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A Democracy of Poisons by Tim Allen (Shearsman Books)

A Democracy of Poisons by Tim Allen (Shearsman Books)

This is a very rich collection of challenging, finely written prose poems, with numerous surreal touches, fairly unreservedly among the best I’ve seen. There is though something of a self effacing or deprecatory tone, as the unappealing title would suggest, which can make the writing dense and either understated or uncertain of what it’s accomplishing.

There is actually something telling or impressionable on just about every page. The narrative is discontinuous, but threads run through it. It might be a fault or limitation of the book that a sense of narrative progression is mostly lacking. Indeed, each of the 100 prose poems is pretty much self sufficient. There are no claims to continuity as we might find in fiction. 

That said the book is great to dip into, each poem consists of four stanzas or paragraphs about 7 lines long, and the title markers, all of just one word that appears in the text are there for orientation. Some key or highlighted phrases are also italicised. The first titles open out with ‘Walk’, into a forest, ‘Lunch’ and ‘Growing’, but perhaps a fairly indicative one might be ‘Cynic’ (no.34), surely indicative of present philosophic inclinations.

It’s a rich heady brew. One might say though that it somewhat lacks an upbeat quality, it is kind of deflating, or challenging as to how we deal with that cynicism or feeling low. So that would appear to be a deflating lack, indeed the last poem is called ‘Desert’.

It is useful I think to indicate where that acidic title gains mention which is most closely matched in poem 17, ‘Flock’. Part of the relevant passage is:

‘Don’t dismay, a simple book read by nobody special gallups uphill as fast as it descends the hill of be careful what you wish for but how to be careful when the world is a democracy of poisons’. (p23)

stated quite dystopically. Plainly Tim Allen feels this is apposite, right, in what some might take to be resentment; but he doesn’t dwell on it or offer a longer exposition. This might even be consistent with an amount of cynicism. Elsewhere in no.67 we find:

‘In the outside world the books earned differing amounts but here in the library of democratic poisons having no time for books gave them all equal space on the shelves.’ (p73)

There might be something of a thesis here, perhaps of the one size fits all, lowest common denominator, greatest happiness number that the book sits ill with. Elsewhere Allen says ‘I work underground too writing subversive literature only blind moles read’ (p29).

Andrew Duncan’s commentary in his back cover blurb might also be worth citing:

‘As the prose units of democracy of poisons develop, their polished and surreal surface becomes more and more convincing. The title presumably refers to a 24-hour media slew in which toxic ideas try to win popularity contests. There is a camaraderie of bad ideas.’

which I find pertinent and useful and indeed promisingly speculative. There surely is an unqualified seeking after of popular kudos, more likes on Twitter, more hits on YouTube and so on. Does anybody question the quality of those moments or instances that are getting the most hits, some of which are into the millions?

It is no doubt worth mentioning that Allen was associated with the very interesting and well wrought Terrible Work website, now defunct. This is his third Shearsman book following The Voice Thrower (2012) and Settings (2008).

What I might surmise is that the book kind of insists on a stubborn title, but that this belies a rather complex but fairly accessible design given that each poem is subdivided into four accessible chunks. Many of these poems I suspect will hold up well to rereading.

This then, one might say, is classic prose poetry, albeit with an amount of difficulty attached;- the title poses a barrier as much as an invite. It is, certainly, not aspiring to be a thing of beauty, but of perhaps acerbic plain, surreally inflected speech that would rather be true or authentic. This book is Allen’s first from Lancashire having moved on from Plymouth. The book is dedicated to his associates back there, the ‘Truth Brothers’. Allen also mentions that the recommendation of the title came from Joanna Ashcroft after a reading. (p108)

Allen’s poems seem to convey that they are driven in part by a wilful perseverance but also an amount of anger, which might seem inevitable, if one puts craft before popularity. I suspect it’s a little compromising and down to find a conclusion at no.100 ‘Desert’, but then this may simply be telling it like it is. There is in a sense too perhaps a defensive formalist sticking to, in the sense that the formal design fully encompasses the entire book. But it is full of great insights and often inspired phrasings and sits very well with the most striking examples I’ve seen of contemporary prose poetry.

Clark Allison 3rd January 2022

End Matter by Katrina Palmer (Artangel and Book Works, 2015)

End Matter by Katrina Palmer (Artangel and Book Works, 2015)

Katrina Palmer’s diverting book consisting of End Matter, such as appendices, addendum, attachment, epilogue, postscript, postface and maps serves as the documentary vestiges of a missing book. This book is immediately open to conjecture and the consideration of Portland, its history and stone. Following J.H. Prynne, the reader should be prepared to work outside the immediate text of End Matter in order to fully enquire beyond what remains of the missing book. End Matter accounts for the loss of Portland stone, one key to its history, through the work of the Loss Adjusters, responsible for accounting and balancing the material and historical shifts of the island. This peculiar angle offers great fun and some insight but crucially ignores the quarry stone owners, such as Portland Stone Firms active since 1700, and their exploitation of the quarrymen and their families. It does though afford a questionable narrative involving a writer in residence on the island, a rogue Loss Adjuster, a Carniter of the Court Leet, the deviant daughters of a quarryman and a convict in some unreliable stories. This offers Palmer the opportunity of filling out a fiction in the appendices and takes the form of Loss Adjuster reports:

Ostensible Format of Loss Adjuster’s Minutes For General Meeting No. –
Retrieved From The Memory Archive
Further To The Loss of The Rogue Loss Adjuster
Further to the Discovery of The Writer-in Residence’s
narrative: ‘The Rogue and The Carniter’

This is achieved very much tongue in cheek. Thus:

Data under investigation should be spoken aloud in the office, each Adjuster taking a paragraph in turn, interspersed with interpretation.
In this way a compressed and layered history can be formulated.

The Loss Adjusters are able to comment upon the illogicalities of the writer’s narratives, which offer a potted history of the island. In fact, the island’s history and that of the quarrymen and the stone buyers is quite complex and far from uniform. There is a local saying that the reason the Houses of Parliament exterior Portland stone is chipping away is that the owners when pricing the blocks, with a mark used to place the stone frontally, would turn them around and change the agreed price to make more money. There were decades of acute depression in the Portland stone market and times when the industry almost disappeared. However, the quality of the stone was always the preferred one for the country’s most important buildings such as Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral, the National Gallery, the British Museum, the Cenotaph, and the Bank of England.

Palmer’s angle is to look at loss and absence as the most striking feature of Portland stone through the work of the Loss Adjuster’s material representations of the displaced landscape and the compensation accrued in the form of buildings elsewhere. This avoids dealing with the social relations between quarrymen and the buyers of their labour, complicated yet further by the variable quality and uses of the stone and its exact constituents. However, this may be the missing book, and that is where the book’s attraction lies.
The narrative in the appendices offers an alternate reading of what may or not lie in the book of the reader’s imagination. If some readers know little of Portland they may think that there are tales of piracy, shipwrecks, sea fishing and romance connected with the island.

Palmer is good on the harbour, its forts, and the prison, opened in 1848 as a convict prison. The Adjusters note the equation of Portland stone removal and intake of prisoners on the island. There is an absence of the indigenous Portlander’s cultural distinctiveness. They are, in my experience, quirky and adaptable people. Consider the poets, such as Tim Allen, Jack Clemo, Cecil Durston, also a master stonemason, Richard Mason and Louisa Adjoa Parker, connected with or from Portland. End Matter, in the end, is a clever work of fiction rather than a deeper social-historical working of the island’s materials. The Loss Adjusters appendices have been made into an audio walk, with field recordings, and are available for download at and the Quarryman’s Daughters has been broadcast on BBC Radio Four. The book has some generous photographs and is beautifully produced. It is a notable work.

David Caddy May 28th 2015

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