So this is something a little different. The Edwin Morgan Prize shortlist has been announced, it’s Scotland’s biggest award for poetry, a huge deal for promoting poets under 30, and (even better) a very strong shortlist has been selected.
Full Disclosure: Three of the poets in question I know personally (Askew, Campbell and Giles) and the others have given me permission to write a paragraph or two as a sort of primer on their work. I hope you’ll indulge the air of positivity for now; only Niall Campbell and Tom Chivers have their first collections in the public domain, once the others do I’ll be the first to give them a sound reviewing. For clarity, in this post I’ll be discussing Askew’s most recent poems in the Winter edition of the Istanbul Review, Campbell’s recent collection Moontide, and Giles’ pamphlets Visa Wedding and Oam.
Askew and myself were in the same creative writing class back in 08/09, and even then, her poetry made the home, family and particularly the lives of older women the centre of her focus. This thoroughly unfashionable commitment seems to have paid total dividends judging by her most recent work, themselves very much connected to what she was writing on back in ye olde days.
‘The axe of the house’ concerns (what we can assume is) the poet’s move into a new house, whose previous owner has passed away. It’s a deeply unsettling piece that forces the reader to question who the key player really is: the speaker (and occasional narrator), June, the previous owner, Mary, next door neighbour and medium between the two? From the outset June’s presence is – very literally – overwhelming, ‘Her smell is on everything: / lavender, talc, menthol and something medical / behind it all’, so much so the narrator feels obliged to say ‘sorry / aloud, splitting floorboards, hauling down / ancient steel blinds that unravel and clatter / like train-wires or hail’. The poem establishes that this act of homemaking first requires a clearance, a difficult, violent and intrusive one, which eliminates the life that went before. Implicitly, it places the young homeowners in the same boat as the men who break in in section iv, ‘They took a bit, a bagful, all valuable: / jewellery, stuff they could carry’; implicitly, the dream in which
Inside, there’s only a folding stool
and June, folded down onto it.
Her hair’s been done.
She has on white, seamed gloves,
a string of beads like tiny,
iridescent eyes. She says
nothing, though you wait a long time.
places June as a silent, well-made, and judging part of the furniture. The closing section, ‘The axe’, uses its eponymous symbol as a kind of fulcrum around which the poem revolves, a quiet, threatening presence ‘buried erect and shining, / L of light, in the heart / of the shed.’ The close of the poem is a brilliant slice of nightmare, a kind of Frost-like short story all of its own, as the countryside and wildlife gradually decay, the narrator and the axe outliving everything.
The whole piece is illustrative of Askew’s strength with extended narrative; her best pieces are underwritten by their palpable reality, their strangeness by the underlying mundaneness. The other poems in the Istanbul Review are ‘Big Heat’, in which the narrative voice is given over to a woman on an unnamed island who assists the white, Anglophone tourists (again, we can assume, the poet seen from a reverse angle); in the poem she has the space to express herself that in reality she supresses: ‘I want to say / that crying is a stupid luxury / the island women can’t afford […]But I’m quiet, / pour a glassful for her from our fridge. / She sputters thank you in our language’. Again, the poet paints herself as not only a secondary character but one specifically excluded from the poem’s centre of authority. It’s kind of exhilarating. ‘Bad Moon’ is an excellent, good-humoured piece of deconstruction, and the palpable glee of its last stanza too good to spoil. If you get the chance, look it up.
I reviewed Moontide way back when; I humbly ask you read that review instead of a ctrl+c-ctrl+v-ed version here. It would be unfair to the other shortlistees.
Visa Wedding pitches between America and Scotland, and it features (amongst other things) a speaking voice that is as assured and coherent as it is playful and resistant to taxonomy. The opening poem ‘Visa Wedding #1’ puts its cards on the table in (‘mongrel and magpie’) Scots, ‘Listen, hit’s semple’, before making a case that’s anything but. As the poem’s invocation of American and Scottish traditional standards suggest, the poem focuses on the performing ‘I’, its sense of self ‘tursit in that muckle myndin n ma’d-on / ancestry hit’s at lang n lenth hausable’; ‘Visa Wedding #1’ holds in its heart the hope, or ambition, that, since all selves are constructed anyway (cf the somewhat unconvincing nirvana entreated by the country-western lines ‘tak me hame tae the place / I belong’), the improvised nature of the poet’s own is no discredit.
Visa Wedding puts this first principle to good use in its several love poems, each of which take off from engagingly off-kilter perspectives, performing a neat turn in self-deprecating-self-aggrandisement in their bright and oddly scientific conceits (the seduction of rational, fact-based learning in ‘Curriculum’: ‘Get down and dirty // with transects, quadrants’; the moving amount of intellectual effort that brings ‘An Experiment was Carried Out’ to the conclusion: ‘I have failed to prove / the null hypothesis / that I do not love you.’). ‘Sermon’ is an excellent satirical set piece that rewires a speech given by the Prime Minister at the Munich Security Conference by replacing ‘terror/terrorists’ (or similar) into ‘love/lovers’: ‘We need to be / clear on where the origins of love lie’. The book’s most obvious bid for a complicated understanding of sexuality is in ‘Vows’: ‘one of the reasons I can put up with marrying you is / that we both think many-valued logics are / HOT / are much sexier than metaphors’. It might be a sign of the skill with which these ideas are deployed that it’s far easier to quote them than unpack them.
The closing poem, ‘Brave’, is a Ginsberg-y, Whitmanny declaration of contemporary Scotland: ‘I sing o a Scotland whit hinks thare#s likely some sort o God, rite? / whit wad like tae gang for sushi wan nite but cadna haundle chopsticks’. For a poem written at least two years prior to the current independence debate, it shows some remarkable prescience.
Oam: Poems fae Govanhill Baths, published in November 2013, exactly twelve months after Visa Wedding, shows a remarkable development both of the personal/political scope of Giles’ poems and the imaginative confidence of the books’ Scots. As the pamphlet’s afterword explains, Govanhill Baths Community Trust is now well underway in its four-year plan to fully reopen the swimming pool and ‘steamie’, and is already open as an arts venue. The reopening came after a seven-year long community-led campaign, and the book’s sense of the baths’ history is at the heart of its aesthetic. The poem ‘Scenes fae a protest’ puts the telling of this history into the hands of the protesters, brings it into clear-sighted and undramatic terms: ‘auld wifie brang a poly bag / luikit pangit wi sandwiches / Ah thocht ye’d need this’, ‘bluidy pineapple! whar / wad we get a pineapple? / naw thir wis mebbe / five hunner eggs but Ah nivvir / saw a pineapple’. The collection is about putting human experience first.
Oam aims to redress political balances, and, much like Visa Wedding, undermines social constraints as it goes. ‘The hairdest man in Govanhill’ is a totally joyful poem, simultaneously unravelling and rebuilding masculinity into something positive and communitarian: ‘the puils o his tears stap traffic / n weans sweem in thaim / n he greets hairder juist tae please thaim’. ‘Tae a cooncillor’ is a wee bit of political poetical genius, taking a template from Burns’ ‘To a Mouse’ in a way the bard might well have clandestinely approved. ‘Wee glaikit, skybald, fashious bastart, / whit unco warld make ye wir maister?’, the poem asks, and has a bloody rollicking time answering. It’s probably the sole note of anger, however ironic, in a book more concerned with asserting the best of the community’s achievements, and even then there’s a joy in its flyting:
Gin maraounjous wirds seem awfie sterie,
a weird whit’s oot o whack, a theory
owerfane – yer wrangs war peerie –
Ah’ll wiss insteid
ye see yersel as ithers see ye: