William Letford – Bevel

Statement of Prejudice: Extensive. I’ve met WL a couple of times and seen him perform another couple. He’s a tremendous performer, exerts more fruitful scrutiny on the vocal/aural composition of his work than almost any other poet I can think of, and has a rare talent for inspiring total unbroken attention from a live audience. I have great hopes for this book, particularly considering Michael Longley (my original poster-on-the-bedroom-wall poetry hero) said he regretted Bevel not making the TS Eliot cut (of which more later): “ Bevel was kind of word perfect – an extraordinary first book. I found it very refreshing and I think he’ll be a contender with his second book.” I choose to read between the lines and speculate that ML was thwarted by his fellow judges. Anyway.

3 PF

It also makes sense to say now that the coverage of Bevel in some quarters – our own Gutter magazine being a particularly egregious offender – has been frustrating to say the least. In every one I’ve read, the opening paragraphs make a screaming deal of Letford’s work as a roofer. Which would be all well/good, but it almost always appears instead of the column inches that should be discussing his skill as a writer and performer of poems (or not, there’s no obligation to enjoy his work, we’re talking critical/emotional engagement here), and the condescending and reductive implications bubbling below the surface (“Gordon Bennett! A workman who can write! How splendid”) are insulting to the time and effort Letford has obviously invested in his work, and degrading to the publications who print them. Letford may have hammered some nails in his time, but we should no sooner privilege that work over his poetry than we should discuss the crop yields on the Heaney farm, or the inpatients at Carlos Williams’ clinic. We should be better than this.

Also also: I have seen some of the poems in this book performed live, and where appropriate will be discussing them both in terms of their publication and performance, as it would be daft not to.

Reality:

A poem

Is an object made from language

A poem
Should pass from fire to fire – from chest to chest

A poem
does not belong to the poet

Make no mistake, WL knows what his work’s about. And while Bevel has the rough edges and occasional so-so-ness of many first collections, there’s so much generosity, so much unselfconsciously given over to the reader, such loyalty to both the life of the senses and life in community, it’s difficult not to love.

Alright, let’s calm down for a second. WL seems heavily influenced by Tom Leonard and Edwin Morgan, and while their voices sometimes get in the way, WL has plenty to add to their vocabularies, not least the controlled panic of the avifauna in “Thurs hunnurs a burds oan the roofs”, wherein: ‘we’re no dodos we kin fly forget aboot the fields Frank look it the sky’. WL employs a very Morganian strategy of making an ostensibly silly and aurally pleasing surface to smuggle in a much deeper engagement with a discussion that animates the entire collection, of which more in the next para. On another day I’d posit that the closing line’s addressee ‘Frank’ is none other than New York gadabout O’Hara, but ochone today just isn’t that day. Here’s the poem in action though. You tell me.

“Wit is it” is another piece that confronts, less directly but no less powerfully than “A poem”, the book’s central concerns. [Also a piece to bait the less engaged reviewer into bloviating upon the nobility of manual labour, but we know better.] In it, a series of specialised workmen use their trades as a means of understanding the world: ‘The stonemason sade it’s aw in yur heed / Yur eyes ur like windeez an yur brain’s gon naywhere / build yourself a palace’. Each stanza is a witty piece by itself (‘A looked it the gaffer. Work hard, he sade / bit that wiz his answer fur ivrythin’), but the cumulative effect is nothing short of (though certainly not restricted to) a highly complex creative philosophy: that the art we make is, essentially, not our own; not only does it depend upon the successes and failures of countless others that went before us, but also the presence of our peers to read/hear it, and without a deep concern for both of these factors, we’re lost. At this point we should probably take a cold shower lest we forget that Bevel is, at heart, a sincere celebration of the sensory world, its struggles, complications, losses and small redemptions, the palaces we build behind our eyes.

Yeesh. Look what you’re doing to me, Bevel. This is a respectable establishment for godsakes. Throughout the book are a series of short prose pieces, in which the brusque, punchy tempo of the lyrics are replaced by something slower and more contemplative. A short prayer to the copyright gods that I may quote in full “In the mountains of northern Italy”:

‘The chapel on the hill has no roof. For five hundred years its four walls have framed the universe. The locals laugh at the Sistine Chapel and call it the coffin lid.’

Look at that! Just look at how much is packed into those three short sentences by way of the piece’s engagement with the book’s recurring themes: the spiritual primacy of the observable universe, the idea that art belongs to the world, the community that keeps it alive, and that’s before we examine the tight sonic architecture. These are simple but big ideas, and worth considering at length. See also “Winter in the world”:

‘The old lady struggles, footsteps careful, leaving shuffle marks in the snow. No shopping bag, so maybe it’s church, and maybe not. Perhaps she is out for walk, because she can, and the night is spare, and she is undiminished and harder than bone.’

That grabs me something fierce. I can’t remember the last time a book held so complex a tension between the desire (explicitly stated on several occasions, like the excellent “[T-shirt wrapped around my head]” or the cantankerous “Newsflash”) for death-defying immortality and the desire to observe and document the actual waking world. WL seems to understand implicitly that if art really is the key to surviving one’s body, it cannot be done alone.

Elsewhere, “The light and dark of Adeona” and “No distractions” deserve a shoutout, there are some beautiful little formal touches like the two one-sentence-per-page series that pop up unexpectedly and act as little haiku-y interludes, and a couple of charming set pieces like “It’s aboot the labour” and “Sex poem number 1”:

‘aye       right       okay      right right            okay’

On the neg side, a couple of the travelogue poems are a little meh, and while there’s the occasional feeling that the poems’ gender politics lean toward the conservative, WL still ends up safely on the positive side of a great many of his peers, who shall remain nameless. On the topic of those peers, how this book was left out of a list that included Sean Borodale’s self-obsessed debut is beyond me. Bevel is a challenging book with a more coherent socio-political philosophy than anything on the shortlist, and its omission is a black mark to both the Poetry Book Society and the TSE judges.

Tl;dr: Bevel is an important book as much as it is a great debut for an exciting writer. It provides an unusually frank point of entry to the world, a wit and charm about society at large, and a mind actively engaged in the question of what the heck it is we’re doing with this whole art thing in the first place. Read it slower than you think you should.

PS: I know I said I’d write about the performance, but there was too much to go on as it was. I hope the included videos speak for themselves.