Jay Bernard – The Red and Yellow Nothing

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

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

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

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

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

The first lines are not words but punctuation:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading: 

Jay Bernard – Breaking Ground – Speaking Volumes

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

Medieval POC tumblr

Review by Theophilus Kwek – The London Magazine

Review by Fiona Moore – Sabotage Reviews

Review by Emma Lee – London Grip

OPOI by Helena Nelson – Sphinx Review

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


Jack Underwood – Happiness

Jack Underwood – Happiness

Full Disclosure: None. Haven’t met him or seen him read.

Review: Happiness is Underwood’s first collection, published a full eight years after he was awarded an Eric Gregory, and has already been compared to work from other talented poets of a similar poetic generation. There may be some surface justification here: on a first read, Happiness seems to operate in a fairly familiar tone, a kind of archly ironic, sharp-witted and self-deprecating voice acting more or less helplessly in the face of the world’s evils. And while Happiness doesn’t aspire to any direct assault on the bastions of neoliberal British society, there is a kind of concerted worrying around the seams of what that society considers ‘acceptable’ or ‘normal’; the book seems almost obsessively concerned with the terms and conditions bound up in the el dorado emotional state of the book’s title. What is the cost of happiness? What does it look like? What’s with all the Fibonacci numbers? (More on that later.)

For background reading, Underwood’s address to James Allen’s Girls’ School gives a very clear indication of the poet’s basic principles, namely a kind of faith in poetry’s ability to forge new systems of value separate from that of the society that hosts it, a call to challenge and redefine what matters. A recent review of Michael Donaghy’s work in Poetry Review illuminates his own critical lens as much as the poems under scrutiny. Here, Underwood highlights Donaghy-as-trickster, a charming Marvellian rake/ringmaster:

‘Donaghy’s poems show off openly – ta-dah! “My people were magicians”, says the speaker of ‘The Excuse’: the artifice, the owning of the stagecraft is part of the appeal.’

In Happiness, Underwood too ‘tends to keep the immediate subject of a poem, and the logic of its enquiries, open and clear’. The poems often draw attention to their own theatricality (what Underwood refers to as a ‘campy note’), the falseness of the surface meaning/feeling that still hints at a frustrated or reticent sincerity working underneath; it’s in the gaps between what is said and what is left to the reader to decipher that the book does its best and most discomfiting work.


On a first read, several of these pretty fascinating set pieces, particularly the list poems ‘Some Gods’ (‘God with eagle’s head and five-pointed-star insignia on palms of hands; God connected to seven IV drips with fire coming out of mouth’), ‘Accidental Narratives’ (‘A crab on the phone box floor; the armless mannequin on the chapel roof at dawn’) and ‘She loves you like’ (‘She loves you like your hair smells proteinous; she loves you like pausing to move a snail somewhere safer in the rain’) seem kinda like ostentatious poetic exercises. The book makes repeated use of this disjunctive trope, comparing one thing with an off-kilter other: ‘we’ll notice we’re singing the way you notice / a police car pulling up the drive’ (‘You Are Definitely Coming, So Why Not Now?’). One could argue this fascination comes with being pretty bloody good at it. But I think it comes back to Underwood’s conscious drive towards the performative, the belief that poetry is primarily (by no means solely) an act of entertainment, that the hard work that makes a magic trick look effortless is also a powerfully generous gesture.

This direct address is a key aspect of Happiness. Though as a whole the book is weird and sad and deeply personal, retrospectively the opening poems look purposefully normal, a conscious effort to establish some common ground with the reader. [Side note: this common ground is not a context-free space, and yes, in Happiness it is thoroughly coded as middle class, with markers like hockey, cricket, English Literature students and an extensive list of fresh produce. A more politically minded critic might point out the worlds of these poems focus far more on the individual than on wider social systems, or indeed that this is the default focus of most contemporary poetry, to the extent it seems faintly ridiculous to point out that one book or another seems light on social consciousness. But that’s criticism of the context in which Happiness finds itself, and not Happiness.] So when ‘A man is dragging a dead dog’ turns its focus on you, the reader, the sudden implication in the poem’s pocket nightmare is disconcerting:

‘And since you already have a street in mind and perhaps a breed of dog […]
Why not try
to understand this thing you are doing: how the dog came to be dead
and you came to be dragging it, what this means to you and where it is
that you are going?’

It’s a near-identical movement to Heaney’s ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ (‘Since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow, / Imagine being Kevin’), but with the graphic awfulness of its inexplicable act delivered with academic specificity. It almost sounds like a creative writing brief. ‘Why not try to understand?’, meanwhile, is kind of a key thought for the collection.

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Where Happiness does encounter broader social trends is in its handling of masculinity, in ‘The Bomb’ and ‘If guns’ in particular. The former has its speaker sitting naked astride a huge bomb, like Major Kong in Dr Strangelove:

‘I felt proud of the bomb, scared and a little sexy.
I don’t think I’m a bad person when I admit
I lent down and touched my face against it.’

It’s a grim wee poem, and could be read as a fairly straightforward parodying/playing out of a fragile kind of masculinity that locates safety, affection and sexual power in military-level violence. It’s significant, I think, that neither poem figures the victim(s) of either weapon; for the fantasy to be effective, the fantasiser must maintain the moral right to wield their power (witness the growing phenomenon of white male victim complexes). Compare with ‘If guns’:

‘[if guns] were more popular in our culture
I’d be attracted to people who had guns the same way
I am attracted to people I suspect don’t like me. […]

I’d watch them slide out the clip and droop the gun
to me like a kneeling horse. I’d look in its hole,
blow my cheeks. Thank you, I’d say. Thank you.’

I think these poems add up to a deep mistrust for unchecked accumulations of power, which when fed through Happiness’ imaginative lens becomes this craven kowtowing – even the horse acquiesces. The book is full of speakers in various states of personal powerlessness, insecure and constantly on the verge of emotional collapse. Take ‘The Ashes’, a pretty great longer poem that weaves in between a speaker doing chores at home, listening to cricket on the radio and the encroaching awareness of their own mortality. Also in this category is the fantastic ‘Caboose’, in which the speaker is trapped in the eponymous vehicle with only a grim-reaperish figure for company: ‘The driver’s hands sweat black juice and I never / see him eat. […] He refuses / to learn my name.’ The poem runs from one disjunctive thought to the next, the sense of urgency and anxiety building to the last line, a faintly pleading ‘there’s nothing / else to read on here unless you like letters home.’ These Kafka-ish moments seem to be leavened only by reference to immediately proximate loved ones or to the formal organisation of poetic artifice (and even this through a fairly sturdy layer of irony). The other poets in the book – Akhmatova, Mascha Kaléko, a rather hammed-up version of John Donne (‘I’m not sure I remember what we did / before we LOVED’) – themselves seem in thrall to forces beyond their control, writing love poems against the darkness.

It’s to this last detail that I think the book’s mulling over on happiness, security and anxiety comes round: what exactly is home under these conditions, particularly when the domestic space is itself such a source of fear? And okay, now I’m gunna discuss Fibonacci sequences, which for the novices among you goes 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89 and so on. For reference, I don’t hold much stock in perfect ratios, numerology, what have you, but Underwood clearly does, or at least wants the reader to think so. The problem with discussing Fibonacci sequences in poetry of course, is that it makes the reader look like a conspiracy theorist, which is a pretty neat defence mechanism, but whatever. HERE ARE SOME OBJECTIVE FACTS ABOUT THE BOOK, HAPPINESS. I PROMISE IT WILL ULTIMATELY BE RELEVANT.

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In Paterson’s book on Donaghy, Smith, Paterson talks about how sonnets should really have an octet and a quintet, if they were to properly follow the golden mean, but this was largely squashed by Elizabethan superstitions about the number 13 (the fifth Fibonacci number and a general bad omen). Donaghy himself was obsessed with number games, and often inserted them into his work, including the poem ‘Where is it written that I must end here’, which resembles the ‘demon traps’ written by medieval scribes in its coiling around to vanishing point, structured around a Fibonacci sequence (more on this shortly). Happiness itself contains a half-dozen 13-liners: ‘∞’, ‘Second’, ‘The Good Morrow’, ‘Canto XIII’ (of course), ‘I promise when I lift your egg’ and ‘Accidental Narratives’.

As indicated by the opening poem, the book is in some ways a mirror image, with two perfect halves. The first poem is answered by the 41st; the perfect halves of the onion (‘Certain’) turn into a bird grotesquely dismembered by a fighter jet (‘Thank You for Your Email’). The eighth (Fib #5) is answered by the 34th (Fib #9); the many aspects of an unnamed god (‘Some Gods’) reflect the single, constantly changing and grotesque body of the devil (‘Wilderbeast’).

This means the middle poem, ’13 Say’ is the twenty-first poem (Fib #8). Its ostensible occasion is the death of Neil Armstrong, in which ‘you’ say:

‘Of the 89 comments on the article, 13 say “he’s on
the moon, now”! Why would he be on the moon? It’s absurd!’

89: Fib #11. And the poem goes on to do precisely that, putting various dead people on the moon, to:

‘a quiet place, out of reach and strange,
with a hard wind that rushes through: a rolling headstone
that requires a giant leap, and a sad and happy lie, to get to.’

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After all that, I think there’s some evidence to suggest that Happiness revolves around precisely this ‘sad and happy lie’, the illusion of safety, and the questionable, even harmful, happiness it brings. In the second poem called ‘∞’, Underwood describes the state of the dead:

‘how fear for them is a wrong
number calling, how we needn’t lead them
through the cordon in red blankets,
how fixed and safe they are.’

I think this big, supremely weird structure Underwood has produced is itself a pretty powerful acknowledgement of and fight against fear; it may be the entire book is his version of Donaghy’s demon trap, an attempt to keep himself and those he loves safe. But, as here, ‘safe’ itself is a word most commonly used in Donaghy’s work in reference to death. The closing lines of the book’s last poem are an unhappy mirror of the metaphorically flawless onion (‘calling one half Perfect / and the other half also Perfect.’), as the poem sweeps away all its artifice, all its fine work, and simply calls it what it (maybe) is: ‘the fearful and forgotten things I’ve lied to myself / about, and to my friends, and to my family.’ The safe lie gives way to the vulnerability of confronting something closer to the truth.

Happiness has some pretty marvellous individual poems, but it has been carefully put together, I think, to be a coherent unity. Given that, I think the poems are intended to be read as a continuing question, not ‘art’ vs ‘honesty’ but a tension held between the two. That it does so with charm, warmth and a determined attempt to build empathetic bridges is something quite special.

Tl;dr: I certainly had a lot of fun trying to get my head around the knotty philosophy of the book. The tone is a lot to get used to, and the blunt strangeness of the endeavour is ultimately quite demanding, but Happiness is a remarkable first collection in terms of its aesthetic unity and maturity, and well worth multiple reads.

Pascale Petit – Fauverie

Full Disclosure: I’ve written a review of Fauverie for the next edition of Poetry Wales, who provided a review copy. Thanks to editor Nia Davies for kindly giving the go-ahead to this piece. Content warning: discussions of sexual assault.

Review: I’d encourage any potential reader of Fauverie to look first at this interview with Prac Crit, in which Petit elaborates on some of the real life contexts for the book. It is a tough read, and Petit talks openly and frankly about rape, mental illness and abandonment. Similarly, Fauverie works partly in light of her 2001 collection The Zoo Father, if at all possible I’d also recommend reading the earlier book.

Though it too has its moments of tenderness, The Zoo Father seems in its most emotionally charged moments an angry book. In the first section its imaginative strength is employed in disempowering, making safe or actively harming the father in something like acts of retribution; these poems explicitly relate what the father has done to his family, and are difficult and painful to read. It’s an important collection, one I wish I’d read sooner. Fourteen years later, Fauverie – though it too openly confronts plain facts of violence and abuse – is at heart, I think, a book about finding peace. Though the organising details – the poet visiting her father on his deathbed in Paris – are the same, it does not so much re-write the story as examine it from different angles. The third poem in the collection, ‘Portrait of My Father as a Bird Fancier’, quite explicitly questions the morality of returning to a story, or of selecting another imaginative reality:

‘The one a nightingale serenades
just because he’s in pain – that’s
the father I choose, not the man
who thrusts red-hot prongs in their eyes
so their songs will carry for miles.’

The poem ends with this certainty undermined:

‘He does not make canaries trill so loud
that the tiny branches of their lungs
burst. I am sure of this, though I am just
an ounce in the fist of his hand.’

The poem sets out the risk being taken in this re-examination; the book gives the father a voice on several occasions, and at times permits a view of him not solely as the monster of The Zoo Father, but as an old man himself confronting death; though the potential even for a dying man to commit or denote violence is, as in these lines, rarely far from the surface. It is noticeable, for example, that the father’s pleasures, like ‘Pâté de Foie Gras’ or ‘Ortolan’, require the incarceration and torture of wild animals. This tension between the conscious pursuit of healing and the acknowledgement of lived reality animates the collection; the zoo animals of the title seem to enact this dissonance in their being at once beautiful wild creatures and shut away from their natural habitats and instincts.

As the back cover blurb notes, the ‘Fauves’ were ‘primitivist’ painters – of whom Matisse was considered a member – noted for their use of vivid, undoctored colours, for depositing paint straight from the tube to the canvas. The answer to the darkness in both Fauverie and The Zoo Father is a barely-contained richness in the poems’ vocabulary and imagery, which often comes across as an insistence on the perceiver’s survival and ability to perceive beauty in the world. The ‘Fauverie’ refers to the big cat house in the Jardin des Plantes; in the Prac Crit interview Petit talks about her time spent in the Amazon rainforest, and in Fauverie there seems a deeply felt identification with the native animals in the Parisian zoo. These poems seem to act as a kind of exhalation to counter the tension in those focused on her father; see ‘Blue-and-Gold Macaw Feather’:

‘I could paint a world
with this brush, these hues.

Is this how God felt as he drew
His colours across the void?’

and ‘Black Jaguar with Goat’:

‘What is innocence?
He is devouring his meal as trained.
What is worse –

to be the too-real prey
or the predator
without instinct?’

These take their time to follow a more recognisably logical train of thought – here is the physical object, here is the question the object provokes, however obliquely – and this ordinariness comes as a kind of relief, a re-alignment of the book’s magnetic north. These poems bookend the collection, and in the middle is an almost unrelenting quest (or series of quests) into the book’s subconscious; perhaps what is remarkable is that so many poems’ imaginative transformations are ultimately benign or restorative. ‘How to Hand-Feed Sparrows (Instructions to My Father)’ figures the father as a candle, melting away in its generous gesture:

‘Keep your hand steady, support it with
your other arm, until your flesh is stiff as wax
while other messengers of darkness and fire
fly down to taste your offering. […]
Let it burn down to the soles of your feet.’

In a similar vein is the superb ‘My Father’s Mirror’, in which the eponymous furniture ‘went walking / through the streets of Paris’, until:

‘The sun carried him as far as the bridge
then he lay down and became a puddle.

The snow, when it fell, was gentle,
the flakes gathering

like a sheet drawn over his face.’

These remind me of Heaney’s ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ and Longley’s ‘In Memoriam’ respectively, though that might just be me. There is something Longleyan in the poet’s ability to find peace or the peaceful image in the midst of suffering, though, for example at the close of the late poem, ‘Effigy’, in which the father has become an exhibit in the Musée du quai Branly:

‘This man is my father,
he speaks with the tenderness of flowers.’

I think that here is the crux of the collection. There are some powerful individual poems in the book, particularly the controlled rage and defiance of ‘Bullet Ants’, the nightmarish economy of ‘Blackbird’ and ‘Cellar’. But the basic unit is the entire book rather than its individual parts, and I think (perhaps optimistically?) that its narrative arc hits a nadir in the childhood cellar, with the imaginative interaction of child and adult poet:

‘She has been down there
with her father for fifty years.

I call her ‘she’
because she is the cellar ‘me’. […]

And she focuses there,
sends me out and up,

gargling run!
in her recurring dream.

She is the silence.
I am the scream.

and reaches to a peak at the close of the book in that reclamation of agency, that taking back of authorial power in ‘Effigy’, and the contemplative poems from the Fauverie that follow. The closing poem, ‘Emmanuel’ (both the name of the bell in Notre Dame cathedral and the Hebrew for ‘God is with us’) seems to support that theory in its ostensible belief in the efficacy of ritual washing and prayer, ‘Let all badness / be banished when he rings’. The final line of the poem and book is ‘I proclaimed peace after bloodshed’; for Fauverie to find this redress at a cost very clearly laid out in the body of the collection, this balancing of books where The Zoo Father perhaps did not, is a rather extraordinary gesture.

There’s little doubting that Fauverie is a difficult book, and some of its high-drama registers (‘My Father’s Wardrobe’, ‘Notre-Dame Father Speaks’) are challenging but necessary, I think, to establish its emotional disruptiveness and unevenness. Part of its communication is unworldly and grotesque, and the subject matter suits, if not necessitates, such a strategy. A useful touchstone here might be the Plath of ‘Jaguar’, perhaps elements of Olds’ The Father, as several poems feature a kind of fraught or compromised shift in the characters’ power balance which is subtle enough to be overlooked.  Fauverie, however, speaks in its own idiom and embraces and makes use of its own strangeness, and after a couple of reads it began to make sense to me, if that’s the right word.

Tl;dr: Fauverie is a difficult, painful but important book, and well worth the time and effort.

Alan Gillis – Scapegoat

Full Disclosure: Alan is my PhD supervisor. He’s taught me a heck of a lot of what I understand about poetry.

Review: The epigraph to Scapegoat is from Jeremiah, and is as optimistic as you’d expect: ‘The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved’; the poems that follow play out under the shadow of this failure. The book’s cast of characters (and Scapegoat’s dramatis personae goes deeper than most) undertake a series of failed quests, attempts to wrest meaning from a huge, cold, complex and shifting culture that sometimes actively wishes them harm, sometimes  appears to be purposefully rigged to manufacture the powerless fall guys of the collection’s title. What Scapegoat does so well so often is to weigh its transcendent moments against its clear-sighted, unsentimental, unpolemic excursions into neoliberal 2014.

The book’s first poem is ‘Zeitgeist’, which in spirit and vocabulary borrows from MacNeice’s 1934 ‘An Eclogue for Christmas’:

‘What will happen to us when the State takes down the manor wall
When there is no more private shooting or fishing, when the trees are all cut down
When face are all dials and cannot smile or frown’

in ‘Zeitgeist’ become the refrain ‘with no smile, no frown, / I call you down, I call you down’, while the question ‘what will happen to us?’ underwrites much of the book. What both poems convey is powerlessness in a mechanical society, the poet a misfitting cog gumming up the works. The poem toes a fine line between panoramic scene-setting and the peculiarities of an individual life, and ‘Zeitgeist’ acts something like the ninety-second intro sequences to HBO drama series, using particular aesthetic choices to suggest the pattern of meaning-making about to be taken up. Here, the wandering, unsure-footed observer, the rock/hard place of occupational solitude and claustrophobic herd-mentality, the fear of understanding nothing in a time when the internet provides ‘a room / for all things’, all figure large in an impressively long-sighted book. These ideas, along with a syntactical circularity that implies a constant dicing with meaninglessness, seem to animate Scapegoat’s recurring conflicts and unresolved questions.

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So far, it might seem, so heavy. But one of Scapegoat’s great strengths is leavening its ethical-philosophical dilemmas with humour, generosity and an invaluable willingness to make the speaker look ridiculous, to wear its authority light. The very next poem, ‘Instagrammatic’, makes a point about the basic untrustworthiness of both technology and our own sensoria to accurately capture the world. The poem concerns a photo that begs the question:

‘what chance
have words, if even in a photograph
from a Song Cyber-Shot DSC-RX 100
the living moment is caged, held off-stage?
All that we might see or say is half-wrong.’

What the poem provides is a kind of mock-romantic portrait of the narrator’s beloved, ‘ your ears are biscuits’, ‘your legs are identical twins, / your chin is a dove or, at least, you have a bar of Dove soap for a chin’. It is that rare thing, the poem that permits itself to be enjoyed as it recreates the narrator’s enjoyment; in this it enacts a kind of relational mutuality, in which both subject (being described, or poetically ‘read’) and speaker (being literally read) are both designated givers of pleasure. This mutual gain is echoed in the following poem, the powerfully understated elegy ‘The Hourglass’, in the departed’s advice to ‘‘Remember, take and give, give and take.’’

The book’s few moments of unqualified joy come via sensory overload, in which ‘the proposition there is no // fixed position / is now the only / fixed position’, as prompted by ‘Lunch Break on a Bright Day’:

‘for you can’t take in this one tree,

the bark-brown
rutty dark of its bole,
its thick arms
upholding aureoles,

flavescent weavings,
branches sprouting
out of branches,
sprigs and spangs spouting

into a four thousand-
fingered trick of light […]’

The poem eventually falls to the ‘the rust and the ashes and the dust’ of the workaday, but suggests that if hope is to be had, it might be in the indefatigable cycles of nature, these life- and pleasure-giving rituals in the following poem, ‘Spring’, ‘the here- / it-comes and there-it-goes of everything.’

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If hopelessness is to be had, it is almost certainly in personal abuses of power, society’s complex network of oppression and often sexualised cruelty. In ‘The Estate’, a woman has her personal space invaded on mass transit by a man eating Monster Munch, ‘he was like look here missus / this here’s a public bus’. The humour and ostensible harmlessness of the scene is complicated by the following section, in which

‘a boy show[s] his hard-on,
tracksuit bottoms pulled tight,
saying her tits were satellite
dishes, saying she burnt her ears on his thighs
with sullen eyes, sullen eyes, sullen eyes.’

Two events, one character. This dynamic is quickly learned in the schoolyard: ‘Kylie’s a dog. Tracey’s a whore. / Ben has Simone groaning for his ringtone.’ Aiding and abetting this gendered violence, meanwhile, is its economic counterpart:

‘You queue and queue
for the intimidation of a too-
tidy desk, swanky office gear,
the bulletproof screen crystal clear.
Hello I’m here to kill you,
please sign here, here and here.’

An essay could be written on Gillis’ repentends alone. The poem closes with a section worth reading in full:

‘Sigourney was down to her knickers and vest,
the alien about to spring, when the fucking doorbell rings.
No the repo, but the Green Party canvassing.
I said I like your manifesto, put it to the test.
Oh go for a while with no cash flow no tobacco no quid pro quo
no Giro no logo no demo no lotto no blow no go no go no go no no no.’

There’s a lot to unpack. There’s the scene from Alien in which Ripley, momentarily aligned with the poem’s sexualised victims, finally destroys one of sci fi’s most Freudian monsters; note also this section’s decision not to disclose the speaker’s gender. There’s the intrusion of the Green Party, which perhaps suggests that even well-intended politics are the domain of the respectable classes. And there’s the closing lines’ echo of MacNeice’s ‘Bagpipe Music’, ‘It’s no go the merrygoround, it’s no go the rickshaw, / All we want is a limousine and ticket for the peepshow’, its critique of both the market forces that hollowed out Hebridean communities and the hollowness of the alternatives. The following poem, ‘Bulletin from The Daily Mail’, is a balladish broadside against the paper’s cosy demonization of youth and poverty.


These poems lead into a series of (maybe, somewhat) autobiographical poems, episodes from adolescence in Newtownards and its surrounding hinterland. ‘Before What Will Come After’ and ‘A Further Definition of Memory’ in particular cast doubt on whether even fixed historical events are immutable; in the former the poet ‘can still feel my raw hands lose grip / of the shaking branch’, the latter posits that ‘Nothing of those times can be changed / although their connotations constantly change’. The past and present interfere in each other’s business. And again, these questions are posed by poems still rangy and various enough for lines like

‘Morning, when it comes, might snigger
the way Shonagh O’Dowd raised her finger
to McCandless, then split her smackers
at the sight of me in my undercrackers’

There’s context. The McCandless who debags the poet joins the UFF and eventually works as a driver for a ‘botched job / on Cliftonville Road’ in the poem ‘Scapegoat’ shares his surname with Chris McCandless, the enigmatic hero of the 1996 book and 2007 movie Into the Wild. Scapegoat’s McCandless is obliged to live by his wits on Scrabo Hill with nothing but a ‘bin bag of corned beef and baked beans’ while his colleagues ‘figure / how to handle the matter’. Like his historical counterpart, he suffers physical collapse; unlike the seeds that paralysed Chris McCandless, however, the mushrooms he eats in Scrabo Golf Club (implicitly) convince him he’ll be sacrificed like the stray dog he kills in a fit of psychosis. When they come for him with a gun and two shovels, he is as gone as Muldoon’s Brownlee, with only the slogan ‘No Surrender’ carved into an ash tree at the edge of Killynether, which, incredibly, is the real name of a real place. It’s a thoroughly odd poem that almost breaks the cycle of violence while suggesting it might be little more than a stay of execution. Again the following piece sheds light: ‘The Wake’ concerns the death of a local ‘Hard bastard’ who monetises his skill ‘teaching / what it means to police your back yard’ in ‘Kabul, or Mogadishu’. His son’s suicide, set in the poem alongside Bill’s spoken advice for shooting practice, hints again at an only partly broken cycle of murder passed from father to son, from UK to oil-producing, terrorised states; this pattern of violence moves almost seamlessly from the domestic to the socio-economic sphere, the powerful policing the powerless.1

Like McCandless, however, Scapegoat itself never quite surrenders to the void, and the book’s ultimate stoicism and good faith seem earned and genuine, bearing in mind that the eponymous ‘Scapegoat’ to an extent gets away with it and (maybe) starts a new life. It’s even possible to read Gillis’ own series of gentle, generous domestic poems (unsettling though some are, witness the ‘hazy form / in the mirror’ of ‘The Return’ asking ‘who are you again?’) as a counter to the familial disturbances elsewhere. The book’s last poem, ‘The Sweeping’, gainfully employs a raft of words doing double duty as both aural artefacts and carriers of semantic meaning, understood before defined. The poem’s baptismal rainstorm is a visceral event:

‘a glair and squelch
ooze and dreel
of curdled quags
gubbled and squinnied
in hinnying gallops’

that corroborates the book’s (I think) central message that life’s circularity (the closing lines’ ‘uprooted and reeling / yet circumfluent. / Good to go.’) have the potential to rejuvenate as much as stagnate. The poem is a more mature twin of ‘Lunch Break’ in its sensory exuberance and reclamation of responsibility, and above all else is a bloody joy to read aloud.

There is, as ever, plenty left to talk about, not least the book’s idiosyncratic vocabulary, its syntactical gymnastics, its ability to convincingly inhabit its personae, its ability with the line-break punchline, the thematic significance of adolescent sexuality, or the gloriously bonkers ‘No. 8’, which might be the best single poem I’ve read all year. I sincerely hope there’s an audience for a book that seems to care little for social nicety.

Tl;dr: Scapegoat makes no compromises, and asks the reader to implicate themselves in some strange and unpalatable ideas, but the journey (or quest) is its own valuable reward. Wholeheartedly recommended.

Kate Tempest – Hold Your Own

Full Disclosure: Volunteered at her gig at the Bongo Club in Edinburgh, which was organised by Rally & Broad (Broad being my partner Rachel McCrum), and the Scottish Poetry Library (where I work Saturdays).

Review: It’s not vital for reading this review, but if you are going to read the collection, I highly recommend watching videos of Tempest’s performances (or going to see her live if at all possible); these poems sometimes deliver their meaning as much through intense or repeated sounds as the words that contain them (noticeably ‘aw’ – as in ‘core’ – which appears at several key moments). I don’t think it’s controversial to suggest that Tempest demands a different kind of reading from the PBS poets, or that to ask one’s audience to retune their ears is apostasy.

Hold Your Own is Tempest’s first full poetry collection, if you discount her self-published Everything Speaks in its Own Way and take Brand New Ancients as a single performance piece. The categories are encouragingly blurry. In any case unprecedented quantities of bumf have been written in the past couple of years – just google ‘kate tempest interview guardian’ for more exercises in poet-as-brand-narrative. All of which is a distraction from some seriously accomplished work.

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In a similar vein to Brand New Ancients, Hold Your Own takes structural cues from Greek myth. Here the story of Tiresias opens the book and provides its thematic template, following him from boyhood to womanhood to manhood to prophecy, a neat organising principle for a collection that at 107 pages at times feels unwieldy. ‘Tiresias’ brings myth into a modern setting, or rather blends the two so that snakes coupling in a forest can be found beside shopping trolleys and used prophylactics. But the setting is secondary to the substance, and Tempest’s version of the myth is certainly the first that I’ve read that fully explores the implications of suddenly and violently changing gender. Tiresias is forced to abandon their life twice and the poem quietly implies that these changes are by no means of equal difficulty. As a woman, Tiresias ‘learns to be small and discreet. / She learns to be thankful for all that she eats. / She learns how to smile / Without meaning an inch of it. / She learns how to swim in the stink / And not sink in it. / It’s as if this is all she has known.’ The reverse provides a quiet, comfortable life: ‘He’s found a lovely partner / And they’ve made a life together […] He’s started doing pottery. / He’s joined the local choir’. What’s striking in the poem is that Tiresias does not change much within their own person; the opening lines strongly suggest the boy Tiresias is already considered outwith accepted norms: ‘They’re always laughing, / The kids at the bus stop. / He tries to ignore them […] Hating himself’. Through the story’s phases, Tiresias’ basic character traits (openness, optimism, pragmatism) remain constant, what changes is how others interpret them. Becoming a man means middle class respectability; becoming a woman (or perhaps just losing male markers) means dropping out of society altogether. That one piece can carry such sharp analysis and the dramatic astuteness to have Lad Bants Zeus say ‘Mate … ah mate’ when Tiresias is divinely blinded is refreshing to no end.

One of Tempest’s great strengths is building this kind of nuanced (often far-reaching) idea by first grounding it in personal terms. The section ‘Childhood’ emphasises that the worst abuses of adulthood are learned early. The innocence of ‘I was so much older then, / I’m younger than that now’: ‘Collected things that we found on the ground. / Always the goalie. I never complained. / I told the stories; they did the sounds. / We painted potatoes whenever it rained’ quickly turns to self-policing in ‘School’ and ‘Bully’, and the blunt statement of inequality in ‘Thirteen’: ‘The boys have football and skate ramps. / They can ride BMX / and play basketball in the courts by the flats until midnight. / The girls have shame.’ These poems map out, plainly and credibly, how very basic abuses of power run in no small part through the collusion of those it oppresses. The boys in this section are barely visible, only ‘daring each other to jump higher and higher’ or, in ‘Sixteen’, ‘follow us to ask her why she’s with me’ and ‘grips the back of both our heads / and sticks his tongue into our mouths’.

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The collection offers no easy answers. In ‘The cypher’ Tempest’s skill with lyrics gains her social acceptance: ‘I move like the boys, / I talk like the boys, / but my words are my own’, ‘my soft arms are clasped, I’m embraced like a man’. The very next poem, ‘Age is a pervert. Youth is a fascist’, however, states in no uncertain terms the poet’s understanding of what masculinity means, and perhaps why the welcome in the previous poem can only be given to a ‘cypher’, a male-friendly stand-in. The latter piece identifies the male other-hatred that demands female self-hatred: ‘Youth […] stares at the sagging mouths of his elders / and feels utter disgust and it makes him annoyed. / Why aren’t they ashamed of themselves?’ Compare also the line ‘When he steps out onto the street, / everyone is speaking his language’ to almost any other poem in the book. For Tempest’s characters, acceptance is something hard-won and deeply compromised, an all-encompassing, generations-old negotiation; note the line at the end of ‘Bully’, regarding the title character’s relationship to her emotionally abused sidekick: ‘Their mothers had been friends since they were at school’. These problems are not peculiar to the present and they will not disappear without a fight.

Hold Your Own‘s moments of (mostly) uncomplicated optimism come in its love poems. Taken out of context in the collection, ‘On Clapton Pond at dawn’ is heavy on the schmaltz:

‘You told me I reminded you
of Venus when I smiled at you,
or angels that go flying through
the paintings in the quietest rooms
of galleries. Renaissance girls,
all soft curves and floating curls.
We sat there and the light shone through
the leaves and we admired the view.’

But Christ, you’d need a heart of stone. After the rest of the book, such a quiet, gentle moment feels completely earned and real above anything else, and given the complex emotional understanding of a great many other pieces this captured moment of simplicity is powerful in its purposeful omission of wider concerns. Elsewhere, ‘You eat me up and I like it’ is a love poem of sufficient intensity I didn’t notice it was a sestina til the third time I read it. This section has half a dozen poems to match Cavafy at his best, full of skin and blood and unfettered desire, and it’s been a long time since I’ve read poems that had the technical ability to match the urgency of its emotional expression; Tempest gets away with so much by the quality of her ear alone. When she writes in ‘The old dogs who fought so well’, ‘these yearsdead writers wrote whatever it was that made the blood run in your veins again, just for you’, it feels very much like reading her own ambitions. It’s an audacity so impressive you could almost forgive a poem that humours Bukowski.


This patience, however, frays slightly in the final section, ‘Blind Profit’. Where previously Tempest builds her arguments through credible psychological profiles and recognisable social settings, poems like ‘Ballad of a Hero’, ‘Progress’ and ‘Cruise Control’ sell their worthwhile subjects short with over-generalisation and heavy-handedness, the few instances where the universal ‘we’ feels loosely defined or unearned. It’s noticeable that even in this section the most powerful moments come when close-up trumps panorama; ‘The downside’ explores the daily implications of Tiresias’ power, ‘They asked me for the football scores / They asked me for the winning horse […] All I could see / in flickering, ultraviolet pixels // Were their great-grandchildren / ripped to pieces by the missiles’. The collection is hugely ambitious and has complete confidence in its own voice; I guess what’s really impressive is that so few poems come off second best. I’d be shocked (and disappointed) if this was Tempest’s last word on matters of government, however.

There’s still a hell of a lot to talk about in this book. Why the decision in ‘Tiresias’ to capitalise the first word in each line? Might the authority Tempest arrogates itself be problematic in a non-aesthetic sense? Why Greek myth? I’ve barely even touched on the poems’ rhythmic complexity, their ability to wrong-foot the reader and still come out dancing. Or their sense of humour, particularly in the distinctly Patersonian aphorisms in ‘These things I know’. Or how refreshing it is (in an interview with Charlie Rose) to hear a poet using the word ‘responsibility’ with regard to their work. In any case I hope Hold Your Own gets the attention it deserves, less personality-fixation in the national press (which more than a few times smacks of deep-set condescension) and more taking Tempest seriously as a writer.

Relatedly, I hope many more ‘performance’ poets (the distinction is, I think, ultimately academic) get national publication, though of course from a practical point of view, not everyone gets nominated for the Mercury. On the other other hand, Penned in the Margins is already doing great work on this front, and they have printed some of the most unusual and exciting work in recent years. Imagine Holly McNish going up for the Eliot, eh?

Tl;dr: It’s not perfect, but the quality of Hold Your Own far outweighs its few missteps, partly through the sheer pleasure of the noises it makes. Wholeheartedly recommended.

Vidyan Ravinthiran – Grun-tu-molani

Full Disclosure: This book was recommended to me by a pal before Forward came about. Nice to have a good reason to review it.

There are no videos of Ravinthiran’s poetry online. This has never happened before.

Review: The phrase ‘Grun-tu-molani’ is explained by the book’s epigraph, a passage from Saul Bellow’s 1959 novel Henderson the Rain King, and means ‘I want to live’. The context seems fairly complicated and tied up with western privilege and should probably be investigated by someone who has read the novel. Anyway, if we take Henderson’s excited, life-affirming outburst at face value, it largely matches the register of Ravinthiran’s first collection, a wild, unpretentious, occasionally misstepping but thoroughly pleasurable book.

Indeed, if Ravinthiran has a dramatic flaw™, it might be his drive to include everything, to speak quickly and incisively then move on. In several pieces, like ‘A Chair Addresses Jackie Chan’, ‘Fallout 3’ (a personal favourite), some excellent translations ‘from the Puranaru’ and the required-reading ‘The Zany White Poet (after Benjamin Zephaniah)’ (‘so liberated / from history’), this impulse for sounding out the odd and wonderful gives the collection a sense of urgency, a diary-style thought-recording that many poets attempt and few accomplish; in his acknowledgements Ravinthiran thanks Leontia Flynn for her editing, and the poets’ affinities are clear to see. Not all of these set pieces hit their marks, however. ‘The Lecture’, in which Ravinthiran figures his students as assorted birds – e.g. ‘the owl thought he knew better’ – feels a little condescending; the speaker is figured as human rather than (for instance) adult bird, and the closing line, ‘but it was time to fly. I threw the windows open,’ is a shade to the wrong side of patronising. Similarly, the ambitious ‘Anti-circ’ is a little unclear in its message. The title refers to being anti-circumcision (for which the poem suggests we read ‘anti-Semitic’), and begins with an epigraph from Nabokov, ‘we are vertebrates tipped at the head with a divine flame’. The poem itself is a series of responses to various writers, starting with Nabokov, who campaigned against anti-Semitism, ‘Once I cracked Lolita’s spine I found myself knee-deep in cheesecake / my not-quite-fist unclenched, disclosed a wet cluster of blackberries’, and finishing with John Updike (who Bellow once described as ‘an anti-Semitic pornographer’) and Enoch Powell:

Updike’s prose flaunted the revealed

cleanliness of a girl’s arse, its well-briefed sway up the stairs ahead;
and when I called up from the stacks Enoch Powell’s uncut First Poems

her skilled tongue agitated my thankfully intact frenulum.

The poem seems to run in two threads: each writer’s anti-Semitism and the reader’s pleasure; as the former intensifies the latter tends towards sexual exploitation, highlighting the sexual location of hatred in the poem’s title. The poem might well be drawing attention to the links between two kinds of oppression, but this remains in the subtext. I absolutely believe that ‘Anti-circ’ has nothing but good intentions, but the poem slightly muddles an issue of some gravity, and in its last lines falls into the trap of presenting rather than challenging oppression.

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The long poem, ‘Sigiriya’, is a much deeper and more complex quest into the roots of male power-hunger. Sigiriya, as the book’s notes explain, is a rock-fortress in central Sri Lanka, about a hundred miles from Colombo, which was once home to King Kasyapa, the poem’s main character, in the 5th century CE. Alternating between third- and first-person narrative, the poem relates the king’s homicidal megalomania, ‘Perhaps Sigiriya was no fortress […] but his try at a separate state, / a state of one, just one just man,’ his eventual overthrow by his brother and the rock’s contemporary status as tourist attraction. In Ravinthiran’s hands the story gains traction in its discussion of familial expectation and the search for home, albeit inflated to vainglorious proportions. The most impressive feature of the poem, one reflected throughout the collection, is the poet’s ability to manage its tone, to deploy the precisely humanising line that brings its heterogenous tendencies back to shared emotional ground. Hence Kasyapa’s acceptance that ‘When I went down to fight from my red rock, I could have been Wilde, / finding it harder and harder to live up to his blue china.’ The poem’s final section, printed in italics to signal its divergence from the main plot, has an English archaeologist ‘discover’ the site in 1895, ‘led, he admits, / by a ‘brave Sinhalese lad’ // who had the nerve / to precede / the archaeologist.’ The cycle of imperial hierarchy starts again.


Another sequence, ‘Foreign Bodies’, explores the poet’s own family history, telling the stories of ‘Rajes’, ‘Kuthimama’, himself and his parents. These poems thoughtfully relate the violence and injustice that each family member has experienced: Rajes’ suicide amongst talk of her ‘adulterous body’; Kuthimama’s life as a doctor in Trinco, where ‘they said he stitched up men he should have turned away’; as the poet reads a letter rejecting his poetry as ‘just another ethnic ort’, he notices racist graffiti on the bathroom wall, graffiti which he in turn admires for its ‘craftsmanship, / painstaking, light-years beyond your token / swastika in wobbly biro or felt-tip… / Yes, how I relished each letter of rejection!’ The poem’s closing section has a beautifully conceived vision of the poet’s mother being ‘driven through every council estate the BNP // exploits, speak, love-fluskering, to the people / from your own Pope-mobile,’ a figure of pure, innocent positivity:

when you first came to this country
the snow you’d never seen before went on for weeks.
As kids gurn at sprouts, you must have gawped with joy
at that strange white – till your face got fixed that way.

Not for the first time in Grun-tu-molani, rejection is countered with acceptance.


Few of Ravinthiran’s symbols appear more than once, and snow is perhaps the most obvious. The poem ‘Snow’ (a significant title for Flynn and MacNeice fans, and MacNeice’s poem is at the heart of this one) is a stunning piece of imaginative acrobatics, connecting snow’s mutable nature to the importance of emotional sensitivity and flexibility: ‘Sure the anchors call it treacherous / but I’ve met it down dark alleys all my life’, ‘The difference between snow and water is / the difference between dialectic and a kiss, / between a birth certificate and spare change’, ‘white shapes of breath that want, like the smoke / from a cigarette, or the super-slow-mo ripples / of a cube of gelatine bounced off tile, to be / the drapes and folds of statuary’. Wow. ‘Snow’ conveys its meaning but is not easily explained, and, in its demonstration of what a writer engrossed in and given over to their symbol can do, is one of the collection’s great pleasures, and this poem might well be at the heart of the collection’s understanding of the world. careful and various and too much to be simply comprehended; the book’s success comes from its productive engagement with the attempt.

Tl;dr: Grun-tu-molani reveals more of its odd, bold and generous perspectives with each reading. Though some of its poems don’t quite offer up their ideas or fumble the attempt, the collection is full of energy, wit and sensitivity, and is very much worth reading.

Hannah Silva – Forms of Protest

Full disclosure: Have seen Silva perform live once. She was pretty great!

Review: Silva’s poems are unlike anything I’ve read. As the video above (and this podcast, absolutely required listening) demonstrate, Silva’s physical voice is central to her aesthetic, removing it a huge risk; the formal aspect of the work is an integral part of the complicated and angry messages that the poems present. Her background in music, theatre and sound poetry inform Forms of Protest from the foundations up, and that the poems’ technical intricacy and often dispassionate removes are transferable to the page at all is a remarkable achievement. That so many successfully convey their political anger and emotional precision is a large part of what makes Forms of Protest a valuable book.

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The poems themselves are remarkable for the relative absence of the poetic ego. Only one poem, a startlingly frank snapshot of adolescent life at a boarding school in ‘School of Music’, has anything that could be reasonably identified as autobiographical, which seems like a forceful statement in itself. Here, Silva connects her first sexual experiences with an early understanding of how performance becomes reality, or constructs versions of the self:

Her sex didn’t speak to me, but it didn’t hurt;
it didn’t give or take but at least it was easy.
Afterwards, I remember thinking –
man or woman, it doesn’t matter, but there has to be love.

Placed alongside the more dynamic analyses of public language, ‘School of Music’ is far more conventional a poem, lyrical-minded and intimately anecdotal. But the poem has a major role to play in the collection’s drama, asserting the poet’s basic faith in the sanctity our most personal relationships. Though this poem’s long lines might feel baggy and a little insubstantial, their casual directness is a concerted departure from the book’s norms; without it, there would be little to suggest that the book’s attacks on political mealy-mouthing or the commodification of women’s bodies was built on an essential hopefulness that it might change for the better. We might fruitfully compare Silva’s approach to teenage sexual awakening to Keston Sutherland’s, another political-minded avant garde poet; Silva’s story is no less about disappointing and unglamorous first encounters, but is far more generous to its actors, less willing to play the scene for shock value. In depicting a young woman taking control of her sexuality, Silva undermines the narratives of domination and exploitation presented in Odes to TL61P.


The book’s most powerful pieces often come from repurposing oppressive language, illuminating its most harmful aspects without manipulating much of the source matter. In ‘@Prosthetics’ (a powerful sound poem you can hear at around 3.30 on the linked podcast) the line ‘twenty percent of those with prosthetic / limbs will go back into war’ is placed alongside other quotes from a documentary on the subject, like ‘amputation is the first step / in rehabilitation’. The difference between the fragmented and traumatised audio version to the straight-talking text is noticeable, but that the finished product was allowed to go through such a dramatic change and retain its conviction is impressive. Similarly, the following poem, ‘Mannequin’, draws unsettling connections between the ‘breezy’, ‘Oh so perfect!’ register of fashion marketing and the poem’s violent dramatization of achieving its demands, ‘smile s s s split spill slip lip tears tears ears chic cheek’. In the poem’s closing line Silva shows her flair for the blunt force conclusion, for pushing the poem’s subtext back into the source text, ‘Headless mannequins are the ultimate choice for flexibility!’

Similar strategies are in play in ‘Tory Party Sonnet’: ‘There are some women, it is true, small numbers, / bright colours’, and the long sequence ‘Opposition’, which forms a kind of centrepiece in the collection. In it the rhetoric of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ speech in 2010 is performed in all its echolalic glory:

It’s great to be here in Liverpool
we’re happy about that.
I’ve been in Downing Street
it’s great to be here in Liverpool.
We’re happy about Downing Street
it’s great to be here in Liverpool.

The poem is high pastiche and sometimes leans towards the straightforwardly comic (‘My Big Passion / The Biggest Budget Deficit / My Big Idea / The Biggest Past Decade / Big Britains / Big Uglies’), but what keeps its edges sharp is the timely deployment of real, horse’s-mouth rhetoric, not least the iconic and devastating ‘Calm down dear’, which Silva gives its own section and might be the crux of the poem. The patronising remarks the Prime Minister made to MP Angela Eagle, then Shadow Secretary to the Treasury, are condescended to the Big Society at large, while the poem’s conclusion is a stark reminder that objections to this attitude might have no impact at all: ‘Yes, there will be objections / but you know what? / We’re happy about that.’ The smiling face of neoliberalism remains unmoved, an avuncular hair-ruffle to the wholesale hollowing out of democratic accountability.

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Among these are some beautiful elegies to Silva’s literary forebears, which could easily be overshadowed by the bolder-coloured pieces. ‘Le Momo’, for Surrealist Antonin Artaud, a rather beautifully expressed hope for the perfect, inclusive artistic experience tied to the perfect, inclusive death: ‘I wish to die holding my boots / following a session on a block of wood […] my daughters are watching, my friends / join in with an axe’. Please note, if you want to take a shortcut to the soft and squidgy part of my imagination, just write about wanting to hang out and make art with your friends. I’m a sucker for it. And ‘Le Momo’ hits that spot right between the eyes: ‘Over night we make a new language / then at the crossroads we are abandoned / by all possible human feeling.’ In a similar vein is ‘The Riverbank’, written for the feminist experimental poet/playwright Kathy Acker, who might well be one of the book’s patron spirits: ‘She didn’t know what it meant / when she walked through the city of the rich / and no one touched her, except physically.’ Again, the lyric elegy is the governing register, its closing line ‘You will leave behind an immensely human smell’ linking the book’s empathetic spine to its various political nerve clusters; how do you remain positive, particularly sex-positive, in a world that asks ‘What do you do with a slut?’ Much more quietly, but no less clear-sightedly, than other poems in the collection, ‘The Riverbank’ dramatises the narrowing of options for one who refuses to abide by social norms.

Tl; dr: And this is, I think, why I like Forms of Protest so much. It manages to explore its radical core, its steeping in radical theory and sense of technical adventure (though in a few pieces, like ‘Arvo crash’ and ‘Translations’, I struggled to rationalise the effort taken to understand with the relative simplicity of that understanding) while maintaining its lyric sensibility, its emotional receptivity, without which the book’s political anger might lose its force. These poems, too, are immensely human.

Rachael Boast – Pilgrim’s Flower

Full Disclosure: Think I met her once at the Poetry Library? I enjoyed Sidereal, and this book was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize, and here we are.

Review: Pilgrim’s Flower is about walking. It’s also about churches, self-image, romance and turn-of-the-18th-century poetry. On the face of it, the book uses some of the most conventional materials poetry has to offer, and at a glance Pilgrim’s Flower might seem like a common/garden Poetry Book, with its pastoral epiphanies and domestic intimacy; that was certainly my first (bluntest) response. Once I took the time to properly focus on the poems, to follow their logical trains and recursive, self-questioning quests, the collection opened up.. That Boast quietly and carefully turns these swans and chapels into a book that feels immediately relevant, a deeply personal interpretation of life in 2014, is downright astounding.

It’s the book’s sheer weirdness, its combination of imaginative difficulty with syntactical simplicity (and vice versa), that suggests there is more depth than is immediately apparent. The first poem, ‘The Place of Five Secrets’, based on a scene from Belle et la Bête, is kitschy and theatrical, full of ‘gilded hand-held object[s]’, the ‘key, mirror, / horse, glove, and the rose at the centre of it all,’ ‘until her love’s second sight revives him as he is, // and not as others see him’. In retrospect it’s remarkably brave to set a poem so ostensibly adolescent-sounding at the head of the collection, the poet as Beast (Boast?), the reader as Belle shown ‘every fine detail’ in hopes ‘the blind world and its lack of faith’ will see the truth for themselves, all the while instructed to ignore the poet’s ego, ‘ne faut pas regarder / dans mes yeux’: ‘don’t look me in the eyes’. The poem works as entry and re-entry point, gathering meaning as the reader understands more of the poems that follow, and fully accommodating second or third readings; In its reference to Cocteau’s film it joins up to the book’s last poem, ‘Desperate Meetings of Hermaphrodites’, in which the secrets become the ‘five / points of a star’, and ‘the dripping statue, from whose mouth / all this had come, is dressing up as you’. Creepy. The first appearance, suggests Boast, cannot be the authoritative one, and the pilgrimage the book undertakes – try counting the mentions of walking, paths, feet – is far more important than its destination.

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On that note, the sheer number of other poets who walk with Boast is striking – Ciaran Carson, Sappho, Coleridge, Rimbaud, Akhmatova, Jean Cocteau, not to mention the lessons learned from MacNeice (mirrors, rivers, astonishing syntactical gymnastics) and Longley (the chapel of the short poem) – and how seamlessly they blend into Pilgrim’s Flower’s aesthetic. The book also follows Edward Thomas’s ecocentric work; in ‘The Notebook’ Coleridge gets out of his ‘jaunting-car’ and walks, ‘staying true to your allegiance / to local epiphany until nature knew / her secrets would be safe with you,’ elsewhere, in ‘Homage’, the waves ‘tell me homage means going / back to the same place until it knows you’. Boast asserts that the fixed, commandeering ego is an unsuitable, even unwelcome, poetic explorer, and although the drama of the individual poems habitually focus on the Romantic solitary figure in nature, Pilgrim’s Flower brings so many historical loners on the journey it’s hard to feel terribly alone. Place this alongside the Thomas-y sequence ‘Anon’, in which

And here’s another school, under my feet. Not a ruin
or a page from history, but the old, near earth,
the world as mirror for what’s unseen.
We can’t see by walking up and down
what we’ve sown, what we’ve dropped
into the furrows of our years
and covered over: the world’s this mirror.

If I’m getting this right, the poem (rather obliquely) asserts that solitary work, the individual monument, is not enough by itself; the world beyond the individual must intervene, and indeed must be granted by nature itself in return for the time and close attention that Boast demonstrates she has given. Maybe. Besides that the book generates enough material discussing the inherent connections between poetic, physical and architectural form (witness the book’s thoroughly secular attitude to prayer, hymns and spiritual buildings), and the reciprocal relationship between body and environment, to keep us going for weeks. The sheer thematic focus, the interweaving of idea and execution, of these poems is deeply impressive, and trying to isolate individual instances of the book’s several deeply discussed concerns only illuminates others. Homework: plot the changing significance of swans in the book (bearing in mind that a female swan is a ‘pen’).


Maybe it’s worth focusing on the character the collection returns to more than any other, the 18th century poet Thomas Chatterton. Chatterton was a child prodigy from Bristol who grew up in the shadow of St Mary Redcliffe cathedral (which has its own long sequence in Pilgrim’s Flower), and who became so engrossed in his studies of Medieval poetry he decided to take on the persona Thomas Rowley, and passed off some of his own original work as authentic medieval documents he’d discovered. Chatterton failed to find a patron, suffered bouts of depression and took his own life at the age of seventeen. Boast focuses on the empowering nature of Chatterton’s self-construction, gives him an organic place in his environment by some beautiful lines connecting him to the cathedral, ‘your fate sealed into you like a nave / scrolling over a series of memorial stones / to a place-on-high; guises revealed not as forgeries / but the mutable self fluttering by candlelight.’ Chatterton is held up against the uncharitable and unforgivably earthbound Dr Johnson, ‘who got his backside / stuck up the winding stair of Mary Redcliffe, / playing critic to one he considered / and un-tutored provincial pauper’ in ‘The Charity of Thomas Rowley’. The periphery trumps the hub by subterfuge.

All of which might make Pilgrim’s Flower sound like a cold, calculated equation of a book, and certainly the preponderance of wan poets and lonely dales might make it sound like there’s not a whole lot of blood and guts in among the riddles. Dotted around the collection like well stocked bothys, however, are poems like ‘Aubade’, ‘After Sappho’ and ‘Redressing Marsyas’, in which the lyric is turned to a high heat and the rigid formal structure that props up the book is pushed to its limits. In this sense Pilgrim’s Flower makes better use of poetry’s formal restrictions than most in recent years, second only perhaps to Sinéad Morrissey’s Parallax. Almost every poem runs on a strict meter, and very few are encumbered by its demands. The sheer flexibility of tone and content Boast displays in the book’s basic four/five-beat line is as impressive as it’s unassuming, and well worth close study.

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Tl;dr: It’s been a long time that I’ve read a book thatstill seems full of possibility, full of unexplored meaning. Though I fully accept the possibility that dense, riddling poetry isn’t everyone’s particular cup of chai latte, it’s a superb example of a technique whose strategies are very much worth learning. Pilgrim’s Flower is, at its heart, generous, inclusive and affirmative, its human relationships weird, unglamorous and real, its propositions to the present no less important for their elusiveness. I suspect I’ll be reading this years from now.

Niall Campbell – Moontide

Full disclosure: Niall’s a pal. Hope you trust me to be impartial.

Review: Lately I re-read both Nathan Hamilton’s manifestroduction to Dear World and Everyone In It and Sam Riviere’s debut collection 81 Austerities, along with some criticism that came out at the time (see Peter Riley on Dear World, Alex Niven and Stephen Ross on 81 Austerities). Hamilton explicitly sets out to establish the new establishment, a few reviewers in the national dailies tripped sideways to do so on Riviere’s behalf, ‘hyperbolised out of existence’. Hamilton’s response to poetry-as-tradition posited that new uncomplicatedly equaled better, thus old should uncomplicatedly get out of the way; as Riley notes, however, Hamilton’s essay reiterates a process of artistic clearance that happens once every couple of decades, and is itself a fairly traditional gesture. 81 Austerities, on the other hand, doesn’t dispense with a Romantic approach to writing poetry as much as give it a new vocabulary; to that end the book is, perhaps Odes to TL61P aside, as idiosyncratic a collection as has appeared in recent years, and is due praise for its singular vision. Like Odes, however, it suffers from a lack of conceptual complexity and flexibility at its core, and many of its primary assumptions are wholly conventional – self as primary agent, women as prize/object/list of names, art as commerce, self as primary locus of meaning.

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I mention all this as a way of approaching a book which is openly and wholeheartedly wired into the lyric poetry tradition, and ably demonstrates the benefits of building on the achievements of poetic predecessors rather than painting them as traitors to the revolution. The presences of Frost, Heaney, Mahon, Paterson and Jamie are enabling and benign, less the Bloomian nightmare of Hamilton’s perpetual avant-garde, and Moontide is perhaps most comfortable when negotiating its place within this tradition, and some of the best individual pieces come from an ability to play with the tonal expectations it creates. ‘The Fraud’ comes at the crest of a series of poems (‘After the Creel Fleet’, ‘The Tear in the Sack’, ‘Black Water’) that gradually bring to the surface the book’s imaginative underworld, explicitly one that revolves around island ecology and the sea at night. Here’s ‘The Fraud’ (hope the copyright gods don’t mind):

How like a shepherd or herdsman of loss
I must have whistled out into the evening
that a childhood dog came cowering to my heel:
years under, its coat now wool-thick with soil
and loosely collared with the roots of bog-myrtle.

A surprise then my old companion strained
to sneak by me to the fire and my wife.
Checked by a boot, it bore not a dog’s teeth
but a long, black mouth. Then it slunk back to the hill.
Some nights I hear this thin dog claw the door.

The poem’s positioning in the collection, at the point where historical reality and metaphor blur for the first time, is very pleasingly weird, as is its utter refusal to provide emotional or aesthetic comfort, as in ‘Song’ or ‘When the Whales Beached’. Though Moontide’s opening poems are beautifully measured and conceptually well-crafted, it is ‘The Fraud’’s spot of chaos and fear that first demonstrates the book’s full dramatic range; it’s very rare to see a poem paint its (ostensibly) autobiographical speaker so powerlessly, to prioritise the poem’s own dramatic mechanisms over the speaker’s self-image. See also the wonderfully Gaiman-y ‘The House by the Sea, Eriskay’, almost a companion poem, in which ‘the drowned climb to land’, ‘drying out their lungs’, ‘wringing their hands / until the seawater floods across the floor’. Moontide’s horror poems are a little genre to themselves.

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And I think this is at the heart of Moontide’s endeavour. Few recent collections have such a facility with shaping the dramatic moment, of locating the crucial detail in its own conceit. This may be where Mahon’s influence bears the most fruit: Campbell shares that poet’s ability to turn the poem on its head in its closing phrases (as seen above), which occurs so often throughout the collection it’s almost easier to note where it doesn’t. This semantic restlessness is one of the collection’s major pleasures, one that rewards multiple readings and close attention.

While we’ve got Mahon on the phone, we should probably also look at Campbell’s concision. Few poems cross the page, which – combined with the well-judged brevity of the book at large, another rare treat – permits the kind of cumulative reading that is one of lyric poetry’s great weapons, the recurring chimes and echoes, that ability to say ‘not only but also’ across an entire book. ‘Window, Honley’ is a good example of this tendency to recycle and repurpose images introduced elsewhere, appropriately (or serendipitously) a poem about time: ‘The village bell’s been broken for a month, […] so I’ll ask what time matters anyway: / just light, less light, and dark; the going off / of milk or love; our tides claimed back: weed rafts, // green wood and all; those old wolves disappearing / from the bleak forest that we dream about’. It’s probably not a coincidence that a collection so deeply concerned with time’s passing is at pains not to waste the reader’s. And how’s this for a finish: ‘the marriage that // left confetti in the streets until the storm; / yesterday’s sweet unrust; a man with pen / at a lit window, that he’s long since left.’

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As ‘Aesthetics, on a Side Street off Glasgow Green’ notes, Campbell’s work ‘too, / stiffens with the influence of frost’, where for ‘frost’ read ‘Frost’, which I can’t help feeling is a wee breadcrumb for detective-critics like myself. It does illuminate that part of Campbell’s writing that reaches for the deep thought through common language, though, and makes very little fuss about the attempt. Of course, sneaking in a pointer towards a poet of Frost’s stature is its own kind of boldness, and you could argue that on occasion the consciously literary pieces fall flat; ‘Reading Émile Zola, Grez’, for example, questionably asks the reader to look at ‘girls in red tops sleeping on thick grass […] teasingly / disclosing tender shapes they would take on / in a double bed’. However ironically pitched, this brings little to the book’s conversation. Far more common, though, are Moontide’s imaginative and well-wrought lyric spaces, the small victories and evasion of easy conclusions.

Tl;dr: Moontide is a pretty great book, one that manages to keep its ingredients simple and its dishes complex. If there’s some atmospheric similarities to the patriarchs of Scottish poetry (Burnside, Robertson etc), they are largely undone by Campbell’s ability to speak directly and pragmatically about love, to mostly avoid those poets’ casual misogyny, and to consistently puncture or undermine the speaker’s authority. Moontide is a collection that rewards patience and generous reading.

Luke Wright – Mondeo Man

Statement of Prejudice: I’ve met Luke once, briefly, and seen him read a couple of times, I reckon having seen him read live will make reading him on paper a lot easier. He’s a talented performer with an admirable social conscience. Slightly suspicious of the Essex-lad branding, but that’s more about branding than Essex-lads.

Reality: Satirical poetry is bloody difficult. Satire is tricky enough, but trying to wrangle that tension between humour and moralism, deconstruction and revolution while juggling meter, rhyme, sense and music a few clicks shy of a Penn and Teller skit. Mondeo Man is by no means perfect, but as an example of a genre few poets bother approaching, and even fewer well, it’s an admirable tilt at some worthy windmills.

To get one gripe out of the way: the book is a little too long. There are a fair few topical ballads, and a couple either reiterate an argument better formed elsewhere (‘The Meek’), hit a low-hanging target (‘SCANDAL!’), struggle for dramatic tension (‘The Ballad of Chris and Anne’s Fish Bar’) or stick out tonally from the rest of the book (‘The Ballad of Raoul Moat’, which casts too grim a shadow over the book’s more careful touches). That said, I’d struggle to identify any further pieces not pulling their weight, and I fully recognise the basic risk involved in making a single poem occupy ten pages of a ninety-page book.

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That aside, there are few recent books more viscerally enjoyable than Mondeo Man. It manages to balance a gleeful play with the richness of language (see ‘Jean Claude Gendarme’, mon dieu) with a straight-faced and fundamentally optimistic social consciousness. In clumsier hands ‘The Drunk Train’ might have become patronising or woodenly empathetic; by moving through the poem from apparent distaste for ‘Tie Rack ties’, ‘peroxide Oompa Loompa girls’ and ‘Richard Hammond dreams’ the poem reaches (or reaches for) a kind of admiring, if not secretly envious complicity. The implicit acceptance that the full, de facto community (certainly of SE England, arguably of many UK urban centres) involves not just the ‘Guardian readers, theatre-goers’ who form Wright’s assumed audience (and how many poets acknowledge that, much less that there exist other people besides?) but also the young men and women (although mostly men, the poem’s perhaps unspoken reality, but one can only fit so much into ballad meter) singing and puking on public transport. And Wright makes a forceful bid to understand these social phenomena: ‘they’ll sing until they can’t’. As a manifesto piece, ‘The Drunk Train’ sets the tone and makes for a convincing summary of Mondeo Man’s agenda.

Even better, by placing this depiction of widespread social, and explicitly underclass disorder at the head of the book, Wright invites comparison between these small-scale disturbances and the Little England corruptions at the very top. What’s the real difference? What is doing more damage? Where does the power lie and what can be done about it? Wright does not punch down. The grimly and joyfully subversive ‘Ballad of Mr and Mrs P Cartwright’ sends up inheritance culture and the continuity between baby-boomers and their offspring, with (perhaps unnecessarily?) macabre results, while ‘The Rise and Fall of Dudley Livingstone’ paints a composite Conservative leader (nine-tenths Boris Johnson) undone by a sex scandal which contravenes unwritten rules about sexual conformity. Though it’s arguable that many poems make their argument more with a hammer than a scalpel, generically speaking it would be ludicrous to make it otherwise. Difficult to unpick unexamined cultural mores while going de-dum de-dum. I would argue that the sheer paucity of cultural criticism in contemporary poetry gives Wright an unusually long leash, and the accuracy with which he makes the formal constrictions work are impressive.

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It’s notable that for the most part even the smaller, quieter and more thoughtful pieces interspersing are shot through with this awareness of broader social pressures. ‘Stansted’ explores familial pride and estrangement with a rare degree of intimacy and generosity, the well-observed and private moments (‘the way he’d rest his hands on his stomach’) in fairly simple opposition to the pressures of social status (‘Yeah, well, my Dad… built Stansted Airport’). The poem’s dynamics are straightforward, but effective, particularly when placed alongside the ballad pieces. In fact, the collection is remarkable in the degree to which it engages and deflates its own performing ego; which is, perhaps, egotism by another name, but it is significant that Wright recognises performance as a major conceptual strand in his work, and one that feels all the richer for a simultaneously self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating piece like ‘Luke’s Got a Joke’. See also the remarkable ‘The Royal Wedding, 1947’; Wright’s social media followers will know his republicanism, yet he (at the very least professes) to put it aside for a baker’s daughter’s story of making a wedding cake. The tension between systemic hierarchy and genuinely felt affection for that hierarchy is not easily unwound, and the poem dramatizes it carefully.

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Also worth mentioning are Wright’s paeans to Suffolk (read: engagement in local community), ‘Thaxted’ and ‘Get Parochial’; ‘Weekend Dad’, which comes close to rivalling Holly McNish in painting parenthood in explicitly and (somewhat) defiantly social tones; and the thoroughly unusual ‘About a Minute’, perhaps the only piece that abandons dramatic unity, and is instead a series of short, unrelated tableaux taking place in ‘the time it took you/to tell me what I already know’, a world of experience that contextualises and (maybe?) soothes the unmentionable romantic failure.

Tl;dr: Though not necessarily unusual fare for the spoken word scene, Mondeo Man’s capacity to move freely between spoken word and printed page should not be underestimated, while the book’s social conscience, despite its occasional lapses into over-simplicity, is of uncommon centrality in contemporary poetry. It’s a quality book.