Steve Spence, based in Plymouth where he co-organises the Language Club, studied at the University of Plymouth and has published A Curious Shipwreck from Shearsman in 2010. He also writes a good many reviews and is a regular contributor to Tears in the Fence.
This chapbook, of 41 poems, is organised in a standard format of 4 quatrains and a closing couplet, unrhymed. Most of the pieces have short 3-word titles. No named protagonists, but a ‘he’ and ‘she’ are given to comment fairly often. Patrick Holden has called Spence a ‘connoisseur of noise pollution’.
Before all else, Spence isn’t sticking to a specific narrative, so, no, nobody eats here, gets gas or worms, and the artwork is a spare abstract of red, black and blue that could almost be a Rorschach blot.
Spence on a certain level is involved in a game with the reader, this can read a bit like a metanarrative, and admittedly, in those terms, he rarely puts a foot wrong. We are into a wholly realised space at a tangent from social realism.
There is assuredly a certain wariness. The first poem is called ‘Ceaselessly, with Threats’. Now what these threats are is unattained, not wholly spelled out. By the end we are ‘Returning to the Surface’, as if we have been immersed in some fictive terrain.
The uniformatting tends to emphasise the want of a narrative progression. There are suggestions of closure at the end, ‘we can come down from the trees’, though I don’t think the trees are the only space we’ve been. Other titles near the end are ‘An Act Of Defiance’ and ‘Doing It Yourself’. That insistent page formatting can have a curious effect, likewise the short titles.
So, read as 40 odd short poems this book has its interests, and they can be read quite discontinuously. I have to say I think the titles are peculiarly serialised, that is distinct but all gelling together. It’s as if we’ve gotten into a box and are staying there.
It may be worth citing from the final poem:
‘These colours come from their
diet yet an open habitat is a dangerous
place for a prey animal. “Do you like how
I’m telling you what’s going on where you are?”
When night falls we can come down from the trees.’ (p41)
There is that wariness again, ‘a dangerous/ place’, whereas our writer finds value in ‘telling you what’s going on’.
If this intrigues another poem ‘Playing With The Image’ has a somewhat different sort of ending:
‘Are we slowly
retreating from everyday life?
These brushmarks are intriguing
but we also like smooth surfaces.’ (p15)
As for ‘retreating’ this poem also has ‘“we need to/ keep this conflict from/ spreading.”’ This somewhat spells out those perceptions of wariness. We also have our contrast between smooth surfaces, and these might be called smoothly realised poems, and rougher ‘brushmarks’ somewhat perhaps suggested by the cover.
So the poem series in a sense seems to find self containment an issue. What ‘this conflict’ is is not spelled out, not of course that it should be. And yet there is scope for some finely realised perceptions within this constricted domain. And as I say we have a ‘he’ and ‘she’ making appearances here but we do not learn much about them.
One feature of the book then is that it contains a strain, a tight relation, between form and content. Somehow when that final poem says ‘Returning To The Surface’ I am not quite so sure I’m there. Am I fending off the world or aspiring to an alternative world, maybe some niche that is viable in the here and now? Watching over what might or ought to be an ‘open habitat’, as Spence says,- that is a reassuring notion. Of course, the tight formalism also demonstrates a certain determination. Weighing in the impact of this chapbook I think then well furthers the development of a suitably aesthetic perspective for these times.
Clark Allison 19th August 2021