Kate Tempest – Let Them Eat Chaos

Disclosure: Have not met the poet, did the door at one of her gigs in Edinburgh though. Review copy provided by Picador. Reviewed her first collection, Hold Your Own, positively. Thanks to Harry Giles and Sophie Collins for advice and permission to quote from their work.

Discussions of Tempest’s poetry are almost always obscured by discussions about Tempest the icon, most commonly – and deeply unfairly, I think – projected as a golden goose of arts orgs or as a preacher of the kind of morals we (if by we we mean the white middle class liberals who consider the British poetry scene our birthright) used to assume everyone holds. This impulse deserves unpacking, so if you’re just here to read what I think of Let Them Eat Chaos, please skip to the section marked ‘Review’. Until then I’m going to argue that the fact a metaconversation exists at all is largely down to a deeply rooted conservatism about the kind of artist we’re comfortable hearing.

Tempest is wildly successful. Those who’ve been paying attention to Tempest’s career from the outset (my source is Harry Giles, I’m sure you can find others) attest to years of extremely hard work combined with an arts industry eager for her particular brand of hiphop-inflected literature / literature-inflected hiphop, combined with the fact that she’s a damn good writer. In an enlightening facebook thread, Giles argued that Tempest ‘fulfils very well a specific niche which bourgeois art ideologically requires,’ and that her palatability to white audiences, ‘hiphop enough to give theatre audiences a thrill, poetic enough to make her unthreatening to a white gig audience unsure about hiphop,’ has also played an important role. It is utterly vital to note that a) these are notes about the culture in which Tempest’s work is located, not the work, and b) this isn’t what her detractors detract her for, given that arguing for a greater integration of spoken word, hip-hop or any other kind of predominantly BAME poetry tradition into traditionally white poetry communities, platforms, publishers or funding pots is not in the white liberal poet’s best interest.

Even the journalism that affects to give Tempest a fair hearing is unwilling to take her at face value. There are constant references to her age (young!), her appearance (even younger! leonine! cherubic!), and it’s hard not to read the evergreen reporting of her father’s night school law degree as some kind of capitalist-friendly lore imposed over a deeply anti-capitalist oeuvre. Reading these features en masse since 2009, it’s possible to track Tempest’s growing distaste for an arts culture that appears to have neither the will nor inclination to engage with someone who seems genuinely more interested in making art than selling it. I suspect that a small part of the anger in Let Them Eat Chaos is the absurdity that even with access to the nation’s arts media, there is no guarantee of her message being faithfully communicated. Simply put, Tempest is a poet, not a celebrity, and the perpetual coverage is a (perhaps purposeful) distraction from the work; only by aggressively co-opting her art into the culture industry mainstream can it be successfully untoothed.

These might seem first world problems in an environment in which few poets are written about at all, but it’s worth questioning why Tempest is so endlessly interviewed or featured (narratives constructed around/over her) and so rarely commissioned to write features herself (constructing her own narrative). It’s worth questioning why the year after prizewinning poets Claudia Rankine, Vahni Capildeo and Sarah Howe had their ability to self-present quashed by a malignant arts press that Jacob Polley was immediately commissioned by the Guardian to compose his own ars poetica, on his own terms. This is not a criticism of Polley either (though his piece was unsatisfying, perhaps due to the rapid editorial turnaround), but of a culture that refuses to give space or agency to marginalised people, but will trip over itself to present white male excellence completely unfiltered.

Sophie Collins recently performed a piece titled ‘Who is Mary Sue?’ at a reading in Edinburgh, exploring the gender politics surrounding fanfic. The fact Mary Sue exists as a trope at all, Collins suggests, is tied to assumptions about the seriousness and legitimacy of women’s writing, even the capacity of women to write ‘real’ fiction. Collins quotes Joanna Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing: ‘she wrote it, but look what she wrote about […] she wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art’. Again, Jackself is a pertinent case study. The book’s protagonist is almost explicitly the fictionalised poet (a Mary Sue? His first name is a variation on the poet’s first name suffixed with ‘self’), but the reviewsinterviews and celebration of the book has focused on formal expertise, conceptual innovation, the artist’s work. No one has asked him to reveal the identity of Jeremy Wren, or even talk about how the experiences the book describes have affected him; the private world that occasioned the public work has remained private, in a way Tempest is often aggressively disallowed.

A great way to guarantee the dominance of conservative art, artists and artistic forms is to make the centre so narrow that an essay’s worth of criticism is necessary just to reach a starting point for anything else.

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Review: Let Them Eat Chaos is a long poem (perhaps a poetic sequence) touching on the lives of seven people in one street in London who find themselves awake at 4.18am. An audience-addressing narrator guides the reader though each character’s psychological and/or socio-economic situation, from a careworker coming home after a double shift to an insomniac advertising officer. In the live performance recorded by the BBC each monologue is a separate track, and the characters’ personalities are as much brought to life by the music as by Tempest’s skill with exploring complex inner realities, often at breakneck speed. The following is from Jemma, the book’s first speaker:

‘It might be fun
just for a while,
to go back where
my hurt is from

And rinse myself
to emptiness
and push
my body close

To any body
that can recognise
the presence
of my ghosts’

The rhythm is part of the meaning. It’s a series of harsh, mechanical pulses (it might be fun just for a while), running headlong towards the climactic ‘ghosts’. If the speaker believes there is joy to be had in her old life, these lines formally suggest otherwise. Jemma’s section might come first because it grounds the book in recognisable emotional reality after an introduction that begins with the dance of the celestial spheres and ends in London in 2016. The book’s stakes might be our society’s soul, but they begin at ground level, a moment of self-reflection in the middle of the night.

Tempest’s critics will almost certainly pick out the second monologue – released as a single, ‘Europe is Lost’ – as evidence supporting the prevailing narratives about her work. If, like many critics I’ve seen, one objects to ‘didactic’ or ‘hectoring’ art there’s plenty of ammunition here. The poem is direct to a fault, a sweeping look at the state of the nation, like MacNeice’s Autumn Journal squeezed into a three-minute track. What deflates such a reading, however, is the local context in which the poem occurs. It is, like every other piece in the book, a dramatic monologue, in persona; the fact it fits snugly over commonly held prejudices about Tempest’s political ‘moralism’ makes it no less a work of fiction. As in Collins’ essay on fanfic, such a literalist reading wilfully bypasses the poet’s very explicit signals that Let Them Eat Chaos is art and not autobiography. She is no more Pete the stoned sound tech than she is Esther the careworker, the speaker in ‘Europe is Lost’. In her brief, Canterbury Tales-esque intro, Esther is described as exhausted, sleep deprived, ‘worried all the time’, in a flat with ‘a black and white picture / of swallows in flight’. All of these details inform the reader about the kind of mind at work in ‘Europe is Lost’, the context in which the poem wants to be read, and any reading that ignores this is incomplete at best.

‘Europe is Lost’ is the second monologue, having this panoramic critique so early on in the book functions as emotional set dressing for the other more intimate stories. One might argue that this doesn’t excuse the broad-brush analysis of selfies (‘here’s me outside the palace of ME’), and facebook activism (‘some of them noticed / you can tell by the emoji they posted’), and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. As I argued in my review of Hold Your Own, Tempest is at her devastating best when bringing to life a single character or inner situation. My last thought on ‘Europe is Lost’, however, is that it is fucking incredible to see an artist flip a table and say this is fucked up, this violates even basic conceptions of the inherent value of human life. As political analysis, it’s not a nuanced document, but that’s not what the poem is for. In a time when ‘political’ is a dirty word in artistic discussion, it’s kind of thrilling to see the gauntlet thrown down with such righteous fury.

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The other monologues in Let Them Eat Chaos retain a tight, precise focus; Zoe’s rent has been tripled and she thinks of the history held in her boxed-up possessions and the gentrification of the place she’s lived her whole life; Bradley has a dream job but feels purposeless. The book threads the experiences of its characters together in subtle and not-so subtle ways, the most obvious being the several times various characters ask ‘what am I gonna do to wake up?’, indicating both literal and political awakenings, which could be a subtitle to the whole book. But on deeper thematic levels the book ties these seven people together. Alicia, Pete and Bradley make art that no-one sees: Alicia ‘spits bars to the grass’, Pete writes poems he can’t get his friends to read, Bradley ‘shoot[s] films on [his] phone’. They’re unobtrusive and natural details, but they seem purposeful, moments of talking back to a world that won’t listen. Jemma, Pete and Pious keep returning to self-destructive habits, in full awareness of their emotional wheel-spinning; part of the tension in their monologues is between their capacity for personal change and the systemic oppression that makes such change unattainable, ‘even if he never splashed out / he still couldn’t make the rent on his own place’. Let Them Eat Chaos is up front about its political stances, and the message that loving our neighbours (read also: organising with them politically) is the best means of effecting substantial change underpins it all. What’s left a little below the surface are the potential points of commonality that pre-exist the book’s climactic storm that draws them physically into the street. The book’s dramatic arc is hard-fought and well earned, and I kinda wish it spent a bit more time with all these characters finally interacting (however logistically confusing that might be).

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Let Them Eat Chaos feels like a live show that’s been converted to book format after the fact. A full performance with backing band and stagecraft was recorded by the BBC (see the video at the top), and is very much required viewing for a full experience of the book; I watched it with the text in front of me, and it seems clear in which medium the piece is most effective. The book clearly wants to capture the intricacy and agility of the work, but too often the page is formatted apparently at random, landing heavily on phrases or ideas that in performance are given no special emphasis, to the point where more traditional left-aligned blocks of text might have been a more faithful and legible rendering. In performance there is a far more explicit tonal difference between the narrative sections and the parts spoken by the seven protagonists, while in the book there is often little more than an extra line of white space or a shift to the left margin.

I don’t pretend to have any good solution. Simplified musical notation (something like Alice Oswald’s ‘Tithonus’) might be a more articulate way to render Tempest’s speech rhythms, but almost certainly at the cost of being more visually busy or distracting. Where this impacts the reading experience is in how the book fails to capture Tempest’s willingness to prioritise sound over sense; a long run of deft, meaningful, exhilarating speech in performance may read as clunky or clichéd on the page, given that poetry readers will naturally read much slower than the poet recites, placing a heavier burden on individual words or phrases than they are designed for. Part of the pleasure of her work is in the skill and charisma with which it’s performed, the alchemy of turning stock phrases or images into a bigger soundscape that’s as much part of the poem’s fundamental meaning as its component parts. Tempest builds some of her most important arguments by creating repeated tiny moments of tension, building and rejecting the listener’s expectations, and these are desperately difficult to represent visually. Maybe until there’s some standardised notation for spoken word, the conversion to print will lose something (perhaps that’s inevitable, but I’m an optimist).

Let Them Eat Chaos is an atypical poetry book, as much a playscript as a lyric sheet as a collection, and not an easy one to talk about. It has its flaws, but in a poetry culture in which ‘apolitical’ lyric niceties tend to reap the greatest rewards I’m content to substitute mannerly, break-the-rules-but-not-like-that books for work that forcefully states a philosophical case for love and solidarity, even if nuance is sacrificed in the process. My hope for the book is that it opens up some new space to bring activism into art (if not into our daily experience), for poetry – which remains stubbornly white, male and conservative – to be as apt a space for political advocacy as any other genre of the arts. It’s easy to get frustrated with ideas like ‘the personal is political’ and that ‘writing a poem at all is a political gesture’ when the unarticulated subtext is ‘it’s fine to be me, and so anyone who raises their voice in dissent is tedious, deluded or attention-seeking’. Perhaps I’m being naïve, and I’m aware that there are significant gaps in my reading of Let Them Eat Chaos, particularly regards the hiphop tradition, that might undercut some of what I argue here. I hope the conversation continues. But I genuinely think this is a great piece of art delivered by a talented and powerful performer, one of the finest in these islands, and I sorely wish there was more like it, maybe by BAME artists or artists on other intersections of oppression. As the book argues, we’re currently facing the greatest existential threats to our democracy in our lifetime. If silence or compliance will not save us, it certainly will not save those more vulnerable than ourselves, and those people are our responsibility. I guess it’s weirdly heartening to read a book that not only recognises that fact, but takes it to the heart of its artistic enterprise.

Further Reading: Let Them Eat Chaos Live Performance on BBC

Harry Giles suggests Kate Tempest is a modern-day Chaucer, with hilarious consequences

Alex Clark – Review of Let Them Eat Chaos, The Observer

Alexis Petridis – Review of Let Them Eat Chaos, The Guardian

Feature on Tempest in the Financial Times

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, every pledge is massively helpful. Thanks for reading.

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Melissa Lee-Houghton – Sunshine

‘I was born to love / a megalomaniac or an addict, and all I got was this t-shirt’ (‘Hella’)

Mephistopheles: Isn’t the real problem that this poetry scares you, because what it describes is so far out of your field of experience? You don’t have any authority over it, so you’re trying to abrogate authority through criticism.’ (John Clegg, ‘I’ll Find You’ – Essay’, Prac Crit 3)

‘We can all be kind to each other and can all love each other. It’s the pinnacle of human endeavour – everything that we strive for, everything that we do, is about the pursuit of love.’ (Melissa Lee-Houghton, interview with Michael Conley, Prac Crit 3)

Disclosure: Have not met the poet, friends on FB; review copy provided by Penned in the Margins. As with Clegg in his essay, much of the matter of Sunshine is outwith my experiences. While this is almost always the case, it’s more starkly so with Sunshine. In the linked interview Lee-Houghton states, ‘it’s an art form too. And a performance. It isn’t just me voicing my experience like a journalist or an autobiography’: the poet’s life and the reader’s encounter with the poem are not continuous, and the literary artefact should not be mistaken for historical fact. It would also be a mistake to assume a merely lit-crit approach would be a sufficient means toward a full understanding of the book.

I think this book is special, I’m not the best person to talk about it, I’m talking about it because I think it’s special; I hope this is worth something to you.

Review: In her keynote speech to TIFF a few months ago, Transparent creator Jill Solloway argued that at some level, almost all art contains the message ‘it is okay to be me’. From the endless superhero movies propagating white male saviourhood to the trans characters in her own tv show, art may be understood as, in Solloway’s words, ‘propaganda of the self’, which can preserve existing social hierarchies or challenge them, merely by presenting a particular way of being a body in that society. By doing so without passing judgement the artist challenges (or reinforces) what is acceptable, what is ‘normal’; as writer and critic Saladin Ahmed recently tweeted, if artists want to make a difference about Islamophobia, include Muslim characters in stories that aren’t about terrorism.

Sunshine is a difficult book to read. I read it more or less in one sitting a few months ago, and struggled to will myself to read it again for review. To be blunt, I’m attached to my sense of comfort, and Sunshine has no time for it. Its much-cited first line, ‘If Disney made porn they would pay us well for our trouble’, is typical of the book in that its ostensible brashness gives way to something more nuanced with repeated reading. These poems ask the reader (this reader, more to the point) to acclimatise, to keep responding beyond whatever initial shock one might experience, to allow each scene’s emotional complications to percolate. As ‘Video’, the book’s second poem, asserts, ‘There’s nothing final when you can play it again’; this opening tableau of a couple having apparently passionless sex in the bath is worth thinking over, and seems to shift on repeated reading:

‘we used to talk but now I just pull sad faces and you sympathise.
I was thinking about abstract things, like what distance means to lovers […]

I fit inside love like the breath in a flute. I will escape
at the slightest pause or hesitation. You need to clasp me.
You need to tie me down. Please. I want to go nowhere.’

What on first exposure might feel simply detached or affectless (‘[you] watched me clean / my pussy, and dry my body, and grow cold and silent again.’), emerges as one of its quieter, more peaceful moments after reading the whole book. The invocation of Disney (‘Immediately, a dozen bluebirds flew in and tidied your hair, / a gentle and spritely music soothed your brow’) exposes an unattainable, naïvely simplistic set of values; the poem seems to imply that there are other ways of loving and being loved, and sometimes the best case scenario is not the culturally affirmed, Disneyfied norm about romance. This is also okay. It is okay to be me. The speaker can be clasped. The speaker can go nowhere. Sometimes this is what love looks like, and it’s not necessary to understand it completely.

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The opening poem is titled ‘And All the Things That We Do I Could Face Today’; it implicitly focuses on what can be faced, while that ‘and’ gives the impression that the reader has been abruptly included in a private moment, one that was happening before we arrived and will continue after we’re gone. It’s difficult to know to what degree the reader is being addressed in the lines:

‘I love you baby. I love all of you and I will never love myself.
This book is gonna be a killer. It’s gonna suck me dry,
suck me white, suck my insides out and leave me hollow and high.’

Those ‘gonna’s give me the impression what in pop music is merely read as highly marketable bravado is being harnessed here to the poem’s emotional reality. There is plenty of textual evidence in Sunshine to suggest its production was not a pleasant experience. Lee-Houghton seems to be couching this fear or anticipation in the familiar idiom of rock stardom, maybe in self-parody, maybe suggesting that such sentiments have been co-opted for mass consumption. This may also suggest that our position as readers is not innocent. It seems to me that unlike art in which our awareness of the artist’s real-world suffering is hidden or disguised, there is some kind of responsibility to be taken in how we read work like Sunshine. Not to treat it with kid gloves, but to witness it to the fullness of our abilities, to read as if the stakes were our own, to read as empathetically as we do critically.

Even if it were not the case, even if I was reading Sunshine like any other book, the quality of the literary work here is outstanding. Lee-Houghton writes at a level of emotional intensity that few single poems maintain, let alone entire collections. What’s striking about Sunshine is how little space it has for downtime, for moments of peace – how that opening poem starts to seem such an island of calm. These poems are repeatedly marked by moments of stunning lyric clarity:

‘The White Path was where the suicides went and where we sat on benches to get incredibly stoned and see through the history and the fog and the debris, the death that will come for us all in its most imaginative ways.’ (‘Hangings’)

‘From the hospital you watched the sun come up and I watched it break
its Day-Glo light on our half-empty bed. It was beautiful, you said –
it told me your shadow fell somewhere else; it consoled me
because it lent a colour to your bright and sincere absence.’ (‘Cobra’)

‘Give me hope, because hope will undo the eye-hooks and lay down
its black lace. Give me hope, because love aims always above our heads:

at sunshine.’ (‘Mad Girl in Love’)

I could go on. The book is full of these sudden, beautiful, unsettling flourishes, and a dozen readers could likely choose a dozen such passages without overlap. Perhaps the book’s most salient quality is not so much its urgency as this fullness, this tension between being overwhelmed by sensation or sensitivity on one hand and the poem’s attempts to maintain formal or narrative control on the other. It’s a powerful dynamic, and nowhere is it better exemplified than by ‘i am very precious’. In an interview at Prac Crit, Lee-Houghton described how ‘the poem is about men and women and the tensions between them and men being dominant,’ and how ‘In real life, these things are hard to put into words, but when I do it in poetry I build and create a safe haven for it to exist.’ As the poet also notes, ‘i am very precious’ inhabits a near-ecstatic state: ‘it’s wild and it doesn’t go any quieter’. The poem perhaps dramatizes the lengths necessary to create context for such a discussion to happen at all; if ‘rational’ discourse precludes our ability to say that ‘rationality’ is irreparably formed of dysfunctional gender biases, then other rhetorical forms must take over. Which is an inaptly dry way of noting that ‘i am very precious’, even in its title, goes to extraordinary lengths to assert its right to cultural space, its right to be heard, to be considered whole and valuable.

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The poem itself navigates a series of sexual questions about the speaker and the culture in which she speaks, the poem’s ‘I’ and its ‘some people’:

‘Some people don’t actually want to be wanted.
Some people actually want to be harmed. I used to fantasize
about being annihilated.’

This easy movement between the personal and the general sets the speaker in the middle of her cultural moment, not an outlier or fluke but a logical conclusion. The poem plays out how that same culture (the one we’re sitting in right now) has deeply unhealthy attitudes to sexual desire, and how those attitudes diverge along strict gender binaries. The men in the poem are violent, numb and limited: the poem’s ‘you’ tells the speaker not to talk about her trauma, which she interprets as a kind of solidarity, but in context it reads as unwillingness to perform emotional labour. Men’s sexual advice to her extends as far as ‘pace [your]self’, ‘it’s easy to get consumed and the main thing is to hold out’. The recurring pornographic images are prompted by the speaker’s boyfriend, and are marked by an unflagging opposition to sincerity: ‘it’s the lack of perceived sensation, / their bodies just seem numb’. These figures stand in opposition to the dynamic, creative, often grimly hilarious narrative voice (‘Handjobs just don’t do it for me, I’m sorry – / maybe if I really like you, you can tell me about it’), whose will to communicate her needs and desires truthfully, however culturally stigmatised, form the heart of the poem’s rhetorical achievement.

That said, there are several moments at which the speaker’s voice seems to snag on a particular image or phrase:

‘Wanting to be loved is not the same
as wanting to be fucked is not the same as wanting to come last
is not the same as wanting to be married’

‘I want the voice of someone with a heart that knows about hearts
that know about hearts that know’

‘You’ve got to hide the mirror, you’ve got to hide
the mirror. […] and look in the mirror
and in the mirror and in the mirror I saw
a girl, a little younger than me’

The poem incorporates these un-grammatical, almost musical, phrases without breaking stride, rendering their non-verbal meanings as valuable as their more conventional counterparts. The poem’s closing lines seem to confirm a connection between literary expression and expression of desire:

‘Blood pours into all of my poems like it floods
the veins around my clitoris when someone says they like my
name. So please do say it again.’

The poem’s radical act of claiming ownership over her cultural space is here connected to the radical act of claiming ownership over her sexuality, and the final line might refer to the saying of her poems as well the saying of her name. It’s worth noting that this poem is deeper and more complicated than I’m confident about discussing, and I do worry that in trying to make sense of it to myself I’m erasing a lot of the messiness, nuance and compromise that makes this poem what it is. Perhaps, ultimately, it doesn’t matter if we can fully or convincingly explain the poem or the book to ourselves; perhaps as important is our ability to read everything Lee-Houghton gives us in Sunshine and acknowledge it as a way of being, as whole and legitimate as any other. To acknowledge that this is okay, without qualification. ‘i am very precious’ deserves a great deal of close attention, hopefully from readers better equipped for the task.

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Perhaps the fact that one can spend so much time unspooling just two of the poems in Sunshine is an indicator of the depth the book holds, just how much it has to tell you. I’ve not even touched on the book’s sensitive, complex handing of mental health and the social structures around it, its discussions about family, about austerity politics and its victims, the heartbreaking hopefulness of ‘Mad Girl in Love’, how ‘sunshine’ appears in all its various guises throughout the book. There’s a lot more to be discussed than what I’ve touched on here.

Sometimes, consciously or not, I treat the writing of criticism ultimately as a capitalist venture, a function of the publishing industry or of an artistic ‘career’ first and foremost, rather than a function of being alive, a function of a need, will, or desire to express one’s self publicly. Sunshine has the feel of a book that was compelled into existence, that would have happened whether or not there was an industry to support its publication. It’s a book unlike any other I’ve read, and as a community of readers we’re far the richer for it.

Some Books That Came Out This Year (Or So) Which I Enjoyed For A Variety Of Reasons And To Varying Degrees

2016 has been shit. On individual terms a number wonderful things have happened, but it’s hard to look back with any fondness on a stretch where so much evil has been visited upon so many. A lot of illusions have been broken forever, a lot of hard truths have emerged about the kind of fight we’re in for. We’ve been challenged to put our hearts, minds, bodies on the line for the kind of world we’ve told ourselves we believe in. It’s going to be shit! Rule of thumb number one though; there are a lot of people who’ve been fighting these fights most of their lives, and if we haven’t been listening to them before (we evidently haven’t), there’s no time like the present. I’m here, you’re here, let’s make things better, let’s be better, one day at a time.

Right so I do poetry and things so here are some poetry books I liked this year.

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Vahni Capildeo – Measures of Expatriation

If I did an end of year awards thing this would be my winner. It’s extraordinary in the most basic sense, and it’s hard to remember a book by a poet in these islands that so thoroughly questioned our understanding of what a book of lyric poetry looks like, or what it can do. It’s a book I’ll turn back to for years to come. For what it’s worth, it’s also hard to think of another book that managed to carry such heavy subject matter while transmitting so much humanity, warmth and wit, or made these things such a core aspect of its enterprise. Suffice to say I want you to read Measures of Expatriation and then talk to me about it.

Denise Riley – Say Something Back

The sustained intensity of this book’s opening sequence, in elegy for Riley’s son, is unlike anything I’ve ever read; the emotional situation the reader is permitted to share in is often brutal. Riley spares herself very little, and in criticising the elegiac impulse, or what might appear to be a very natural grieving process, creates poems that cut deeply. Like MoE, it’s painful, it pulls no punches, it is generous beyond understanding. As above, read it and tell me about it.

Alice Oswald – Falling Awake

This is the first of Oswald’s collections I’ve really sat down with, and more fool me for leaving it so long. Falling Awake is the best nature poetry I’ve read in years, capturing a heartfelt love of the living world without quite romanticising it, keeping a healthy realism about the effect of an observing consciousness on what’s being observed. The book also has an attitude to time and mortality, the long distance and the big picture, that I find deeply heartening, if only for a moment or two. Falling Awake’s near-complete non-engagement with contemporary poetic trends is also very calming, if only, again, for a moment or two.

Melissa Lee-Houghton – Sunshine

I first read Sunshine in one sitting, in Glasgow, on a rainy day trip where I had too much caffeine and felt basically inconsolable for days after. I’m not well-versed on confessional poetry (if that’s the best way of thinking about Sunshine, and I’m not convinced it is), so I feel a bit underqualified to talk about it, not least in experiential terms. What’s clear is that the concentrated urgency of the work is damn near unrivalled, there’s zero fluff, cover to cover. I know several readers who find Lee-Houghton’s work deeply empowering in its clear-eyed discussion of mental illness, the basic message that this is something that happens to humans, that it can be survived. I’d just as readily give fair warning that it’s emotionally taxing; while it absolutely needs to be read, it needs to be approached with respect. Hope to write something a bit more substantial in the near future, but for now this is an exceptional book, one that’ll be on my mind for a long time.

Kate Tempest – Let Them Eat Chaos

If poetry!facebook is anything to go by, many people have pretty firm opinions about Tempest. I’d bet that Let Them Eat Chaos is unlikely to radically change those stances. It is, partly, an explicit condemnation of the country’s dominant political narratives, but it’s worth noting that the poem has seven speaking parts (eight if you include the narrator), and the outspoken doomsayer is only one of them. Even if we presume this particular character to be closest to our readerly understanding of Tempest Prime (there are strong textual arguments for it, after all), they remain a fictional construct as much as the rest of the cast, and are probably best read in that light. The fact I’m pre-empting criticism here, mind, is probably indicative of what I assume the general response is/will be. But aiming the most common critiques at the book (preaching to choir/simplistic ideology/general ubiquity) would miss the trees for the wood. Let Them Eat Chaos is occasionally stunning, not least for the realisation that no other poet published by one of the big houses is saying these things so plainly. There are vital questions to be asked of poetry’s political efficacy, now more than ever, but suffice, for now, to say my year of reading would be much poorer without this book.

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Some Other Rad Books That Would Reward The Time You Spent With Them, With Briefer Notes Than Those Above, In The Order I Found Them On My Desk

Chloe Stopa-Hunt – White Hills

The pamphlet from clinic is weirdly beautiful, with its old-timey wallpaper design, and the lack of page numbers leaving the words on the page as the only focus. The poems are tiny, airy curiosities with disconcerting undercurrents. One of the purest lyric works I’ve read in ages, one that keeps unfolding and unfolding each time I pick it up.

Padraig Regan – Delicious

Speaking of lyric, Regan’s pamphlet from new press Lifeboat is a real cracker. The poems are warm, tactile, sharp-witted, with a handful of real masterpieces. It’s a book to get you through winter, a hopeful and beautifully crafted collection.

Choman Hardi – Considering the Women

Hardi’s book was rightly recognised by the Forward Prizes, a collection that is on occasion difficult to read. Her long sequence, ‘Anfal’, marking women survivors of genocide in Kurdistan, is a massively important contribution to poetry in these islands, and deserves attention.

Ocean Vuong – Night Sky With Exit Wounds

An urgent and beautiful book. Vuong is almost impossibly candid, and his poems ask to be read with the openness and vulnerability by which they are given. One to save for a time you can run the risk of getting a bit weepy.

Modern Poets One – If I’m Scared We Can’t Win

Sometimes a book comes along that reminds you how much you still have to learn. The generous selection of Anne Carson’s was weird and unsettling; Berry and Collins both have collections out in the coming year, and this book is a brilliant taster. On a side note, the series almost unfairly exploits my completionist tendencies.

If A Leaf Falls Press – Sam Riviere

Pick one and treat yourself, they’re beautiful objects, the poets are amazing, I’m delighted they exist. This year’s highlights Kathryn Maris’ 2008 and AK Blakemore’s pro ana. (NB I lost track of this for a while and missed a few.)

Tiphanie Yanique – Wife

A powerful collection and deserved prizewinner. Yanique’s poems are like sitting down with someone who knows exactly what she’s talking about and is keen to enlighten you. Wife is angry, brilliant and completely uncompromising.

Luke Kennard – Cain

Cain asks some rudimentary questions about how readers construct the poet of their imagination, pressing back against the reader’s presumption of intimacy. I found the anagram section technically dazzling but kinda tough going, though flashbacks to Infinite Jest might be colouring my opinion. A rare blend of emotional intelligence and formal critique.

The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop – eds. Kevin Coval, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Nate Marshall

This anthology covers decades of a nation-wide poetry scene (if somewhat focused on the editors’ home of Chicago) and provides the necessary context and criticism for outsider readers. It’s been a long time since I read an anthology with such a density of exciting, challenging, and various work.

Currently and Emotion: Translations – ed. Sophie Collins

I’m still only partway through this, so can really only give honourable mention to a beautifully laid out and thus far fascinating anthology which, like BreakBeat, gives a generous welcome to the uninitiated.

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Hope this has been enlightening! There’s been a hell of a lot of great poetry published this year, so if I’ve missed something obvious I apologise. I also apologise for being less productive than I’d like this year; there’s been times when other work commitments have made writing here difficult, times when writing anything felt simultaneously superfluous and nowhere near enough. I intend to be on here far more often in 2017.

I hope you’re well, I hope you have good people around you. Thanks for reading.

Tiphanie Yanique – Wife

Disclosure: No personal connection to the poet or publisher that I’m aware of. Yanique’s book features experiences of structural misogyny in the Virgin Islands and the USA, and brings both feminist and post-colonial understandings to her poems’ discussion of marriage and how the institution interacts with conceptions of love and sexuality. It’s worth bearing in mind the obvious point that I have no personal experience of a lot of what Yanique describes, and may be missing a lot of nuance. As ever, I’m operating with what I hope is an open mind.

Review: Right from its opening poem, ‘Dangerous Things’, Wife may be characterised by its ability to express complex power dynamics in more-or-less plain language:

‘This is the island.
It is small and vulnerable,
it is a woman, calling. You love her
until you are a part of her
and then, just like that,
you make her less than she was
before – the space
that you take up
is a space where she cannot exist.’

The poem asserts that critiques of colonialism and of male formulations of desirable femininity are, at their core, inextricable. The following lines, ‘The island / is a woman, therefore / dangerous things live below’, neatly enfold two oppressive schemes of thought that permit dehumanisation and the exercise of control over both colonised land and female body. It also starkly highlights the problem with turning either into a metaphor, in which the particularities of each may be ignored, simplified to the point of violence. The poem concludes:

‘True, we will never be
beyond our histories.
And so I am the island.
And so this is a warning.’

Figuring the poet’s exact position within this system is tricky. The first person hasn’t appeared previously, so the speaker’s taking on of an identity already established as politically restricted feels partly defiant, partly resigned. Maybe only resigned insofar as acknowledging the real and current situation allows a clearer sense of exactly what she is in fact defying, hence the ‘warning’ to the incoming reader. The ‘we’ in the quoted passage feels universal, perhaps not just the speaker and the oppressed people she stands in for, but the predatory ‘you’ from earlier in the poem. History is affirmed as an active force in the present; the poem infers that if the poet/speaker/Yanique is the island, it follows that a white colonist/male reader/addressee may remain the invading force. The poem recognises these as the book’s starting positions, and its ‘warning’ may be its demand not only for close attention but sensitivity to its argument.

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The poems that follow, ‘Blood Wedding’ and ‘Body Logic’, continue the trajectory of ‘Dangerous Things’ in its movement from the political towards the domain of personal experience. The former walks a very fine tonal line, modulating between the dreamy violence of Garcia Lorca’s play of the same name and a deeply morbid turn of humour:

‘A spouse is only a surgeon
passing her own organ through the mirror

dear
beautiful
kidney’

There’s something at once posturing and grounded in these lines, not quite rejecting the doomed love narrative, relishing its visceral imagination while keeping sight of the ‘myth cleaved / from the mirror’, marriage as a culturally sanctioned behavioural control. The best poems in Wife find this place of tension between the poet’s will to artfully and faithfully render her desires, and her awareness of the forces that would punish such forthrightness. As ‘Body Logic’ suggests, those forces are not always external:

‘The body has its own
infant logic.
Its own way to know
if what you speak is true […]
It will open you
and leave you open.
And you’ll have to read it
like a sonogram.’

Again, there’s no straightforward way of rendering the body as hero or villain, and the penultimate sentence is just beautiful in its balance, those reverse angles on ‘open’. Taken together, the poems leave the impression that their speaker is beset on all sides, that even the faithfulness of her own senses cannot be taken as read. Most importantly, I think, ‘Body Logic’ figures an oppositional relationship between bodily instinct and outward expression; its closing line presents the reader with a literal image of the body’s interior to be ‘read’ by the body’s owner, who may or may not be doing so reliably. The poem seems to argue that not even private feelings can be trusted implicitly, that even these deeply intimate moments are subject to the same confusion and frustration as any social moment.

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In her interview with the Forward Arts Foundation, Yanique notes how Claudia Rankine (named in the book’s notes as a teacher/mentor) ‘screws and bends form to say things that otherwise might be impossible to say’, and Wife is noteworthy for its refusal to speak the same way twice. Zuihitsu is a form of personal essay or fragmentary thought in Japanese literature, literally the words “at will” and “pen”; Yanique’s ‘Zuihitsu for the day I cheat on my husband, to my fiancé’ explicitly turns the matter of intimate personal relationships into a literary concern. The poem is a complex, often wry exploration of relationships both romantic and familial, those roles often unrecognisably blending:

Queen: The title a husband gives to his wife only after first giving it to his mother.’

‘I will tell Baby [the lover] that I do not want people. I want family. Your husband, he will say, is your family, right? And I cannot tell if he is directing me to remain unattached or if he is pleading with me to adopt him.’

The poem doesn’t necessarily pass judgement on these fusings and echoes, and it treats what might be called infidelity not as a flaw but a feature of the institution of marriage:

‘I wept. Thinking, already, of the day this one would become the lover. Mourning, already, the pummelled beauty of our affair.’

‘Loving a spouse, says my husband who is not yet my husband, is like praising One God, whom you will betray.’

Adultery: a fetish for monogamists.

What the poem seems to argue for, by way of performing it, is the kind of double-edged openness that appeared in ‘Body Logic’, a frank awareness of the price of respecting, or indeed not respecting, one’s own needs. Like ‘Blood Wedding’, it sees perfect fidelity as an unsustainable artifice, a mortally damaging lie compared with the temporarily hurtful truth (‘pummelled beauty’) of the affair.

In ‘Dictionary’, the poet again employs the prose poem, laying out the political connotations and linguistic origins around the word ‘wife’. Again, the tone balances between humour and scathing critique:

wife – (European origins) a married woman. As in slave in the house. As in chef, maid, nanny and prostitute. But unpaid for these services. […] In the colloquial, wife means woman: as in “Old wives’ tale” meaning a story passed down by ignorant old women.’

As in the social-to-personal progression earlier in the book, each paragraph moves towards a more dehumanised understanding of the word, from ‘wifey – (American Negro origins) diminutive of wife but more desireable. Girl who cooks, cleans, fucks and gives back massages’ to ‘get wife – (Caribbean origins) to have sex, to fuck a human female. […] “Wife” is a direct translation of “sex”.’ Though the poem makes clear that both word and institution are colonial imports, it is clear-eyed about its thorough integration into the poet’s home society. The poem is driven by its assertion of the speaker’s agency, fighting back against social stricture by naming it.

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Alongside the book’s social realism are several poems in which anxieties about racial and misogynist oppression are given full, uncanny voice. In ‘I try’:

‘In the high branches of a tree
there is a bride’s
veil
swinging
Of course, there is a story
here

Though, perhaps the veil is nothing
more than a white
garbage bag
But I know better
I don’t believe my eyes’

Coming straight after ‘Dictionary’, this is a stark and suggestive piece, leaving ample room for the reader’s imagination to fill in the horrific blanks. Alongside the book’s ongoing consideration of how the body may be enlisted against the individual’s ability to identify her own suffering, the poem ends with intimations of lynch mobs, a history of violence against people of colour:

‘Now we may try the ghost bride
for answers

Such as
what do dead bodies mean
when swaying
from trees?’

Where ‘Dictionary’ may find bleak humour in its exasperation, ‘I try’ reaffirms the lived reality of where such deep-seated cultural bigotry leads. That the poem can only express this understanding through a layer of self-doubt (‘this odd telepathy’) leaves space for the reader to choose whether or not to believe the poet’s testimony, whether we ‘believe [her] eyes’. Among the bolder or more dramatically performed statements in Wife, ‘I try’ stands out among its moments of quiet horror. Likewise, ‘A poem to mark when we were afraid’ draws on imagery of Bible Belt America (‘the RV Park’, ‘the revival’, ‘cattle and Hummers’, ‘bumper stickers that read “Follow me to Christ”’), as the speaker and their partner ‘are received as the representatives / from the Pygmy Goat Association’. Within the dreamy world where people are ‘a sir’ and ‘a ma’am’ – people identified by social honorifics rather than individual, humanising features – the poem takes a turn:

‘From the official pamphlet we learn:
pygmies are black pagans and the goat is a metaphor.
That night, though you sleep beside me, the steers stamp me into meat.’

The book was published in November of 2015, and the poem’s composition predates the recent mainstreaming of white supremacy likely by even longer, but its rendering of the monstrousness of white America’s social adhesives is painfully prescient. Again, the departure from the book’s more prosaic waking world is expertly handled, carefully wrongfooting the reader.

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The book’s penultimate piece, ‘Traditional Virgin Islands Wedding Verse’ may be read as a kind of coda. The poem’s form requires each verse to contain the word ‘belong’, and once more, the poem shapes away from social duties (‘Before you even know / you are your own, / you know that you are / someone else’s) and towards the interpersonal. The poem adds to the book’s previous formulations, however, by including a sort of intermediary between the arbitrary, somewhat overbearing institutions of family, religion, state and employment on one side and lover on the other:

‘You are part of a tribe,
It is not a shackle. It is the true story
of self-creation.
It is what makes you.
You come to belong to yourself.
You say I am
and call your own name.’

The ‘tribe’ – notably differentiated from family or place – appears as one of the few enabling forces in the collection, one that empowers the individual via communal support. Where the poem ends by somewhat ambiguously describing the married couple as ‘claiming’ each other as in the first stanza their parents ‘claimed’ them, the tribe is allowed to stand as an unfixed and positive space.

A majority of the book’s finest pieces come in its first section, leaving the later stages of the book feeling a little light. ‘The Story of Our Elopement’, for example, while an interesting narrative, doesn’t quite push outwards from the specific moment that occasioned it. ‘Confession of the five foolish brides’ is an interesting re-think of the parable, but feels a little drawn out. Again, these are by no means bad poems, but the sheer quality elsewhere makes these merely adequate pieces feel a little dry, slow down the hectic pace of the collection.

Despite this, Wife is an extraordinary first book, one that demands slow reading and unbroken attention. Yanique’s skill with capturing atmospheres of implicit violence, allied with her ability to make broad societal structures feel human and intimate, allow for some intensely good poems, with impressive artistic range and depth of understanding. Very well worth her Forward Prize victory, and I hope it finds its due readership on this side of the Atlantic.

Further Reading:

Interview with Yanique by Forward Arts Foundation

Review in St Lucia Star

Review by Becky Varley-Winter in Sabotage Reviews

Review by Martyn Crucefix

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, every pledge is massively helpful. Thanks for reading.

Alice Oswald – Falling Awake

Disclosure: Normally this would be super short, just saying that I’ve read some of Oswald’s work previously but have no personal connection to her. Jack Underwood’s Brief Manifesto for Kindness, however, has important questions about how ‘full’ these disclosures actually are. He notes that having this section at best does a half-job, publicly clearing one’s conscience without really troubling one’s right or capacity to pass judgement, particularly on writers who experience more oppression than I do, i.e. just about everyone. And I guess there’s real danger of doing the same right here, so suffice it to say Underwood’s note about ‘tactical soul-searching’ has been bugging me constantly, I recognise the irony of doing this at the prompting of another privileged white man, and as ever, I hope you trust me – I’ll do my best to earn it.

Review: Insofar as a book as meditative as Falling Awake can be said to have a clear thought-line or theme, it may be the deconstruction of the primacy of human voices and bodies. The book features several ‘talking’ animals (albeit speaking a language to which the reader has no access) and humans in various states of decrepitude. This preoccupation with primacy is in tension with Oswald’s extremely precise control of pacing – although the imagistic element of the poetry may be of, for example, a swan’s decayed corpse or a badger falling to its death, what each poem has to say is delivered with a miniaturist’s attention to the information conveyed  by every odd detail. So the corpse in ‘Swan’ is ‘the plane-crash mess of her wings’, ‘getting panicky up out of her clothes’, climbing out of her own cockpit’, ‘the clean china serving-dish of a breast bone’, ‘the leather underdress / of the heart’, ‘my own black feet / lying poised in their slippers’, ‘the / frozen cloud of the head / before it thaws’, ‘the bride has just set out / to walk to her wedding’. Connecting the uncommon abundance of unique imagery is the swan’s own surprise at finding herself so suddenly grounded –

‘bending back for another look thinking
strange
strange’

– and the list of metaphors can be roughly sifted into two groups, ‘flight’ and ‘(wedding) clothes’, and although the connection is never made explicit, the poem seems to purposefully weave between these domains before arriving at its final image:

‘the little black-lit church
it is so cold

the bells like iron angels
hung from one note
keep ringing and ringing’

What starts with a swan’s dismembered body ends with a traditional church wedding, via several backward looks. There’s an entire short story’s worth of narrative here if the reader wishes to reach for it, and it doesn’t sound like a happy one. Extrapolating a defined plot, though, would risk distorting what seems to purposefully lie a degree out of reach, the poem’s uncertainty (which the swan seems to share – ‘strange / strange’) integral to its meaning. Behind its lyric ambiguity is, I think, a very pointed arrangement.

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The opening poem, ‘A Short Story of Falling’, I think is partly intended to prime the reader for precisely this intensity of composition, to read an organising force behind the book’s disappearing meanings. The poem is ten couplets in irregular pentameter, with polysyllabic rhymes that more often than not finish on an unstressed syllable; the last couplet echoes the first and the entire poem formally embodies the cycles of water and life. As in ‘Swan’, there’s an empowering dissonance between the poem’s formal solidity and its unstable substance. The poem relies on its music as much as its sense, the constant falling away and returning:

‘if only I a passerby could pass
as clear as water through a plume of grass

to find the sunlight hidden at the tip
turning to seed a kind of lifting rain drip

then I might know like water how to balance
the weight of hope against the light of patience’

The last of these three couplets feels almost too neat, leaning heavily on its rhetorical power to convey two relatively loud abstractions for a poem (and a collection) that finds its meaning almost entirely in the concrete, observable world. That such a noticeable exception to the rule appears in the opening poem seems significant. I think the line points towards ‘Tithonus’, the book’s closing long poem/performance piece about a mortal who fell in love with the dawn, who was granted immortality but not eternal youth, and thereafter waits every morning for a glimpse of his love. Maybe it’s a reach, but the book’s preoccupation with creatures (including humans) that barely survive or struggle to communicate might be rooted in the opening poem’s surprising note of optimism. There is certainly suffering, there is certainly decay, but there is survival, of the natural if not necessarily the human world. Maybe it’s only optimistic the way Beckett is optimistic.

Beckett might be a valuable touchstone in Falling Awake. The sequence ‘Village’ is the only poem that features reported human speech, and it renders that speech as almost-nonsense, perhaps attempting to make speech sound the way birdsong sounds to an untrained (human) ear, a gathering of stock phrases from which – like ‘Swan’ – a narrative could be inferred, if not one that could be easily or accurately translated:

‘somebody out thankfully not me out lost in the mud
somebody lost out late again say what you like
a boot by the granite not many of us left
living in the slippery maybe the last green places are you listening’

Like much of the Irish writer’s work, ‘Village’ is populated by folk just barely surviving, the poem relishing describing their bodies in unflattering terms: ‘that’s him bursting full of himself hook-nosed sinister walk / scars on each side of the wrist no teeth’, ‘spillikin legs always wet for some reason’. Oswald balances the sequence between a failure of communication and the will to keep going regardless, the poem’s last line sees its speaker(s) ‘living on the fluff of green of the last little floes of the earth’. Perhaps the undercurrent of Beckett’s apocalypticism makes this a far more troubling line than it might have been – those ‘very last floes’ sound rather conclusive.

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Although many poems in Falling Awake take place in the poet’s immediate physical space, along the River Dunt or in the poet’s back garden, more often than not the centred speaker is non-human, or, like Tithonus or Orpheus’ dismembered head, are subject to powerful debilitation of their senses of self. Arguably, of course, these alternate consciousnesses are filtered through the human and there is no escape from our own minds, but placed on a sliding scale it’s definitely towards the ecocentric end of the spectrum. Also arguably, this retreat from or occlusion of our own biographical selves is achievable for white people in a manner unavailable to poets of colour; Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation has at its heart this very problem, of recognising the essential shiftiness of selfhood while being compelled by colonialist politics to navigate someone else’s fixed and false expectations.

A brief, hopefully relevant aside: in the first six reviews of Falling Awake returned by google, Oswald is compared to: Don Paterson, Ted Hughes (x4), Tennyson, Homer, Marvell, John Clare, Whitman, Larkin, Beckett, Dylan Thomas, Heaney, Blake, Eliot, Dickinson (x3), Anne Carson, and, bizarrely, Claudia Rankine. Of note here is that if you make your favourite poets public reviewers will take that little shortcut to heart, also that this list has many men. In some ways it makes sense: Oswald is a classicist, and in an interview with Max Porter the poets she names are mostly male, Ovid, Hughes, Clare, Shakespeare and Edmund Waller outnumber Dickinson and Jorie Graham. Graham is the only living poet and one of only two from the last century. Judging by that same interview, in which she agrees with Porter’s statement that ‘I think it’s one of the great problems of our culture that we aren’t allowing people to think in certain ways’, Oswald doesn’t seem much taken with recent British poetry or its adjacent culture, arguing ‘We allow [poets] to be marketable, which means they must be categorised in order to be sold’. Those statements need a lot of unpacking: maybe ‘we’ indicates reviewers and publishers, and as ever it’s not clear who imbues these individuals with powers of censorship, but the fact Oswald reaches so far back into the word hoard so matter-of-factly seems significant. As Charlotte Runcie argues, Oswald ‘has made a career of writing powerfully about earth, strength and physicality – tropes many poets would earmark as masculine’: it’s a powerful thing to acknowledge that dividing subject matter into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ piles is nonsense. The fact that such topics remain gendered, however, is an indicator of how entrenched such gender norms are in anglophone poetry, and how important is Oswald’s occupation of that space. Perhaps the fault is not with poets being faced with either engaging hundreds of years of canonised poetry (some of which isn’t terrible) and being fixed in a hierarchy of dead men for life, or working further from the mainstream and being ignored/wilfully misunderstood. Reviewers could work harder to take poets on their own aesthetic terms and not be so eager to quick-fix someone’s authority/authenticity by invoking the dead. (I realise I mentioned Beckett earlier – I hope that was sufficiently contextualised.) What’s important, I think, is that Oswald gives gender essentialism exactly the respect it deserves; when in ‘Fox’ the poet mentions that the fox arrives in the poet’s garden:

‘in such serious sleepless
trespass she came
a woman with a man’s voice
but no name’

there’s probably some manner of reclamation work going on. As Runcie also points out, addressing gender so directly is not Oswald’s usual way. The fox appears ‘in her fox-fur’ and ‘her black gloves’, depicted in women’s clothing in a notably similar way to the swan in her ‘black feet … in their slippers’, is referred to by female pronouns and ‘trespasses’ in an effort to find food for her cubs (‘hungrily asking’):

‘as if to say: it’s midnight
and my life
is laid beneath my children
like gold leaf’

On one level it’s an uncanny encounter with the wild, a moment in which the comfort of the human is contrasted with the uncaring objectivity of nature; but gender is woven into the short poem’s fabric. It doesn’t seem a grand leap to read this as the female poet’s unwelcomed (‘no name’) intrusion on the comfortable ‘house’ of the anglophone canon; that it appears to be an exercise in self-sacrifice also rings true, considering the recent ignorant outbursts from such literary policemen as Private Eye and the Spectator (not to mention the much quieter, more respectable exclusions by the TLS and LRB, as noted by the VIDA count). Falling Awake may be primarily concerned with the difficulty of maintaining consciousness, but it bears in mind how this difficulty intensifies where it intersects with gender.

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The book’s finale is ‘Tithonus’, mentioned above. The book’s pages collaborate in the performance, as page numbers are discarded, not exactly replaced by a vertical line somewhat like a musical stave, denoting measures of time. Like much of the collection, ‘Tithonus’ is largely unpunctuated, except where space on the page is unable to represent pauses in speech (Falling Awake is rather remarkable in being so closely tied to traditional lyric yet so focused on recreating a human voice in action). Beyond the innovative presentation, though, is a profoundly sad telling of the myth. The poem is superabundant with skilful and keenly observed renderings of the dawn’s beauty into language:

‘here come cascades of earliness in
which everything is asked is it light
is it light is it light
the horizon making only muffled
answers but moisture on leaves is
quick to throw glances
and bodiless black lace woods in
which one to another a songbird asks
is it light is it light

 

 

not quite’

It is also keenly aware of Tithonus’ suffering among all this beauty, his inability to speak back to it (‘like a traveller staring through a / newspaper mouthing the headlines’), to communicate in it, only to observe it over and over in its constant variability. By the time the dawn has fully risen the poem  has considered the dawn from an incredible number of angles (‘every morning the same repeti- / tion spreads its infection a kiss gives / off a swoosh’), allowing humour and beauty and death a similar weight, Tithonus’ final, unbearably humble ‘may I stop please’ pulls at my heart even the third or fourth time round. It’s a remarkable piece, and I can only hope a live performance (which was staged with a harpist) gets recorded for posterity. One can dream. In any case, the poem’s tension between death-wish/acknowledgement of beauty reverberates throughout the book, quietly but firmly, and forms a powerful undercurrent, a constant reminder of the stakes in play. Runcie notes in her review that Oswald is at a remove from the London/BBC poetry scenes, and it may well be true that Falling Awake moves at right angles to the any of the prevailing aesthetic winds, to the point of feeling adrift in time. But it is a powerful, thoughtful, often funny book, with a significant message about the natural and human world.

Further reading:

Charlotte Runcie – review in The Telegraph
Max Porter – interview in The White Review
Theophilus Kwek – review in The London Magazine
Alice Oswald – lecture, ‘The Bearer-Beings’: Portable Stories in Dislocated Times

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, every pledge is massively helpful. Thanks for reading.

Vahni Capildeo – Measures of Expatriation

Full Disclosure: None. First encounter with Capildeo.

‘the sense that this incident is one of many, that the personal is historical, that ‘you’ are a stone already worn down by the water-torture drips, is what Rankine seeks to convey about the predicament of the non-‘white’-skinned individual whose daily life cannot be individual, cannot be pure and spontaneous – cannot be lyric – in so far as it is subject to the encasements and flayings of racialised perception.’

– Capildeo, “On Reading Claudia Rankine”, PN Review 228.

Review: Right in the middle of Measures of Expatriation, in the fourth of the book’s seven sections, is ‘Louise Bourgeois: Insomnia Drawings’, a response to an exhibition of the artist’s work. The poem’s first section is titled ‘Felt Pen’ and offers explanations – of varying conviction – for the artist’s iconic choice of instrument:

‘‘Because a red felt pen is Freudian.’
‘Because felt is fuzzy, and she’s female.’
‘Because red is menstrual.’ ‘Labial.’ ‘Dangerous.’ ‘Primal.’’ […]
‘Because a red felt pen is
a substitute for the phallus,
and also an American flag stripe
signifying the absence of France.’

Capildeo offers a further possibility:

‘Because it was bloody well there,
and in a fix or in a fit, the artist
fiercely repurposes whatever is to hand.’

In a state of either pressing necessity or mental unrest, the artist transforms quotidian junk into acts of resistance. Measures of Expatriation aims to unravel some densely knotted and poisonous ideas and manages to do so with wit, patience, and an often bone-dry sense of humour. Underwriting everything, though, is this determination to hook every theoretical abstraction back into the living, breathing world of unstable but powerful signs. It’s noteworthy that in this passage above, Capildeo is not ruling out the possibility that each of the anonymous suggestions might, on its own, contain a nugget of truth; far more important than the pen’s symbolism, however, is the fact that it was used at all, that the threat of silence is far more pressing than the triumph of one theoretical network or another. The fact that those few lines carry so much freight is true of the collection at large, it’s a long read and a dense one, and every word has clearly been agonised over. Just thinking about the mental labour involved to produce this book makes my head hurt. Yet the challenge seems to be part and parcel of the book’s purpose, and it would be naïve to think that its substantial and sustained challenge to the imposition of restrictive identities (racial, national, gendered or otherwise) would be easy reading.

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And yet the sum of its dense, allusive and syntactically outlandish linguistic performances is an extremely human book. Even when obscured by layers of persona or dramatic irony, Capildeo is a thoughtful and curious guide through her poems’ ideas; the profusion of prose texts in this collection seems to me to be evidence of a will to empower the reader, to spell out her arguments in much plainer fashion than in the more recognisably ‘lyric’ pieces. Looking back at Capildeo’s 2013 collection Utter shows a far greater faith in the column of left-aligned text most commonly recognised as ‘a lyric poem’, and it may be that the greater reliance on non-traditional poetic forms in the new book is continuous with her strategy of ‘fiercely repurpos[ing] whatever is at hand’.  As in Capildeo’s reading of Rankine, the poet and her writing have been disallowed from comfortably inhabiting what a reader of canonical Anglophone poetry might recognise as lyric. As Capildeo explains, ‘If this is lyric, lyric must rise as a spring which acknowledges sedimentation, an inspiration which knows it breathes in shared, polluted air, which sings its body of ‘you’ because its ‘I’ is treated as an ‘is not’ or a ‘they’’. The knock-on effect, of course, is that talking about the content of the work, its revolutionary substance, is deferred as the form it takes must be scrutinised, must first defend its right to claim lyric space. In other words, instead of getting bogged down in questions of whether this is poetry, ask why poetry needs to take such radical form.

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It’s noticeable how often the book returns to questions of belonging, of feeling at home either in one’s own skin or in the place one lives. In ‘Too Solid Flesh’ (from Hamlet’s soliloquy: ‘O, that this too too solid flesh would melt / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!’), the poet appears to be suffering from an acute bout of depression, one that connects homesickness (‘She four-thousand-miles-away-across-the-ocean hasn’t been herself lately’) with a feeling of physical disconnect:

‘I am feeling out of touch with my body: it feels like something I have been given to look after. When I bathe I feel that I am washing it, not that I am bathing’.’

The poem explores several scenarios in which it is not so much the poet’s inability to ‘acquire weight’ that is at fault, but the world itself fails to fill the gaps in the poet’s perception. A ghoulishly disfigured member of the displaced Arawak people appears in a dream, ‘her flesh no longer covered skull’: ‘‘I’m as solid as you are,’ she said loudly and tonguelessly. […] But I was alive, and she was not.’ As Sandeep Parmar explains, the scene complicates a simplistic power narrative, forcing both poet and reader to locate themselves in a much broader understanding of historical violence. On that note, it’s probably not coincidental that the next figure to beset the poet with social expectations is an ‘Armed Forces man’, someone sitting at the crossroads between social and gendered authority:

‘had the kindness to ignore the others at the dinner table, in order to explain to me how I might acquire density: essentially, I was the same as any woman, if we could put aside the intellect.’

Like many other figures in the scene, the Armed Forces man is partially disfigured in the poet’s (apparently) malfunctioning perception, ‘His head not only disappeared; it also came apart.’ This inability or refusal to acknowledge him as a full person has the effect of stripping him of his surety, his unquestionable authority: it’s certainly grotesque, but there’s also something funny about him taking on ‘the aspect of a pegged grapefruit of which one quarter had been eaten’. The poem also encounters a half-faced literary agent, advising the poet to sell the mangoes, coconuts, yams, rum and ‘a grain of salt’ that fall magically out of her books. Selling images of her assumed Caribbean identity are figured as the only business-friendly means of acquiring literary weight, in a world where women in academic posts:

‘trundle towards the apex of a career, wild for the literature that has been written, for no more need be written, for literature is the province of the dead, and how can I have something to add to it?’

Again, the poet’s capacity to enact significant change, to assert her right to shape her own identity and narrative are circumscribed by the norms of literary culture, which will only let her participate with colonial strings attached, and academic culture, which in its over-emphasis on traditional anglophone literature excludes counter-canonical thinking by design. If it all sounds heavy and worthy in summary, the experience of reading the poem is one of following a sharp and wise observer through a series of experiences so ludicrous that comedy almost feels like a coping strategy as much as a literary one. The sequence’s penultimate tableau is a near-fatal attempt to acquire Tamiflu from a wilfully obstructive health bureaucracy that leaves the ailing poet a ‘childless, no-news nowherian’. And yet it finds something hopeful in ‘An older woman’s voice whispers disapproval in my ear’:

If you see the pictures like Auntie Sati had […] we never covered ourselves up. Covering ourselves up, that is a new thing. Maybe it is a Mulsim thing, maybe it is a Western thing. […] I do not know whether what the older voice says is true.’

Given the emphasis in ‘Too Solid Flesh’ on distorted perceptions of reality, it’s possible that the poet’s final scepticism is redundant – how much of any of this is ‘true’? Yet the reminder that behavioural norms are arbitrary, relative, and subject to change permits a note of real hope, so that even the subtly comic wordplay in:

‘‘Black,’ my mother says darkly, ‘is a colour of joy.’ Kali is black. Black contains all the colours; it is the ultimate colour.’

also contains sincere optimism, a reassertion of a meaning that runs contrary to the (Western) norm. The poem’s last word, ‘This has been thought for you’, makes me want to punch the air.

3 JP

In the title poem, ‘Five Measures of Expatriation’, Capildeo examines how language itself conspires in racism, how the words ‘Expatriate. / Exile. / Migrant. / Refugee’ are applied to different bodies with different political goals in mind. As Sophie Collins notes in her review in Poetry Review, ‘colonial forces behind national languages are foregrounded throughout, the pervasive myth of an essential ‘mother tongue’ debunked’. In this poem, Capildeo contrasts the arbitrary, artificially fixed boundaries of political entities with the living realm of language:

‘Language is my home. It is alive other than in speech. It is beyond a thing to be carried with me. […] Language seems capable of girding the oceanic earth, like the world-serpent of Norse legend. […] Yet thought is not bounded by language. At least, my experience of thinking does not appear so bound.’

The collection is full of such moments of rhetorical power, in which Capildeo demonstrates an excellent ear for rhythm, for the impassioned and genuine, something like an intellectual call to arms. More often than not, however, such moments are immediately deflated by the mundane or ridiculous, as the impulse to keep a sense of proportion does its work. In ‘Five Measures…’, the next words are the children’s-book-like ‘One day I lost the words wall and floor’, though even these are shot through with the will to overwrite meaningless boundaries, ‘There seemed no reason to conceive of a division’ (noting that the Trinidadian response to the formation of Pakistan referenced in ‘And Also / No Join / Like’ also operated on ‘the lines of what had not been a division’; the linguistic and the political are continuous). Capildeo is extremely careful to never let the messiness of reality be erased for the sake of political cleanliness.

3 JP

As Amanda Merritt notes, that same messiness occasionally looks more like plain confusion, and there are certainly times in Measures of Expatriation where I found the poems’ rejection of conventional syntax or deep etymological punning a little too dense to follow. However, where these strategies hit their mark, the book rewards the necessary close readings, including the wonderful ‘Un Furl’, which might be the most heartfelt language-love-poem I’ve ever read, which begins:

‘Any love
meant as equal
is momentary
momentarily unequal
is equal
if love
reckons time
knows not equals’

Given the collection this poem appears in, the sincerity of the quest to formulate a working and positive definition of a healthy romantic partnership is an absolute sucker punch. If any sticklers for formal convention were to read the book’s dreamy and powerful short stories (which Collins beautifully names ‘itinerant prose pieces’) and ask where the poetry is, where, ultimately, is the lyrical work for which all this unlineated writing is trying to create space, one may point right here. It’s a green shoot in a desert, it’s the feathers on the book’s cover flying again. This may be a thoroughly polyanna reading of a collection that is under no illusions about exactly what kind of world it lives in, or about the structures that hold its worst offenses in place. There’s something deeply heartening, however, in the fact that a full half of the book’s poems are dedicated to friends and peers (if Shakespeare’s ‘Weyward Sisters’ count), asserting a community, a federation of individuals where a white-centric culture would see an undifferentiated ‘they’. Measures of Expatriation has an unshakeable grip on what anchors the poet to her humanity in spite of constant dehumanisation.

This is not an easy book by any reckoning; it is long and densely written, it often leaves the reader without footholds and deviates from recognisable tradition. Parmar argues that ‘Capildeo’s integrity and intelligence put her several steps ahead of publishers, academics and critics who might foolishly marginalise her work in Britain’, and I’m pretty darned excited by the idea that this book could open new possibilities in terms of how we read poetry, and what mainstream poetry is capable of discussing. That means pushing readers out of our comfort zone, asking important questions about how such comfort is constructed, who it benefits and who it excludes, questioning the morality of what we (by ‘we’ I mean particularly privileged readers like myself) take for granted every day. I can’t think of a better definition for the work of poetry.

Tl;dr: if you like to have your assumptions challenged, if you enjoy sharing the ideas of a deeply thoughtful, witty and principled writer, read this book.

Further Reading: Sandeep Parmar review, The Guardian.

Amanda Merritt review, London Magazine.

Sophie Collins review, Poetry Review (Summer 2016).

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