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I Don’t Want To Go To The Taj Mahal by Charlie Hill (Repeater Books)

I Don’t Want To Go To The Taj Mahal by Charlie Hill (Repeater Books)

I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal is comprised of a series of ninety-five vignettes, mostly single page length, the shortest being two lines long. An epigram by Samuel Beckett is appropriate for the content: ‘It’s all a muddle in my head, graves and nuptials and the different varieties of motion.’ The reader is treated to snapshots views of the author’s family, his schooldays, his days in the youth club or drinking in the bikers’ club. Music and records provide a backcloth to lost chances, lost loves, and there is a whole string of early jobs in a fish shop, the Co Op, a packaging firm, Samuel the jeweller and Harrison Drape, the factory for curtain accessories where he drove a forklift truck ‘because it was the best of a shit job’ but nearly lost life and limb when it toppled off a ramp as he reversed it. Most of these jobs ended with him being escorted off the premises because of too many days going awol or putting himself on flexitime. One vignette describes a romantic interlude with a first love when he phoned up pretending to be snowbound in Devon so that ‘we spent the morning warm under thin blankets, feeding each other fresh strawberries dipped in cream, mouth-to-mouth.’

Throughout, the writing is detailed but concise with pithy comments. Sunday evenings in boyhood were spent watching a BBC serial ‘with bonnets and sideburns and Mum would provide us with plates of pilchard sandwiches.’ There are layers of implication in this remark about the siblings: ‘My elder sister resented my presence, my younger brother had blue eyes and curly blond hair.’ The tone is consistently laconic such as this one: ‘One year we won a goldfish at the Mop … by the time we got it home the goldfish was dead.’ Or there is this analysis of a relationship: ‘I am with a woman. We lived together, she went away, we lived together, we can’t anymore, so how does this work now?’ A comment on another relationship, many years later with a film maker, is equally downbeat and anti-climactic when he remembers her with nostalgia and thinks how good it would be to reminisce together ‘so I look her up, send her an email and hear nothing back.’

One of the most enjoyable aspects of these vignettes is Charlie Hill’s skill is creating a sense of time and place. Scenes of life in Birmingham are evoked:

‘I live in inner-city Balsall Heath with outlaws, dole-ites and artists and get a job with a packaging firm. The packaging firm is in Tysely, a fraying patchwork of factory estates and boarded-up pubs. I smoke among the cardboard boxes in the warehouses … After managing an office consisting of me all day, I come home to a house full of New Age travellers chopping speed … and a tea of Special Brew and noodles.’ 

A passage I find especially evocative is set in India where the author has gone in search of his girl friend:

‘We sit on flat roofs and look at the cows and the billboards advertising toothpaste. From the Ganges we hear incantations, while in the narrow street below men play chess. There is a festival on and the sky is full of bright kites, darting like sprats, stitching the sky with messages of devotion. She says it would be a nice idea if we get married. I demur.’

Subtle humour and I Don’t Want to Go to the Taj Mahal is rich in it. But it’s humour with an undertone of the bitter-sweet, the nostalgic and poignant. This a book I loved reading. Unforgettable.

Mandy Pannett 11th August 2021

Sex & Ketchup by Mish (Concrete Mist Press)

Sex & Ketchup by Mish (Concrete Mist Press)

     Mish’s Sex & Ketchup is informed by the trauma of living in the Trump Era and especially of being in the quarantine for the past few month. This is not to say that her collection is entirely about this era, only that the poems seem influenced by it and the emotions drawn out by it, even when she is not directly discussing the quarantine, her poetry seems to be a reaction to it. There are of course a number of poems that reminded me a bit of the political writing of Muriel Ruykeyser or Allen Ginsberg. They comment directly on the ex-president and his policies. However, it is equally clear that this time in quarantine has caused Mish to dwell on the traumas of her distant and recent past, and these are drawn out in the collection as well. In this, she is giving a voice to the deeply felt emotions that everyone I know is feeling these days.

     A friend of mine who is a psychotherapist dealing with trauma often says that retirement is a time when people suddenly have to face the PTSD they have been ignoring because of their working life because they have fewer distractions; I don’t know whether Mish would have been dealing directly with the loss of her father and her lifetime of memories with him. Certainly she would have, and possibly in very healthy ways, but this aspect of the collection feels very much to me like the emotions that I have been dealing with. We have all had a good deal of time to think carefully about our pain and worries. She devotes an entire section of the collection to this “Tiny Dancer,” and the fact of his death runs throughout the collection. She writes about the physicality of her father’s death: 

            Dad sucks air

            with mouth open,

            lungs flooded

            with pneumonia (13).

Her feelings of loss rise up in these poems, and of course we can all relate to those now in this time of forced meditation when we are reliving in vivid detail our traumas. Later she writes,

            My father

            Appears to me that night

            In a dream,

            Silently mouthing–

            I think–

            Love you–

            Then 

            Fading away (19).

These painful emotions are gaining power in our time, and this is one of the subtle messages running through the collection.

     Mish’s anger over who caused this trauma is far less subtle, and many of the poems lay the blame for it directly on Donald Trump. If she has regrets for the choices that she has made, she has anger for the person who put her in this situation:

            The virus rolls out

            of bed

            early,

            slips into bloodstained

            swim trunks,

            adjusts

            its “Make America Great Again”

            shower cap” (5).

The virus here is personified as a Trump supporter, later in the poem a Jim Beam swilling angry and violent monster, grabbing a machete, which it tests out on the news media. Trump’s choices and the fall out from those choices are all deadly and terrifying. She is showing that he has released a violence on so many levels against the world and there seems to be no way to contain it. However, she is also able to show how this violence will turn against him:

            Your cash,

            your chic,

            your limos —

            your verve —

            all wilt

            under the virus

            the way

            ice cream cones

            melt

            in the sun (10).

This is of course one of the many strange effects of Trumpism. If the populace is affected by the pandemic, he is not immune to it. What he has wrought upon the rest of the world, he has also wrought upon himself.

     The collection often also gives us glimpses of how to make it through such time with physical release or as the title suggests sex and ketchup. Food and sex. While Mish makes a point to show us that even these have changed, she takes the time to mention our need for them. Everyone I know reports having found refuge in physical pleasures. I have too, but for me, and I think Mish, these have been very temporary and so very dominated by what is turning out to be an era of pain.

John Brantingham 8th August 2021

Tears in the Fence 74 is out!

Tears in the Fence 74 is out!

Tears in the Fence 74 is now available at https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, prose poetry, fiction, flash fiction, translations and creative non-fiction by Seán Street, Mandy Pannett, Isobel Armstrong, Jeremy Reed, Andrew Mears, Anum Sattar, Ian Davidson, Joanna Nissel, Simona Nastac, Alan Baker, Lilian Pizzichini, Lucy Ingrams, Beth Davyson, Charles Wilkinson, Scott Thurston, Gerald Killingworth, Gabriela Macon, Kate Noakes, Peter Robinson, Kay Syrad, Huw Lawrence, Lesley Burt, K. V. Skene, John Freeman, Jane Wheeler, Tamsin Hopkins, Rachel Goodman & Elvire Roberts, Andrea Moorhead, Rebecca Althaus, Rachel Goodman, Mark Goodwin, Marina Tsvetaeva translated by Belinda Cooke, Alice Tarbuck, Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana, Adrian Clarke, Nigel Jarrett, Norman Jope, Steve Spence, Maddie Forest, Claire HM, Peter Larkin and Mark Russell.

The critical section includes Richard Foreman’s Editorial, John Freeman on Shelley’s Animism and Ecology, Alice Tarbuck on Thomas A. Clark, Carla Scarano on Margaret Attwood, Jeremy Reed on Yours Presently: The Selected Letters of John Wieners, Sarah Acton on Martin Stannard, Phil Maillard on d.a.levy and Bill Wyatt, Graham Hartill on Phil Maillard’s Bill Wyatt, Simon Jenner on Jay Ramsay’s Pilgrimage, Simon Jenner on Jay Ramsay’s Other Long Poems, Jeremy Reed on Patricia Hope Scanlon, Andrew Duncan on Will Harris, Belinda Cooke on Peter Robinson, Steve Spence on Ric Hool, Ian McMillan, Mandy Pannett on Sarah Cave, Maria Jastrzębska on Marcin Świetlicki, Ric Hool on Mike McNamara, Morag Kiziewicz’s Electric Blue and Notes On Contributors 

Why are we here?: Very brief fictions by Simon Collings (Fortnightly Review)

Why are we here?: Very brief fictions by Simon Collings (Fortnightly Review)

The short fictions in this collection engage with questions about the self, the nature of writing, the relation of the writer to the text, the ways in which we perceive reality, and how that reality is represented by works of art. These major themes encompass a number of other strands, some examined below, all of which is expressed in stories which are humorous, engaging and very readable.

In the piece ‘Retrospective’ there is a description of a machine constructed from various musical instruments as well as “old cans, even a plastic bucket”. The machine generates “…music that has no observable pattern. It is purely the product of chance.” This description of an automated artform presents another important theme of the collection, which is virtualisation, that is, digitally-generated experiences which, as these stories suggest, are encroaching more and more on the “real” world. In another story, a couple are entranced by birds singing in a tree in midwinter, only to find that the sounds are from wires and speakers installed by their new neighbours. On the same theme of the effect of the digital world on everyday life, the story “The Composer”, which describes how the narrator discovers a new composer only to find that they already have thousands of online listeners, expresses the anxiety caused by surplus of information in the internet age. The nature of art and the way in which people engage with artworks is examined in a number of pieces. In ‘Another Life (1)’ an art exhibition morphs into a visit to an African village, while in a companion piece, ‘Other Lives (2)’ the narrator returns to Nairobi from a drive up-country, to step from his apartment block into a “a large ballroom full of white people in expensive clothes”; both of these pieces point up the contradiction in how Westerners view art, particularly what might be termed “world art”.

There is plenty of comedy in these stories, and in fact, the comical elements are often the most disturbing. They come into play particularly when dealing with the absurdity of contemporary life and the infantilisation of culture. In ‘The Wedding’, the ceremony is held on a bouncy castle, and “One of the highlights was Julia’s mother falling over during the exchange of vows”. Another story gives us a childhood idyll, in which the narrator watched each year the spawning of fresh-water fish, turned into a “wildlife hotspot” complete with children’s fish-costumes.

The story ‘The Character’ is an important one in terms of this collection; it investigates notions of freewill and determinism in the voice of someone who could well be a character in another of the stories, aware of, and trying to comprehend, their own fictive nature:

“Though seeming to choose freely, I had apparently been hoodwinked by my own hidden impulses, though to what end I could not determine… I felt as though I were being worked by invisible strings, dancing like a puppet to another’s will, and yet I could not just give myself over to that superior power.”

The style of these stories is generally spare and understated. Where variations occur, it’s when the texts are parodying certain types of discourse. Some of the stories read as pastiche of certain styles, lightly shadowing the originals, including historical narrative and the essay form. The story ‘Theory’ is a pastiche of old-fashioned literary criticism, as is ‘Verne’s Nemesis’ in which a discussion of Verne’s work merges with the theme of identity running all through the book. The story ‘The Library’ seems like a key text in this collection, investigating the relationship between fiction and reality, and the blurred no-mans-land between them. The story ends “The library was there, unlike the past, always available to be rediscovered, reinventing itself continually in the light of fresh associations”; a description which could be applied to the stories in this book.

Although there are elements of dream-psychology in these stories, in general they are less dreamlike than literary; their characters are entangled in a text which reflects their confusion and instability, but which also frames their existence. One speaker says “I was no more than a diffuse presence without definite character”, describing how her “identity was seriously in doubt… Until then I had made little impression on the narrative”.

The book has an epigraph from Kafka, and as well as that major influence, the texts are reminiscent of Borges, Calvino and Beckett. The pieces use a combination of first-person and third person (often referred to only by a Kafkaesque initial) and are by turns funny, poignant and disorientating. Reading them late at night in a period of insomnia can, as I can attest, be a disturbing experience. Which as good a recommendation as any.

Alan Baker 27th July 2021

Spinning To Mars by Meg Pokrass (Blue Light Press)

Spinning To Mars by Meg Pokrass (Blue Light Press)

Meg Pokrass’s Spinning to Mars is a kind of non-linear novella in flash that keeps circling back to romantic relationships that aren’t making it and clearly were never meant to be. Pokrass comes out of a tradition that includes Stewart Dybek, Pamela Painter, and Robert Olen Butler, each of whom are masters of flash fiction and who understand unsatisfying relationships. In Pokrass’s collection, we keep coming back to two people who don’t quite understand each other and don’t really seem to want to but would rather retreat into a world of books and cats.

     Each flash story captures a moment in the life of two people who might or might not be the characters from the previous stories. It is never explicitly stated that this is the same woman often circling back to the same relationship, but we do see patterns repeating again and again. Throughout, it is familiar in that she captures what keeps us from satisfying relationships in our own lives, which is mostly the distance they intentionally keep from each other insuring that they will never understand the other’s life. Pokrass is a master of the novella in flash and uses it to its full purpose. Although each piece is well crafted, because they have been arranged as they are, the statement of the collection is that we ruin our lives in depressing patterns that we never break out of. She seems to be saying that if we had a little critical insight into those patterns, we would be able to find greater meaning in our loves and lives.

     Running through the collection is also a discussion of the awkward ways that people express themselves physically as they move into middle age. In this collection, people let themselves go, stop caring that they are near other people. In “Separation,” a wife is leaving her husband. “After packing your third bag, you find yourself staring at his penis which pokes out the side of his shorts when he lies down” (40). This would seem to be a violation, but there is a friendliness built on this kind of physical intimacy. She is leaving him for a reason, but their bodies have become comfortable. Of his penis, she writes, “It has always been friendly. You’re going to miss it” (46). Awkward bodies and closeness because of that awkwardness flow through this collection. These people have lost their inhibitions as they have entered middle age, and it is comfortable and even nice. This emotion is captured best perhaps in “Classified,” where a woman meets “one of the saddest men on earth”:

    A smile obscured his sadness. His belly poked out of his shirt and he pushed it back with his hand.

    She knelt and smoothed the dog’s ears. The dog had rancid breath and she liked it. (51)

The belly, the rancid breath, and the hand are what matter here. They humanize these characters, make them relatable and likeable. She uses the awkwardness to make them attractive.

     There is a reason that Meg Pokrass’s work is gaining in popularity right now and so many people are reading her. It is powerful and human. Through these flashes that are sometimes only a sentence long, she is able to get down to what is truly human in all of us.

John Brantingham 24th July 2021

Words Become Ashes: An Offering by Cindy Rinne (Bamboo Dart Press)

Words Become Ashes: An Offering by Cindy Rinne (Bamboo Dart Press)

Cindy Rinne’s Words Become Ashes: An Offering is in part a reaction to the pandemic and in part a spiritual guidebook to healing from it. Rinne is a poet and fiber artist who designs clothing and wall hangings among other objects of art. This collection highlights her poetry and fiber art, and both discuss the ways that she has worked through this time of pain. She is a deeply spiritual person whose work seems to be guided by Buddhist philosophy.

One of the ways that Rinne has found strength is through her art, which is an emotional link to those women who have come before her. She writes about the strange phenomenon of natural places being closed. She is cut off from these places that feed her spirit. In “The Forest Is Closed,” she writes of a national park being shut down because of the quarantine, but she imagines a meeting with women who have shaped her:

. . . Underneath the masks

reveal a blond woman floating. My grandmother

I never knew? She crochets a coverlet, a cross,

Shows me other women crafting by hand” (15).

If she cannot have the connection to the forest right now, she does have a connection to the natural world through a history that she continues with her art. In “Dear Flood Plain,” she does find a connection to the natural world by sneaking onto a floodplain where no houses can be built but is still cut off from her. “I arrived when you were called ‘Private Property Keep Out.’ I sneak under the chain and listen to eucalyptus, greet the sunrise over the mountain and take three deep breaths as my arms reach above my head” (19). In this passage, she is giving us one way through the pandemic and life’s problems generally, and that is a connection to the natural world.

     Rinne also writes about turning everyday activities into a meditation that brings healing and calm. She writes, “Night cream, vitamins, lavender oil, and brush teeth. Then stretch my back across a large exercise ball. . . Stretch and bow before ceramic Buddha with thoughts of thankfulness for another day. Blow out candles. Smoke drifts to ceiling leaving lines like spider webs. Read about a small shoreline bird. Lights out” (43). In this poem and others like it, we are given an insight into how she turns chores into ritual meditation that works for her. She is not exhorting us to follow what she does. She is simply allowing us into her life to show what works for her. It is up to us if we want to do something similar.

     Words Become Ashes: An Offering is as its title suggests a kind of prayer in and of itself. These are words meant to move the spirit, and for me they do. They offer hope in a time that has been so bleak for me.

John Brantingham 23rd July 2021

The Underground Cabaret by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

The Underground Cabaret by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books)

The ‘small square of blocks of prose presented as poetry’, as Ian Seed once defined prose poems, is deftly crafted in this collection, which is the final volume of a quartet, following New York HotelIdentity Papers and Makers of Empty Dreams. The stories, or, more accurately, fragments of stories, are tight, sharp and fascinating in their essentiality, revealing a surreal perspective that exists at the verge of absurdity, an upside-down world that is real and unreal at the same time. As in surrealist thought, so-called tangible reality is considered artificial, and, in opposition to that, the world of dreams, or nightmares, becomes the ‘real’ world. It is a subversive perspective that challenges and questions not only our certainties but also our perceptions. The detailed descriptions present in Seed’s prose poems set his pieces in a credible environment that is nevertheless reverted and subverted in each prose poem. It is a play of mirrors where characters and images are always shifting and suggest different meanings or no meaning at all. This conveys a sense of deep uncertainty but also great freedom of thought and movement. Repetitive patterns give consistency to this collection in a relentless exploration of themes such as loneliness, isolation, loss of identity, absence of passion and alienation; they emerge from everyday life and obsess the protagonist.

We found what looked like a piece of light, unmoving, frozen in the shape of a human being. We were afraid to touch it – it looked cold enough to burn us. What would happen if we could unfreeze it? Would it melt and vanish, or would it keep its shape and come alive? Could we take it away with us? Would it make any difference to how we lived, or loved, one way or another? (‘In the Empty House’)

     Some settings recur, such as second-hand bookshops, tunnels, corridors, beds, cafés and different cities located in Italy, France and England where Seed has travelled and lived. They are claustrophobic environments where the protagonist feels lost, haunted by his visions, and diminished and ignored by his friends and family. People who are commonly considered vulnerable, such as elderly people, migrants, homeless people and orphans, are sometimes depicted, with deliberate irony, as threatening; they invade his space and he flees from them. The poet’s inner self observes this comedy of life of sorts and is detached and estranged; he strays from the main focus of his stories and is eventually distracted by marginal details that derange the apparent logic of the discourse. Thus, the stories are unresolved and each ending often contradicts the beginning in an exploration that seems to be triggered by pure curiosity for its own sake. As Baudelaire claims in the introduction of Paris Spleen, prose poems have ‘neither head nor tail, since, on the contrary, it is all alternately and reciprocally head and tail’. He adds that prose poems communicate a reverie in a ‘poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple and choppy enough to accommodate the lyrical movement of the soul’. Seed also refers to the prose poems of Kenneth Patchen (Love and War Poems, published in 1968) he read in his youth as well as to William Blake, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy and Jeremy Over. In his essay ‘Discovery and Rediscovery (published in Fortnightly Review on 19 October 2018), Seed remarks how much he admires the lyricism of the language of the prose poem that contrasts with the objectivity of the description. According to him, this greatly enforces the message and highlights a subversive side out of academic and commercial worlds. This strategy attracted his imagination to the point of inspiring him to write in new ways after two decades of silence and to publish his work eventually. Seed’s work is not only in line with the tradition of the prose poems of Baudelaire and those written by recent authors but he also incorporates unusual elements, uncanny views that involve the protagonist. He withdraws when life attempts to grip him, when nothing makes a difference and mud and gold might be interchangeable. Therefore, the inadequacy of the protagonist, who often slips and falls when he is near the goal, seems quite intentional, a way of ‘making fun of the authorities’ and so avoiding being involved in what is considered a meaningless game. This opens up the poems to different views and boundless freedom that are always in dialogue with who we imagine we are and who we would like to be.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 21st July 2021

Weep Hole by Mai Ivfjäll (Sad Press)

Weep Hole by Mai Ivfjäll (Sad Press)

Mai Ivfjäll’s poetry shares the quality of symbolic elusiveness with that of William Blake whose motifs are significant in Weep Hole. Tantalising hints throughout the pamphlet invite the reader to explore a world of mysticism and ancient magic as well as the retro future of a fifth element and a divine language.

‘Suspended Not Suspended’ is written from the perspective of Blake’s ‘Sick Rose’ where the secret, invisible worm is its own self-destructive love. Time, in Mai Ivfjäll’s poem, unravels self like the thread of a hem. Here there is ‘no health’ but ‘only living     my sick sick rose’. There are sonnets in Weep Hole, part of a sequence called ‘Sick Sonnets’ which the author has described in an interview with Paul Cunningham of Action Books, as a ‘kind of love letter to the obliteration of self (and attunement to the present moment) that happens in the throes of chronic sickness.’

Sickness, certainly, and pain ‘is a psalm that sings your body is a bivouac’. (‘Glossolalia’). The poems begin with the line ‘the bees are dying – can you feel it?’ and the end of the collection is insistent: ‘the bees are dying the bees are dying’. The book itself is titled Weep Hole – an opening at the bottom of a structure which allows water to drain away. A small opening, a small weeping where ‘healing is an endless emptying’. (Poembody).  In the same poem the author poses the question ‘who wrote the list of the saddest words in the English language/on dictionary.com?’

But it is these words, this focus on the joy of language that most interests me in Weep Hole. In the same interview mentioned earlier Mai Ivfjäll describes how her sonnets may look traditional but inside are a mess ‘gorging on language’. Her poems overflow with sonic richness. ‘I liked the way the sounds tasted in my mouth,’ she says, ‘and wanted others to experience that pleasure.’ 

‘Make Me An Instrument’ offers fine examples of this gorging. One line plays with the sound of words: ‘I am lamb bait a baited lamb a lamented/bam’ while this word chain is perfect in its assonance: ‘noon moon moan koan loan lean/ mean meal meat met wet/let lit i’. What could be a better example of the joy to be found in linguistics than ‘Keening’?

            slime gifs

            are prayer psalms of goo

                                           asmr

            devotional gulp   oozing

holiness        as collapse

The first poem in the book is titled ‘Glossolalia’ and this intriguing word seems to me to be a central motif with its definitions that suggest fluid echoes of speech-like syllables that lack any readily understandable meaning, sounds that predate and supersede human speech, a sense of something transcendent and pentecostal, a language that is divine and mystical. References to books and films enhance ancient mysteries – the narrator slips ‘in and out of time’, one moment as Billy Pilgrim from Kurt Vonnegut’s anti-war sci-fi book ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’, the next as Leelo from Luc Besson’s ‘The Fifth Element’ – Leelo who by ‘googling a new vocabulary’ and by injecting herself with the quintessence of ether becomes the element itself that alone can defeat a cosmic evil force, can save the planet Earth.

Are we ‘empty vessels or/cosmic bodies’ asks Mai Ivfjäll in ‘S(ub)lime’.In ‘Everywhere Disappeared’ she gives herself a possible answer, disclosing ‘strange fruit    of a strange fire/my secret alphabet’. In ‘Preliminary (Im)materials’ she may ‘caw and claw/and coo I am dead’ but then, in the remarkable poem ‘A Slow Rapture’ she gives us this:

            wet

            magnolia trees

            drip

            memory    haunted

            after-rain baptismal’.

Mandy Pannett 12th July 2021

2021 Tears in the Fence Festival

2021 Tears in the Fence Festival

We are delighted to be able to announce that we will be holding the Tears in the Fence Festival Digging Deeper: Roots and Remains on 2nd to 5th September 2021 via Zoom and at the Stourpaine Village Hall, Stourpaine, Blandford Forum, Dorset DT11 8TA.

Amongst our featured readers and speakers will be Sascha Akhtar, Rae Armantrout, Elisabeth Bletsoe, Vahni Capildeo, Abigail Chabitnoy, Simon Collings, Emily Critchley, Melisande Fitzsimons, John Freeman, Alan Halsey, Jeremy Hilton, Fawzia Kane, Luke Kennard, Geraldine Monk, Mandy Pannett, Maurice Scully, Harriet Tarlo, Carol Watts, Sarah Watkinson.

There will be a celebration of the poetry of Rae Armantrout and Carol Watts. There will be open reading sessions, music, videos, talks, discussion, book signings and Festival bookstall. Amongst the open readers will be Lesley Burt, Paul Matthews, Aidan Semmens, et al.

Festival bursaries are available.

More details at http://www.tearsinthefence.com/festival.

Jack the Stripper by Paul Sutton (Knives Forks and Spoons Press)

Jack the Stripper by Paul Sutton (Knives Forks and Spoons Press)

Paul Sutton, perhaps somewhat of a cult figure in contemporary poetry, is approaching his sixties. His first collection Broadsheet Asphyxia was published eighteen years ago around the time he abandoned working in contract negotiations for offshore gas fields. Since then he has published six collections and a plethora of pamphlets, while teaching English in secondary schools, a job he finds creatively stimulating:  

the joys, rages and stresses are exactly the spurs needed for writing. And the insight gained is revealing; of how dull and pointless most ‘mainstream’ poetry seems, to those who don’t have to feign interest.[1]

Sutton is no doubt a little proud of his outsider status, relishing opportunities to decry political and poetical conformism in what he conceives as the ‘mainstream’. His favourite subjects for poems are “decay, violence, crime, gentrification, authenticity, serial killers, humiliation…[2]” so it seems a natural move for his latest offering to be a pamphlet punning on one of Britain’s most notorious murderers. Sutton’s macabre fascination with Jack the Ripper lasts for just the first two poems: ‘Prologue’ and ‘a Man in Acton Wearing a Trilby’, both alluring and unsettling affairs, though the theme of murder does resurface in the pamphlet’s twenty poems.

Outside of Roy Fisher’s city centred writing, Sutton’s biggest influence may well be Larkin, their similarities shine not just in mutual dispensation for ironic humour and poetry of place, moreover they have a pronounced talent for metrical sophistication, a scrutiny paid to the rhythm and beat of syllables and sonants, something of a lost art in contemporary poetry. Sutton’s poem ‘Under Gas’ starts beautifully:

My grandfather’s book on meteorology

starts gently, with him reminding us:

‘We live under a sea of gas.’

‘gently’ picks up the last syllable of ‘meteorology’ before leaning into the mesmerising image of a hazy world ‘under a sea of gas’. Sutton can be a poet of such delicacy, as technically gifted as any of his contemporaries, even the ‘mainstream’ figures he despises. Another particularly mellifluous moment comes in the opening to ‘Mud and Sun’:

Sudden sunlight hits the road

as you drive past what you’ve known –

seen in the rear-view  then gone

the juxtaposition of moving on from the past, physically and emotionally, floats out along the dashes and the repeated, clashing o sounds of ‘known’ and ‘gone’. However while the aforementioned ‘Under Gas’ has a clear focal point for its drooping nostalgia (the memory of Sutton’s grandfather), the nostalgia evoked in ‘Mud and Sun’ lacks directness, the poem features a mystical yearning for a forgotten place. Martin Stannard locates this in his blurb as a ‘sense of loss (but loss of what?) in contemporary Britain.’ The subject matter ties Sutton to Larkin once more while also harking back to the Georgian school, but it is also a point of departure for me. I simply don’t believe in what Sutton is mythologising, his idyllic visions of a lost Britain seem to my eyes constructs about as real as Neverland in Peter Pan, or C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. In ‘Mud and Sun’ Sutton’s craft is sublime but his sentiment misses the mark.

Jack the Stripper also features a ripping pastiche of Arthur Conan Doyle. ‘The Mystery of Skidmore Hall’ is rude, puerile and seriously funny, while also demonstrating Sutton’s fine hand for prose. Could it be time for a collection of Sutton’s Sherlock Holmes sagas? I think so. His sharp tongue and acid sense of humour are well suited to satire plus he knows the shimmies and feints of Conan Doyle’s as well as any writer. ‘The Mystery of Skidmore Hall’ is then a highlight of an original, often disarming, addition to the Sutton catalogue. 

Charlie Baylis 8th July 2021


[1]    https://thewombwellrainbow.com/2019/01/26/wombwell-rainbow-interviews-paul-sutton/ [accessed 5/6/21]

[2]    https://thewombwellrainbow.com/2019/01/26/wombwell-rainbow-interviews-paul-sutton/ [accessed 5/6/21]

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