Miscanthus: Selected and New Poems, Anthony Barnett (Shearsman Book)
Fire Writing & Other Poems,
John Muckle (Shearsman Book)
The Purpose of the Gift: Selected Poems,
Michael Smith (Shearsman Books/New Writers Press)

The jacket pf Xavier Kalck's new selection of Anthony Barnett describes Miscanthus as 'a long-overdue survey of his writing, providing an opportunity for new readers to get to know his singular art'. There was already an edition collected by the poet himself in 1987, The Resting Bell, but here we are now almost another 20 years on. Andrew Duncan ( in 'Such that commonly each: A Various Art and the Cambridge Leisure Centre', Jacket, December 2002) points out that almost all the poems included were written before 1975, although A Various Art includes selections from Barnett's output up to 1985. Miscanthus provides a supplement to Barnett's representation in A Various Art, an update on The Resting Bell, and could be invaluable as a one-book insight into a lengthy and substantial output by a figure of some note.

Kalck's short introduction steers the reader, but with an almost immediate oddly negative urging to disregard the terms 'hermetic' and 'minimalist', which would surely spring readily to mind when scanning the poems. The importance of 'speech and tongue', and 'The play of and with the facts of the life of speech' which we are told about suggests to me that the experience of the performance of these poems by the poet himself may be a crucial supplement to the text upon the page, as on the page we are certainly for the most part in the realm of 'less is more', or as Kalck likes to say via George Oppen, 'a clarity in the sense of silence'. The minimal nature of much of the poetry on the page, and the hermetic nature of too much of the content left me wishing for a CD of the poetry to discover something of that which is given by the poet in performance, as the poems on the page should perhaps be understood as a score written by and for a word musician. The contents and thematic of the poetry were often based in an observation of nature, in particular a notable kind of horticultural fetish, and an evocation of personal relations, often unclear but they seemed to me to often evoke a more or less sublimated eroticism. The jacket tells us that in 2002 he was visiting scholar at the centre for International Programmes, Meiji University, Tokyo, which seems rather like a case of taking coals to Newcastle in that the 'nature' in Barnett's poems seems entirely artificial and culturally programmatic, so much like the elaborate concept of the traditional Japanese cycle of year as employed in their traditional arts as a universal and hermetic system of representation. There is an overall orientalist ambience to the frequent minimal disposition on the page, like an analogue of an eastern brush drawing, and a similarity to the haiku style of description and evocation in compression - which may extend for pages. There are political references or content in a few of the poems, but I could not make much from these, the most extensive discourse being in the 1979 Quiet
Facts no. 8:


     The speakers either side, on either side.










I found 'Bramble and Ramble' from Anti-beauty
of 1999 the most substantial read bringing an exciting engagement with language, but I could never get more than a page away from the stifling aestheticism of this poet. The three poems in Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970, is the Anthony Barnett I prefer, where less is more and in a more intelligible context.

Firewriting & Other Poems is John Muckle's first poetry collection, and has enthusiastic jacket endorsements from Terry Eagleton, John Berger and Will Self (please note, no poets). He has already published two books of fiction, and this comes as no surprise given that the texture and content of much of the poetry is of dense narrative.

The first section is a sequence presenting a dramatic series of encounters and situations, with a strong feeling of an incipent radio drama. Voices are occasionally present, dialogues, narrator interjections and descriptions, as sense of reported speech and even note taking.  Narrative clues of context are given in the opening poem's title 'Caring For You' and its first stanza:

     My new job takes up more of my waking days
     But sometimes it seems an easy, useful thing to do
     Arriving to find Shane already up & risen
     Shouting to be washed. In your letter, good news
     Of a vocation! I really like the way you write.

I like the direct and engaging quality of the writing which is here and throughout the book, there is a sudden and total immersion for the reader, and I found it to be compulsive reading. However, as poetry I think it is often not so successful, there is no inevitability in much of the writing that it should be poetry, and many pages read as a kind of literature which is simply at odds with common notions of prose should be. The cultural space that is designated for poetry provides somewhere for many presentations of language which simply do not find a home elsewhere, in both content and form, it is a hallowed sanctuary for rarities, the excluded and un-categorisable.

The second section of the volume is the miscellany of thematics which are dramatic presentations of the most lively and engaging characterisations, some identifiable and some seemingly generic. These texts are without exception a delight on the page and audible in great variety to the mind's ear. Take the opening of a fine and typical example of these skilful evocations and richness of narrative is 'Boys From The South Country':

     It started when we buried grandad in the backyard
     and convened an annual reunion to worship his bones
     later the beginnings of a clan structure emerged
     whether by melding or subdivision is anyone's guess.

There are some poems in this section with more structured lyrical characteristics, making use of formal and repetitive elements, and a denser imagery bringing a more distinct poetic ambience moving away from the typically dramatic and novelistic. In 'Everything That Has Happened' the first lines of the two stanzas are identical, and the nature imagery in particular bringing a sense of the traditional love poem, a self-consciously and explicitly artificial item of language. 'Koi: for Ken Smith' also develops a stronger structure of artifice, combined with the facility of apparently natural voice, this poem notable for its deceptive ease, the more formed but apparently natural narrative. John Muckle's talent for dramatic monologue finds its largest expression in the third section, which is the Firewriting
of the title, a long imaginative homage to Walter Benjamin, cancelling his suicide and then imagining a whole life for him which never was, with his ultimate home in contemporary London. The poetic form on the page splits up the dramatic monologue into units of meaning, giving an orchestration to the characterised voice, leading the reader through modulations of mood and reflection, of the exteriority of voice in the present moment of the narrative and the weaving in and out of his thoughts past and the speculative.

     "... In those vivid, nasty emblem books
     all the charnel house remains
     became a floating box of severed symbols
     in whose true meanings were revealed, written and ordained
     in fragments
                        somewhat like the clues
     in a plotless pseudo-antiquarian detective book
     some gallery of stumps and stars
                        I wouldn't wish to be seen dead in."

     I'll open a window, dear. I don't know how they got in. I'm
     not that far gone. Could you kill the little fuckers for me?
     Paris-Soir. That's favorite, if you wouldn't mind."

                                             "Could you look
     inside the wardrobe there and pass me my dressing gown?
     I swapped the Paris silk for English wool.
                                                   Its so itchy here!"

It is a fine and fitting finale to this vigorously narrative book of big imagination and a vivid gathering of people and places and times.

The Purpose of the Gift is a selection of Michael Smith's poetry spanning what would seem to be around 40 years of writing. The edition does not supply dates or details of previous publications for the individual poems and there is no supporting prose, so it is of no use as an aid for a scholarly study of the progress and development of this very considerable art.

This volume of around 150 page of poetry has a remarkably consistent feel to it, I found it very much like reading a novel in verse. The world view of the poet is primal, where birds and animals and humans make sound and coexist in an elemental framework that is built and unbuilt at the same time. It is a tragic and pessimistic world, full of savage beauty, filled with the more or less inarticulate sounds of suffering and despair, and the physical world of the elemental splendour of pain and passion and wounds, like Homer, but almost entirely devoid of the heroic. The poetry commands a primordial authority, and the poet's acknowledgement to Trevor Joyce is no surprise.

A sample of this world can be glimpsed in 'Lost Street':

     Always the old houses were falling into dust;
     and the weeds grew high as the houses fell,
     and gaps in their broken walls led into strange places.

     Piles of red dust burned in the sunlight.
     The slow, blue pigeons, the purple weeds.
     A girl's soft laugh rounded the broken wall:
     golden shards, old china, among the nettles.

     Black, that city soil was black when you plucked
     grass sods to drown the drumming of the tin roof
     of the rain that always fell at the close of evening
     as you listened quietly to the tense growth of sounds.

     It was almost enough to have stayed there forever,
     or at least till winter came and all was frozen.

The world evoked in the poems is relentless in its consistency, with regional variations of climate between the poem's locations of Ireland or Spain but little adjustment in tone or purpose. However, boundaries to its nature are indicated, if strongly policed. In 'The Nice Dragon etc.', even children would be disallowed the comfort of the pleasant, but the 'gentleness' of the child's response in language provide a poetic boundary for the power of brutality that governs the poet's world:

     Witch or warlock,
     lurking in page corners,
     hissing cat or snarling dog,
     all fearsome things we live among
     won't go away at the gentle word.
     No matter.
     Gentleness has such power
     ven Prospero laid aside
     his wand of wrath
     for the soft sway of words.

This is far and away my strongest recommendation of the three books reviewed, with an outstanding vigour of poetic language and achievement. Michael Smith's poems spring off the page to the reader with an inevitability. They work with qualities and functions of language in such a way that the reading mind encounters them with absolute certainty as poetry.

            Christine Kennedy 2005