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Category Archives: English Poetry

Pearl & Bone by Mari Ellis Dunning (Parthian Books)

Pearl & Bone by Mari Ellis Dunning (Parthian Books)

Rebecca Goss’ back cover quote describes this book as a ‘profound study of the maternal journey’, but Dunning’s weighty ‘Foreword’ makes it clear that this is not just a personal story of pregnancy, giving birth and motherhood, but a thematic collection hung on that story to consider lockdown, abortion rights, historical associations and issues ‘of medical bias, gendered violence, misogyny, control over women’s bodies and reproductive rights, the praising of chastity and virginity, and the notion of female bodies as vessels alone’. Quite a list, and one Dunning seems nervous about tackling ‘through poetry alone’, suggesting that Pearl & Bone is just her starting point.

The book opens gently, with the narrator sharing the news of her pregnancy with her partner as they walk a mountain trail, although the poem is addressed to the already born child, a story in the past tense. ‘You were a fish’ relates movement in the womb to the ocean, whilst the following two brief poems discuss how the body changes during gestation. 

Then we are transported back to 1963 and the voice of Christine Keeler as she poses in an Arne Jacobson chair, ‘stripped and bare as a newborn foal’. She comments on the journalists publishing a list of her lovers, and throws the question asked of her, ‘are there any of them you actually loved?‘, back in their (and the reader’s) faces. Keeler is a character who reappears throughout this collection, but there are many others too: Prospero (perhaps, or maybe another wizard or magician) in ‘Ace of Wands’, Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Eve, Sarah Everard, and Bertha Mason (from Jane Eyre); all victims of power in one way or another, be that a rapist and murderer, a character’s husband, the author, God, politicians, history or opinion.

In between these powerfully voiced poems are more straightforward texts, where the personal and domestic are foregrounded. A spider hangs under the sink the narrator is cleaning, the baby arrives with ‘a cacophony of cries, the thundering beauty of lungs’ (‘July 2nd, 15:08’), and ‘A Sudden Mother’ is forced to stay on the postnatal ward during Covid-19, as one of the ‘pale and bloodless ghosts’, whilst the baby’s father is

   […] pitched miles away, butting at doors that scream:
                                                   Stop.
                                                          No entry.

Elsewhere, other poems document the discoveries of parenthood: persuading children to sleep by driving them around, sharing Spring’s first daffodils, walks in the rain, self-doubt and wonder, and the way ‘the house changed too’, as ‘there are traces / of you / in every room’. And there is a changed and re-shaped body (both physically and mentally) to deal with, and the worries and implications of Roe vs. Wade, rebuffed in ‘Blessing for the Women’. The following poem, ‘Altar’, draws on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for its epigraph and imagery, where the poem’s addressee worships ‘at the tired altar of [her] own shame’.

Towards the end of the book, Dunning returns to Wales, but a Wales tinged with the mystical and magical, wild nature, holy wells, and unholy water where curses are known to take root. The priestess, ‘whittling magic’ is no longer present at the end of the page, instead there is a sibling for ‘Jac’ to contend with, and a final declamation where ‘The Womb Speaks’:

   Believe me –
   I will wear these scars like jewels, mined hot from the earth.
   I will bleed and leak. You shackle what you fear: the minotaur
   pacing its maze. The circus bear sweating rags behind bars.
                             This vacant womb. Its deafening power.

This is a brave, complex, powerful, angry, and loving book, full of poems that argue, discuss, share, and reject the abuse of power that women and children are constant victims of. Rooted in the physical body, it places individual experience within a web of other voices and events, asserting and demanding without ever heckling or abusing its readers. It is a model example of issues-based poetry, where argument is not reduced to sloganeering, preaching or demands, a concerned and original voice in the current debate about sexuality and gender.

Rupert Loydell 11th August 2022

Cafferty’s Truck by Robin Thomas (Dempsey & Windle)

Cafferty’s Truck by Robin Thomas (Dempsey & Windle)

Robin Thomas’ two earlier collections, both from Cinnamon, are miscellanies in various styles inspired by paintings, reading, childhood, music and trains; common subjects approached with a trying-things-out feel but all done with an uncommon level of playfulness and geniality. This more interlaced book, hot on the heels of A Distant Hum, has a slim twenty-four pages of work, with poems averaging about ten short lines each. Here’s one of them (‘The Meeting’):

            The truck labours
            along the long road up.
            The van, spick and span,
            speeds by on the other side,
            wafts by with hardly a sigh.

The minimalist approach relies on the way humans will construct narratives from the thinnest series of clues. But the overall story is straightforward enough. In fact, we’re told it at the end of the first poem:

              Byrne, in his trim red van,
              respectfully following, follows
              Cafferty’s yesterdays with his tomorrows.

Cafferty’s business is in decline. He’s distracted: spending time in the art gallery or the library or the aquarium. He’s out-of-date and indecisive: he uses a map rather than satnav, and can’t even choose a toothpaste in Tesco. He’s just not business-like: his collection of strange words (‘setose’, ‘alkanet’, ‘quab’, &c.) hints he could even be a… poet. As for his truck, its Homeric epithet is ‘rackety’. It rattles and sneezes and sighs. It gets frequently juxtaposed, as above, with Byrne’s van, which waffles and capers and wafts, and we’re often told how trim, smooth, buffed, red, shiny, noiseless and so on the van is. In case we still haven’t got the idea, Byrne is shown in Halfords, buying stuff to care for it. By the end, without any further twist or reveal, the truck is out of action, and the van ever more thriving. The only consolation is that O’Brien’s lame horse is more redundant still. 

The imaginative novelty here is that the vehicles are described more animatedly than their owners, which makes them feel humorously alive in the manner of children’s cartoons. And not only the vehicles: this whole world is blooming with pathetic fallacy. ‘Breezes dance a minuet’, ‘flowers whisper each to each’, a counter ‘frowns at the ignorant shelves’, ‘birds converse’, ‘cobbles slime’, ‘slovenly’ windows ‘peer’ or ‘gloat’ and a river even ‘invisibles’. This kind of thing is a matter of taste, of course, but it undoubtedly fits the theme. 

The spitting sailors and skipping girls, the ‘double-breasted Saville [sic] Row’ suit, and a mere van ‘draw[ing] glances of envy’ make the setting feel vaguely old-fashioned, but it is in fact near-contemporary: Cafferty goes, for instance, to the 2019 Jeff Koons show at the Ashmolean. Koons himself gets cited: ‘to know is an enrichment, but you don’t have to’, a quote which continues, off-stage, ‘it’s back to art not being an intimidating thing.’ Certainly, this book’s unintimidating countenance will be appealing for those who’ll forgive its various types of thinness and occasional veering of plainness to obviousness. In any case, the geniality and playfulness are still around: axolotls can apparently restore ‘the less vital parts’ of their brains. And Madame Sosostris, no less, runs the garage that will hopefully repair the truck – ‘with only her owl/ for company’.

Guy Russell 5th August 2022

Trumpets Stuffed With Cloth by Ralph Hawkins (Crater Press)

Trumpets Stuffed With Cloth by Ralph Hawkins (Crater Press)

This is a beautifully put-together chapbook filled with beguiling poems/texts which appear to combine found materials with non-sequiturs and aleatory work which is full of surprise and wit. You’ll never get bored reading this stuff.

     There’s a sense of the hermetic about these pieces insofar as they feel self-enclosed and often generated by a thought, some vocabulary, an artwork (Hawkins is very influenced by visual art-forms) which then becomes the wandering focus of the whole. At the same time there are political references and nods to ‘the outside world’ which keep you very much on your toes. 

          de chirico

          in the paintings there are few signs of people

          yet there is evidence of creation

          in the towers and squares, the sun

          being the centre of it

          I am running into the distance

          attached to shadow

          afraid they will catch me

          I hold up his baby daughter and smile at her laughter

          movement clashes with stillness

          journey with time

There’s an anxiety around the phrase ‘running into the distance / attached to shadow’ which is also beautifully poised and anyone remotely familiar with De Chirico’s work will pick up on the evocation as well as the wonderful balance of the lines. 

          did maisy meet gertrude stein

          before she was born Maisy knew she would become great

          she told her mother so

          she composed her first poem in Crayola

          a town of bright colour and scribbles

          it was based on a poem

          by a Portuguese writer her mummy read to her

I presume the ‘Maisy’ in the title refers to the Maisy in the children’s books and the reference to Stein suggests a level of wit and sophistication born out in the construction of the piece, aided by ‘a Portuguese’ writer who could be Pessoa even if this adds a degree of anachronism. It’s a delightful poem. Some writers would labour over the ingredients in such a composition, but I get the feeling with Hawkins that this comes together quite ‘naturally’ from a stock of associations, experience and reading which has matured over a long period. This theme is further explored in the following poem:

          like lemons are lemons alike

          unlike lemons were green, blue and even pink

          the house was generic and in the Canadian town of Saskatoon,

          ice-skating through the long winters

          her teacher gave her a list of authors to read, a golden treasury,

          copying passages from the german ideology and everyone talks

          about the weather

          and there in bright orange (a citrus theme) and custard yellow

          was the sun, insistent, driving Maisy on like a big engine

          it wasn’t long before she took up a paint brush and

          people died in a series of squiggles

The closeness of ‘a golden treasury’ and ‘the german ideology’ made me smile, especially when followed by a reference to ‘the weather’ yet this is how it is, how things come together in a composition of this sort, everything feels so easy and familiar even when the components aren’t so obviously so. The final line is both charming and chilling. The earlier reference to ‘ice-skating’ has the feel of a colourful postcard and I’m reminded of Tom Raworth here in the quick-witted play and shifts in subject.

     The cover image is an arresting one and the ‘back to front’ cover title is unexpected. I liked the exposition about the typefaces used as well, something that publishers used to do back in the day. This is a lovely little booklet, stapled and with a thick card cover, an artefact enclosing a neat array of poems, something to brighten your day.

Steve Spence 29th July 2022

Covodes 1-19: An Interview with Robert Hampson by Belinda Giannessi

Covodes 1-19: An Interview with Robert Hampson by Belinda Giannessi

BG: I have just finished reading (and listening to) your Covodes.[i] I found them very interesting because they catch not just the historical events that mingled in our memories but also the emotions, the fears and the frustration that we all experienced. If you don’t mind, I would like to ask you some questions. First, do all the references to music give a sort of frame to the collection, keeping together and giving order to all the fragments of the last two years of plague? 

RGH: I think I would see the musical references as a motif rather than a frame. There were various motifs I was conscious of developing as the writing proceeded. The musical references were also to be taken with the references to poetry and the visual arts as a celebration of the value of the arts in the context of the British Government’s attacks on the arts and humanities. There was a notorious government poster about re-training: it showed a ballet dancer in a tutu and said something like ‘next year she could be a computer programmer’. Some of the musical references (I am thinking of the dedication to Juliette Greco and the references to her life in covode 8) were in response to recent deaths.

BG:  Is it possible to see your Covodes as also chronicles of the Covid Age, although it is not possible to have a clear narrative yet?

RGH: Yes, indeed, I was very conscious of Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and Boccaccio’s Decameron, when I started, and I was thinking of the covodes as a form of documentation. I knew I needed an open-ended form, because nobody knew how this would end – and I wanted to be able to respond to events as they happened. Precisely because there wasn’t a clear narrative, I also wanted a form that permitted multiple voices and a number of different characters. I would write a new covode about every three weeks, using the materials I had accumulated in that period.  Covodes 1-19 covers only the first year of the pandemic. It took a while to put it into book form and to record the CD. Since then, I have written covodes 20-38 to bring the sequence up to the present.

BG: Is the lyrical ‘I’ that appears throughout the collection a sort of linking character? Does the cruise ship have a similar function?

RGH: I allowed myself to use an ‘I’ in this sequence, but the ‘I’ is different characters – none of them necessarily me. I am thinking, for example, of Covode 1 (‘I was an experienced serosurveyor) or Covode 14 (‘I am normally up in retail’). The pronouns are all very unstable – the ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘we’ have shifting referents. The cruise ship enters the poem because of the early stage of the pandemic, when cruise ships were picking up the virus and not being allowed to land, but that historical detail then provides the basis for a motif. It is also combined with other examples of confined spaces (recording studios, luxury bunkers, space capsules and space stations) as a way of registering the claustrophobia of lockdown. Thanks to Elon Musk, there is a whole science-fiction fantasy going on, which also brings in Davd Bowie (the Spiders from Mars and Colonel Tom ‘sitting in a tin can’).

BG: Your style in Covodes 1-19 reminded me of Eliot’s works ‘Prufrock’ and The Waste Land     and American poetry in general. Are there different ideal readers? 

RGH: I think Eliot’s working title for The Waste Land (taken from Our Mutual Friend by Dickens) – ‘he do the police in different voices’ – is very relevant to the effect I was trying to achieve, and I can see the link with Prufrock’s fragmentation (and the use of a character), but the poets in my mind were Pound and Charles Olson. With both, there is the problem about how to write a long poem that is able to respond to contemporary events. Pound had the idea that he would be able to fit it into a Dantean structure and felt that he had failed to do this. For me Pound’s failure is the important lesson. I am hoping to follow Pound’s model – where the Cantos were published originally in small groups (A Draft of XXX Cantos followed by Eleven New Cantos and so on), but there is no over-arching structure. Improvisation is an important principle throughout. As for the reader, I was working so much with my own free associations to the contemporary materials that I am hoping readers will be sparked by the fragments and references to make their own associations with that period.  

BG: Thank you. 

1 Robert Hampson, Covodes 1-19 Artery Editions, 2022. The accompanying CD, a reading od=f the complete set of poems is accompanied on cello by Joanna Levi.

That Which I Touch Has No Name by Jennifer K Dick (Black Spring Press Group)

That Which I Touch Has No Name by Jennifer K Dick (Black Spring Press Group)

The dialogic process of Jennifer Dick’s poems occurs in a multilingual context in which English, French and Italian interweave. The demolition of meaning and of naming provides space for a provisional reconstruction of language that evolves in sounds, alliteration and chains of words. They evoke each other in a multifaceted, polyphonic rhythm that envisages infinite possibilities. A Saussurian signifier and signified are proposed in a different perspective in which Derrida’s concept of the loss of the centre seems to be more relevant. Traditional forms are reviewed and opposed, giving way to multiple voices and different perceptions. These diverse interpretations are ‘off-the-centre’, as Derrida claims, as there is no centre, or any transcendental or universal entity to which we can refer or appeal. This concept of displacement opens the individual up to the construction of alternative views. 

     Dick’s poetry is a poetical journey that delves into philosophical and linguistic topics without an apparent logic and with no definite ending or goals. It is a wandering around, sometimes in circles and at other times in a winding path that emphasises the process rather than the conclusion. Fragments and echoes of everyday life and today’s society, such as political issues, shootings, women’s rights, scientific knowledge and the environment, are embedded in her discourse. In this way she explores language and therefore identity in a complex and comprehensive view of being human. Though we are strangers to ourselves, we take ‘another self […] into ourselves’ in an exchange that is promiscuous and generates intertextual connections. 

     References to Sappho, Erin Mouré’s A Frame of the  Book and the myth of Dibutades, the inventor of the art of modelling clay in Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis, trace constant intertextual routes throughout the collection and give direction to the narratives. It is a conversation that marks displacement and loss but also a constant attempt at replacement: 

her herding herself forward and again to go

forth into this bright afternoon unaccompanied 

by the whorls of the whims of another’s loss

                                                                      this body

unlatched

absence in

the reassertion of self

space/shame in

a presence of griefs          (‘The Body As Message’)

Quotations from Mouré are signalled in grey notes as titles interweaved into the poems. They flag up the inconsistency of our reasoning when we try to make sense of ourselves through language. Words can deceive, and the only strategy for finding a way through the labyrinth is to create alternative connections:

collect stones, shells, ants, the carcasses

    of bees, derelict homing predilections

    combing the convex codex for a hived

    intermezzo  /  in stance  /  stead

                     of intermission

    stand               and              re-geolocate     

the space          (distance)        place                (‘Figurative Blight /’)

The myth of Butades’ daughter (Dibutades in French) is thoroughly explored in the central section, ‘Afterlife’. It is the legend of the origin of drawing and painting in which the protagonist outlines her lover’s shadow, which is cast on a wall. He will leave soon, so she wishes to keep the memory of him in the drawing. However, ‘Butades’ daughter possesses no independent name./She is not in the story./She is not.’ She is therefore erased from history, ‘an illusion,/a recollection of,/ a line traced onto the wall.’ Sections in French alternate with those in English in a partial translation that is also a reworking of the story. 

The ‘process/of redefinition’ culminates in the final poems in an ‘assay’, that is, an attempt to create through memory. The poems are ‘inkling of emerging vocabularies, linguistic minefields of the forgotten, written over, re-emergent’ (‘Assay’). Space and ‘body/time/language’ are in constant movement and transformation, projecting the outline of their shadows onto our uncertain existence. The collection examines the complexity of these fundamental concepts with precision and depth.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 26th July 2022

Emptying Houses by Gerald Killingworth (Dempsey & Windle)

Emptying Houses by Gerald Killingworth (Dempsey & Windle)

If you relish words – their sounds and subtleties of meaning – then this is the book for you. I say ‘relish’ deliberately because Gerald Killingworth’s masterly skill turns words into something one can almost taste and savour for a long time afterwards.

‘Water Words’ illustrates this perfectly. Syllables become ‘fragments of ocean’ and their length corresponds to the different sounds and sizes of liquid. The monosyllables ‘drip’ and ‘splash’ represent the moment of the ocean’s birth but soon both syllables and water grow into ‘puddle’ and ‘rivulet’, then into ‘cataracts’ and finally, with a thrashing surge, into the magnificent, four syllabled ‘inundations.’ 

‘Tongues’ is another example of the pleasure that words bring, the joy to be found in the ‘arcane quaintness’ of ‘ariff’, ‘crizzle’, ‘fizgigging’, ‘slaughter’ and ‘budge’. But this poem is about more than the fun of playing with parts of speech. It’s about erosion, loss and the incomprehension that occurs when ‘History shifts its axis’ and once rich languages are fractured, becoming ‘irrelevant/a footnote at best.’

Concern with this erosion of language is an important motif in Emptying Houses and one that particularly appeals to me. But the main feature of this collection, the quality that makes this book so extraordinary and unique, is the way Gerald Killingworth handles humour, very, very dark humour. Anyone who has heard him read ‘A Tale of a Turd’ will know instantly what I mean. No details of the dead Viking’s excrement are spared, rather they are elaborated on – the owner of the turd, now ‘a famous exhibit’ in York’s Museum, is given the name ‘Snorri’, his eating habits are analysed by scientists who sniff ‘this marvel’, weigh it and pick it apart, concluding that Snorri ‘lived on meat’. A human touch is added as the reader imagines this character vowing ‘to eat more greens with his bacon.’ So, there is a lot of humour, laugh-out-loud humour, in the first part at least of this poem. But then we have the extra brilliant touch that Gerald Killingworth brings to all his poems – the poignancy that overrides despair, the sadness and regret that is always just below the surface. Snorri’s turd is what remains of him, the one thing he is remembered for. That is his reputation though ‘Hardly a blueprint for the whole man.’

Another poem that illustrates this blend of horror and pathos is ‘Rigid with Indignation’ where the skull of Asra, a former temple dancer, is being analysed. The poet wonders if the process might reveal her thoughts and ‘unconfessed ambition’ but any splendours, sadly, do not show up ‘in this vacuity’ which is ‘dull as an empty ice-cream scoop.’

There are also ‘vacant spaces’ in the title poem ‘Emptying Houses’ which is about the sadness of clearing a house after the death of the occupant whose ‘history is over’. Even more poignant and tender is J.I:

            Working through the house

            we found roll upon roll of it,

            Christmas wrapping paper,

            as if present-giving

            were assured for decades to come.

Impossible to read these lines and not share the grief at the waste and finality of it all.

Emptying Houses is a unique poetry collection and Gerald Killingworth is an original and special writer. I appreciate all the poems but would find it hard to choose just one as my favourite. Maybe it would be ‘Pebbles’ where the stones make a plea for wetness, to be ‘on a tide-line’ not inland and ‘faded, dusty, dim’.  Or there is the beautiful ‘In Praise of Chlorophyll’ where everything on the earth has been destroyed except for the ‘soft green throw’ of grass. But if I could only choose one piece, I think it would be ‘Habits’ which seems to echo the mood of the John Clare epigraph at the beginning of the book. It’s short and simple and perfect: 

            Take the long way round sometimes,

            B doesn’t always have to follow A.

            Scuff leaves, kick stones

            drift.

            Jump into puddles more –

            remember they hold the sky.

            Peep around corners

            gaze unfocused

            dream.

Mandy Pannett 20th July 2022

At Raucous Purposeful by J.H. Prynne (Broken Sleep Books)

At Raucous Purposeful by J.H. Prynne (Broken Sleep Books)

Well into his eighties now, JH Prynne is enjoying the most prolific period of his career and indeed one that exceeds the output of every other poet I can think of. Since 2020, he has published some 25 new works, mostly chapbooks with small independent publishers. This puts into shade other notable late flowerings like those of Geoffrey Hill, Jorie Graham and John Ashbery although presumably it could be argued that because Prynne’s publications are all short-form sequences (At Raucous Purposeful, for example, amounts to only 15 pages of text) in terms of actual word-count they might tally with the prolix ruminations of, say, The Daybooks and The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin. (I’ve always thought that late Prynne and late Hill have a good deal in common, sharing the hermetic, fulminating tone of a slightly unhinged don, over-erudite and over-immersed in the historical etymologies of their beloved OED, bent on an increasingly private vision that seems to distantly footnote their earlier momentous breakthroughs.)

    Who on earth could keep up with Prynne at this rate of production? Perhaps that’s the point; as time runs out, is he trying to outrun any attempt to coddle him into sedate poetic dotage, like an Augustus Carmichael sent to doze over his notebook on the lawn? On the one hand this scattershot approach feels like the great confounder sticking to his guns, keeping faith with the small presses and sequences of cryptic linguistic détournement which have formed the bedrock of his practice since the 1960s – not for him the facile conveniences of airing new work on the internet or quietly waiting to update his seminal and increasingly unwieldy Bloodaxe Poems every few years (“the big yellow (para)taxis” as a friend once called it). On the other hand, with a style as distinctive as Prynne’s – a poetic approach established over 50 years ago which, in spite of manifold formal permutations, has not really “developed” or reinvented itself ever since – eventually we are forced to read the work as self-parodic, caught in a loop of its own making, consuming its own hyper-extensive tail or choking on it.

   If poetry can become “an engrained habit” (as John Heath-Stubbs said to the Queen on receiving her Gold Medal for Poetry), there is a sense in which enduring poetic identity might be linked with continuing prolificity in the face of dwindling powers. One thinks of Swinburne, kept on a tight leash in early retirement in Putney, churning out volume after volume of hollowly sonorous lyrics which are almost non-referential in their formulaic melopeia. As TS Eliot wrote of one Swinburne poem, “that so little material…could release such an amazing number of words requires what there is no reason to call anything but genius.”

    Turning to the ten poem sequence At Raucous Purposeful, I was caught between open-mindedly approaching it (as Robert Potts advises) “like a painting or a piece of music”, teasing out connections and possible chains of association (Potts again: “sonically, prosodically, thematically and metonymically”) and at other moments wondering if these were just random word-lists generated by a computer, an algorithm whose parameters are set to explicitly avoid any conventional poetic techniques, figurations or meanings, to confront the reader with slabs of sheer aleatory verbiage in the same way that many bands, musicians and composers have brought out albums of pure dissonance and noise. Why? To challenge our complacent assumptions about what constitutes music, to clean out our banality-clogged ears? Or even to make us want to turn the racket off and listen more attentively to the birds in the garden or the human voices that surround us? 

    No doubt it would be unreasonable or irrelevant to expect an 86 year old poet to change course or develop his practice at this late stage but reading At Raucous Purposeful I also thought of Prynne’s own words about a poetry reading he’d just been to, from the fascinating Paris Review interview he did in 2016:

I want a poet to break out of his or her poetic identity, to ­establish a whole new set of possibilities for the reader and for him- or herself. To hear poems that must have been written by a poet is to find them trapped in the poetic habits from which they originate. There wasn’t a poem anywhere in that sequence that I heard that I would have been glad to read for a second time…I can’t imagine why he did them. What was the motive? What was the serious development of his practice that poems like that would help him to find his way to? ”

Oliver Dixon 19th July 2022

Anxious Corporals by Alan Morrison (Smokestack Books)

Anxious Corporals by Alan Morrison (Smokestack Books)

One thing many of us love about small-press poetry is that unlike most textual production, it’s not written under the weather eye of capitalist power or for material gain. The same generally goes for non- or pre-professional academic writing, so there’s at least one area of commonality for the dissertation-poem, an infrequent fusion whose Western origins nonetheless stretch back at least to Aratus and Nicander.

As a dissertation, this book excerpts in detail from a small number of classic studies: David Lockwood’s The Blackcoated Worker (1958) on the culture and politics of clerks; Geoffrey Mortimer’s The Blight of Respectability (1897) on respectability and villadom; MacKenzie and Silver’s Angels in Marble (1968) on working class conservatives; Ken Worpole’s Dockers and Detectives (1983) on popular reading; and especially Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1957) on the effects of manufactured mass culture. 

What links them all is a loose thesis about the role of the humanities and social sciences among the British working class and lower middle class, focusing particularly on the success of Pelican books – cheap, authoritative non-fiction sold in Woolworths – in enabling them (us) to infiltrate the cultural preserves of the rich. The acquisition of such knowledge is premised to be a factor in a more progressive politics, not least through better resistance to the ‘unintelligent/ Margarine’ of ‘tabloids’ butter-/ Substitutes’ and other mass-media.    

Considered as poetry, the book starts with a great Howl-ish impetus, bewailing the ‘death throes of a culture’ replaced by ‘vast flatscreens as altarpieces of faith’:

          O this period of ectopic proletariat, common people
          Misplaced in multiples of patchwork overlaps from cash-
          Strapped and poverty-trapped working poor to tip-of-
          The-slagheap grasping aspiration […]

Subsequently it modulates to a mélange of quotation, opinion, skilful précis and generalising description, all spiced with the constantly arresting phrasing (‘stepladders of pipedreams’, &c.) that’s one of the book’s principal pleasures. The layout mimics the didactic epics of its genre’s origins: twenty-five stanza-less Roman-numeralled ‘books’. Line-ends are at page-width limits, and there’s little attention to prosody.

As a genre-mix, a number of distinctive characteristics are evident. The lack of titling, paragraphs and even full stops make its chains of argument significantly harder to follow, an unusual approach for a politically engaged work. The semi-colons and ellipses give a provisional feel to its statements. The absence of referencing means the extensive quoting is troublesome to verify. Repetitions in phrasing and aperçu (‘Hemingway’s ‘iceberg’’ sensibility; Hoggart as Hogarth…) suggest line-level inattentiveness at final edit, adding to the impression of urgency or hurry. The thin bibliography reflects its constricted scope: readers looking for pointers towards contextual perspectives (Bourdieu? Williams? Hall? Home?) or towards more in-depth analyses accounting for regionalism, gender, imperialism, technology or workers’ reading ‘against the grain’ (extracting pleasure from popular entertainments while remaining sceptical about their ideology) must find them elsewhere.

The book ends by noting the reappearance of the Pelican brand and by hoping for a new ‘aspiring readership’. For all its difficulties, the importance and interest of its topic alone should recommend it, even if ultimately it only sends you back to (re-)reading its sources. On the other hand, it might inspire you towards the OU, the WEA, FutureLearn, a New Pelican, or other good small-press stuff from the brilliantly radical Smokestack.

Guy Russell 13th July 2022

Collected Poems One 1968-1997, Collected Poems Two 1997-2021 by Peter Finch (Seren Books)

Collected Poems One 1968-1997, Collected Poems Two 1997-2021 by Peter Finch (Seren Books)

The small press world was very different in 1982 when my friend Graham Palmer and I started Stride magazine. Magazines were analogue, usually photocopied or duplicated, often stapled by hand, and sales were via mail order unless you could persuade ‘alternative’ bookshops to take copies on sale or return. Even when booksellers were friendly and did sell copies, it was hard to extract money from them; and sales never covered the petrol I used up motorcycling round London stores or driving the meandering route I sometimes took to drop copies off in Oxford, Leamington Spa, Coventry, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester… 


There was, of course, no internet, email, or social media. You could swop flyers, leave them in bookshops or the South Bank poetry library, and send review copies out – often in exchange for magazines you were expected to review. There were small press fairs, often in draughty halls in strange towns or cities, with little publicity and even fewer sales, though you did get to meet other publishers and poets. I particularly remember the first time I met Allen Fisher and Alan Halsey in Shrewsbury, and also meeting and propping up a bar in Northampton with Mike Shields (of Orbis) and Martin Stannard because the main room with our stalls in was suddenly – and unforgivably – commandeered for an all day poetry reading.

There were small press poets who immediately got in touch with every new magazine who editors soon learnt to ignore, along with submissions of rhyming doggerel, but there was also the delight in hearing from new authors, and in becoming part of something that seemed alive and experimental, with a history of 1960s and 70s revolutionary zeal, readings and magazines, but that now walked hand-in-hand with post-punk and improvised music, music zines and independent cassette labels, radical theatre, and new performance and exhibition spaces. 

There were of course key individuals within the small press scene, often at odds with the likes of the Poetry Society and ignored by mainstream poetry publishers, and there was one more key than others: Peter Finch, who operated out of Oriel, Cardiff. He had previous with his own small presses, and actually wanted to stock new magazines, wanted to submit to yours (and mine), wanted you to keep going, wanted you to be different, opinionated and make things possible; he would heckle and encourage. He put on poetry festivals and events in Cardiff, which is where I was first introduced to him in person by the writer John Gimblett. I had a Stride stall, did a reading, and watched Bob Cobbing and Bird Yak clear a restaurant with their mix of yowling, abstract drumming and gas-mask one-string guitar. I’d seen plenty of that kind of stuff at the London Musicians Collective, usually with five or six others watching, but nobody except Finch would think of sticking them in front of 200 people eating their lunch and then enjoy watching the diners’ responses and subsequent mass exodus, leaving full plates and wine glasses abandoned on the tables.

Since then I’ve promoted a couple of Finch readings in Exeter – one as a support act to Roger McGough, which he smashed; read once or twice more in Cardiff for him; and co-tutored an Arvon Foundation course with him. And although I’ve failed to tempt him down to Cornwall, we’ve kept in vague touch via emails and poems. I’ve also amassed – courtesy of jumble sales, library turn-outs and secondhand bookshops – quite a collection of early Finch publications, which helped explain the amazing and informed talk he gave at Arvon on Sound and Visual Poetry, and also offered critical context.

Because, as these hefty new books make evident, Finch came out of Dada and Surrealism, out of performance and sound poetry, out of collage and cut-up, erasure and what we now call sampling and remix. His work is entertaining, experimental, thought-provoking and accessible; a real pick’n’mix in fact. But Finch knows what he is doing, and over the years I learnt to trust him completely as an editor and poet. When he opened for Roger McGough in a sold out Exeter theatre he began with an abstract sound poem, and I confess I had a moment of panic. Soon, however, the audience, who were mostly there to see the headliner, began nervously laughing before guffawing and offering wild applause. Finch reeled them in further with a couple of more straightforward poems and kept them in the palm of his hand for the rest of his varied performance.

It’s great that Seren have given Finch (and his editor Andrew Taylor) so much space to fill, and have reproduced so much of Finch’s visual work, some even in colour. Subject matter, processes, affectations, source material and poetic influences, enter, exit and re-enter the work, but there are always new materials, new processes and ideas in the mix too. There is also a sustained attention to and curiosity about language itself: how it can be remoulded, changed, abused, erased; what happens when syntax or meaning is destroyed, when different vocabularies or reference materials collide, when texts are alphabetized, torn up, or turned into lists. How poetry can be made new. Always.

This work sprawls and expands, feeding on itself and everything that is around it. It comments and critiques, dances and debates, screams and shouts, sometimes sulks in the corner but then quietly comes out rested and refreshed, raring to go. It is alert, blurred, crumpled, distressed, energetic, folded, gorgeous, hilarious, incredible, jokey, charismatic. It is often ridiculous, always serious, never afraid to embarrass itself or satirize others, whilst constantly acknowledging Schwitters, Cobbing, Ginsberg, and whoever Finch has been reading that morning. It is questionable, ridiculous, subversive, terrific, unique poetry which cannot be snared, trapped or caged; yet Taylor and Seren Books have charmed it on to the pages of this generous, rain-filled, assertive, definitive collection. I look forward to volume three.

Rupert Loydell 11th July 2022



Shaking The Persimmon Tree by Marc Woodward (Sea Cow Press)

Shaking The Persimmon Tree by Marc Woodward (Sea Cow Press)

Marc Woodward’s poetry is pretty traditional in form, including sonnets and a villanelle and hints towards the poetry of Hardy, Edward Thomas and even Louis MacNeice at times. His material shifts between celebration, of the countryside, of friendship and of travel but there’s a dark side underlying most of his work and even on occasion something slightly surreal, as in ‘The Thread’ which combines an interest in angling with a skewed comment on mortality which suggests a much longer time-scale:

          …..every fish bird, mammal,

          was attached to the same thread

          she’d been pulling since she was born,

          like all our generations dead,

          careless for the unravelling.

     Woodward has a way with endings, as in ‘I Dreamed of a River’ which has a mildly surreal, reverie sort of feel, lyrical and encompassing both observer and observed, meshed in synaesthesia yet with a darkness as in ‘Ophelia’s cape / billowing in the wind.’ If there’s an overall sense of pastoral easiness to these poems it’s always tempered, by illness, by an increasing sense of mortality and, as in ‘Inheritance’ the violence of an abrupt closing of life in a farming community. The bucolic has its downside and this one certainly creates a shiver down the spine: ‘Quiet in the hay barn, / warm enough out of the wind, / John hangs lifeless from the rafters, waiting, turning, for Fred to find.’ 

     Many of these poems are set in rural Devon or in Italy and mix nostalgia with something more searching and even in an apparently simple poem like ‘The Disappearing Places’ which combines childhood memories and wonderful evocation with a sense of loss we can feel echoes of A Shropshire Lad, something powerful and moving which you can’t quite put your finger on, an inarticulate longing which can nevertheless be suggested in words.

     In ‘Fishing for Mahseer’ we are at the Ganges, chasing the enormous, majestic river fish which also has a dark secret, that of feeding on the human bodies, inadvertently released into the river:

          As this hellish vision drifted closer

          my angling friend reeled in his lure and line,

          remade his tackle with a pink ‘flesh fly’

          then cast into the froth around the corpse.

          I looked away. On the bank women washed,

          above the trees a little minaret

          shone through the fog framed sun. What can

          be said?

          We fished for fish which fed upon the dead. 

     With ‘The Bird Scarer’ and ‘The Green Man in Rocombe’ we are in the realm again of farming and country lore, the latter a sort of tongue-in-cheek suggestion of the otherworldly, the former a depiction of the creating of a scarecrow which combines something almost epic and symbolic with down-to -to earth yet beautifully painted images: ‘Then a banger went off, rooks clattered up, / and he left her to flutter in the maize.’ 

     In ‘Swimming with a Charm of Vincent’, set I think in Italy, we have again the evocation of a landscape, a hot place, hinting almost at D.H. Lawrence’s poetry of place, where Vincent, a friend or an imagined presence? also appears to be a reference to Van Gogh (‘Maybe he was troubled / by the lack of sunflowers; / perhaps just pining for France? / He wasn’t much of a talker’) so once again the poem works on two levels, a description of an actual situation with hintings at ‘otherness’, especially given the disappearance by drowning? of the eponymous Vincent. I even had the thought that this might be about Shelley though I admit there is scant evidence for this, just association. The final stanza adds a mythical element and the whole poem manages to combine something almost comic with a more suggestive direction:

          The persimmon sun sank down

          and all his whirling stars came slowly

          out and I thought of Vincent

          rolling with the pebbles in the sea. 

     There are 48 poems in this collection, mainly short pieces, which take in a range of subjects, from climate change and ‘the lockdown,’ to a concern with illness (Parkinson’s disease in particular), the death of parents, the landscape of the South West of England and travels in Italy. My taste in modern poetry is largely for more ‘experimental’ work but I thoroughly enjoyed reading these poems and hope you will too.

Steve Spence 1st July 2022

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