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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Jacob Polley – The Havocs

Statement of Prejudice: Polley is a writer I’ve had a vague opinion about for a while, as being a fairly nondescript and slightly pretentious Poet (caps intended), and I’m aware of a fascination with Wordsworth which is totally fine and above board and legit but a bit like finding out someone’s favourite band is Led Zeppelin. I am totally aware of and have just now come to terms with the shallow nature of this opinion, however.

Reality: I am in two minds about this book. Heavens! The shock may kill you. But The Havocs is composed of some genuinely cracking little poems and an uncommon skill with the whole rhetorical/rhythmical craft thing and a capacity for evoking a Frost/Hughes-type dark-and-deeply wintery pastoral without invoking those poets’ nihilism/overweening lust-for-dominance respectively; it also clunks on occasion and has a bad habit of enjoying its own vocabulary at the expense of the lyric exploration.

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It’s also a book that richly rewards a second run. If I’ve name-dropped out the wazoo already it’s because Polley is a writer deep in an English-language tradition, and to approach The Havocs without that in mind is to miss a lot of the book’s finest qualities. The opening poem, “Doll’s House”, is an intricate lyrical essay on the act of observation and the fear of writing poems in which nothing moves (as in both emotively and locomotively), as in ‘the shelves of depthless books / lining a room where nothing’s read’. It’s also delightfully creepy and should put the howling fantods up anyone looking for a comprehensively comprehensible arrangement of Polley/poet’s voice/reader. That the effect is somewhat undone by the unsatisfyingly lax “Hide and Seek” on the next page is kind of a shame: the second poem’s sort-of-a-riddle goes on for too long without quite coming to the boil.

Between “Doll’s House” and the next truly stand-out poem, “Keepers”, The Havocs maintains a tone of the implied menace of recently-departed things through recurring instances of silence, absence, and negation, JP’s constant resort to childhood giving the speaker a child’s lack of agency, an inability to counter the darkness with light, the meaninglessness with meaning. “Keepers” does introduce the possibility for upsetting the status quo, as the child speaker spies on the pure white space-suited beekeepers through the hexagon-shaped wire fence (nice), and the poem recalls Saint Ambrose lying ‘in his crib while the bees dances / over his lips, conferring eloquence. Slipping / from book to dusty book, I’d wondered when he spoke / if goodness had lit like honey his every cell.’ That is one neat, tight, evocative bit of metaphor-making, and it even sounds good. ‘But we were who we were’, is an ambiguous conclusion to such a busy and almost hopeful poem, suggesting waking from a dream, returning from Narnia, a voice still searching for Ambrose’s gift.

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The title poem and “Virus” both share an explicit strategy of employing words outwith their common usage, and both take this opportunity to make the book’s key political-social-type statements. Naturally, nothing is quite clear cut, and I’m still rather unsure of how to deal with them. Initially, both were in the column marked ‘bad poem’ in my notes, and on first reading, “The Havocs” is frustrating and dull, a succession of clever-clever subbings of the word ‘havoc’ into stock phrases, as if Muldoon had never been, and some fairly standard liberal-y assertions about social justice, human rights, Batman and ‘narrowing the gap between the rich and fabulously rich.’ It’s not a whole lot better on closer examination, barring a slight self-aware self-deflation as it emerges that the caped crusader is the poet and his havoc is the one that I the reader am not taking seriously, just as the poem predicts. But it still comes in a little underweight politically; these are fine statements, but it feels like half the argument, and its broken syntax leaves a string of half-finished ideas that do little to serve the interests of political engagement. This is one occasion where a little declarative speech would go a long way. But then I find myself trapped in the vortex of ‘aha, maybe the speechlessness is what he meant all along’ and ‘aha, that still sucks’ and ‘aha, maybe the problem is you being a crappy reader’ and then my head hurts and I regret giving up drinking even temporarily.

“Virus” expresses itself with a little more clarity, being a nice little Foster Wallacian game of imagine-what’ll-be-slang in the future around an odd little tale of fractured meaning, poverty, art chic and brain damage. Underlying both poems is a protest against the devaluing of language in art, commerce and governance, against neglectful reading of ‘big books we felt too heinously / short-lived to waste our eyes upon.’ Respect is due for even attempting to address a social issue (an inclination notably absent from the majority of the TSE shortlist), and if the message is a little incomplete the execution is at least playful and in keeping with the book’s discomfiting tone.

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A quick note should be given to the neat, sparse short poems interspersed throughout the book,in particular “Spike”, which I hope you’ll forgive my quoting in full:

From the wood, a winter fruit
with pips of air inside,
its core like light, like light slowed down;
like nothing, crystallised;

fetched from the dark like light itself,
like light itself grown old:
we touch what can’t survive our touch
but scalds our hands to hold.

Good stuff. Though I can’t budge a feeling that more could have been done with that second doubling of light. Heigh ho. Similarly, “Potsherds” shows a keen observant eye, skill with complicated syntax, and a flair for the rich conclusion: ‘only those parts / of the world whose keeping / required of us an art.’ The poem has a message to convey and does so unassumingly and directly, and is extremely pleasing for it. Shout-outs also to “The Ruin”, an impressively authentic-sounding rendering of an Anglo-Saxon poem and “The Weasel”, a poem about a drunken break-up and breakdown to the rhythm (or tune if you’re feeling frisky) of Pop Goes The Weasel that finds five rhymes for its refrain ‘white winter flowers’.

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There are some mis-fires, like the weird ballad about a stabbing, “Langley Lane”, which upon googling doesn’t appear to refer to any particular real-world event and seems to have entered the book without any emotional teeth (it might be telling that the one poem that intends to provoke an emotional response, “Gloves”, is more sentimental than moving, and reveals little about the father-son relationship at hand), while the book en mass could be accused of leaving too much to the reader or hiding an individual poem’s paucity of meaning behind an extensive vocabulary and attractive surface sheen. Though, again, a sheeny surface is by no means a given.

Tl;dr: This is an occasionally frustrating, occasionally dry, but ultimately unsettling and memorable book, with a coherent and befitting aesthetic, impressive formal wit and productive engagement with its predecessors. Plus a fine example of my prejudices being precisely wrong. Totes worth a peek.