Sara Hirsch & Ben Fagan – Made to Measure [Fringe Diary Part Two]

Full Disclosure: Saw Hirsch’s show at last year’s Fringe, which I really enjoyed. She also performed at this month’s Poets Against Humanity, which is a show I helped to write (and is way funnier/less awful than the card game). Fogan is a new poet to me.

Review: Made to Measure begins with Hirsch jogging in place, headphones in and beaming aggressively. ‘Do you write every day?’ ‘Are you discovering coffee shops?’ ‘When was the last time you swam?’, like a jobseeker’s interview funnelled through aspirational Guardian supplements. The show is partly coming-of-age story (trying to wear clothes that don’t fit, literally or figuratively), partly a missive against a culture increasingly hostile to people under 30; maybe it’s more about how difficult it is to come anything resembling ‘of age’ while retaining the kind of beliefs and principles that made you want to write poetry shows.

I saw the show with Andrew Blair (ex-Godfather of the Edinburgh Poetry Scene), who described it as ‘Spaced but with poets’, which I would absolutely watch the heck out of, and is decently accurate. Hirsch and Fagan are both excellent at their chosen profession, even if ‘profession’ doesn’t mean ‘living’, and if watching two capable and curious minds hammer against a system that undervalues them and their skills feels less tragic it’s only because it’s so familiar.

Narratively, Made to Measure follows Fagan growing up in rural New Zealand and moving to London, where he and Hirsch rent a flat. The question of ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ haunts the show, and underlying the snappy comedy and near-flawless chemistry between the performers is the uneasy feeling that the stakes are extremely real. Like Paula Varjack’s Show me the Money, the disappearing possibilities of secure and fulfilling work, stable housing and material comfort are weighed against the increasing difficulty of continuing to make art. The distance between ‘what you want to be’ and ‘growing up’ are at times painfully distant.

All that said, it’s also a remarkably uplifting piece of theatre; the fact that childhood dreams are given equal space to the realities of bill-paying and keeping up with your peers is weirdly heartening. A recurring motif is Hirsch’s little brother’s dream (played by Fagan with wide-eyed brio) of being a train-driver, which he sort of got to do when he was three – it becomes a kind of emotional anchor, a way of re-centring yourself in a culture that wants to stamp out any dream not in its own image.

The performance I saw on Friday 12 was extremely smooth and beautifully realised. Made to Measure’s conclusion, involving a (very neatly done) turn to camera, did feel a little abrupt, perhaps puncturing a bit of the show’s momentum. At the same time, the fact that it allowed a very direct address of its central concerns gives some indication of how urgent those concerns are, and was maybe worth the slight veer in tone.

Tl;dr: Made to Measure is the best two-hander poetry show I’ve ever seen, an excellent chunk of theatre that feels timely, curious and generous. Go see.

Made to Measure is on at 3.05pm every day from today (17) – 27 August, Silk Upper, 28A Kings Stables Road.

Further Reading: Sara Hirsch’s website

Ben Fagan’s website

Paula Varjack – Show Me The Money [Fringe Diary Part One]

Full Disclosure: Varjack was one of the first performers I saw when I moved to Edinburgh, but I don’t know her personally.

Review: A couple of nights ago I went to see Paula Varjack’s Show Me The Money, a show about how artists in the UK survive, either by their art or not. I’ve seen a few versions of the show now, and it’s immediately apparent that Varjack has thrown everything at it. There’s an urgency to the operation that’s struck me on each viewing, that what’s at stake is at once stark and utterly mundane; this person may or may not continue making art.

So the show begins by asking what an artist is, whether it’s even a real job – Varjack interviews Dan Simpson’s father, a cab driver, about how he would respond if his clients approached the matter of payment the way commissioning organisations did, with predictable exasperation. Maybe that’s the biggest thing to take away from Varjack’s reams of interviews – no one seems surprised that things are the way they are, that art in this country is microvalued and deteriorating, that artists often have two, three, more other jobs and still live hand to mouth. The fact that wanting to make art not only requires poverty, precarity, in many cases sacrificing a stable home life, seems a given. Varjack mentions early on that the younger artists she interviewed tended not to have a plan for the future, there was a sense that writing or creating was something one could only do for so long. One artist talked about how around the age of 35, one by one his friends stopped making art; the question of how long someone can physical or emotionally sustain that kind of lifestyle seemed to have a very concrete threshold.

Show Me The Money approaches the fraught domain of arts council funding tongue-in-cheekly, lampooning the language of application forms (‘this piece will include the excluded, whilst simultaneously being engaging for all’) and imagining council offices as a cross between heaven and the mailroom scene from The Hudsucker Proxy. Behind that, of course, is a serious point – if arts councils don’t have active connections in living, breathing scenes, their main point of contact is through a series of essay questions and budget plans that don’t necessarily align with traditional artistic skillsets.

The show is bleak viewing, and Varjack’s ability to draw desert-dry humour out of the situation is admirable. Happily, she knows the power of optimism, hope, and (more importantly) getting organised; the Manifesto for Artists in a Crumbling Arts Economy near the hour’s end focuses on the need to support your fellow artists, for honesty, bravery, compassion, empathy and a bunch of other things that reminded me of precisely why I spend my free time on this stuff.

Further reading: The Show Me The Money tumblr is an excellent resource (Varjack: “Yesterday I realised that it’s not a show I want to make, what I want is to start a movement”), and although her interviewees are not introduced by name during the show, Varjack’s full video archive is available on Varjack’s Vimeo page.

Show Me the Money ran from 9-10 August, Varjack and Simpson Presents ran from 6-13 in Banshee Labyrinth. A list of her upcoming shows is here.

Ocean Vuong – Night Sky With Exit Wounds

Full Disclosure: None. New poet to me. Review copy purchased with help from supporters on Patreon. Just a wee heads up that the book and the review discuss domestic violence and implied sexual abuse.

Review: There’s a wonderful podcast and interview with Vuong on LateNightLibrary where Vuong argues that all of a poet’s subject matter should be in service of the questions the poet wants to explore; the most important part of the process, then, is having a clear idea of what those questions are. In the most general sense, the poems in Night Sky… are concerned with how the past informs and shapes the present, how one moment irrevocably changes the next; while it’s possible make a rudimentary catalogue of ‘father’, ‘mother’, ‘war’, ‘love/sex’, ‘America’ poems, the collection is way more interested in how these categories overlap or intersect. As Christopher Soto points out in a review in Lambda Literary, Vuong repeats the same building-block images – ‘moon, sun, mouth, lips, teeth, body, time … fire, burn, black, bright … kneeling, kissing, hair’ – across a multitude of poems, giving the impression that, despite a great variety of tone, form, or narrative perspective, the whole book is cut from the same cloth. A cynic might suggest this is an indulgence of the poet’s writing tics, but it feels purposeful: the first and last poems in the book feature the narrator on their knees, the former in an act of voyeurism (‘I watched, through the keyhole, not / the man showering, but the rain // falling through him’), the latter in an act of apparently humdrum, loveless sex (‘my knees / scraping hardwood, / another man leaving / into my throat’). Elsewhere in the collection, kneeling figures appear with notable regularity, in postures of surrender, prayer, love, or in one memorable image, saving a beached dolphin. I think the book’s vocabulary behaves in the same way as its themes – the reader is given a followable thread that allows us to see the same image or person or thing from different angles, challenges us to read again what seemed to be wholly comprehensible. Above all else, I think, Night Sky With Exit Wounds is a book that refuses to accept simplified formulations of complicated ideas; the act of allowing a person to mean multiple things at once seems synonymous with the book’s conception of love.

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More on that later, maybe, as to focus too much on the book’s theoretical framework would be to misrepresent a lush, visceral, human book of poetry. The collection features several poems about or in the voice of the poet’s father; it is clear from these pieces that he is capable of committing horrific acts of violence, not least towards his own family. Vuong, however, does not paint him as a pure and irredeemable monster: in the poem ‘In Newport I Watch My Father Lay His Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back’ he ‘kneels to gather the wet refugee / into his arms’; in ‘Always & Forever’, he leaves his son a handgun, for ‘when you need me most’ – the poem regards this gesture with remarkable ambiguity, managing to convey both its intended warmth and its chilling, estranging effect without explicitly passing judgement either way. The poem notes how ‘His thumb, / still damp from the shudder between mother’s / thighs, kept circling the mole above my brow’. I don’t think this is a lurid detail for shock value; I think this is consistent with Vuong’s strategy of seeing multiple motivations in action simultaneously, or his depiction of his father as someone who does not draw, or at least enact, clear distinctions between sex, violence and familial love. Vuong writes with a narrative efficiency many short story writers would sell a kidney for. In ‘Prayer for the Newly Damned’ the poet witnesses his father ‘pressing a shank to another man’s throat’, strongly identifying with his victim:

‘Am I wrong to love
those eyes, to see something so clear
& blue – beg to remain clear
& blue?’

Later, there is ‘a boy kneeling / in a house with every door kicked open / to summer’, with ‘A knife touching / Your finger lodged inside the throat’. The rendering of the scene –  which for want of more detail seems to imply the poet being physically threatened by his father – is characteristic of Vuong’s style. Simply spelling out the act of violence might fix it in realistic space far too neatly; giving the reader just enough detail to piece the scene together themselves (particularly in light of information supplied in other poems) allows or requires a more engaged kind of meaning-creation on the part of the reader. It also permits disbelief or wilful ignorance; the active decision to believe your own senses, to acknowledge what is certainly present in the text, is itself a hugely uncomfortable, perhaps even painful experience. Vuong articulates the silences and elisions that trauma occasions to powerful effect.

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The act of witness seems a vital cog in the book’s engine, the poet as a keeper of memories and stories both personal and historical, including several pieces in which Vuong watches his parents or speaks in their voices. What’s remarkable about many of these early pieces is how seamlessly Vuong sidelines the observational self; the poems’ narratives are given central focus, and whatever impressions the reader gets about the real-life poet are fleeting, and only substantiated much later in the book. ‘Aubade with Burning City’ sets the evacuation of Saigon in April 1975 against another obliquely written scene of (probably) an American officer and a young Vietnamese woman, (or girl, given the recurring image of ‘Milkflower petals […] like pieces of a girl’s dress’):

‘He fills a teacup with champagne, brings it to her lips.
Open, he says.
She opens.’

In ‘Headfirst’, the poet’s mother  asserts:

‘When they ask you
where you’re from,
tell them your name
was fleshed from the toothless mouth
of a war-woman.
That you were not born
but crawled, headfirst –
into the hunger of dogs. My son, tell them
the body is a blade that sharpens
by cutting.’

Late in the collection, in the poem ‘Notebook Fragments’, Vuong notes:

‘An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists.
Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me.

Yikes.’

Although, as the latter poem’s title suggests, this is one thought among many, and an uncharacteristically blunt one at that, these lines make one of the book’s latent ideas explicit, that each of what could be considered its central ‘themes’ are deeply connected. The murderous masculinity-cult of 1968’s John Wayne-in-Vietnam movie The Green Berets (‘Self Portrait as Exit Wounds’) feeds into the power dynamics between the nameless American and Vietnamese characters in ‘Aubade with Burning City’. The suffering brought upon Vietnamese women informs their conception of the body as ‘a blade that sharpens / by cutting’; implicitly, it dulls by not cutting, it becomes less of a weapon the less it is used as a weapon (maybe it’s no accident that literal knives appear in the hand of the poet’s father throughout the book). The poet’s renderings of love are haunted by this idea, the physical body given primacy over the emotional states it inhabits; in ‘Eurydice’, the speaker self-rebukes, ‘Silly me. I thought love was real / and the body imaginary’. In ‘Because it’s Summer’:

‘the boy who finds you
beautiful only because you’re not
a mirror’

while ‘Notebook Fragments’ has a scene with a ‘high school English teacher’: ‘I could eat you he said, brushing my cheek with his knuckles’; ‘A pillaged village is a fine example of perfect rhyme. He said that.’ The undercurrent of each of these poems is similar to Claudia Rankine’s rendering of the present-self and the historical-self suddenly and disastrously meeting; these actions by the English teacher might be benevolently meaningless from his perspective, but for Vuong the entire sexual encounter is tainted by historical significance:

‘I kissed it [the teacher’s scrotum]

lightly, the way one might kiss a grenade
before hurling it into the night’s mouth.’

It’s worth noting that the book references dissident political poets such as Nguyễn Chí Thiện and Edmond Jabès, and blends into its lyrics a kind of compassionate resistance, insisting on love in the face of violence. Where love is not set upon by historical forces, it is threatened by the toxic mores of contemporary America. ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’ is written entirely in footnotes, as reference numbers hover on a blank page, in the voice of a gay man murdered in Dallas. A poem whose content borders on the downright halcyon:

‘& this is how we danced: our mothers’
white dresses spilling from our feet, late August

turning our hands dark red. & this is how we loved:
a fifth of vodka & an afternoon in the attic, your fingers

through my hair – my hair a wildfire’

is titled ‘Homewrecker’. There are precious few moments in Night Sky… in which uncomplicatedly positive moments of love emerge unscathed.

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After all of this, the book’s penultimate poem is ‘Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong’, taken from fellow Copper Canyon poet Roger Reeves’ poem ‘Someday I’ll Love Roger Reeves’ which itself is taken from Frank O’Hara’s poem ‘Katy’, written in the voice of a six-year-old who says “someday I’ll love Frank O’Hara’. That the poem has already passed through several hands is part of its meaning, the perhaps never-ending process of learning to love someone whose culture has decided should not be loved. The poem itself does not have a logical narrative progression, and is more akin to ‘Notebook Fragments’ than the book’s other accounts of (imaginative) memory. It places more significance on individual turns of phrase:

‘Ocean, don’t be afraid.
The end of the road is so far ahead
it is already behind us.’

‘The most beautiful part
of your body is wherever
your mother’s shadow falls’

‘Here’s a desk
with the gimp leg & a brick
to make it last. Yes, here’s a room
so warm & blood-close,
I swear, you will wake –
& mistake these walls
for skin.’

That the poem’s closing image is a combination of writing-room and body feels like a culmination of the book’s intent. That a book that spends so long detailing suffering and loss should have at its climactic moment such an image of defiant persistence is a little extraordinary.

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Vuong’s palette is rich and sensuous, and, as Soto’s list of motifs implies, his poetic vocabulary often leans towards the personal/confessional/generally sincere. Whether you can tolerate occasional stumbles into political heavy-handedness (‘Of Thee I Sing’ is written in the voice of Jackie Onassis and maybe lands too heavily on its closing ‘American dreams’),or metaphors that don’t quite stick the landing (e.g. ‘my hand, filled with blood thin / as a widow’s tears’ from ‘Thanksgiving 2006’), will very much colour your enjoyment of the collection. The flipside is that when these poems do get their calibrations right, as in ‘Anaphora as Coping Mechanism’ or ‘Queen Under The Hill’, they are heartwrenching, all heightened realities and emotional devastation. That said, Night Sky With Exit Wounds is not a tragedy-memoir, and it would be a mistake to equate emotional turmoil with aesthetic achievement. The book’s argument against racial, sexual and gender inequality is at the heart of its poetic project, from its insistence that ‘Yes, you have a country’, its acknowledgement that ‘from men, I learned to praise the thickness of walls. / From women, / I learned to praise’, to, in ‘Ode to Masturbation’, ‘sometimes / your hand / is all you have / to hold / yourself to this / world’. Given the book’s stakes, it may well be that heartfelt sincerity is the only viable option, a very real survival strategy or coping mechanism.

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Okay, tinfoil hat time and then we’ll call it a day. I think Night Sky With Exit Wounds might owe as much to musical composition as poetry. There are so many recurring themes and leitmotifs that a musical kind of attention to patterned meaning seems to be meaningfully rewarded. (I might well have reached the saturation point for exegesis and am projecting hugely, but the book seems to bear this theory out.) To show you what I mean, take the shifting meaning of the eponymous ‘exit wounds’. They appear in several poems, each instance slightly modified from the one before: its first appearance is in ‘Always & Forever’, a literal gun held by Vuong which makes him ‘wonder if an entry wound in the night // would make a hole wide as morning’. Second, it informs an entire poem, ‘Self Portrait as Exit Wounds’, in which a series of tableaux from the Vietnam War impact on the poet’s self-conception, Vuong finally ‘lower[ing] myself between the sights’. In the excellent ‘To My Father / To My Future Son’, the stars are ‘the exit wounds / of every / misfired word’. Finally, in ‘Logophobia’, ‘I drill the ink / into a period. / The deepest hole, / where the bullet, / after piercing / my father’s back, / has come / to rest’. In a book so full of guns, bullets, wounds and generally being violently passed through, that the final word on the matter (indeed, where the matter rests) should be in a moment in which bullet and word are synonymous, seems significant. To say what, exactly, would probably put too fine a point on it, and I’m sure you’ll have ideas of your own; my main point here is that the book seems to encourage this awareness of repeated significant phrases or images (try it with kneeling figures, maybe, or what the book sets on fire), interconnected verbal patterns that mirror the interconnectedness of the book’s themes.

Tl;dr: In any case, Night Sky With Exit Wounds is a bit of a special book, and the folks at Jonathan Cape have pulled off a tidy bit of business by signing him up. Highly recommended.

Further reading:

Interview and discussion on Late Night Library Podcast

Michiko Kakutani – review in the New York Times

Stephan Delbos – review in Body Literature

Christopher Soto – review in Lambda Literary

Jeff Nguyen – review in The Rumpus

Interview with Vuong (in Vietnamese) with Vien Dong Daily

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

Denise Riley – Say Something Back

Full Disclosure: Saw Riley read at the Scottish Poetry Library in May this year.

“The only constant is a commitment to the thing that is song. This is in some way linked to the persistence of hope. Then as I get older this whole business of ‘song’ only becomes still more mysterious. It is a plain bright mystery.” – Riley, interview in Shearsman (2014).

Review: Say Something Back is Riley’s first poetry publication since her Selected in 2000; since then she has been more regularly published as a scholar of language and feminist theory. A great many poems in the new book seem to originate as critical or creative responses to other poets and artists; a cursory glance turns up Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Heinrich Heine, Michelangelo Antonioni, Wallace Stevens, the singers Little Eva and Johnny Nash, the writer of the biblical Proverbs, Yeats, Shelley, Neruda, Wordsworth, Blake. It’s perhaps remarkable that Riley has produced a book of such emotional immediacy and intimacy among the shadows and echoes of other highly revered artists; the overriding presence of so many major works of grieving or solitude may be artistically enabling for Riley, their commitment to song (or something like song) a last redoubt against silence. Perhaps they are part of the book’s ability to literally ‘say something back’. The book’s title and epigram, for example, is from WS Graham’s Implements in their Places’, another site of complicated exchanges of impression/expression:

‘Do not think you have to say
Anything back. But you do
Say something back which I
Hear by the way I speak to you.’

Graham supposes that he understands his companion by the modulations in his own responding voice. The exchange is fulfilled only by its continuation: he speaks to ‘you’, who does not have to say anything back, but does, which he hears in his own speech; in four lines Graham has made a little perpetual motion machine, expression that creates expression, understanding that creates understanding.

1 Corinthians 13:11 reads:

‘When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. [12] For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.’

It’s a complex little passage, not least in the English translation’s rendering of time; it’s not immediately apparent in verse 12 which is the action of the child, and which the adult, and the latter line about knowing and being known seems a continuation of Graham’s thinking. Here’s how Riley renders those lines in Say Something Back’s first poem, ‘Maybe; maybe not’:

‘When I was a child I spoke as a thrush, I
thought as a clod, I understood as a stone,
but when I became a man I put away
plain things for lustrous, yet to this day
squat under hooves for kindness where
fetlocks stream with mud – shall I never
get it clear, down in the soily waters.’

For a kickoff, this is a wee bit marvellous. It rejects Saint Paul’s neat moral system, literally muddying the waters between innocence and maturity. After reading the rest of the collection, the image of the poet under a horse’s feet, searching for understanding mostly in vain in horse-water feels emblematic of the book’s repeatedly failed attempts at finding solace; the lament or frustration of ‘shall I never / get it clear’ is beautifully ambiguous. Emphasis is as much on ‘repeatedly’ as ‘failed’, however: like Beckett’s Didi and Gogo, part of the book’s emotional power (and Say Something Back made my heart sore like few others have) comes from Riley’s capacity to face one disaster after another and stay standing, stay saying.

AW2

A cynic, of course, might read this as a bit of an echo chamber – surely what is said is at least as important as its being said at all. This tension between comprehension-by-expression and outright futility is, I think, at the heart of Riley’s sequence ‘A Part Song’, an elegy for her son. Much has been written on the sequence already, not least in Steph Burt’s excellent piece for Poetry Review; Burt describes how these poems ‘find force by seeking accuracy, and never minding whether they’re awkward: they are like rigorous twelve-tone compositions that, somehow, also work as pop songs you can hum’. It’s an apt comparison: ‘A Part Song’ functions in part by tiny, subtle shifts in tone that simultaneously make it stranger and truer, discordant and real. Riley’s control over these shifts allows her tableaux to run from profound understanding of aging and dying:

‘Each child gets cannibalised by its years.
It was a man who died, and in him died
The large-eyed boy, then the teen peacock
In the unremarked placid self-devouring
That makes up being alive. But all at once
Those natural overlaps got cut, then shuffled
Tight in a block, their layers patted square.’ (part (iv))

to a tiny, haiku-ish sigh of a thing:

‘Dun blur of this evening’s lurch to
Eventual navy night. Yet another
Night, day, night, over and over.
I so want to join you.’ (part (xiv))

What each of the registers in ‘A Part Song’ have in common is a complete economy of vocabulary. Even when words or phrases are jarring and awkward, they still fit, they do their allotted work. In most poems ‘Dun blur’ and ‘navy night’ would sound overwritten or lacking weight, but here they are part of a broader network of meaning, and in the realm of this section of the poem, counterbalance the blunt force of that last line. Here’s part (ii):

What is the first duty of a mother to a child?
At least to keep the wretched thing alive
– Band
Of fierce cicadas, stop this shrilling.

My daughter lightly leaves our house.
The thought rears up: fix in your mind this
Maybe final glimpse of her. Yes, lightning could
.

I make this note of dread, I register it.
Neither my note nor my critique of it
Will save us one iota. I know it. And.’

This section is characteristic of Riley’s tone and attitude – bleak humour, self-correction, a capacity to confront the horrendous and render it (almost) mundane, to recognise one’s final powerlessness except in one’s continued survival. It documents the grieving mind (heart?) in action, and with heartbreaking economy lays out an entire dramatic arc in the poem’s last four words. I don’t remember anyone writing so little and saying so much. In part (v) the stakes are matter-of-factly life-and-death:

‘A fat-lot-of-good mother with a pointless alibi: ‘I didn’t
Know.’ Yet might there still be some part for me
To play upon this lovely earth? Say. Or
Say No, earth at my inner ear.’

That ‘inner ear’ speaks as much to me of balance as of the imaginary-audible (note the ‘lovely earth’ on one hand and the funereal/burial earth on the other), and the turn between pity and the refusal of pity, solace and the refusal of solace, still makes my stomach drop on third, fourth, fifth reading. These lines read like a private rumination, with all the cruelty and clear-eyedness we reserve only for our own low ebbs, finding our own weak points and pushing down hard.

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This reading alone, however, overlooks Riley’s wit and humour, which is no less precisely deployed, and no less legitimate as proof of the genius at work here. The first lines of part (vii), for example: ‘Oh my dead son you daft bugger / This is one glum mum.’ This line-and-a-half feels like a pressure valve being released, a sheaf of drafts being torn, the poet throwing up her hands and summarising her project as glibly and reductively as possible. There’s a kind of delight behind their dull thump. The book is full of these moments, as the poet unweaves literary mystique and renders her own writing/grieving as ‘idiocy – this banging on and on / Against such shiny crimson unresponse’, ‘my prancing and writhing in a dozen / Mawkish modes of reedy piping’, ‘where next could this call turn, massing and purpling as low thunder, though just / whiny to stopped ears’. It reminds me of Sophie Mayer’s ‘Silence, Singing’, a lyric essay connecting patriarchal attitudes to prayer, grieving and women’s voices, particularly how ‘stopped ears’ respond to the latter. Mayer connects Mary Sidney’s ‘De Profundis Clamavi’, her ‘ernest, vehment, cryeng, prayeng,’ to the cultural devaluing of women’s voices Anne Carson discusses in ‘The Gender of Sound’. In Mayer’s words:

‘no-one likes to hear a woman’s ‘vehment, cryeng’ – which is too often how women’s writing is apprehended. Confessional, over-emotional, nonsensical, hysterical. But Mary Sidney insists that ‘cryeng’ is also ‘prayeng,’ a protestation of the individual relationship with God – or, in a secular sense, the right to speak and be heard.’

Riley seems absolutely in conflict with this cultural impulse to be silent, and her willingness to express the barbs of an internalised critic but lament publicly anyway is a deeply heartening protest. In ‘A Part Song’, Riley does what few male poets ever do in their elegies; not just addressing the form’s prosaic inefficacy at reviving the dead, but questioning her own capacity to honestly turn private mourning into public art with a straight face. By poking holes in her own enterprise she seems to push away from the grand works of mourning of the canon (one poem is titled ‘Oh go away for now’), and hold fast to her own sense of proportion and perspective. However self-mocking or self-negating are Muldoon’s elegiac epics, they remain epics, not least in scale; they retain the ambition of grabbing a reader by the lapels and pointing at how seriously they take their solemn playfulness. Riley’s ‘one glum mum’ is content to wager her ostensible literary skill, to bank on us reading her duff notes as strategically duff. In other words, Riley puts into action the right to cry vehemently and be heard.

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Outside of its opening sequence, Say Something Back is a series of short lyrics about loss, with a few commissions/occasional pieces – to my reading ‘The patient who had no insides’ is one of the weaker sections, for example, but maybe does important work in providing breathing space among the denser lyrics. The book doesn’t exactly follow a narrative, and I’m fairly confident that two different readers could pick their favourite half-dozen without their choices overlapping. They are, happily, exceedingly quotable:

‘The souls of the dead are the spirit of language:
you hear them alight inside that spoken thought’ (‘Listening for lost people’)

‘Next you’ll expect me to take you around
introducing some starry goners. So mother
do me proud and hold your white head high.
On earth you tried, try once again in Hades.’ (‘Orphic’)

‘It sits with itself in its arms. Out of
the depth of its shame it starts singing
a hymn of pure shame, surging in the throat.
To hold a true note could be everything.
Getting the hang of itself would undo it.’ (‘An awkward lyric’)

These selections, of course, distort the lines’ meaning by taking them out of their full context. I’m personally drawn to moments where Riley allows herself to be boldly declarative, gothically dramatic, or more openly parabolic; these moments are so powerful, however, because of the sheer struggle to give them voice, and quoting them in part kinda misses the point. I think this might be at the core of the book, the reason why critical opinion (thus far) seems so unreservedly positive; yes, this is a book of mourning, of near-hopelessness, but it’s also a book of survival, of unexpected beauty. Here’s ‘Percy’s Relique; on the Death of John Hall’s Peacock’:

‘Rare! Raoaark! Rare! You were adornment.
You were Brook Mill. Its visitors were yours.

You Shelley to us duller poets, Percy. Flare!
Go, glittering!’

The sudden full-hearted goofiness of celebration is breathtaking. I’m more than aware of my optimistic tendencies, so I’m willing to conceive that this might be a selective reading, but I take the final words of the book as its last word on grief:

‘What to do now is clear, and wordless.
You will bear what can not be borne.’

The poem holds in balance what can and cannot be survived, perhaps lending equal weight to both meanings. Say Something Back bears the unbearable with wit, humour, moments of blazing intellectual strength; whether it was written with this effect in mind is, I suppose, ultimately academic: this is one of the most thoughtful, generous, authentic accounts of grief and its survival I have ever read.

Tl;dr: Say Something Back is extraordinary, a book of real significance that I can’t recommend enough.

Further Reading: Interview with Riley in Shearsman

Review by Steph Burt in Poetry Review

‘Silence, Singing’ by Sophie Mayer in The Wolf

PDF of Anne Carson’s essay ‘The Gender of Sound’

Padraig Regan – Delicious

Full Disclosure: Have met Padraig a couple of times. Stephen Connolly, one of the Lifeboat editors along with Manuela Moser, is a pal.

Review: Padraig Regan’s pamphlet Delicious opens with ‘10 Game Fowls after Juan Sánchez Cotán’s ‘Still Life with Game Fowl, Vegetables and Fruits’’. Almost all the titles in Delicious follow painterly conventions – ‘Love Poem with Sandwiches’, ‘Red Interior with Savoy Cabbage’, ‘Vanity with a Breakfast of Apples’ – and all are arranged in a neat justified block down the centre of the page. There is tension between the poems’ formal and dramatic artfulness, their luxuriant vocabularies and exquisite syntactical angles, and their homeliness, their close-focus/high-stakes tableaux.

’10 Game Fowls’ embodies this tension, its single sentence divided across two stanzas. The first is a verbal exploration of Cotán’s painting, drawing out the still-life’s lines of action, reconstructing the painting’s directions for its own reader/viewer:

‘Five of the six sparrows tied
to a pole have turned their
heads to where a bundle of
orange carrots bruised with
purple, or purple carrots
blushing, underline a few
inches of black space &
describe a trajectory to the
base of a white cardoon
whose architectural sweep
curves towards a pair of
partridges displaying the
tincture of their azure chests
& putting to shame a pair of
finches which intersect
between the partridges &
the apples suspended on
individual strings which
twist together like a maypole
adjacent to where the black
background snags on a twig
with three radiant lemons &’

I think it’s worth trying to read this aloud, figuring out where breath falls in such a dynamic, multifaceted sentence, its ostensibly arbitrary breaks in the poem’s short lines keeping the eye and ear moving too fast to fully process how much strangeness is going on. The poem is precise to the point of pernicketude, as each straight-faced detail – splitting the difference between bruised orange carrots or healthy purple carrots – builds a scene of either unbearable richness or unparseable confusion. What seems clear is that the poem cares deeply about not just the painting’s cast of characters but their relationships, investing the birds with partly comic, partly grim agency in their turned heads, displays and shames.

The poem, like many in Delicious, is an odd creature. The care with which these elements have been arranged follows no specific logical or emotional thread that I could follow, barring documentary accuracy; all that is apparent is that painstaking care is at work. Deliberate emphasis on care: I believe Delicious is one of the finest books of comfort, of self-care, that I have read in some time. More on this later. What matters in ’10 Game Fowls’ is that pleasure is there to be taken in the arranged beauty of these dead animals, perhaps in the face of their death, in the sensuality of ‘bruised’, ‘blush’, ‘tincture’, ‘azure’, ‘radiant’, and the conclusion the poem has been building towards, the stanza-break’s formal hiatus after that last ampersand:

‘all this above the plinth
where Juan Sánchez Cotán
has faux-engraved his
signature & added the date
1602: one year before he
gave up eating the flesh of
beasts & fowls & joined the
Order of Carthusians in
Granada.’

The poem doesn’t resolve exactly; Cotán’s decision is given far less space than his lush still life, its inner dramas are far more active and involved and strange than his mere ‘gave up’. Yet the Cartuja monastery in Granada is famed for its baroque architecture, and for its view over a city itself renowned for its glamour; turning away from flesh and aristocratic patronage is not necessarily a turn from beauty. If Cotán’s choice is partly framed as an act of negation, it casts no particular judgement upon him, no more than it judges the sparrows for turning or not turning their heads towards the bundle of carrots. To be blunt, in the right hands even carrots are beautiful.

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Similarly, ‘Epithalamium with Peach Melba’ reads at first like a hymn to decadence, with its references to the dish’s creation by the Duc d’Orléans in honour of an opera singer (Nellie Melba), and a line from Wagner that translates as ‘this sweet-smelling room, decked out for love, now takes you in’. The poem embodies the gaudiness of the scene – ‘a swan / sculpted in ice with the space / between its scapulars // mounded with ice-cream & / peaches’ – the chime between ‘sculpted’ and ‘scapulars’ suggests that the poem, like the duke’s dessert table, is relishing the act. The register then shifts into a kind of aspirational housekeeping guide, advising the reader to ‘Serve it on the patio, in cut- / glass 20s bowls so your guests / can marvel at the contrast / between the orange peaches // & the deep cerise of the / raspberry sauce.’ You might not have ice-swans, but you can still dazzle the neighbours. The poem offers one last option:

‘If
nothing else it sure feels great

to slip your thumb under a
peach stone & push it out. & if
it tears & a little sticky juice
spurts from it,

remember that it is only a
prelude to the moment you bite
in. Remember that eating is
always an act of theft.’

The last line is surprising, but perhaps a logical conclusion; dressing up the peach til it’s fit for nobility does not erase its basic, survival function. Posing this kind of (perhaps) moral question in a poem that clearly enacts – and takes pleasure in enacting – material excess is a complicated business, maybe vital to the book’s aesthetic: does poetry’s formal decoration distract from its own survival function? Does Peach Melba distract from the peach? If eating is an act of theft, can it be enjoyed with a clear conscience? Yet these closing stanzas clearly move a rarefied experience into an accessible realm, the markedly casual ‘it sure feels great’ within earshot of a duke. The answer, I think, is that acknowledging basic moral compromises is not to refuse the question altogether; recognising the complexity inherent in even the most elementary acts is kind of poetry’s bag.

So, too, is there a complicated relationship between what the poet reveals and does not reveal about their own fictionalised self. Though many poems in Delicious seem to originate in a biographical sphere, the construction of a poetic self is very much secondary to the poems’ drama. ‘Love Poem with Sandwiches’ describes a plan to inscribe titles like ‘Nocturne with a Bottle of / Sparkling Wine or Aubade / with Figs & Water Glass’ on slices of bread:

‘& feed them to this guy I
was dating because the first
time I saw him naked in
daylight the hairs on his
belly reminded me of that
texture you find at the centre
of a loaf when you grip the
crusts & pull it apart.’

That ‘because’ is doing an unseemly amount of heavy lifting. The association is clear enough – downy body hair is like fibrous bread – but the justification for (comically-sinisterly) ‘feed[ing]’ the guy poem-sandwiches is absent, and the reader is left with both an intimate daydream and more questions than when the poem began; the ‘because’ is beside the point.

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Likewise, ‘Bowls, Plates & Cups in a Garden with a Shower of Rain’ actively obscures some apparently vital information. In prosaic terms, the poem describes a dropped bowl of soup rendered alien by their fall out of context, but the poem moves on all too quickly for such a mundane possibility to sink in, the single sentence running away towards its emotional, if not exactly narrative, conclusion:

‘in the hope that among
the cubes of pepper, red
onion & cucumber I might
find a few more details

to piece into the story which
I know ends with me in an
all-night self-serve restaurant
in Madrid five years ago

pale & sweaty under the
fluorescent tube-lights’

The ‘I know’ seems key, drawing a line between what the poet knows and what the poem needs the reader to know. The sudden arrival of this memory is what matters, and not the any number of narrative possibilities it might suggest. This too, I think, is contiguous with the book’s generosity: what matters is not an intricately crafted poetic self in performance, but an emotional space for the reader to encounter on their own terms.

So, the matter of care. Delicious is certainly interested in care in an explicit sense; ‘An Exhibit Illustrating the Life of Neolithic Man’ concerns a lie the narrator told ‘you’ about whether the taxidermy was real, and the fallout from this lie:

‘I’m tasting
it still when I can’t
distract myself from all
the stains of all the lies
I’ve ever told & that
I’ve listened to,
knowing that they were
lies but desperate to
accept them. & the
next time we talk
they’ll be there, taking
the shape of a ceramic
bird which neither of
us will recognise.’

Here, the poem’s surface drama is its emotional drama. Trust is broken, the damage is not only done but made into an iconic form. Yet it came partly from a place of kindness, a wish not to hurt ‘you’, or at least to avoid having to confront ‘you’ with a difficult reality. The narrator recognises that a well-intentioned lie is not necessarily more noble than the other kind, owns their faults and even takes ‘your’ position, recognising the temptation to believe a known untruth. The first impulse is not to sensationalise the whole episode but to understand its inner workings. This empathy extends to how Delicious engages with its audience, how it achieves complex and authentic emotional realities without demanding the reader experience unrewarded stress; what exactly happened in Madrid or the museum is not as relevant as how these scenes carry the poem’s deeper meaning.

‘But why should a poet refrain from telling difficult truths difficultly?’ bellow a phalanx of free-speech fundamentalists, ‘isn’t that self-censorship???’. There’s a place for that approach (and no shortage of publishing deals), and there’s certainly no stopping litbros from dispensing all manner of emotional detritus in the name of ‘bravery’ or ‘honesty’, the way it’s brave or honest to acknowledge the aspects of one’s personality that align perfectly with social expectations. There’s also a place for taking responsibility for what you ask of your reader, and what you offer in return; giving voice to your revenge fantasies might be hugely cathartic to the writer, but deeply harmful to a reader who has been subject to very real abuse. It’s also possible to bear witness to one’s own trauma in a way that provides comfort to that same reader; there’s no reason why all poetry should aspire to shock or awe. Readers are people too – if the very idea of reader-care seems alien and objectionable to you, it might be valuable to ask why that is.

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What fantasies Delicious indulges seem comforting by design; I’m thinking of the poem ‘Aoshima’ (the Japanese island where cats outnumber humans by 6 to 1):

‘I imagine you stopping
somewhere along the
infinite ribbon of white
sand & kneeling down to
give your dog one last
scratch behind the ear,
then taking off & burying
your shoes. You wade into
the water which is
decorated by the sun with
a thousand scraps of
lemon rind & warmer
than you expected. If you
can, stay true to west by
south west until once
again you feel the
feathering of kelp
between your toes, climb
out onto a new beach,
walk to a low brick wall
which marks the
boundary where grass
rubs against sand, & sit &
wait until the island’s
hundred cats introduce
themselves, individually,
to your ankles.’

The line ‘decorated by the sun with / a thousand scraps of / lemon rind’ is just perfect, the poem warm and understatedly sad. The poem is a simple gesture, but in context with all things external to the book, a hugely affecting one. Recently Harry Giles wrote an important essay on the role of shock and care in art, how in a culture traumatised by austerity’s demand for precarity and anxiety, especially in those suffering cultural marginalisation, art that gives space for audience care makes a radical statement. Delicious, in its capacity to both indulge and question that indulgence, to accept responsibility and to invite understanding, challenges the assumption that art should be inherently violent or disjunctive, or that the poet knows best what the reader can or should experience. The last line of the book’s last poem ‘almost begs for you / to take it in your hand’; it encapsulates the book’s generosity and kindness, its valorising of the body’s capacity for both pleasure and solace.

tl;dr: Delicious quietly provokes serious questions about how we read (and write) poetry. Funny, generous, and emotionally complex. My copy’s already a bit weatherbeaten, and I reckon I’ll be reading it for a long time yet. Buy Delicious here.

Further Reading: Shock and Care by Harry Giles

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

On Warsan Shire, Peter Riley and Poetry Criticism

Last week, Beyoncé released Lemonade, an hour-long multi-genre piece made by leading artists in film, music and poetry. London Young Laureate Warsan Shire’s poems “For Women Who Are Difficult To Love”, “The unbearable weight of staying (the end of the relationship)” and “Nail Technician as Palm Reader” are all adapted as interludes between songs. On the back of this peerless good news, Inua Ellams spoke about Shire’s permanent relocation to the United States, finding poetry culture in Britain hostile to her and her work (Pascale Petit, Shire’s mentor in The Complete Works, mentioned on Facebook how Shire had become frustrated with with the ‘struggle against the (white) grain’. Ellams spoke on Twitter (the whole thread is vital reading) about her epochal collaboration in Lemonade:

“My homegirl Warsan Shire just did a thing with Beyonce. An incredible thing and the only thing I am surprised about is myself response:

For not seeing it coming. It was inevitable. It only happened because Warsan left these shores.

She moved to where her voice would be included, taken for what it is, for the brilliance it is and shared exponentially.

If you disagree, consider this: even Beyonce could not have existed in Britain. The Music industry would not have supported her talent.

To the poets of colour reading this… follow Warsan’s lead. I’m not saying leave Britain…

… but find environments that are welcoming to the poetry you create, to what you write and the way you write them.

Most of us come from oral traditions. We tend to write accordingly. Most of our concerns are “real shit”.

Most of our shit references other real shit. Most of the shit we reference is found in “World literature” dusty sections of book shops…

…so when we pack our real shit with our deep shit, that nuance and intertextuality, the weight of its importance… isn’t even recognised.

Try and find spaces that welcome your poetry. And those spaces might not be in the poetry world.”

Shire is an incredible talent and we weren’t good enough to accept her. We couldn’t read her work the way it deserved to be read and she was compelled to find a place that would.

Poetry in these islands is not a billion dollar industry. The culture of entitlement and resentment towards positive change, however, does not reflect poetry’s reputation or self-image as unique, progressive, liberal, free-thinking. After a winter in which Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade and Mona Arshi’s Small Hands had the quality of their work recognised and rewarded (Rankine and Howe being the first women of colour to win their respective prizes), there was a backlash from upset, barely rational white men clutching at their degrees and lamenting the state of the union. Those complaints rested, predictably, on extra-literary matters of appearance, education, publishing ‘fads’, a disappointing narrow-mindedness about what ‘poetry’ might mean, anything but the work. A few weeks ago, Peter Riley began his review of Vahni Capildeo’s excellent Measures of Expatriation by venting spleen about “identity politics” (scare quotes his), how having an ‘identity’:

“seems to mean that any possibilities a poem might have of contacting existential realities is disallowed; the poem must arise directly from personal experience (standard practice in modern poetry anyway) and stay there.”

Riley very likely means well. He begins this part of his essay by quoting Capildeo’s own frustrations about feeling the expectation to perform her otherness by an extremely white publishing industry:

“I found that marketing and identity politics were combining to crush, like in the Star Wars trash compactor, the voice, the voice on the page, the body, the history… You had to choose, you had to be a sort of documentary witness wheeled around and exposing your wounds in the market place.”

But in trying to defend Capildeo from harmful stereotypes, he throws digs at poets for whom personal experience (their own or their peers’) is the urgent, beating heart of their work. His praise for Capildeo noticeably centres around not making too conspicuous a fuss about one’s suffering or marginalisation, while condemning unnamed others for drawing attention to it. Riley’s complaint that, ‘the poem must arise directly from personal experience’, is immediately reneged, arguing that ‘its admissibility depends not on experience itself, but on participation in a group and thereby involved in cultural conflict’. Riley does not specify who is performing the admission, which poet, group or conflict is being indecently referenced, or what the consequences are for poets who refuse to conform to these standards. His argument is a rorschach blot, empty of substance and ready for the reader to insert the ‘identity’ whose visibility in contemporary poetry they most resent.

3 JP

In “In AnOther’s Pocket: The Address of the “Pocket Epic” in Postmodern Black British Poetry”, Romana Huk writes:

“in current poetic projects, there is little reckoning of how the identificatory self is still at work, often with a nationalistic sub-project powering epic desire; the “other” still gets othered, if at the hands of more and more sophisticated theories of reading.”

Huk and Capildeo are, I think, talking about similar processes. Writing by poets of colour can no longer be entirely ignored by white readers; what can be done, by a culture still deeply uncomfortable with writing that does not recognise canon-endorsed standards of quality control, is corralling it into the kind of self-othering box that Capildeo denounces. Inclusion with strings attached is exclusion by another name, and Riley is not wrong to highlight the problem. The failure is in his sudden pivot to declare that actually, it’s about ethics in poetry prize judging:

“A glance at the big prize-winning results this season shows immediately how these ethics have been taken on wholesale by the establishment and now dominate popular perception of poetry’s function — a pre-existing function defined and formulated outside poetry to which it is now expected to conform. The basis of judgement shifted from aesthetic to moral very quickly.”

Poetry has few ‘big prizes’ and few winners. He is subtweeting Rankine, who beat Riley to the Forward Prize with a book that is both aesthetically unique and morally challenging; I wrote about it a while back if you’re curious, and if you’re even more curious you could read what black critics like Shaelyn Smith and Holly Bass thought about it. Riley’s objection is that judgement has shifted from the ‘aesthetic’ to the ‘moral’; these terms are difficult to define and deserve far more careful unpacking than Riley offers. A cynical reader might guess he means the lyric poetry supported by the canon and reified by generations of elite readers has, for once, been deemed second best to an experimental form written by a poet for whom the canon has little time. As Ellams notes, black poets engage deeply with poetic traditions, just not those valued by the British critical mainstream; refusing to acknowledge the value of alternative routes to poetic achievement is a powerful means of excluding black writing from positions of cultural influence. To put it bluntly, just because you don’t understand it doesn’t make it bad; it’s your job as a critic to learn.

Back in Riley’s essay, put-upon aesthetic poets are ‘now expected to conform’ to these moral standards; a strange concern for a poet who very clearly expresses contemporary moral concerns in his work. Riley employs wounded tones more commonly modelled by Piers Morgan, confusing criticism of his opinions with a threat to his freedom of expression; like Oliver Thring’s inability to acknowledge intelligence that does not come in his own image; like Craig Raine’s abysmal, Oxford-don-knows-best reading of Citizen, which he memorably dismissed as ‘moral narcissism’. It is an insult to Rankine’s achievement to dismiss it as ‘parad[ing] the wound’, which Riley praises Capildeo for refusing. His commendation of Capildeo’s work is deeply compromised by first deploying it as a weapon against other poets whose own work has been marginalised by aggressively careless white readers.

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Poetry in the UK is making tiny, positive steps towards a more complex vocabulary with which to discuss race, sexuality, gender, mental health, income and other inequalities, but at a price. The backlash in poetry is not (as with video games’ harassment campaigns) from trollish men on 4chan with free time and a grudge against those whose inclusion and success they cannot abide, but from well-read men in well-regarded periodicals with notably similar grudges. Even framed as a battle for poetry’s heart, Riley’s critique is hamstrung by his refusal to acknowledge the racial inequalities that force poetry-as-witness, poetry-as-‘moral’ to be a function of survival; Citizen explicitly frames itself as a response to external threats to the wellbeing of black people in America. In an interview with Africa in Words, Shire’s approach to memory and witness is explicitly one of preservation, both of the self and the ‘history or the global ranges of perception’ Riley claims are under threat in British poetry:

“it’s being able to tell the stories of those people, especially refugees and immigrants, that otherwise wouldn’t be told, or they’ll be told really inaccurately. And I don’t want to write victims, or martyrs, or vacuous stereotypes. […] my family are really amazing – they’ll tell me, ‘I have a new story for you’, and I’ll get my Dictaphone and record it, so I can stay as true as possible to the story before I make it into a poem.”

To labour the point, well-respected literary white men don’t need recording equipment to keep their stories alive. Suggesting that such poetry sacrifices its aesthetic-ness is a deeply conservative gesture, both artistically and politically, one that figures the white male poet as the normal, central, rightful inheritor and the black woman poet as interloper, over-promoted, aesthetically invalid.

I’m acutely aware that while making these criticisms, my whiteness etc more or less means that my place in this community is safe come what may. I’m also aware that in all my previous encounters with radical thinking in other forms of art, it’s not cishetero white men leading the way. If we want art that leads us to better ways of thinking about each other, if we believe that poetry does make something happen (more than awards, tenure and hardback Collecteds), that it is a function of the heart and soul (whatever that means) as well as meter and rhyme, we must listen to those who are most vulnerable to the violence our culture has been designed to carry out, and from which we benefit so richly. That means changing how we read, how we write, questioning how much space and praise we assume to be our birthright. It will take a lot of work, and a lot of what will look like giving away what is ours to take, but if we can make a culture in which the next Warsan Shire can feel at home, welcomed, valued, in charge, it’ll be worth it.

Further Reading: Inua Ellams on Twitter

Shaelyn Smith on Citizen at TheRumpus

Holly Bass on Citizen in The New York Times

Interview with Warsan Shire at Africa in Words

Profile on Warsan Shire in The New Yorker

‘Decolonise, not Diversify’ by Khavita Bhanot at Media Diversified

‘Responses to a Tantric Poetics’ by Nisha Ramayya at datableed

Claire Askew – This changes things

Full Disclosure: Claire is a close pal. We were in the same creative writing masters at Edinburgh University in 08/09, and have supported each other’s work since then: e.g. I contribute to Claire’s Patreon and wrote a short thing a couple years ago for the Edwin Morgan Prize. I also wrote the back cover blurb for this collection, for which I was paid £50 plus a contributor’s copy. [Edit: this caused some confusion. I wrote the unattributed back cover blurb, not the named endorsements from Jen Hadfield and Stewart Conn, taken from their Edwin Morgan Prize statements. Those were written by Jen Hadfield and Stewart Conn.]

Review: Appearing immediately before section I, ‘Dukkha’ is a kind of cold open. The word is a Buddhist term wikipedia defines as ‘suffering, anxiety or unsatisfactoriness’; it refers to the pain of aging and death, the essentially mutable, transitory or hollow nature of all forms of life, and how understanding these things is essential to bringing suffering to an end. It’s worth keeping this concept in mind – if This changes things seems uncommonly preoccupied with death and old age, grim fantasies of destruction and bitterness, it may come from a will to intimately understand them.

‘Dukkha’ feels like a parable, standing a little outside the book’s action. It begins:

‘Shelter is the only really necessary thing.
Every creature has its burrow,
bolt hole, cave, its fist of twigs.
Just make it safe, a place
above the flood plain: shake
its sticks and slates to test
it can withstand a storm. That’s all.’

Over the next six stanzas, these basic needs – noticeably at peace with storms and floods, the wilfulness of nature – turn into the will to impose oneself:

‘But then, your square of soil might spoil
its seeds. You’ll need blades, some kind
of beast […] You’ll need to feed it
from your grain: this changes things.’

Tools and weapons are needed, employees and markets, fuel and fences. It’s a bit of a disservice to the poem’s fluid and logical and most of all reasonable escalations to list them in summary. The final stanza turns the first on its head, the storm-safe becoming a fully realised polity:

‘The shelter must be strong,
the water pure. The soil must nurture
tall, true wheat, the hands work
till the yield is in. The lamp must strike,
the gun must kill its target cleanly.
This is all you want.
This is all that anyone wants.’

Security, both physical and ideological (‘pure’ is far from innocent), gives ‘you’ shelter and survival, but takes it from your ‘target’. The ‘anyone’ in the last line is a wee bit devastating, the only point in the poem where a not-you human’s needs are mentioned. The poem’s politics are more subtle than I’m making out here, and land a real hammer-blow – the book’s other narratives, essays and lyrics are predicated on this poem’s philosophy, its self-implication: there is a place where security kills, and we (the white, middle-class, educated readers of poetry) live there.

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After that intro, This changes things keeps a deeply intimate, localised focus. While the narrative voice often shifts – ghosts, a gothic minister, old women with notable frequency – it is always indentifiable and unfractured. The book wants to communicate and be heard clearly; it’s noticeable how many poems direct their dramatic currents with direct cues to the reader – ‘outside’, ‘upstairs’, ‘here’, ‘now’. An early success is ‘Big heat’, a narrative in which Askew appears in the background, a tourist lost on an island in the middle of the night, and desperate for water. The narrator is a woman who lives there, dragged into the poem’s drama:

‘Because I am the one who speaks English,
they call me outside.
In the street, in an elbow of weak light
thrown by our porch, two tourists’

She sees the tourist as a ‘fat white grub’, for whom ‘crying is a stupid luxury / the island women can’t afford’. The poem’s conceit could be easily mishandled – the poet is looking at herself through the eyes of a woman she does not know and cannot communicate with, and who explicitly lives with much greater hardship; the poem risks ventriloquy and re-enacting the tourist’s pre-eminence over the local. Though a lyric voice might just peek through in the lines: ‘Things that thrive here: mules / and stones, crickets loud as fire alarms, / the harder vines’, the poem’s internal drama holds together. The moment in which the freewheeling tourist must rely on someone bound to the physical place, an instance of an economic power imbalance being briefly overturned, becomes a kind of psychic disturbance for the narrator:

‘All night […] I think about the girl’s chapped throat,
the boy she lies beside,
their mouths. None of us sleeps.’

In all senses the poet’s avatar is figured as an intrusion, almost parasitic; ‘grub’ seems a pointed choice of word.

The first section of This changes things is deeply aware of the poet’s own roots. There are poems about growing up in Wakefield (‘Hometown’ – ‘locals lie / that no one needs to lock their doors’; ‘High school’ – ‘What you learned best / was the fact of your disgustingness’), about her family and ancestors – Anne Askew, the 16th century poet tortured and executed for heresy, is a touchstone for the collection, and appears in ‘Two Deaths’, an excellent piece in the current issue of Banshee. If Askew seems keen to push away from these origins, however, she also relishes their grisly details. In ‘Hometown’ there is a real gusto to her relaying of urban myths (‘Last week a horse drowned in the Junction Pool’) and evidence of a town cannibalising itself (‘on the Cobby path the summer nettles / swallow trolleys whole’). ‘High school’ likewise investigates the crude lessons in self-image and social hierarchy that trail the poet into adulthood:

‘They thought that life would always hold
the door for them […] and you’d always be
some chubby joke. You believed it too.
The softest part of you believes it now.’

These sharp self-critical turns are at the heart of Askew’s best poems, an ability to remain self-aware in a poem that seems to shape towards a more prosaic observation.

This impulse shapes the handful of poems which deal with social or political ideas directly, ‘Privilege 101’, ‘The picture in your mind when you speak of whores’ and the closing piece, ‘Hydra’. Arguably the danger for explicitly political poems is that their message moves from the subliminal to the conscious – that the reader is faced with the raw idea, and not the underlying principles that make the idea a logical conclusion. This, of course, is dependent on a great deal of trust – that the reader will be able to identify the code as code, and spend time actively unspooling it – and a readership ready to accept perhaps uncomfortable, perhaps self-incriminating truths. Another strategy is to bypass the whole palaver, and actively confront the reader’s assumptions. Askew’s ‘Privilege 101’ tends towards the latter, deploying a second person that envelops poet and reader, beginning in an obviously well-to-do world of ‘cufflinks and silverware’, before moving to a very writerly scene:

‘It’s sitting in the window of a coffee shop, the sun
painting bars across the wooden floor, the plain steel
flip-top teapots shining, writing down ideas that are all yours […]
and choosing which of those ideas you share with whom’

The intention is simple, but effective – the act of writing in public, having access to a (implicitly expensive) space designed for comfort, is put in its social context, only a short distance from fine dining and easy money, and all dependent on ‘hair’s-breadth tricks of fortune, birth and place’. The poem demands the reader (again, bearing the social attributes noted earlier) acknowledge their own position in a violent hierarchy.

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The two poems that close the book’s two sections, ‘Fire comes’ and ‘Hydra’, seem to be opposite sides of a similar coin; both permit a kind of momentary lyric freedom, pushing away from the more rational processes in the book’s narrative poems. ‘Fire comes’ gives personality and agency to a house fire, which ‘slides its tongue into the house’s ear’, ‘pulls / the walls down around its shoulders like a cape of dark’, ‘tak[es] bites out of the white / tiered staircase like it’s cake’. In the middle of it all is the house’s occupant:

‘All she can think of, crouching down for air the way she learned
in school, is all those times she filled out mental lists of things she’d save from Fire […]

And then the street’s a discotheque of blue and red, the neighbours on their front steps
in their dressing gowns, the kids agape behind the nets.
And she wants none of it.
And Fire takes it all.’

The poem’s uncontextualised wish for annihilation left me heartsick. The poem has a momentum unlike many of the other pieces in the book, the long, run-on lines and sensuousness of detail (‘the engines’ gorgeous, strobing cry’) allowed to dominate the poem’s action; the fire which elsewhere connects the poet to grandmothers and ancestors becomes a death-wish. Other poems’ discussion of death operates primarily through empathy: ‘Spitfires’ gives Askew’s grandfather an afterlife of mending ‘those beautiful death machines’ as he did as a teenager; ‘Going next’ frames her father, the oldest surviving member of his family, as a child himself; both pieces attempt to console and understand. ‘Fire comes’ permits neither. Its power seems drawn from an unwillingness to trust in the poet’s ability to comprehend what seems wholly irrational.

‘Hydra’, which closes section II and the collection, seems a kind of counterweight. It begins:

‘Everywhere you look is light
so exquisite it hurts. Light
off the taffeta sea, the brief white
rips of wake and surf; light
frosting the bleached houses’ sides’

before reaching something like a state of beatific bliss:

‘Ancient, many-headed light
that warms the kilns of myth: clay red, bright
pink, streaked ochre fingering the cloth of sky’

Again, the rational narrative mode is set aside, a celebration of what exists and the ability to perceive it, for a moment relieved of responsibility to the world. Where ‘Fire comes’ leaves the poem in this disturbing uncertainty, ‘Hydra’ peaks on a note equally disturbing in its frankness:

‘insomniac in unfamiliar heat, I’ll write
under the moth-bothered kitchen light,
this is the life. Mine is the lightest, easiest life.’

Any lyric celebration of the life of the mind is tempered by an awareness of the inaccessibility of such a life.

3 DRJ

As in a great many first collections, the quality of This changes things does vary, and for its many successes (the lovely flash-fiction-esque ‘Thing about death’ and ‘Poltergeistrix’) there are pieces which struggle to reach beyond their immediate occasion (‘Greyhound’ or ‘Valentine’) or to shake off a feeling of exercise-yness (‘The western night’), and it’s possible that the poem ‘To Wakefield’ strikes a little unkindly at the kind of people whose lives ‘Privilege 101’ aims to bear in mind. That said, This changes things is contains some deeply moving ruminations on death and loss, a number of significant political lyrics, and a handful of truly reader-altering moments; it’s these pieces that stay longest in the memory, an uncommon achievement.

Tl;dr: This changes things is a heartfelt collection, self-aware and aspiring towards a better way of understanding a complicated and often violent world. Well worth a read.

Further reading: Review by Magda Knight at MookyChick

Review by Russell Jones

Claire Askew at Write Like A Grrrl Edinburgh

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