!) but in its blunt iteration of cultural norms.

Which might seem like a cute point, but it is a salient example of Sutherland failing or neglecting to present alternatives to the undesirable norm. While the sex scenes depicted above are graphic, frank and honest (though what is honesty when it challenges so little?), they are exclusively male-focused. The women who do appear (and gosh do I get tired of typing this!) are frequently genitals stripped of identity (‘The really beautiful woman who is yet to explain how I should fight to retain Thatcher’s rebate is now bent over into a suggestion about how to prop up the euro; I can see into her womb’), frequently figured in terms of bondage or domination, a childhood crush depicted only in terms of her frightening beauty, carrying all the implications of oppositional gender roles, several passages of weaponised Freudian theory. For one reason or another the poet repeatedly depicts women in terms of sexual degradation or subjugation; when he talks about the Occupy protests through the pov of the Met Police Commander he takes pains to put that point of view in context. Why not elsewhere? One section reads, ‘I’d sooner drown in bed forever with the women from my twenties, painting a sky of orgasms, acting insoluble. I remember the number I had beautiful sex with but not their total number.’ Is there a more culturally conventional attitude to sex than fetishizing twenty-somethings and regarding sex as a primarily first-person experience, ‘I’ more than ‘we’, a matter of accumulated personal victories? Does a book that is in other places genuinely revolutionary have nothing more complicated to say on the matter? Odes makes long-term monogamy seem positively radical. Another section opens ‘But all sex is barbaric. We are the pleasures we enjoy, the blisses we admire; and all sex is a text, wingbats in a gaping slang.’ I can’t help reading that as a fortunate outcome for a male academic. How does that play out for the folk on the other side of the relationship?

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Please excuse the sarcasm, this may be a crucial point. The book’s approach to sexuality does not confront British culture’s appropriation of it as much as revel in it. And here is another point I struggled with: what does Sutherland mean? There is no obligation, of course, for an author to endorse what they present. My counter is that that relies on context; if this is satire, where is the indication that something is wrong? Odes happily deconstructs oppressive political structures while merely presenting gendered oppression apparently without commentary. If Sutherland is presenting the ills of society for a feminist purpose, he hides it much better than his more traditionally socialist beliefs, and I can find no evidence in the book to contradict this suspicion. Which is gravely disappointing in an author who elsewhere wrote ‘Class, race, gender and sexuality are not just categories supervening on individuals, but worlds of subjective experience that extend right into their capillaries and marrow’.

This was the point when my reading of the book’s truly worthy mission began to unravel. ‘You become radical when the only thing you can do to rouse the sleeping public is something truly catastrophic.’ This holds with the poet’s depictions of Millbank and Trafalgar Square, but Britain is not Egypt, Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq, and it might be a little premature to think in terms of violent revolution.  ‘The West Irish had nothing but tiny scraps of land with a cabin, a pig and potatoes; but Belfast and Dublin had England’. This is a gross oversimplification of Belfast, Dublin, West Ireland, England, maybe even cabins and pigs. Placing this statement in a book primarily concerned with military atrocities in the Middle East is an easy and unhelpful conflation of both individual suffering and the historical context that allowed it to flourish. The book would have gone a long way to covering these flaws with judicious self-doubt or self-criticism, but the mode of the poetry does not allow much room for ambiguity. The fault then, which the book should understand, is not with the execution of the poetic mode but with the poetic mode itself. Read Sinéad Morrissey for a subversive text that does not collude in the exploitation it protests.

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Tl;dr: Sutherland is Professor of Poetry at Sussex Uni and a Marx scholar and I’m frustratingly aware of a fair bit of his cultural theory may very well be passing me by. I’d love someone with a firmer grasp of what Sutherland’s discussing to weigh in, I have to admit feeling out of my academic depth, and there’s every chance I’m missing something that would defuse my concerns about the book. On one hand, Odes is a genuinely subversive text. On the other, it has huge blind spots absolutely of a character in contemporary British poetry and I’m unwilling to let it slide, particularly with some of the undiluted heraldry of his work on- and offline. As it is, Odes is for all intents and purposes a one-perspective show, the Self dramatized, spotlit, and much too keen on self-mythologising to be truly unsullied by the poetic (and academic) mainstream, a book that falls short of its admirably radical goals.

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“Minute your gesture but it must be made”: Political responsibility in Autumn Journal and Odes to TL61P

[This is a paper I gave to other post-grads at Edinburgh Uni. Not a review as such, but a write-up of Sutherland's book is in the works. Caveat: These books are not particularly similar. This became clear on a second reading, however by that point I was already kinda committed to writing this paper. Hopefully the ways the books differ in their similar strategies is also valuable. Additionally, I fully admit to knowing less about Sutherland than I do about MacNeice; apologies if there are some particularly egregious misreadings.]

In reading Odes to TL61P closely it became clear that the presiding influence is not Autumn Journal but Eliot’s The Waste Land, in terms of its atmosphere, structure and themes, e.g., the breakdown of meaning and the dehumanising effects of Western culture, although the denial of discrete personal and public zones of experience is also very much a MacNeicean trait. However, the commentary posited by both MacNeice and Sutherland takes its ultimately hopeful cues from a rejection of Eliot’s apocalyptic defeatism. In their criticism of emerging social norms both writers allow for the possibility of positive social change; MacNeice does so explicitly and in a far more idealistic tone than in much of Autumn Journal; in contrast Sutherland keeps his utopia largely implicit. Their hope is not pinned on a reversion to an irretrievable golden age, but on recognising and challenging the assumptions of their respective communities and thinking out a pragmatic and socially just solution.

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Political stakes are at the forefront of Odes to TL61P as the book explores, embodies and exposes the hypocrisies and collusions of the most powerful elements of British society, political or otherwise. The most strident example of this tactic is found in the passage provided, in which Sutherland takes the role of police commander (logic and brutality) and ostensibly helpless middle class bystander (complacent horror). MacNeice, however, keeps his political cards close to his chest, even in Autumn Journal, itself the most politically declared limb of his body of work, as evidenced by his oblique attack on British intelligentsia via the political chicanery and moral relativism of the commonly-venerated Ancient Greeks. A year before the composition of Autumn Journal, MacNeice and Auden travelled to Rekjavik, in part to co-author a collection of poetry under the title Letters from Iceland, in part to escape increasingly tense domestic politics. Although the most accomplished piece is probably Auden’s ‘Letter to Lord Byron’, of more immediate interest is MacNeice’s ‘Eclogue from Iceland’, in which the poets’ avatars, Ryan and Craven, meet the ghost of Grettir, a hero of Icelandic myth who advises them to return home and take up their responsibilities, with the words: “Minute your gesture but it must be made–/ Your hazard, your act of defiance and hymn of / hate, / Hatred of hatred, assertion of human values, / Which is now your only duty.”

The poem articulates a key point of disparity between MacNeice and his contemporaries in the 1930s, the point where his non-defeatist individualism takes on collective urgency. At the beginning of the decade many artists, like MacNeice’s contemporaries Stephen Spender and Cecil Day-Lewis, moved from a 1890s-style aestheticism to committed Communism, before drifting away or outright recanting as the decade wore on. MacNeice very much moved in the opposite direction, and would accuse Auden of ‘straying towards the Ivory Tower’, when the latter wrote in his essay, ‘The Public vs The Late Mr William Butler Yeats’, “art is a product of history, not a cause… The case for the prosecution rests on the fallacious belief that art ever makes anything happen, whereas the honest truth… is that, if not a poem had been written, not a picture painted, not a bar of music composed, the history of man would be materially unchanged.” To contextualise, this is witten partly in response to Yeats’ question in the 1938 poem ‘The Man and the Echo’, ‘Did that play of mine send out/Certain men the English shot?’; it was also written partly in persona, as Auden presented both sides of an argument concerning Yeats’ legacy. It is clear, however, from his later work’s rejection of an explicitly political stance that the passage quoted is the side he favoured. From the mid-30s onward, MacNeice continued to stress – in Edna Longley’s words – ‘the social contexts of the language that reaches the poet: language as a community-product, conditioned by the ‘vulgar’ social and political world’. For MacNeice, Auden’s case for the prosecution ‘does rest on a fallacy but it is not this. The fallacy lies in thinking that it is the function of art to make things happen and that the effect of art upon actions is something either direct or calculable.’ MacNeice argues that the minute gestures of art are the artist’s responsibility to his or her community, the sine qua non of public expression.

The political contexts of late 1938 are pervasive in Autumn Journal, and the inevitable march into war is transmitted from newspaper to manuscript via MacNeice’s poetic lens; his response to the Munich Agreement – ‘Save my skin and damn my conscience’ – is an accurate summary of the book’s moral core. Autumn Journal in part presents an imaginative conscience in a time of crisis, Munich sitting at the centre of the book and the heart of its protest. The poem places this individual moment into context with a deflation of the British national narrative since the Great War (the ‘retired generals’ of Section I confronted by a return to the ‘end-all mud of Flanders’ in section XV), and, in Section IX, a revision of the ancient history that shores up so much of the Imperial myth. Here, MacNeice employs his classical education as a vantage point to criticise Chamberlain and his cabinet, undercutting their claims to civilisation by demonstrating that far from being the ideal, enlightened society, barbarity and moral prevarication was also alive and well in Ancient Greece:

And when I should remember the paragons of Hellas
I think instead
Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists, […]
And the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly
I think of the slaves.
And how one can imagine oneself among them
I do not know;
It was all so unimaginably different
And all so long ago.

The sarcasm in MacNeice’s voice is palpable. Here, the myth about Greek civility appropriated by the British intelligentsia (see the ‘humanist’ overlooking the ‘lazy quad’ composing ‘sermons’), and the myth about British civility itself are barely distinguishable, the poet’s moral disgust regarding the self-serving hypocrisy of his political leaders in plain sight.

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This is a central example of a recurring concern in Autumn Journal; that of the absence of free-thinking and free speech; here, ‘free speech shivered on the pikes of Macedonia/And later on the swords of Rome’; in Section XVI ‘Free speech nipped in the bud,/The minority always guilty’ in reference to Irish politics north and south; there are references elsewhere to ‘the dull refrain of the caption ‘War’, ‘blank invective’, ‘travestied in slogans’, ‘The devil quoting scripture’, and in Section VII, ‘we who have been brought up to think of ‘Gallant Belgium’/As so much blague/Are now preparing again to essay good through evil/For the sake of Prague;/And must, we suppose, become uncritical, vindictive,/And must, in order to beat/The enemy, model ourselves upon the enemy,/A howling radio for our paraclete.’ ‘Paraclete’ being a Greek word meaning helper or advocate, which most commonly used in reference to the Christian idea of the Holy Spirit. MacNeice fears the threat to critical thinking that totalitarianism embodies as much as the specific variety of totalitarianism represented by Hitler; it is important to remember that MacNeice is a contemporary of Orwell as well as Auden, and that in the thirties British fascism remained in rude health. In the 1943 essay ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’, Orwell writes of the unreality of Francist propaganda, both in its insistence on Russian intervention on the Republican side (there was little or none) and denial of Italian and German assistance to the Nationalists (both nations openly lauded their ‘legionaries’ domestically). Orwell speaks of being frightened by the ‘feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world’; in Autumn Journal MacNeice writes of ‘not realising/That Spain would soon denote/Our grief, our aspirations;/Not knowing that our blunt/Ideals would find their whetstone, that our spirit/Would find its frontier on the Spanish front,/Its body in a rag-tag army.’ Autumn Journal frames the Civil War as a reflection of Britain’s failed democratic responsibilities, the emptying out of meaning in its own wartime narrative-building reflected in Franco’s propaganda.

It is precisely this breakdown of experiential meaning that animates Odes to TL61P. In it, Sutherland uses the very language of political and commercial cross-talk to create a nightmare-scape of signal drowned by noise, individual experience negated by overwhelming systemic violence and behavioural control. The title refers to the order code for part of a door to a discontinued model of Hotpoint washer/dryer, and the book chases the implications of the human-as-machine, machine-as-human metaphor to a greatly discomfiting extent, exploring the possibility of individual resistance to a political system that seems corrupt and obsolete, its continued function reliant on the masochistic compliance of a majority of its citizens.

The book negotiates with some, though definitely not all, principles outlined by Marx, primarily his ideas on the commodification and control of labour; in ‘Ode 2, Part I’ the implications of the police commander’s defamation of the Trafalgar Square protestors are played out partly in terms of weakening unions and using overtime pay as a counter-revolutionary tool. This section challenges official narratives not by satirising them (as in Autumn Journal), but by exposing the discrepancies between word and referent through playing them out to their logical and practical conclusions. It may be disquieting to think that violence committed by British police might be justified by or responsible for international trade agreements between mobile phone companies, but Sutherland makes the case that this is a direct result of the systemic links between vested political and commercial interests, interests which hold the power to determine who is protestor and who is criminal. The closing line, ‘Know your fucking enemy’ has the Odes’ narrator becoming something like the Wormwood character from CS Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, inhabiting the enemy’s thinking to better understand it, better understanding to better defend against it.

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The governing poetic strategy of Odes to TL61P is presented explicitly in Ode 5:

‘Career poets are part of the problem, smearing up the polish, drying out the fire; chucking shit all over the place; not being party to the solution; banking on the nodding head “the reader” saying “yes, that’s what it’s like” so as not to know what it’s for, since meaning is easier that way, gaped at through the defrosted back window of the Audi, hence the spring for a neck; we all know where that shit got us: being what we eat.’

The image of the nodding-head dog is a direct rebuke to the kind of representative/recognition-based poetry Sutherland sees as being the norm in British poetry, though it can very much be taken as a rejection of any a priori response to art. In a piece written for Revolution and/or Poetry, Sutherland attacks not poetic form in toto (as many of MacNeice’s Modernist predecessors and contemporaries did, reductive thinking which persists to this day), but ‘compulsory or approved techniques, compulsory or approved trivialisations of technique, compulsory or approved evacuations of technique, and their common use value’. In the same article, Sutherland takes Ezra Pound to task for his assumption that art is primarily a tool for inspiring consent and obedience, essentially propaganda; Sutherland argues that this view is a direct product of Pound’s failure/refusal (changed depressingly little in contemporary poetry) to recognise working class experience, or indeed any experience outwith the established elite, as legitimate, let alone equally valuable. He argues that ‘Class, race, gender and sexuality are not just categories supervening on individuals, but worlds of subjective experience that extend right into their capillaries and marrow’.

Odes follows this theory in its depiction of a society that exerts and exploits power at every level, from the intimately personal outwards. In an article in 3:AM Magazine, ‘The Poetry of Destroyed Experience’, Mathew Abbott argues that Sutherland’s frequent return to sexual fantasies or anecdotes in Odes are not only a nod to the British Romantic tradition, they form a major part of the book’s treatment of power structures, in Abbott’s words, they are ‘the site of our deepest ties to power’. Sutherland explores the fraught nature of these encounters, particularly those of adolescence, in their feelings of shame, and occasional violence, but it is the persistent presence of uneven power dynamics that is their most consistent characteristic. There are moments when a sincere voice is heard through the noise: ‘The point is not to unlearn love […]Passion must be learned back start to end infinitely or your life will end without you.’ (Ode 3, Part 1.3); ‘our tribute to the world is our desire, nothing else’ (Ode 5, 10/11/10, a reference to student protests at Millbank). These moments are followed by a passage of TV-ratings gibberish and a discussion of civil rights and the country’s alliance with China respectively, dramatizing the arbitrariness and hard-won nature of shared pleasure in the world of the Odes.

This constant drive to disgust the reader could easily be read as a cynical Burroughsian shock tactic; American critic Steven Critelli compared Sutherland to novelist David Foster Wallace in an article crowning him ‘The Next Great One’. But Sutherland is doing something more generous, nuanced and certainly more sincerely optimistic, for all his grandstanding and panoramic vision; in his arrangement of hopeful signal surrounded by oppressive noise, he dramatizes the possibility of challenging and changing the most insidious social narratives. The book’s final section eventually fades into characteristic corporate babble, but the last intelligible message is this: ‘Don’t worry too much if you don’t get absolutely all the off the when you first start. The idea at the beginning is to get some. You started it. Increasing as the screenings multiply, what’s your fucking problem in the future? That we do not know yet.’ That a collection as essentially clear-eyed about the corruptions of contemporary society should end with such a heartening note seems as clear a statement as ‘know your enemy’; as Abbott points out, these are Odes rather than Elegies. In this, Sutherland and MacNeice’s ultimately affirmative strategies align; though the past cannot be rewritten, meaning can be reclaimed, and art has its minute role to play. The final lines of Autumn Journal are a prayer to the present:

Sleep to the noise of running water
To-morrow to be crossed, however deep;
This is no river of the dead or Lethe,
To-night we sleep
On the banks of the Rubicon – the die is cast;
There will be time to audit
The accounts later, there will be sunlight later
And the equation will come out at last.

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Ahren Warner – Pretty

Ahren Warner – Pretty

Statement of Prejudice: Read a few of his poems in anthologies, they were okay. This book is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, so bar is accordingly raised.

Reality: [Trigger warning. Pretty involves sexual violence, which this review discusses in the second paragraph.] It’s difficult to know where to start with Pretty. The actual writing is often comically overwrought, melodramatic and aggressively self-worshipping. This coincides with the tired, constantly-reiterated trope of powerful, named male poet in a fictionalised, glamourised world of sexual violence which oppresses and silences the few, nameless female figures (those who are not prostitutes are physically or psychologically abused). The hyperreality explored in Pretty is that of the surrealists of the 1920s, primarily Antonin Artaud (of Theatre of Cruelty fame), in which gender binaries abound – there’s even a poem in which Mademoiselle These (‘the syrup/of her accent, the diphthongs that seem mined/from some/wet depth, some soft and syrupy inside’) has sex with Monsieur Antithese (‘[he] knows [she] is wrapped/in his anecdotes, his wit, the perfect angle/of his jaw’) – and all narrative is produced to prop up the assumption that whatever the poet says is necessarily important, because poetry. If you look beyond the violent surface, there’s precious little criticism of his artistic predecessors, few questions asked, a mythology obediently consecrated.

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The surrealists got away with this stuff (and are still hero-worshipped almost a hundred years on) partly because at first they spoke only to an initiated few, partly because what they attempted really had little artistic precedent. This scarcity of artistic or social responsibility, no wider community to nurture or educate, the simple opposition of traditionalist past and revolutionary present, at least partly informs the more positive elements of the movement, the often comic freedom, the ability to take up skewed perspectives to talk about the staid elements of life. That Warner has reconstructed 1920s Paris (in its 20 arrondisements, like in Paris je t’aime) not informed by the movement’s creative ingenuity but by its more problematic social constructions is pretty much inexcusable for a grown up in 2013. For a flavour of Pretty’s complex ancestry, there are poems dedicated to C.K.W[illiams], and S[ean?] O’B[rien?], passing references to (among others) Hemingway, Picasso, Brueghel, Louis Vuitton, Chistian Dior, Jackson Pollock, Jacques de Molay, Louis MacNeice, Colin Bateman, Paul Muldoon (twice, once gratingly referred to as ‘Mael Dúin’; Warner often uses circumlocution to hide a dull or repeated thought), Kurt Cobain, Oedipus, Laius, Icarus, Dedalus, Kant, Hegel, James Wright, Apollinaire and Voltaire; there are four named women: Jocasta, the Princess de Lamballe (who is ‘gang-raped/and lynched’), Paquette (‘a young putain//her first night on the game’) and Mademoiselle Autre, who stars in the title poem: Pretty//but mad, Mademoiselle Autre had fashioned/her accordion from a rock des Causses’. This is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.

It’s worth pointing out that the form and the content of Pretty are not in any way discrete entities; they are interwoven at the roots. The poems are cold, imperative, angry pieces of work, their rhythms constantly broken by individual words of French dropped in for flavour, their units of philosophy sitting unabsorbed on the surface, namely that if one rejects the validity of the shared world outwith the individual consciousness, what use being considerate of others? Warner’s poems relish the implications. The book’s violence and condescension are authority-giving, Self reinforced at the expense of Other, the constant citing of historic authority a sop to joined-up thinking about the absent present. Pretty is kind of fascinating in the extent to which the reader is not required, possibly not even welcome; the narrative voice is less a dramatization of a private thought and more the private thought itself; it is a fatal error to assume that what looks like interior monologue in other poets is merely that. Which brings us to the next paragraph.

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I’ve so far been discussing solely the book’s first two sections, because the last, titled ‘NERVOMETER’ is some of the best bad poetry I’ve ever read. It is poetry’s answer to The Room. It is Keanu Reeves doing an English accent. It is Fifty Shades of Kant. It is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. It has to be read to be believed.

‘I have always been struck by the obduracy/of mind’ (I)

‘I’ve aimed no further than the soul’s automata,/transcribed no more than the sorrow of adjustment//aborted. I am a complete abyss.’ (II)

‘My marrow/flirts, sometimes, with these furtive abductions,//amused.’ (IV)

‘Under my crust of bone and skin (skull),/there is angst, constant; not moral, not the absolute//end of deduction, of dim finickiness, or/the inhabiting of angst rising to its height, its meaning,//but a decanting at my core, the self-deprivation/of substance, vital, the physical loss, essential// – I mean the essential loss – of meaning’ (V)

‘If one could only taste the abyss, the nothingness,/could lie down in it; if this nothingness was not//a certain living; if it was not, not completely, death./It is so hard to be, to not be within… True//sorrow is feeling the self and, within it,/this displacement of thought, though, at a point,//thought is not suffering.’ (VIII)

Oh my god, I’m sorry. I can’t. That last one. Phew. So this is the book in a nutshell, the simultaneous denunciation and apotheosis of the self, two sides of the same coin. And in Pretty things like empathy, imagination, the difficult questions of human interaction and the earned moments of happiness (beauty?) in an obstructive and controlling society have little currency. To so thoroughly reject the outside world requires a seriously privileged position within it.

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Tl;dr: I’d be much more inclined to dismiss this as one more example of a poetry scene that acts as if feminism is a splendid little pastime if it didn’t already occupy such a privileged position within that scene (Warner is editor of Poetry London(!) and has been PBS-recommended for his first collection, itself nominated for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection). As such, this needs saying: Warner’s thinking has no place in a mature and inclusive artistic community.

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Caroline Bird – The Hat-Stand Union

Statement of Prejudice: I’ve met Bird a couple of times and seen her read once. She’s an engaging performer, and has a vital ability to win over an audience to her skewed, wry universe. She also performs from memory, which always looks like sorcery to me.

Reality: You’d be forgiven for arguing The Hat-Stand Union doesn’t make a great first impression. The opening poems make explicit reference to their own ‘pose’, have at their heart a kind of playfulness that could easily be grating in the wrong hands, and run very tight to the sentimental touchline. There is a cumulative effect at work, however, and by the first section’s title poem, ‘Mystery Tears’, the subversive current boils over. The poem concerns an imaginary drug that allows the user to cry at will; Bird chases the conceit down to a very human point, that at some time in our lives we will be very literally addicted to our own emotional extremes. The closing line ‘Each day she woke up// calmer and calmer,’ hits unexpectedly hard.

Bird deploys this strategy throughout the opening section, toeing the line between her whimsical set-ups and often brutal punchlines, constantly negotiating between an impulse for the dreamy, illogical endless possibilities of the imagination and the flat, inconsequential responsibilities of life. Though a few pieces are slightly overwhelmed by their own creativity (‘Snow Hotel’, ‘Faith’), they still function as valuable counterweights to the shocks of realism (or real feeling maybe) in the strongest pieces in the section, ‘Method Acting’, ‘The Dry Well’ (a personal favourite because of its economy, stoicism and clear message that could almost be an ars poetica), and ‘Genesis’, one of several poems in The Hat-Stand Union that directly confront the discrepancy between middle-class disbelief (‘The people from the London suburbs don’t believe in God’) and a deeply felt need for something to replace it. The poem’s submerged suggestion is a more thoroughly engaged care for the other members of a shared community than ‘sigh[ing] for the economy’, ‘criticis[ing] each other’s choices when we love/ with all our hearts’, or the easy superstitions of Ouija boards and (implicitly) big cars, prescription drugs and fluffy liberalism.

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Worth noting here that Bird is more alert to and a better practitioner of rhetorical patterning than the vast majority of her contemporaries. She builds a convincing argument through repetition and variation of phrase that gives her work a structural energy lacking in most other poets (witness ‘This Was All About Me’, ‘Sea Bed’, ‘2:19 to Whitstable’, ‘The Promises’ and the superb ‘Medicine’). She’s also keenly aware of the comic potential of these structures, for example, ‘A Dialogue Between Artist and Muse’, in full:

John Donne: A fly is a more noble creature than the sunne, because a fly hath life and the sunne hath not
A fly: I find you extremely patronising

Also worth noting are ‘There Once was a Boy Named Bosh’, ‘Fantasy Role-Play’ and ‘Spat’, each of them capable and convincing little nightmares of suburban walls slowly closing in on their protagonists and their variously successful attempts to escape. which might be insufferable but for the implicated sincerity conveyed by Bird’s omniscient narrator.

The middle section, ‘The Truth About Camelot’, is an odd little sequence about Arthur’s violent madness and the inevitable disintegration of the kingdom. The sequence falls a little short of providing either a rounded narrative or a fruitful vantage point from which to criticise life the way the first and last sections do, and is perhaps better understood as an entertaining, if slight, breathing space between the book’s more emotionally demanding passages.

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The third section, ‘Sea Bed’, is very much a return to form, its opening poem ‘Damage’ hitting like a mailed coif after ‘Camelot’’s relative flippancy. Here, Bird’s characteristic run of free-associative sentences on the same subject (in this case a woman’s fanciful traumas) culminate in the narrative voice’s late intrusion: ‘I met her during the winter./ She said, ‘I need someone to save me.’ I did/ what any sensible person would have done. I did/ what any sensible person would have done.’ Those line breaks are heartbreaking. The poem is a good example of how to manage a surface that at first glance seems problematically twee; in Bird’s hands it provides a means of discussing trauma and emotional damage without exploiting or sensationalising the traumatised individual. In its idiosyncratic details it leaves the reader to imagine the true circumstances that the poem’s realistic and recognisable conclusion leaves implied, its specifics productively open-ended.

[Disclaimer: I’m studying Louis MacNeice in some detail at the mo and this para might be wholly coloured by that.] The third section also features – in ‘Sea Bed’, the thoroughly MacNeicean ‘The Promises’ and ‘The Stock Exchange’ – three examples of something often attempted but rarely well-executed in contemporary poetry: parable. By parable I mean semi-narrative piece that uses a central metaphor or repetend to explore an idea, which may only have meaning for the reader (for better definitions, cf MacNeice’s Varieties of Parable). In The Hat-Stand Union, these explore romantic negotiations, what is won or (more often in these poems) lost in our most complicated relationships. ‘The Promises’ is a particularly fun outing in which Bird shows such a deft hand with meter and (occasional) rhyme it makes one wonder why she does it so rarely. The story follows a fairy-tale series of changes of fortune and identity that cannot sustain its own idealised vision of love, and leaves the narrator only one active choice: to reject the narrative wholesale: ‘I flipped my God one last ‘You are…’// I took my seat at the bar.’ ‘The Stock Exchange’ and ‘Sea Bed’ are altogether more violent discussions, the former’s refrain of ‘you can have my body […] in the hope I might get something’ and the latter’s ‘He cared. But he didn’t care enough’ both leading to the same conclusion, that it is perhaps safer, if duller, to be alone.

This thread is very ably counterpointed by the absolutely scintillating ‘Medicine’, which in a different book might appear flimsy or simple-minded in its formulation of ‘My head says…/ My heart says’. In this collection it appears as the hard-earned note of optimism pulled from a world of failure, a grace note that is aware of its place in a largely grim collection, but also of its own internal patterning, as the simple oppositions of ‘head’ and ‘heart’ are complicated and, tentatively, synthesised. The Hat-Stand Union closes on a similarly positive note of hard-won optimism in its elegy for Joan Littlewood, ‘The Fun Palace’ (‘She tore up scripts. She guffawed. She changed the world.’), the collection’s only (more or less) straightforward love poem ‘Marriage of Equals’ and the final prayer-like ‘Corine’.

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Tl;dr: The Hat-Stand Union is one heck of a book, and totally contradicts some of my own thinking about poetry collections, particularly its length. Many times it pushes the boundaries between studied pose and moving reality, and a certain suspension of disbelief is required to make the leap into Bird’s imaginative scenery, but the book’s command of its own idiosyncrasies, its accuracy with its punchlines, its awareness of poetry’s dramatic qualities and rhetorical potential are nigh on peerless. Read this book.

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Sinéad Morrissey – Parallax

Statement of Prejudice: I’m a big fan of Morrissey. I loved Through A Square Window, found the curious, provocative and deeply humane voice great fun to listen to. She’s one of the best poets at work in the UK today and I have high hopes for Parallax.

RealityIt’s been a long time since I’ve read a book as well-wrought and tightly bound formally and thematically as Parallax. Which is a great big way of saying it’s bloody enjoyable to read. Imagine! The poems talk to each other, the book knows where it wants to lead you, and it does so with wit, generosity and imagination.

As the book explicitly states in its epigram, Parallax is concerned with ways of seeing things from multiple perspectives, which as a foundational principle might not seem all that ground breaking, but SM explores it so fruitfully the recurring theme is barely noticeable, and thoroughly rewards repeated and close reading.

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Plus on a totally surface they’re exciting imaginative playgrounds, taking unusual and expected narrative twists without losing their emotional freight or narrative logic. Take one of the collection’s finest pieces, “A Day’s Blindness”:

He stood up to carry his plate and cup
to the sink and couldn’t see.
He sat back down. The clocks
went on consuming Saturday.

The poem conveys simply and directly the moment of sudden, irreparable panic. The poem’s close, a characteristically complex and extended single sentence runs:

He sat on at the table,

rolling crumbs beneath his thumbs
and waiting, either for what was taken
to be handed back –
the fridge, the kettle, his cuff-linked shirt –
or for the kleptomaniac visitor
he couldn’t shut out

to be done with it, finally,
and sever the link –
to haul him up out of his chair,
into the hall, and through the brown door
to a garden ruined with hooves
and there would be

horses set loose from the Bond Yard
where his father worked
in the Hungry Thirties,
their coats engrained with soot
and their heads encased in steam,
accusing him.

Good god almighty that’s the stuff. The powerful emotional dynamics, the deeply empathetic narrative voice and nightmarish close aside, the music of this passage is downright inspired. Read it aloud if you’re somewhere convenient. There are so many small, careful touches that connect each line to another, that make the passage a sumptuous sonic unity. I’m getting carried away and can only partly blame it on too many cups of tea. “A Day’s Blindness” has a fairly obvious link to the book’s core, but it wears it lightly, and its familial concerns bind it up with much of Parallax.

Speaking of which, the series of poems explicitly about the poet’s own family, a pretty well-trodden genre for lyric poets, just about manages to toe the line between delivering a very personal and privately understood experience and admitting the reader into its broader significance. Or, SM knows you’re not all that interested in the charming foibles of her offspring. The series “Daughter” and the short lyric “Lighthouse” are both beautifully rendered portraits of family life in all its dys/function and carefully examined essays into the psychology of childhood. How do children cope with a world they don’t quite understand? Not totally unlike how grown-ups do. Her daughter ‘talks all day – / her toys, her toes,/ her pictures, her minutely/ attenuated hierarchy/ of friends – / like a businessman/ on the last train home/ after one too many espressos,/ selling you his dream.’ Her son, struggling to sleep, and a lighthouse outside his window, ‘the two of them partly curtained, partly seen,/ upheld in a sort of boy-talk conversation/ no one else can hear. That private place, it answers,/ with birds and slatted windows – I’ve been there.’ There is beautifully worked ambiguity in the closing line about whether it is mother or lighthouse speaking that ties together the poem’s concerns, builds a powerful hub of emotional information.

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The book is also keenly aware of (literal and figurative) perceptions of women, and chooses to put Parallax’s discussions thereof in a historical context – the repeated insinuation being something along the lines of this is not a new problem and we’re far from fixing it. In “The Doctors” and “Photographs of Belfast by Alexander Robert Hogg”, women are explicitly (in the former) and implicitly (in the latter) erased from photographs; what should be immutable proofs are either tampered with by state-sponsored ‘black balloons [over women’s faces]’ or simply not of interest. “Display” holds in balance the ‘brusquely charmed’ tone of the male commentator, the marginally unsettling motto of the Women’s League of Health and Beauty (‘movement is life’), the working men ‘all around the periphery […] mostly they just look, quietly and sharply focused,/ like eyeing up the horses at a racecourse, but with much more choice’, and the projected declaration from narrator to the women themselves, ‘To hell with it, they may as well be saying […] I’ve got the fresh-air-body they promised me. Twist. Its electricity.’ The deeply complex power struggles at play are given full freedom of expression, and the poem withholds explicit judgement on the women at the centre of it all, whose own opinions are guessed-at and simplistic, ‘for movement is life and they are keeping moving.’ But not far beneath the surface is recognition of the truly revolutionary nature of what at the time was perceived with the patronising ‘to them belongs the future!

For if there is one tool at SM’s disposal that sets her apart it is her ability to write intricately fashioned poems that still have room for a sense of humour. This is no trifle. THIS IS DEADLY FUCKING SERIOUS. But for real, a sense of humour in the right hands is a shiv to stick into the cracks of conventional thought, and SM knows the pressure points. Take “The High Window”. It’s a poem written in a Chandler-y drawl, ‘but from the blonde’s perspective’, which turns the pulpy male gaze back on Marlowe, ‘the type of man who gives/ a girl offence by offering advice about her gloves/ or hair or make-up uninvited.’ The punchline is far too glorious to spoil.

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And all this without mentioning “A Matter of Life And Death”, which got me proper choked up, the unbelievable precision of “Shadows”, “Shostakovich”: ‘In all my praise and plainsong I wrote down/ the sound of a man’s boots from behind the mountain’, the wonderfully vulnerable “Fool’s Gold”… it has depth. It has range. It has an emotional swoop and swell and shape that make it above all else a Damn Good Book. An incredible collection of poetry, but also something genuinely worth writing home about. The Forward Prize winner is announced later today, and while I’ve yet to read either Glyn Maxwell or Rebecca Goss’ collections, Parallax is far stronger than either Polley’s commendable The Havocs or MSR’s Drysalter, and SM should be gravely disappointed to take anything less than the win.

Tl;dr: Buy it yesterday.

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