Jo Bell – Kith

Full Disclosure: I’ve met Jo a bunch of times, she’s excellent people and her constant support of my writing is greatly valued. She also chaired the panel I was on at the Sabotage Awards; I can only assure you this’ll be the last time I bang on about that time I won a thing.

Review: Kith appears in the wake of Bell’s 52 project, a year-long community of five hundred poets centred around weekly writing prompts. 52 took the Sabotage Award for best one-off event, and not without good reason; the sheer scope of the project (which eventually had to turn people away, such was the demand) and its underlying message – poetry is something you can do, now and in the future: look, here are hundreds of people who agree – should not be downplayed. The project shows a hell of a lot of people will write poems, given the chance, that doing so is a skill that often needs only the slightest encouragement to become something weird and valuable. In interviews Bell has commended Carol Ann Duffy’s work as an ‘ambassador’; given Duffy’s appearance as a blurbist for Kith, I think it’s fair to assume she provides one model for Bell’s writing practice.

All of which is relevant, I think, to the ideas at the heart of Kith, which in a post on Sarah Jasmon’s blog Bell defines as ‘the opposite of kin’, ‘a self-made mesh of love affairs, near-strangers, lifestyle companions and lifelong friends’. Self-made, in the above context, is particularly important. The poems in Kith almost obsessively return to themselves, push back against potentially compromising forces; their willingness or determination to say no, their clear sense of who is unwelcome in the tribe (which in a great many poems is a tribe of one), is just as keenly felt as those who are admitted with an open heart. For all that, Kith is overwhelmingly a warm and sharp-witted collection; while I’ve doubts about the quality of Duffy and Armitage’s recent output, Bell shares many of the qualities of their early work, particularly in their light touch and clear communication, and has keener self-awareness, I think, an active willingness to deflate her own poetic authority.

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The poems themselves kind of wrong-foot any promotional bumf I could find on the book, in that while sex is certainly the vehicle in several poems, it’s the tenor only rarely; many such poems are more interested in a shared, preserved moment, like the beautifully gentle ‘Whales’:

‘Naked, out of bed and both surprised to find ourselves
standing at all, we lean together. These are clearer waters
than the day can offer us.’

For all the apparently straightforward language, the dynamics in these poems are against the norm. They insist on framing such relationships as even-handed, well-matched, and strongly reject situations where such an understanding is absent, as in ‘Eve naming the birds’ or ‘Talking to myself’, a one-sentence poem moving from idealisation to unpleasant realisation, and ending in the one-word line ‘leave.’ ‘Given’, ‘Cuntstruck’, ‘Beginnings’ and ‘First, cause no harm’ are all clear-sighted poems of experience, which see – in terms that still manage to be humanising and engaged, ‘We made a travellers’ pact to go wherever water let us pass, / together until each stood in the other’s way’ – all the pieces on the board.  It maybe shouldn’t be that shocking to find a healthy attitude to sex in contemporary poetry, but contemporary poetry has a way of reminding us what an uphill battle there’s still to be had. What’s remarkable about Kith is how normal all this feels, how little of a deal it should be to demand respect from one’s partner, and, vitally, respect for how one represents this artistically.

As a mostly-aside, the poem ‘Fair play’ (published here by B O D Y Lit) is a weird anomaly in this regard. Here’s the opening stanza:

‘Men, believe me. If in doubt, just
look her in the eye and say I want to fuck you.
It will work one time in three.’

I’ve no doubt the tongue’s in cheek here, but this is pretty blunt advice. The following stanzas make it clear the speaker is referring to herself, but its framing as a generally applicable tenet is deeply questionable. The implied interchangeability of the object of desire (just try twice more!) runs counter to the vital specificity of the other poems’ lovers, and introduces an unappetising market-forces attitude to finding a partner. Again, the good work done by the rest of the book argues that there’s some explanatory context here, but it’s missing from the text of the poem, and leaves ‘Fair play’ as close to outright cynicism as Kith gets.

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For all the book’s promotional bumf tends to give primacy to these poems (‘Love, sex, boats and friendship’, begins the blurb), Kith seems at least as comfortable in its more contemplative modes, when the practicalities of canal life are allowed to sit still long enough to take on some new aspect. The nine lines of ‘Severn, from Purton’ seem plain enough on a cursory glance, but they do extraordinary work in harnessing the experience of guiding a small and low-powered vessel along the island’s longest river to being in love, by way of Sonnet 116:

‘this fluid strength is what we borrow,
what we lean against when love inhabits us.
It alters when it alteration finds, alright

and so it should. There is no ever fixèd mark.
The bark’s the thing: the dot that battles tides
and if the river lets it, makes its small unlikely win.’

Shakespeare might have been emotionally hyper-aware but he was a tad prescriptive. This poem embraces such variousness, the needful negative capabilities. Incidentally, the opening line ‘Don’t take my lightness lightly’ could be a keyphrase for Bell’s aesthetic.

The book’s opener, ‘Crates’, is its own Donaghy-ish magic trick, somewhere between the teacher’s pay attention and the magician’s nothing up my sleeve: ‘Observe that when I speak of crates / your mind supplies one straight away’. The following stanzas describe with uncanny accuracy what springs to mind – ‘the fruiterer’s crate: / a shallow slatted box of rain-napped pine’, ‘the sturdy plastic tub / of the eco-minded council’. Et voilà, the final stanza:

‘Your crate exists as soon as it is thought.
Its shape is shown in speaking of it.
Now, let us speak of love.’

The poem has clearly thought long and hard about the direct physical experience of reading, about what can be achieved by creating this kind of direct address and shared space. And the conclusion isn’t just a neat touch; it emphasises that although the following stories are explicitly personal, they carry more than a simply journalistic import. The love you think of when prompted by the poem is every bit as legitimate as the magical crate, and that’s before you get into the ways the book puns on that first ‘crate’: as boat, as house, even as stanza. Maybe.

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In a similar vein, ‘Lifted’ is maybe my favourite poem in the book, and if anyone’s thinking of putting together an anthology of self-care poems, it has to be a contender. The premise is simple but convincing, examining the mechanics of a water-lift:

‘All water wants, all water ever wants,
is to fall. So, we use the fall to lift us’

It’s in a similar conceptual mode to ‘Severn…’, acknowledging difficulty and struggle but ultimately trusting in some large and ungraspable ideas. Maybe it’s me being a massive softheaded polyanna but the closing lines get me something fierce:

‘Wait, then, for the shudder in the gate,
the backward-drifting boat that tells you

there and here are equal, an imbalance
righted. Ask of water; help me rise

and water says: I will.’

Kith makes this attempt to speak as straightforwardly as possible about some pretty deep stuff, which is laudable enough in its own right; it’s easy to imagine such poems in less careful hands turning to conventional wisdoms or dead-white-dude-endorsed authoritativeness. (Not that this plain-spokenness doesn’t occasionally stray into self-parody; ‘Silbury Hill’’s ‘our northern pre-historic strongholds are better than your fancy southern megaliths’ has a bit of the Monty Python about it, however genuine the archaeological basis.) Bell’s first principle, I think, is to build common ground, to establish some firm footing for the book’s more ambitious pieces to leap off from. As the 52 project showed, accessibility and ease of communication are valuable and difficult skills; Kith, I think, argues that they are not an impediment to excellent poems.

Tl;dr: If you’re trying to get non-poem pals into poems, Kith’s a dang fine place to start.

Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade

Full Disclosure: Met Howe at this year’s Sabotage Awards on a panel regarding the Culture of Criticism. Review copy provided by Vintage Books.

Review: Loop of Jade is Howe’s first collection, in part an account of the poet’s journey to Hong Kong and China to learn about her and her mother’s past, in part a set of imaginative lyric adventures taking in Kung Fu-tzu, Pythagoras, Titus Andronicus, LA Confidential, Cormac McCarthy and Chinese political blogging, amongst others. I’ve slated writers before for wielding their education like an overseer’s whip; Howe’s poems are close-read and empathetic explorations into each text that recognise their value as real-world artefacts above and beyond their capacity to bestow literary authority. The giddying breadth and scope of attention the book achieves is held together by Howe’s calm-but-engaged, precise-but-emotionally-present narrative voice, its open-minded, casually unshakeable dedication to presenting uncomfortable and occasionally devastating stories and ideas, turning them to the light and making them shine. Loop of Jade also features some of the most sure-footed long-line narrative poetry I’ve read: she’s up there with Longley for loading up a line and keeping it airborne.

RHAPSODISING MUCH. So that para’s an attempt to get to the heart of a book with so many overlapping ideas and interwoven narrative strands (the epigraph is from Borges, for pete’s sake) it’s hard to know where to begin. The Borges poems, concerning ‘a certain Chinese encyclopedia’ and its weird classifications of animals, form the a kind of formal backbone and a kind of parallel stream to the book’s more historical-biographical (or geographical) work, as themes and ideas from one overflow into the other. The overriding sense is being taken on a strange and unpredictable journey by someone who knows exactly where they’re going. If you’ve the time I’d recommend reading Howe’s diaries for Best American Poetry, both for its insights into the book’s themes and a straight-up fascinating bit of travel writing.

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The book’s opening and title poems both concern Howe’s mother, so I think it makes sense to start there. ‘Mother’s Jewellery Box’ is the first of several short-lined, impressionistic lyrics that act as breathing spaces between the more narrative-intense poems. This one is kind of a way in to the book, an exercise in seeing the way the book sees, magnifying the poem’s small, shining things and drawing them together with ‘lupin seeds’ and ‘horseflies’ eyes’ as items of equivalent worth. A sceptical reader might be put off by the poem’s niceties, even kitschness; the poem serves as an important bridge from the everyday to the collection’s special worlds, and the poem’s ostensible free-floatingness alters drastically as its images gather meaning across the book.

The poem ‘Loop of Jade’ itself is just incredible. Gunna put that out there. It’s an astonishing piece of writing, an intimate portrait of Howe’s mother, her life, her habits of speech, her struggle to speak and to be understood when she does; also, quietly, the poet’s own feeling of distance from the roots of these qualities: ‘like watching her wade, one dredged step at a time, out into a wide grey strait – myself a waving spot, unseen, on the furthest shore’. One of Howe’s great skills, I think, is maintaining a precise, almost disinterested narrative tone, to the extent that when a disturbing detail appears, its delivery in that same unflinching voice makes it all the more stark. So when she relates her mother’s story about her childhood tenement building, its communal toilet beside its communal kitchen, the impact on the reader’s imagination is visceral:

‘How despite themselves her eyes would follow to the nearby drain, as it sprouted – here she giggles, shivers – the glistening bodies

of cockroaches, like obscene sucked sweets.’

And this is another great ability, to house two apparently conflicting but wholly coherent details in the same lyric space; it would be easy to say the cockroaches were just horrifying, or kind of funny, but by doing both the mother’s perseverance and relief are both recognised and respected, two aspects of one response. Elsewhere in the poem is a long consideration of her mother’s speech patterns, a hesitancy implicitly prompted in part by her traumatic childhood and partly by her foreignness to the English language:

‘in her early forties, in a new country, she spoke more slowly than now, and with a subtle, near-constant nasal hum, more of a nnnnnng – so natural to Cantonese –

but which filled the gaps between her otherwise fluent English like the Thereminy strings in a Mandarin film score.’

The poem also puts the reader in the mother’s shoes (and it’s worth noting that Howe notes the strangeness of the word ‘mother’, only using it ‘at an immigration office, perhaps, to total strangers, or inside the boundaries of a poem’), by setting part of it in her voice; the section enacts these hesitations formally, challenging the reader to keep pace with hers, to render a physical voice on the page. It’s an unassumingly beautiful moment, and noticeable that humming itself is a recurring feature of the poems, like the cicadas in ‘Pythagoras’ Curtain’, the factory machines in ‘Faults Escaped’. The concluding section brings the jewellery of the title into focus, a bracelet blessed to protect the child wearer. The closing line manages to be both heartbreaking and clear-eyed, an acknowledgement of her mother’s faith and a sincere questioning of it. It’s too powerful to spoil here.

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PHEW right, believe it or not there are other poems in the book. Like I said up top, Loop of Jade consists largely of unusual, often pretty funny, lyric adventures, often with a fable-ish sting in the tail. Which all sounds rather tame, but taken en masse the poems have a genuine bite behind the calm, articulate front. Take ‘Embalmed’ (a poem with an epigraph from Chairman Mao about the mass murder of scholars) in which the smell of the thoroughly mortal Emperor’s rotting corpse is masked by piles of fish, or ‘Innumerable’, a deeply powerful piece about attending race day at Hong Kong’s Royal Jockey Club in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square:

‘On rainy race days the turf workers, still bamboo-brimmed, would wear transparent macs dotted with drizzle and the determination of a search party. Where they pressed the clumps back down, you would never know.’

On their own, they are strong pieces; the latter particularly conveys a powerfully empathetic political message through image alone. Over the course of the collection, this facility for conveying radically challenging political thought (note the implication of contemporary Britain in the Jockey Club’s ‘Royal’ moniker; caustic governmental policy is not a foreign concept, and for more on Britain’s history of economic violence against China, read Howe’s essay on Jardine, Matheson and the opium trade) almost subliminally is one of the book’s great strengths. Power structures are noted and critiqued, the poet’s own position as authority is constantly under scrutiny; ‘Sirens’, a poem that redresses the poet’s misunderstanding of a line from Roethke (and when did you last read a poem where the poet so enthusiastically acknowledges their fallibility?), also addresses the misconceptions and potential abuses of the elder poet’s relationship with his student:

‘A tutor watches a girl click-to the door
of his study with reverent care, one winter evening –
And understands Horace on reining in fantasy.’

An awareness of one’s power over someone is one thing, refusing to exploit that power quite another. The poem lets no poet off the hook.

A struggle to find a voice, or means of expression, also appears repeatedly. The beautifully measured ‘Having just broken the water pitcher’ begins with a provocation from 13th century Chinese scholar Wumen Huikai: “If you cannot call it a water pitcher, what do you call it?” The poem then reads into the developmental similarities of kanji script and the punning that allows Chinese bloggers to circumvent official censure:

‘He ponders how strange it is (how useful…) […]
that sensitive words (as in filters,
crackdowns) sounds exactly like breakable
porcelain
. Done typing, he clicks Submit.

Recall the old monk’s koan, the correct
reply to Master Baizhang’s question:
His pupil kicked over the pitcher and left.’

An apparently absurd or childish gesture can point towards a resetting of the terms of debate, a radical rethink of the question, or of the system of power that poses it. Similarly, the single densely packed sentence of ‘Banderole’ takes in the act of providing a voice to a character in a painting. The ‘boot-faced shepherd’ in the face of heavenly glory is granted ‘a Latinity beyond / his own lacked letters’ by a ‘tawny scroll’s / unfurling coil’. The artist giving their subject an inauthentic voice is as important to the poem as the act of making the ‘mute canvas speak’: the act is only partly a failure, only partly a success. See also ‘That from a long way off look like flies’, in which a dead midge squashed in a book becomes ‘a glyph in a strange alphabet’. The poem features perhaps my favourite line in Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus’, ‘how, if that fly / had a father and a mother?’ The play intends this as evidence of Titus’ ill mental health; the poem, in the line ‘At empathy’s darkening pane we see / our own reflected face’ suggests the act is not so very unusual, that it in fact requires far more conscious empathetic effort than simply ‘scrap[ing] her off with a tissue’ (note the personal pronoun), confronting the difficult what ifs of our activated mirror neurones.

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There’s a lot to admire in Loop of Jade: its surprising angles and insight woven into a warm and careful register, its acknowledgement that kindness and care are subversive political acts, its determination to foreground humanity wherever possible, even in the face of great cruelty. ‘Stray Dogs’’s account of Ezra Pound’s imprisonment in custody of the Allied forces manages to focus on a thoroughly human need to exercise his mind without losing sight of his own acts of racist violence. The poems’ formulae are never simple. Nowhere is this clearer than in Howe’s poems about home, her physical pilgrimages (see Raleigh’s ‘give me my scallop shell of quiet’, referenced twice in the collection) and empathetic journeys. Always at arm’s distance to the place she spent her early years, she is at pains to do it justice on its own terms, to get her own self, her own ego (though there are few books where that word is less appropriate), out of the picture. The closing poem, ‘Yangtze’, ends with the image of the forest ‘persisting’ under the surface of the Yangtze river, the trees’ ‘Roots rot deep in the hill / where buried rock / is still dry’:

‘Windows film,
doors drift open
in the empty concrete
shells of houses
towns that once
held hundreds
of thousands
slowly filling with
what, what is it
they fill with?’

The book asks direct questions only infrequently, often in moments of rhetorical intensity like this one, where the submerged city becomes a reflection of loss, of lost home, a lost ability to belong to a geographical place, even the poet’s ability to accurately describe it is ultimately out of reach. It’s a perfectly fitting end to a book that refuses simple answers to complicated questions.

Tl;dr: Absolutely read this book, several times and slowly. I hope it gets the attention it deserves, and, unless there’s a truly spectacular work in the Forward list I haven’t read yet, must be a strong contender.

Ryan Van Winkle – The Good Dark

Full Disclosure: Ryan is a close friend, one of the first poets I met in Edinburgh and a ceaseless source of care and encouragement. I also did a little editing work with him on this manuscript a couple years back, and I’m in the acknowledgements. So get ready for hella objectivity is what I’m saying.

Review: The Good Dark builds on the work done in Van Winkle’s first collection, Tomorrow, We Will Live Here, in its gestures of gift-giving, its intermingling of past trauma with present crisis, its blend of intimate address and a kind of Galway Kinnell-ish emotional proximity to nature. It’s probably useful to think of the book as a kind of stock-taking, an out-of-love letter, an attempt to triangulate the speaker’s life with those closest to him. Unlike a great many broets, however, the poetry of loss in The Good Dark, particularly loss of love, is not bitter or recriminatory, but a kind of analysis, a recognition of one’s own failure, even a manner of apology. The book’s opening poem, ‘The Duke in Pines’, inhabits a time significantly after the initial parting, in a kind of workaday breathing space between loss and closure, which finds its punctum in a dress left behind by the speaker’s partner:

‘sometimes I would open the door and look
at the lichen thing, wonder why it had to hang
like an unwatered fern, wonder if it ever wanted you
the way I sometimes wanted you. And, of course,
it was just a dress and it could not say. And I
was just a young man and I could not say,
even about a dress that did nothing but hang.’

A great many poems would take such an opportunity to embark on a Cavafy-style conflation of lover and lover’s signifier, but ‘The Duke in Pines’ is a quieter, more thoughtful creature, more concerned about telling the truth of its wordlessness than a more dramatic fiction. If there’s an abiding tone in The Good Dark, it’s this kind of stoic sadness, a recognition that other people’s lives are complex, that their interaction with our own more complicated still, that the ways we hurt each other are rarely intentional. And yet through all that Van Winkle’s poetry is primarily, I think, one of gift giving, a faith in the consolatory and conciliatory power of creative gestures, their ability to give us the strength to continue. Take ‘I Do Not Want Rain for Rain’, a poem that looks back from the wet summers in Edinburgh to his childhood in the states; the poem comes in little, five line stanzas shaped like, well, rain:

‘in good dreams
my grandfather takes
my hand, says I am forgiven
for getting to his hospital late,
for the way I speak

to my mother,
for living while he is dead.
And I say thank you and he says to enjoy the rain
while I can. And because he says it, I try.’

This is a silly idea. It would get ummed and ahhed out of most workshops. But Van Winkle makes it work, and it’s difficult to put a finger on why. There’s a sincerity to the poem, an earnestness and an openness about childhood, memory, being a dick to one’s siblings (and ultimately forgiving and being forgiven), and it’s all tied up in this dumb formal trick, its organising metaphors of ice-cream and rain, its little stay against mortality. I love it. Van Winkle specialises in brief, unatomisable lyrics, and in ‘Untitled (Lincoln)’, links Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, starfish, and an extended moment in which the speaker implores the beloved not to run so fast to catch a train. The setup is simple, the execution complex; it opens with a deft piece of deflating irony, maybe even self-parody:

‘Time is nothingness
and this should allow
me to take any transport

I want.’

But in just a few stanzas the poem becomes something caring, sincere, almost painfully vulnerable:

‘And my arms and time
are nothingness and that

should allow you to take
them in your own time,
deliberately, like boarding

a train you know you want’

Sure, it’s a set-piece, it’s a bit of poetic trickery, it gives the emotional investigations of other poems a breather, but it’s difficult not to get a little swept away by its everyday metaphysics, its emotional immediacy.

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In ‘Gerontocracy’ (government by and for old men, useful word!), this attempt to understand or explain the speaker’s family is explicitly linked to collapsing relationship in the poem’s present:

‘Maybe you and I needed bills
like old boys on Capitol Hill; maybe
we needed debate, gavel-bangs, and lashings
of whips. But I couldn’t call that government
to order because all I’d ever learned
of government was from Father’s hard hand
and all I ever learned of talking
was from the TV; so loud
it spun out everything honest
so I could not tell what was puppet
and what was shadow.’

Silence begets silence and alcohol, the relationship fails, ‘and we are left with nothing / but noise and the cold majority / of silence below noise’. The extended metaphor picks up the poem’s feeling of entrapment in executive orders whose authority still resonates. It’s an angry poem, and the lines ‘when my mother / finally took to the lawn and threw her eyes / at her own home I think I understood / the single government of my father’ provide a defiant, comprehending gesture, perhaps one the speaker wishes to emulate. At its core, ‘Gerontocracy’ is the record of sabotaged relationships: the speaker’s parents by violence and the his own by an unwillingness to do likewise; even if that’s what the relationship ‘needs’, it is too high a price. When the speaker ‘wished / my own government wasn’t owned / by the same old ghosts of old men’ it’s a recognition of a flaw being managed; the ghosts may have harmed him, but they won’t harm anyone else.

In Tomorrow, We Will Live Here, one of my favourite poems was ‘And Table, You Are Made of Wood’, in which Van Winkle kinda goes, ‘welp, guess it’s just you and me, table’, I imagine in a bar or restaurant somewhere far from home. It has a spiritual successor in ‘One Year the Door Will Open’, in which the poet once again finds solidarity in a stalwart household fixture. Once again, the ostensible silliness of the setup is offset by, or perhaps permits, the seriousness of the poem’s substance; it moves from the blue of childhood and seasides to ‘argument red, family yellow, divorce brown’, ‘been locked and pushed / shut, hung on frames and forced to gaze / through creaking day and slamming night’. Ultimately, however, both door and poet survive, even look with some hope toward the future:

‘Door, I too have stared
at my own brass, have become wood
and squeaked with need. Weathered, pale,
but still here. So we can peer through gloam
and into each other, honest as hinge
and nail, can open and call this home.’

Home is at the heart Van Winkle’s work, a point his poems continually set out in search of and/or find their way back to. It is often a disturbed and unsettling place, as in ‘Untitled (Lynch)’ (‘It doesn’t matter what you know of other places if you’re still trapped in the building’), and the distinctly Lynchian long poem that concludes the collection, ‘Untitled (Snoopy)’. As an aside, the book’s title is partly drawn from Snoopy’s epigraph, ‘It was a dark and stormy night’; it’s a neat bit of ironic undercutting of a title that at first appearances felt portentous, a slightly heavy nod to the Robert Frost-ish New England backdrops of Van Winkle’s ‘nature’ poems. The poem itself is a kind of rangy, free-associative dream quest, alighting on some of the images and scenes from earlier in the book; in many places it expands on the book’s themes of loss of innocence or intimacy, the fear of being caged and the fear of the passage of time, the poem’s formal unrestrictiveness permitting some striking passages:

‘I counted letters
I should have written on the hill,
the butterfly I might have chased,
locked in a jar, carried home.
For, when the night turned stormy,
I could have said, “I have done
something. I have run
for beauty. I have begun.”’

‘But she
began to call me Moon as if
I was far away. Hey Moon, are you
hungry? C’mere Moon, give us a kiss.

Later, I became Mr. Moon. Mr. Moon,
this is serious. We must call a meeting.

It also permits maybe a little too much, and the stronger passages get a little lost in the meandering. But maybe the concision and thoughtfulness elsewhere in the collection have earned a bit of relaxation, a little breathing space. The Good Dark takes a kind of emotional failure as its point of departure, as a key element of its understanding of the world, and makes from that first shortcoming something beautiful.

Tl;dr: Hey, guess what, I really liked Ryan’s book. Hopefully I have not been blinded by this strange human emotion called friendship.

Karen McCarthy Woolf (ed.) – Ten: The New Wave

Full Disclosure: Have seen both Bernard and Ellams perform live, will be on a panel with Howe at the upcoming Saboteur Awards. Review copy provided by Bloodaxe.

Review: As often, Fiona Moore’s gathering of data is an invaluable resource when it comes to talking about ingrained prejudices in poetry. Talking about this very publication, Moore lays out as starkly as possible the discrepancies between the demographics of the general populace and those who become published poets; in 2005 black and minority ethnic poets made up just 1% of the big presses’ publications, a figure now standing at 8%, though far behind the 14% that would be an accurate reflection of Britain’s demographics – though even this is at best an arbitrary quota, potentially a bluff to refuse further restructuring of power (and a recent post by The Bookseller suggests the problem is by no means restricted to poetry).

What can be done to meaningfully change such structural biases? Perhaps by changing the means by which poetry is identified as ‘excellent’ or otherwise worthy of attention: in the past ten years, only four of the thirty TS Eliot judges were non-white, and only seven of fifty Forward judges; Moore’s research has not yet extended to editors of the UK and Ireland’s poetry magazines and presses, though I doubt it would make encouraging reading. For a case study on gender rather than race, VIDA’s figures on the LRB and TLS’s terrible track record of publishing women was met with derision and attempts to discredit the figures instead of practical engagement with a clear problem. Breaking these systemic barriers would require those with cultural power to give up some of that power, and resistance is perhaps not surprising. Ailish Hopper’s thoughtful essay in the Boston Review examines the collusion between prevailing aesthetic norms and whiteness, a prejudice unreconstructed since the time of Yeats’ (seldom fully quoted) exhortation to his ‘proper’ inheritors in ‘Under Ben Bulben’:

Irish poets, learn your trade,
Sing whatever is well made,
Scorn the sort now growing up
All out of shape from toe to top,
Their unremembering hearts and heads
Base-born products of base beds.

One needn’t look particularly far in contemporary British poetry to see this principle alive and well, that Yeats’ criteria for ‘whatever is well made’ (and, crucially, who gets to sing it) remains unexamined.

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The Complete Works have now published two ten-poet anthologies of new work from BAME poets, with an introduction from each poet’s mentor and around ten pages’ worth of poems apiece. It’s enough space to show multiple aspects of their work, to set up something more involving that a greatest hits or a technical highlight reel. TCW director Nathalie Teitler frames the book’s ambitions:

‘There will of course be those who ask ‘Yes, but why does diversity in poetry matter?’ To them I would say that poetry has the potential to hold up a mirror to society; at its best, it has the ability to show what a society may become.’

With that in mind there is, of course, a limit to the value of yet another white opinion on these poems. In some cases I was acutely aware that my set of critical tools simply weren’t up to the job. Perhaps against better judgement I want to at least draw attention to some important work collected here, work that seems a result of a complicated working-out of the poet’s relationship to a dominant, exclusive and restrictive culture, a recognition of and statement against their marginalisation. There is much to recommend from each poet in the collection, and it’s only for the sake of brevity that I’m not writing about them all.

Warsan Shire

Warsan Shire’s first collection is near completion, according to this pretty awesome interview. Shire is introduced in The New Wave by Pascale Petit, who identifies some shared practices in the former’s ability to work an extended metaphor, particularly as a way of understanding or owning trauma. In ‘The House’, Shire employs ‘body-as-house’ to render in physical terms a series of painful past relationships, as a way of incorporating the genuinely comic aspects of romantic failure, as in the miniature masterpiece of gradual revelation: ‘Are you going to eat that? I say to my mother, pointing to my father who is lying on the dining-room table, his mouth stuffed with a red apple’, and the starkly, almost unspeakably appalling, ‘I said Stop, I said No and he did not listen’. In the linked interview, Shire speaks about being a survivor, about how her trauma became deeply psychologically rooted, and describes becoming able to form positive relationships as an extremely demanding process of learning and unlearning. ‘The House’ disrupts notions of safety in what are traditionally our two safest, most integral spaces, the body and the home; Shire does not shy away from the complications involved in reclaiming those spaces, or how such an act is ultimately compromised. That she does so with such a sharp, generous sense of humour (listen to the audience in the video above) is a wonder to behold.

Elsewhere, metaphor fades into the background of an already-meaningful act of presentation. ‘Men in Cars’ is four short pieces on sexual disappointment, estrangement and abuse, and Shire’s ability to lend the poems’ male characters humanity, the individuality of their failures, is itself an extraordinary gesture. Though they do monstrous things, they are not monsters, and again, Shire’s grim touches of humour (‘The car was filled with weed smoke, I would emerge from it like a contestant on a singing show’) makes the poem bold, clear-eyed. ‘Midnight in the Foreign Food Aisle’ depicts the cultural estrangement of the speaker’s uncle, the sense of being inside and outside the British idea of ‘home’:

‘Love is not haram but after years of fucking
women who cannot pronounce your name,
you find yourself in the foreign food aisle,
pressing your face into the ground, praying
in a language you haven’t used in years.’

Shire is a hugely talented poet, insightful, perceptive and visionary. You can find more on her blog and twitter.

Kayo Chingonyi

Chingonyi’s selection starts with two excellent short lyrics, ‘How to Cry’ and the wonderful ‘The Room’, a short metaphysical exploration of the ethics of sampling other people’s music, with the epigraph ‘‘when you sample you’re not just picking up that sound, you’re picking up the room it was recorded in’ – Oddisee’. The poem moves from the mundane circumstances of the original recording (‘the few moments’ grace // before the store-clerk, thin voiced, announces closing time’) to the point of transformation (‘the room / fetching itself from itself in hiccups and spools’), to the poem’s sonnet-like turn, its recognition of the need for skill and study, but also respect for the origins of the work, the poem concluding at its point of departure:

‘mere completists never learn a good song’s secret;
air displaced in that room – the breath of acetate.’

The poem’s syntactic grace and balance are integral to its weighing of two scenarios, two artists working with one artefact. The poem’s two sentences give more time and space to the creator than the sampler; the poem’s formal message matches the semantic. Christ I love a bit of formal shenanigans. But maybe that’s too much nerdiness and the poem stands wholeheartedly as an achieved piece of imaginative and musical play: in either case the closing rhymes of ‘remix/secret’ and ‘day/acetate’ are worth savouring.

The remainder of Chingonyi’s selection is a series entitled ‘calling a spade a spade’, again with a epigraph, this time from Thomas Sayers Ellis:

I no longer write
white writing
yet white writing
won’t stop writing me

The poem consists of nine eleven-line stanzas, exploring the attempts of white society to make the speaker conform to race-based preconceptions, whether in the worlds of literature, pop culture, even cricket and a nativity play. The poem’s first lines illuminate this problem beautifully, in a section titled ‘The N Word’:

‘You sly devil. Lounging in a Pinter script
or pitched from a Transit van’s rolled-down window;
my shadow on this un-lit road, though you’ve been
smuggled from polite conversation.’

Chingonyi here quite rightly implicates the sophisticated artistic culture that still sees fit to appropriate words to which it has no claim, in the name of, perhaps, ‘realism’ or, as in a later section on ‘An all-white production of for coloured girls. / I expect my lecturer to get the joke / but he smiles, the thought of theatrical risk’, a kind of aspirational ‘edginess’. In the poem, of course, the play becomes a reality, praised for its ‘authenticity’. Later Chingonyi examines his own acting career, the tension between ‘never say no to good money […] rent’s due’ and ‘My agent says I have to use my street voice. / Though my talent is for rakes and fops’. These are challenging and beautifully crafted poems, asking the reader to see the incongruity of a (polite) society that claims ‘our post-race moment’ and the poet consistently trapped in a limited number of ill-fitting roles. Chingonyi is currently working on his own manuscript, ‘Kumukanda’ (a Zambian word for initiation rites which he discusses in this interview), more info on his blog and twitter.

Jay Bernard

Once again, I found it enlightening to read Bernard’s interview with Poetry School; here she gives some valuable insight into the mythic elements of her work and Weldon Kees’ turning the tables ‘on those who think that the power of ‘personal’ poems lies in autobiographical truth’. It also gives some impression of the poet’s creative restlessness and curiosity, the desire to challenge her own assumptions and treat her work as more than appeasement of that looming spectre, ‘The Rent’. Bernard’s selection here shows an astounding range of registers, from the weird medieval-gothic ‘Song of the Strike’ to the frank, direct, almost scientific observations about family violence and sexuality in ‘Fake Beach’; that she writes with such assurance in each is wonderfully disorienting, the awareness that at any moment the game might irrevocably change. I can’t think of another poet with such faith in the reader’s capacity to keep up with the poet’s vision.

That vision is to the fore in ‘Song of the Strike’, part of a series of poems in which dismembered heads talk to each other. In this one, the head is itself an audience to a Bosch-like parade of ‘elephants, without tusks’, ‘hawks circling on one-wing flight’:

‘Below I saw a breath of bats swarm towards me,
swarming up towards me; below I saw their tiny bitter faces,
I heard through the still-tender pipes of my throat wing-hum,
clammy joints a-hum – coming up and through me –

And like starlings they veered right like thieves’ eyes’

The poem’s quasi-scriptural repetitions prepare the way for a struggle between god the employer and his team of demons protesting their ill-treatment:

‘Do you know – (God: ‘I do.’)
How difficult it is to saw a boy in half? […]
Why us? If demons punish the wicked
we know better than angels do what is good –
and angels, clad in silk, would be devils
if they set foot on earth, so blinkered in their knowledge.’

The poem manages to hold its premise steady, staying just on the mythic side of allegory, allowing its broader implications room to breathe. ‘Song of the Strike’ is just as aware of abusive power structures as any of Bernard’s other poems, is a memorable rendering of god-as-neoliberal, zero-hours labour as demonic punishment.

The last poem in this selection is ‘The Basics’, another remarkable set piece that follows its conceit to a surprising and enlightening end. Its three-line stanzas are tiny tableaux of school- and home-life, jumping from one to the next in an ostensibly simultaneous moment:

‘In at least one staff toilet
someone is looking into the cistern
where the small pool of water –

and in at least one student toilet
someone is bunking a lesson,
trying to rub –

and upstairs in an empty classroom
a teacher begins to wonder
why it matters that – ’

It’s a brilliant effect, each exploring the interior lives of the children and adults of the unnamed school, giving (however briefly) space and importance to the (however incompletely understood) moments of loneliness and failure of the poem’s cast, before making an incredible final gesture of hope (maybe), of putting ‘the day’s lesson / to the test’. The poem’s close is too good to spoil. More of Bernard’s work is on her blog and Twitter.

Tl;dr: Ten: The New Wave is an exciting book, and I defy any reader to come away without hope for the future of poetry in these islands. It’s currently on offer (£7.63!) on Hive.co.uk.

Sam Riviere – Kim Kardashian’s Marriage

‘I think I need to not live in a fairytale like that. I think I maybe need to just snap out of it and be a little more realistic. What I want isn’t possible.’ – Kim Kardashian, 2012.

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Full Disclosure: Haven’t met Riviere. Thought 81 Austerities had both its moments and its flaws. Review copy provided by Ben Wilkinson.

Review: Between September 2011 and December 2012, Riviere wrote 54 of the 72 short poems (accoring to this post) that were published on a password-protected blog in 2013 over the course of 72 days, mirroring the 72-day-long marriage between Kim Kardashian and journeyman basketball player Kris Humphries, and which in February 2015 has been published as a full-length collection. There has been much discussion of the project online (Charles Whalley and Frith Taylor have provided valuable insight), and an appearance on Radio 4 as part of a conversation on language and the internet.

The decision to publish these pieces now seems strange. In the meantime Kardashian has re-married – a reader unfamiliar with the project’s history might assume the book referred to her relationship with Kanye West – and its appearance in print drastically alters its significance. As Whalley points out, the project revolved around its formal transience; as ‘a sequel to 81 Austerities’ Riviere may be lampooning the very idea of a follow-up collection, the difficult second album, and yet here it is, from the hallowed halls of Faber & Faber. Which for Riviere might be part of the joke being played on poetry at large, or maybe just a useful circumstance; there’s good reason to glom on to a famous master of SEO (a Telegraph review was RTed by @KimKardashNews_), while occasioning precisely the kind of amused disdain that seems to fuel BBC programming on cultural marginality. Faber is not Tumblr any more than Steve Buscemi is a tween.

The politics at work in making a metaphor of Kardashian – who is, among other things, a highly successful businesswoman of colour – are fraught to say the least. Taylor says it best in her review, which is incidentally also the best analysis of the book as a book of poems that I’ve read:

‘Kim Kardashian is fair game because she courts publicity, because she is regarded as trivial, because she is staggeringly wealthy. It is difficult to see what is gained by using poetry to make simple criticisms already so well covered by gossip columnists. […] There is also the gender disparity in Riviere’s poetry to consider: in the majority of his poems, women are girlfriends or pornstars. Riviere is parodying a kind of male response to women in writing these poems, and they do hold an element of criticism. It is difficult not to wonder if Kim Kardashian would be made to seem quite so ridiculous if she were male. To put it another way, what are we laughing at when we laugh at Kim Kardashian? ’

Here, Taylor raises the question at the heart of the collection. Riviere is absolutely right in the BBC interview to describe Kardashian as ‘an emblematic figure whose private life is a commodity’, but there is a difference between the symbiotic (read: mutually profitable) relationship between Kardashian and celebrity magazines and Riviere’s (Faber’s?) appropriation of her as a recognisable marketing device. Does this not make Faber absolutely complicit in that commodification, and without paying the usual fee for use of her – however text-based – image? Though neither poet nor publisher have, of course, a fraction of her cultural heft, not that much is needed in the low-return realm of UK poetry.

RIGHT I’LL TALK ABOUT THE ACTUAL BOOK FINE

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The poems are divided into eight sections, each headed by a step in a make-up routine. Some of these seem to play on a connection between art and fashion: a ‘Primer’ is also an introduction, a ‘Gloss’ is a list of difficult words or concepts (or the elision of the same). Considering the book’s attitude to its own regularly inane content, however, it is difficult not to read these headings as participating in a pervasive trope regarding make-up as vain, dishonest or superficial. Again, the play between the respectability of a poetry volume and the triviality of a beauty regime seems to highlight their differences more than their similarities, with poetry on the side of the angels.

POEMS

The book was written by googling the title of each poem and rearranging (or ‘curating’) the results. The general effect is an authorless or multi-authored semi-randomness, which makes the moments of declarative speech somewhat disorienting, such as in the opening ‘spooky berries’:

‘my little lens wasn’t cutting it.
So I popped on my big lens
and got it all.’

The stanza seems to harness the freudian language of capitalist image-creation to Riviere’s own practice. If the little lens of personal experience isn’t enough, maybe the big lens of internet searches will be. The persona’s confidence in telling the whole story, or even considering ‘the whole story’ legitimately achievable, feels aggressively misplaced.

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The issue of locating the ‘true speaker’ in the collection is fascinating if ultimately unsolvable; by ‘true speaker’ I mean a voice that might reasonably be assigned to an early 30s white male British poet, allowing for a certain amount of ironic distance. Hence the problem. But there are genuine moments in Kim Kardashian’s Marriage when such a voice seems to appear. The central conflict in the book, far as I can tell, has little to do with Kardashian, America, or even the internet; as in 81 Austerities, the most emotionally charged moments come when the poet asks how – maybe why – the important things of life might be differentiated from the overwhelming dross. (Questions about the nature of that dross are part of the book’s less admirable aspects, tending as they do to be located in objectified women, in the ‘Hey guys! Keryn and I went swimming!’ insignificance of young women’s speech, or in the consumption of these tropes by the book’s male figures: ‘I spied on my sister / and her girlfriend tanning // after running / last summer. / HOLY MOLY.’ As Taylor says, there’s an element of criticism here, but the lines’ depiction of harassment and cutesy swearing let the scene off the hook, almost participates in its ‘boys will be boys’ narrative. Again, these are threads that were to the fore in 81 Austerities, and have not gained nuance here.)

There are moments, however, where the cut-up and hide-the-author techniques permit a certain degree of Romantic lyricism, in the right light if you squint a little. This latent lyrical tendency might be a motivating force behind the collection, the lamentable absence of meaning that implies a need for meaning (for ‘meaning’ perhaps read ‘god’: the book’s interaction with scripture is fascinating). There are occasional lines where this shines through: ‘I don’t wanna feel the emptiness’ (‘grave sunsets’), ‘God does not force anyone to heaven’ (‘american heaven’). A couple of poems could even be read as committed critiques or self-critiques:

‘a salesperson
corny:
lacking new ideas
unpleasant and sometimes rude

who used to delve
into this unique entertainment industry
by paying homage
to strange and frightening experiences’ (‘spooky sincerity’)

‘When will disreputable nihilism become boring?
Hopefully never. They flatter with their tongue.

What explanation can you offer to me for pretending
in matters of importance style is the vital thing?’ (‘grave sincerity’)

I don’t think it’s an accident that both pieces concern, however obliquely, the question of sincerity, perhaps integrity. In Riviere’s essay ‘Unlike’, the poet says this about tradition and style:

‘If we can say that in poetry the genuine tradition is anti-tradition, and that continual overthrowing of entrenched styles is desirable, then it is worth looking at exactly what form of interruption this new strand of poetry proliferating on the internet takes, and how valid it is in it positing itself as alternative writing.’

How revolutionary can a change of ‘style’ be, and what is meant by the word? ‘Style’ in the sense of fashionable, insubstantial surface seems to be what the collection parodies; ‘style’ meaning the manner in which a poem is formed/created, on the other hand, might be closer to his intent. I’d argue that overthrowing entrenched prejudices and oppressions would be more desirable than altering the manner in which those prejudices are communicated, though I may well have misunderstood Riviere’s terms.

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However convoluted the provenance of Kim Kardashian’s Marriage, I still want to credit Riviere’s unwillingness to play the game of poetry careers, to make things easy for the blurbs of the national dailies – even if this book seems to have been printed with an eye to just such an audience – and I do genuinely believe his work reflects the faith in satire noted by David Wheatley in his review of 81 Austerities, even if Riviere tends towards the pessimistic end of the scale noted in Wheatley’s essay on the topic from last year. On the other hand:

‘His wife’s graveside service
was just barely finished,
when there was a massive
clap of thunder, followed
by a tremendous bolt of
lightning, accompanied by
a sunflower’s pollination.’ (‘grave weather’)

Is Kim Kardashian’s Marriage really an embittered jeremiad? Is the poem’s echoes of ‘What the Thunder Said’, of the renewal of natural cycles, really so unlikely? Moments like this are few and far between, but arresting nonetheless. The quote at the top of this review comes from the same Daily M**l interview as the collection’s epigraph (‘I want that forever love’). In context, Kardashian’s words acknowledge the impossibility of such a thing, a need for sustainable pragmatism. True, this would appear to have played out in terms of a more effective business plan, but in terms of the collection, I can’t imagine the quote’s broader significance is accidental. What is poetry’s ‘forever love’? Does Riviere suggest poetry’s pretensions to authority are phony as a ten-week marriage? I think part of the book’s joke is that such possibilities are there to be read, but are also potentially indefensible; the absence of an authorial voice ensures its intentions are finally elusive. And yet look at ‘beautiful dust’:

‘Yes, the Lord giveth but he
has come a long way since then.
Reserved, faithful, melancholy,
to dust I shall return. I have.

Which is not something you get
to say every day to those
that prefer to use their disguise.
Believer, enjoy this amazing dust.’

On a personal note, I’m a lapsed presbyterian, and this kind of wry, embattled, semi-ironic belief does chime for me. But here it is, a call to faith in the middle of one of the most resigned collections of poems I can remember. Or maybe it’s not and the joke’s on me. Fine. Everything about Kim Kardashian’s Marriage is a kind of provocation, and that’s where my reading ends up; dust, yes, but amazing anyway.

Tl;dr: If it’s possible to dislike a book and be fascinated by it regardless, this is the one. Doing a bunch of stuff I can’t stand and still itching away at something inscrutable. I still suspect marketing shenanigans are at the heart of bringing these poems to paper and ink, but that hardly makes it unique. No doubt I’ve already egg on my face, but if that’s the price of effective satire, I’ll happily cough up.

Stephen Sexton – Oils

Full Disclosure: Was recommended this pamphlet by Stephen Connolly, colleague of Sexton’s at Queen’s University; have not met Sexton. Review copy provided by Emma Press, along with Best Friends Forever: Poems on Female Friendship and Captain Love and the Five Joaquins by John Clegg.

Review: Preamble: This pamphlet has its own introduction, which is unusual. It’s a bit like a built-in Guardian review, complete with ‘These are poems to read and reread. This is a poet to get excited about’. Happily, it’s more or less accurate! Go figure.

If it wasn’t for Frances Leviston’s Disinformation last month, it would’ve been a long time since I’d read poems that rewarded both a careful and painstaking unspooling of thought and a quick skim over a brilliant surface. Sexton here uses an apparently straightforward (nay, breezy) narrative register to cover for a deep investigation into the nature of life, death and our ability to perceive their intermingling. Alongside the explicit references to Peter Doig and Anne Sexton, there seems to be a kinship with Don Paterson and Sinéad Morrissey, sharing those poets’ ability to communicate darkness lightly, at an enlightening angle. While these poets’ work appears to have been an empowering force in Sexton’s work, the book is absolutely its own unique, strange, but approachable creature. As an aside, its brevity only affords its short lyrics a kind of intensified significance; there is plenty of evidence here to support considering the pamphlet a complete collection in its own right. It’s difficult to imagine Oils being more powerful as a 50-plus-page book.

Oils’ centrepiece is ‘The Deaths of Orpheus’, a three-part poem on the post-mortem passage of the myth, each section written in light of a painting, namely: ‘Thracian Girl Carrying the Head of Orpheus on His Lyre’, ‘Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus’ and ‘The Death of Orpheus’. Google em. Sexton seems unafraid to engage in such traditionally poemy pursuits, and makes hay out of negotiating their generic conventions; the voice of Orpheus talks about getting ‘out of that wine / fucking dark sea’, and when the narrator asserts the power of his lyre: ‘And – I should settle this – three strings, / though I could have made you weep with one’, he brings to mind Michael Donaghy’s nervous, bombastic, self-deprecating personae. If your cup of earl grey is intricate syntactical weaving, ‘Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus’ is pure, artisan, be-fucking-spoke loose leaf. 24 lines in a sentence, it runs a gamut of mythical stock phrase:

‘Always becoming, always becoming, instar
to instar, the salmon-pink sky runs
a jealous parallel along the mountaintops,
the mountaintops envy the scum of the sky’

taking in a submerged pun on ‘instar’ (which google tells me is ‘a developmental stage of insects’) to put this reader in mind of ‘instep’ and ‘star’, which comes back in that twilight sky, the tender part of the foot, and the insects apostrophised in the closing line. The poem runs through elements from its source painting – ‘waterlilies and peonies / and aconite’, ‘this fresh pool’, ‘its algal / green flotage’ – in the mere fact of their vegetable life considered more powerful, more real, than the floating head of Orpheus delivering the poem, whose appearance is deferred (as it is in the painting) to the foot of the piece:

‘me half-drowned at the bottom and jealous,
O insects, jealous is what death is.’

The conjunction of the line’s pause for breath and the cumulative rhetorical force of the ‘instar’ insects is something special. The poem builds its vivaciousness through its unrelenting syntax (like MacNeice’s ‘Mayfly’), and positions death at its crucial point; the slightly absurd conceit of the dismembered and bitter poet is a perfect undercurrent against the high register and frantic changes of focus.

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A similarly complex weaving is ‘Long Reach’, the poet’s rendering of his namesake Anne Sexton’s rendering of ‘The Starry Night’ by Van Gogh. The poem’s framing is, again, a well-earned and delicately handled necessity: the poem puts the lives of both Sextons through the wringer through the single appearance of Van Gogh, who contends: “Sometimes, young woman, / it’s both expensive and impossible to change.”’ The painter’s patronage to his addressee, who is partly Anne struggling to keep going in a socially asphyxiating small town, plays against our knowledge of both artists’ suicides and the narrator’s desire to make (or restore) a life in a semi-fictional ideal place: ‘the long reach / back into the small French town where we could live.’ The poem’s doomed request, ‘Live, then show me what I got wrong’ is heartbreaking, the conflict between the sestina’s fatalistic repetition of end-words and the variousness in between a reflection of the tension at the poem’s core. The question implicit here – what was the connection between these artists’ lives and their deaths? Might it have been otherwise? – is kindly and gently delivered, and offers no easy redress.

The collection features several such thumbnail nightmares, explicitly or implicitly haunted. Another beautiful set piece is ‘The Death of Horses’ (Sexton is also unafraid of putting the subject matter front and centre, all the better to look it in the eye). Here, the dead animal – usually in contemporary poetry a sort of fetish for the luxuriating poet to prove their (his) unflinchingness – is itself an empowered, terrifying agent, between the lands of the living and the dead:

‘The bones of the horses keep arranged

largely in their living shape. A rib
or thighbone missing here, carrion
clumped around a hoof as though death
was elsewhere overthrown: a skeleton

growing back its flesh – the pastern,
gaskin, stifle, loin.’

That last list. Jings. The poem comes to rest, without prior warning, in the home of a farmer trying to calm ‘his son’s shivering bones’, that key word drawing together the boy and his fears. The poem’s close – ‘The river curses TV static. / It’s too dark and not dark enough.’ – leaves the piece not in an extravagant posture of man-versus-death, but a far quieter, sadder acknowledgement of the power of fear. As Sexton notes, ‘the mind haunts itself’; knowledge of our mortality is no stay against it, and (noting Donaghy’s recurring connection between white noise and messages from the beyond) the poem’s only consolation is giving voice and body to those fears, permitting their explicit transmission.

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There is simply too much imaginative life in Oils, however, too much embodied belief in the possibilities of the work to be overwhelmed by what seems a kind of motivational anxiety. ‘Subimago’ (‘I have been well prepared for small endings. / At eight years old, my first poem killed a mayfly.’) and ‘Elegy for Olive Oyl’ (‘I bears this image in mind’) have a vividness, a bold weirdness that is rare and heartening. Most of all, Oils has a winning sincerity, perhaps ‘faithfulness’ is a better word, that even in the face of the often cruel and arbitrary worlds of its poems, there is usually something wonderful and strange.

Tl;dr: Oils is a fantastic collection and (as is vital with pamphlets/chapbooks) Emma Press have done a great job in the production of the physical thing. At £6.50 I can’t recommend it enough.

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.