The Lyric is in Another Castle: Poetry and Video Games

Intro: Huge thanks to a number of people I’ve bored to death by talking about writing this without actually writing the blessed thing. Particularly in the past while though, big shout outs to Harry Giles, Ron Villanueva and Heather Parry for kicking some of the bigger ideas around, and deep gratitude to Muireann Crowley for insightful close reading and structural editing. A reader’s note: this is a bit of a long’un, and it’s divided into three sections. Take them as you will. Video games and poetry. Here goes.

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Sidekick Books published the first volume of their Coin Opera anthologies back in 2009, and more recently I’ve noticed poets increasingly keen to introduce the worlds or experiences of playing games into their work: in Grun-tu-molani Vidyan Ravinthiran uses the buggy surrealism of Fallout 3 as a metaphor; Harry Giles has created a text-based video game, Raik; R.A. Villanueva has cited Mario’s design as a major influence on his artistic practice in Reliquaria; Will Harris uses Halo 2 as an arena for self-reflection in Ten: Poets of the New Generation; another Complete Works fellow, the twice Ted Hughes Prize-nominated Jay Bernard, notes how the falling platforms in the Mario games helped shape The Red and Yellow Nothing, specifically in terms of breaking down hierarchies of register, the ‘high’ poem and ‘low’ game.

But poets have been referencing and taking inspiration from other genres since day dot, and that doesn’t make a poem into a film or a painting. So, let’s quickly take a look from a reverse angle, at the ways video games have drawn on poetry. Here’s the first scene from Kentucky Route Zero (2013), the video is an hour long, but you only need to watch a minute or so, from 6m20s onward:

The game draws the player into its dreamy, surreal atmosphere by having the player compose, from a multiple-choice sequence, a haiku. There’s no fail-state; any combination you choose is legitimate and, as far as advancing the game is concerned, successful. The game isn’t ‘beaten’, just experienced; there’s no high score metric, only what the player invests in terms of thought and energy. The game uses poetry as a mechanic (layman’s terms: a way the player interacts with the game) to allow the player to enter the game’s headspace, to assert that there is no right or wrong way to play and that maintaining a state of interpretative alertness is what the game values most.

Here’s the first thing the player sees in Night in the Woods (2017); again, I’m focusing on the first minute:

Like Kentucky, the player is asked to fill in the blanks in a weird and allusive intro (much of which the game elaborates on in the main storyline), with short lines of left-aligned text with line-breaks, and, right at the end, and honest-to-god full rhyme. The game wants to establish an atmosphere of loss, unease and the occult, and chooses the slippery non-linearity of short-form poetry to do the work. Poetry recurs throughout the game: a major character is Selmers the poet, an important scene is a poetry reading in a library, a few portentous figures speak in riddles and rhymes. Night in the Woods is, in part, a coming of age story in a far more kitchen-sink-realistic setting than Kentucky, but it recognises the capacity of poetry to alter how the reader/player encounters language. The first scenes in both these games are, partly, invitations to the player to engage in a way that games rarely do, with emotional sensitivity and a generative, curious approach to meaning-making.

But games have been referencing and taking inspiration from other genres since day dot, etc. So, let’s take a look at a very well-known piece of level design, the first stage of the first Super Mario Bros game, developed by Shigeru Miyamoto and the team at Nintendo. Here it is in action:

How does this relate to poetry? Isn’t the same attention to detail and design present in fiction? It sure is, particularly in short/flash fiction, but what makes poetry and short prose different is their relatively urgent need to establish their terms of engagement. Where a novel can spend a relatively long time acclimatising the reader, for shorter artistic forms like a poem (even a book of poems, which can generally be easily read in one sitting) or a single Mario level, economy of expression is vital. auntie pixelante has written an extremely meticulous piece of analysis on how this level works. It’s worth reading in full, but the key question pixelante poses is:

How does the game teach the player what they need to know to play the game, just by playing the game?

pixelante goes on to explain how the positioning of Mario – the player’s in-game avatar, the game’s lyric self – relative to the world around him invites exploration and a gradual encounter with the inhabitants and obstacles of the game world. pixelante describes the sensation as “To the right, hold on tight” – Super Mario Bros was released in 1985, and to this day a huge majority of 2d platforming games hold “the goal is to your right” as a foundational principle. It’s tempting to pun on Mario’s movement across the screen and the rightward movement of words across a page, but this only works for languages that run left-to-right. The important takeaway is that the game equips the player with the necessary skills to beat the game’s challenges immediately before the player requires them.

This, I think, is a decent entry point to discuss how design priorities in poetry and video games overlap. Super Mario Bros doesn’t tell the player explicitly “you are Mario” or “you decide Mario’s movements within the limitations imposed by the developers”, but the player’s experience of other games, combined with the developers’ contextual design, make it an easy step. Poetry’s relationship with its own in-game avatars is somewhat more complex, to say the least, but the assumption “you are inhabiting/witnessing the poet’s point of view”, or “in the act of moving your eye across the page you are responsible for the poem’s progression” is fairly commonplace. The interpretive limitations imposed or suggested by the poet are usually much harder to articulate; partly, perhaps, because some of the conventions of lyric poetry’s dramatization of the self are so common as to be invisible. More on that later.

How many poets have you been? How many strangers’ emotional states have you embodied? How often, though, did the poet explicitly tell you, “hey, time to be me for a second, hope you like weird, inscrutable feelings”? The assumption that the speaking ‘I’ will a) correspond to the human whose name is on the front cover, much as Mario’s is on his; b) remain uncomplicatedly within the reader-player’s comprehension throughout; and c) demand some degree of empathic communion is as commonplace as a two-dimensional avatar advancing to the right. There are exceptions, beautiful ones, but contemporary poetry in these islands tends to abide by these autobiographical conventions unless clearly indicated otherwise. Work in persona, or fictional poetry tends to be formally marked, like the speakers from classical myth of Alice Oswald’s ‘Tithonus’, or Sandeep Parmar’s Eidolon, for example.

The most Mario poet I can think of from the past few decades (which I say with all love and respect) is Seamus Heaney. Here’s the first two stanzas of St Kevin and the Blackbird:

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.

‘And then’ sets the poem in motion. The saint’s posture and location are established in logical order: Kevin appears, then his cell, then the episode’s obstruction. Though I hesitate to draw too neat a comparison, Miyamoto’s design of the first Mario level parallels Heaney’s in its presentations of protagonist, setting, antagonist. In other words, the blackbird as it ‘settles down to nest’ is the poem’s goomba. Also worth noting how Heaney builds the poem’s tension, by comparing a human arm to a beam in a building. It’s a natural progression, given that the only elements in the poem thus far are a human and his building, but the word ‘stiff’ is the poem’s first dissonance: Kevin’s arm is not masonry, he is in pain, and it will only get worse.

This is fairly elementary stuff, (which makes it useful for my purposes, if unrepresentative of Heaney’s oeuvre) but it’s worth noting how the nursery-school tone is already working to prepare the reader for what’s to come. The language is insistently ordinary and the syntax on-rushing and linear. Each clause adds to our ability to inhabit the scene without subtracting from anything that went before. The poet wants the reader to keep moving right: there’s no pressing need to go back up the page, or back along the line.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

Kevin’s interiority and a huge spiritual concept are breezed over. Heaney probably doesn’t want the reader to linger on the implications of being ‘linked / Into the network of eternal life’, not yet at least, and it’s significant that it is contained by the poem’s first subordinate clause, a grammatically optional extra. That the clause sits between such unassuming words as ‘and’ and ‘is’ makes the sentence feel like it’s itching to get on with things. Likewise, the consequence of the blackbird’s nesting is almost parodically plain: Kevin must hold out his hand for weeks, no questions asked. The alternative is so unthinkable the poem doesn’t allow the reader a pause to consider it until the end of both the stanza and the drama’s conclusion; the reader cannot rest until Kevin does.

This is the end of the first half of the poem; twelve lines, only three sentences. Heaney has built a little obstacle course for the reader, in such simplistic language, imagery and syntax that it’s nearly invisible. But there’s an asterisk below these lines, a whole second half of the poem:

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

If the first half of the poem has the reader going ‘to the right, hold on tight’, the second allows the platform to fall from under us: if the first half of the poem felt like a tutorial, that’s because it was, and here’s the test proper. The first line undoes everything in terms of drama and presents a whole new set of challenges, but ones the reader has been prepared for. The throwaway note about eternal life, the description of Kevin’s arms as ‘stiff’, the real sacrifice his ostensibly simple decisions imply are all laid out, one by one, more difficult versions of the questions a careful reader will have begun to consider already: the poem demands nothing the reader hasn’t been primed to encounter. Where Mario jumps to a flagpole with a congratulatory jingle, Heaney rewards the reader with what feels like a truer, deeper insight into the poem’s subject. The triple-repetition of ‘forgotten’ and the chiasmatic ‘on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name’ are a musical full stop, a syntactic flourish to impress a sense completion upon the reader. (I hear ‘in the name of the father, the name of the son, and the name of the holy spirit,’ in the rhythm of those last lines.) That conclusion wouldn’t feel half as satisfying, however, without the poem’s meticulous outfitting of the reader with the tools necessary to handle the poem’s final lines, to make that final victorious leap.

Few poets are as teacherly as Heaney, and few games as intricately designed as the Mario series, but I think the basic idea is sound. Shigeru Miyamoto designed Mario to be beaten, or at least beatable. The joy in the game is that its challenges appear difficult, and sometimes genuinely are, but an unambiguous win state can be achieved by internalising the game’s rules and conventions. Heaney is a more complex artist than I’m presenting him here, but I do think that his poems are often laid out with a relatively clear goal in mind, and a relatively clear means of reaching it. I think that’s one of the key reasons Heaney’s work was (and is) so popular; like Miyamoto, he baked into his ludic spaces the tools the reader needed for successful interpretation. His poems often push towards some formal or thematic closure; pay attention to how his metaphors are constructed, how the poem moves, and reach the castle at the end, the rhetorical dopamine hit of a linguistic puzzle completed.

 

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A second note: something video games do better than almost any other genre is embodiment, allowing a player to manoeuvre a body through a three-dimensional environment. Many of the most popular titles in gaming involve some kind of enactment of power-fantasy: with a few inputs you might climb a building, kill an enemy half a mile away,  or be an indestructible goat. For the purposes of this essay, I’m more interested in games that refuse or subvert these expectations of power.

In the beautiful, odd and addictive Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor (2016), the player-character is the eponymous cleaner, an unnamed Alaensee girlbeast. Earlier in the essay I talked a bit about how Mario carefully teaches the player the game’s rules with the intention of guiding them to victory; Diaries does not. The player is dumped unceremoniously into the janitor’s (literally) cursed life and must figure out everything from sleeping to eating to avoiding cops by trial and error, working toward a victory state that may never come. Unlike Mario, there is no castle at the end, and the fireworks are for everyone but you. Here’s the trailer:

The game tells you that you feel sick, you feel hungry, you are exhausted: you buy medicine, you eat, you sleep. So far, so human. After two in-game days, however, a new command appears: your body feels weird and itchy, you need to gendershift, and leaves you to it, as the screen starts to wobble and in-game text glitches beyond legibility. Managing her gender is just one more tick on the janitor’s embodied to-do list, something she has dealt with long before you started piloting her through her day, a fact so banal the game didn’t even think to mention it. There is something like an ‘ending’ to the game, but unlike Mario, life goes on as normal afterwards; there is still trash to pick up, and you’re the one who’s going to do it.

There are points of reference in the janitor’s experiences I understand: the feeling of being overwhelmed, confused and dog-tired chimes with the game’s thoughts about, and my own experience of, wage labour. But there are many things that are alien, both literally and metaphorically, and the game waits patiently, if uncompromisingly, for the player to work their way across that initial gap of understanding. The feelings of satisfaction to be had in Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor are not the buzz of overcoming a set-piece challenge like a skilful jump, but in finding a way to survive, long-term, in a hostile environment; the game isn’t going to let you turn your rags to riches, but you can make a life here, if you are patient and attentive to the world. The game is difficult, but not punishingly so; you might flail around for a while, but it’s a colourful, bright, upbeat place to flail around in, and you’ll almost certainly get there eventually. There are at least a couple of ways of looking at this kind of design. It may be a critique of big-budget games that spell out the means of success to the player, or rely on the player’s familiarity with generic conventions, and in doing so detract from the fun of achieving that success. Possibly, it is about establishing a relationship with the player on much more flexible terms, a relationship based on trust, that the player is an intelligent being who can process something more complex than direct commands.

The first poem of Emily Berry’s Stranger, Baby (2017) is ‘Sign of the Anchor’. Here’s the first line:

I stood at the dangerous shore.

Already this is a bit weird. The tense is odd: this action was completed in the past. The heavy adjective ‘dangerous’ feels ungainly, leading, even as the sentence itself is decisively self-contained.

Sleeves rolled up to my shoulders.
My fringe lifted in the wind in a long salute and I pushed it back.
Live your wish, Live your wish, said the sea.
I wanted to be like the shells on the beach, rubbed smooth and cracked open.

This feels something like mock-heroism, bathos: rolling one’s sleeves speaks of defiance, but rolling them up to one’s shoulders is, in terms of meaningful gestures, somewhere between illegible and comic. Likewise, the speaker’s untameable fringe saluting the sea is hard to parse, particularly as the speaker seems to immediately repress it. The degree of irony present in the sea’s wishy-washy speech or the speaker’s desire to be like sea-shells changes every time I meet it.

It feels like the sea’s words have prompted the speaker’s wish to be ‘rubbed smooth and cracked open’; though they are possibly heard only in the speaker’s mind, the poem’s magical realism means there’s no reason why it shouldn’t have literally expressed itself, though in that case the sea is a deeply unhelpful character. The act of being rubbed smooth and cracked open, meanwhile, speaks of a long process of erosion, of being worn down to a literal breaking point. The somewhat comic lines that preceded it make it easy to breeze over this distressingly explicit wish for self-destruction, however drawn-out and unspectacular.

And I held my arms out, tipped my head back, pictured my protective symbols.
I opened my eyes and saw the sign of the anchor burning.
I had to go.

If the previous line didn’t alert the reader that something untoward is afoot, now it’s clear the poem has shifted into something occult and uncanny. The flatness of the speaker’s tone, which earlier in the poem contributed to the archness of their self-presentation, does not modulate as they describe what seems like a supernatural or magical rite. What was affecting in its restraint is now unsettling in its absence of concern. The poem’s title appears, in flames in the sky: to the speaker, the meaning of the sign is obvious; to the reader, the import of ‘the sign of the anchor’, either in its natural state or in combustion, either does not matter or cannot be directly accessed.

I shouted some words but they were lost when the waves crashed.
And ash rained from the sky.
I was far out, in wet denim, and the shore was a jolt when I looked back.

Suddenly the scene is apocalyptic. The vagueness of ‘shout[ing] some words’ feels like a lost cause when pitted against the force of the sea, while the ash raining from the sky – from the burning anchor? is it an active, physical presence? – sounds almost biblical, a holy plague. The speaker is lost and alone in the middle of a catastrophe, in wet denim.

This last detail is casual, but says so much about what this poem is trying to do, I think. It’s such a humdrum thing to mention when the world is almost literally on fire, and in doing so alters the tone of the poem immensely. It calls back to the speaker’s sleeves and fringe in the opening lines, their relatively petty discomforts; bringing them back here, at the poem’s climax, is such a deflation of sea and fire and ash as to be a potent statement in itself. The speaker is still in danger, the distance from shore and safety is still the poem’s final consideration, but the merely unpleasant discomfort of wet denim is of at least comparable urgency. The poem has almost come full circle, giving full voice to a state of catastrophic hopelessness but maintaining a grip on the mundane; it leaves the reader poised between the two.

My first encounter with ‘Sign of the Anchor’ was something much closer to mere confusion: the above is a reading informed by a close engagement with the rest of the book. What most closely connects Berry’s approach here and the design behind Diaries is in their willingness to place the reader or player in a state of productive uncertainty, over a fair proportion of the book or game’s duration. Where Mario and Heaney present their tools and related obstacles in such close proximity it’s impossible to miss the context in which they are best employed, Diaries and Stranger, Baby first provide a potentially confusing environment, and place their faith in the reader to adapt their strategies accordingly. That the title of the first poem in Stranger, Baby – its level 1-1 – refers to an inscrutable element within the poem (an anchor weighs one down? holds one steady? a ward? a warning?) prepares the reader for a book that resists easy summation, whose difficulty harmonises with its emotional complexity.

 

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A recent trend in single-poet collections – to my knowledge, at least – is the incorporation of relatively straightforward prose sections into the main body of the poetry book. Nuar Alsadir’s Fourth Person Singular (2017), Sophie Collins’ Who is Mary Sue? (2018), and Inua Ellams’ #Afterhours (2017), for example, all prominently feature critical or narrative prose. These sections make space for the poet to step out from behind the lyric curtain, to communicate in a register much closer to direct speech. The game of lyric interpretation, of the reader’s triangulation of meaning, is temporarily suspended.

As is the relationship between poet and reader: this kind of suspension could not adequately be performed by a poet like Heaney, who – for better or worse – figures the poet-reader relationship in similar terms to teacher-pupil, master-apprentice. However kindly and nurturing Heaney’s work often is, it is predicated on a power differential that is either absent or more fluid in Berry’s work (and that of many of her peers). For Heaney to step down from the lectern would necessitate an abdication of authority or control, which, for Alsadir, Collins and Ellams, seems less of a concern. While they have no fewer ideas to communicate and explore than Heaney, and certainly no less ambition to render them poetically, the means by which these ideas are communicated – plainly, conversationally, without the messy and vatic apparatus of lyricism – allows the reader to become something more like a collaborator, a co-conspirator. Here’s Alsadir in Fourth Person Singular:

‘Only to this you [a figure that allows the poet to speak into a “social imaginary”] can one speak as (I), in the fourth person singular. You are that indefinite stranger. Can you hear me? I’m writing from elsewhere. This book is for you (whoever you are).’

Ellams in #Afterhours:

‘I chose #Afterhours as a title because it summoned three aspects of the project: 1/ In poetry, the tradition of subtitling a poem informed by another poet with the word ‘After’ and the author’s name. 2/ Turning 30 and approaching the ‘noonlight’ of my years, frames my youth as ‘early hours’, and the subsequent years as after those hours. 3/ For writers, the stereotype of ‘burning the midnight oil’ – working late after the standard hours of work.’

Collins in Who Is Mary Sue?:

‘I note that, in literary fiction, when a female writer’s female protagonist is considered up to scratch, she is often taken to be a thinly disguised version of the author’s non-idealised self.’

For these poets, appearing out from behind the lyric mask (arguably into a lit-crit mask, which is at least a less cryptic mask) and speaking plainly about their artistic goals is no great loss of stature. It’s wonderful to see #Afterhours recognised in the Ted Hughes Prize shortlist; I do wonder, however, whether Ellams’ decision to include exploratory essays and memoirs alongside and in dialogue with his poems counted against him during the rest of prize season, challenging as they do the reader’s preconceptions about what a poetry book looks like, and what it contains. (It’s worth that the Ted Hughes Prize has a history of recognising formally unconventional projects.) Are such prosaic interludes a distant cousin of videogaming’s ‘casual’ modes, which take lengths to make games playable and enjoyable to everyone and not just the initiated, time- and resource-abundant few?

Broken fourth walls are somewhat harder to categorise in games, and it’s also rare that the game is the work of a single developer. A noteworthy exception on both counts is The Beginner’s Guide (2015). Here, real-life developer Davey Wreden voiced an in-game character named Davey Wreden who had stolen a series of short games made by a friend and arranged them as his own game with his own critical commentary, which he named The Beginner’s Guide. This briefly but embarrassingly short-circuited a critical community ill-equipped for drawing nuanced distinctions between game creators and their creations.

An altogether less metatextually fraught example is Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy (2017). Foddy is the developer and narrator of the game, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that, in a game so preoccupied with failure, loss and perseverance, that the player’s continual, massive failures are consoled by Foddy reading lines of poetry, by Blake, Dickinson, Rossetti, Gibran and many others:

(Yes, that is a man in a cauldron using a sledgehammer for locomotion. In a lovely twist, his name is Diogenes, the philosopher whose truth-seeking lantern Heaney takes as his symbol in his 1987 collection The Haw Lantern. A coincidence, sure, but a fun one.)

Schadenfreude is definitely in play here, but poetry also seems to have paved a way for the developer to speak seriously and plainly to the player, just as the game speaks to them mechanically. You make a mistake and fall, losing minutes or hours of progress with no choice but keeping going or giving up; Foddy persuades you to try again, with poetic wisdom:

“She smiled in defeat,
With unconquerable eyes.”
– Atticus

The two modes of communication work in harmony, serving the player at least the appearance of equal footing with the artist whose work is the site of collaboration, however frictive the collaboration might be. Throughout the game, Foddy intervenes to apologise for the game’s difficulty, comment on the disposability of much of digital culture, reassure the player that rest is necessary and important; he is a determinedly nurturing presence in a game he has designed to be punishing. In the final sections, Foddy narrates how, to get this far, the player must share certain priorities around artistic failure, and about the paradox inherent in how failure, sadness and frustration is something the reader-player avoids in life, but seeks out in art.

 

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I hope you can excuse a lack of a definitive conclusion here; I’m sticking to the roots of the word ‘essay’ – to weigh something up or test something out – and I think trying to tie a neat conclusive bow around these ideas might ask too much of them. Maybe it’s that approaches to critical reading that overlook poetry’s potential as a space for play miss a lot of what makes art worth experiencing, or that the poet-reader relationship is not necessarily instructional or confrontational.  If nothing else, I hope they’ve given you a new way of thinking your way into poetry (and video games!), and I certainly hope you’ve enjoyed it.

Thanks for playing.

 

Works Cited:

Poetry

Kirstin Irving and Jon Stone (eds.) – Coin Opera & Coin Opera 2: Fulminare’s Revenge

Vidyan Ravinthiran – Grun-tu-molani

Harry Giles – Raik

R.A. Villanueva – Reliquaria

Karen McCarthy Woolf (ed.) – Ten: Poets of the New Generation

Jay Bernard – The Red and Yellow Nothing

Alice Oswald – Falling Awake

Sandeep Parmar – Eidolon

Seamus Heaney – The Haw Lantern, The Spirit Level

Emily Berry – Stranger, Baby

Nuar Alsadir – Fourth Person Singular

Sophie Collins – Who is Mary Sue?

Inua Ellams – #Afterhours

 

Games

Cardboard Computer – Kentucky Route Zero

Infinite Fall – Night in the Woods

Nintendo – Super Mario Bros

auntie pixelante – To the Right, Hold on Tight

Coffee Stain Publishing – Goat Simulator

tinyBuild GAMES – Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor

Everything Unlimited Ltd. – The Beginner’s Guide

Bennett Foddy – Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy

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some books, a little news, happy new year

It’s an end-of-year post! I’ve tried to keep it brief.

First, personal news: Next month I begin a part-time Research Assistantship at the University of Liverpool (which, happily, I can do almost entirely from Edinburgh). As this position will run alongside finishing a thesis and the other bits of ir/regular work that pay the rent, I’ve decided to put the blog on hiatus, at least for the time being and certainly in terms of the regular update schedule.

This also means, of course, putting an end to my Patreon campaign. I can’t satisfactorily express my gratitude to everyone who has contributed, or how life-changing it has been to see, in the plainest terms, how much faith those folk have in the work I do. Being empowered to consider myself a professional writer for the past two years is a gift I will never forget, so from the bottom of my heart, thank you. I hope I’ve done right by you.

(Links to where you can buy each of these books are at the foot of the post. Edit: forgot to add Jacqueline Saphra’s All My Mad Mothers, which I loved. Amended!)

Books I wish I’d had time to review this year:

Layli Long Soldier – Whereas (Graywolf)

The quality and intensity of political thinking in the foundations of many poetry books over the past years has been a serious joy. Lyric writing that treats its political work and its poetic work as coterminous is gradually finding an engaged and energetic readership in these islands, and in the meantime there is no shortage of work crossing the Atlantic. If I could wish for one book to reach a domestic publisher, though, it would be Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas. The book negotiates with the various formal decrees from the US government to the First Nations, including the apology for the colonisers’ atrocities from which Whereas takes its name. Long Soldier explores how this legacy is engrained in every encounter with white America, from the interpersonal to the governmental. Her capacity to activate so many perspectives simultaneously, from the traumatic to the mundane, with subtlety, sensitivity and unflinching precision, demands close and attentive reading.

 

Pascale Petit – Mama Amazonica (Bloodaxe)

No one I’ve read writes like Pascale Petit. The way her densely wooded imaginative space, seemingly inescapable and full of vibrant, beautiful predators, spans multiple collections as a poetic theatre is by itself a remarkable achievement. It has not only been the punctum of multiple collections without feeling overworked, but seems to gather new dimensions in Mama Amazonica, its human and bestial subjects interweaving more fluidly and powerfully than ever. Additionally, the book is shaped and arced primarily as a book, to be read in order with discernible authorial control of the reader’s experience over time. There is a poem close to the end that just broke me. Some day I hope to come back and give the collection the attention it deserves, but I sincerely hope someone better equipped beats me to it.

 

Kayo Chingonyi – Kumukanda (Chatto & Windus)

There has been a heartening number of new collections this year which engage thoughtfully and critically with contemporary expressions of masculinity; Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds most obviously, but also Inua Ellams’ #Afterhours, Wayne Holloway-Smith’s Alarum, Rishi Dastidar’s Ticker-tape, William Letford’s Dirt, Raymond Antrobus’ To Sweeten Bitter, Keith Jarrett’s Selah; I’m sure I’m missing some. But Kumukanda stands out for its capacity for – or attraction to – jarring contrasts, a book that, like Long Soldier’s, holds moments of joy and moments of injustice in their due esteem, each illuminating the other. Chingonyi is a deft and skilful narrator, has a sharp eye for the small details that make a story get up and walk. His work is keenly aware of the canon, and exactly how much space it fails to make.

 

Karen McCarthy Woolf (ed.) – Ten: Poets of the New Generation (Bloodaxe)

Chingonyi is among the astonishingly talented cohort to graduate the Complete Works mentoring programme; British poetry would be deeply impoverished without it. The most recent anthology maintains the promise and quality of previous iterations; suffice to say that if Raymond Antrobus, Omikemi Natacha Bryan, Leonardo Boix, Victoria Adukwei Bulley, Will Harris, Ian Humphreys, Jennifer Lee Tsai, Momtaza Mehri, Yomi Sode and Degna Stone don’t have long and prosperous careers in these islands, it won’t be for of want of talent or ambition. The anthology is too rich and various to summarise and a paragraph, but if you only have room in the post-holiday budget for one book, this is the one I’d put in your hands.

 

Books I read this year that are not just good but fundamentally changed how I read poetry:

Sandra Alland, Khairani Barokka and Daniel Sluman (eds) – Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back (Nine Arches).

An education and a celebration. A dozen ways of thinking about art I’d never considered before. A clinic in how to make a many-minded book into a poem all of its own.

Nuar Alsadir – Fourth Person Singular (Liverpool University Press)

Left my brain fizzing, a combination of surgically precise thinking and an utterly human earthiness. New thoughts every time I’ve come back to it. Great puns.

Tara Bergin – The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx (Carcanet)

Risky, self-assured, angry, charismatic – evidence that working in traditional forms is no excuse for traditional thought. Bergin manages the shifting trustworthiness of the book’s narrators unlike anyone I can think of.

Jay Bernard – The Red and Yellow Nothing (Ink, Sweat and Tears, 2016)

A beautiful, hallucinogenic yarn, an intricately observed character study and artfully modernised myth. An excellent argument for critically studying pamphlets as full and completed works.

Emily Berry – Stranger, Baby (Faber)

Often acutely self-critical, an insightful challenge to generic expectations of elegiac poetry. Touches some tender nerves, but never sensationalises. Validates all aspects of grief, from the existential to the absurd, a deeply humane book.

Anne Carson – Float (Cape)

Like attending a party where everyone is smarter, funnier and more interesting than you but would be delighted to tell you some stories, if you’d like to listen.

Bhanu Kapil – Ban en Banlieue (Nightboat Books, 2015)

Wish I’d found this sooner. Its close and nuanced engagement with British society and politics make Kapil’s lack of a British publisher somewhat glaring. A tough but enlightening book.

Maggie Nelson – Bluets (Cape)

Very tempting to read in one sitting, materially altered my perception of colour. Originally published in 2009 in Nelson’s neck of the woods, tremendous to have it readily available this side of the ocean.

Shivanee Ramlochan – Everyone Knows I Am A Haunting (Peepal Tree)

Ramlochan’s book is devastating in its directness, its refusal to mince words. I couldn’t manage more than a handful of poems at a time, but came back to it as soon as energy permitted.

(A very incomplete list of) Books I read this year which I loved and would unequivocally recommend:

Raymond Antrobus – To Sweeten Bitter (Out-Spoken)

Khairani Barokka – Rope (Nine Arches)

Caroline Bird – In These Days of Prohibition (Carcanet)

Sophie Collins – Small White Monkeys (Book Works)

Rishi Dastidar – Ticker-tape (Nine Arches)

Edward Doegar – For Now (Clinic)

Inua Ellams – #Afterhours (Nine Arches)

Will Harris – All This is Implied (HappenStance)

Harmony Holiday – Hollywood Forever (Fence)

Amaan Hyder – At Hajj (Penned in the Margins)

William Letford – Dirt (Carcanet)

Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree)

Karen McCarthy Woolf – Seasonal Disturbances (Carcanet)

Rachel McCrum – The First Blast to Awaken Women Degenerate (Freight)

Miriam Nash – All the Prayers in the House (Bloodaxe)

Nat Raha – de/compositions (enjoy your homes)

Padraig Regan – Who Seemed Alive and Altogether Real (The Emma Press)

Jacqueline Saphra – All My Mad Mothers (Nine Arches)

Rebecca Tamás – Savage (Clinic)

Agnes Torok – We Need To Talk (Burning Eye)

Hope you don’t mind indulging a slightly exhaustive, hopefully not exhausting list to end the year; partly I’m concerned not to leave any loose ends before I switch the lights off for a bit. A huge, huge thank you to everyone who’s been reading this year. Here’s to 2018 being a little kinder. Love and solidarity.x

————————————————————————————————————

Links to shops:

Layli Long Solider – Whereas (Graywolf)
Pascale Petit – Mama Amazonica (Bloodaxe)
Kayo Chingonyi – Kumukanda (Chatto & Windus)
Ten: Poets of the New Generation (Bloodaxe)
Sandra Alland, Khairani Barokka and Daniel Sluman (eds) – Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back (Nine Arches)
Nuar Alsadir – Fourth Person Singular (Liverpool University Press)
Tara Bergin – The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx (Carcanet)
Jay Bernard – The Red and Yellow Nothing (Ink, Sweat and Tears)
Emily Berry – Stranger, Baby (Faber)
Anne Carson – Float (Cape)
Bhanu Kapil – Ban en Banlieue (Nightboat Books)
Maggie Nelson – Bluets (Cape)
Shivanee Ramlochan – Everyone Knows I Am A Haunting (Peepal Tree)
Raymond Antrobus – To Sweeten Bitter (Out-Spoken)
Khairani Barokka – Rope (Nine Arches)
Caroline Bird – In These Days of Prohibition (Carcanet)
Sophie Collins – Small White Monkeys (Book Works)
Rishi Dastidar – Ticker-tape (Nine Arches)
Edward Doegar – For Now (Clinic)
Inua Ellams – #Afterhours (Nine Arches)
Will Harris – All This is Implied (HappenStance)
Harmony Holiday – Hollywood Forever (Fence)
Amaan Hyder – At Hajj (Penned in the Margins)
William Letford – Dirt (Carcanet)
Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree)
Karen McCarthy Woolf – Seasonal Disturbances (Carcanet)
Rachel McCrum – The First Blast to Awaken Women Degenerate (Freight)
Miriam Nash – All the Prayers in the House (Bloodaxe)
Nat Raha – de/compositions (enjoy your homes)
Padraig Regan – Who Seemed Alive and Altogether Real (The Emma Press)
Jacqueline Saphra – All My Mad Mothers (Nine Arches)
Rebecca Tamás – Savage (Clinic)
Agnes Torok – We Need To Talk (Burning Eye)

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.