Nuar Alsadir – Fourth Person Singular

Disclosure: Met Alsadir briefly at a reading in Edinburgh in 2016. As ever, the book discusses many experiences outwith my own, not least motherhood and the pressures and anxieties women experience regarding public speech. Many thanks to Muireann Crowley for editorial and structural advice. Review copy purchased with help from my supporters on Patreon.

‘Transparence interests me, wrote Louise Bourgeois in a notebook. I want to be transparent. If people could see through me, they could not help loving me, forgive me.’

‘This book is for you (whoever you are)’
(Nuar Alsadir, Fourth Person Singular)

Review: A few pages in to a section of ‘Night Fragments’, a series of short stanzas written by the poet at 3.15am during a bout of writer’s block, the printed text is accompanied by a photograph of a page from a notebook, ‘All messy may / All messy maybe. / So messy it can’t stay on the page’. The handwriting in the photo is itself messy, paying no attention to the ruled lines and margins; without the reproduced text above it, it might be unintelligible. ‘Night Fragments’ is introduced by a lyric essay about the ‘true’, unedited self, Nietzsche’s aphorisms (‘little stabs at happiness’), writing that accesses the ‘sublime core’ by puncturing the conscious mind with something unexpected or disruptive, and enlisting the unconscious, dreaming mind into the creative process. Fourth Person Singular habitually takes an ostensibly simple, accessible thought (in this case, “I want to write in a way that is authentic”) and worries at its edges, unravels a series of possible avenues of enquiry until the very idea that someone might sit down at a blank page and merely begin feels breathtakingly hubristic.

The photograph in ‘Night Fragments’ seems something like a gesture of good faith. The rest of the book might be meticulously choreographed, it suggests, but these lines are just what the reader has been offered, notes written in the middle of the night, profound, nonsensical or both depending on your disposition; one fragment reads, in full: ‘I’m sure I’m breaking the rules – / let me hear them from the ones who care.’ Fourth Person Singular has no contents page, no poem titles in the traditional sense, and the several ‘sections’ are implied rather than signposted. The book may just as easily be read as a single, long poem in numerous formal guises, each of which is in conversation with the others. It’s a challenging book to read, to cross-reference the many recurring motifs (dogs, shame, crows, war) that insist on second, third sweeps. There’s also a lot of freedom for the reader to connect these ideas, though Fourth Person Singular warns against ‘a kind of intellectual Pointillism’, projecting one’s own meaning onto an unsupporting text.

The attempts in Night Fragments to access a socially unfettered self are part of a book-spanning concern with shame. From birth, Alsadir argues, via DW Winnicott’s research on child psychology, shame is a powerful inhibitor, an editor of disruptive or uncomfortable speech through one’s own mind’s projection of the future disapproval of others. Among the book’s opening aphorisms, the speaker (which the book seems to suggest is not-exactly-Alsadir, or one Alsadir among many) says ‘I have given a name to my shame and call it ‘dog’.’ It’s partly pitched for comedy, I think, but it finds a counterpoint thirty pages later in ‘Sketch 37’, which features the speaker’s dog’s joyful investigation of his own piss-marks. Here, a margin-note reads ‘kuntaton: most doglike, most shameless –’. The earlier line reads as self-deprecating, almost despairing, that undertone of ‘black dog’, but the act of naming it after its antithesis contextualises it, defangs it. By spacing this movement half a book apart, it incorporates the book’s thought processes as a key element of this (still understated, literally marginal) shift.

Or, maybe a dog returning with unselfconscious delight to the places he has soiled is a crude metaphor for the lyric impulse, which Alsadir describes as:

‘a kind of compulsion to invent explanations as a way of searching for and attempting to master what you fear finding that has already been experienced, an unthought known or a known that has been thought by a version of self that is yet to come’

The desire to – in Bourgeois’ words – be transparent, loved and forgiven comes into direct conflict with the socially conditioned instinct to amend oneself for the sake of palatability to others; ‘why is it’, Alsadir asks, ‘that writing a lyric poem that has an I that matches up with the person I consider myself to be in my everyday life induces shame?’ What the book does not say explicitly, but heavily suggests, is that not everyone is taught this self-editing impulse equally. A passage near the start of the book is one of several references to male figures failing to contain or control themselves:

‘The man across from me – lips narrowed, brows tilting downward towards his nose & falling into each other – stomps a foot. The stomp discharges his anger – a grain bounces off the door of the subway car and hits my eye – ’

Hardly coincidental, then, that this conflict between shame, social nicety and the lyric impulse has often been interrogated by women poets (Fourth Person Singular quotes H.D. and Marianne Moore on the matter), at a rate which seems to have intensified over the past few years: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (2009), Anne Carson’s Red Doc> (2013) (which Alsadir reviewed insightfully in the Spring 2014 issue of Poetry Review), Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation (2016), Denise Riley’s Say Something Back (2016), Emily Berry’s Stranger, Baby (2017), all spend a significant amount of time on the basic permissibility of writing one’s true self, safely and with due respect. When Alsadir notes how Norman Mailer valorised the lines ‘Don’t waste your energy and your time … throwing stones at the dogs that bark at you on the way. Ignore them’, it’s significant that these dogs are ‘on the way’, on a journey, outwith a domestic, private interior. Unlike Alsadir, he does not appear to have an internalised shame-dog to ignore simultaneously.

The artful lyric essays in Fourth Person Singular are not just critical apparatus, then, but a full acknowledgement of the difficulty of writing lyric poems while retaining a connection to the multifaceted, untidy truth of one’s experiences. The book is in this sense experimental, as much a critique of the state of the lyric as it is the truest, simplest distillation of lyric principles for an individual the genre does not exactly accommodate. The essays are a fascinating exploration into an aesthetic tension of the poet’s relationship with lyric poetry; as Alsadir states, shortly after a brief deconstruction of a graffiti artist’s concise, provocative, ‘FUCK LYRIC’:

‘even though I’d developed an aversion to confessional poetry, the poems I found moving, which served as my measure of a poem’s value, were invariably lyric, written in the first person and addressed – as is all speech – to a second person […] a you without whom the poet wouldn’t, or, perhaps couldn’t, have been written.’

How to work in a genre that structurally does not love you back? The investigation that follows is one of the most thorough conceptualisations of the lyric transaction between (imagined) poet and (imagined) reader I’ve encountered, as it attempts to locate the exchange phenomenologically while retaining a sense of the beauty that exchange embodies. It’s extraordinary, and the way the essay ties together its ideas, returns to its original thought in a new, startling, intimate light, is worth the price of admission alone.

‘What works intellectually doesn’t always work in the gut and vice versa – the basis of discord and interesting music.’

Though the book is, unashamedly, an intellectual challenge, it’s no less human and messy and peculiar. There are some pretty delightful puns thrown in at the margins: ‘electric ecstasy / elecstasy’; a defaced notice in an elevator: ‘NO P[O]ETS’; ‘a crow, a caw, / a flapparition’. These things delight me beyond words, and are no less a valid artistic strategy than the more recognisably ‘serious’ passages. The latter of these puns is found in a section about the poet’s daughters; they are not mentioned in the book until this point (page 52 of 66), and seem to call back to an earlier discussion of objects and motherhood. Alsadir (via Heidegger) describes tools as existing in two states: ‘ready-at-hand’ for their proper use, or ‘present-at-hand’ once they are broken, their sudden uselessness making them finally visible to the user. Not only this, but ‘An object needs to be defamiliarized in order to be grasped, understood as separate from its use’:

‘What was formerly a mere object becomes an object-to-subject relationship, lyric.’

On a first read, the book’s opening section feels like a curiosity shop of philosophical non-sequiturs and free association. As more of these free-floating ideas are mobilised into the book’s deeper lines of inquiry, the unity of Fourth Person Singular starts to emerge, as its focus on the question of what lyric is, what (and who) it is for becomes clearer.

The example of malfunctioning tools and human-objects is one of the book’s several approaches to defining lyric, the passage concluding that: ‘Like a mother, an object in use is phenomenologically transparent’. (I’ve just noticed the ‘parent’ hiding in ‘transparent’.) When the book dwells on the poet’s domestic space, the idea of ‘mother’ existing as a tool or role to be used (the poet coins the term ‘Autoplot: the unconscious’s scheme to take over your story of self’) is not so much outright debunked as it sits quietly in the background, an uncomfortable awareness the reader must bear while encountering these scenes. The feeling is not assuaged by the opening line, ‘I send them into another room so I can think. They fill me with their gift given – stolen – want it back – never! – too precious refuse’. Keeping the earlier formulation of motherhood in mind, these lines seem perfectly congruous; the children are unaware of their ready-at-hand mother, the mother is resentful of this aspect of her tool-ness. But the speaker also seems to implicate herself in the unconscious transaction being played out: ‘my pain is in my guise, the many roles I play on autopilot.’ The larger social or cultural structures that shape these autopilot settings are not quite within the poem’s remit, but can be fairly easily extrapolated. But the fact the book spends so long in this space, long enough to complicate the simple object-subject (read: lyric) relationship between parent and children, is itself a potent counter to objectification. Just by existing, by positioning domestic life and domestic space as worthy of critical-philosophical interrogation, the section aims towards a rendering of family life that is both philosophically alert and ‘work[s] in the gut’; within a conceptual exploration of the lyric, there is space for haircare, sandwich politics, the early onset of childhood nihilism. It manages to be genuinely, quietly heartwrenching without a jarring tonal shift from earlier, more philosophically intensive sections.

My experience of reading Fourth Person Singular, as one of the multitudes contained in the ‘whoever you are’ which constitutes one pole of the book’s lyric diagram, is sometimes of trying to keep up with a lot of ideas travelling in different directions, and at high speed. Others, it’s like playing Gone Home, a video game in which the player moves between the artefacts of a person’s experiences and tries to piece together some emotional, if not always narratively linear, sense (of course, the poet has anticipated such a feeling, talking about Hemingway’s strategy: ‘take out the event and leave only its reverberations’; or her warning about ‘our inability to bear what is before us – the absences, the unknown’). While the nature of aphorism means some don’t quite hit the spot – tying an 80s ad campaign for Coca Cola to Lacan’s ‘the Real’ feels a more like a party trick than a meaningful question – the book is bursting with ideas, itching to take assumptions about lyric poetry, about constructions of the self/other, and acknowledge their fundamental complexity. In the book’s central essay, the speaker questions how to make ‘the I of a poem maintain the same multiplicity as you’, and a generous reader might point to Fourth Person Singular as a damn good answer. The lack of left-aligned rectangles of text should not deter readers of lyric poetry, hopefully for whom this won’t be a first encounter with alternative lyrical forms. They’d be missing out on one of the strangest, most provocative books of poetry to arrive in these islands in many years.

Further Reading: Interview with Alsadir: Liverpool University Press

PS: If you found this useful or informative and would like to help me keep doing it, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, every pledge is massively helpful. Thanks for reading.

The State of Poetry Criticism – July 2017 Update

Disclosure: Many thanks to Órla Ní Mhuirí for her advice regarding the ethical questions involved in publishing the data collected here. Thanks to the Association of Internet Researchers for their extremely useful resources, to Muireann Crowley for edits, and to Charles Whalley for advice about data and spreadsheets.

Report: This is a relatively brief update to the data I presented two months ago. As before, this is a purely statistical study, solely of poetry criticism. The data’s limitations, outlined in the previous article, still apply.

In the interests of transparency, I am making the raw data from which these numbers are drawn public. You can view the dataset here, please feel free to share the link.

Some preliminary notes: The names of reviewers have been anonymised. The goal of this project is to illuminate editorial practices, and providing a list of critics’ names felt like a distraction. The problems this project explores are connected to structural matters like editorial practices and the commissioning of critics, not with the individual critics themselves. Although their names are, ultimately, already public, the ethical questions asked by the Association of Internet Researchers advised caution.

The names of poets and their books have been provided, however. As poets are, in theory, a step removed from the editorial process, I felt that they are sufficiently safely removed from the structures under critique in this study. At worst, I think, the data exposes an ongoing fascination with the minor works of Paul Muldoon.

I may have made mistakes, either by accident or ignorance. This is a more or less solo project, and typos, accidental data entries and plain screw-ups are far from impossible. Regarding the gender and race of the poets included here, my resources are contributors’ biographies and search engines. If you notice inaccuracies in the data, please let me know in the comments.

If you would like to use the data collected here, please feel free, just cite the source. If you’re feeling very generous you could link to my Patreon. That would be cool of you.

Updates: The data set now covers eight platforms, adding Modern Poetry in Translation, and expands all records to January 2013. This has more than doubled the size of the data set, and hopefully provides a more robust picture of contemporary mainstream poetry criticism. If you can think of any notable omissions, please let me know in the comments. Criteria for potential additions: the publication must i) regularly publish a significant number of reviews of poetry, ii) either be a poetry-only publication, or have a clearly defined poetry section, iii) have existed since 2013, either online or in print or both. I have so far not included the LRB and TLS, as they are covered by the VIDA Count, but given those numbers are themselves two years old, they are prime candidates.

The project now covers January 2013 – July 2017, covering 110 issues of seven magazines, and four years’ worth of reviews from The Guardian. All told, 1025 articles have been recorded, reviewing a total of 1943 books. It has revealed the following:

  • Only 4.3% of all articles are written by people of colour, a total of 44. Breaking these down by year: 7 articles by critics of colour were published in 2013; 8 in 2014; 5 in 2015; 9 in 2016; 15 so far in 2017. Of those 15 so far this year, 12 have been published in Poetry London 87Poetry Review 107:1 and Poetry Review 107:2. Three issues of two magazines account for a third of all reviews by critics of colour published since January 2013.
  • The proportion of books by poets of colour reviewed drops from 9.6% (47 books) to 8.1% (156 books) in the extended data set. Again, breaking this number down by year: 24 books by poets of colour were reviewed in 2013; 28 in 2014; 31 in 2015; 38 in 2016; 35 so far in 2017.
  • The proportion of female critics also drops significantly in the extended data set, from 44.8% to 41.5%. Poetry Ireland Review (31.3% female critics) and PN Review (25.7%) show the greatest disparity.
  • Likewise, the proportion of books by female poets reviewed falls from 45.9% to 38.6%. In this case, The Guardian (29.9% of books reviewed are by women), PN Review (28.7%) and Modern Poetry in Translation (20.8%) show the greatest disparity.
  • While female critics review men (427 books) and women (475 books) almost evenly, male critics overwhelmingly review other men (660 books to 270 by women).
  • Men review significantly fewer books per article (1.69) than women (2.16), consistent across almost all platforms.
  • Bloodaxe books have been reviewed 217 times, Faber books 178 times, Carcanet 175, Cape 84, Seren 82, Shearsman 80 and Picador 73. 51 of The Guardian‘s 194 reviews (26.2%) were of Faber books.

Adding only two further years’ worth of data makes a marked difference to the data. On one hand, this indicates rapid change between 2015-17, mostly in positive, inclusive directions; on the other, it should remind us of just how homogeneous this community has been, and how recently.

The tables below show these statistics in full. Note that the second table, in which percentages do not add up to 100, does not include data for anthologies or books with multiple authors.

If you found this useful or informative and would like to help me keep doing it, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, every pledge is massively helpful. Thanks for reading.

Inua Ellams – #Afterhours

Disclosure: I think I met Inua at a reading in Edinburgh three/four years ago. Have chatted a few times on Twitter. I’m mentioned in this book! One of the diary entries mentions Sean O’Brien’s review of Happiness and my response to it. The book explores, among a great many other things, the experience of a family moving from Nigeria to Ireland, then England, and the effects of structural racism they suffered. I don’t have personal experience of any of this. Thanks, as ever, to Muireann Crowley for removing glaring generalisations and structural editing.

“The work of being an artist is intimately linked with the work of personal development” – Lebo Mashile, South African poet.

Review: #Afterhours is a project Inua Ellams designed and enacted over the course of a year as writer in residence at the National Poetry Library in the Southbank Centre. It involved selecting poems by British and Irish poets published from each of the first eighteen years of Ellams’ life, and resetting them (Ellams’ terminology) to accommodate his own experiences. The poems – both the originals and Ellams’ resettings – and explanatory diary entries are included in the book of the same name, published by Nine Arches. It comes with an introduction in which Ellams explains:

‘I hoped the project would show the ways poetry transcends time, borders, history, culture, race and empire, to illustrate cultural differences and similarities.’

It’s a utopian prospect, and, for all my reservations about poetry transcending anything (too often the word is used as a free pass for privileged poets to dismiss the effects of that privilege), an encouraging one; Ellams’ sincerity and his determination to prove his belief in the essential goodness of people is rather contagious. By organising this project as a conversation – ostensibly between himself and other artists, but between himself and the reader as a matter of course – each piece comes with space for decompression, for turning over the implications of what’s been and what’s to come, particularly around poems that touch on matters of death or emotional harm. #Afterhours takes both the wellbeing and the understanding of the reader as a matter of central importance, let literary kudos fall where it may, a radical gesture in a scene that still equates self-protective emotional insensitivity, irony or literary ‘seriousness’ with a mastery of craft. Note that care is not spoon-feeding; at key junctures Ellams leaves certain things unwritten, or, in the case of the four intricate and starkly beautiful sketches that appear in lieu of prose introductions, everything. The goal seems less to infringe upon the potential for creative responses to creative work, but to provide a middle ground between poet and reader, specifically a reader unfamiliar with the cultural realities Ellams inhabits.

The first poem is ‘No Return #After Iain Crichton Smith’. Crichton Smith’s original is about his childhood home on Lewis; it’s a wry, downbeat, often cynical poem about a place ‘indifferent to the rumours and the stories’ that no longer fit the island of the poet’s memory. Lewis is ‘stony, persistent’ after its stories, dances and music ‘have gone away to another country’. Most importantly for Ellams’ poem, perhaps, it mourns the loss of storytellers, a long tradition of creative historians, a literary genre in which #Afterhours absolutely takes its place. It’s no surprise then, that Ellams’ ‘No Return’ reserves so much space and some of its best lines for ‘The griots, the wise ones’: ‘These stories decorate your bloodline like antiques’. Ellams’ poem is a celebration of what endures as much as Crichton Smith’s is an elegy for what does not; both poets recognise, however, their personal estrangement from their originary cultures. The piece is a fine introduction to the project at large, a poem that holds at once the persistence of the poet’s roots and the pain of the poet’s uprooting, the creative possibilities, or responsibilities, of both.

The diary entry to ‘An English Dream #After Douglas Dunn’, discusses ‘sonder’, the vertigo one feels when considering the billions of subjectivities that exist alongside our own. The poem concerns a phone conversation the poet had with a friend, relating all that had passed since his departure from high school in Ireland. Dunn’s original, with its narrator running through a strange forest in a full tweed suit, seems to give Ellams permission to loosen his own narrative reins, to invite some imaginative chaos. The friend, Jack, gives the poet an overload of data, causing a kind of hyperstimulated dissociation:

‘Then I was fighting for my crumbling world and watching
in multiplying fractures the bubble of it burst, the cracks
leading one way, holes down the other and myself peering
from inside its falling walls’

The most impressive poems in #Afterhours, I think, come when this kind of imaginative messiness is given space to combine with Ellams’ flair with more linear narratives. ‘Fury’ and ‘Photograph: Ram Sacrificing’, for example, both establish a defined and comprehensible space for the reader to inhabit, while allowing the poems’ emotional states to become briefly ungoverned, or ungovernable, ‘Here are four men, their knives, a rope, / a gutter with sludge slow-moving through its gut’. These states would not work half as well, of course, without the carefully measured, relaxed rhythms far more common throughout the book; the times when this pattern is broken, as when a literally unreadable sketch replaces a prose introduction, are some of the most surprising and powerful moments in the collection.

Perhaps this is a philosophical tension in Ellams’ work as much as an aesthetic one. In a late diary entry he talks about his faith, how his conception of religion as ‘a belief in a vague order to things, and that I will find that order if I look for it; a path will always emerge’. This is explicitly connected to his creative work: ‘I think poetry is impossible without faith. […] faith that meaning will be made, that a vague reason and order will rise from the impulse to write’. There’s a kind of punning going on between the two processes, between spirituality and aesthetics; his formulation of reading a poem, ‘allow[ing] the poem to enter us’, is very similar to the spiritual phenomenon of kenosis, the emptying of self in order to admit divine presence. Given all this, it’s possible that the poems I personally find most engaging are those which manifest a kind of formal disarray, a poetic crisis that pressurises or counterbalances the faith Ellams clearly finds such an empowering, nourishing force. ‘Fury’ imagines the violent dismemberment of cruel and vicious people, is the poem in which a belief in the orderly path is most obviously denied, with its uncharacteristically short, aggressive lines, its lack of explanation. It is a moment in which the subconscious takes over, ‘all the glass- / and-grass-weaved // weaponry I failed / to let taste blood’. Maybe it’s the permission granted to a diversity of responses to injustice (peace, dialogue, violent dismemberment) that makes it chime so harmoniously. Maybe it’s an uncharitable response to a book so full of grace and patience to draw attention to its one moment of (purely imaginative) retribution.

The book’s warmth is most powerfully embodied in ‘Steven’s Lungs #After Pascale Petit’. The poem, written for a friend who committed suicide, has the air of a plotless lucid dream – another departure from the #Afterwords norm – but which makes perfect sense when the source of meaning in the poem is located not in narrative progression but the mood suggested by the movements of Petit’s original, ‘My Father’s Lungs’. Here, Petit notes almost without affect that ‘I’m no longer interested / in whether he loves me or not’, leaving the reader to consider what the poem is otherwise asking of itself. In presenting her father’s body as a neutral, almost inanimate object in which the poet’s subjectivity is undeniably present, however, the poem seems to frame it as an aesthetic alternative space, one marked by ‘an octave of pure silver’, ‘a swirl of starlight’ the poet ‘can fly through, into his chest’. The poem’s closing lines, which speak of ‘my next task: / I am gathering lungmoss for my pillow, / making a bed in his body’ suggest the beginning of something recuperative, domestic, peaceful. Ellams’ version is initially more interested in the real character of the poem’s title, who ‘held my gaze / in fits of soaring laughter’. In a book so focused on sharing stories, this poem draws determinedly back from the explicit, the vocabulary of radio taking the place of direct speech: ‘transmitters / growing in his ribcage’, ‘I’m piercing his white noise’. It’s a piece that recognises a final unknowability, Petit’s line ‘I’m no longer interested…’ ghosting the whole scene, and tries to find peace in that in-between state, both for the speaker and his lost friend. Few male poets achieve this kind of delicacy (perhaps Michael Longley, another poet of anti-masculinist love and metamorphosis), the capacity to present oneself as small and vulnerable and intimate, the quiet work of healing. ‘Steven’s Lungs’ is a poem worth celebrating.

The process of converting an original poem into a new, autonomous artefact is fascinating. As much as Ellams adapts the blueprints of poetic predecessors – it’s significant, I think, that this first poem’s elders are both familial and creative – his work is just as explicitly to find the most suitably Ellamsian poets in the existing canon. The old poems are transformed in the light of the new ones, and an aspect of #Afterhours’ work is arguing that Ellams deserves, indeed demonstrates that he already has, as much a stake in the existing canon as any white British or Irish poet. It seems significant that of all his poet exemplars, only one is of Black, Asian or minority ethnicity, Moniza Alvi, however much this is simply a reflection of the demographics of poets published in these islands from 1984 to 2002. On a recent Lunar Poetry Podcast, Rachel Long, Sunayana Bhargava and Tania Nwachukwu discuss how canonically central poets go unmarked, are simply ‘poets’, as distinct from, for example, ‘women poets’ and/or ‘black poets’. Nwachukwu argues:

‘It’s very important to have our own canon, but I also feel like it shouldn’t just be a canon for us. I feel our writers, black writers, deserve to be read by everyone else and if that means fighting for it to be part of the mainstream canon, then it definitely should be.’

Ellams seems to be enacting the same idea from a reverse angle. #Afterhours argues – almost entirely subtextually, simply by going about its business – that the British and Irish canon is not the sole property and inheritance of white poets, that the poetic mainstream can be made welcoming to every poet, should one have the will to do so. #Afterhours is built around the argument that Andrew Motion’s, Jo Shapcott’s or Robert Crawford’s poetry, for example, is no more or less defined by their physically, culturally and historically located identities than Ellams’ own; the difference is in the greater value assigned to centralised identities over marginalised ones. Perhaps this is distracting, however, from the book’s desire to be first and foremost a book of poems; as Ellams notes, ‘this isn’t the place for political historical discourse […] This is about poetry.’

I’m currently writing a thesis on Louis MacNeice and Northern Irish poetry, so I’ve been thinking about what poetic influence means in practice. To cut a long story short, it’s messy and weird. Considering influence in pragmatic, case-by-case terms suggested that the currency of literature is most often instinctive and impulsive, sensitive to the incidental, local context of the poem as much as the historical context in which the book finds itself. The most convincing theories of influence acknowledge empowerment on horizontal as well as vertical axes, peers as well as mentors, the fact that art is almost never made in heroic, father-killing solitude (as in the out of date Anxiety of Influence model), or even acting as trustee of our personal literary brand. Cross-generational conversation does not necessarily have to be a top-down, one-way experience either: as Ellams notes in his first introduction, his students’ interpretations of poems often cast new light on his own. The name on the front cover is only the first among many, and it’s heartening to see viable, communitarian models of authorship gaining mainstream publication. A book is no less valuable for being the work of many hands. In his own words: ‘I wanted […] to show, in utter transparency, that I was not the sole creator of the work I produced’; Ellams says this specifically about the poets whose work he resets, but it is just as true for the cast of daily, physically present members of a creative community who populate the spaces between his poems.

In recent years, Claudia Rankine, Vahni Capildeo and, this year, Nuar Alsadir, have opened up new possibilities regarding prose writing and the visual presentation of poetry. These books demonstrate how writing that looks like prose – is poetry such a small thing to be erased by typography? – may have the character and quality of poetry (precise composition, ambiguous or plural meaning, verbal music etc), and contextualise or amplify work more visibly authenticatable as poetry. #Afterhours is a fascinating project, not least in a time in which first collections feel increasingly, unhealthily pivotal to new poets’ careers. The gesture #Afterhours makes, putting communication with the reader first, downplaying the poet’s own authority and authorship, is hugely generous, open-minded, open-hearted, and I simply didn’t know how much I wanted a book like this until I read it.

Further Reading: Lunar Poetry Podcast 100: Octavia Collective, featuring Rachel Long, Sunayana Bhargava and Tania Nwachukwu. Full transcript.

Review by Billie McTernan in Brittle Paper.

Interview with Ellams on Barber Shop Chronicles, by What’s On Stage.

PS: If you enjoyed this and would like to help me keep doing it, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, every pledge is massively helpful. Thanks for reading.

The State of Poetry Criticism

Disclosure: These numbers have been presented in earlier forms at a panel at The Business, organised by Sam Riviere at the University of Edinburgh, and at Special Relationships: Poetry Across the Atlantic Since 2000, a symposium at the University of Oxford. All my thanks to Muireann Crowley for being a sounding board and strengthening this article’s argumentative structure; to the Scottish Poetry Library for keeping a well-stocked and accessible magazine archive; to all folks at the symposium for their questions and inquiries about the project.

The figures cover a period of 24 months from April/Spring 2015 to May 2017 – while they do not account for every poetry review published in these islands, it certainly accounts for some of the most prestigious publishers of criticism, over a substantial period of time. Please note that these numbers do not refer to interviews, features, reports or other prose works, only what each magazine refers to in its contents as reviews.

Edit: Regarding the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, I somehow overlooked Tishani Doshi and Daljit Nagra’s wins in 2006 & 2007 respectively. Sincere apologies to Tishani, Daljit and the Forwards for this error.

Click the images below for a larger version of the data collected for this article.

Data:

Essay: In the past few years, it seems like poetry culture in these islands has been making small positive steps towards greater inclusivity – women of colour won both Forward Prizes in 2015 and 2016, and the 2014 anthology of new black, Asian and minority ethnic poets, Ten: The New Wave, edited by Karen McCarthy Woolf, has proven a successful springboard for its poets, eight out of ten of whom have since published pamphlets or full collections. Literary journals and magazines have been less encouraging, if not downright antagonistic: Vahni Capildeo’s Forward Prize win was met with evidence-free claims of nepotism from Private Eye; TS Eliot Prize winner Sarah Howe was described by her Sunday Times interviewer as having ‘sixth-formy emphasis on her own intelligence’ before admitting he just didn’t understand the work; Oxford professor emeritus Craig Raine accused Claudia Rankine of ‘moral narcissism’ in her Forward Prize-winning book Citizen. Prize culture, at least in the past few years, seems somewhat more advanced in its discourse around work by poets of colour than the critical culture surrounding it.

From this starting point I wanted to investigate a possible disconnect between prize culture and literary review culture. While not all critical responses have been as hostile as those above, the most common response to work by poets of colour has been total silence.

I decided to conduct a basic survey of poetry criticism and prize culture. I identified seven magazines which most regularly print a substantial amount of poetry criticism, and started counting. The questions this research asks are simple: whose poetry is reviewed? and who is commissioned to review it? Those publications are: The Guardian, The Poetry Review, Poetry London, PN Review, Poetry Wales, Poetry Ireland Review and Magma. In each case I studied issues dating from April/Spring 2015 to the present day (May 29 2017).

There are obvious limitations on the data I have collected. These figures cover gender and racial/ethnic distribution. They do not cover other intersections of cultural exclusion like class, disability, access to education, or sexuality, and on race and gender they are unsophisticated. For instance, unless a poet or critic identified as non-binary gender in their bio, I could not collect that data.

The racial categories I have used are also unsatisfactorily binary: ‘white’ and ‘people of colour’. The decision to assign a particular category to an individual was based on available biographical information and the individual’s self-description. This reductive binary is also a matter of expedience: so few poets and critics of colour are published that by grouping them together the overwhelming whiteness of British and Irish poetry criticism becomes impossible to ignore.

Finally, one additional side note on terminology: ‘articles’ refers to a full piece by a critic, which may criticise more than one book. “Critic Z reviews Poet A, Poet B and Poet C”, for example, is one article by one critic covering three books by three poets. You may also notice that in the final columns some of the percentages don’t add up to a hundred – this was when anthologies were being reviewed.

Let’s start by looking at race. The 2011 census reported that people self-identifying as black, Asian or minority ethnicity comprised 12.9% of the total UK population, 5.7% in Ireland. While I do not believe that simply meeting this arbitrary quota will necessarily produce radical change within poetry culture, it is, at the very least, a useful, basic benchmark for what representative inclusion might look like on a purely statistical level.

Of all seven magazines, only Poetry London and The Poetry Review meet this most basic figure. In this data set, only twenty articles were written by just twelve critics of colour. For comparison, 18 articles were written by white critics named David, and 39 articles were written by white women named Katherine. It’s worth noting, however, that women aren’t being adequately represented either.

The Guardian: until the past few weeks, in which Kate Kellaway reviewed Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds and Ben Wilkinson reviewed Daljit Nagra’s British Museum, The Guardian had not published a review of a poet of colour in four hundred and forty six days, when Sandeep Parmar reviewed Vahni Capildeo’s Forward Prize-winning Measures of Expatriation on February 19 2016. Incidentally, Parmar’s article was also the last time The Guardian published a review by a critic of colour, a run which is currently ongoing at four hundred and sixty-five days. It is also the first time The Guardian has reviewed a poet of colour who has not won a national prize since Kellaway covered Karen McCarthy Woolf’s An Aviary of Small Birds on November 23 2014. You’ll remember Woolf as the editor of Ten: The New Wave. For reference, the last time this happened for a white poet was two weeks ago, when Nicholas Lezard reviewed Bethany W Pope.

PN Review’s poor showing of just ten reviews of books by poets of colour is somewhat misleading. Of these ten, five were pamphlets covered in Alison Brackenbury’s round-up articles, in which each book is lucky to receive more than a few sentences of critical attention. Of the five full collections, only one was given its own solo review, Alex Wong’s Poems Without Irony, published by Carcanet, where PN Review editor Michael Schmidt works as Publisher. In two years’ worth of criticism – 138 articles totalling around 140,000 words, at a conservative estimate – PN Review dedicated roughly 2,500 words to poets of colour, about 1.5% of its review space.

The Poetry Review boasts some relatively positive statistics. A major factor in these unusually high numbers is Kayo Chingonyi. Chingonyi is a British-Zambian poet and critic who co-edited the Autumn 2016 issue of The Poetry Review, commissioning 2 of its seven total critics of colour, and 7 of its 23 reviews of poets of colour; in the following issue, Chingonyi himself reviewed two more poets of colour. Across the board, Chingonyi wrote or comissioned 30% of all articles by people of colour in the UK and Ireland in the past two years. This is an unreasonable burden to place on one individual.

Poetry London’s positive statistics are also a result of a temporary change in editorship. The Summer 2017 issue, published last week, was edited by Martha Kapos and Sam Buchan-Watts, and featured five reviews by critics of colour, and reviews of nine books by poets of colour; this single issue accounts for 38% of Poetry London‘s reviews by critics of colour in the past two years, and 36% of its reviews of poets of colour.

It’s also worth noting that the twelve critics of colour who did achieve publication are exceptionally qualified: these writers have a disproportionately high number of literary prizes, lectureships, editorships, academic and artistic residencies behind them for their career stage. Dzifa Benson’s background offers a small variation on this trend: her residencies at Tate Britain, Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the Institute of Contemporary Arts were for performance theatre, not poetry. Again, she was commissioned by Kayo Chingonyi. It is an observable fact that white editors do not open doors for critics of colour unless they have already been institutionally verified several times over.

This is what I mean when I say just hitting quotas is not enough. A quota will not tell you when poets of colour are included as an afterthought or a token gesture. It will not ensure that the attention given to poets of colour is in any way a sustained, committed endeavour. If people of colour are not included at vital, decision-making positions, the systematic exclusion of people of colour in poetry criticism will not change, not least because white critics and editors are not sharing the burden of responsibility.

On gender, things are relatively encouraging. Aside from the PN Review and Poetry Ireland Review, most publications are approaching a basic level of gender parity, with Poetry Wales, Poetry Review and The Guardian leaning marginally in favour of female critics. All three are edited by women, and the Poetry Review‘s editorial practice has changed markedly since Emily Berry’s tenure began last year. In almost every case, however, female critics review more books per article than their male counterparts, and men disproportionately review other men.

As a poetry critic, being given space to review a single book is a chance to make a significant contribution to a critical conversation. These reviews are overwhelmingly commissioned to men, a total of 157 compared to just 72 by women across all platforms. Even more intriguingly, while women review male and female poets about equally (33 women to 34 men, with 5 anthologies), men almost exclusively review other men, by 128 to 22. Simply put, male critics and poets alike are routinely given more space and prestige than their female colleagues.

This is most starkly illustrated by Alison Brackenbury’s role as resident pamphlet reviewer at PN Review, where she accounts for ten of the thirty-five total articles by women and seventy of the one hundred books reviewed by a female critic. There is a gendered labour gap at work at the magazine which aptly matches its apathy towards poets of colour. PN Review is by white men, for white men.

At the outset of this paper I mentioned how recent victories for poets of colour might be seen as a sign of positive change. It is, however, vital to put these results into historical context. I studied four major poetry prizes: The Forward Prize (established 1992); The TS Eliot Prize (established 1993); The Costa Prize (formerly the Whitbread Prize, which has been running a poetry award since 1985); and the Ted Hughes Prize (established 2009). To give an idea of the resources awarded by each: the TS Eliot awards £20,000 to its winner; The Forward Prize £10,000 for Best Collection and £5,000 for Best First Collection; the Costa Prize awards £5,000 with a possible £30,000 if the book also wins Book of the Year; the Ted Hughes Prize awards £5,000.

The questions this data set asked were also very simple: who is shortlisted for these prizes, and who wins them?

Only the newly created Ted Hughes Prize has awarded more women than men, by 6 to 2, and no poet of colour has ever won.

Between 1985 and 2000, the Costa Prize was won only once by a woman, Carol Ann Duffy in 1993. Jane Yeh was the first poet of colour whose work featured on the shortlist in 2005, its twenty-first year. In its thirty-one year history, no poet of colour has ever won the Costa Prize.

In its twenty-four years, the TS Eliot Prize has been won only twice by poets of colour, and only seven times by female poets. Its first eight winners were white men, and Derek Walcott was the first poet of colour to win, in the 18th year of the prize’s operation.

In a similar vein, only three of the first twenty Forward Prize winners were women, and only in 2014, its twenty-third year, was the prize awarded to a poet of colour, Kei Miller. The Forward Prize for Best First Collection is slightly different, in that Kwame Dawes won in 1994. Between 1995 and 2004, the First Collection Prize had all-white shortlists until Jane Yeh was shortlisted in 2005.

It may also be worth noting that of the ten poets of colour to have won one of these five prizes, only three self-define as British: Daljit Nagra, Mona Arshi and Sarah Howe, both of whom won their prizes in 2015.

Since 1985, thirty poets of colour have been shortlisted for awards a total of forty-one times, with ten wins. To put this into context, in the same time period six white male poets – namely, Simon Armitage, Seamus Heaney, Don Paterson, Sean O’Brien, Robin Robertson and David Harsent – account for fifty-three shortlistings and twenty-one wins. Poets of colour were also disproportionately awarded the Forward Best First Collection, twelve out of the total of forty-one shortlistings and five of ten wins.

If encouragement can be taken anywhere, it is in the fact that of these forty-one shortlistings, twenty-two of them came in the past four years; while that does indeed mean that in the twenty-seven years from 1985 to 2012 only nineteen poets of colour were shortlisted for anything, it does suggest things are changing. If we take data from only the years 2013-2016, the percentage of poets of colour shortlisted rises to 18.6, and a remarkable 30% of all winners; likewise, the gender proportion is flipped, with 54.2% of female shortlistees and 55% of winners.

The idea that poetry prizes might be awarded to women is a relatively new one; that people of colour might also be rewarded for their work is newer still, and it is too early to say whether these changes mark a meaningful departure from the dominance of white male poets. Without a concordant commitment to the hiring of critics of colour and the reviewing of poets of colour, these islands lack the diverse critical culture necessary to understand in complex or nuanced terms the work of poets of colour. I fear that after these few positive years we – white critics and scholars – may consider the job done and turn a blind eye to the 100% white editors commissioning 96% white critics to write about 91% white poets. Prizes are a proven, if limited, antidote: of the eighty-five books by poets of colour reviewed in the featured data set, twenty-one were by prizewinners; indeed in The Guardian’s case, this is all but the only guarantee of critical attention.

As Sandeep Parmar notes in her seminal essay ‘Not A British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK’: ‘Mechanisms in place systematically reward poets of color who conform to particular modes of self-foreignizing, leaving the white voice of mainstream and avant-garde poetries in the United Kingdom intact and untroubled by the difficult responsibilities attached to both racism and nationalism.’ Kate Kellaway’s review of Ocean Vuong, for example, invokes troubling cultural and racial clichés and stereotypes by introducing the poet as ‘born on a rice farm’ in her first sentence, and indebted to a white male mentor, Ben Lerner, in her second. This impulse to deliberately other poets of colour is precisely why the dire lack of critics of colour is such an urgent issue.

Earlier I mentioned the backlash against poets of colour in the literary press; when white male poet Jacob Polley won the TS Eliot prize this year, not only was there a distinct lack of outrage, The Guardian reviewed his collection, featured ‘Every Creeping Thing’ as Poem of the Day, and commissioned him three times to talk about his life and work, with such softball questions as ‘One review described what Polley does as a calling, “a kind of secular transubstantiation”. Would he agree?’ Where poets of colour like Vuong and Sarah Howe have orientalising narratives imposed upon them, white poets are commissioned to write their own stories on national platforms.

The scholar Sara Ahmed notes in the conclusion of her book On Being Included: ‘When a category allows us to pass into the world, we might not notice that we inhabit that category. When we are stopped or held up by how we inhabit what we inhabit, then the terms of habitation are revealed to us.’ As white poets, critics and scholars, we must acknowledge how centralising and normalising whiteness makes our creative communities exclusive by design. We must demand not just token inclusion of poets and critics of colour but that they be given equal space, resources and agency to direct critical and creative discourses. In short, writers of colour should not be compelled to spend their careers talking about nothing but race.

The work of a poetry book is only partly within its covers; the conversation, argument or statement it proposes is maintained or denied by the attendant critical community. In malicious hands, a book may be mocked or dismissed or simply ignored if that book does not behave itself as the reader demands, if it does not reinforce a given critic’s prejudices. It doesn’t take much searching to find reviews that misread or misrepresent a book’s intentions, intentionally or otherwise, coercing it into a state of palatability, or silence.

Even a preliminary study of British and Irish poetry magazines and prizes shows how ingrained is the culture of structural racism and misogyny. I hope these figures may be useful, and that knowing the true nature of our community is the first step toward changing it. Thank you for reading.

PS: At the time of writing, the figures I am working from are in a somewhat scrappy form; I am working to make this project into a fully searchable database using Google spreadsheets; this process is turning up small discrepancies in the raw data (mostly regarding anthologies and pamphlets), and once I have complete statistics I will update this article. I also plan on keeping these facts regularly updated, and investigating up to five years’ worth of material for a clearer view of poetry criticism’s recent history in these islands, perhaps expanding the number of featured platforms.

If you enjoyed this and would like to help me keep doing it, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, every pledge is massively helpful. Thanks for reading.

Rebecca Tamás – Savage

Rebecca Tamás – Savage

Disclosure: Haven’t met the poet, follow each other on Twitter/FB. The poems in Savage deal particularly with female sexuality and alterity, which are outwith my experiences and for which i am not the target audience. Review copy provided by the publisher – in accordance with my policy on Patreon, I’ve also paid for my own copies.

Review: Savage is nine poems divided into two sections: three standalone pieces – ‘BDSM’, ‘Volcano’ and ‘Penis Hex’ – and a series of six titled after female Christian mystics. The book centres specifically female bodily experiences while arguing, in the book’s second half particularly, for the spiritual aspect of these physical phenomena. The book is tightly conceptually focused and discusses explicitly its philosophical concerns, but little more than a passing familiarity with the latter section’s protagonists is enough to illuminate the poems’ deeper layers. Suffice to say Savage is a bit of an adventure. A pugnacious, bawdy sense of humour drives the poems, alongside a persistent loyalty to the realm of the physical: food, sex and comfort underpin the book’s larger ideas. Whatever the book’s philosophical ambitions, and i do believe Savage has plenty on its mind, they are located first and foremost in real, tangible, living bodies.

All that said, Savage places as much importance on scenes of softness and stillness as the more ubiquitous ‘hot death’ and ‘acid arousal’ elsewhere. These disarmingly, almost shockingly careful moments recur throughout, even in poems that as a whole tend toward disturbance or disjunction:

‘your soft under the breath singing’ (‘Penis Hex’)

‘She fastens milky attachments to your sleep’ (‘Julian of Norwich’)

‘people talking in the dusk, their quiet speech’ (‘Simone Weil’)

These poems aim for as keenly felt and deftly articulated a sense of care, closeness and vulnerability as they do their brash, chest-thumping extravagances, and it’s extremely rare to see a collection of poems so evidently comfortable in such starkly contrasting moods. The opening poem, ‘BDSM’, toes a fine line between a delightful matter-of-factness and a sober analysis of sexual politics, crediting the reader with the ability to consider both at once:

‘i asked to be hurt
time team was on
there was so much beautiful
potential in both the past
and the future’

This combination of the corporeal, the enigmatic and the banal makes it difficult to say exactly whether the poem is joy laced with anxiety – the poem makes abundantly clear that the socio-economic is absolutely in play in the sexual and vice versa (‘toys can be useful / anything from an eye mask / to a tank’) – or the other way round. The poem seems perfectly comfortable to pitch its key arguments in the midst of this ambiguity:

‘your ‘first time’ does not exist
but is a state of mind

for example

it can happen with a slice of orange
finding your open gap

or with a horse

a train to the cold sea’

Caroline Bird’s aphoristic ‘this poem is true but contains no facts’ feels close to the point here. Attempting to riddle out a logical, prosaic answer to these lines misses the impression they leave as primarily emotional/irrational arguments. Maybe the joy in reading this poetic treatise on joy is in negotiating the particulars for oneself. The poem’s not quite final words are, ‘telling is a careful / dance of pleasures’, and ‘BDSM’ is that rather rare thing, a poem about sex that finds humour in its subject matter without belittling or dismissing its gravity. The poem is that dance, comfortable in its dialogue with complex systems of power and careful of how it offers these systems to the reader.

‘Penis Hex’ continues this joke-but-not-but-actually tone with aplomb. ‘to hex a penis off means taking a laugh out for a walk’, it argues, but it’s a laugh like Patricia Lockwood’s ‘Rape Joke’, a mediatory, bleakly playful step between the violence enacted and its public discussion. The poem has some beautifully cathartic and deftly controlled comic moments, from its opening, earnest argument that ‘the hex for a penis isn’t really about / the penis / the penis is not an issue all fine doing its own thing’ through its several dephalloficatory scenarios. Behind its punchlines and tonal silliness, however, is a hard emotional core, and the poem’s opening lines also function as a reminder that cis men’s bodies and experiences are rather beside the point. With this in mind, the poem appears more like a provision of a space for self-care, and its peaceful moments seem a key element of its strategies:

‘to hex a penis off wrap yourself up
in a warm bed and no one is there […]

hex with a plate of grilled pears
against cream
a glass of just-pink wine […]

hex it by saying nothing
this is a navy zip-up and scarf that says that i understand comfort
and solidarity’

Solidarity here might be the strength to make these jokes, to make light of emotional heaviness, and to share this ludic space with the reader. The poem’s final, ecstatic stanza is blistering, feral, invoking ‘total and utter glory / your huge red hair reaching up and touching the upper echelons’, the ability to take and remove a penis at will, the wind ‘batter[ing] the tall insane skyscrapers’, before concluding that, mysteriously, ‘it’s changing | you see’. As with ‘BDSM’, it may be less than productive to attempt to boil these lines down, but ‘Penis Hex’ certainly seems to take a turn in its final movement, the comedy stepping aside and letting the poem’s violent, prophetic undercurrents take control. It’s a remarkable poem, a bravura performance.

The book’s second half is Mystics, a series titled after, perhaps in the voices of, female Christian writers. The women in question – Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Ávila, Simone Weil, Marguerite Porete and Joan of Arc – were all significant philosophical authorities of their time, and where their intellectual concerns overlap (to be rather reductive) is in articulating a theology that unites the physical and the spiritual, or locates one within the other. It’s a neat fit for the book’s concerns, and noticeable how the ideas from the first half of the book proliferate through the second. The book’s pace calms significantly from the euphoria of ‘Penis Hex’, as the first in the sequence, ‘Julian of Norwich’, seems to start things over in a domestic setting:

‘Come home if you can bear it, the same divine, familiar beds […]
the same glasses smashing, the same food congealing on the hob’

God in this poem is female, an intrusive, somewhat careless, though passionately loving presence, whose own physical form dominates the space:

‘You know the fresh and bloody pith of her,
the damp redness between her legs […]

[she] reads your diary, leaving subtle and deliberate yellow smudges in the margins’

Yet the relationship does not appear antagonistic, indeed seems almost maternal as God ‘cups your head in her hands and sings softly’, displays her ‘love that’s virulent, ugly, nutshell tight, / love that throws out a tender and extravagant brightness’. The poem invites the reader not necessarily to pass judgement on the speaker’s situation, a speaker who seems remarkably passive throughout, subject to a whimful and powerful presence, but to experience it, to buy into the second person narration that places ‘you’ in the poem’s line of sight. When the final line comes, ‘calling you with torn crying into vision’, spiritual enlightenment and physical birth seem blended together, and the ambiguous, affectless mood at this transformation is unsettling. A radical change has taken place, but how we respond to it is not the poem’s concern.

The sequence seems to re-inscribe Christian theology with pagan symbolism, with recurring images of Green Man-like, bestial male sexuality, ‘fat tongue lolling out, penis with rising heat in it, damp hair’ (‘Hildegard’); ‘Some pseudo-Zeus unbuttoning his flies’ (‘Simone Weil’). It’s perhaps significant then that the final poem in the sequence, ‘Joan of Arc’, once again renders God as a gentle, protective, supportive presence. In Anne Carson’s Float, the poet notes how under interrogation, Joan made clear that the attempt to force her to explain her spiritual experiences was hateful to her, dismissing questions with such inspired responses as ‘I knew that well enough once but I forget’, ‘You asked that before. Go look at the record’ and ‘Ask me next Saturday’. Tamás’ Joan is similarly inscrutable, but in the deeply esoteric tone of the first half of Savage, to the point where the narrative voices seem to meet up once again; perhaps the first poems were narrated by Joan herself. ‘Joan of Arc’ begins with:

‘I saw God in a split yolk.
You won’t like that of course,
why would you?’

And later:

‘When the yellow eye looked at me
it didn’t worry about my breasts,
or my words, which ones I ate […]
It worried if I was ok.

This articulation of divinity as on one hand glorious and terrifying, ‘Her head was sun-dipped / gas and flame’ and concerned friend on the other is maybe the most convincing and appealing I’ve read in a poem. Furthermore, when the speaker describes how ‘You could find me sexy when I’m having sex, / when I’m laughing and coming like laying an egg’, that egg has already been touched with a divine presence; this utterly daft formulation of spiritual and bodily ecstasy is utterly beautiful. The poem has, like ‘Penis Hex’, a deft and ephemeral dramatic structure, in which each section is a discrete movement that ties the whole together. The final note of both poem and book is simple and powerful:

‘Still, stay,
human animals.
Stay so I can smell
your familiar
and tender
human foulness.

In the thunder
and night time
it is just me
and god.’

These lines are both precise summation of the book’s idea and a gorgeously provocative closing thought, fully-formed, belligerent and deeply conscious of the sacred and sacrilegious aspects of being alive.

This, I think, is at the core of Savage. It takes widespread and often internalised cultural messages about body shame and the absence of inherent spirituality and turns these tendencies on their heads, in a way that’s playful and purposeful, ferociously warm and studiously researched. Its argument that human life is essentially sacred, and that sanctity includes bodily realities, feels deeply urgent; that this message is delivered with such joy is a real wonder. Savage is a good book.

Note: This is a double post! If you haven’t already, check out the review of Edward Doegar’s For Now.

Further Reading: Buy Savage from Clinic Publishing for £5.

Interview with The Suburban Review

Tamás’ witchcraft poetry at Minerva

PS: If you enjoyed this and would like to help me keep doing it, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, every pledge is massively helpful. Thanks for reading.

Edward Doegar – For Now

Disclosure: Have not met the poet. At least one of the poems in For Now discusses racial abuse and structural violence, which are outwith my experiences. Review copy provided by the publisher – in accordance with my policy on Patreon, I’ve also paid for my own copies.

Review: In physical terms, For Now is much narrower than an average A5 pamphlet, almost pocket-sized, matching the poems’ spare, remarkably economical lines that rarely stretch beyond a few words. This is in contrast to the selection of Doegar’s work in the ever-more-iconic Ten: The New Wave, in which all bar one of his poems are long-lined or conversational, a capacious and discursive lyrical voice. The bar one, however, is ‘April’, a version of the Chinese poet Li Po, a tiny, delicate piece about waking up to rainfall in the spring, with deep emotional resonance woven into its opening line, ‘God has forgiven me again’. If the poems of For Now are not always so delicate, they certainly follow ‘April’’s lead aesthetically, their ability to say something which at first appears utterly simple, even flippant, but that opens and opens with closer attention.

One last note before leaving ‘April’ behind: both that poem and this new book capitalise the first word of each line. Perhaps a minor note, but this performs a series of subtle, but important functions: i) it slows the eye, registering each line as its own new sentence or utterance; ii) it encourages the reader to invest additional significance to each capitalised word; iii) it draws attention to the poem’s own formalism, its artificiality, its function as a meaning-generator more than a plain representation of reality; iv) it permits some really lovely enjambment puns. For example, here’s the second poem, ‘High’, in its entirety:

‘Grandiose
And at peace

Patterns
Of solace

Precise
And insignificant

The true
Nutritional

Value
Of a cake

Of soap
Could be

The solution
To something’

It’s a little thing, but a delightful thing, this building and thwarting of expectation in just a few words. I’ve only just now connected that soap, which dissolves in water, is in chemical reaction terms a ‘solution’. My heart. I guess we can add v) allows for some beautiful mock-heroism. What begins airy and satisfied turns to that weird quirk of contemporary middle-class life in which artisan cake and artisan soap are borderline indistinguishable. For Now is full of these minute, quiet observations, but more often than not there is an underlying effort to tie the immediate or anecdotal to larger socio-political systems and mores; this movement, I think, is beautifully abetted by these frugal, enticingly simple lines, their invitation to look more closely, to look again.

This very aesthetic/political impulse comes under scrutiny in ‘Even So’:

‘Even so
The seeming
Sincerity
Of hollow
Sounds
Who listens hears
Profound profound’

Doegar seems to send up his own po-facedness while holding his discursive ground, the poem’s flexible grammar allowing equal weight to the argument and its counterbalance. Again, the deflationary tactic prevents the poem from feeling merely portentous, acknowledges that it’s perfectly natural for a reader to instinctively draw back from the high-flown to the bodily experience, in this case the sense that things are too abstract to remain convincing. Later, ‘seeming / Sincerity’ finds its full rhyme, ‘Austerity’, which ‘Gathers its genitives’ and ‘Can speak […] The inanities / Of forced economy’. In both cases language has been denied its reality-describing capacity, while an actuality of life under late capital comes down to the rather brutal final lines: ‘Artisan bread / Tap water’.

Time and again, the long arm of state violence insinuates itself into what in other books might be plain lyric. ‘A View’ begins with an imagistic mosaic of life in the burbs:

‘The tree opposite
Apposite
Collecting answers

Crows
Ponder the road
The pulsing dose

Of a car’

As an aside, the music of For Now is worth celebrating by itself, not least in the ways Doegar, over the course of a deeply fraught and increasingly agitating book, makes these pleasant chimes (the soft, insistent ‘o’s here) feel unheimlich. With this backdrop comes ‘The noise of people // Cutlery laughter’ and evidence of nightmarish dinner-party-neoliberalism:

‘Iraq is not Vietnam
Thank heaven

For little girls
Pupils
Illegal downloads

Suburban questions
After
The end of history’

The swift and seamless transitions from nice differences in genocidal imperialism to a creepy show tune into an unsettlingly vague connection between young students and internet crime suggest the lightness with which each has been discussed, mere ‘Suburban questions’ for disinterested observers. There’s a bite to the closing line, an ‘end of history’ reserved for the privileged few safe from its effects. For Now excels at these nods and gestures, at highlighting the levels of cultural collusion necessary to produce a society as fundamentally unfeeling and abusive as our own; what’s more, the conclusions we draw from these poems are ultimately – despite the clear, if subtle, intentions of the poet – the reader’s. There’s a major difference between having one’s attention actively drawn towards the point of an argument and arriving there under one’s own steam, and I struggle to think of a book that achieves this more purposefully.

‘Portrayal: A Double Portrait’ ties together these questions of the integrity of the self and oppressive external forces inhibiting the ability to control one’s own selfhood. Which is a long-winded summary of a poem that does incredible work precisely through its lyric economy:

‘Your face is not your face
It is the legend of your mind
Summary and immediate’

‘Legend’ meaning cartography and myth, ‘Summary’ meaning in brief and extrajudicial. The whole poem turns on these deliberate blending of meanings, the extent to which language colludes in the erasure of selfhood, exponentially more so, the poem notes, for people not in the dominant group marked as ‘Empire’. Later, the poem continues:

‘You can’t control your face
The Empire has overreached
Expressions

Have become flags
They serve the dominion
Of expediency and belief’

It’s hard, given the specific political ‘now’ of the book’s title, to argue with this. Again, the punctum is a single word, ‘Expressions’, both verbal and facial: British delusions about Empire have poisoned both our verbal discourse and our ability to ‘read’ faces unlike our own, unless those readings serve the ‘dominion’ (meaning both control over someone and the people/place over which one has control), based on little more than convenience and ‘belief’, as opposed to facts. Before exploring Doegar’s nuanced understanding of national power structures, it’s worth appreciating the linguistic-etymological craft at work here. The poem is, as in ‘Even So’, unsatisfied with a purely abstract argument, and the second half of the poem brings these ideas to bear on what appears to be an intense dialogue between the speaker and ‘you’:

‘You laugh
Without the companionship
Of laughter

You are in no doubt
This is brave
I have no doubts either’

The elusive and multiple nature of the language in ‘Portrayal’ means it’s hard to be sure what precise conclusion the speakers have reached. Earlier lines suggest this is the same ‘you’ who ‘cannot control your face’ and ‘You were saying something / About how it felt / To be subjected to this // To be so vulnerable’. With this in mind the passage above may be about care or solidarity, however compromised, however bitter that laugh. If that is indeed a valid reading, the poem’s closing image feels heartening if you squint a little:

‘I am as unbroken water
Mirror me
Let us be two mirrors

Let no one be left looking
At themselves’

If this is solidarity, it feels like a fragile and disembodied kind. The question of what is being reflected is not resolved, beyond the basic fact, perhaps, of the mutual acknowledgement of suffering. If you hadn’t worked it out, I haven’t worked this poem out. I think it’s incredible though, and it’ll be on my mind for a long time.

For Now does not make things easy for the reader, and deserves praise not just for its principles but for the ability to articulate them in a malleable and challenging aesthetic, a simultaneous theory and critique of theory: ‘Who hears listens / Profound profound’. Its lyrics are expressly opposed to a great many of the prevailing assumptions of our culture, its baseline racism, misogyny and will to exploit the vulnerable; that it achieves this with humour and grace is remarkable. There’s a lot more in this book I haven’t discussed, and I could very happily go through every poem and talk about their dramatic movements, their curiosity about human nature, their clear-sighted opposition to structural inequality and violence. Perhaps the most important thing I could say now, though, is go read it yourself.

Note: This is a double post! If you haven’t already, check out the review of Rebecca Tamás’ Savage.

Further Reading: Edward Doegar on Twitter

Doegar on Liz Berry’s ‘The Silver Birch’ at Prac Crit

Buy For Now at Clinic Publishing for £5

PS: If you enjoyed this and would like to help me keep doing it, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, every pledge is massively helpful. Thanks for reading.

Jay Bernard – The Red and Yellow Nothing

Disclosure: Saw the poet read many years ago, don’t know Bernard personally. The book deals with social aggressions over race and gender, and a character in constant negotiation with their identity, or the identity imposed on their body. These are things I’ve tried to educate myself about, but have very much not experienced. It’s also a riff on a medieval text, which is not my specialism. Huge thanks due to Muireann Crowley for editorial advice.

The Red and Yellow Nothing was published over a year ago, and usually I’d take the loss and pay closer attention to pamphlet releases in future, but in part because of its Ted Hughes Prize shortlisting, and in part because I’ve never read anything like it, I want to spend a short time discussing it now.

Review: The Red and Yellow Nothing is a prequel to Moraien, a Middle Dutch poem about a Moorish knight who comes to Camelot to find his white father, Aglovale, who had abandoned him and his mother to continue his quest for the Grail. Bernard provides a brief but invaluable introduction and commentary on the original text:

‘The question of how a Moor, described as being black from head to toe, came to be the child of a knight of the round table is more about textual history than genealogy […] Morien is not racialised (except through contact with anyone reading this in the last five hundred years)’

I’ve talked on here about how truly radical texts need an uncommon amount of critical scaffolding to transport the (culturally centred) reader from canon-friendly reading practices to a place where those practices may be effectively criticised. Alongside this introduction Bernard has written two blog posts, at Speaking Volumes and The Poetry School, and they both helped me triangulate things in a book that does very little hand-holding. As Bernard argues, this quest is as much a textual as a physical one, and that requires a lot of lateral thinking, creative reading.

The first lines are not words but punctuation:

‘.
:
;
,
,
.’

Morien ‘enters page left on his horse, Young’Un’, and ‘a bard of indeterminate gender’ sings:

‘A silver wind came passing in
the distant land where books begin
where maids are men and hermits siiiiing
in the land before the story-o’

The poem’s action literally happens in a book, or a dramatized literary space, where postmodern ideas of text, contemporary slang and understanding of gender fluidity meet folk song and knightly romance. Wherever or whatever this ‘land’ is, it is a contested and uncertain place, and primes the reader to start making themselves uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s useful to visualise the story playing out onstage: The Red and Yellow Nothing regularly calls attention to its own artificiality and breaks the fourth wall, highlighting its episodic structure and the self-conscious humour of its narrative/stage directions. There’s that elongated ‘siiiiing’ that nudges the reader to imagine its vocalisation, the physical body behind the words. Maybe, again, this is a primer to think of Morien (and his dramatic monologue) as embodied also, both textual artefact and physical form; certainly the text and its players alike read his body like an open book. The narrator argues that ‘maybe we can empathise with the frustration one feels when the local people take one look at you, then hurry away from you before you’ve finished your sentence’. The ‘maybe’ seems pointed: as a middle class white reader I certainly cannot – the only thing that ‘maybe’ hinges on is who’s reading it. Morien, in turn, instrumentalises this fear:

‘Tell me where my dad is, or I’ll kill you. Wanna fight?
I’ll fight you. I’ll take this sword and run you through,
I’ll have a disco inside you.’

Before either poem or reader meet Morien, or see anything of his inner life, we meet his violent response to the world. Whether this is due to a preternaturally hot temper, a perfectly understandable response to prejudice, or a mix of both is finally unknowable. He is, for now, all exterior.

The following episode is taken up by two perhaps competing exteriors, both unreal in their own ways. The section begins with William Dunbar’s hateful poem ‘Of A Black Moor’, describing a white woman in extreme dishygiene and blackface posing as a black woman for the crowd’s entertainment; Morien spots a woman in the crowd, wearing red and yellow, ‘both cheeks shining black like whorls of wood’, ‘shoulders like a proto-stradivarius / lost to the sea’. She disappears and Morien wakes drunk in a field, ‘the dew that / cradles him finds the word: innocence’, a beautifully poised moment that allows Morien his youth and inexperience, and allows the reader empathy for a character who in this moment is completely lost. It’s possible the idealised and vanishing woman appeared in Morien’s imagination in self-defence against the collective ridicule of blackness, but the gloves left in Morien’s hands seem to suggest otherwise, and the section ends:

‘a red and yellow nothing stands with
her back towards him; red lace
yellow silk, and no-one there.’

The Red and Yellow Nothing is full of these doublings and halvings: Morien and his father dream corresponding parts of the same dream, there is a town split down the middle with one half in summer, one in winter, one character sings a song about promising a song, other examples abound. While a recognisable literary trope, and one that feels right in a medieval romance, its sheer abundance adds to the uncanny sense that the usual relationship between story and protagonist (or even reader and story) has broken down, is in transition to something stranger.

The book doesn’t shy away from the ghoulish. Later, a female convict is ‘hog-tied’, ‘hanging from a pole […] writhing like an errant C’. Though that last simile seems to point to the girl’s existence as a leftover trope of misogynist writing, her fate is still extremely gruesome. A figure called ‘The Something’, which might be the ‘red and yellow nothing’s grim counterpart, emerges from the trees and draws the woman bodily into its anus before releasing her for burial. Bernard’s account is visceral and revolting, giving the whole scene the air of an awful ritual or sacrifice. Like Morien, the woman is painted in innocent tones, ‘She is a child’s finger’, ‘crying for god and her mother’, and their connection seems substantialised by a later, crucial episode in which Morien is transformed and processed (‘Morien is currently a turd.’) by sinking to the lowest point in Earth’s sea and being ‘expelled’ ‘from the slippy slide / of time’. Where the woman’s ordeal is socially inscribed and compulsory, Morien’s seems to be the result of some psychological shift that originates in dreams and comes to reorder reality as Morien perceives it.

If it wasn’t clear, The Red and Yellow Nothing is, by any standard in common currency, extremely weird. But there’s something so clear and graspable and purposeful about that weirdness that has kept hold of my imagination weeks after first reading it. Shortly after the horrific scene discussed above, the whole adventure becomes increasingly surreal, increasingly subject to bizarre and arbitrary laws and rules. And yet those rules are almost followable, the story’s progression right on the brink of logical, while the meanings attached to Morien’s body become increasingly nonsensical, or perhaps their inherent nonsense is revealed.

I can’t help feeling that in someone else’s hands the book and its narrative would have felt pretentious, or merely arbitrary, rather than a faithful account of the odd trajectory needed to get from the book’s start to its finish. Throughout, there’s a wry humour (‘in which Darkness herself comes across Morien’s dreaming body and is like woah’) that keeps the story grounded, human, and for all its depictions of suffering and brutality, Morien himself (or themself, for a significant passage) is neither the butt of the joke nor a punching bag. The book clearly cares for him, however much it focuses on the change and uncertainty being visited upon him.

Most of all, I think, this is a story about blackness and how the world responds to it. The white people at the fair and the people in the book’s first episode won’t talk to Morien, and the brutal execution scene is implicitly enacted by white society. Darkness appears as a character, and while she doesn’t interact with Morien either, she is invested in his story and knows he is both closer to and further from Camelot than he thinks. Five African soldiers in Scotland speak the book’s most peaceful and mindful sequence, on ‘the strangeness of the land they’re in’, articulating a complex thought about empathy and mutual respect:

‘Their footsteps of mine.
I want to know what people
to whom I give everything
feel when they think they are me.’

The book’s climactic scene has Morien encounter the figure of Saint Maurice, a character who the writer of the Medieval POC tumblr – which Bernard cites as an originary source for the book – argues might be cognate with Morien himself, given the shared linguistic root of their names and the habitual shuffling of characters’ identities in romances of the period. Given this final muddling, the final passage seems deeply significant:

‘The statue stirs, like it’s about
to speak, then of its own accord, blows away.’

This may be the story’s final doubling, or the final doubling’s reconciliation. The canonised Christian martyr Maurice gives way, of his own volition, to the transformed, multi-identitied, genderqueer Morien, to whom Christianity and its official sanctioning have meant nothing. The next moment, Morien finds Camelot, and Moraien begins.

It’s incredible that so much has been fit into about 24 pages, including the handful of full-page illustrations by the poet, without feeling overburdened. The Red and Yellow Nothing has the feel of a heartfelt and intense investigation into something complex and significant, a true poetic quest, and one that has compromised little, if anything at all. It’s confusing, it’s challenging, it’s deeply satisfying, and it would be a real mistake to let such an exciting piece of work pass by uncelebrated.

The Red and Yellow Nothing is available now from Ink, Sweat and Tears Press.

Further Reading: 

Jay Bernard – Breaking Ground – Speaking Volumes

Jay Bernard – How I did it – Poetry School/Ted Hughes Award

Medieval POC tumblr

Review by Theophilus Kwek – The London Magazine

Review by Fiona Moore – Sabotage Reviews

Review by Emma Lee – London Grip

OPOI by Helena Nelson – Sphinx Review

PS: If you enjoyed this and would like to help me keep doing it, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, every pledge is massively helpful. Thanks for reading.