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.

1 4

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.

2 DRJ

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’.

3 SB

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.

William Letford – Bevel

Statement of Prejudice: Extensive. I’ve met WL a couple of times and seen him perform another couple. He’s a tremendous performer, exerts more fruitful scrutiny on the vocal/aural composition of his work than almost any other poet I can think of, and has a rare talent for inspiring total unbroken attention from a live audience. I have great hopes for this book, particularly considering Michael Longley (my original poster-on-the-bedroom-wall poetry hero) said he regretted Bevel not making the TS Eliot cut (of which more later): “ Bevel was kind of word perfect – an extraordinary first book. I found it very refreshing and I think he’ll be a contender with his second book.” I choose to read between the lines and speculate that ML was thwarted by his fellow judges. Anyway.

3 PF

It also makes sense to say now that the coverage of Bevel in some quarters – our own Gutter magazine being a particularly egregious offender – has been frustrating to say the least. In every one I’ve read, the opening paragraphs make a screaming deal of Letford’s work as a roofer. Which would be all well/good, but it almost always appears instead of the column inches that should be discussing his skill as a writer and performer of poems (or not, there’s no obligation to enjoy his work, we’re talking critical/emotional engagement here), and the condescending and reductive implications bubbling below the surface (“Gordon Bennett! A workman who can write! How splendid”) are insulting to the time and effort Letford has obviously invested in his work, and degrading to the publications who print them. Letford may have hammered some nails in his time, but we should no sooner privilege that work over his poetry than we should discuss the crop yields on the Heaney farm, or the inpatients at Carlos Williams’ clinic. We should be better than this.

Also also: I have seen some of the poems in this book performed live, and where appropriate will be discussing them both in terms of their publication and performance, as it would be daft not to.

Reality:

A poem

Is an object made from language

A poem
Should pass from fire to fire – from chest to chest

A poem
does not belong to the poet

Make no mistake, WL knows what his work’s about. And while Bevel has the rough edges and occasional so-so-ness of many first collections, there’s so much generosity, so much unselfconsciously given over to the reader, such loyalty to both the life of the senses and life in community, it’s difficult not to love.

Alright, let’s calm down for a second. WL seems heavily influenced by Tom Leonard and Edwin Morgan, and while their voices sometimes get in the way, WL has plenty to add to their vocabularies, not least the controlled panic of the avifauna in “Thurs hunnurs a burds oan the roofs”, wherein: ‘we’re no dodos we kin fly forget aboot the fields Frank look it the sky’. WL employs a very Morganian strategy of making an ostensibly silly and aurally pleasing surface to smuggle in a much deeper engagement with a discussion that animates the entire collection, of which more in the next para. On another day I’d posit that the closing line’s addressee ‘Frank’ is none other than New York gadabout O’Hara, but ochone today just isn’t that day. Here’s the poem in action though. You tell me.

“Wit is it” is another piece that confronts, less directly but no less powerfully than “A poem”, the book’s central concerns. [Also a piece to bait the less engaged reviewer into bloviating upon the nobility of manual labour, but we know better.] In it, a series of specialised workmen use their trades as a means of understanding the world: ‘The stonemason sade it’s aw in yur heed / Yur eyes ur like windeez an yur brain’s gon naywhere / build yourself a palace’. Each stanza is a witty piece by itself (‘A looked it the gaffer. Work hard, he sade / bit that wiz his answer fur ivrythin’), but the cumulative effect is nothing short of (though certainly not restricted to) a highly complex creative philosophy: that the art we make is, essentially, not our own; not only does it depend upon the successes and failures of countless others that went before us, but also the presence of our peers to read/hear it, and without a deep concern for both of these factors, we’re lost. At this point we should probably take a cold shower lest we forget that Bevel is, at heart, a sincere celebration of the sensory world, its struggles, complications, losses and small redemptions, the palaces we build behind our eyes.

Yeesh. Look what you’re doing to me, Bevel. This is a respectable establishment for godsakes. Throughout the book are a series of short prose pieces, in which the brusque, punchy tempo of the lyrics are replaced by something slower and more contemplative. A short prayer to the copyright gods that I may quote in full “In the mountains of northern Italy”:

‘The chapel on the hill has no roof. For five hundred years its four walls have framed the universe. The locals laugh at the Sistine Chapel and call it the coffin lid.’

Look at that! Just look at how much is packed into those three short sentences by way of the piece’s engagement with the book’s recurring themes: the spiritual primacy of the observable universe, the idea that art belongs to the world, the community that keeps it alive, and that’s before we examine the tight sonic architecture. These are simple but big ideas, and worth considering at length. See also “Winter in the world”:

‘The old lady struggles, footsteps careful, leaving shuffle marks in the snow. No shopping bag, so maybe it’s church, and maybe not. Perhaps she is out for walk, because she can, and the night is spare, and she is undiminished and harder than bone.’

That grabs me something fierce. I can’t remember the last time a book held so complex a tension between the desire (explicitly stated on several occasions, like the excellent “[T-shirt wrapped around my head]” or the cantankerous “Newsflash”) for death-defying immortality and the desire to observe and document the actual waking world. WL seems to understand implicitly that if art really is the key to surviving one’s body, it cannot be done alone.

Elsewhere, “The light and dark of Adeona” and “No distractions” deserve a shoutout, there are some beautiful little formal touches like the two one-sentence-per-page series that pop up unexpectedly and act as little haiku-y interludes, and a couple of charming set pieces like “It’s aboot the labour” and “Sex poem number 1”:

‘aye       right       okay      right right            okay’

On the neg side, a couple of the travelogue poems are a little meh, and while there’s the occasional feeling that the poems’ gender politics lean toward the conservative, WL still ends up safely on the positive side of a great many of his peers, who shall remain nameless. On the topic of those peers, how this book was left out of a list that included Sean Borodale’s self-obsessed debut is beyond me. Bevel is a challenging book with a more coherent socio-political philosophy than anything on the shortlist, and its omission is a black mark to both the Poetry Book Society and the TSE judges.

Tl;dr: Bevel is an important book as much as it is a great debut for an exciting writer. It provides an unusually frank point of entry to the world, a wit and charm about society at large, and a mind actively engaged in the question of what the heck it is we’re doing with this whole art thing in the first place. Read it slower than you think you should.

PS: I know I said I’d write about the performance, but there was too much to go on as it was. I hope the included videos speak for themselves.

Julia Copus – The World’s Two Smallest Humans

Statement of Prejudice: I am aware that Julia Copus is a poet.

Reality: The World’s Two Smallest Humans is a book of two halves. The first, a series of lyrics grouped under the title ‘Durable Features’ (significance unknown, but likely to have something to do with interior design, which is then hitched to the poems’ discussion of a failed/failing relationship, among other things), is pretty middling stuff. The poems are more often than not too long for their fairly straightforward approaches to some of poetry’s commonest themes – time passing, loneliness, lost love etc – and it suffers badly when pitched in the same arena as Sharon Olds. Copus just doesn’t find the sophisticated emotional configuration or the piercing lyrical moment to fully animate these opening lyrics, and the over-riding feeling is restrained, conversational, nice.

The one exception, however, is one of the best poems in the book, and one of the best single poems in the entire shortlist. “Heronkind” holds a remarkable balance between conceit and execution, simplicity of statement and intricacy of thought. It’s no accident this is one of the shortest poems in the sequence, establishing the necessary scientific data regarding the dietary life of juvenile herons, then hits the mark perfectly with the poem’s conclusion: ‘How much less complex / life would be / without this feverish / dance between / the wanter and the wanted, / though the truth of it is / that without fish / all heronkind would / be stunted.’ Neat. The poem says everything it needs too, and is also one of the few poems in this sequence to pay heed to its sonic architecture. The short lines hide the aural echoes, and elsewhere in the poem allow them freedom to shy away from line-endings and work their way more subtly into the ear. It’s a great piece of work, and makes the other poems more frustrating for the lack of close attention paid to their structural ungainliness.

1 JP

Digression: some reviewers have praised Copus for the mirror-y form she came up with in two poems, “Raymond at 60” and “Miss Jenkins”, in which the last line of the first stanza is repeated as the first line of the second stanza and so on. It’s a complicated trick well performed, but it limits the poem’s freedom of expression, and is impossible to read without being distracted by all the clever-clever. And that’s besides the altogether over-Audening she gives poor old schoolmarmy Miss Jenkins. Let’s not be distracted by the shiny lights, fellow readers.

What we should be distracted by is how wonderful the book becomes from the middle onwards. Two long dramatic poems, “The Particella of Franz Xaver Sussmayr” and “Hero” have a fantastic sense of humour and pathos respectively, and JC is ablaze in the creative freedom the ventriloquism allows her, to the extent that one wonders why there isn’t more of it in TWTSH (aside from the fairly dull and drafty “The Constant Landlady”). In the former, we have the four-part account of Sussmayr, who transcribed Mozart’s The Magic Flute into its completed long-format, addressing a non-speaking friend delivering it to Vienna. Fair enough. But JC’s ability to make us care so quickly about this blowhardy fellow and to take his closing question, ‘what, in the end, is the world most altered by?’ both as a sincere inquiry and a naïve sally into what is clearly the unknown, a minor clerk faced with a work of great genius talking to a delivery boy. Moving stuff.

Inadequacy also haunts Hero in the latter, a version of Ovid’s Heroides, and y’all know I’m a sucker for classical reworkings, in which Hero grows weary of waiting for Leander’s nightly crossing of the Hellespont: ‘I can’t sit tight, as other girls do. / I cannot be a harbour for you.’ Again, JC’s adherence to a rhyme scheme enhances the poem’s forward momentum and Hero’s eventual resignation towards her appointed place in the myth. The poem’s conclusions are straightforward but affecting, it’s a deeply felt rumination on gender politics, and a worthwhile addition to the collection.

2 DRJ

The final section, “Ghost”, is a series of poems telling the story of JC’s IVF treatment. I say story because it has a simple but bona fide narrative arc, and the poems connect with each other on a level deeper and more uncanny than the unity of topic. In JC’s telling, the machinery is invested with unsettlingly human qualities: the giant purple treatment chair’s ‘empty / purple arms reach out / for her’; the lamp, which inhabits its own tiny but brutal poem, “Constellation”:

A lamp the size and shape
of a flattened planet

traces a graceful arc
and comes to rest

in the constellation of her
parted thighs.

in “Inventory for a Treatment Room” is ‘on a long, extend- / able limb’; in “Phone” there is a ‘fragile clutch of embryos’; and finally MINOR SPOILERS HERE in the poem “Lapse”, the IVF has failed, ‘the womb / was an open palm: / glabrous, dumb, / it had not known / to close. Just that.’ Similarly, the few humans are distant, masked, ‘padding about like kindly, / soft-footed camels’, the speaker herself presented as another piece of the equipment, the sum of many parts.

The book’s final piece, typed in all-italics – as to suggest a slight otherworldliness or permit a flight of fancy – is addressed to future potential children, and to welcome them to a world of ‘changeful air / with its brood of noises – helicopter, dog-bark, / many song-filled, open-throated birds’. While the piece is understandable, leavening the book’s ending with a hopeful note, it isn’t well executed, and I don’t entirely believe JC’s stoic conviction. Obviously at this point I’m speculating about the inner life of real-world-historical JC and triangulating it with the JC-version presented here, a mendacious task at the best of times, but the poem simply doesn’t ring with the same intensity as the others in the section. The last stanza’s stoic exterior seems just that, and I suspect that it’s a deliberate callback to Hero’s situation, of one disappointed but persevering. Which doesn’t map perfectly – Hero is a victim of institutional behavioural restriction, the JC of “Ghost” is not – but it does inject some significance at the very last minute. Maybe it would have been a more straightforward (implicitly less nuanced) approach to the situation, but I was left wondering what JC might have expressed if that ellipsis before the resigned ‘But you did not come’ had given the poet license to speak.

3 DRJ

Tl;dr: This is an odd little book, with a second half that totally belies the pedestrian first. When Copus takes emotional and dramatic risks they pay off; when she aims for the cosy and the well-trodden, it feels little more than that, but a handful of lyrics are worth the price of admission alone.

Gillian Clarke – Ice

Statement of Prejudice: Not much. Aware of her being around for a long time and being the National Poet of Wales, but haven’t read her work.

Reality: This is a good book of poetry. Unlike some of its TSE-contemporaries, Ice is clear-headed about its artistic goals and scores more than it misses. Clarke writes with the assurance and clarity of one deeply acquainted with her own writing voice, her account of the rural world both of her childhood and the present are invested with a sharp emotional edge you might expect from a collection named “Ice”, while some poems, like “Shearwaters on Enli”, “Polar” and “Nant Mill” brought to mind similar pieces from Heaney, Frost and Edward Thomas. Which is good.

It’s a difficult book to love, however, and I blame that as much on my urban-ironic-literary fashionable-oriented approach to reading as any flaw in the work. Clarke’s measured craftliness has more in common with Michael Longley than any of her shortlisted peers, and it’s unsurprising that one of her poems – the aforementioned “Shearwaters on Enli”, in which ‘I choose it as llatai, bird-messenger, sea-crier / for the poet of flight and song.’ – is dedicated to himself. And her poetry does find its feet, or more appropriately its wings, if you’ll permit, when the poem ventures into an imaginative register, capitalising on the hard work GC commits establishing the difficult facts of the physical environment.

1 GC

The book progresses slowly, deliberately labouring its preoccupation with winter, death and the passage of time. The number of deaths from violence and neglect in the early passages are striking: the two murdered girls of “Freeze 1947” and “Freeze 2010” and ‘The tramp they found in a field / after the thaw. // When they lifted him, meltwater / streamed from his open mouth’ in “The Dead after the Thaw”, which I won’t forget in a hurry. Flowing water from a dead tongue seems to find its apical point in “Nant Mill”, which acknowledges the passing of traditional rural life and the neglect of the Welsh language in the same dignified, sacramental, but noticeably secular/pre-Christian tone employed in Heaney’s earlier books: GC refers liberally to the Mabinogi mythical cycle throughout Ice, but not at all to modern religion.

Also like famous Seamus, GC also economically employs fragments of her native tongue, most effectively in “Glas” and “Gleision”, the singular and plural forms of a word that means ‘blue or green’ and is the root of the word glass, which on its own is a pretty and evocative trivium, but in the book is set impressively to work. In “Glas”, the word becomes like Heaney’s omphalos, ‘an arterial stream to every tap, // like those rivers, reservoirs, aquifers underground, / invisible slivers silent as ultrasound’ (stick that in your syllabus and study it); while “Gleision” refers to a mining accident in 2011 that killed four men, noticeably also ‘in the hill’s dark hollowed heart’. The inner life of Wales and the Welsh language, figured literally in the second poem, is irrevocably tied to violent death, as much now as in 1947.

2 PF

The drawback of this focus on the past is that it appears to have little to say to the present: one particularly failed poem, “Blue Sky Thinking”, is an exhortation for the business travel industry to ‘ground the planes for a while’, which ends with the total negation of ‘No mark, no plane-trail, jet-growl anywhere’. The line is almost touching, but comes across as curmudgeonly and naive where the more impressive imaginative project would be to reconcile the necessity of modern life with the equally valid necessity of preserving the only home we’ll ever have. The book is in awe of the natural world, but its rejection of modern life, though understandable in an author born in 1937, misses the chance to say something truly unique. Readers might find the repeated trope of wives waiting at home for their mining husbands, the ‘heroes’ of Gleision, difficult to swallow.

A number of poems towards the back of the collection seem to have been added in as a kind of published-elsewhere-miscellany of commissions and occasional pieces, and this might be an instance where dividing the book into sections could have benefitted the whole. And as you might have gathered, GC is at times as restricted by her influences as bolstered by them.

3 JP

Tl;dr: This is a strong-minded, compassionate and well-composed book of poetry, but it breaks very little ground in either content or tone, and often lacks the engaging personality of her immediate contemporaries. That said, of the current batch of poets laureate, Clarke is ahead by a country mile, and Ice should be lauded for confronting some unpleasant realities in poems that are unlikely to be requisitioned by the Welsh Tourist Board.

Paul Farley – The Dark Film

Statement of Prejudice: V little. I’ve heard of Farley and been told he’s influenced by MacNeice, but little contact with his work.

Reality: Gosh The Dark Film is a tricky beast to pin down. There’s plenty to like, and I can think of five excellent poems off the top of my head (more later), which in a pleasingly economical 40-poem collection is impressive, but there’s also some ropey/drafty material, and some pieces that are more ambition than execution. Concerning the latter, this blog is often hung up on unambitious poetry, so credit where it’s due for the book’s opening and closing poems, both concerned with the poet’s creative authority and relationship to the reader. Let’s have a closer look.

The first, “The Power”, is one of several pieces that address the reader directly, invoking oneself to action. This is a bit of crit-bait risk-taking in itself, but the poem, inviting as it does the reader to build up and then burn down a mental construction of a seaside town, doesn’t quite pack the punch its argument demands. The intention is grand enough: “Forget all that end-of-the-pier / palm reading stuff” is as much a dismissal of its lofty/airy poetic contemporaries (not entirely ungenerous) as it is the start of the assembly instructions that follow. And Farley does indeed take his own prescription to ‘Start from its salt-wrack rotten smells / and raise the lid of the world to change the light’ in subsequent poems in the collection. So fair play. [coincidentally, fare play is an anagram of Paul Farley, with only a ‘ul’ left over. Ho, hum. – ed]

But the rest of the first section is somewhat more insipid, the ‘brilliant greys of gulls’ and ‘ballrooms to come alive at night’ not peeling sufficiently away from the quotidian to maintain the poem’s unsettling tension. Similarly in the second half, it starts encouragingly (‘the kind of fire that flows along ceilings, / that knows the spectral blues’) and ends weakly (‘pilings / marooned by mindless tides’). As a general rule, poems that focus on the particular instance, the singular detail, are more powerful and suggestive (and fun to play in) than those that don’t. ‘Mindless tides’ has that slightly undirected grasping for significance that makes my skin contract. One mindless tide is plenty. It ends with ‘Now look around your tiny room / and tell me that you haven’t got the power’. I’ll leave that with you a moment.

1 PF

The final poem, “The Circuit”, neatly completes the book’s loop (natch) by returning to the theme of the reader in communication with the now posthumous poet, wherein we should receive ‘a little shock each time you find you’re sat / in the dark, and rise to put the big light on’, the poet having been inhumed in a power substation of the high fence, gravel and overgrown weed variety. A nice image, but again one that might be accused of overreaching in its insistence on the poet’s transformation (another neat buried pun, I think?) and positioning as literal enlightenment. In any case, the poem is as much about how the poet wants his work to be received as it’s about our reception of it, and just overreaches in the attempt. Heaney and Paterson can get away with this horse-before-cart thing, Farley hasn’t quite got that grade of chop.

Speaking of Paterson (and when am I not), he’s the Picador poetry editor, and by the sounds/words of it his paws are all over this one. Its obsessive retreat into the past and frequent bathetic representations of childhood have loud echoes of Nil-Nil and God’s Gift, and if PF is on the MacNeice highway, he’s come via the Paterson by-pass. After “The Power”, the next five poems are colourful if slightly bite-lacking reminiscences, and it takes a while to get to the juiciest meat. A later poem, “A Thousand Lines”, contains the imperative ‘I will not write nostalgic poems / I will put these things out of mind’, which isn’t quite right either: clearly the past is a deep emotional wellspring for PF, and it would be foolish to expunge it entirely when he draws from it so fruitfully; on the other hand there are as many weak poems on his childhood as there are on the present, and the nostalgic poems are slightly more difficult to excuse.

2 PF

But there is plenty to admire. “The Circling Stars” is an imaginative and provocative little piece based on and translated from Anglo-Saxon myth; the title poem has a fair claim to the MacNeice estate with its free-associating and nightmarish accelerations; similarly “The Milk Nostalgia Industries”, which not only manages to send up his own bad habits but make something striking and unusually revelatory of his personal history without submitting to sentimentality or self-aggrandisement; “Odometer” is so good Paterson could have written it ten years ago, which still puts him well ahead of the curve: ‘it always ends with a new owner / screwing open the odometer / all keen for winding back the clock / and finding there a folded note / which reads: Oh no. Please. Not again.’; “The Queen” and “The Mind” are fun bits of imaginative work with their metempsychosis, strong finishes and sharp bites.

Probably the poem that sums up the collection is “In the Wind”, which has fewer foreign fingerprints than most in the book, and has a real contemplative power to it, while still managing to be only tantalisingly close to excellence. After a little self-conscious posturing ‘in nineteen eighty-two: ‘Wind them fuckers up’, / he croaked, ‘I’m getting too much oxygen’, he gets to an uncommonly keen point: ‘In my theory of wind / it stills us, or slows us down to thought. / I’ve always admired people who can sleep / in armchairs while a party blows itself out.’

3 PF

Tl; dr: This is, despite the extensive criticism, a really fine book of poems. It has a clarity of intent and expression that is rare and valuable, a healthy dose of wit and imaginative agility, and if it doesn’t quite live up to its well-acknowledged  predecessors, that’s hardly condemnation. The Dark Film, if a little scattershot as a collection of ideas, has more wow-moments per page than any other book in the list bar Olds’, and is well worth the time.