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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warsan Shire

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

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

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

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

Kayo Chingonyi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jay Bernard

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

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

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

And like starlings they veered right like thieves’ eyes’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Salt Book of Younger Poets – eds. Roddy Lumsden and Eloise Stonnborough

So to kick off, The Salt Book of Younger Poets is by no small margin the most exciting new book of poetry I’ve read in months. There’s a real feeling of variety, curiosity, ambition and openness here that was disappointingly lacking in Lumsden’s last anthology Identity Parade; where that felt loose and willing to lower the criteria for admission, The Salt Book maintains an impressively high standard. There are a few writers in here who already read like the finished article, and most are more suggestive and provocative (in the pleasing way) than many of our lauded prize-listers. For the sake of brevity I’ve picked out a handful who I consider worth bringing to your attention.

Dai George

[Brief intro: George is, as you’ve guessed, Welsh, has studied in Bristol and Columbia and lives in London. His first collection drops in 2013 with Seren. Listen to him read on Poetcasting.]

George’s four poems in the anthology are of an absurdly high standard. Here’s an extract from the opener, “New Translation”:

Thanks to the hacks that still insist
on fixing the smallest glitch in Luke,
the Lord’s prayer can be gamely glossed
at the tenth line. No more is sin a lake
we’re led to like bullocks on market day
but rather rum misadventure:
Save us – and here things get a little coy –
at the time of trial. So censure,
you will note, ceases to be the point.

Unf. Disregarding the fact that I’m a sucker for biblical references in poems, just listen to this thing. It sounds bloody great. It fits an energetic conversation with a delicate subject into a rhyme scheme I didn’t notice first time round and a meter that not once stutters through a series of not-uncomplicated sentences. The poem continues (and here I curse the name of copyright that makes me hesitate to reproduce it in full) into a Donaghyean (Donaghesque?) investigation of romantic temptation that acknowledges and incorporates all of its vital complexity without once appearing dry or distant. It’s a remarkable balancing act that resolves into something completely touching that only relinquishes its secrets at the third or fourth reading.

The other three poems I would be more than delighted to show to anyone who doubts the capacity for strict patterning to convey something moving, in both senses of the word. “Plans with the Unmet Wife” follows its conditional ‘Should we meet first in a market / somewhere equidistant from our lives’ with twelve lines of a developing romance to the satisfyingly earthy ‘how is this going to work?’, before another as-yet-unrealised domestic scene melts back to a depiction of the poet’s own very much completed childhood. The poem acts as a celebration/deflation of the poet-in-youth trope, balancing the writer’s own partial aggrandisement with the wholly uncertain vision of his future. And it sounds bloody lush.

I could go on. So I will, just a wee bit more. “Distraction During Evensong” ends with ‘wishful voices winding through the air / like the first snore of a bedmate, a misunderstanding.’ HOLY. LIVING. FUCK. Look me in the eye and tell me you aren’t a wee bit short of breath. Dai George is the most exciting poet in the book and one who gives me some hope for the future.

Jay Bernard

[Studied at Oriel College, Oxford and lives in London. Chapbook Your Sign is Cuckoo, Girl published by tall-lighthouse a couple years back, I have a copy if anyone wants to borrow it, it’s great. Currently poet in residence at the University of Singapore. Of course.]

Our friends up North (and I’m sure down South) know all about Bernard, who has performed at StAnza and the West Port Book Festival in recent years. If you didn’t watch her read in the above video, do so… now.

Great, right? One of the great things about catching wind of a writer early on is seeing their improvement over time – the three longish poems in The Salt Book are expansions and deepenings of themes that Bernard has been writing about for years, articulate confidences about love, loneliness, intimacy and life in one of the biggest cities on the planet. Particularly affecting is “Tuesday Morning”, which I at first took to be another fruit from the Poet’s Tree of Wahey I Had Sex Last Night but is in fact something far more interesting and 21st-century-Donne. Let’s listen:

I do not move, but something ebbs –
some small internal me wants to stretch
to their full height. They detach themselves,

unpeeling their skin from my inner limbs.
In the dark morning, lit with red stars
and Venus setting, they turn, they climb,

they wedge a foot in the groove of my groin
then vanish. They leave, gone, enjoined
with a cargo of my thoughts, all my lies, my lungs,

my regrets, my unadmitted wrongs; I’m left
hollow in the bed.

It’s no coincidence I’ve picked out a passage that rhymes: one of Bernard’s most satisfying improvements is in the sonic texture of her writing – not only in this end-rhymey poem but in all three pieces is there much greater attention paid to the demands of the poem as an orchestrated unit of sound. This is anything but chopped up prose.

AND I hasten to add it resonates like a fucker. The poem’s self-absorption is coupled with a vivid depiction of the speaker’s better self taking its leave, with the attendant disgust that perhaps only ‘someone who never stopped / to see what inward sign was blazing’ could possess. “11.16” and its relaxed, storytelling tone is the perfect vessel for one poet’s discovery of another in a dilapidated toilet stall that rings a very “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford” bell in its closing lines ‘Those figures of history / Who whisper “do something”’. The management of tone is pitch-perfect. Bernard is in serious danger of writing a book of poetry that every fucker in the country could love.

Laura Marsh

[Born in Bedfordshire, studied English at Christ Church, Oxford and works for a documentary film company. No word as yet on upcoming publications. Poetcasting]

Okay, after all that let’s calm down a wee bit. Marsh writes small, beautifully formed things, so let’s look at one in toto, “Mistakes in Closed Captioning”:

You’re the horse and I failed.
You will trample
a too-narrow hallway, not looking
where you are going, where the broken glass
is trodden into pheasant tracks by girls
with nicotine eyes, who set fire
to aerosol cans. Mud will splatter
your shins to theme music; on the A-road
I’m hurrying down, squinting, you will pause,
yourself again, as something I misread
returns to you.
You look worse than I feel.

Admittedly this has a little exerciseyness about it, but it’s a terrifically suggestive, lyrical piece. Her five short poems are elegantly composed (in both senses) and carry some of Hughes’ pagan bones-and-earth in their investigations of love, a philosophy summarised by the close of “Relics”: ‘We love with senseless nails and thick skin, / you say, till what a lock of hair undoes / we feel with the bones that will come to dust.’

Niall Campbell

[From South Uist, studied at Glasgow and St Andrews, won an Eric Gregory, has a pamphlet out very soon with Happenstance which I will be purchasing.]

Campbell’s another that StAnzaficionados will recognise. His work shows some of the generous close payment of attention that I liked best about Jarrell and Bishop, and if “The Apple” is a little too much in debt to Don Paterson we can excuse him for his excellent taste. Again, the gods of infringement will have to bite me, here’s “The Tear in the Sack”:

A nocturnal bird, say a nightjar,
cocking its head in the silence
of a few deflowering trees,
witnesses more than we do
the parallels.
Its twin perspective:
Seeing with one eye the sack-
grain spilt on the roadway dirt,
and with the other, the scattered stars,
their chance positioning in the dark.

What more is there to say? This is a fully realised unit of thought. Campbell conveys a mature sympathy for the presented object (a rope, a boat, an apple), a satisfying sense of disquiet and has a great ear to match: ‘I began to weight it / sure that if it was wax the few lost grams / of seeds and stones, would tell in the palm’. That ostensibly superfluous comma is certainly not. And it’s hard not to like “Hitching Lifts From Islanders,” with the line ‘“That’s one fucker of a fucker, eh?” he said.’

Inua Ellams

[Born in Nigeria, his second pamphlet, Candy Coated Unicorns and Converse All-Stars was published by Faber in December, and as of writing there are seven copies left on Amazon.]

First of all I think you should listen to the above video, and then his tracks on Poetcasting. He is an excellent reader, and I’d love to see him perform live. Here’s an extract from “GuerillaGardenWritingPoem”:

‘But more than seeds are sown here. You
can tell by his tender pat on tended patch;
the soft cuff to a boy’s head […]
The sky sways on the safe side of tipsy
and it’s altogether an alien time of half
life and hope, an after-fight of gentle fog
and city smog, where the debris of dew dips
to this narrative of progress, this city tale;
this story is my story; this vista my song.

I cluster in the quiet, stack against steel,
seek islands, hope, a pen to sow with.’

Ellams is probably the only writer in the book who successfully makes the sound of his writing overcome a thematic lightness, or actually make the sound of the poem his theme. Each of the three pieces is excellent in its own right, each has a very careful passion and emotional generosity that makes it very easy to get lost in their sound; they embody what the fella was talking about when he talked about poetry’s hypnotic tendencies. Moreover, Ellams is very carefully tending his own poetic patch – “GuerillaGardenWritingPoem” is also among the better I’m a Poet and Here’s What That Means pieces in the book, in that he takes care not to steal the limelight even when the fictionalised Writer is the poem’s vehicle. Though as you can see he does that irksome thing of breaking lines when they reach the correct length as they appear on the page rather than where it makes more rhythmic sense, but that’s a very minor gripe when the poem is so beautifully plotted when spoken aloud. And I am little if not easily irked.

To wrap up, there are plenty of great writers included in the book about whom I have slightly less to say, and I hasten to add that by no means belittles their achievements. Special mention should go to Jack Belloli’s “Yurt”, Kayo Chingonyi’s “Guide to Proper Mixtape Assembly”, Siofra McSherry’s “Faust”, Richard O’Brien’s “Isthmus” and Vidyan Ravinthiran’s “Jump-Cuts”. These guys are defs worth looking out for in future. After that slightly rhapsodic intro I should probably now make the qualifier – not everyone involved is great shakes. To me at least. There’s a lot of the fancy-pants artful-arrangement-of-sentences that’s not quite a short story so let’s call it a poem stuff, a lot of formatting disguised as poetry and a lot of the posturing bumff that is juvenalia’s calling card. But for quite so much to be quite so good is a heartening pleasure.