Turning a Page: The State of Poetry Criticism 2011-18

[NB: This report was first published in the Brixton Review of Books (No. 6, Summer 2019). It is reprinted with kind permission of the BRB editors Michael Caines, Tess Davidson, and Alice Wadsworth. I’m a big fan of the magazine, it publishes excellent people, and you can subscribe on the BRB website.]

In the six years between 2011 and 2016, British and Irish poetry magazines and newspapers published critical work by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) critics 130 times. That was just 3.7 per cent of the total number of such critical pieces for those years. In the two years since the launch of the Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics scheme in 2017, BAME critics have appeared in the same publications 115 times, 8.3 per cent of the total. The Ledbury scheme has desmonstrably spearheaded this rapid, vital change; but these successes must be taken in context as part of a fight for an inclusive poetry culture dating back many years.

In 2005, Bernardine Evaristo prompted Arts Council England to investigate the lack of BAME poets publishing in these islands. With the additional support of other British arts councils and the London writer development agency Spread the Word, the subsequently published report, Free Verse, discovered that under than 1 per cent of books published by major presses were by BAME poets. The Complete Works programme mentored its first ten BAME poets in 2010, and eight years later, that figure stands above 16 per cent; even Faber has begun to redress its institutional whiteness, publishing Ishion Hutchinson’s House of Lords and Commons in 2017, Zaffar Kunial’s Us in 2018, and Mary Jean Chan’s Flèche this year. As Evaristo argues, however, poetry in this country in the 1980s and 90s was far more receptive to BAME poets, as the prominence of John Agard, Grace Nichols, Valerie Bloom, Benjamin Zephaniah, E. A. Markham and Linton Kwesi Johnson demonstrated.[1] What Evaristo identified was not just a contemporary failure but a significant recession.

Besides the poets, what about the people who write about poetry? In my initial study, “The State of Poetry Criticism”[2], I found that between April 2015 and May 2017, only 4.4 per cent of reviews across seven major poetry platforms were written by BAME critics. Yet there are some signs of change. In 2015, for example, only ten articles by BAME critics were published, 1.3 per cent of the year’s total; the corresponding figure for 2018 was sixty-two, 8.5 per cent of the year’s total.

There have also been negative responses to what, in historical terms, might feel like a sudden change. In the past year, Michael Schmidt, publisher of Carcanet Poetry, editor of PN Review and mentor in The Complete Works, has written a series of editorials in PN Review in which he decries “identity politics”, describes a recent willingness to hold prominent white male artists responsible for their actions as “censorship”[3], and relates his own feeling of being “silenced” and “anathematised” for being “a white male in the vale of years with what used to be regarded as a good education”.[4] Like Peter Riley before him[5], Schmidt argues that a prescriptiveness imposed on work by BAME poets by publishers and critics is a manner of “censorship”. Both Riley and Schmidt omit the fact that publishers and critics remain overwhelmingly white, and that their decision to police the borders of BAME poets’ work maintains the centrality and cultural influence of white poets, critics, publishers and editors, not to mention the curators of “good educations”. In both cases, senior white figures instrumentalize their ostensible concern for BAME poets’ wellbeing to defend their own positions of power. Riley condemned Claudia Rankine for “parading the wound” in Citizen: An American lyric (Rankine won the Forward Prize for which Riley was shortlisted); Schmidt swiftly proceeds to defend the work of Woody Allen and James Levine against “censors”, elevating two (alleged) sexual abusers to the ranks of D. H. Lawrence and Vladimir Nabokov.

As many have noted, to those accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression, and as a series of studies have shown, we remain far from equal. Programmes like The Complete Works and the Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics have made tangible inroads for a still relatively small number of BAME poets and critics, but even this slight shift represents significant change.

*

Resuming the work of my survey published online in 2017, I had two main questions: whose poetry is reviewed? and whose reviews are commissioned and published? The set on critical writing now includes data from twenty-eight magazines dating from January 2011 to December 2018, a total of 4,866 articles reviewing 7,711 books. Those magazines are: Acumen, Antiphon Poetry, Bare Fiction, The Compass, The Guardian, Gutter, Ink Sweat & Tears, The Interpreter’s House, London Grip, the London Review of Books, Magma, Modern Poetry in Translation, Mslexia, The North, Oxford Poetry, PN Review, Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry London, Poetry Review, The Poetry School, Poetry Salzburg Review, Poetry Wales, Sabotage Reviews, Southwords, The Stinging Fly, Stride, the Times Literary Supplement and The Wolf.

There are obvious limitations on the data I have collected. The figures do not cover other important intersections of cultural exclusion such as class, disability, education or sexuality, and on race and gender they are unsophisticated. Regarding race, my terms are unsatisfactorily binary; this is, in part, due to greater accuracy often being impossible without self-reporting. As many writers have noted[6], neither BAME nor Person of Colour are ideal terms; both involve significant erasure of cultural, racial and national experiences and traditions. I hope that the outcomes of this study justify the employment of reductive terminology. The 2011 census reported that people self-identifying as Black, Asian or minority ethnicity comprised 12.9 per cent of the total UK population, 4.9 per cent in Ireland. While I do not believe in the imposition of arbitrary quotas, it is, at the very least, useful to have such a basic demographic benchmark in mind when trying to determine what representative inclusion might look like on a purely statistical level.[7]

Of 4,866 articles published between January 2011 and December 2018, 245 were written by BAME critics, 5.03 per cent of the total. Of the twenty-six magazines and newspapers in the study still regularly publishing, only five surpassed this basic figure: Poetry Review (14.5 per cent), Poetry London (18.3 per cent), Oxford Poetry (18.5 per cent), The Poetry School (20.4 per cent) and Modern Poetry in Translation (21.4 per cent). Nine magazines published 1 per cent or fewer BAME critics.

Particular attention is due to the London Review of Books. The LRB has published seventy articles by thirty-three critics covering eighty-six books since January 2011. Every one of their critics is white, 83 per cent are men, and every one of the books reviewed is by a white poet. The magazine publishes poems with greater regularity: six of the 388 poems published since January 2011 are by BAME poets (1.5 per cent). 70.6 per cent of all  poems published are by men, including twenty-eight by August Kleinzahler, twenty-seven by John Burnside, twenty-two by David Harsent and nineteen by Frederick Seidel; these four poets account for 24.7 per cent of all poems published in the magazine during those eight years.

The country’s other major literary journal, the Times Literary Supplement, has a similar record. Though one of only five platforms to publish more than twenty articles by BAME critics, this constitutes 3.6 per cent of its total. Contrary to trends observed elsewhere in the data, most of these articles were published before 2016: nineteen before and five after. Much like the LRB, the TLS published just seven poems by BAME poets (1.3 per cent), and 72.2 per cent by men. Before December 2018, the last BAME poet to publish in the TLS was Imtiaz Dharker, on February 5, 2016.

Much like the TLS, PN Review’s publication of BAME reviewers has also regressed sharply. The magazine published thirteen articles by BAME critics between January 2011 and October 2013; there then follows a period of three years and four months, or twenty consecutive issues, without a single review by a BAME critic. Since March 2017, there have been just three articles published by BAME critics, and an excellent regular column by Vahni Capildeo does not cover for the magazine’s failures elsewhere. Despite this, PN Review has been a consistent publisher of BAME poets throughout the data set: 206 of their 2,100 published poems between 2011 and 2018 are by BAME poets (9.8 per cent, well above the national average of 8.3 per cent).

More encouraging examples do exist. In Poetry London, for example, twenty-one articles by BAME critics were published between 2011 and 2016, 11.9 per cent of the total for those years. In 2017–18, the magazine has published nineteen articles by BAME critics, 29.7 per cent of their total. An even more remarkable change has happened at Poetry Review: between 2011 and 2016, the magazine published fourteen articles by BAME critics (6.1 per cent); between 2017 and 2018, that number has more than doubled to thirty, a full 40 per cent of its total in the past two years. These increases are consistent with the magazines’ publication of poems: Poetry London’s publication of BAME poets rose from 7 per cent in 2011–16 to 16.2 per cent in 2017–8; Poetry Review’s publication of BAME poets rose from 16.1 per cent to 28.2 per cent over the same periods.

The Complete Works and the Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics programmes have played a huge role in recent changes. Similar to The Complete Works’ mentorship of poets, the Ledbury scheme aims to provide BAME critics with training and opportunities to develop their craft. Of the 245 articles by BAME critics in the data set, 117 were written by fellows of one or both programmes, 47.8 per cent of the total. This increase has, perhaps unsurprisingly, coincided with an increase in critical attention toward BAME poets, and with BAME poets publishing in higher numbers. In total, 627 of the 7,711 books reviewed in the data set were written by BAME poets (8.13 per cent). The figure fluctuated around 6 per cent between 2011 and 2016, with a peak in 2016 (7.7 per cent) and a trough in 2013 (4.9 per cent). In the past two years, this figure has doubled, to 12.9 per cent in 2017 and 13.1 per cent in 2018. Though I do not have exact figures, it seems that more books by BAME poets are being published year on year, particularly by small presses such as Nine Arches (in 2019 the press will have published collections by Theresa Lola, Ian Humphreys, Roy McFarlane and Tom Sastry) and Penned in the Margins (Anthony Anaxagorou, Raymond Antrobus). Veteran publishers such as Carcanet (Jane Yeh, Vahni Capildeo and Kei Miller) and Bloodaxe (Chen Chen, Vidyan Ravinthiran and Legna Rodriguez Iglesias), meanwhile, continue their good work with more established poets. There is a close relationship between BAME poets’ access to major publishers and BAME critics’ access to major journals: one enables, requires, demands the other.

While there have been significant advances in the reception of BAME poets and critics in recent years, it remains the case that these small steps are supported by a small number of institutions and individuals, and the possibility of backlash and regression is significant. For instance, the publication of poems by BAME poets reached record highs of 10.8 per cent in 2016 and 10.9% in 2017 but fell to 8.4 per cent in 2018. There have also been numerous instances of high-profile white journalists responding to work by BAME poets with ignorance (for example, Kate Kellaway’s description of “oriental poise”[8] in Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade) or outright hostility, as in the September 2018 issue of Acumen, whose front cover asked, “Has poetry been hijacked?”[9] The author of the essay in question, Paul Gittins, refers to “a Guardian journalist” before quoting a piece by the poet and academic Sandeep Parmar.[10] Gittins refers to Parmar using male pronouns, before condemning attempts to decolonize literary culture as “threatening the very identity of poetry”. Gittins conflates the “identity” of poetry as a medium with that of white poets, and frames this country’s white critics (95 per cent of the total), white poets (92 per cent) and white prizewinners (88 per cent) as an embattled minority. He also follows Riley and Schmidt in claiming that his concerns are primarily for the welfare of BAME poets, describing Parmar’s article as “condescending” for suggesting “they apparently need a favourable quota system to enter the prize lists”. Parmar’s article makes no such proposal, and Gittins’s memory seems short: no BAME poet had ever won the Forward Prize for Best Collection prior to 2014, and the T. S. Eliot Prize only once before 2015; almost two-thirds of all BAME shortlistings have been in the past five years. White authors repeatedly position ourselves as central, unmarked, natural occupants of cultural space, even as concerned guardians of BAME poets, however much our supposed advocacy rejects even the slightest structural change. It is possible, indeed vital, for white critics to spend time and energy questioning our biases, educating ourselves about our colonial histories and how we continue to benefit from them, and listening at least as carefully to work by BAME poets as we do to white poets, showing respect to the literary canons and traditions in which they situate themselves. Part of this work, however, must include raising up BAME voices ahead of our own: the Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics programme has demonstrated an abundance of extraordinarily capable candidates.

[1] Evaristo, Free Verse Report, 2007, 3.

[2] Dave Coates, “The State of Poetry Criticism”, DavePoems (May 29, 2017). https://davepoems.wordpress.com/2017/05/29/the-state-of-poetry-criticism/

[3] Editorial, PN Review 242 (July–Aug 2019), https://www.pnreview.co.uk/cgi-bin/scribe?item_id=10244

[4] Editorial, PN Review 245 (Jan–Feb 2019), https://www.pnreview.co.uk/cgi-bin/scribe?item_id=10385

[5] Peter Riley, “Vahni Capildeo”, Fortnightly Review, April 12, 2016, http://fortnightlyreview.co.uk/2016/04/vahni-capildeo/

[6] See, for example, Courttia Newland, Nikesh Shukla et al, “Beyond PoC and BAME: The terminology we use to define ourselves”, Media Diversified, July 16, 2016, https://mediadiversified.org/2016/07/16/past-poc-and-bame-the-terminology-we-use-to-define-ourselves/

[7] Office of National Statistics, https://www.ons.gov.uk/census/2011census

[8] Kate Kellaway, “The Best Poetry Books of 2015”, Observer, December 8 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/dec/08/best-poetry-books-2015-clive-james-claudia-rankine

[9] Paul Gittins, “Hijacking Poetry”, Acumen 92 (September 2018). The use of the highly loaded term “hijacking” in reference to BAME people should not be overlooked.

[10] Sandeep Parmar, “Why the TS Eliot prize shortlist hails a return to the status quo”, The Guardian, 20 Oct 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/oct/20/why-the-ts-eliot-prize-shortlist-hails-a-return-to-the-status-quo

Rebecca Tamás – Savage

Rebecca Tamás – Savage

Disclosure: Haven’t met the poet, follow each other on Twitter/FB. The poems in Savage deal particularly with female sexuality and alterity, which are outwith my experiences and for which i am not the target audience. Review copy provided by the publisher – in accordance with my policy on Patreon, I’ve also paid for my own copies.

Review: Savage is nine poems divided into two sections: three standalone pieces – ‘BDSM’, ‘Volcano’ and ‘Penis Hex’ – and a series of six titled after female Christian mystics. The book centres specifically female bodily experiences while arguing, in the book’s second half particularly, for the spiritual aspect of these physical phenomena. The book is tightly conceptually focused and discusses explicitly its philosophical concerns, but little more than a passing familiarity with the latter section’s protagonists is enough to illuminate the poems’ deeper layers. Suffice to say Savage is a bit of an adventure. A pugnacious, bawdy sense of humour drives the poems, alongside a persistent loyalty to the realm of the physical: food, sex and comfort underpin the book’s larger ideas. Whatever the book’s philosophical ambitions, and i do believe Savage has plenty on its mind, they are located first and foremost in real, tangible, living bodies.

All that said, Savage places as much importance on scenes of softness and stillness as the more ubiquitous ‘hot death’ and ‘acid arousal’ elsewhere. These disarmingly, almost shockingly careful moments recur throughout, even in poems that as a whole tend toward disturbance or disjunction:

‘your soft under the breath singing’ (‘Penis Hex’)

‘She fastens milky attachments to your sleep’ (‘Julian of Norwich’)

‘people talking in the dusk, their quiet speech’ (‘Simone Weil’)

These poems aim for as keenly felt and deftly articulated a sense of care, closeness and vulnerability as they do their brash, chest-thumping extravagances, and it’s extremely rare to see a collection of poems so evidently comfortable in such starkly contrasting moods. The opening poem, ‘BDSM’, toes a fine line between a delightful matter-of-factness and a sober analysis of sexual politics, crediting the reader with the ability to consider both at once:

‘i asked to be hurt
time team was on
there was so much beautiful
potential in both the past
and the future’

This combination of the corporeal, the enigmatic and the banal makes it difficult to say exactly whether the poem is joy laced with anxiety – the poem makes abundantly clear that the socio-economic is absolutely in play in the sexual and vice versa (‘toys can be useful / anything from an eye mask / to a tank’) – or the other way round. The poem seems perfectly comfortable to pitch its key arguments in the midst of this ambiguity:

‘your ‘first time’ does not exist
but is a state of mind

for example

it can happen with a slice of orange
finding your open gap

or with a horse

a train to the cold sea’

Caroline Bird’s aphoristic ‘this poem is true but contains no facts’ feels close to the point here. Attempting to riddle out a logical, prosaic answer to these lines misses the impression they leave as primarily emotional/irrational arguments. Maybe the joy in reading this poetic treatise on joy is in negotiating the particulars for oneself. The poem’s not quite final words are, ‘telling is a careful / dance of pleasures’, and ‘BDSM’ is that rather rare thing, a poem about sex that finds humour in its subject matter without belittling or dismissing its gravity. The poem is that dance, comfortable in its dialogue with complex systems of power and careful of how it offers these systems to the reader.

‘Penis Hex’ continues this joke-but-not-but-actually tone with aplomb. ‘to hex a penis off means taking a laugh out for a walk’, it argues, but it’s a laugh like Patricia Lockwood’s ‘Rape Joke’, a mediatory, bleakly playful step between the violence enacted and its public discussion. The poem has some beautifully cathartic and deftly controlled comic moments, from its opening, earnest argument that ‘the hex for a penis isn’t really about / the penis / the penis is not an issue all fine doing its own thing’ through its several dephalloficatory scenarios. Behind its punchlines and tonal silliness, however, is a hard emotional core, and the poem’s opening lines also function as a reminder that cis men’s bodies and experiences are rather beside the point. With this in mind, the poem appears more like a provision of a space for self-care, and its peaceful moments seem a key element of its strategies:

‘to hex a penis off wrap yourself up
in a warm bed and no one is there […]

hex with a plate of grilled pears
against cream
a glass of just-pink wine […]

hex it by saying nothing
this is a navy zip-up and scarf that says that i understand comfort
and solidarity’

Solidarity here might be the strength to make these jokes, to make light of emotional heaviness, and to share this ludic space with the reader. The poem’s final, ecstatic stanza is blistering, feral, invoking ‘total and utter glory / your huge red hair reaching up and touching the upper echelons’, the ability to take and remove a penis at will, the wind ‘batter[ing] the tall insane skyscrapers’, before concluding that, mysteriously, ‘it’s changing | you see’. As with ‘BDSM’, it may be less than productive to attempt to boil these lines down, but ‘Penis Hex’ certainly seems to take a turn in its final movement, the comedy stepping aside and letting the poem’s violent, prophetic undercurrents take control. It’s a remarkable poem, a bravura performance.

The book’s second half is Mystics, a series titled after, perhaps in the voices of, female Christian writers. The women in question – Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Ávila, Simone Weil, Marguerite Porete and Joan of Arc – were all significant philosophical authorities of their time, and where their intellectual concerns overlap (to be rather reductive) is in articulating a theology that unites the physical and the spiritual, or locates one within the other. It’s a neat fit for the book’s concerns, and noticeable how the ideas from the first half of the book proliferate through the second. The book’s pace calms significantly from the euphoria of ‘Penis Hex’, as the first in the sequence, ‘Julian of Norwich’, seems to start things over in a domestic setting:

‘Come home if you can bear it, the same divine, familiar beds […]
the same glasses smashing, the same food congealing on the hob’

God in this poem is female, an intrusive, somewhat careless, though passionately loving presence, whose own physical form dominates the space:

‘You know the fresh and bloody pith of her,
the damp redness between her legs […]

[she] reads your diary, leaving subtle and deliberate yellow smudges in the margins’

Yet the relationship does not appear antagonistic, indeed seems almost maternal as God ‘cups your head in her hands and sings softly’, displays her ‘love that’s virulent, ugly, nutshell tight, / love that throws out a tender and extravagant brightness’. The poem invites the reader not necessarily to pass judgement on the speaker’s situation, a speaker who seems remarkably passive throughout, subject to a whimful and powerful presence, but to experience it, to buy into the second person narration that places ‘you’ in the poem’s line of sight. When the final line comes, ‘calling you with torn crying into vision’, spiritual enlightenment and physical birth seem blended together, and the ambiguous, affectless mood at this transformation is unsettling. A radical change has taken place, but how we respond to it is not the poem’s concern.

The sequence seems to re-inscribe Christian theology with pagan symbolism, with recurring images of Green Man-like, bestial male sexuality, ‘fat tongue lolling out, penis with rising heat in it, damp hair’ (‘Hildegard’); ‘Some pseudo-Zeus unbuttoning his flies’ (‘Simone Weil’). It’s perhaps significant then that the final poem in the sequence, ‘Joan of Arc’, once again renders God as a gentle, protective, supportive presence. In Anne Carson’s Float, the poet notes how under interrogation, Joan made clear that the attempt to force her to explain her spiritual experiences was hateful to her, dismissing questions with such inspired responses as ‘I knew that well enough once but I forget’, ‘You asked that before. Go look at the record’ and ‘Ask me next Saturday’. Tamás’ Joan is similarly inscrutable, but in the deeply esoteric tone of the first half of Savage, to the point where the narrative voices seem to meet up once again; perhaps the first poems were narrated by Joan herself. ‘Joan of Arc’ begins with:

‘I saw God in a split yolk.
You won’t like that of course,
why would you?’

And later:

‘When the yellow eye looked at me
it didn’t worry about my breasts,
or my words, which ones I ate […]
It worried if I was ok.

This articulation of divinity as on one hand glorious and terrifying, ‘Her head was sun-dipped / gas and flame’ and concerned friend on the other is maybe the most convincing and appealing I’ve read in a poem. Furthermore, when the speaker describes how ‘You could find me sexy when I’m having sex, / when I’m laughing and coming like laying an egg’, that egg has already been touched with a divine presence; this utterly daft formulation of spiritual and bodily ecstasy is utterly beautiful. The poem has, like ‘Penis Hex’, a deft and ephemeral dramatic structure, in which each section is a discrete movement that ties the whole together. The final note of both poem and book is simple and powerful:

‘Still, stay,
human animals.
Stay so I can smell
your familiar
and tender
human foulness.

In the thunder
and night time
it is just me
and god.’

These lines are both precise summation of the book’s idea and a gorgeously provocative closing thought, fully-formed, belligerent and deeply conscious of the sacred and sacrilegious aspects of being alive.

This, I think, is at the core of Savage. It takes widespread and often internalised cultural messages about body shame and the absence of inherent spirituality and turns these tendencies on their heads, in a way that’s playful and purposeful, ferociously warm and studiously researched. Its argument that human life is essentially sacred, and that sanctity includes bodily realities, feels deeply urgent; that this message is delivered with such joy is a real wonder. Savage is a good book.

Note: This is a double post! If you haven’t already, check out the review of Edward Doegar’s For Now.

Further Reading: Buy Savage from Clinic Publishing for £5.

Interview with The Suburban Review

Tamás’ witchcraft poetry at Minerva

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.

Edward Doegar – For Now

Disclosure: Have not met the poet. At least one of the poems in For Now discusses racial abuse and structural violence, which are outwith my experiences. Review copy provided by the publisher – in accordance with my policy on Patreon, I’ve also paid for my own copies.

Review: In physical terms, For Now is much narrower than an average A5 pamphlet, almost pocket-sized, matching the poems’ spare, remarkably economical lines that rarely stretch beyond a few words. This is in contrast to the selection of Doegar’s work in the ever-more-iconic Ten: The New Wave, in which all bar one of his poems are long-lined or conversational, a capacious and discursive lyrical voice. The bar one, however, is ‘April’, a version of the Chinese poet Li Po, a tiny, delicate piece about waking up to rainfall in the spring, with deep emotional resonance woven into its opening line, ‘God has forgiven me again’. If the poems of For Now are not always so delicate, they certainly follow ‘April’’s lead aesthetically, their ability to say something which at first appears utterly simple, even flippant, but that opens and opens with closer attention.

One last note before leaving ‘April’ behind: both that poem and this new book capitalise the first word of each line. Perhaps a minor note, but this performs a series of subtle, but important functions: i) it slows the eye, registering each line as its own new sentence or utterance; ii) it encourages the reader to invest additional significance to each capitalised word; iii) it draws attention to the poem’s own formalism, its artificiality, its function as a meaning-generator more than a plain representation of reality; iv) it permits some really lovely enjambment puns. For example, here’s the second poem, ‘High’, in its entirety:

‘Grandiose
And at peace

Patterns
Of solace

Precise
And insignificant

The true
Nutritional

Value
Of a cake

Of soap
Could be

The solution
To something’

It’s a little thing, but a delightful thing, this building and thwarting of expectation in just a few words. I’ve only just now connected that soap, which dissolves in water, is in chemical reaction terms a ‘solution’. My heart. I guess we can add v) allows for some beautiful mock-heroism. What begins airy and satisfied turns to that weird quirk of contemporary middle-class life in which artisan cake and artisan soap are borderline indistinguishable. For Now is full of these minute, quiet observations, but more often than not there is an underlying effort to tie the immediate or anecdotal to larger socio-political systems and mores; this movement, I think, is beautifully abetted by these frugal, enticingly simple lines, their invitation to look more closely, to look again.

This very aesthetic/political impulse comes under scrutiny in ‘Even So’:

‘Even so
The seeming
Sincerity
Of hollow
Sounds
Who listens hears
Profound profound’

Doegar seems to send up his own po-facedness while holding his discursive ground, the poem’s flexible grammar allowing equal weight to the argument and its counterbalance. Again, the deflationary tactic prevents the poem from feeling merely portentous, acknowledges that it’s perfectly natural for a reader to instinctively draw back from the high-flown to the bodily experience, in this case the sense that things are too abstract to remain convincing. Later, ‘seeming / Sincerity’ finds its full rhyme, ‘Austerity’, which ‘Gathers its genitives’ and ‘Can speak […] The inanities / Of forced economy’. In both cases language has been denied its reality-describing capacity, while an actuality of life under late capital comes down to the rather brutal final lines: ‘Artisan bread / Tap water’.

Time and again, the long arm of state violence insinuates itself into what in other books might be plain lyric. ‘A View’ begins with an imagistic mosaic of life in the burbs:

‘The tree opposite
Apposite
Collecting answers

Crows
Ponder the road
The pulsing dose

Of a car’

As an aside, the music of For Now is worth celebrating by itself, not least in the ways Doegar, over the course of a deeply fraught and increasingly agitating book, makes these pleasant chimes (the soft, insistent ‘o’s here) feel unheimlich. With this backdrop comes ‘The noise of people // Cutlery laughter’ and evidence of nightmarish dinner-party-neoliberalism:

‘Iraq is not Vietnam
Thank heaven

For little girls
Pupils
Illegal downloads

Suburban questions
After
The end of history’

The swift and seamless transitions from nice differences in genocidal imperialism to a creepy show tune into an unsettlingly vague connection between young students and internet crime suggest the lightness with which each has been discussed, mere ‘Suburban questions’ for disinterested observers. There’s a bite to the closing line, an ‘end of history’ reserved for the privileged few safe from its effects. For Now excels at these nods and gestures, at highlighting the levels of cultural collusion necessary to produce a society as fundamentally unfeeling and abusive as our own; what’s more, the conclusions we draw from these poems are ultimately – despite the clear, if subtle, intentions of the poet – the reader’s. There’s a major difference between having one’s attention actively drawn towards the point of an argument and arriving there under one’s own steam, and I struggle to think of a book that achieves this more purposefully.

‘Portrayal: A Double Portrait’ ties together these questions of the integrity of the self and oppressive external forces inhibiting the ability to control one’s own selfhood. Which is a long-winded summary of a poem that does incredible work precisely through its lyric economy:

‘Your face is not your face
It is the legend of your mind
Summary and immediate’

‘Legend’ meaning cartography and myth, ‘Summary’ meaning in brief and extrajudicial. The whole poem turns on these deliberate blending of meanings, the extent to which language colludes in the erasure of selfhood, exponentially more so, the poem notes, for people not in the dominant group marked as ‘Empire’. Later, the poem continues:

‘You can’t control your face
The Empire has overreached
Expressions

Have become flags
They serve the dominion
Of expediency and belief’

It’s hard, given the specific political ‘now’ of the book’s title, to argue with this. Again, the punctum is a single word, ‘Expressions’, both verbal and facial: British delusions about Empire have poisoned both our verbal discourse and our ability to ‘read’ faces unlike our own, unless those readings serve the ‘dominion’ (meaning both control over someone and the people/place over which one has control), based on little more than convenience and ‘belief’, as opposed to facts. Before exploring Doegar’s nuanced understanding of national power structures, it’s worth appreciating the linguistic-etymological craft at work here. The poem is, as in ‘Even So’, unsatisfied with a purely abstract argument, and the second half of the poem brings these ideas to bear on what appears to be an intense dialogue between the speaker and ‘you’:

‘You laugh
Without the companionship
Of laughter

You are in no doubt
This is brave
I have no doubts either’

The elusive and multiple nature of the language in ‘Portrayal’ means it’s hard to be sure what precise conclusion the speakers have reached. Earlier lines suggest this is the same ‘you’ who ‘cannot control your face’ and ‘You were saying something / About how it felt / To be subjected to this // To be so vulnerable’. With this in mind the passage above may be about care or solidarity, however compromised, however bitter that laugh. If that is indeed a valid reading, the poem’s closing image feels heartening if you squint a little:

‘I am as unbroken water
Mirror me
Let us be two mirrors

Let no one be left looking
At themselves’

If this is solidarity, it feels like a fragile and disembodied kind. The question of what is being reflected is not resolved, beyond the basic fact, perhaps, of the mutual acknowledgement of suffering. If you hadn’t worked it out, I haven’t worked this poem out. I think it’s incredible though, and it’ll be on my mind for a long time.

For Now does not make things easy for the reader, and deserves praise not just for its principles but for the ability to articulate them in a malleable and challenging aesthetic, a simultaneous theory and critique of theory: ‘Who hears listens / Profound profound’. Its lyrics are expressly opposed to a great many of the prevailing assumptions of our culture, its baseline racism, misogyny and will to exploit the vulnerable; that it achieves this with humour and grace is remarkable. There’s a lot more in this book I haven’t discussed, and I could very happily go through every poem and talk about their dramatic movements, their curiosity about human nature, their clear-sighted opposition to structural inequality and violence. Perhaps the most important thing I could say now, though, is go read it yourself.

Note: This is a double post! If you haven’t already, check out the review of Rebecca Tamás’ Savage.

Further Reading: Edward Doegar on Twitter

Doegar on Liz Berry’s ‘The Silver Birch’ at Prac Crit

Buy For Now at Clinic Publishing for £5

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.

Hannah Silva – Forms of Protest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachael Boast – Pilgrim’s Flower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niall Campbell – Moontide

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jen Hadfield – Byssus

Statement of Prejudice: Hadfield’s last book Nigh-No-Place came along at a time when I was doing a lot of entry-level thinking about poetry, and remains a pretty important book to me. Have seen her read a couple of times, she reads very slowly and deliberately, emphasising the poems’ aural qualities.

Review: Byssus is an odd, highly readable, lexically pleasurable book. The poems paint Shetland as populated primarily by its flora and fauna, and the human characters as somewhat embattled wildlife. Hadfield’s wry, affectionate humour animates many of the individual pieces, and is a personable and imaginative guide through what in many hands could be a prompt for heavyhanded existentialism. If Hadfield has a poetic tick it’s finding a scrap of fairytale or an imaginative hook in the minutiae of day to day life, although – far more than Nigh-No-PlaceByssus acknowledges and registers the underlying precariousness of island life.

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Okay, so that’s a fairly reviewish response so far. Byssus is a kind of difficult book to get a grip on, many of the pieces employ a kind of absurdist register towards, say, the cat, a carton of milk, stars (many many stars, another Hadfield mainstay), birds and so on. It’s difficult to agglomerate a direct or reducible response to the poems’ subjects; the lasting impression is that the Shetland of the poems is a harsh, unwelcoming, but nevertheless beautiful place, once you get your eye in. Again, more than in Nigh-No-Place, Byssus features an active human community; ‘Hydra’ (for D & S & F & A & L), ‘The Wedding Road, with Free Bar’ (a personal favourite and prime example of aptly-formatted free verse, witness ‘grasping our brok / en dahlias // while the con / sternations  // park / thems / elves’) and ‘The Sessions’ all feature groups at work/play in the present day. The nature of Hadfield’s documentarian, scientific narration keeps the poems at an observing remove, however, and even in the poems where the body (often human, more often animal) is in focus, the poems remain curiously disembodied. This is not necessarily a criticism, however, and much of the book’s joy in turning a skewed perspective on life might be lost by straying too close to the action.

‘In Revolution Politics Become Nature’ (after Ian Hamilton Finlay) is an unusual poem and I think worth examining more closely. Beside the title’s tricksy grammar (revolution turns politics into a state of nature? revolutionary politics suit nature? eco-politics are revolutionary?), it seems to hold (or maybe I’d like it to hold) a key to the poet’s attitude to nature writing, which constitutes a fair portion of Byssus’ run time. Note that the word ‘byssus’ refers to a kind of filament by which certain molluscs attach themselves to hard places, a kind of natural binding. Worth noting also that Hadfield habitually figures herself in zoological terms. Is the poet the byssal limpet? Shetland society at large? What of the loud echoes of the ‘abyss’? The poem in question is an interesting little portrait in which ‘A SNEEZING SHERIFF’ (the poem is in Finlayan all-caps) slowly turns from seal-like human to human-like seal, ‘R / EPRESENTATIVE OF THE SILENT MAJORITY THE / DARK GREY NATION IN / THE KELPBEDS’. Perhaps, then, Byssus should be read as Edward Thomas-ian ecocentrism, human society as one amongst many. There is certainly plenty of evidence of an observing eye in love with nature’s aesthetic possibilities, its renewing cycles (cf ‘A Very Circular Song’). Perhaps most pertinently, the number of poems in which the poet is alone in nature – on a ‘moon-walk’ in ‘Ceps’, handling quartz in a valley in ‘Quartz’, talking to lichen in the book’s opener, ‘Lichen’ – or in which nature is observed entirely outwith human agency, or in which the poet is, as mentioned above, figured in ecological terms.

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If many poetry books have a ‘single’ – a poem that works as a standalone event, uses an unusually memorable hook etc, see Nigh-No-Place’s title poem, or the title poem of Paterson’s Rain – ‘The Ambition’ (after Rabelais) fits the bill here. Hadfield frames her body as part of the landscape: ‘If my knees knocked it was two flints striking / My skin shagreen […] My fingerprints finely-carved trilobites of the shore’ and finishes with ‘My breadcrumb sponge my ephemeral path home.’ It’s a cool little poem, pointing towards an eco-friendly, humanist dissolution of the self, with a fine line in self-effacing humour (‘if my kidneys complained, they were Bert and Ernie’) that could well be the crux of the book. Hadfield presents (or proposes, or, as here, has semi-ironic ambitions towards) a non-hierarchical image of nature, with humanity as one among many. Cool! I like that view of the world, one in which nature isn’t a vague threat, or something to be dominated or overcome. It’s refreshing to read a sustained encounter with nature that is not necessarily animated by reaping a poetic harvest, or positions the natural world as exotic wallpaper. Hadfield manages to convey a relationship to her surroundings that is at once hard-won and affectionate, and, in ‘In Memoriam’, is the backbone of her aesthetic: ‘are we taking up the first language / or must we coin / a new one? // If we’re going to speak about this / I’ll need a tinderbox and tent / and waterskin. // We will need to use the nights / as fully as the nesting birds.’ It’s an intriguing thought, and one of the frustrations of the book is that one senses Hadfield has something interesting to express about her own aesthetic, but largely keeps her cards face down.

Whether you enjoy the book might hinge on how well you negotiate occasional cutesiness, the occasional indulgence of a conceit (‘The Kids’ won the Edwin Morgan Prize a couple years back, but the conceit (Monday’s child etc), while neatly handled, compels the poem to run maybe a section or two longer than it can sustain), or not always fully-sublimated Shetland vernacular. The last point, of course, is fraught indeed; the words are interesting in their own right, and are afforded great musical value within the poems, but sometimes feel like the subject of observation rather than the equipment that enables that observation. I will happily concede this point to anyone with a facility in Shetlandic, however.

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Tl;dr: I thoroughly enjoyed Byssus, and the re-reading necessary to write the review reminded me of the sheer number of dense, aurally pleasing and neatly painted pieces throughout Byssus. Perhaps the insight afforded by the longer prose pieces doesn’t quite match that of the tighter lyrics, and perhaps I was occasionally thwarted at times by the poet’s reservation when it comes to connecting the ecology of the poems to the larger political system. That’s probably unfair, as Byssus might have no such ambition, but it struck me. Anyway, Hadfield has written a worthy, mature successor to Nigh-No-Place, and I thoroughly recommend giving it a shufti.

Helen Mort – Division Street

Statement of Prejudice: I’m a fan of Mort’s blog Poetry on the Brain, but haven’t read much of her creative work. Fairly optimistic though.

Reality: Maybe the most impressive poem in Division Street is a miniature, dreamy piece sitting unassumingly towards the end of the collection, ‘Thread’, into which the book’s concerns are quietly herded:

From now, your movement
is a kite’s: you have the sky
and yet you’re tethered
to a man below, an ancestor

who looks on silently
from an old print: your face
in his and his in yours.
Even when he yields the string,

he’s set your course. The breeze
may intervene, but you are lifted
by a finer thread, like all the living,
anchored by the dead.

There’s a tendency in poetry reviewing to ignore the physical presentation of the book (maybe because a lot of reviewers get advance copies without covers? lack of space?), and Division Street is almost actively hampered by its production. There’s an admittedly compelling cover photo, (a man /with a handlebar moustache and a Support the Miners badge on a home-made police helmet facing a row of actual police), but it has little to do with Mort’s book. The lines quoted from ‘Scab’ on the back cover do indeed refer to the miners’ strikes in Sheffield, but it’s the book’s only extended rumination on the topic; a few other poems note the closure of pubs and working men’s clubs, but the action takes place largely in the present. ‘Scab’ itself is a long consideration of the poet’s own feelings of betrayal on taking up a place at Cambridge, a deeply felt and angry exploration of the contrasting worlds of hometown and college; the politics of striking are secondary to the poem’s thinking about loyalty, family and social mobility so tightly composed in ‘Thread’. The close of the poem, and its hostility to closure, is among the book’s most powerful moments.

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Which is why it is so frustrating that the very book in which such an accomplished poem is printed should so distort the individual poem’s express intentions. Division Street is a sure-footed, occasionally excellent first collection, but Mort very clearly positions the exploration of a divided life (which is not the cover’s simple division of police (state? establishment?) and miners) in the epigram from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, with further essays into split allegiances throughout the book. Even the title poem is the story of a failed relationship and a near miss with an STD. I suspect positioning the book as ‘the one about miners’ was an easier sell, but frustrating nonetheless that the quality of the poems should be sold short by their packaging.

Division Street, as indicated above, is at its sharpest when animated by righteous (not in the pejorative sense) anger, as in ‘Fur’, ‘The Complete Works of Anonymous’, and the sort-of-sequence ‘Thinspiration Shots’, ‘Miss Heath’ and ‘Beauty’, which form a far more convincing thematic core than the strikes. ‘Thinspiration Shots’ is a deeply unsettling piece about the eponymous pro-anorexia sites centred around photographs of (especially young) women with eating disorders, justified in this case by ballet aspirations. The poem’s strength comes from Mort’s ability to understand and contextualise systemic pressures without judging or blaming the individual; the pictured ‘models’ are compared to a mermaid, a hummingbird, being winged, a doll in a music box; appealing, traditionally gendered images of unattainable physical refinement that erase the practical needs of the real-life person. ‘Miss Heath’ and ‘Beauty’ are close readings of the harm caused by such unrealistic expectations; Mort’s ballet instructor who ‘never made the stage’, ‘her eyes/avoiding ours’, using dance as a means of escape. ‘Beauty’ is a much stranger piece, one of several poems in the book that feature a kind of doppelganger (see ‘The Girl Next Door’, more or less a twin poem, appropriately enough). Here, the eponymous figure is an explicitly threatening one – the speaker hides when she knocks the window – and one quite obviously emotionally (if not physically) damaged. The poem’s blunt vocabulary and heavy rhyme give the piece a nightmarish nursery-rhyme atmosphere, the speaker’s incorrigible curiosity and realisation (‘it’s not the face we shrink from but the name’) hiding a complex understanding of the effects of homogenising beauty standards in plain language.

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Elsewhere there are a number of accomplished individual pieces; ‘Outtakes’ is a neat love poem that harnesses the strategies of filmmaking into emotionally framing unrequited love (‘Look close enough, you told me once,/and anything’s significant’), ‘Pit Closure as a Tarantino Short’ another nice example of cinematic technique in miniature, ‘Year of the Ostrich’ a Kay Ryan-y parable about not quite fitting the bill. There are just as many poems, however, that rely too heavily on the neat resolution of their conceits (‘The Dogs’, ‘Items Carried up Ben Nevis’) or that drift off more obscurely than mysteriously (‘Grasmere Oak’, ‘Fox Miles’), particularly towards the end of the collection, occasionally lapsing into that ‘I’m the teacher you’re the pupil’ tone currently plaguing contemporary poetry.

Tl;dr: Division Street is an unusually solid first collection, well-paced and in places satisfyingly disturbing. Well worth a read.

Keston Sutherland – Odes to TL61P

Statement of Prejudice: Recommended by a couple of folk, having never heard of him previously, went on to write a paper partly focused on this book (see previous post), and so have read it perhaps more deeply than would otherwise be the case. Fair warning: the book depicts some graphic BDSM and the review discusses that.

Reality: This is a difficult book to write about. Essentially I had two completely distinct responses to it, the first, slightly exhilarating encounter with something entirely new, and the creeping realisation in the cold light of day that it doesn’t quite do what it says on its radical tin. So let’s do both.

Odes to TL61P is the most unusual book I’ve read in years. Its ambitious scope, its humour, its totally astute articulations of political abuse and the emptying out of meaning in contemporary culture; there are few writers in the poetry mainstream even similarly interested in politics, never mind capable of expressing with such clarity the scale of political malfeasance in neoliberal Britain.

The text itself is at times a surrealist nightmare, an assault of sensory information and white noise, a dramatized revulsion at living in a culture that so commodifies human life, subsuming it entirely to the whims of the marketplace and those who benefit most from it. All the while Sutherland renders this conflict in explicitly sexual terms, painting the world of politics as a reflection of capitalism’s sexual obsessions and corruptions. The first half of the book operates in this greatly discomfiting tone, and the deconstruction of police suppression of the Trafalgar Square protests in the middle of it all gives the critique a bit of a Dr Strangelove flavour, a logical unraveling of the unstoppable psychosis of military-capitalism reverberating from the macro-social to the intimately personal.

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This idea that power corrupts even in individual romantic relationships, at the site of our deepest ties to power (to quote Mathew Abbott) is central to Odes. It was also in exploring this idea, and Odes’ presentation of it, that alarm bells quietly started. On the one hand, Sutherland’s graphic relation of his youthful romances position him both in extreme dominant and submissive roles, as male sadist and male masochist, even, memorably, a fantasy in which he is his own perfect sexual partner, sending up macho masculinity by embodying its antithesis. But how much do these accounts in their playing out of power dynamics actually question or undermine commonly held assumptions about sex? Are they supposed to? It’s notable that the book’s extensive engagement with porn’s formulations of power (and the appropriation of its vocabulary) rarely strays from the mainstream; there’s an apt point to be made that the fault is not with pornography at a conceptual level (there are many kinds of porn!) but in its blunt iteration of cultural norms.

Which might seem like a cute point, but it is a salient example of Sutherland failing or neglecting to present alternatives to the undesirable norm. While the sex scenes depicted above are graphic, frank and honest (though what is honesty when it challenges so little?), they are exclusively male-focused. The women who do appear (and gosh do I get tired of typing this!) are frequently genitals stripped of identity (‘The really beautiful woman who is yet to explain how I should fight to retain Thatcher’s rebate is now bent over into a suggestion about how to prop up the euro; I can see into her womb’), frequently figured in terms of bondage or domination, a childhood crush depicted only in terms of her frightening beauty, carrying all the implications of oppositional gender roles, several passages of weaponised Freudian theory. For one reason or another the poet repeatedly depicts women in terms of sexual degradation or subjugation; when he talks about the Occupy protests through the pov of the Met Police Commander he takes pains to put that point of view in context. Why not elsewhere? One section reads, ‘I’d sooner drown in bed forever with the women from my twenties, painting a sky of orgasms, acting insoluble. I remember the number I had beautiful sex with but not their total number.’ Is there a more culturally conventional attitude to sex than fetishizing twenty-somethings and regarding sex as a primarily first-person experience, ‘I’ more than ‘we’, a matter of accumulated personal victories? Does a book that is in other places genuinely revolutionary have nothing more complicated to say on the matter? Odes makes long-term monogamy seem positively radical. Another section opens ‘But all sex is barbaric. We are the pleasures we enjoy, the blisses we admire; and all sex is a text, wingbats in a gaping slang.’ I can’t help reading that as a fortunate outcome for a male academic. How does that play out for the folk on the other side of the relationship?

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Please excuse the sarcasm, this may be a crucial point. The book’s approach to sexuality does not confront British culture’s appropriation of it as much as revel in it. And here is another point I struggled with: what does Sutherland mean? There is no obligation, of course, for an author to endorse what they present. My counter is that that relies on context; if this is satire, where is the indication that something is wrong? Odes happily deconstructs oppressive political structures while merely presenting gendered oppression apparently without commentary. If Sutherland is presenting the ills of society for a feminist purpose, he hides it much better than his more traditionally socialist beliefs, and I can find no evidence in the book to contradict this suspicion. Which is gravely disappointing in an author who elsewhere wrote ‘Class, race, gender and sexuality are not just categories supervening on individuals, but worlds of subjective experience that extend right into their capillaries and marrow’.

This was the point when my reading of the book’s truly worthy mission began to unravel. ‘You become radical when the only thing you can do to rouse the sleeping public is something truly catastrophic.’ This holds with the poet’s depictions of Millbank and Trafalgar Square, but Britain is not Egypt, Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq, and it might be a little premature to think in terms of violent revolution.  ‘The West Irish had nothing but tiny scraps of land with a cabin, a pig and potatoes; but Belfast and Dublin had England’. This is a gross oversimplification of Belfast, Dublin, West Ireland, England, maybe even cabins and pigs. Placing this statement in a book primarily concerned with military atrocities in the Middle East is an easy and unhelpful conflation of both individual suffering and the historical context that allowed it to flourish. The book would have gone a long way to covering these flaws with judicious self-doubt or self-criticism, but the mode of the poetry does not allow much room for ambiguity. The fault then, which the book should understand, is not with the execution of the poetic mode but with the poetic mode itself. Read Sinéad Morrissey for a subversive text that does not collude in the exploitation it protests.

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Tl;dr: Sutherland is Professor of Poetry at Sussex Uni and a Marx scholar and I’m frustratingly aware of a fair bit of his cultural theory may very well be passing me by. I’d love someone with a firmer grasp of what Sutherland’s discussing to weigh in, I have to admit feeling out of my academic depth, and there’s every chance I’m missing something that would defuse my concerns about the book. On one hand, Odes is a genuinely subversive text. On the other, it has huge blind spots absolutely of a character in contemporary British poetry and I’m unwilling to let it slide, particularly with some of the undiluted heraldry of his work on- and offline. As it is, Odes is for all intents and purposes a one-perspective show, the Self dramatized, spotlit, and much too keen on self-mythologising to be truly unsullied by the poetic (and academic) mainstream, a book that falls short of its admirably radical goals.

Caroline Bird – The Hat-Stand Union

Statement of Prejudice: I’ve met Bird a couple of times and seen her read once. She’s an engaging performer, and has a vital ability to win over an audience to her skewed, wry universe. She also performs from memory, which always looks like sorcery to me.

Reality: You’d be forgiven for arguing The Hat-Stand Union doesn’t make a great first impression. The opening poems make explicit reference to their own ‘pose’, have at their heart a kind of playfulness that could easily be grating in the wrong hands, and run very tight to the sentimental touchline. There is a cumulative effect at work, however, and by the first section’s title poem, ‘Mystery Tears’, the subversive current boils over. The poem concerns an imaginary drug that allows the user to cry at will; Bird chases the conceit down to a very human point, that at some time in our lives we will be very literally addicted to our own emotional extremes. The closing line ‘Each day she woke up// calmer and calmer,’ hits unexpectedly hard.

Bird deploys this strategy throughout the opening section, toeing the line between her whimsical set-ups and often brutal punchlines, constantly negotiating between an impulse for the dreamy, illogical endless possibilities of the imagination and the flat, inconsequential responsibilities of life. Though a few pieces are slightly overwhelmed by their own creativity (‘Snow Hotel’, ‘Faith’), they still function as valuable counterweights to the shocks of realism (or real feeling maybe) in the strongest pieces in the section, ‘Method Acting’, ‘The Dry Well’ (a personal favourite because of its economy, stoicism and clear message that could almost be an ars poetica), and ‘Genesis’, one of several poems in The Hat-Stand Union that directly confront the discrepancy between middle-class disbelief (‘The people from the London suburbs don’t believe in God’) and a deeply felt need for something to replace it. The poem’s submerged suggestion is a more thoroughly engaged care for the other members of a shared community than ‘sigh[ing] for the economy’, ‘criticis[ing] each other’s choices when we love/ with all our hearts’, or the easy superstitions of Ouija boards and (implicitly) big cars, prescription drugs and fluffy liberalism.

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Worth noting here that Bird is more alert to and a better practitioner of rhetorical patterning than the vast majority of her contemporaries. She builds a convincing argument through repetition and variation of phrase that gives her work a structural energy lacking in most other poets (witness ‘This Was All About Me’, ‘Sea Bed’, ‘2:19 to Whitstable’, ‘The Promises’ and the superb ‘Medicine’). She’s also keenly aware of the comic potential of these structures, for example, ‘A Dialogue Between Artist and Muse’, in full:

John Donne: A fly is a more noble creature than the sunne, because a fly hath life and the sunne hath not
A fly: I find you extremely patronising

Also worth noting are ‘There Once was a Boy Named Bosh’, ‘Fantasy Role-Play’ and ‘Spat’, each of them capable and convincing little nightmares of suburban walls slowly closing in on their protagonists and their variously successful attempts to escape. which might be insufferable but for the implicated sincerity conveyed by Bird’s omniscient narrator.

The middle section, ‘The Truth About Camelot’, is an odd little sequence about Arthur’s violent madness and the inevitable disintegration of the kingdom. The sequence falls a little short of providing either a rounded narrative or a fruitful vantage point from which to criticise life the way the first and last sections do, and is perhaps better understood as an entertaining, if slight, breathing space between the book’s more emotionally demanding passages.

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The third section, ‘Sea Bed’, is very much a return to form, its opening poem ‘Damage’ hitting like a mailed coif after ‘Camelot’’s relative flippancy. Here, Bird’s characteristic run of free-associative sentences on the same subject (in this case a woman’s fanciful traumas) culminate in the narrative voice’s late intrusion: ‘I met her during the winter./ She said, ‘I need someone to save me.’ I did/ what any sensible person would have done. I did/ what any sensible person would have done.’ Those line breaks are heartbreaking. The poem is a good example of how to manage a surface that at first glance seems problematically twee; in Bird’s hands it provides a means of discussing trauma and emotional damage without exploiting or sensationalising the traumatised individual. In its idiosyncratic details it leaves the reader to imagine the true circumstances that the poem’s realistic and recognisable conclusion leaves implied, its specifics productively open-ended.

[Disclaimer: I’m studying Louis MacNeice in some detail at the mo and this para might be wholly coloured by that.] The third section also features – in ‘Sea Bed’, the thoroughly MacNeicean ‘The Promises’ and ‘The Stock Exchange’ – three examples of something often attempted but rarely well-executed in contemporary poetry: parable. By parable I mean semi-narrative piece that uses a central metaphor or repetend to explore an idea, which may only have meaning for the reader (for better definitions, cf MacNeice’s Varieties of Parable). In The Hat-Stand Union, these explore romantic negotiations, what is won or (more often in these poems) lost in our most complicated relationships. ‘The Promises’ is a particularly fun outing in which Bird shows such a deft hand with meter and (occasional) rhyme it makes one wonder why she does it so rarely. The story follows a fairy-tale series of changes of fortune and identity that cannot sustain its own idealised vision of love, and leaves the narrator only one active choice: to reject the narrative wholesale: ‘I flipped my God one last ‘You are…’// I took my seat at the bar.’ ‘The Stock Exchange’ and ‘Sea Bed’ are altogether more violent discussions, the former’s refrain of ‘you can have my body […] in the hope I might get something’ and the latter’s ‘He cared. But he didn’t care enough’ both leading to the same conclusion, that it is perhaps safer, if duller, to be alone.

This thread is very ably counterpointed by the absolutely scintillating ‘Medicine’, which in a different book might appear flimsy or simple-minded in its formulation of ‘My head says…/ My heart says’. In this collection it appears as the hard-earned note of optimism pulled from a world of failure, a grace note that is aware of its place in a largely grim collection, but also of its own internal patterning, as the simple oppositions of ‘head’ and ‘heart’ are complicated and, tentatively, synthesised. The Hat-Stand Union closes on a similarly positive note of hard-won optimism in its elegy for Joan Littlewood, ‘The Fun Palace’ (‘She tore up scripts. She guffawed. She changed the world.’), the collection’s only (more or less) straightforward love poem ‘Marriage of Equals’ and the final prayer-like ‘Corine’.

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Tl;dr: The Hat-Stand Union is one heck of a book, and totally contradicts some of my own thinking about poetry collections, particularly its length. Many times it pushes the boundaries between studied pose and moving reality, and a certain suspension of disbelief is required to make the leap into Bird’s imaginative scenery, but the book’s command of its own idiosyncrasies, its accuracy with its punchlines, its awareness of poetry’s dramatic qualities and rhetorical potential are nigh on peerless. Read this book.