Fiona Benson – Bright Travellers

Full Disclosure: Haven’t read Benson before, though a well-read pal had bigged her up on Twitter, so expecting something good.

Review: It took a long time to come round to Bright Travellers, but it was worth it. It is by some distance the angriest and saddest collection of poems I’ve read in a long time, maybe since Sharon Olds’ Stag’s Leap, and its display of a sharp intelligence pushing itself to some uncomfortable and upsetting emotional places is like no other book on the shortlist.

The fact that the poet’s inner life is so openly dissected in all its messiness, so recklessly explored without (apparent) embellishment, means it isn’t uncomplicatedly recommendable, i.e. the natural first response is to be a little taken aback. To return to Stag’s Leap, where Olds’ anger is calm, directed and wryly at ease with itself, the most common mood of Bright Travellers seems to be a tension between its justified fear of the world it depicts and its anger that the world it depicts should provoke such justified fear. To this end, it’s almost disappointing that the collection should kick off with an apologia, ‘Caveat’, a perfectly fine lyric in its own right but one that begs forgiveness where none is due:

But consider the cactus:
its thick hide
and parched aspect

still harbour a moist heart […]

And, once a lifetime,
when the slant rains fall
there is this halo of flowers.

By the poem’s conceit, ‘this halo’ may be the book in hand. The immediate response is that a prickly and uncompromising cactus isn’t necessarily less interesting than a bed of daffodils. The collection proper kicks off with ‘Dumnonia’, a series of poems commissioned by two Devon-based arts groups. It’s an odd way to kick off a first collection, and while the poems are strong and do a decent job of establishing the collection’s direction, they have the feeling of being tacked on at the front. With each of Bright Traveller’s sections prefaced by a single poem, this group of occasional-feeling pieces feel a little extraneous and perhaps better deployed elsewhere. That said, ‘Rougemont for Temperance Lloyd’ is a powerful piece of historical recovery; Temperance Lloyd was one of the last three people executed for witchcraft in England, a witty and apparently fearless woman of around eighty, who the poem renders:

You are a thin thought turning over the walls
in a grey wind, transparent, spider-weight.
I’d have you angry and impenitent and brave.
I’d have you fly from the drop in the shape of a rook,
its rag-and-bone, its bloodshot eye.

before concluding that Lloyd is ‘pleased overall / to be looked at, riding in this cart, when all / your life you’ve been invisible and walked.’ Benson’s ability – with as little manipulation of the facts as necessary – to turn a moment of injustice on its head is breathtaking, performed as well as anything in Heaney. It’s a poem to savour.

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Immediately afterwards is ‘Love-Letter to Vincent’, a series she describes in an insightful interview with Granta as coming from a period of writer’s block. The sequence’s narrative (though narrative is not at all its main concern) is of the speaker’s uneven and often emotionally abusive relationship with Van Gogh, here depicted – as realistically as can be discerned by historical documents such as his own letters to his brother, one of which is quoted in the epigraph – as a sort of unstable genius. On first reading I was hugely put off by the sequence’s power dynamics: in the opening poem, the speaker describes herself as ‘your wounded girl, your damned and lovely prostitute’; in ‘Pear Tree in Blossom’ are the lines ‘your mouth sweet to kiss, / your sticky beard … Christ. I never thought I’d beg’; ‘Sunflowers’: ‘I listen to you move in the other room / and I burn; your meanest tread outside my door / and I almost come, but you never enter in.’ Ostensibly the sort of writing that I tend to chew out men poets for. And while it might be true that the early poems in the sequence partly perpetuate the powerful artist/silent, suffering muse dynamic, their aim (I think) is in foregrounding the woman’s perspective, and so undermining a very familiar setup. Benson presents this relationship entirely without frills or excuses, in all its taboo-exploring, self-destructive, Stockholm syndromey recklessness. We might hope that the poems’ speaker fare better in future, but ‘Love-Letter to Vincent’ is an important account in its own right, depicting in no uncertain terms the damage done to both parties by the relationship’s uneven distribution of power.

The turning point seems to come in ‘Portrait with a Bandaged Ear’, in which the painter repeatedly shows up at the speaker’s door, ‘and I let you in and I let you in and I let you in – / remember the long afternoons of our youth / spent wrapped in the covers as if night would never come, / how fierce you were and clear, back then. […] we’re running / out of grace. Men will come and ask me to confirm / your name. I want you strong and well. Please stay.’ The speaker’s acquiescence is reframed as an active defence of the better part of a disintegrating mind, and the sequence’s focus changes accordingly. Van Gogh slips into the background, and the next piece, ‘Irises’ seems increasingly to speak to the poet over the painter: ‘Art’s not all you’d hoped […] There’s remedy yet. / Today you may not make a master-mistress piece: / so what? […] Get back to work.’ Intriguingly, the sequence’s conceit fades as the poet regains her own power of composition, as ‘Place du Forum’ puts it, gets ‘in it for the long haul’. It’s this capacity for layered reading that makes Bright Travellers such a fascinating, compulsive re-read, and makes its exuberant presentation of its own instability lodge in the imagination. As Benson notes in the Granta interview, Olds and Matthew Dickman are presiding influences, and while Dickman’s poems might err on the preening or the self-conscious pose, Benson is able to pack more of a punch without even a whiff of emotional grandstanding. This sequence is an exciting one, and it’s a real treat to be trusted enough as a reader to make mistakes on the first read.

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The book’s final section features poems on pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood, some of which are marvellously powerful and written in a kind of weary-but-undefeated tone established elsewhere in the collection. ‘Sheep’ in particular is noteworthy in its stoical assertiveness, conflating a horrific scene of a dead ewe being picked apart by crows and chickens with the poet’s own miscarriage, but ending with ‘Yet once it was done I got up, / gathered my bedding / and walked.’ Similar is the exceptionally dark-humoured ‘Repairs’, which sees the midwife ‘holding pins / between her tightened lips // as she works / with both hands / round the wound / to stitch me back in.’ These last poems are again impressive in their willingness, if not eagerness, to self-portray as frightened or discontent or simply absurd, and all in a form that never loses sight of its purpose, giving the poem the formal control that permits/compliments its imaginative unmannerliness. The lines toward the end of ‘Small Mercies’ are beautifully weighted and perfectly unresolved: ‘partly longing to be free / and partly unable to wish myself / anywhere but here’.

At the end of the second or third readings, the only sincere criticism I could think of is the book’s slightly incongruous title. The unit ‘bright travellers’ comes in a poem called ‘Visitations’, and refers not to the foetal outline on the book’s cover but the invisible beings the poet’s child stares at in ‘blank corners’ of the room. It’s a wispy phrase that does little to highlight the best parts of the collection, its controlled rage, its emotional frankness. I suspect shenanigans.

Tl;dr: It’s a great book, and if it took me a few reads to really get what it was trying to achieve then more fool me. Despite the very weird and not necessarily beneficial editorial decisions I’d happily recommend it to anyone, and I suspect it’ll be deep in the running when the prize winners are announced.

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Hugo Williams – I Knew the Bride

Full Disclosure: Haven’t read any of Williams before. Faber poets don’t tend to do well on this blog.

Review: [A pre-review aside: Williams is currently searching for a kidney donor. Going by the campaign’s Facebook page, potential donors have been found. I sincerely wish him and his family all the best of luck.]

I Knew the Bride is an extended examination of loss and mortality, told with Williams’ characteristic whimsical airiness and plain speech. Its occasional lyrics are spread between two long sequences, ‘Now That I’ve Forgotten Brighton’, about the breakup of a relationship and ‘From the Dialysis Ward’, as mentioned above. The book kicks off fairly well, with ‘New Year Poem’, a wryly sad and slightly resigned piece about the increasing difficulty of getting out of bed: ‘The day is difficult to start. / I leave it at the top of a hill / the night before.’ This, as is tradition, is the best written and most deeply felt individual poem in the collection.

By contrast, ‘Now that I’ve Forgotten Brighton’ is a distinctly thin, often adolescent account of a breakup that kind of plays on the logical joke in the title, but is more consistently a fairly mopey response to amorous failure: ‘It should have been okay / but it turned out not to be’, ‘I suppose you’re right and breaking up / would be quite a good thing, / but staying together would be an equally good thing’, ‘I can only look on, while my hand / dials a number it knows by heart […] I will her hand not to pick up’. I imagine the simplistic register is a deliberate decision, but the poems lack sincere or difficult self-questioning, dampening their emotional power. The poem after this sequence, ‘Actaeon’ (the hunter killed by his own hounds in punishment for seeing the goddess Diana bathing), does a fine job of brushing off any remaining sympathy by kicking off with ‘I thought of all my girlfriends / gathered together on a stage’, ‘‘I didn’t know you girls all / knew one another’, I said, / seeing only a tumble of looks and limbs.’ Again, there’s probably some self-parody going on (you’d hope), but it’s clumsy and facile and presents more than it challenges. A similar scene in performs this exact function far more perceptively. Hot on ‘Actaeon’’s heels is ‘Twenty Yards Behind’, a villanelle with such insights as ‘All those things men find so intense / women take as the most tender nonsense’. One of the rhyme-words is ‘detumescence’.

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The title poem, an elegy for the poet’s sister, quite clearly opens some raw and painful wounds, but in execution the piece feels a touch too allusive, a little too fixed in personal anecdote to gain traction as a public gesture; it introduces a number of reminiscences without slowing down to properly engage with them, and the poem peters out. The proceeding individual lyrics are little stories about railway porters, life at public school in the fifties, and an ill-advised fantasy about acquiring organs called ‘The Chinese Stock Exchange’ in which a ‘teenage con-girl in martial arts gear’ and a ‘man in pyjamas’ say ‘You pay me now I come back later’ and ‘Tonight very busy night’ respectively. There’s no excuse for deploying ethnic stereotypes for comic effect, and these pieces are united in their failure to fully explore their lyric conceits. One bright spot is a terrific translation of Cavafy’s ‘Garments’, short enough to quote in full:

In an old trunk or in an ebony chest
I put away the yellow clothes of my childhood,
my favourite yellow clothes.

I put away the blue clothes I wore as a boy,
the blue clothes that boys always wear,
followed by the red clothes of my youth,

the exciting red clothes of a young man.
I put away the red clothes, then I put away
the blue clothes again, more faded this time.

I wear black clothes. I live in a black house.
Sometimes at night I open the ebony chest
and gaze with longing at my beautiful clothes.

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The closing section, ‘From the Dialysis Ward’ feels like nothing so much as a missed opportunity. Again, there’s little sense of difficult questions being asked by the poems; many are straightforward reportage, including disdain for a male nurse in ‘A Healthy Interest’, (‘He looks disappointed with me. / My indifference in fear, he says. / I need to take an interest in my case’) and objectification of a female nurse in ‘The Angel of the Needles’: ‘The beauty of the Indian nurse / puts the fear of God in me […] Did she have to take a needling test / like other mortals? / Or did they let her in / for being one of the angels? // I want her to like me’. She’s a medical professional. This is not complicated. ‘Prayer Before Sleeping’ is the most effective poem in the sequence, aiming as it does for a sense of hopelessness, desperation and fear, ‘Slip me some sort of clue / that knows what to do with me / and I promise I’ll be good.’ It’s a moment that stands out for its clear-sightedness.

[Post-review aside: there’s a quote in the back cover of I Knew the Bride from Edna Longley, aka my hero, describing Williams as ‘Possibly the most original poet of his generation.’ Longley’s quote in fact refers to the 1985 collection Writing Home, and reads, ‘Possibly the most original poet of his generation in England.’ Omitting the quote’s full context is petty misinformation, and that sort of thing bugs the life out of me.]

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Tl;dr: I Knew the Bride doesn’t deserve its spot on the shortlist by the quality of writing alone. The poems feel rushed and unpolished, and some of the writing’s underlying messages are unexamined and harmful. There are a few moments of real accomplishment, but these are few and far between the book’s formally and thematically scattershot entries.

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John Burnside – All One Breath

Full Disclosure: Last time Burnside had a book out I reviewed it and hated it.

Review: If you liked Black Cat Bone, you’ll like All One Breath. The new collection begins with a series called ‘Self Portrait as Funhouse Mirror’, and if you thought that might portend something ludic you mightn’t’ve read Burnside before. In the opening poem, ‘Hall of Mirrors’ the child poet sees himself, ‘baby-faced / pariah; little / criminal’, before realising, ‘The backrooms of the heart are Babylon / incarnate, miles of verdigris and tallow and the cries / of hunting birds, unhooded for a kill // that never comes. / I saw that, when I saw this otherself’. The child then joins (or thinks he joins) his mother in seeing ‘what I was / beyond the child she loved, the male / homunculus she’d hoped I’d never find / to make me like my father […] a blear / of Eden from that distance in the glass […] that’s never ours alone, / including us, till everything / is choir.’ The poem rests on both presenting the story through the child’s eyes and explicitly investing the child with the understanding the poem presents. That choir image is reprised in the closing poem, ‘Choir’, but strangely tells the story of how the young poet didn’t participate in said choir. ‘Everything / is choir’ except himself; this is a neat encapsulation of the problems I have with the book.

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‘Hall of Mirrors’ is easily the best poem in the collection, which might be why it’s at the front of the book and will likely be quoted at length in the breathless Guardian review when Burnside wins again. It has many of the poet’s signature features: self-reflection both literal and conceptual, nature as pathetic fallacy, other humans as pathetic fallacy (‘her face was all / reflection’), ‘dusk’ as indicator of liminal space, an ending that elides all semantic responsibility by literally/grammatically qualifying itself out of reasonable accountability. To that end, if you were to wordcloud All One Breath ‘almost’ would probably loom large, alongside ‘half’. It’s totally reasonable to describe an experience as ‘half-imagined’, but doing it twice in the same collection (‘such fauna as I only half-imagine / are ghosts out of Bewick’, ‘I felt [the dead goldfinch’s] mercy, / something only half- / imagined’, not to mention ‘I half-believed / that nothing would be there’) speaks to a narrowness of imaginative range, the poet as primary custodian of common sense and meaning. In the poem ‘Erosion’, for example, the poet looks on in scorn at his countryside neighbour rounding up sheep with a quad bike: ‘Soon he’ll have turbines up; he’ll buy out / my better neighbours, building, field by field, / his proud catastrophe / of tin and mud. / I loathe him, but it’s nothing personal […] and yet not enough in him / of worth or life / to qualify as foe’. It’s unedifying stuff, placing the poet’s own ‘wind-slender / kinship of sea and blood / and the kinship of the earth / with everything that crawls beneath the stars’ directly in contrast with his renewable energy-loving (how dare he) neighbour. The poem suffers from a logical disconnect: nature is presented as mysteriously bestowing kinship on man (via ‘sea and blood’), but it is within the poet’s remit to refuse this same kinship to his fellow. Where does the poet really believe the kin-making power lies?

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There’s little escaping the sense that the ecological in All One Breath is yoked to the semantic plough. Nature does not appear in its own right (see Michael Longley, Edward Thomas, or for a more recent example Jen Hadfield), but as background colour for the performing poetic self. There are plenty of kittiwakes and larks and sparrows, but the poems in which natural life is given individual focus are ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768’, which focuses not just on the bird’s suffering but the fear it causes in young women, and ‘Instructions for a Sky Burial’, in which a coyote’s rotten head gives rise to the poet’s wish to be disposed of similarly, ‘unwashed and naked […] where the crows / can find me’, giving back to his imagined corpse the centre stage. It’s telling that on both occasions the studied animal no longer has living agency, unable to supersede the needs of the observing self.

This habit has a particularly uncomfortable effect on the collection’s several elegies. In ‘The Day Etta Died’, for the singer-songwriter Etta James, we first watch the poet ‘marking a stack of essays / on Frank O’Hara // and each had a Wiki- / paragraph to say // who Genet was, and who / was Billie Holiday’. His students do not have the same cultural references as the poet, and are thus condemned; how does this increase our understanding of the life and importance of the singer? ‘Nocturne: Christmas, 2012’, i.m. Dennis O’Driscoll, begins ‘When I heard you had died, I went out into the yard / and stood a while, like something that belonged / to darkness’ and ends ‘[that Christmas Eve] the headlamps snagged on a ewe, in the first wet snow / and I stopped, by the side of the road, / to untangle the wire.’ Again, the elegy’s power to revitalise and restore is elided in favour of self-presentation, and a few gestures towards ‘We all need a second life’, ‘Say what you will, all making is nostalgia,’ leave only a passing, passive impression of the man elegised. Witness also the weird power dynamics in ‘The End’, in which ‘Strangers are making love / in my grandmother’s house / forty years after she died,’ and the poet wishes to address the new man of the house (the woman is off doing woman things, presumably), ‘If I could, I would tell him / a story I heard long ago […] It’s a story he doesn’t know, but halfway through / he sees that it has to end / in the safety of fog’, the unknown man becoming an extension of the poet’s authority.

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Tl; dr: All One Breath is not a ‘bad book’. It’s perfectly competently put together, the lines flow and there’s plenty of dark darkness to make it sound like some deep emotion is being played out. But what this collection and The Dark Knight Rises have in common is mistaking that darkness for emotional complexity, for a challenging philosophical stance. Dude writers have been brooding over dead things for quite some time, and this isn’t breaking any new ground; it’s the book’s sheer conventionality, the artistic conservatism that pushes me away. That’s without addressing the whiff of misogyny that appears any time a woman is subject to the poem’s eye, or the epigraph addiction, the near-identical register and rhythmic similarities of each poem. In short, All One Breath is not an enlightening book, and there are a great many poets more deserving of your attention.

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Vidyan Ravinthiran – Grun-tu-molani

Full Disclosure: This book was recommended to me by a pal before Forward came about. Nice to have a good reason to review it.

There are no videos of Ravinthiran’s poetry online. This has never happened before.

Review: The phrase ‘Grun-tu-molani’ is explained by the book’s epigraph, a passage from Saul Bellow’s 1959 novel Henderson the Rain King, and means ‘I want to live’. The context seems fairly complicated and tied up with western privilege and should probably be investigated by someone who has read the novel. Anyway, if we take Henderson’s excited, life-affirming outburst at face value, it largely matches the register of Ravinthiran’s first collection, a wild, unpretentious, occasionally misstepping but thoroughly pleasurable book.

Indeed, if Ravinthiran has a dramatic flaw™, it might be his drive to include everything, to speak quickly and incisively then move on. In several pieces, like ‘A Chair Addresses Jackie Chan’, ‘Fallout 3’ (a personal favourite), some excellent translations ‘from the Puranaru’ and the required-reading ‘The Zany White Poet (after Benjamin Zephaniah)’ (‘so liberated / from history’), this impulse for sounding out the odd and wonderful gives the collection a sense of urgency, a diary-style thought-recording that many poets attempt and few accomplish; in his acknowledgements Ravinthiran thanks Leontia Flynn for her editing, and the poets’ affinities are clear to see. Not all of these set pieces hit their marks, however. ‘The Lecture’, in which Ravinthiran figures his students as assorted birds – e.g. ‘the owl thought he knew better’ – feels a little condescending; the speaker is figured as human rather than (for instance) adult bird, and the closing line, ‘but it was time to fly. I threw the windows open,’ is a shade to the wrong side of patronising. Similarly, the ambitious ‘Anti-circ’ is a little unclear in its message. The title refers to being anti-circumcision (for which the poem suggests we read ‘anti-Semitic’), and begins with an epigraph from Nabokov, ‘we are vertebrates tipped at the head with a divine flame’. The poem itself is a series of responses to various writers, starting with Nabokov, who campaigned against anti-Semitism, ‘Once I cracked Lolita’s spine I found myself knee-deep in cheesecake / my not-quite-fist unclenched, disclosed a wet cluster of blackberries’, and finishing with John Updike (who Bellow once described as ‘an anti-Semitic pornographer’) and Enoch Powell:

Updike’s prose flaunted the revealed

cleanliness of a girl’s arse, its well-briefed sway up the stairs ahead;
and when I called up from the stacks Enoch Powell’s uncut First Poems

her skilled tongue agitated my thankfully intact frenulum.

The poem seems to run in two threads: each writer’s anti-Semitism and the reader’s pleasure; as the former intensifies the latter tends towards sexual exploitation, highlighting the sexual location of hatred in the poem’s title. The poem might well be drawing attention to the links between two kinds of oppression, but this remains in the subtext. I absolutely believe that ‘Anti-circ’ has nothing but good intentions, but the poem slightly muddles an issue of some gravity, and in its last lines falls into the trap of presenting rather than challenging oppression.

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The long poem, ‘Sigiriya’, is a much deeper and more complex quest into the roots of male power-hunger. Sigiriya, as the book’s notes explain, is a rock-fortress in central Sri Lanka, about a hundred miles from Colombo, which was once home to King Kasyapa, the poem’s main character, in the 5th century CE. Alternating between third- and first-person narrative, the poem relates the king’s homicidal megalomania, ‘Perhaps Sigiriya was no fortress […] but his try at a separate state, / a state of one, just one just man,’ his eventual overthrow by his brother and the rock’s contemporary status as tourist attraction. In Ravinthiran’s hands the story gains traction in its discussion of familial expectation and the search for home, albeit inflated to vainglorious proportions. The most impressive feature of the poem, one reflected throughout the collection, is the poet’s ability to manage its tone, to deploy the precisely humanising line that brings its heterogenous tendencies back to shared emotional ground. Hence Kasyapa’s acceptance that ‘When I went down to fight from my red rock, I could have been Wilde, / finding it harder and harder to live up to his blue china.’ The poem’s final section, printed in italics to signal its divergence from the main plot, has an English archaeologist ‘discover’ the site in 1895, ‘led, he admits, / by a ‘brave Sinhalese lad’ // who had the nerve / to precede / the archaeologist.’ The cycle of imperial hierarchy starts again.

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Another sequence, ‘Foreign Bodies’, explores the poet’s own family history, telling the stories of ‘Rajes’, ‘Kuthimama’, himself and his parents. These poems thoughtfully relate the violence and injustice that each family member has experienced: Rajes’ suicide amongst talk of her ‘adulterous body’; Kuthimama’s life as a doctor in Trinco, where ‘they said he stitched up men he should have turned away’; as the poet reads a letter rejecting his poetry as ‘just another ethnic ort’, he notices racist graffiti on the bathroom wall, graffiti which he in turn admires for its ‘craftsmanship, / painstaking, light-years beyond your token / swastika in wobbly biro or felt-tip… / Yes, how I relished each letter of rejection!’ The poem’s closing section has a beautifully conceived vision of the poet’s mother being ‘driven through every council estate the BNP // exploits, speak, love-fluskering, to the people / from your own Pope-mobile,’ a figure of pure, innocent positivity:

when you first came to this country
the snow you’d never seen before went on for weeks.
As kids gurn at sprouts, you must have gawped with joy
at that strange white – till your face got fixed that way.

Not for the first time in Grun-tu-molani, rejection is countered with acceptance.

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Few of Ravinthiran’s symbols appear more than once, and snow is perhaps the most obvious. The poem ‘Snow’ (a significant title for Flynn and MacNeice fans, and MacNeice’s poem is at the heart of this one) is a stunning piece of imaginative acrobatics, connecting snow’s mutable nature to the importance of emotional sensitivity and flexibility: ‘Sure the anchors call it treacherous / but I’ve met it down dark alleys all my life’, ‘The difference between snow and water is / the difference between dialectic and a kiss, / between a birth certificate and spare change’, ‘white shapes of breath that want, like the smoke / from a cigarette, or the super-slow-mo ripples / of a cube of gelatine bounced off tile, to be / the drapes and folds of statuary’. Wow. ‘Snow’ conveys its meaning but is not easily explained, and, in its demonstration of what a writer engrossed in and given over to their symbol can do, is one of the collection’s great pleasures, and this poem might well be at the heart of the collection’s understanding of the world. careful and various and too much to be simply comprehended; the book’s success comes from its productive engagement with the attempt.

Tl;dr: Grun-tu-molani reveals more of its odd, bold and generous perspectives with each reading. Though some of its poems don’t quite offer up their ideas or fumble the attempt, the collection is full of energy, wit and sensitivity, and is very much worth reading.

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Hannah Silva – Forms of Protest

Full disclosure: Have seen Silva perform live once. She was pretty great!

Review: Silva’s poems are unlike anything I’ve read. As the video above (and this podcast, absolutely required listening) demonstrate, Silva’s physical voice is central to her aesthetic, removing it a huge risk; the formal aspect of the work is an integral part of the complicated and angry messages that the poems present. Her background in music, theatre and sound poetry inform Forms of Protest from the foundations up, and that the poems’ technical intricacy and often dispassionate removes are transferable to the page at all is a remarkable achievement. That so many successfully convey their political anger and emotional precision is a large part of what makes Forms of Protest a valuable book.

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The poems themselves are remarkable for the relative absence of the poetic ego. Only one poem, a startlingly frank snapshot of adolescent life at a boarding school in ‘School of Music’, has anything that could be reasonably identified as autobiographical, which seems like a forceful statement in itself. Here, Silva connects her first sexual experiences with an early understanding of how performance becomes reality, or constructs versions of the self:

Her sex didn’t speak to me, but it didn’t hurt;
it didn’t give or take but at least it was easy.
Afterwards, I remember thinking –
man or woman, it doesn’t matter, but there has to be love.

Placed alongside the more dynamic analyses of public language, ‘School of Music’ is far more conventional a poem, lyrical-minded and intimately anecdotal. But the poem has a major role to play in the collection’s drama, asserting the poet’s basic faith in the sanctity our most personal relationships. Though this poem’s long lines might feel baggy and a little insubstantial, their casual directness is a concerted departure from the book’s norms; without it, there would be little to suggest that the book’s attacks on political mealy-mouthing or the commodification of women’s bodies was built on an essential hopefulness that it might change for the better. We might fruitfully compare Silva’s approach to teenage sexual awakening to Keston Sutherland’s, another political-minded avant garde poet; Silva’s story is no less about disappointing and unglamorous first encounters, but is far more generous to its actors, less willing to play the scene for shock value. In depicting a young woman taking control of her sexuality, Silva undermines the narratives of domination and exploitation presented in Odes to TL61P.

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The book’s most powerful pieces often come from repurposing oppressive language, illuminating its most harmful aspects without manipulating much of the source matter. In ‘@Prosthetics’ (a powerful sound poem you can hear at around 3.30 on the linked podcast) the line ‘twenty percent of those with prosthetic / limbs will go back into war’ is placed alongside other quotes from a documentary on the subject, like ‘amputation is the first step / in rehabilitation’. The difference between the fragmented and traumatised audio version to the straight-talking text is noticeable, but that the finished product was allowed to go through such a dramatic change and retain its conviction is impressive. Similarly, the following poem, ‘Mannequin’, draws unsettling connections between the ‘breezy’, ‘Oh so perfect!’ register of fashion marketing and the poem’s violent dramatization of achieving its demands, ‘smile s s s split spill slip lip tears tears ears chic cheek’. In the poem’s closing line Silva shows her flair for the blunt force conclusion, for pushing the poem’s subtext back into the source text, ‘Headless mannequins are the ultimate choice for flexibility!’

Similar strategies are in play in ‘Tory Party Sonnet’: ‘There are some women, it is true, small numbers, / bright colours’, and the long sequence ‘Opposition’, which forms a kind of centrepiece in the collection. In it the rhetoric of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ speech in 2010 is performed in all its echolalic glory:

It’s great to be here in Liverpool
we’re happy about that.
I’ve been in Downing Street
it’s great to be here in Liverpool.
We’re happy about Downing Street
it’s great to be here in Liverpool.

The poem is high pastiche and sometimes leans towards the straightforwardly comic (‘My Big Passion / The Biggest Budget Deficit / My Big Idea / The Biggest Past Decade / Big Britains / Big Uglies’), but what keeps its edges sharp is the timely deployment of real, horse’s-mouth rhetoric, not least the iconic and devastating ‘Calm down dear’, which Silva gives its own section and might be the crux of the poem. The patronising remarks the Prime Minister made to MP Angela Eagle, then Shadow Secretary to the Treasury, are condescended to the Big Society at large, while the poem’s conclusion is a stark reminder that objections to this attitude might have no impact at all: ‘Yes, there will be objections / but you know what? / We’re happy about that.’ The smiling face of neoliberalism remains unmoved, an avuncular hair-ruffle to the wholesale hollowing out of democratic accountability.

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Among these are some beautiful elegies to Silva’s literary forebears, which could easily be overshadowed by the bolder-coloured pieces. ‘Le Momo’, for Surrealist Antonin Artaud, a rather beautifully expressed hope for the perfect, inclusive artistic experience tied to the perfect, inclusive death: ‘I wish to die holding my boots / following a session on a block of wood […] my daughters are watching, my friends / join in with an axe’. Please note, if you want to take a shortcut to the soft and squidgy part of my imagination, just write about wanting to hang out and make art with your friends. I’m a sucker for it. And ‘Le Momo’ hits that spot right between the eyes: ‘Over night we make a new language / then at the crossroads we are abandoned / by all possible human feeling.’ In a similar vein is ‘The Riverbank’, written for the feminist experimental poet/playwright Kathy Acker, who might well be one of the book’s patron spirits: ‘She didn’t know what it meant / when she walked through the city of the rich / and no one touched her, except physically.’ Again, the lyric elegy is the governing register, its closing line ‘You will leave behind an immensely human smell’ linking the book’s empathetic spine to its various political nerve clusters; how do you remain positive, particularly sex-positive, in a world that asks ‘What do you do with a slut?’ Much more quietly, but no less clear-sightedly, than other poems in the collection, ‘The Riverbank’ dramatises the narrowing of options for one who refuses to abide by social norms.

Tl; dr: And this is, I think, why I like Forms of Protest so much. It manages to explore its radical core, its steeping in radical theory and sense of technical adventure (though in a few pieces, like ‘Arvo crash’ and ‘Translations’, I struggled to rationalise the effort taken to understand with the relative simplicity of that understanding) while maintaining its lyric sensibility, its emotional receptivity, without which the book’s political anger might lose its force. These poems, too, are immensely human.

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Rachael Boast – Pilgrim’s Flower

Full Disclosure: Think I met her once at the Poetry Library? I enjoyed Sidereal, and this book was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize, and here we are.

Review: Pilgrim’s Flower is about walking. It’s also about churches, self-image, romance and turn-of-the-18th-century poetry. On the face of it, the book uses some of the most conventional materials poetry has to offer, and at a glance Pilgrim’s Flower might seem like a common/garden Poetry Book, with its pastoral epiphanies and domestic intimacy; that was certainly my first (bluntest) response. Once I took the time to properly focus on the poems, to follow their logical trains and recursive, self-questioning quests, the collection opened up.. That Boast quietly and carefully turns these swans and chapels into a book that feels immediately relevant, a deeply personal interpretation of life in 2014, is downright astounding.

It’s the book’s sheer weirdness, its combination of imaginative difficulty with syntactical simplicity (and vice versa), that suggests there is more depth than is immediately apparent. The first poem, ‘The Place of Five Secrets’, based on a scene from Belle et la Bête, is kitschy and theatrical, full of ‘gilded hand-held object[s]’, the ‘key, mirror, / horse, glove, and the rose at the centre of it all,’ ‘until her love’s second sight revives him as he is, // and not as others see him’. In retrospect it’s remarkably brave to set a poem so ostensibly adolescent-sounding at the head of the collection, the poet as Beast (Boast?), the reader as Belle shown ‘every fine detail’ in hopes ‘the blind world and its lack of faith’ will see the truth for themselves, all the while instructed to ignore the poet’s ego, ‘ne faut pas regarder / dans mes yeux’: ‘don’t look me in the eyes’. The poem works as entry and re-entry point, gathering meaning as the reader understands more of the poems that follow, and fully accommodating second or third readings; In its reference to Cocteau’s film it joins up to the book’s last poem, ‘Desperate Meetings of Hermaphrodites’, in which the secrets become the ‘five / points of a star’, and ‘the dripping statue, from whose mouth / all this had come, is dressing up as you’. Creepy. The first appearance, suggests Boast, cannot be the authoritative one, and the pilgrimage the book undertakes – try counting the mentions of walking, paths, feet – is far more important than its destination.

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On that note, the sheer number of other poets who walk with Boast is striking – Ciaran Carson, Sappho, Coleridge, Rimbaud, Akhmatova, Jean Cocteau, not to mention the lessons learned from MacNeice (mirrors, rivers, astonishing syntactical gymnastics) and Longley (the chapel of the short poem) – and how seamlessly they blend into Pilgrim’s Flower’s aesthetic. The book also follows Edward Thomas’s ecocentric work; in ‘The Notebook’ Coleridge gets out of his ‘jaunting-car’ and walks, ‘staying true to your allegiance / to local epiphany until nature knew / her secrets would be safe with you,’ elsewhere, in ‘Homage’, the waves ‘tell me homage means going / back to the same place until it knows you’. Boast asserts that the fixed, commandeering ego is an unsuitable, even unwelcome, poetic explorer, and although the drama of the individual poems habitually focus on the Romantic solitary figure in nature, Pilgrim’s Flower brings so many historical loners on the journey it’s hard to feel terribly alone. Place this alongside the Thomas-y sequence ‘Anon’, in which

And here’s another school, under my feet. Not a ruin
or a page from history, but the old, near earth,
the world as mirror for what’s unseen.
We can’t see by walking up and down
what we’ve sown, what we’ve dropped
into the furrows of our years
and covered over: the world’s this mirror.

If I’m getting this right, the poem (rather obliquely) asserts that solitary work, the individual monument, is not enough by itself; the world beyond the individual must intervene, and indeed must be granted by nature itself in return for the time and close attention that Boast demonstrates she has given. Maybe. Besides that the book generates enough material discussing the inherent connections between poetic, physical and architectural form (witness the book’s thoroughly secular attitude to prayer, hymns and spiritual buildings), and the reciprocal relationship between body and environment, to keep us going for weeks. The sheer thematic focus, the interweaving of idea and execution, of these poems is deeply impressive, and trying to isolate individual instances of the book’s several deeply discussed concerns only illuminates others. Homework: plot the changing significance of swans in the book (bearing in mind that a female swan is a ‘pen’).

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Maybe it’s worth focusing on the character the collection returns to more than any other, the 18th century poet Thomas Chatterton. Chatterton was a child prodigy from Bristol who grew up in the shadow of St Mary Redcliffe cathedral (which has its own long sequence in Pilgrim’s Flower), and who became so engrossed in his studies of Medieval poetry he decided to take on the persona Thomas Rowley, and passed off some of his own original work as authentic medieval documents he’d discovered. Chatterton failed to find a patron, suffered bouts of depression and took his own life at the age of seventeen. Boast focuses on the empowering nature of Chatterton’s self-construction, gives him an organic place in his environment by some beautiful lines connecting him to the cathedral, ‘your fate sealed into you like a nave / scrolling over a series of memorial stones / to a place-on-high; guises revealed not as forgeries / but the mutable self fluttering by candlelight.’ Chatterton is held up against the uncharitable and unforgivably earthbound Dr Johnson, ‘who got his backside / stuck up the winding stair of Mary Redcliffe, / playing critic to one he considered / and un-tutored provincial pauper’ in ‘The Charity of Thomas Rowley’. The periphery trumps the hub by subterfuge.

All of which might make Pilgrim’s Flower sound like a cold, calculated equation of a book, and certainly the preponderance of wan poets and lonely dales might make it sound like there’s not a whole lot of blood and guts in among the riddles. Dotted around the collection like well stocked bothys, however, are poems like ‘Aubade’, ‘After Sappho’ and ‘Redressing Marsyas’, in which the lyric is turned to a high heat and the rigid formal structure that props up the book is pushed to its limits. In this sense Pilgrim’s Flower makes better use of poetry’s formal restrictions than most in recent years, second only perhaps to Sinéad Morrissey’s Parallax. Almost every poem runs on a strict meter, and very few are encumbered by its demands. The sheer flexibility of tone and content Boast displays in the book’s basic four/five-beat line is as impressive as it’s unassuming, and well worth close study.

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Tl;dr: It’s been a long time that I’ve read a book thatstill seems full of possibility, full of unexplored meaning. Though I fully accept the possibility that dense, riddling poetry isn’t everyone’s particular cup of chai latte, it’s a superb example of a technique whose strategies are very much worth learning. Pilgrim’s Flower is, at its heart, generous, inclusive and affirmative, its human relationships weird, unglamorous and real, its propositions to the present no less important for their elusiveness. I suspect I’ll be reading this years from now.

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Niall Campbell – Moontide

Full disclosure: Niall’s a pal. Hope you trust me to be impartial.


Review: Lately I re-read both Nathan Hamilton’s manifestroduction to Dear World and Everyone In It and Sam Riviere’s debut collection 81 Austerities, along with some criticism that came out at the time (see Peter Riley on Dear World, Alex Niven and Stephen Ross on 81 Austerities). Hamilton explicitly sets out to establish the new establishment, a few reviewers in the national dailies tripped sideways to do so on Riviere’s behalf, ‘hyperbolised out of existence’. Hamilton’s response to poetry-as-tradition posited that new uncomplicatedly equaled better, thus old should uncomplicatedly get out of the way; as Riley notes, however, Hamilton’s essay reiterates a process of artistic clearance that happens once every couple of decades, and is itself a fairly traditional gesture. 81 Austerities, on the other hand, doesn’t dispense with a Romantic approach to writing poetry as much as give it a new vocabulary; to that end the book is, perhaps Odes to TL61P aside, as idiosyncratic a collection as has appeared in recent years, and is due praise for its singular vision. Like Odes, however, it suffers from a lack of conceptual complexity and flexibility at its core, and many of its primary assumptions are wholly conventional – self as primary agent, women as prize/object/list of names, art as commerce, self as primary locus of meaning.

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I mention all this as a way of approaching a book which is openly and wholeheartedly wired into the lyric poetry tradition, and ably demonstrates the benefits of building on the achievements of poetic predecessors rather than painting them as traitors to the revolution. The presences of Frost, Heaney, Mahon, Paterson and Jamie are enabling and benign, less the Bloomian nightmare of Hamilton’s perpetual avant-garde, and Moontide is perhaps most comfortable when negotiating its place within this tradition, and some of the best individual pieces come from an ability to play with the tonal expectations it creates. ‘The Fraud’ comes at the crest of a series of poems (‘After the Creel Fleet’, ‘The Tear in the Sack’, ‘Black Water’) that gradually bring to the surface the book’s imaginative underworld, explicitly one that revolves around island ecology and the sea at night. Here’s ‘The Fraud’ (hope the copyright gods don’t mind):

How like a shepherd or herdsman of loss
I must have whistled out into the evening
that a childhood dog came cowering to my heel:
years under, its coat now wool-thick with soil
and loosely collared with the roots of bog-myrtle.

A surprise then my old companion strained
to sneak by me to the fire and my wife.
Checked by a boot, it bore not a dog’s teeth
but a long, black mouth. Then it slunk back to the hill.
Some nights I hear this thin dog claw the door.

The poem’s positioning in the collection, at the point where historical reality and metaphor blur for the first time, is very pleasingly weird, as is its utter refusal to provide emotional or aesthetic comfort, as in ‘Song’ or ‘When the Whales Beached’. Though Moontide’s opening poems are beautifully measured and conceptually well-crafted, it is ‘The Fraud’’s spot of chaos and fear that first demonstrates the book’s full dramatic range; it’s very rare to see a poem paint its (ostensibly) autobiographical speaker so powerlessly, to prioritise the poem’s own dramatic mechanisms over the speaker’s self-image. See also the wonderfully Gaiman-y ‘The House by the Sea, Eriskay’, almost a companion poem, in which ‘the drowned climb to land’, ‘drying out their lungs’, ‘wringing their hands / until the seawater floods across the floor’. Moontide’s horror poems are a little genre to themselves.

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And I think this is at the heart of Moontide’s endeavour. Few recent collections have such a facility with shaping the dramatic moment, of locating the crucial detail in its own conceit. This may be where Mahon’s influence bears the most fruit: Campbell shares that poet’s ability to turn the poem on its head in its closing phrases (as seen above), which occurs so often throughout the collection it’s almost easier to note where it doesn’t. This semantic restlessness is one of the collection’s major pleasures, one that rewards multiple readings and close attention.

While we’ve got Mahon on the phone, we should probably also look at Campbell’s concision. Few poems cross the page, which – combined with the well-judged brevity of the book at large, another rare treat – permits the kind of cumulative reading that is one of lyric poetry’s great weapons, the recurring chimes and echoes, that ability to say ‘not only but also’ across an entire book. ‘Window, Honley’ is a good example of this tendency to recycle and repurpose images introduced elsewhere, appropriately (or serendipitously) a poem about time: ‘The village bell’s been broken for a month, […] so I’ll ask what time matters anyway: / just light, less light, and dark; the going off / of milk or love; our tides claimed back: weed rafts, // green wood and all; those old wolves disappearing / from the bleak forest that we dream about’. It’s probably not a coincidence that a collection so deeply concerned with time’s passing is at pains not to waste the reader’s. And how’s this for a finish: ‘the marriage that // left confetti in the streets until the storm; / yesterday’s sweet unrust; a man with pen / at a lit window, that he’s long since left.’

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As ‘Aesthetics, on a Side Street off Glasgow Green’ notes, Campbell’s work ‘too, / stiffens with the influence of frost’, where for ‘frost’ read ‘Frost’, which I can’t help feeling is a wee breadcrumb for detective-critics like myself. It does illuminate that part of Campbell’s writing that reaches for the deep thought through common language, though, and makes very little fuss about the attempt. Of course, sneaking in a pointer towards a poet of Frost’s stature is its own kind of boldness, and you could argue that on occasion the consciously literary pieces fall flat; ‘Reading Émile Zola, Grez’, for example, questionably asks the reader to look at ‘girls in red tops sleeping on thick grass […] teasingly / disclosing tender shapes they would take on / in a double bed’. However ironically pitched, this brings little to the book’s conversation. Far more common, though, are Moontide’s imaginative and well-wrought lyric spaces, the small victories and evasion of easy conclusions.

Tl;dr: Moontide is a pretty great book, one that manages to keep its ingredients simple and its dishes complex. If there’s some atmospheric similarities to the patriarchs of Scottish poetry (Burnside, Robertson etc), they are largely undone by Campbell’s ability to speak directly and pragmatically about love, to mostly avoid those poets’ casual misogyny, and to consistently puncture or undermine the speaker’s authority. Moontide is a collection that rewards patience and generous reading.

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