STRANGE LAND by Tim Kendall, 54pp., 6.95, Carcanet Press
THE THEOLOGICAL MUSEUM by Paul Stubbs, 79pp, 7.50, Flambard Press, Stable Cottage, East Fourstones, Hexham NE47 5DX
LIVING ON THE DIFFERENCE by Mike Barlow, 55pp., 6.95, Smith/Doorstop, The Studio, Byram Arcade, Westgate, Huddersfield, HD1 1ND

These three first major collections each suggest the struggle to carve out a distinctive poetic niche, with varying degrees of success. Two of them, Tim Kendall's and Paul Stubbs', exhibit distinctive takes on religion.

Tim Kendall, former enfant terrible of Thumbscrew magazine, has always seemed a promising talent. His contributions to Oxford Poets 2000, published when Carcanet inherited the Oxford list, were one of that volume's few saving graces. I read Strange Land hoping to recognise a distinctive poetic voice, but it remained a strangely heterogenous gathering. I could live without the anecdotal prose-poems and the long satirical piece, 'Ship of Fools':

     But when war came, as come it always must,
     we hurried in
vers libre to show disgust
     (for rhymes take slightly longer to compose
     than free verse, or, in rivals, chopped-up prose)...

The title sequence is more successful, referencing childbirth and CDs, and the poem for soldier-poet Keith Douglas emotional an apt, but I missed the wit and playfulness of his assessments of other poets. 47 pages of poems for 6.95 seems a bit thin, too.

The Theological Museum has great claims made for it: Alice Oswald commends it to the reader with lavish praise, the book promises radical, dislocated syntax, a 'Beckettian post-world' (whatever that may be) and fragments of traditional religion. This all adds up, apparently, to 'a new idiom for a new age', so I approached it with high hopes.

Unfortunately, this seems to boil down to long free-verse pieces, arrayed with lots of indents, dashes and ellipses and little regard for the shape of the line. Ah, but the line isn't important as a unit of composition, you say; why is it still present on the page as a unit of visual appropriation, then ? What sense of random logic governs a line-break like 'mirac-// ulously cured' across not just a line but two stanzas ? It's not metre or syllabic rhyme, nor tricksy wordplay; the lack of poetic craftsmanship escapes me, I freely confess. After a few poems reversing theological assumptions, the cumulative effect is depressing and predictable; the title poem, a tour around the said museum, seemed unfortunately like a childish attempt to shock. It concludes thus:

     So then to begin: take

     of your bible, your thermometer and your match...

'Head', a strong poem about a Bacon painting aside, I can find little to recommend or enjoy here.

If Paul Stubbs is 'a poet of the new millennium', then I'll stick with writers like Mike Barlow.  Recommendations on the back cover of Living on the Difference make much of experimentation within the ordinary quotidian world and it breathes life and experience, rather than showy iconoclasm or lukewarm glimpses of scenarios. There are less impressive poems in this volume: Barlow uses repetition to close poems too frequently and 'Believe This', an otherwise powerful slice of criminal life, comes across as Armitage-lite. There are, however, two loose groups of highly impressive poems : firstly, several quiet, meditative poems of domestic nights and mid-life ruptures, including 'Idle Talk', set during a sudden flood, the water hinting and eddying, a sensitively-handled symbol. Secondly, there is a group of powerful rural sketches:

     When we'd meet it'd be
Now then and a sentence
     clipped to the bare bones of itself. Once we passed
     the three of them walling the lane to the ford. The dogs
     came snarling for us. He took his time to call them off,
     grudged us a nod.
Aye. They don't like folk.'
          (from'No Trouble Between Us')

There it is: the real thing, measured out in ordinary words. And perhaps that's all you need to recommend this volume above the other two.

                   M.C.Caseley 2005