Lydia Tomkiw is probably better known as half of Algebra Suicide, an inventive and eclectic post-punk duo which found Tomkiw declaiming her lyrics over drum machines and electric guitar. If you’re lucky you might find their albums secondhand, otherwise some of this music is still available on a couple of Bandcamp compilations.
Tomkiw was also an accomplished poet – although many poems were used as lyrics – and was championed in the UK by Martin Stannard and Geoff Hattersley, who both undertook a reading tour with her, whilst the latter published her book The Dreadful Swimmers through his imprint The Wide Skirt. Otherwise, Tomkiw’s publications were pamphlets and chapbooks, some self-produced, all now impossible to find. Until, that is, the publication of this 409 page book, which I have only just come across, although it bears a 2020 copyright date.
The band and poet both came out of Chicago in the late 70s/early 80s, part of a widespread surge in independent cassette and record labels, mail art, makeshift venues and mostly attitude. I first came across Algebra Suicide on tape anthologies from bedroom labels, often swopped for other tapes, and was immediately seduced by the sexy vocals and piercing guitars on their mostly short, sharp ‘songs’. Many are emotional recollections or declamations, apparently confessional memories; others seem openly sexual, full of lust and longing. An impression encouraged by the title of one of her chapbooks, Ballpoint Erection, and those of various poems such as ‘Desire’, ‘The Hips of a Woman’, ‘Boys in Bed’ and ‘Lazy Sweat’.
On the page, the words are sometimes simplistic, but always frank and open. In ‘True Romance at the World’s Fair’, the text moves from the opening ‘A whispered remark changed a girl’s life. / Make no mistake there was a difference.’ to ‘mother-in-law trouble’ and ‘A jitterbug wedding and an itch that started quick’, before the subject of the piece goes walkabout:
Dressed in the most attractive of rubber suits,
Posing as a young girl, unmarried and unkissed
She set out to answers questions.
One of which is ‘what brings out the beast in man?’ However, she soon discovers that
this ain’t no musical romp,
No screwball comedy;
This is just dog-collared loneliness:
The world is not a wild place.
Is that last line about disappointment, failure, or just a frank summary and conclusion? At the risk of confusing author and poems, Tomkiw in person was in many ways wild. Post-divorce from her musical partner and husband, Tomkiw took to drink and despair, only starting to come out of it when she and her friend the poet Sharon Mesmer moved to New York City in 1994. There she tried to make new literary and musical connections, undertaking readings and holding a launch party for a solo album, before she ran out of steam and faded from view. In 2004 her widowed mother asked her to move to Phoenix, Arizona, which she did. Little is known beyond that date: there was no public presence, only the news that Tomkiw had died – of natural causes – in 2007.
Thankfully, designer and advertising executive Dan Shepelavy took on the task of assembling and editing Tomkiw’s collected works. This beautifully put together book gathers up 180 uncollected poems, an introduction by Paul Hoover, a personal recollection by Sharon Mesmer, a detailed and factual history of Tomkiw by the editor, and a musical overview of Algebra Suicide. Each of the four chapbooks reprinted here are re-presented as they were originally published.
It’s clear Tomkiw was interested in reaching an audience with her poetry. Shepelavy writes that she ‘utterly rejected poetry’s endemic tendencey towards the insular and hermetic, craving connection and engagement.’ He claims that ‘[e]mboldened by punk’s example, Tomkiw helped redefine the boundaries of poetic performance’, suggesting that the ‘[n]ow established form like slam and spoken word, the promiscuou intermingling of music and verse’, can all be traced back to ‘those raucuous Chicago nightclubs and basements’.
There are elements of both hyperbole and truth there, which in a way dodge the real issues. Riding the zeitgeist of punk and post-punk always meant you were going to be left behind when musical fashions changed, whilst wanting to be taken seriously as a poet is never helped by being popular or populist – you get your fame perhaps, but rarely do you get ‘literary recognition’ or critical acceptance, however wrong that might be.
It feels hard to separate ‘connection and engagement’ from the notion of fame, although Shepelavy argues that ‘Fame was a diversion all along’ and that ‘Lydia Tomkiw’s work remains precious proof of imagination taking hold of reality and bending it to requirements – reality made to rescue, reclaim, seduce, exhilarate, amuse, and transcend.’
He’s not wrong, and although Tomkiw seemed to want fame as proof of her imagination, her poems and songs, she was also aware it might not happen in the way she wanted. ‘Sometimes’ ends with a verse of both resignation and hope:
Sometimes, things are heinous and torture us to tears
And we want everything we could possibly imagine,
And we want it to be glowing and pretty,
But we settle for something that
Might shine bright in years to come.
And here it is, a book shining brightly. In ‘Coup de Grace’, Tomkiw declares that
You won’t forget me:
I’ll be warm and wet in the thin winter air;
I’ll be the murmur, the secret like crazy.
As another poem says: ‘It’s time to reap the fun we’ve sown.’ Poems is seriously fun, seriously engaging, disturbing and enjoyable. You should buy it and share the secret.
Rupert Loydell 26th June 2022
Author Archives: tearsinthefence
Lydia Tomkiw is probably better known as half of Algebra Suicide, an inventive and eclectic post-punk duo which found Tomkiw declaiming her lyrics over drum machines and electric guitar. If you’re lucky you might find their albums secondhand, otherwise some of this music is still available on a couple of Bandcamp compilations.
These sentences are isolated outgrowths on the page, declamatory black islands on the sea of white page.
These sentences are accompanied by, perhaps arise out of or derive from, drawings. These sentences are unsure if they are words or images, are what arises from asemic writing, from figures, plans and imaginary architecture. These sentences ‘inscribe their own topography; make their shape with their shape’ (fig. 23).
These sentences ‘both fog and chart the rising structure’ (fig. 45) as they gesture, dome, tower and broadcast. These sentences are active participants in the construction of a shelter for the reader, built in their own individual way.
These sentences ‘balance the question of movement against that of enclosure’ (fig. 7). These sentences take risks, do some pretty heavy semantic lifting, and sometimes collapse under the weight of their own intentions and possible interpretations.
These sentences are carefully built temporary shelters, and can be rearranged into other dwellings. These sentences imagine possible future sentences, as purely text, at the end of the book.
These sentences are dream structures, buildings made of language arising from sentences which are drawings. These sentences ‘will up and flutter and through’ (fig. 60), ‘will not know space’ (fig. 5).
These sentences explore sentence construction and the nature of language, ‘and will not always say what they mean’ (p. 127). They often self-destruct but ‘will open when they fail’ (fig. 47).
These sentences are both tentative and self-assured. These sentences cluster and work together, but also stand up for themselves and elbow each other aside.
These sentences are hollows of meaning, are moments of illumination.
These sentences are some of many.
These sentences have no closure
Rupert Loydell, 24th June 2022
The collection is composed of seven short parts each with incantatory titles that together could create a poem of their own:
within the whirlpool of your loss
run away, leave the poem
one instant – you’re gone
I will not be able to lift you
the one with no name
the purple rose of Tel Aviv
Poems in ‘but first I call your name’ are elusive and ambiguous and based on paradox. Loss hovers between the binaries of beauty and pain: ‘apart from everything/nothing has changed’ says the epigraph on the opening page. The spirit of the lost ‘you’ wanders along ‘in the opposite direction/to laughter’. There are motifs of silence, birds, roses, music and dreams but pain is ‘nailed’, one title is ‘lacerations from an unsent letter’ and there is reference to ‘the crimson bond of blood’ while angels are warned to ‘take caution/with a slaughtering knife’. ‘Silence’ is a key word in these poems but, in the nightmarish ‘finito la commedia’, Pierrot cackles ‘A bird will scream tonight’.
Poems about loss – but the reader is offered no further information. There are references to motherhood with ‘nipples and honey’ and to a child, ‘a girl running in a field’, to a ‘morning star and a girl’ falling, ‘scattering through the air’, but details are not intended for the reader, loss is conveyed through images, there is no name and the lost one is always referred to as ‘you’ or, symbolically, as ‘beauty’.
Poems in this collection are filled with yearning. One is titled ‘how much yearning does time weigh’ and begins ‘You yearn from within me/passing a shadow over my words, pushing/towards the source of light.’ We have the description of ‘running along stone platforms/ chasing you’ (‘Crumbs’). In ‘leave these words’ the narrator runs ‘like a broom through the city streets’ asking ‘Was it my yearning that created the rose you gave me/in a dream or was it yours –‘. In the poem ‘baby, you’ve got a snow-white coat with blue-red stripes’, yearning is described as ‘wafting like a wind,/whirling’. ‘Hold, let me hold you’ is the plea, ‘don’t slip away’.
This is a deeply philosophical collection. Time, as the instigator of grief, is interrogated throughout. The ‘you’ has been ‘emptied of clocks yet time happens’. In the poem ‘silence’ Time is personified when he hears his own words and looks up ‘startled’ only to repeat the dreadful word ‘Nevermore’. In ‘twist’ we are offered this:
there’s no death, she said.
the spirit doesn’t die, is not born.
the sternum, a cage
of ribs, life before and after, all is one.’
Earlier I mentioned paradoxes and binaries and an essential one exists in the swing between the sublime and the void. In ‘but first I call your name’ the void is ‘emptiness/filled with itself’. The lost voice jingles in a bell ‘polished by the void’ (‘that’s that’). ‘o g-d’ begins ‘imagine voiding yourself: visibly absent./no present no sign. nothing. all shuttered … white recedes into darkness.’ The most chilling line, or fragment of a line, ends the wintry scene in ‘silence’:
‘Rain lashing a willow branch will be the only tune,
the world tethered to these words: you are no’
And the sublime? The poem ‘guesstimate’ offers some consolation perhaps, or at least a slight movement towards resignation:
they say your loosened curls are the wings of the bird of fate
that you were already who you would be
that you wouldn’t have been eternal
if you hadn’t been transient
This is an outstanding collection of poems, exquisitely written by Hadassa Tal and translated with empathy and delicacy by Joanna Chen. The book is haunting, in every sense, lyrical and innovative, both enchanting and painful.
The poems end with a promise: ‘at daybreak I’ll release you to dawn’ and with an image of ‘the purple rose of tel aviv’ which the narrator, with pain holding her hand, will ‘dream into being’.
Mandy Pannett 23rd June 2022
Met Obs is a large pamphlet, lovely to hold and look through, with superb black-and-white photographs by Jen Lindsay. You are encouraged to take your time over these poems: even a four-line poem will usually be in the centre of an otherwise blank page. And they need time: they have a fullness which allows for sudden new directions, jump-cuts, and startling changes of register. There is a strong presence of what feels like rural Suffolk, a particular house and garden, and its surrounding natural world; of night; and also of the sea and seashore. There are other human presences. The idea of a world in endless transformation is there in the first poem, ‘Moly’. The middle stanza has a steady focus on sleet on a ploughed field until, in its third and last line:
‘a seethe capsizing me unmoored strangeness of raw’
Through its characteristic patterning of sound (seethe/me moor/raw caps/ness), we feel the plough and the sleet moving under us. The last stanza is prayer-like (‘shelter me night the roots of the mind are tender, frail’), the wind is ‘in the earth’s rigging’, and ends with almost homely directness: ‘I am out of true’.
Voyaging is explicit in the very enigmatic title poem, ‘Met Obs’. Short for ‘meteorological observation’, a nautical term, referring to a reading or record, as the epigraph to that poem has in brackets, ‘mid-atlantic 0200 hrs’. Night time, at sea, a wondering alertness…very much the provenance of these poems.
A lover is openly present in ‘Scatter’, which introduces the ‘we’, ‘We climbed that storm’, continuing with the poignant ‘mostly hope, mostly bent towards/the other…’ , adding the evocative and positive ‘slipping our moorings’, and ending where characteristically the erotic (‘your hand round me in me’) meets a tiny shock, the surprise of ‘you/crackled…’ And there’s the delightful ‘Below 0 ° C’:
the birdbath is moon, cold niche, midwinter
stash, icefield, clamp, pent, chock of sky.
There are flaughts in my ribcage
rips in the skylid. From a spent
maize strip rook-black ejecta sling
which ever way the wind.
Below 0° C I’m not my own light, cariad,
as I cup my smithereens to your keelbone.
The music of association, the sound of one word suggesting another, pent/spent, rib/lid, cage/maize, sling/wind, etc. helps create the sense of an openness to a winter’s night and to the beyond, and though there’s cold outside, there’s the warmth of the lovers’ bed in the extraordinary last line (‘cariad’ is love or sweetheart, a word of Welsh provenance).
At the end of ‘Horizon’, the characteristic images of earth and sky are also suggestive of the explosive physical effects of human encounter:
No one utters a word for, on some days, the violet
violence of that meet place, the power load, the tightrope.
But it gets dark it rains and there’s that sweet
unseen pulse-point no you were my heart, and we did touch.
The voice breaking in, in italics, with the poignant ‘were’, ‘did’, unsettles the poem even as it completes it.
The relation between text and photo seems to be one where each is allowed to speak for itself: only ‘Stilts’ seems to take one as its starting point, where vaguely stilt-like old iron stanchions protrude from a grassy hillside.
The book finishes with ‘The Angle of Dip’, but its first line is by this stage probably not how you expect even a Lizzi Thistlethwayte poem to start!
Life is a massive con, hurrah…
especially when four more lines start with ‘hurrah’ (including both ‘hurrah for rain at last’ and ‘hurrah for a roof that doesn’t leak’!) Nevertheless, the casual ‘what-the-hell’ freedom here is characteristic. Once the speaker confesses to the ‘sin of a veerable soul’ and continues with the playful charm of the adaptation of the 23rd psalm, ‘for even though I walk in the valley of sensible shoes/I cry like a child’, the poem ends with
Q. Should I appear nonchalant or full of holes?
A. I am here, under the rain, already miles away
both possibilities still open, the protagonist not to be pinned down, elusive, as her poems are, as the world is.
Martin Hayden 2nd June 2022
The emphasis in the environmental sciences nowadays is less on Darwinian competitiveness than on how organisms interact synergically in complex systems. Meantime old concepts of nature have steadily been eroded, both by posthumanism and the recognition of the Anthropocene. Changes have consequently been due in nature writing, which can often still be structured around the human, personal and agonistic. Since language itself is structured that way – subjects and accusatives, persons and possessives – it’s no easy project, but one which innovative poetries – more willing than the mainstream to radically disrupt conventions – have so far had most success in undertaking.
Dominic Hand’s ecopoetics is particularly inventive and visually dramatic. His sonnets’ full justification, small font, lower case and lack of punctuation mean they appear as striated squares, like something blockily manufactured. The same features make them a dizzying and dense read: each poem a single sentence whose clausal links are participles, prepositions or relative pronouns rather than conjunctions. The formalism evokes the connectedness of each poem’s ecosystem, while I guess the phrasal stacking enacts the complexity of entanglement and permeability within it:
tumbling like motes in an eye’s cold prism
the multi-dimensional non-motile drifts
of diatoms jinking through benthic plasm
constellate fragments of starlight in rifts
as subdued as the night sky’s deep and atlantean
gravities corralling dust clouds to maps
of compassless pyrenoids sequestering carbon
in scattershot nebulas of jet-propelled salps
where larvae of herrings and urchins revolve
in orbit around the ghost nets and nurdles
disjected from dead zones to gloam or dissolve
like space-junk a blank cyclorama encircles
with mass-shifting clusters of radiolarians
secreting dark silicas crushed down to aeons
The poems share a focused present tense and a vocabulary rich in scientific Graecisms, among diverse rhythms and novel part-rhymes (‘lily pad […] helipad’ was among my favourites). Their global metaphor is symbiosis: trees and fungi, oxpeckers and impalas, cleaner fish and eels, with the cognizance that humans are most often a parasitic part of the arrangements. Among much wordplay, the language of finance often infiltrates, a reminder that Donna Haraway and others prefer the term Capitalocene to Anthropocene. Allusions to Marvell, Hopkins, Dickinson and so on ‘versify’, I suppose, the ecological process of succession. Great titles like ‘In a Landskip’ and ‘To a Hyperobject’ made me smile (albeit bitterly). I also learned lots about botany, animal navigation, plankton (see above), fracking, bacteria, factory farming, plastiglomerates, polymers… Whew.
The main emotion I experienced, besides wonder or horror at what’s depicted, was admiration veering to reverence as to its creation. The posthumanist turn with its vanished narrator does risk, ironically enough, restoring deific qualities to writers as, appropriating the internet’s omniscience, they stride across the specialist lexicons of genetics, geology, water engineering and computer networking with their name on the cover still signposting a distinct locus of origin and control. In whatever case this collection hardly needs me as a commensual symbiont; it and its young author have already won several deserved prizes, and the back-page blurbs are from J.H. Prynne and Peter Larkin. But I’ll say it anyway: it’s just fabulous.
Guy Russell 25th May 2022
These poems are a mix of actual conversations and additional material aimed at giving a voice to those who often go unheard. They are moving, humorous and witty and employ a degree of dialect related to Newcastle where the author grew up. The opening sequence ‘Ten Tyneside Twittersonnets’ are based on a form invented by Robert Sheppard which has 280 characters (a tweet) split over the 14 lines of a sonnet. They remind me, to a degree, of Sean Bonney’s sequence The Commons, where found materials are utilised in relation to a commentary on popular culture, class and politics. The resonance feels similar.
where’s it aall ganna end?
ee, alan byekar, ye
luk leik butta would
n’t melt in ya mooth
. ye’re a bonny bairn
but ya nowt but trou
ble. Aa’ll be hevin
words wi’ ya mam. Ye
‘ll niva come to owt
D’ye even belang roo
nd heor? Hadaway or
aall call the poli
s. Where’s it aall g
anna end? Nase alwi
z in a bluddy buik!
In ‘Bob Morris Speaks Out’ a retired miner talks about the events around the 1926 strike which is based on an actual recording from the British Library’s survey of English Dialects. It’s a powerful piece which resonates with those who lived through the 1984 strike and reminds the contemporary reader of the importance of historical documents and of the nature of class, poverty and politics which, in our current environment is hardly inappropriate:
As hewed coal an
the best men couldn’t
get nee more than
thorty five bob a week
that had ti keep
yor hoose and family
aye thorty five bob a week
it was cruelty mann!
an the gaffer spoke
ti yi as if yi
was just muck
yi don’t answer him back o no
There are a number of short pieces under the headline ‘Dispatches’, attributed to particular residents of the housing estate in Newcastle where the author grew up which are filled with humour and poignant recollection. This is poetry as social history, gritty realism which also has an element of experiment, mainly encapsulated in the title poem from Twittersonnets where the final lines ‘…. when did it / aall gan wrang mrs t’ probably relates to a communication between neighbours but I can’t help reading an address to Margaret Thatcher in the tone even if the dates don’t quite match. I’d love to hear these pieces read aloud and understand there are recordings available. It will be interesting to see what the author does with the line breaks as indicated by the formal restraints on these fourteen liners. Alan Baker’s work is continually intriguing, his mix of politics, experiments in writing style and social history are rare elements and his output is prolific. Highly recommended.
Steve Spence 22nd May 2022
Which writer is not at some level engaged with place, landscape, mythology, folklore and stories? It may be overt, it may be in opposition to established histories or geographies, it may be about colonisation, rebellion or immigration, it may be about revisiting the past and present through the lens of gender, sexuality or identity, it might simply creep into our writing because we all live somewhere and hear and see things others don’t.
England on Fire is subtitled A Visual Journey Through Albion’s Psychic Landscape, the kind of phrase that smacks of vague New Age mysticism and woolly religious philosophies. It doesn’t do itself many favours by this kind of labelling, because the book – an anthology of carefully curated images accompanied by Mat Osman’s poetic prose – is much harder-edged and interesting than that subtitle and dour cover with a deer-headed figure against a circle of light suggests.
Stephen Ellcock talks about research, intuition, pattern making and collage in the brief authors’ biographies at the start of the book, all creative processes I can relate to. The book is in 12 themed chapters or sections, each evocatively titled (‘Out of Darkness’, ‘Weeds & Wildness’, ‘Rebellious Nature’, ‘Acardia’), each a cluster of beautifully reproduced painting, photos, prints, sculptures or drawings, each opening with a few hundred words from Osman, who responds to Ellcock’s themes through tangent, metaphor and storytelling.
Osman also supplies a more straightforward, if slightly polemical, ‘Introduction’, where he explains how ‘Stephen juxtaposes and weaves imagery around itself, teasing out narratives and finding wild connections in a kind of visual language’, suggesting that the project is politicised, ‘a very English rebellion of the nameless many against the privileged few’, and uses ‘a language that speaks to England’s subconscious’. Heady stuff! But fair enough, although Osman seems to find the images in here more unknown and obscure than I do.
Anyway, what do we get? To start with there is George Frederick Watts’ swirl of creation, swiftly followed by John Martin’s apocryphal ‘The Deluge’, William Blake, Arthur Rackham, Ken Kiff, Samuel Palmer, an Anglo-Saxon brooch, a photographic stereograph of ‘The Devil’s Chimney’, Norman Palmer and one of Madge Gill’s channeled spirit works on paper. This wonderful visual cornucopia is repeated throughout the book, with still from Derek Jarman’s Avebury film, fairy photographs, Notting Hill carnival images, Richard Dadd’s asylum paintings, landscape photography, mazes, the changing face of ‘Settlements’, until we get to the final section ‘Visions’. Here, Osman becomes ecstatic:
ENGLAND IS A FIREWORKS DISPLAY
THAT SETS THE NIGHT ABLAZE
And us? We are flame-lit and bonfire
-warmed. We walk in beauty like the night,
secure in the knowledge that everything
grows better after a wildfire […]
England is a firework that burns forever.
Shooting stars, ‘thought forms’ erupting from a cathedral tower, abstract psychedelic inkjet prints, John Martin again, sunsets by George Shaw and Francis Danby… and then Blake’s ‘Jerusalem, The Emanation Of The Giant Albion’ and Dan Hillier’s ‘Older Light’, a heavenly figure radiating light into the darkness.
Elsewhere, scarecrows, the green man, corn figures, bonfires, dragons, druids, the Padstow Obby Oss, witches, mummers, along with Punch & Judy appear; as do ruined buildings, masks, stained glass and documentary photos from Rock Against Racism. This is Albion, an imaginary and hyper-real version of England, in all its glory. A land where races mingle and co-habit, magic and religion co-exist, as do ritual and science, poetry and song, humans, ghosts and imaginary creatures. I wish it said Britain, not England (maybe that’s just me being PC – England seems so non-inclusive) but this new book is inspirational and thought provoking, part documentary, part challenge, part of the ongoing change we are living through: ‘England is an immigrant song that changes us with every singing.’
Rupert Loydell 21st May 2022
Here we are in the world of the 17th century reformers, post English civil war, of Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down, of Leon Rosselson’s 20th century song of the same title, covered by Billy Bragg at a later date. Simon Jenner in a mood of democratic revival, generated by hope of a renewed radicalism in the Labour Party, has framed a series of poems based around the writings of Gerard Winstanley, leader of the Diggers whose failed attempt at setting up a democratic commune at St. George’s Hill in 1649 has inspired a multitude of radical movements ever since. These 36 poems are a mix of inspired experimentation, rich historical materials and intellectual curiosity typical of this poet’s considerable output. Winstanley is a great read but one to be taken slowly, with relish, where careful re-reading will improve the response. There’s also plenty of emotional content as this is not a dry academic tome.
Orient voice arrival alluvial days
land washed stiff by brute plunderers
where the jute factor wears freedom
duck egg blue springs with the calyx of April
a yoke thrown at St George’s Hill, as Fludd says
each stamen births a star.
The occident of the oppressor sets to the west
of men gilding the common treasury of earth
turning rowan where the histories of wrong
occlude in darkness where all, all shall rise,
yeasted with themselves, all, some at the shadowed
cusp of the minute hand on midnight
fleer and flesh salvation.
True levellers of all property I see feast
on light, God’s nakedness restored in the fork
of good works. Brothers, sisters of this
blinding fall to innocence, fasting, prayers
for the corn I once spent to market,
shallots, light July rain.
Jenner says in his introduction that ‘I found the cussed extremes of faith and conflict released a wild permission, a go-for-broke linguistic immanence’ and you certainly get the feeling of a modern mind relating to an earlier time and finding common ground and a sense of possibility within the encounter. Here there is utopian hopefulness but grounded in hard reality and a wonderful evocation of the physical aspects relating to food production and a sense of harvest. These poems combine political ideas with emotional intensity, are rich in detail and remain relevant in terms of our current predicaments. I’m reminded stylistically and in terms of historical reconstruction of the poetry of both Geoffrey Hill and Steve Ely.
March whitens. A new year’s gift lies fallow.
Come out of stark, landlords, parsons,
Set down in our singing torn-through houses.
Your souls crunch tenantless as our bodies.
Your soldiers drop us bright pence as fellows
some flinch to birch as dogs wail hymning persons;
ride God’s last year in on bloodied horses.
We’ve stamped today’s alto wail of babies.
It’s been said that in England we had the revolution too early and that the aftermath of the civil war led to further tyranny before the monarchy was returned and ‘the natural order’ maintained. Yet such attempts at democratisation, foiled by the forces that took to arms in the first place and would brook no dissidence from those seeking a wider franchise, are worth recalling in our equally difficult times.
The cerements of our endeavours rise up waxed
gusts of others’ breath ripple and distort
the sheeted shining cloth sigh letters
the words are ranted but inhabited for good
the time is minted from the original
the ripest enthuse just his elbow wit
the wits pared with a jack-knife on a table for print
the visions’ crude halo holds a nimbus for truth
the preacher rails in Atlantic vocables
the few take seed, the many spindrift
we’re wombed in what they’ll bring of our freedom
our treasury’s blowing in a dust cloud of famine
it lands too tare too thinly scattered but it alights
it’s broadcast through the seeded months of our successors
it sings its craft orient, stings the face of the new world.
Reading these poems has made me eager to go back to writings from the period which include of course Milton and Marvell as well as the rantings of Abiezer Coppe about whom the irrepressible Leon Rosselson wrote – ‘Abiezer Coppe/he did away with sin/my body is my god, he said/and heaven lies within.’ To get the best from Simon Jenner’s short collection it’s necessary to read around the subject and I’m sure the scholarship has moved on since I last read Christopher Hill. Yet it’s a period of great interest and these poems have reawakened mine.
Steve Spence 17th May 2022
I simply love this book and could quote from it endlessly. Split into nine sections it’s playful yet serious and seriously playful at the same time. These are poems which sing and suggest, slip from idea to idea, confuse your thought processes yet delight the eye and the brain with an abundance of energy, skill and sheer brilliance. There is rhyme and assonance in abundance, all the traditional tricks of the trade yet done in such a way as not to overstate the case and even when this is the case to do it with such bravado and gusto that the reader is helplessly in thrall. Here, for example, are the first and final stanzas in the opening poem ‘Time is of the effervescence’:
Then it’s popped. Likewise a pillar of well-being – too much taboo
contravenes the notion that all’s well. Many are non-believers confounding
the desire to know. An expansive watch tells it all.
On the dot. Safety behind the door. Larger than the frame it purports
to fit. Come winter down it goes – contradicted and back to size. A well
beginning for a venture.
From an unexpected beginning (has the previous sentence been omitted?) which could signify a ‘grand opening’ we follow through with non-sequiturs which nevertheless take you off at tangents of possibly intriguing thoughts. That or filling in the dots, which each reader can do in his or her own fashion. There’s a charm to the process which is hard to pin down but it’s wonderful writing. Sometimes you get a sense of deja vu from a snippet or phrase which you think you can locate from elsewhere but you’re never quite sure. How much ‘found language’ there is in this process is difficult to ascertain as it all trips along so beautifully even amid the abrupt interjections, and how contradictory is that? Wordplay, as in the title – which you can easily misread at first attempt –
is central to the method and can be ‘effervescing’ (as here!) or more subtly intertwined within the texts.
In ‘Lark’ we have the following:
Folly me dandy Follow me rare
Up from the broad room Down for repair
Clopped in the cow pat Snapped in the snare
Glandular fever Dip snip & dare
Influence effluence Stock still and stare
Safety-pin paraffin Polish & swear
Pickle & candy Cauliflower pear
This is pure nursery rhyme material from the section of mainly shorter poems entitled ‘Each shell or barnacle’ where charm is an essential guide.
We have lists and prose poems and visually induced pieces such as ‘A smidgen’ from which we get the following:
STICK in the gullet a fork
is a powerful tool
a bowl of cake a broth hot-pot gob-stop
of scalded chicken a cut-glass
reservoir DON’T serve me
of its mate Lay gall-stones
around my plate
I can’t precisely replicate the typographical variation here but you get the gist and these poems are clearly written by somebody with visual training as well, perhaps, as a writer with an interest in concrete poetry. I’m reminded a little here of Edwin Morgan whose versatility stretched to early computer-generated work as well as translations from the Hungarian but his poetry always had a sense of the playful about it which is seriously true of Linda Black’s work also. There appears to be a lot of cooking going on in these poems so I detect the appearance of ‘a foodie’ at work both in terms of the subject matter and in the sense of ‘cooking up’ a readable concoction.
Head fold arm swivel twizzle drizzle
polarised eyes meagre penniless
concave gaze a turn a tail slight flea-bite
foot drop (under the arches second left)
stiff back/ed linen hump lump impeded gait
older days leaden light adult daze
paralysis (atypical depression)
quarried tiles (misfit) slab slap overlap
assemblage of nuts & bolts (hard wear)
crockery mockery (Scott not free)
calories count stark Clark’s shoes
spleen Scalextric running late
It’s wonderful the way this material all hangs together, whether derived from word association, awareness of the sound aspects of the written word or indeed the artificial nature of process (‘assemblage of nuts & bolts’), there’s a sense of immediacy and a lightness of touch here which is so good to encounter.
Each shell or barnacle
Kingfisher or kite, closely observed. A tarpaulin to rest upon – no
sting or carbuncle – leisure caressing all surfaces. No ache (body blithe,
unruffled). No significant other, trailing dandelion heads. Pine needles,
kelp. Forwards may run forever. The breadth of the breath, the hearth of
An even temperature. The desire for narrative, the smooth ascent,
enclosure the sodden clay. Take a runner nailed into place – a (straight)
forward path; an intermittent placing on the doormat.
Playtime pops in – something creative. It is time to engage.
So we have ‘the desire for narrative’ allied to what appears to be an often aleatory mix of registers and materials. There is ‘playtime’ just ‘popping in’, as it so often does and now it’s ‘time to engage’.
These poems, prose poems and other texts accumulate and begin to work on the reader as they do though it’s equally quite possible to just dip in and worry away at a poem, enjoying the language and the placing of somewhat discordant phrases which nevertheless begin to ‘make sense’ as the images and sentences accrue and accrete. Linda Black knows how to juxtapose and to create poems which may puzzle and occasionally frustrate but also entertain and make you think. There’s a wealth of creativity here and as I said at the beginning I love this book and could quote from it endlessly. Wonderful stuff.
Steve Spence 15th May 2022
This book is a quartet of slow, accumulative, long prose poems that touch on landscape, personal experience, geography, and philosophy. Sectioned and/or paragraphed, they gradually build up encounters with ‘Landscapes. Subtle shiftings of reality.’ These shiftings come from attention to detail, consideration of change, the seasons, the weather, how the light falls, and of how humans engage with the world around them.
Moorhead is interested in her own place in things, and in place itself, willing to be both scientific and emotional, rational and speculative, and to grapple with the unknown, in an attempt to allow ‘this existence to be full’. This fullness of experience, of course, means dealing with ups and downs, winter and summer, light and dark, the desired-for and the unwelcome. Death and mortality are part of nature, as is longing, absence, memory and anticipation; our own stories make sense of our lives, and ‘[f]ables frame the day’. Moorhead is well aware that ‘[t]his insistence on recollection alters the perception of light, changes the angle, lifts the dark shades to a brighter hue’, and she willingly brings that self-awareness to her texts.
But her self, her ego if you prefer, is pushed to the background throughout this writing. Moorhead gazes outwards, sits still and observes, walks and watches. She is well travelled and well aware of ecological damage and devastation, in fact it informs her work, but her work is mostly sitting still, looking and thinking about what she can see, and putting it in to language. ‘Sometimes’, she writes, ‘the day itself wobbles, sometimes everything wobbles, oscillates, shimmers and shivers along some axis that isn’t readily apparent.’
She attempts to explain how history, geography and language – ‘remarks’ – ‘have a way of escaping […] perhaps dissolving into what people call thin air, the substanceless extension of lived space.’ Moorhead is busy trying to document what is missing, push beyond the surface of the world into the past, the now, and the elsewhere, but ‘[t]he physical world preserves its mystery’ and only ‘fragile words linger’, perhaps not for long.
Much as Moorhead does her best to watch and understand, think and engage, she admits that ‘[t]he hallucinatory boundaries are unclear; illusion, mirage, hope and expectation reek havoc with the mind.’ We cannot escape what we have done and are doing, our shared responsibility, or leave our assumptions and wishes, our selves, behind: ‘flesh is slow to absorb what flickers across the mind’. But in this wonderful book Moorhead attempts to ‘narrow the gap between lost reflection and the insistent weight of the body’, to earth herself and us in time and place, the very now of where and how we live.
Rupert Loydell 14th May 2022