Frances Leviston – Disinformation

Full Disclosure: Met Leviston briefly a couple of years ago. Review copy provided by Picador. This is a long essay, but there’s a wee intermission in the middle, if you’d prefer to read it in two bits.

Review: Disinformation begins with two epigraphs: a stanza from Giorgios Seferis’ Mythistorema, and a line from Adrienne Rich’s essay ‘Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying’. It might be labouring the point to say they provide a framework for understanding the collection, but I can’t remember the last time a book’s epigraph game was so on point. Seferis’ long poem is a 24-part updated Odyssey, an investigation of how history and myth bleed into and overshadow the present; the stanza quoted, ‘I woke with this marble head in my hands […]’ comes from a section titled ‘Remember the baths where you were murdered’, Orestes’ prayer for vengeance to, and for, his murdered father, Agamemnon, in the Oresteia, an invocation for continued violence, that ‘Ares will encounter Ares’. Disinformation is explicitly concerned with an ever-encroaching past and shares Seferis’ sense that the marble head is both an inspiration and a burden.

Rich’s essay is a remarkable piece of writing from 1975, critiquing in utterly humane terms the structural restrictions on women’s ability to trust and support one another. Rich examines how gendered ideas about honour and truth-telling allow mere silence to do the same work as overt oppression: it asks how we might listen, how we might make it possible for others to break their silence. Forty years on, we have social media and its huge potential for solidarity, and along with it a whole new vocabulary to diminish those who have only just gained access to an open and engaged audience. Activism online is a powerful response to silence, and the backlash against it would barely have surprised Rich.

Returning to Disinformation, Rich’s essay too seems to provide the framework for the book’s engagement with myth, as well as a couple of its odd and striking images. ‘Octagonal Rug’, for instance, in its recursive, symbolic and interconnected imagery seems to echo Rich’s ‘The pattern of the carpet is a surface. When we look closely, or when we become weavers, we learn of the tiny multiple threads unseen in the overall pattern’. Rich also suggests:

‘We begin out of the void, out of darkness and emptiness. It is part of the cycle understood by the old pagan religions, that materialism denies. Out of death, rebirth; out of nothing, something.’

Leviston’s interest in mythic (or historic) cycles and their double bind (inspiration and burden), again appears to have an echo here. In any case, it’s a great essay, will take you half an hour. Might’ve been written yesterday.

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What I hope that makes clear is that Disinformation is a book that asks you to take your time (trivia fans will note the eight year gap between this and Leviston’s debut Public Dream). The poems’ subtextual threads seem to suggest a great deal of work going on beneath the surface; each of the three sections (‘I’, ‘II’, and ‘III’, though for some reason I can’t quite read them as ‘one’, ‘two’, ‘three’) has ten poems, few enough to be held in focus at once, enough to glance off each other at extremely weird angles. ‘I’ (first-person singular?) features a series of unusually tacky or old-fashioned objects: a matryoshka snowglobe in ‘GPS’, Pyrex, cocktail sausages and balloon animals in ‘Disinformation’, a cocktail umbrella, ‘plasticky-looking’ flowers, a ‘Gothic effect’ portrait from a ‘junk shop’, the recurring colour palette of red, pink, violet, ‘Chambord-pink’, ‘gammon-pink’, ‘any flavour as long as it’s red’. The poems seem to be pushing the reader towards a 1970s aesthetic in a time of GPS, intrauterine devices and Hurricane Katrina. It’s worth noting, however, that in these poems the untasteful poetic object is often a source of strength, either imaginative or emotional.

This focus on the odd and undesirable seems to point towards Elizabeth Bishop (there is a poem in this section called ‘Bishop in Louisiana’, and though its beach-walking, bird-watching narrator shares certain concerns with their poetic namesake, the narrator’s claim that ‘There is little to accomplish here’ in their ‘post in this village’, that ‘I write cheques for the fishermen […] speak to sad newscasters’, seems to point towards the (failed, indolent) ecclesiastical. A red herring? Christ this book). ‘GPS’ is a case in point. The opening line, ‘Like a wet dream this snow-globe was a gift / to myself’, is a real cracker that immediately elevates its object, even more so for its demands to be considered seriously in its comic tone: the snow-globe is connected to the poet’s subconscious, to pleasure and self-reliance. It’s also the first of several lines in the book that got an honest-to-god laugh out of me, a rare enough feat for a book of poems. The matryoshka might indeed be the subconscious made flesh: it

‘wears an inscrutable face:

there’s no telling how many dolls deep she goes
beyond her one red peanut-shell […]

an atmosphere of cerebrospinal fluid
under the smooth glass dome’s museum’

Why, though, would a Russian doll have layers in an inaccessible snow globe? The poem concludes:

‘Her compass boggles. Lie down there in that drift,
little girl, you’re feeling strangely warm,

and something big is about to make sense
if we just keep going in the opposite direction.’

How do you ‘keep going in the opposite direction’? Who is addressing who? My compass boggles. The poem’s title seems undermined by a different kind of positioning system; I can’t help reading a sort of two-fingers to conventional critical exegesis, which is oddly reassuring.

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The flip-side of this might be the three poems featuring luxury hotels, which appear in this section as sanctuaries for the wealthy and unscrupulous, an inversion or exaggeration of the other poems’ homely tastelessness. ‘The Bridge in the Mirror’ reflects on (perhaps) the G8 summit at the five-star Lough Erne resort in Northern Ireland in 2013. The poem packs its images in tightly, blending the protestors kettled ‘against plastic shield-walls tough as double glazing’, the ‘cutesy bottles’ of the committee’s mini-bar ‘rattling in their seats when the choppers pass, / like draft dodgers’. This middle stanza is bookended by two depictions of a woman entering and exiting a bath, with its ‘air-conditioned air’, ‘melon-tinted water’. The closing lines focus on ‘That foot would fit the shoe / in the heritage museum two clicks from here’; a quick google suggests that shoe might have belonged to a woman in the Fermanagh workhouse in Enniskillen Castle, a history and heritage museum. The poem locates the world’s grandees in a historical context of imperialism and exploitation (note the military jargon ‘clicks’), a bringing home of the bishop’s self-satisfaction and concern with media coverage in the previous poem.

For once, the back cover blurb makes sense, describing these poems as ‘proofs’; there is something meticulous and eccentric going on. Is there significance to describing the ‘Iresine’ in such joyfully gaudy language – ‘something that would titivate an antechamber’, ‘whining theremin-ethereal’, ‘flinching clitoral architecture’ – between a poem on IUDs and one called ‘Parma Violet’? There’s the blindingly obvious (but too often overlooked) assertion that these are poems from a woman’s perspective, that their author takes as inspiration other women writers who have managed to forge a career outwith literature’s traditional power structure. In an essay on the Poetry Foundation blog, ‘The Red Squirrels at Coole’, Leviston aligns herself with both Bishop and Rich, as well as the novelist and academic Marina Warner, who resigned her post at the University of Essex in protest against restrictive administration and for-profit academia. Comparisons between squirrel population and political self-determination aside, it’s a valuable insight into Leviston’s practice; Cavafy’s concept of a ‘city of ideas’ is a fascinating one, its suggestion that opposing systemic exploitation requires a border-crossing sodality of the imagination. Perhaps enrolment in this city requires allegiance not to a specific time or place; perhaps that allegiance permits the book’s easy movement between the particular and the mythic. Is that movement as easy as the collection makes it look? Is ‘The Paperweight’, which resembles ‘a skull-cap’, ‘weighing as much as a pint of milk’, and is raised ‘to my forehead’ a version of Seferis’ marble skull? Is the queasy narrator’s ‘apprehension / of a difference also seamless’:

‘like a sentence
you seem to have understood but can’t make sense of,
or something being done for you
without your permission, under the flag of helpfulness,
to which you can raise no legitimate objection’

a warning against ‘helpful’ over- or mis-explication? The poem’s closing image of a hippo yawning, ‘neoprene-impregnable’ and ‘showing teeth’ are noticeably resistant and perhaps (playfully? There’s something comic about a hippo) hostile to further investigation.

Right. We’re about half-way through. Here’s a wee palette-cleanser.

Okay? Okay. Section II (which by the end of the section puts me in mind of greek pillars, a propylaea which features in the poem of the same name) encounters myth and the ancient world as something crumbling and ready to be replaced, as dramatized in ‘Athenaeum’. Here, the story of Athena springing from her father’s head is rendered in terms of financial speculation and exclusive clubs. The poem’s final section, which closes the second part of the book, is a kind of prayer to Minerva, asking that she:

‘guard our sororities that know
no better; shed blessings as we pass

gossiping through the metal-detector doors
on campus’

Minerva, the Roman equivalent of Athena, is associated with hunting, wisdom and the protection of women, here figured in a university setting perhaps pre-empted by ‘sororities’, the metal-detector a reminder of the very real dangers still posed to women in education. The last line, ‘in Edgar’s Field, in Handbridge, in Chester’, brings the mythifying home, to a real-life, 2nd century shrine to Minerva, an unassuming means of access to the ancient. But simply providing access to the classical world is not, I think, the only ambition of this section of the book. On first read, it is somewhat drier, more ostensibly remote than the thoroughly personal and intimate poems elsewhere. After spending some time going over it, I can’t shake the feeling that Leviston here is absolutely engaging with the canon-making processes of british poetry, and finding them thoroughly wanting. Bear with me.

The first poem is ‘The Golden Age’, which Frost fans will see coming, but even then, the particular expression through which Leviston tears apart the gold-tintedness of nostalgia is brutally powerful. In examining a time when ‘we communed with gods’, when all acted in ‘fear of causing offence to a god’:

‘You would say yes. In the golden age,
whatever was offered, you would say yes.’

Turn this over for a while, consider what it implies about personal agency, potential for institutional oppression, even the possibility of consent; when you long for the days of yore, this is what you mean. It’s in this context that the section examines the failures of the canon (if that is what it’s doing. I can’t read it otherwise now though). In the six-part ‘Sulis’ (another goddess associated with Minerva, and also with sacred baths – compare to the sacrilegious bathing in section I), the statues are pictured enduring all, concerned with:

‘nothing beyond the pools of light
their own lamps throw […]

the boys who briefly rest in their shadows
cannot matter much to them,
as much as the veiled
flies on cows’ faces bother the cows.’

Rendering the goddesses as cows is perhaps as playful as their exaggerated self-containment, shades of Mallory Ortberg’s Art History series. But the point, as ever, should be taken seriously, and this image of self-reliance and fortitude may recall the productive (almost-)isolation of Elizabeth Bishop. It’s difficult to read the last section as anything but a direct comment on reading poems:

‘Water’s not particular, but where it passes is;
water like wisdom resists capture,
never complacent, revising itself
according to each new container it closes.’

Not only is this stanza a well-made container, note the weirdness of that last line: how does water ‘close’ its container? Doesn’t the container ‘close’ the water? Again, lending agency to something as traditionally passive as limpid pools is a strange and empowering act, particularly in context of Sulis, who carries a ‘floating parade / of people who laundered her difficult feelings / until she put them aside.’ The feelings, or the people? Either way, Sulis is left in control.

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In fact, the more I get my head around the poems’ taking of the piss out of the achievements of Great Men, the more the section makes sense. ‘Emblem’ takes a bee killing itself ‘in defence of the realm’ as nothing more than ‘A honeybee pinned to my thumb!’; the whole short poem is heavy on mock and light on heroism. The potentially highfalutin ‘Propylaea’ is instantly deflated by a pun on ‘properly’ in the first line. From ‘the highest vantage point for miles’ in ‘Hill Top Fort’, the narrator finds that:

‘For an

hour, what some men take
upon themselves can seem, if not
forgivable, familiar at least.’

This passage comes directly after a close focus on the work of ants, ‘oblivious to their pleasant seat’; what is human achievement, then, but so much drone-work, and for who? This all seems particularly relevant to ‘Reconstuction after ‘The Ruin’’, in whose title that dynamic of decrepitude and revitalisation is enacted. The Ruin is an 8th century poem, of which only fragments remain, which might refer to the city of Bath (aha! another clue), though that’s not necessarily relevant to the poem (oh). What it does feature is ‘reconstruction’ in the Crimewatch sense, as the ‘fabulous blueprints’ are imaginatively rebuilt, only to be torn down once more by ‘many a man of the past, / blazing with wine, blinding in the spoils of war / bounc[ing] his gaze from treasure to treasure’. If satire is a mirror, who are we looking at here?

To take a breather, it’s worth remembering that the poetry here, the actual verbal construction, is itself a pretty fantastic monument; though the above poems find the canon wanting, there’s also an unshakeable sense that, if not a canon exactly, an accessible poetic tradition is a vital and maintainable resource. Leviston might be building new walls over the old ones. Anyway, read back any of the quoted passages: they are light-footed and turn on a sixpence, but carry along with them an intense amount of freight. They don’t open up easily, and yes, they tax the reader, but I hope, if nothing else, that this monster of a review gives you some idea of how much (I really hope) is going on, how much reward there is to engaged and imaginative reading. Course, there’s always the possibility that I’ve walked straight into a critical trap and this is all gimcrack and bunkum.

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I was all ready to say that section III kinda eases up on the deep reading, until resident classics scholar Rachel McCrum pointed out that ‘Kassandra’, as well as being a seaside resort in Greece, is the name of the prophet in the Oresteia, blessed with foresight but cursed to be misunderstood. [Note also that Cassandra foresees Agamemnon’s death in the bath, cf Seferis – what exactly is it about bathing in this book?] If ever there was an apt metaphor for the poetic enterprise. The poem itself is weirdly oblique at times, drifting between images like ‘Moths drag their abdomens through the fluid sand / in eternity symbols’ and the apparently journalistic, the Bishop of ‘At the Fishhouses’:

‘Eagerly the restaurateur by the taxi rank
welcomes us, his only patron, to a blue-painted table
and disposable white paper table-cloth.’

When the poem describes the waitress, who ‘wants to talk’, as ‘from another time, with an open wound’, it could equally refer to the either of the poem’s literary or dramatic layers; knowing the connection to the prophet adds another level of understanding to the ruined town, the tourists’ intrusion on yet another locus of gradual decay.

Elsewhere, ‘Trimmings’ is a beautifully throwaway piece (or maybe not, but Christ knows I just want an easy gig at this point) about the narrator’s love of sweet liqueurs (which the reader could do with after all that heavy lifting DOUBLE-LEVEL MEANING SECURED), which riffs joyfully on the drinks’ flavours as much as the aural qualities of their names. Immediately afterwards is the beautiful ‘Caribou’, which becomes an emblem of continuity, endurance; despite being ‘apologetically small and feminine’, despite being ‘overburdened by antlers that spread like reasonable hands’:

‘Wherever they are going, those resinous eyes, resolutely unsoulful,
don’t blink or flinch. They never change at all.’

I’m giving the final section short shrift, but there’s just as much to admire here as elsewhere in the collection. Disinformation contains a lot of deep criticism of poetry, of the canon, of, yes, the disinformation surrounding a practice that gets a great many free passes because of some misbegotten notion that poetry happens in a safe, lofty space away from earthy concerns like feminism or workers’ rights. It also makes space for immediate, earthly, less exalted poetic moments like watching rabbits for two hours, seeing Doctor Who villains in a dilapidated house, balloon animals and yellow cheese. Leviston, I think, makes a case not only for the possibility of change but its necessity, and does so with a great deal of flair, wit and humanity. Implicit is that true social change (poetry being inextricably part of society) requires more than a superficial exchange of leadership, that ‘straight-talking’ is of limited value. Disinformation’s ‘difficulty’ – and it does take time and effort, and thank you so much for reading this whole thing – comes, I think, from a concerted engagement with difficult questions, a visceral encounter with intractable problems; it is not the literate obscurism that so often passes for profundity. Again, these poems are something like scientific ‘proofs’, the poet’s workings-out. I’ve no doubt that Disinformation will get a great deal of coverage: it really is ‘keenly-anticipated’, Leviston has engaged with big cultural questions before, and the book’s focus on the high-literary provides a great many critical breadcrumbs. If I’m reading it right, where those breadcrumbs ultimately lead the canon should fear to tread.

Tl;dr: This is a weird, unsettling and surprising book, and there is probably a lot that I’ve missed. Read it closely and carefully.

Rebecca Perry – Beauty/Beauty

Full Disclosure: None! New book, new poet. Happy days.

POW from Owen D. Davey on Vimeo.

Review: In an interview with Republic of Yorkshire is the rather excellent poem ‘Soup Sister’, which makes Beauty/Beauty a rare poetry collection that passes the Bechdel Test, a fact worth mulling over. It’s also a cracking poem about love and friendship over too-great distances, anchoring a discussion about female solidarity amid heartbreak and structural discrimination:

‘One of us, though I forget who, said
do you think women are treated like bowls
waiting to be filled with soup?
And the other one said, of course.’

The poem ends neatly poised between the desired reality and the imagined scene, focusing on a beloved detail which puts me (inevitably) in mind of Longley’s unanswerable questions to lost or missing friends:

‘how long do you stand
staring at the socks in your drawer
lined up neat as buns in a bakery,
losing track of time and your place in the world,
in the (custardy light of a) morning?’

Perry here deflates the potential melodrama with a descriptor that keeps the poem grounded, while also turning the complaint of the opening stanza – ‘it bothers me greatly that I can’t know / the quality of the light where you are’ – into an imaginative solution. Here, losing track is its own way of coming home, while that question mark remembers its ultimate inability to truly bridge the gap.

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The book’s recurring attempts and failures to convert artistic strategy into meaningful contact seems a key concern. ‘Sweetheart, come’ lists, in an odd, partly-centre-justified square of text, the things that will not suffice in place of the beloved (‘All the tea and buttered toast in the world is not enough’); ‘A Guide to Love in Icelandic’ makes similar hay out of its repetends in its almost obsessive attempts to find a suitable, perhaps composite, metaphor for love:

‘it’s like love
when the sun disappears for months
and when you stick cloves into an orange.

And when, in the woods, antlers fall from deer onto grass
it’s like love.
To persist into spring when you have lost
some part of the whole self.’

Take also ‘Poor Sasquatch’, (Perry’s Twitter handle), in which the mythical beast meets an altogether quotidian fate, ‘found face down on a dual carriageway’. Its body, inevitably, becomes a celebrity, a plaything of the rich and a curiosity for the public, ‘who came in droves to see this thing so long denied to them’. The last stanza has sasquatch follow the narrator into dreams, where it has both its dignity and agency restored, with an attraction to the vital surface that mirrors the poet’s:

‘peering in through the shop windows at the colourful cakes,
which he longed for.
And when I walked along a pavement
he was on the traffic side, taking the hits,
the headlights of a million cars setting him on fire.’

The poem, I think, works partly in light of another, ‘Pepo’, in which the narrator relates the movement from childhood innocence to the knowledge that her imaginary friend is just that; in both pieces the fabulous is given a kind of human dignity in the face of more animalistic humans. In ‘Pepo’, the child narrator escapes an 8th birthday party (‘her living friends screeched in the garden / like mosquitos’) to give her imaginary friend a kind of last rite by placing watermelon slices round the pond where they met, ‘then leaves them to contemplate this / new state of being, the insurmountable water’. Both poems dramatise the capacity of the imagination to provide strength or solace on one hand, to act as a psychically-rendered reminder of loss on the other.

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It may be valuable here to address an important factor in Perry’s aesthetic. I’ve sometimes been guilty myself of dismissing work that dared to prioritise a surface liveliness ahead of the weighty contemplativity that is surely poetry’s first business. Some of the worst books of recent years, however, have been those that aspire to great authority, beating you about the head and neck with their hidden depths. Don Paterson wrote recently, in the introduction to Smith: A Reader’s Guide to the Poetry of Michael Donaghy: ‘his poetry was occasionally dismissed […] by that class of critic who can only acknowledge the existence of complexity when it has announced itself in what they feel is language of appropriately commensurate difficulty’; Perry is not Donaghy, but the principle holds. In the right hands, in the right context, custard is as jarring, moving, perspective-altering as the archaic torso of Apollo, and which did you encounter more recently?

Anyway. Point being that words like ‘quirky’, as Eva Wiseman points out, is one of many ways to undermine women’s work, that ‘in being named, you’re being rendered safe […] Water is poured on your potential to shock’. And Beauty/Beauty’s ability to use representations of (ostensible) weakness or vulnerability as powerful poetic tools should not be underestimated; it is poetry that demands the reader take its images and ideas seriously.

The first poem, ‘Pow’, makes clear this strategy while keeping a close eye on the needful/fashionable ‘pow’-ness of a modern poetry collection’s opening salvo. This poem establishes the terms on which the book will proceed, laying the boundaries between real chicken- or cow-hearts (strung up by the / side of the road in Kochin, blurry with flies, their tubes open to the sky’) and the fact that ‘chicken-hearted means easily frightened, | and has nothing to do with the heart’; Beauty/Beauty, while happy to explore the possibilities of relational metaphor, is also aware that sometimes a flower is just a flower:

‘Simplicity                    is a rainbird.                        A rainbird is a bird that can forewarn of rain.’

How simple is a precognizant bird, though? Or, maybe, how much can be achieved through ‘simplicity’? ‘Pow’, I think, makes it clear that lateral thought is necessary, that simplistic formulations will be of little use. In any event, this poem also taught me that ‘camelopard’ is an archaic word for giraffe, and I thank it for that.

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Often in Beauty/Beauty, physical objects act as a kind of punctum, a detail that draws painful emotional significance, around which several poems are arranged, such as the cherries in ‘immortelle’, or the toad in the excellent (sort of) version of Lorca, ‘Casida of the Dead Sun’:

‘blinking inside its nobbly body as it contemplates
the infinite civilisations of the world,

the disappointment of having
only ever truly known this one.’

The poetry is full of beautiful, unusual stuff, all of it greatly valued and presented to the reader in sharp focus, and Perry has a habit of elaborating a kind of mythos around or through them. ‘Alabaster Baby’, for another example, features a series of museum exhibits, ‘an oil painting of a bowl of fruit […] a mummy with hair on its feet’, culminating

‘in front of a life-size marble effigy
of a girl about my age
her hands forced into prayer
I want to lean in and kiss her cold lips’

This insistence on the presence of things seems to act as a kind of counterbalance to the absence of people; in ‘Dear Stegosaurus’ this reads something like an ars poetica:

‘Your spikes are dull and magnificent

a row of abandoned kites, rusted by a tough winter,
in a tree stripped of guts. You’re not a fighter, though

you will fight.’

This poem affords an opportunity to read the collection’s most valued qualities – stoicism, a kind of battle-ready calm – onto its subject, and Perry relishes this opportunity for a rather hard-nosed kind of creative empathy. In a similar vein are two stunningly odd and beautifully achieved poems towards the end of the book, ‘The Execution of Lady Jane Grey’ and ‘Exemplifying Grace’. The former is a dialogue between Grey and her executioner, which – unlike much of the collection – gains its strength from its economy, making the executioner’s potentially cheesy line, ‘I’m sorry about the birds’, hit with no small force. The latter concerns the painter Botticelli, and again draws out some of the fear and obsessiveness he seems to have suffered through its short lines and insistent repetitions:

‘Botticelli has specified his burial place
Botticelli dislikes shadows
Botticelli paints
Botticelli possesses linear rhythm’

Empathy, I think, is a major driving force in the collection, an impulse to hand over an impressive amount of care and attention to both the human and non-human subjects of the poetry. As ever, the book’s back cover copy sells it short in emphasising ‘adorable dogs’, ‘ghost mouths hidden inside the mouth you are kissing’, which out of its proper context is indeed unbearably twee. But Beauty/Beauty’s generosity is reinforced by the poems’ recognition of time’s ever-present threat to these beloved things and people, and a kind of emotional toughness achieved through deliberate poses of vulnerability is constant.

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The final poem, ‘A Woman’s Bones Are Purely Ornamental’, explores a few of the larger social pressures that underwrite the book, and expands on ‘Soup Sister’ in its dissection of beauty standards and the results of the expectation that women should passively experience life:

‘One girl had cuts on her thighs,
one girl was pregnant.
People lost their virginity mostly on sofas
or in the backs of cars.
We were told to make the most of our bodies.’

That last line has a quiet anger unlike almost anything else in the book. As in much of the collection, however, the response is in empowering friendship, and the book’s final image, of the poet and a friend, ‘our words in white puffs, / what we spoke of’ is a fittingly private one.

All that said, while it has a great deal to recommend it, Beauty/Beauty is by no means perfect, and, perhaps inevitably for a book that expresses itself directly and with striking openness, some pieces cross a line into sentimentality or what might be read as self-indulgence; a piece like ‘immortelle’, however, with the lines, ‘the writer feels verbose and embarrassed / by her overwhelmingly positive experience of life’, shows a counter-balancing self-awareness. After a disappointing season in which the dull sort of authority had its day, it’s encouraging to read a collection that sees nothing weak about admitting, confronting, even celebrating, times of weakness.

Tl;dr: Beauty/Beauty is an unusual, generous and adventurous first collection that balances its impulse towards the colourful detail with a hard-earned sense of value in what is fleeting or outright lost. Well worth a read.

Pascale Petit – Fauverie

Full Disclosure: I’ve written a review of Fauverie for the next edition of Poetry Wales, who provided a review copy. Thanks to editor Nia Davies for kindly giving the go-ahead to this piece. Content warning: discussions of sexual assault.

Review: I’d encourage any potential reader of Fauverie to look first at this interview with Prac Crit, in which Petit elaborates on some of the real life contexts for the book. It is a tough read, and Petit talks openly and frankly about rape, mental illness and abandonment. Similarly, Fauverie works partly in light of her 2001 collection The Zoo Father, if at all possible I’d also recommend reading the earlier book.

Though it too has its moments of tenderness, The Zoo Father seems in its most emotionally charged moments an angry book. In the first section its imaginative strength is employed in disempowering, making safe or actively harming the father in something like acts of retribution; these poems explicitly relate what the father has done to his family, and are difficult and painful to read. It’s an important collection, one I wish I’d read sooner. Fourteen years later, Fauverie – though it too openly confronts plain facts of violence and abuse – is at heart, I think, a book about finding peace. Though the organising details – the poet visiting her father on his deathbed in Paris – are the same, it does not so much re-write the story as examine it from different angles. The third poem in the collection, ‘Portrait of My Father as a Bird Fancier’, quite explicitly questions the morality of returning to a story, or of selecting another imaginative reality:

‘The one a nightingale serenades
just because he’s in pain – that’s
the father I choose, not the man
who thrusts red-hot prongs in their eyes
so their songs will carry for miles.’

The poem ends with this certainty undermined:

‘He does not make canaries trill so loud
that the tiny branches of their lungs
burst. I am sure of this, though I am just
an ounce in the fist of his hand.’

The poem sets out the risk being taken in this re-examination; the book gives the father a voice on several occasions, and at times permits a view of him not solely as the monster of The Zoo Father, but as an old man himself confronting death; though the potential even for a dying man to commit or denote violence is, as in these lines, rarely far from the surface. It is noticeable, for example, that the father’s pleasures, like ‘Pâté de Foie Gras’ or ‘Ortolan’, require the incarceration and torture of wild animals. This tension between the conscious pursuit of healing and the acknowledgement of lived reality animates the collection; the zoo animals of the title seem to enact this dissonance in their being at once beautiful wild creatures and shut away from their natural habitats and instincts.

As the back cover blurb notes, the ‘Fauves’ were ‘primitivist’ painters – of whom Matisse was considered a member – noted for their use of vivid, undoctored colours, for depositing paint straight from the tube to the canvas. The answer to the darkness in both Fauverie and The Zoo Father is a barely-contained richness in the poems’ vocabulary and imagery, which often comes across as an insistence on the perceiver’s survival and ability to perceive beauty in the world. The ‘Fauverie’ refers to the big cat house in the Jardin des Plantes; in the Prac Crit interview Petit talks about her time spent in the Amazon rainforest, and in Fauverie there seems a deeply felt identification with the native animals in the Parisian zoo. These poems seem to act as a kind of exhalation to counter the tension in those focused on her father; see ‘Blue-and-Gold Macaw Feather’:

‘I could paint a world
with this brush, these hues.

Is this how God felt as he drew
His colours across the void?’

and ‘Black Jaguar with Goat’:

‘What is innocence?
He is devouring his meal as trained.
What is worse –

to be the too-real prey
or the predator
without instinct?’

These take their time to follow a more recognisably logical train of thought – here is the physical object, here is the question the object provokes, however obliquely – and this ordinariness comes as a kind of relief, a re-alignment of the book’s magnetic north. These poems bookend the collection, and in the middle is an almost unrelenting quest (or series of quests) into the book’s subconscious; perhaps what is remarkable is that so many poems’ imaginative transformations are ultimately benign or restorative. ‘How to Hand-Feed Sparrows (Instructions to My Father)’ figures the father as a candle, melting away in its generous gesture:

‘Keep your hand steady, support it with
your other arm, until your flesh is stiff as wax
while other messengers of darkness and fire
fly down to taste your offering. […]
Let it burn down to the soles of your feet.’

In a similar vein is the superb ‘My Father’s Mirror’, in which the eponymous furniture ‘went walking / through the streets of Paris’, until:

‘The sun carried him as far as the bridge
then he lay down and became a puddle.

The snow, when it fell, was gentle,
the flakes gathering

like a sheet drawn over his face.’

These remind me of Heaney’s ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ and Longley’s ‘In Memoriam’ respectively, though that might just be me. There is something Longleyan in the poet’s ability to find peace or the peaceful image in the midst of suffering, though, for example at the close of the late poem, ‘Effigy’, in which the father has become an exhibit in the Musée du quai Branly:

‘This man is my father,
he speaks with the tenderness of flowers.’

I think that here is the crux of the collection. There are some powerful individual poems in the book, particularly the controlled rage and defiance of ‘Bullet Ants’, the nightmarish economy of ‘Blackbird’ and ‘Cellar’. But the basic unit is the entire book rather than its individual parts, and I think (perhaps optimistically?) that its narrative arc hits a nadir in the childhood cellar, with the imaginative interaction of child and adult poet:

‘She has been down there
with her father for fifty years.

I call her ‘she’
because she is the cellar ‘me’. […]

And she focuses there,
sends me out and up,

gargling run!
in her recurring dream.

She is the silence.
I am the scream.

and reaches to a peak at the close of the book in that reclamation of agency, that taking back of authorial power in ‘Effigy’, and the contemplative poems from the Fauverie that follow. The closing poem, ‘Emmanuel’ (both the name of the bell in Notre Dame cathedral and the Hebrew for ‘God is with us’) seems to support that theory in its ostensible belief in the efficacy of ritual washing and prayer, ‘Let all badness / be banished when he rings’. The final line of the poem and book is ‘I proclaimed peace after bloodshed’; for Fauverie to find this redress at a cost very clearly laid out in the body of the collection, this balancing of books where The Zoo Father perhaps did not, is a rather extraordinary gesture.

There’s little doubting that Fauverie is a difficult book, and some of its high-drama registers (‘My Father’s Wardrobe’, ‘Notre-Dame Father Speaks’) are challenging but necessary, I think, to establish its emotional disruptiveness and unevenness. Part of its communication is unworldly and grotesque, and the subject matter suits, if not necessitates, such a strategy. A useful touchstone here might be the Plath of ‘Jaguar’, perhaps elements of Olds’ The Father, as several poems feature a kind of fraught or compromised shift in the characters’ power balance which is subtle enough to be overlooked.  Fauverie, however, speaks in its own idiom and embraces and makes use of its own strangeness, and after a couple of reads it began to make sense to me, if that’s the right word.

Tl;dr: Fauverie is a difficult, painful but important book, and well worth the time and effort.

David Harsent – Fire Songs

Full Disclosure: The debacle that permitted one of Harsent’s work colleagues and a former student to be two-thirds of the judging panel for the country’s biggest poetry prize has been well covered. My feelings on transparency remain unchanged. Content warning: the book depicts often sexualised violence against women, which is discussed throughout this review.

Review:

Fire Songs kicks off with a poem about Anne Askew, a historical figure best known for being the only recorded woman to be tortured and burned at the stake at the Tower of London. She was also the first woman to ask for a divorce, left her arranged marriage to preach the gospel in London, where she was arrested twice and returned to her husband’s custody, and was finally interrogated and tortured and died at the age of 25. Harsent’s poem is interested only in her torture and execution. Curiously, the poem is titled ‘Mistress Anne Askew’, drawing attention to the fact that she dropped her married name during her time away from her husband. A close read of the book as a whole makes the prurient tone of the poem’s interest in her abused body seem deliberate:

‘Some stood close enough […]
to hear the shrivel-hiss
of burning hair, to see her sag and slump, to witness
the pucker and slide of her skin, the blister-rash on her eyeballs.’

On first read I tried giving the poem the benefit of the doubt, that it might be simply drawing attention to a historical injustice and abuse of power. However, the lines

‘Anne, you are nothing to me. Only that you knew best
how to unfasten your gown while they waited at the rack.’

do little to support that theory. The poem gains momentum in its final passage, the third time it describes the burning body in clinical detail:

‘My dream of her puts me in close-by: her poor bare
feet, her shift just catching a flame that chases the line of the hem…
[…] as she browns from heel
to head, as she cracks and splits, as she renders to spoil’

The passage is uncomfortably voyeuristic, and the narrator’s positioning himself in extreme close-up leaves little doubt as to the sexualised nature of the viewing, or the condescension and infantilisation in calling a torture victim’s bare feet ‘poor’.

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This is by no means the only time Harsent depicts abused or violated women’s bodies; along with the book’s medieval-apocalypticism, it seems to be one of the book’s major themes. The word ‘blood’ and its variants appear a full twenty times, with nine ‘bones’ and five ‘ghosts’. But of those twenty ‘bloods’, four refer specifically to menstrual blood (including the highly quotable ‘the smell of menses, deep and ripe’), several references to unnatural breastfeeding (once of a rat from a human corpse), five instances of either ‘bitch’, ‘slut’ or ‘whore’, and in the poem ‘Sang the Rat’:

‘[the rat] came as familiar to Philippa Flower tested as a witch entered her vagina stayed there hidden while she was hanged’

The book has no qualms about depicting sexualised violence, pushing the idea of female bodies as disgusting and female desire as inherently untrustworthy. Again, if the intention here is to raise the issue of sexual violence and misogyny, the book only does so by reproducing those abuses without critical engagement, and certainly without a sympathetic or sensitive eye. Fire Songs’ apocalypse, however, is one that leaves adult male bodies curiously intact.

It also has a bizarre obsession with witches. On its various imaginative trips to the sixteenth century there are references to the Malleus Maleficarum, a witch-hunting primer, and to Leechdoms and Starcraft, a tract of supposedly historical witch wisdom. In ‘A Dream Book’ the male character says ‘Now thee aroint!’ to the female character, ‘the pale executrix’.  A quick search reveals these to be the words of Macbeth to (guess who) the three witches, and indeed later in the poem ‘She comes in as Columbina, comes in as Lady M’. Columbina is a stock character in commedia dell’arte, the mistress of Harlequin; Lady Macbeth is, of course, the worst woman in English literature. In the same poem, here’s the poet’s bid to become the first laureate of meninism:

‘Man of Secrets; Woman of Guile.
His artless mime; her winning smile.

They meet this side of an open door.
His touch is light; her touch is sure.

The door shuts on the rank-and-file.
He plays the fool; she plays the whore.’

This poem is the longest in the collection, and forms a kind of centrepiece. Its title and form (three sections of six lines each) refer to Berryman’s Dream Songs, but the tone is of that authoritative prophetic-portentous everything’s-dead melodrama that seems quite en vogue, with little of the wit and nervous impetuousness of Berryman’s work. A sample:

‘A path with seven gates and then a path through deep corn
under rolling clouds. They went knee-deep. The torn

bodies of hare and hen, of rat and crow;
the dog at full stretch; white eyes of the skinned doe,

her dugs wept milk; and the buzzard, then, its slow
drift onto roadkill. Storm-light on the fields at dawn.’

The plot is submerged by this kind of high-symbology, but seems a story of infidelity and humiliation, resentment and miscommunication, related with an almost moving bitterness. Somewhere in the poem is regret or even remorse: ‘Love is a kind of greed: // they know that and live by it, faux bridegroom and faux bride’, but these moments are overwhelmed by poetic name-calling, and the sheer hatefulness elsewhere in the book.

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‘Trickster Christ’ is a decent example in that regard, a poem that expands on the Docetic belief that Christ’s physical body was an illusion. The poet pursues the idea that many of Christ’s miracles were double edged, that for people cured of blindness ‘The sudden blaze of daylight all but blinded them’, that the man ‘who cut himself with flint for love of pain’ in being cured ‘felt the fight / go out of him […] as if he should be speechless and shamed and meek and well’. This is not a particularly nuanced view of mental illness. Equally so is the closing stanza, where ‘Mary of the seven devils’ is cured, naturally, by bleeding out the evil, after which:

‘she walked at his side, no longer the slut
though his hand on the dip of her back was surely the start
of whatever would come to her that night as she slept.’

I don’t even know where to start here, though it may be of trivial interest that this image also appears in ‘A Dream Book’: ‘she feels his hand on her hair, on her rump, on the small of her back’. If nothing else, this is a pretty grim and under-examined scene of unequal sexual politics, and the hint of abuse in ‘Trickster Christ’, while par for Fire Songs’ course, is deeply irresponsible. See also ‘Tinnitus: May, low skies and thunder’, in which ‘bands of bitches and claques / of crones with their pots and pans’ come to chase a woman, ‘love-child lapped in blood / and safe at her breast’ from her home. It may be worth noting that this woman with a newborn baby is perhaps the only female character presented sympathetically in the book, and I’m not optimistic about her survival prospects.

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On the apocalypse side of things, ‘Fire: end-scenes and outtakes’ enacts some thoroughly questionable appropriation of historical detail in its fragmented scenes of human suffering. Here, Kristallnacht is invoked:

‘The round-up lasted all night. They could take:
Clothing, one parcel. Food, a half-ration […]
Glass breaking everywhere.’

However, this is not a poem specifically about the Holocaust. It quickly moves back to the book’s doom-saying prophetic register, a list of general evils that prove the narrator’s argument:

‘When troops deploy at the crossroads, when they line the abyss,
when the glorious dead desert the necropolis, […]
when rape is a sweetener’

There is no doubt that these things have happened and continue to happen in the world we live in. However, Harsent’s handling of these instances raises difficult questions about authorial responsibility when dealing with war crime, in particular his running them together without respect for the individuality of the victims. Much like his treatment of Anne Askew, the subject matter has not been treated with due respect, and the question of the author’s right to use these images to promote a message little more complex than ‘bad people do bad things’ does not seem to have been duly considered. A worthwhile alternative is Kevin Powers’ Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, also Eliot-nominated, which deals directly with the ethics of aestheticizing war, or even fellow nominee Michael Longley’s poems on the Holocaust, which remain some of the finest non-combatant war poetry in the language.

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Behind its doomsday utterings and engagement with apocrypha, Harsent is a traditional Romantic. His narrator is repeatedly alone with his emotions in a rural/natural setting, as in ‘Icefields: ‘A place of ice over ice, of white over white / and beauty in absences’; ‘Pain’: ‘Pain in birdsong, pain in rough weather, pain in the sound of the sea’; ‘Songs from the Same Earth’: ‘Silence of slow water, silence of the rose / that burdened the summer, silence of the still unopened book’. Fire Songs is dedicated to a poetic tradition, is obviously well-researched, well-composed and devoted to its poetic forebears (particularly the Ted Hughes of Crow, of whom Harsent’s Rat is a direct descendent), and there is no doubt that Harsent has been refining his craft for years. But the thing I love most about poetic tradition is when it is creatively undermined, when the power of generations-old rhetoric is turned on its head and challenges the assumptions of the great and glorified; Fire Songs is content to repeat the lessons of its peers and forefathers. Much has been made of the lack of transparency in the Eliot judges’ decision, but the quality of the work they chose is just as disappointing, and should not be overlooked.

Tl;dr: Will it or not, the TS Eliot is the most prestigious prize in poetry, and as the art’s most visible advocate needs to be held to a high standard. This just isn’t good enough.

Alan Gillis – Scapegoat

Full Disclosure: Alan is my PhD supervisor. He’s taught me a heck of a lot of what I understand about poetry.

Review: The epigraph to Scapegoat is from Jeremiah, and is as optimistic as you’d expect: ‘The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved’; the poems that follow play out under the shadow of this failure. The book’s cast of characters (and Scapegoat’s dramatis personae goes deeper than most) undertake a series of failed quests, attempts to wrest meaning from a huge, cold, complex and shifting culture that sometimes actively wishes them harm, sometimes  appears to be purposefully rigged to manufacture the powerless fall guys of the collection’s title. What Scapegoat does so well so often is to weigh its transcendent moments against its clear-sighted, unsentimental, unpolemic excursions into neoliberal 2014.

The book’s first poem is ‘Zeitgeist’, which in spirit and vocabulary borrows from MacNeice’s 1934 ‘An Eclogue for Christmas’:

‘What will happen to us when the State takes down the manor wall
When there is no more private shooting or fishing, when the trees are all cut down
When face are all dials and cannot smile or frown’

in ‘Zeitgeist’ become the refrain ‘with no smile, no frown, / I call you down, I call you down’, while the question ‘what will happen to us?’ underwrites much of the book. What both poems convey is powerlessness in a mechanical society, the poet a misfitting cog gumming up the works. The poem toes a fine line between panoramic scene-setting and the peculiarities of an individual life, and ‘Zeitgeist’ acts something like the ninety-second intro sequences to HBO drama series, using particular aesthetic choices to suggest the pattern of meaning-making about to be taken up. Here, the wandering, unsure-footed observer, the rock/hard place of occupational solitude and claustrophobic herd-mentality, the fear of understanding nothing in a time when the internet provides ‘a room / for all things’, all figure large in an impressively long-sighted book. These ideas, along with a syntactical circularity that implies a constant dicing with meaninglessness, seem to animate Scapegoat’s recurring conflicts and unresolved questions.

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So far, it might seem, so heavy. But one of Scapegoat’s great strengths is leavening its ethical-philosophical dilemmas with humour, generosity and an invaluable willingness to make the speaker look ridiculous, to wear its authority light. The very next poem, ‘Instagrammatic’, makes a point about the basic untrustworthiness of both technology and our own sensoria to accurately capture the world. The poem concerns a photo that begs the question:

‘what chance
have words, if even in a photograph
from a Song Cyber-Shot DSC-RX 100
the living moment is caged, held off-stage?
All that we might see or say is half-wrong.’

What the poem provides is a kind of mock-romantic portrait of the narrator’s beloved, ‘ your ears are biscuits’, ‘your legs are identical twins, / your chin is a dove or, at least, you have a bar of Dove soap for a chin’. It is that rare thing, the poem that permits itself to be enjoyed as it recreates the narrator’s enjoyment; in this it enacts a kind of relational mutuality, in which both subject (being described, or poetically ‘read’) and speaker (being literally read) are both designated givers of pleasure. This mutual gain is echoed in the following poem, the powerfully understated elegy ‘The Hourglass’, in the departed’s advice to ‘‘Remember, take and give, give and take.’’

The book’s few moments of unqualified joy come via sensory overload, in which ‘the proposition there is no // fixed position / is now the only / fixed position’, as prompted by ‘Lunch Break on a Bright Day’:

‘for you can’t take in this one tree,

the bark-brown
rutty dark of its bole,
its thick arms
upholding aureoles,

flavescent weavings,
branches sprouting
out of branches,
sprigs and spangs spouting

into a four thousand-
fingered trick of light […]’

The poem eventually falls to the ‘the rust and the ashes and the dust’ of the workaday, but suggests that if hope is to be had, it might be in the indefatigable cycles of nature, these life- and pleasure-giving rituals in the following poem, ‘Spring’, ‘the here- / it-comes and there-it-goes of everything.’

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If hopelessness is to be had, it is almost certainly in personal abuses of power, society’s complex network of oppression and often sexualised cruelty. In ‘The Estate’, a woman has her personal space invaded on mass transit by a man eating Monster Munch, ‘he was like look here missus / this here’s a public bus’. The humour and ostensible harmlessness of the scene is complicated by the following section, in which

‘a boy show[s] his hard-on,
tracksuit bottoms pulled tight,
saying her tits were satellite
dishes, saying she burnt her ears on his thighs
with sullen eyes, sullen eyes, sullen eyes.’

Two events, one character. This dynamic is quickly learned in the schoolyard: ‘Kylie’s a dog. Tracey’s a whore. / Ben has Simone groaning for his ringtone.’ Aiding and abetting this gendered violence, meanwhile, is its economic counterpart:

‘You queue and queue
for the intimidation of a too-
tidy desk, swanky office gear,
the bulletproof screen crystal clear.
Hello I’m here to kill you,
please sign here, here and here.’

An essay could be written on Gillis’ repentends alone. The poem closes with a section worth reading in full:

‘Sigourney was down to her knickers and vest,
the alien about to spring, when the fucking doorbell rings.
No the repo, but the Green Party canvassing.
I said I like your manifesto, put it to the test.
Oh go for a while with no cash flow no tobacco no quid pro quo
no Giro no logo no demo no lotto no blow no go no go no go no no no.’

There’s a lot to unpack. There’s the scene from Alien in which Ripley, momentarily aligned with the poem’s sexualised victims, finally destroys one of sci fi’s most Freudian monsters; note also this section’s decision not to disclose the speaker’s gender. There’s the intrusion of the Green Party, which perhaps suggests that even well-intended politics are the domain of the respectable classes. And there’s the closing lines’ echo of MacNeice’s ‘Bagpipe Music’, ‘It’s no go the merrygoround, it’s no go the rickshaw, / All we want is a limousine and ticket for the peepshow’, its critique of both the market forces that hollowed out Hebridean communities and the hollowness of the alternatives. The following poem, ‘Bulletin from The Daily Mail’, is a balladish broadside against the paper’s cosy demonization of youth and poverty.

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These poems lead into a series of (maybe, somewhat) autobiographical poems, episodes from adolescence in Newtownards and its surrounding hinterland. ‘Before What Will Come After’ and ‘A Further Definition of Memory’ in particular cast doubt on whether even fixed historical events are immutable; in the former the poet ‘can still feel my raw hands lose grip / of the shaking branch’, the latter posits that ‘Nothing of those times can be changed / although their connotations constantly change’. The past and present interfere in each other’s business. And again, these questions are posed by poems still rangy and various enough for lines like

‘Morning, when it comes, might snigger
the way Shonagh O’Dowd raised her finger
to McCandless, then split her smackers
at the sight of me in my undercrackers’

There’s context. The McCandless who debags the poet joins the UFF and eventually works as a driver for a ‘botched job / on Cliftonville Road’ in the poem ‘Scapegoat’ shares his surname with Chris McCandless, the enigmatic hero of the 1996 book and 2007 movie Into the Wild. Scapegoat’s McCandless is obliged to live by his wits on Scrabo Hill with nothing but a ‘bin bag of corned beef and baked beans’ while his colleagues ‘figure / how to handle the matter’. Like his historical counterpart, he suffers physical collapse; unlike the seeds that paralysed Chris McCandless, however, the mushrooms he eats in Scrabo Golf Club (implicitly) convince him he’ll be sacrificed like the stray dog he kills in a fit of psychosis. When they come for him with a gun and two shovels, he is as gone as Muldoon’s Brownlee, with only the slogan ‘No Surrender’ carved into an ash tree at the edge of Killynether, which, incredibly, is the real name of a real place. It’s a thoroughly odd poem that almost breaks the cycle of violence while suggesting it might be little more than a stay of execution. Again the following piece sheds light: ‘The Wake’ concerns the death of a local ‘Hard bastard’ who monetises his skill ‘teaching / what it means to police your back yard’ in ‘Kabul, or Mogadishu’. His son’s suicide, set in the poem alongside Bill’s spoken advice for shooting practice, hints again at an only partly broken cycle of murder passed from father to son, from UK to oil-producing, terrorised states; this pattern of violence moves almost seamlessly from the domestic to the socio-economic sphere, the powerful policing the powerless.1

Like McCandless, however, Scapegoat itself never quite surrenders to the void, and the book’s ultimate stoicism and good faith seem earned and genuine, bearing in mind that the eponymous ‘Scapegoat’ to an extent gets away with it and (maybe) starts a new life. It’s even possible to read Gillis’ own series of gentle, generous domestic poems (unsettling though some are, witness the ‘hazy form / in the mirror’ of ‘The Return’ asking ‘who are you again?’) as a counter to the familial disturbances elsewhere. The book’s last poem, ‘The Sweeping’, gainfully employs a raft of words doing double duty as both aural artefacts and carriers of semantic meaning, understood before defined. The poem’s baptismal rainstorm is a visceral event:

‘a glair and squelch
ooze and dreel
of curdled quags
gubbled and squinnied
in hinnying gallops’

that corroborates the book’s (I think) central message that life’s circularity (the closing lines’ ‘uprooted and reeling / yet circumfluent. / Good to go.’) have the potential to rejuvenate as much as stagnate. The poem is a more mature twin of ‘Lunch Break’ in its sensory exuberance and reclamation of responsibility, and above all else is a bloody joy to read aloud.

There is, as ever, plenty left to talk about, not least the book’s idiosyncratic vocabulary, its syntactical gymnastics, its ability to convincingly inhabit its personae, its ability with the line-break punchline, the thematic significance of adolescent sexuality, or the gloriously bonkers ‘No. 8’, which might be the best single poem I’ve read all year. I sincerely hope there’s an audience for a book that seems to care little for social nicety.

Tl;dr: Scapegoat makes no compromises, and asks the reader to implicate themselves in some strange and unpalatable ideas, but the journey (or quest) is its own valuable reward. Wholeheartedly recommended.

Kate Tempest – Hold Your Own

Full Disclosure: Volunteered at her gig at the Bongo Club in Edinburgh, which was organised by Rally & Broad (Broad being my partner Rachel McCrum), and the Scottish Poetry Library (where I work Saturdays).

Review: It’s not vital for reading this review, but if you are going to read the collection, I highly recommend watching videos of Tempest’s performances (or going to see her live if at all possible); these poems sometimes deliver their meaning as much through intense or repeated sounds as the words that contain them (noticeably ‘aw’ – as in ‘core’ – which appears at several key moments). I don’t think it’s controversial to suggest that Tempest demands a different kind of reading from the PBS poets, or that to ask one’s audience to retune their ears is apostasy.

Hold Your Own is Tempest’s first full poetry collection, if you discount her self-published Everything Speaks in its Own Way and take Brand New Ancients as a single performance piece. The categories are encouragingly blurry. In any case unprecedented quantities of bumf have been written in the past couple of years – just google ‘kate tempest interview guardian’ for more exercises in poet-as-brand-narrative. All of which is a distraction from some seriously accomplished work.

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In a similar vein to Brand New Ancients, Hold Your Own takes structural cues from Greek myth. Here the story of Tiresias opens the book and provides its thematic template, following him from boyhood to womanhood to manhood to prophecy, a neat organising principle for a collection that at 107 pages at times feels unwieldy. ‘Tiresias’ brings myth into a modern setting, or rather blends the two so that snakes coupling in a forest can be found beside shopping trolleys and used prophylactics. But the setting is secondary to the substance, and Tempest’s version of the myth is certainly the first that I’ve read that fully explores the implications of suddenly and violently changing gender. Tiresias is forced to abandon their life twice and the poem quietly implies that these changes are by no means of equal difficulty. As a woman, Tiresias ‘learns to be small and discreet. / She learns to be thankful for all that she eats. / She learns how to smile / Without meaning an inch of it. / She learns how to swim in the stink / And not sink in it. / It’s as if this is all she has known.’ The reverse provides a quiet, comfortable life: ‘He’s found a lovely partner / And they’ve made a life together […] He’s started doing pottery. / He’s joined the local choir’. What’s striking in the poem is that Tiresias does not change much within their own person; the opening lines strongly suggest the boy Tiresias is already considered outwith accepted norms: ‘They’re always laughing, / The kids at the bus stop. / He tries to ignore them […] Hating himself’. Through the story’s phases, Tiresias’ basic character traits (openness, optimism, pragmatism) remain constant, what changes is how others interpret them. Becoming a man means middle class respectability; becoming a woman (or perhaps just losing male markers) means dropping out of society altogether. That one piece can carry such sharp analysis and the dramatic astuteness to have Lad Bants Zeus say ‘Mate … ah mate’ when Tiresias is divinely blinded is refreshing to no end.

One of Tempest’s great strengths is building this kind of nuanced (often far-reaching) idea by first grounding it in personal terms. The section ‘Childhood’ emphasises that the worst abuses of adulthood are learned early. The innocence of ‘I was so much older then, / I’m younger than that now’: ‘Collected things that we found on the ground. / Always the goalie. I never complained. / I told the stories; they did the sounds. / We painted potatoes whenever it rained’ quickly turns to self-policing in ‘School’ and ‘Bully’, and the blunt statement of inequality in ‘Thirteen’: ‘The boys have football and skate ramps. / They can ride BMX / and play basketball in the courts by the flats until midnight. / The girls have shame.’ These poems map out, plainly and credibly, how very basic abuses of power run in no small part through the collusion of those it oppresses. The boys in this section are barely visible, only ‘daring each other to jump higher and higher’ or, in ‘Sixteen’, ‘follow us to ask her why she’s with me’ and ‘grips the back of both our heads / and sticks his tongue into our mouths’.

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The collection offers no easy answers. In ‘The cypher’ Tempest’s skill with lyrics gains her social acceptance: ‘I move like the boys, / I talk like the boys, / but my words are my own’, ‘my soft arms are clasped, I’m embraced like a man’. The very next poem, ‘Age is a pervert. Youth is a fascist’, however, states in no uncertain terms the poet’s understanding of what masculinity means, and perhaps why the welcome in the previous poem can only be given to a ‘cypher’, a male-friendly stand-in. The latter piece identifies the male other-hatred that demands female self-hatred: ‘Youth […] stares at the sagging mouths of his elders / and feels utter disgust and it makes him annoyed. / Why aren’t they ashamed of themselves?’ Compare also the line ‘When he steps out onto the street, / everyone is speaking his language’ to almost any other poem in the book. For Tempest’s characters, acceptance is something hard-won and deeply compromised, an all-encompassing, generations-old negotiation; note the line at the end of ‘Bully’, regarding the title character’s relationship to her emotionally abused sidekick: ‘Their mothers had been friends since they were at school’. These problems are not peculiar to the present and they will not disappear without a fight.

Hold Your Own‘s moments of (mostly) uncomplicated optimism come in its love poems. Taken out of context in the collection, ‘On Clapton Pond at dawn’ is heavy on the schmaltz:

‘You told me I reminded you
of Venus when I smiled at you,
or angels that go flying through
the paintings in the quietest rooms
of galleries. Renaissance girls,
all soft curves and floating curls.
We sat there and the light shone through
the leaves and we admired the view.’

But Christ, you’d need a heart of stone. After the rest of the book, such a quiet, gentle moment feels completely earned and real above anything else, and given the complex emotional understanding of a great many other pieces this captured moment of simplicity is powerful in its purposeful omission of wider concerns. Elsewhere, ‘You eat me up and I like it’ is a love poem of sufficient intensity I didn’t notice it was a sestina til the third time I read it. This section has half a dozen poems to match Cavafy at his best, full of skin and blood and unfettered desire, and it’s been a long time since I’ve read poems that had the technical ability to match the urgency of its emotional expression; Tempest gets away with so much by the quality of her ear alone. When she writes in ‘The old dogs who fought so well’, ‘these yearsdead writers wrote whatever it was that made the blood run in your veins again, just for you’, it feels very much like reading her own ambitions. It’s an audacity so impressive you could almost forgive a poem that humours Bukowski.

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This patience, however, frays slightly in the final section, ‘Blind Profit’. Where previously Tempest builds her arguments through credible psychological profiles and recognisable social settings, poems like ‘Ballad of a Hero’, ‘Progress’ and ‘Cruise Control’ sell their worthwhile subjects short with over-generalisation and heavy-handedness, the few instances where the universal ‘we’ feels loosely defined or unearned. It’s noticeable that even in this section the most powerful moments come when close-up trumps panorama; ‘The downside’ explores the daily implications of Tiresias’ power, ‘They asked me for the football scores / They asked me for the winning horse […] All I could see / in flickering, ultraviolet pixels // Were their great-grandchildren / ripped to pieces by the missiles’. The collection is hugely ambitious and has complete confidence in its own voice; I guess what’s really impressive is that so few poems come off second best. I’d be shocked (and disappointed) if this was Tempest’s last word on matters of government, however.

There’s still a hell of a lot to talk about in this book. Why the decision in ‘Tiresias’ to capitalise the first word in each line? Might the authority Tempest arrogates itself be problematic in a non-aesthetic sense? Why Greek myth? I’ve barely even touched on the poems’ rhythmic complexity, their ability to wrong-foot the reader and still come out dancing. Or their sense of humour, particularly in the distinctly Patersonian aphorisms in ‘These things I know’. Or how refreshing it is (in an interview with Charlie Rose) to hear a poet using the word ‘responsibility’ with regard to their work. In any case I hope Hold Your Own gets the attention it deserves, less personality-fixation in the national press (which more than a few times smacks of deep-set condescension) and more taking Tempest seriously as a writer.

Relatedly, I hope many more ‘performance’ poets (the distinction is, I think, ultimately academic) get national publication, though of course from a practical point of view, not everyone gets nominated for the Mercury. On the other other hand, Penned in the Margins is already doing great work on this front, and they have printed some of the most unusual and exciting work in recent years. Imagine Holly McNish going up for the Eliot, eh?

Tl;dr: It’s not perfect, but the quality of Hold Your Own far outweighs its few missteps, partly through the sheer pleasure of the noises it makes. Wholeheartedly recommended.

Dave Coates – Dave Poems

So recently this site passed fifty reviews (or so), and I’ve been thinking over a kind of ‘what is this blog really about’ post for a while. Which might be a mistake. Here goes.

First, thanks to the folks who shared my work with a large audience for the first time and gave the first words of encouragement, without you I probably would’ve packed it in long ago. The number of people I owe for their thoughtfulness, their patience, their time and their good advice makes my head spin. I’m awfully lucky. Otherwise, thank you (yes, you) so much for reading.

When I started out four years ago, and up until relatively recently, I wrote about poems the way I wrote about films, or video games, as if poetry in these islands was a multinational billion-dollar market and my voice only one in a million. I felt like there was little consequence to saying the first thing that popped into my head, because hey, it’s not like anyone’s really reading these screeds, let alone taking them seriously, let alone the authors of the work in question.

I’m much more aware now that that is not the case, which should demonstrate how slow on the uptake I can be. Reading those old reviews feels like sitting with a friend in a pub who’s holding forth at great length and high volume. Specifically, I’d like to offer sincere apologies to Nick Laird and Emily Berry, whose work, though not my cup of tea, absolutely deserved better. In both reviews I questioned whether their work was really poetry when I should have asked whether my work was really criticism. It is totally possible to criticise – even dislike – a book and still write enlighteningly and generously about it. I’ve added editor’s notes to both reviews saying as much. I’m sorry. I can and will do better.

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There’s been a lot of discussion lately about prize-giving culture in poetry. Joey Connolly wrote insightfully on this in Poetry Review, a welcome call for transparency and inclusivity in a process in which few seem to have faith. Despite the handful of decent collections nominated for the TS Eliot prize this year, it is a deeply conservative shortlist, and Connolly is right to point out the ludicrous situation in which John Burnside can step out as a PBS selector long enough to be selected then step right back in. It would be laughable if it wasn’t a ticket to a 1 in 10 chance at twenty grand in a notoriously unlucrative genre.

For all the skulduggery, it feels like a good omen that Connolly’s article can be published in a journal that itself publishes some of the best critical work going. I spent an afternoon last week in the Scottish Poetry Library going through the periodicals for new reviews and essays, and there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about the state of criticism; as Claire Trevien demonstrated on a Facebook thread recently, many folk can name three or four quality critics or essayists each off the proverbial cuff. There is absolutely a warm glut of middling, mildly positive blurbism if you’re in a mood to look for it, but it’s not quite the end times. On the other hand, from a fairly unscientific first expedition the gender balance still seems heavily weighted towards male reviewers, and I expect an audit of the demographics of reviewers at large would show a relatively narrow field of reference. As a cishet white middle class able bodied well educated man I’m not exactly helping.

I don’t think it’s a painfully gauche daydream to wish for criticism as varied and complicated as the poets currently at work in these islands, though the Eliot shortlist again put pay to whatever optimism for the mainstream Kei Miller’s deserved victory in the Forward engendered. Poems that challenge our basic assumptions about the people around us require more time and thought – and run a greater risk of being misunderstood or simply ignored – than those that build upon or even exploit these prejudices. And sometimes critics like me just don’t have the experiential tools to speak valuably about it, even if our privileged positions might encourage us to speak authoritatively. In such cases the poet, the poem and the reader are all sold short.

Speaking of which, while a simplistic or compliant critical community is not necessarily an impediment to great poems, it does remove one good reason to work or think harder. More to the point, it perhaps willfully gaslights the reader, who is the supposed beneficiary from the work we’re supposed to be doing as, essentially, specialist readers. Encouraging this kind of knowledgeable, opinionated and empowered readership will probably not earn powerful friends as a by-product. Something that the best or most disruptive poetry does is highlight that the world, in more ways than we often care to acknowledge, is strange and awful. Recognising and expressing the ways in which art reproduces or even endorses strangeness and awfulness does not make you strange or awful, though it’s a good way to make life difficult for yourself (if it wasn’t already).

In short: more transparency, inclusivity and unwillingness to let harmful thinking stand unexamined, no matter how ‘masterful’ its control of language or its ‘musicality’, two words that give me the dry boak; the understanding that negative criticism is not a personal attack, and that personal attacks are not good criticism (Something I’m still working on – anger is a good motivator but a lousy editor); good criticism and journalism (see Connolly’s work, and Fiona Moore’s) are vital to holding the community to account, and posing a challenge to the astroturf canon presently being laid down for want of a mature discussion about what (and who) poetry in 2014 is really for.

But what is in our hands, and what Sabotage Reviews is already doing very well, is the ability to highlight and discuss work that deserves attention and struggles to find it, in a way that (at the very least) aims to be meritocratic. Poetry criticism, much like its opposite numbers in fiction, film, tv, games etc., should be a dialogue, should start a conversation, one that can be conducted in a transparent and safe space. I don’t think we’re all that far off, but it will take hard work and some difficult conversations.

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Okay, thanks for coming along this wee trip off the beaten track, hope it was worth something. See you next time with a review of Alan Gillis’ Scapegoat. Yes he’s still my supervisor, and yes there is much irony in reviewing my immediate professional superior directly after a post about transparency and meritocracy. Hope you trust me.