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Extinctions by Philip Terry (Red Ceilings Press)

Extinctions by Philip Terry (Red Ceilings Press)

I love Philip Terry’s poetry which is always inventive in a variety of ways. This short collection from the wonderfully miniature Red Ceilings Press is a peach, basing itself on ‘the chicago,’ a form developed via the Oulipo some time ago. The basic idea is that each short poem is made up of five lines and the final line, a homophonic ‘translation’ of a place name, person, animal etc. generates  the content of the previous lines and may be guessed by the reader. In each case, here at least, the final line appears at the end in a numbered key (50 lines) so you can choose to refer forward if you wish. It’s a game in effect and combines the idea of the Old English riddle with the more experimental methods developed by the Oulipo. One very positive effect of taking part is that the method generates creativity and ‘a zest for language’ as Alan Baker suggests in the back-cover quotation. Dip in and go with the flow and once you pick up the idea it’s great fun. Here are a few of the poems by way of example:


          Money money

          Cash cash

          Bread bread

          Sponz sponz

          (Dodo (Dough dough))


          Bishop close

          Archdeacon shut up

          Nun fasten

          Abbot enclose

          (Monk seal (Monk seal)) 


          Canary Islands swallow

          Easter Island gobbles

          Cook Islands pick at

          Channel Islands savour

          (Falkland Islands wolf) Falkland Islands wolf)) 


          Large sidewalk slug

          Great path beetle

          Colossal motorway snail

          Huge street fly

          (Giant rodent (Giant road ant)) 


          African arse

          Asian bottom

          American bum

          Antarctic posterior

          (European ass (European ass))

This is poetry as fun and it’s the mix of the formal limitations and the invention that can lead from this that can generate a love of language and playful experimentation that is in no way dry or exclusive. This sort of method is a great prompt to learning without too much pain and these poems are easy to dip in and out of and can provide a great antidote to boredom. There are other contemporary poets who work partly with similar methods, Giles Goodland, for example, whose occupation as a lexicographer stimulates a lot of his poetic output. Drew Milne’s ‘Eck’s Column’ is another example where the homophone really comes into its own with quite often hilarious results.

     As I’ve suggested these poems can provide a great stimulus to experimenting with language and discovering how strange and delightful the process can be. Highly recommended.

Steve Spence 1st February 2023  

Slate Petals (and Other Wordscapes) by Anthony Etherin (Penteract Press)

Slate Petals (and Other Wordscapes) by Anthony Etherin (Penteract Press)

Question: what’s so distinctive about this stanza?

          Nature painted this morning 

          as a thorn in untried pigment,

          a mad night in turpentines, or

          the turning points in a dream…

And about this one:

          I sat, solemn.

          I saw time open one poem.

          It was in me, lost as I. 

Answer: the first makes each line an anagram of the others; the second is a palindrome. There are some writers who, as if writing weren’t already hard enough, set themselves extra hurdles out of sheer fun, ambition, masochism, or a kind of liberation-through-confinement. This collection is in that tradition, alongside Oulipo’s various jeux d’écriture, Christian Bök’s best-selling Eunoia, and most recently, say, Luke Kennard’s ‘The Anagrams’, and it’s something of a masterclass of constrained super-formalism. There are sonnets in monometer and dimeter, tautograms, pentograms (only five-letter words allowed), pangrams, aelindromes (a type of complex palindrome actually invented by this poet), lipograms including beaux présents (only the letters in its title can be used in the poem), acrostics, visual poems, homovocalics (each line uses the same vowels in the same order), and even a villanelle in dimeter. And amazingly, combinations of these. A sonnet that’s also an anagram. A palindrome that’s also an ottava rima. Poems that are anagrams of each other. Poems encased within other poems. A ‘trionnet’ which, depending on the line-breaks chosen, can become either a triolet or a sonnet.

One hard, or rather impossible, goal of such extreme restriction would be still to produce something not only grammatical but meaningful, sensible, beautiful, witty or profound, and in such natural English that the constraint, when spotted, would be like an icing of astonishment and awe. Anthony Etherin, understandably, has forsworn that literary Eldorado. He calls his constructions ‘wordscapes’ as well as ‘poems’ and in the explicatory notes offers an alternative aesthetic to the usual primacy of textual content: ‘the book’s subject is form itself […] the art of form for form’s sake’. As such one additional pleasure is that of a puzzle-book. You scan the poem for its formal devices, then check the notes at the back to see how many you spotted.

But if you did treat it as poetry? Well, the subject-matter is traditional: nature, Gothic and mythic predominate. The diction likewise is formal (‘Profusion is but paucity’s repose’) in a faintly old-fashioned way. Full rhyme is used, with the occasional plural, albeit unspectacularly; it’s heavy on staple monosyllables of the white/ light/ night grade. The titles often corral a scrabbled meaning, while odd phrasing gets mitigated (or justified, or enriched) by a prevalent dreamlike tone. The strengths of the content are especially in the mastery of rhythm, with deft caesuras and enjambments, nice wit (an anagram of ‘This is Just to Say’ begins ‘I have confused/ the letters/ that were in the poem…’), and cheeky originality (a poem whose ‘lines’ are silhouette lines of mountain ranges). My favourite one-liner was ‘A zig. Now one zag. Gaze now on Giza!’ which, besides its rhythm and soundplay ‘reflects’ its formal subject-matter: the drawing of a ‘palindromic’ shape.

As with a lot of very involving writing, I emerged from the book finding the world stranger – I began expecting palindromes and anagrams everywhere. Hey, that unusual word ‘Etherin’ on the cover: is it ‘In there’? Or ‘Therein’? Or neither? Not any hint here, as Anthony Etherin might put it.

Guy Russell 7th November 2021

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