WHAT WE FIND IN OUR POCKETS


TOWER POETS: FIVE YEARS OF TOWER POETRY
edited by Peter McDonald, 70pp, 5.00, Tower Poetry, Christ Church, Oxford OX1 1DP
THE REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY POETRY
edited by Gary Bills, 110pp, 9.99, bluechrome publishing, PO Box 109, Portishead, Bristol BS20 7ZJ


Tower Poets celebrates five years of Tower Poetry, an organisation aimed at encouraging young poets, so inevitably some of the poems here feel tentative, the individual voice not yet fully developed.

Anna Lewis writes quiet, understated poems that deal with history, and contain some lovely images: the books in a chained library as 'leathery felons', and a weary verger feeling 'the weight of God, the whole great bulk / of stone slung around his shoulders, like / the train of a young and solemn bride.' Her line breaks, though, as here, sometimes feel awkward and stilted, the poems too careful to let the words flow and sing.

Frances Leviston, in comparison, is bold and rhythmical. She's able to use hugely long lines, as in 'The unthinkable', without losing the rhythm, and her line breaks are  controlled to great effect, as in the wonderfully-titled 'I resolve to live chastely' with its final resonating words, 'What is it / for, my skin, if not this pelting, streaming world?' where you know that the quirky, perfect line break is fully intended.

Helen Mort, in her opening poem 'The ageing of Harry Houdini' has some great images for the ageing skin: 'it is only like the slow / softening of oranges'; then it's crepe paper which Houdini will 'prise open' in order to 'sidle back ten years.' The poem seems to fizzle out in the last stanza, though, as do a couple of others - there are lots of good things here, but some of Mort's poems perhaps need to be more robustly made.

Olivia Cole's 'Breaking the ice' describes perfectly that early part of a relationship ('an awkwardness that makes / every crunched word loud'), which will one day be replaced by an easiness reflected in the altered form of the second stanza, but 'this first stop start / glitter' can never be recaptured. Elsewhere, Cole's wit and cleverness can eclipse what's tender and personal in her poems, so that the self-consciously titled 'A writer's dairy', for example, only seems to come alive when the poet, revisiting an old street, says 'I don't know what it is I'm grieving for / or why I feel should be finding out / who lives here now.' There's an honesty here that can get lost beneath the shiny poetic surface.

One of Tim Laing-Smith's poems has a line in the fifth stanza, 'Eventually, this happens', and that 'eventually' seems accurate: it's only here that the poem really gets going. Similarly with 'Hastings / Typhoon Clock' which, as its alternative titles indicate, begins as a poem about childhood holidays before finally getting round to the clock. The final poem has some nicely observed details about birds (magpies' calls 'like shaken matchboxes') but again these poems seem too careful and modulated, without a strong sense of voice.

Caroline Bird found her voice very young: not yet twenty, she already has a collection published by Carcanet. The poems here show two sides to her poetry. One is a strange, almost manic jumble of unsettling images ('I replaced my legs with charcoal'; 'Sorry for strutting down your road with a plague-ridden cart / piling up the bodies before they were dead'). Conversely, Cole can control these images and languages to great effect, as in the 'Trouble came to the turnip', with its fairytale-like lines ('I put my love inside a fish') and balladish repetitions. And her final poem 'Bread' seems almost a cry from the heart for simplicity ('I wish only to need bread'), for the one single image that can flow through a poem like this and bind it beautifully.

Matthew Sperling's poems are accompanied by copious notes, which go part way to explaining his poems - 'a young curioso
trying to become a virtuoso in as many abnormal tongues as he can ply'. Sperling does have what he calls 'an unhealthy interest' in language, such that some of his poems are like the museum cabinets he describes, full of anything and everything, where 'Nothing / is apropos'. There's a certain youthful energy to this, a feeling of the whole world being interesting, even a 'presentably quatrained gap-year travelogue', but poetry has what Sperling disparagingly calls 'cordons' for good reason.
 
This anthology's an interesting taster of the work of some young poets, but better to spend 2.50 on Frances Levison's pamphlet from Mews Press, and watch out for the others in magazines and first collections as their voices develop.

To call an anthology The Review of Contemporary Poetry
is somewhat misleading: 'Review' implies a literary journal, which this isn't, and if the publishers mean to imply an overview of contemporary poetry, it's not that either. What it is, is an anthology in aid of the Stroke Association, which mixes poetry from the entrants to the Stroke News Poetry Competition (some but not all of it on the subject of strokes) with new work from twenty or so established poets (Motion, Burnside, Stainer, O'Brien et al.)

It would be good to be able to say that the poems were seamlessly mixed, those from the published and the unpublished forming a coherent anthology. Unfortunately this isn't the case. Most of the competition poems are fairly mediocre, often lacking any sense of rhythm or form, and using unmemorable abstract language. There are one or two exceptions: Beryl Fenton, in a Highly Commended poem, uses a striking concrete image - 'Her speech, like muddled rubber bands, / was riddles, after her stroke' - and Christine Philp's 'Stroke Haiku', though awkwardly made, is perceptive: 'Stroke sounds so gentle / when first heard, but be sure, it // grips with iron hands.'  Also memorable is Mark Halliday's 'Waiting Room', which captures the feeling of tension, and ends with the image of a boy flying a kite, closing the poem on an unforced note of hope.

On the whole, though, it's the poems by established poets which shine out of this collection, like Moniza Alvi's fantasy about a camel being brought to live in an English suburb: 'A number of residents / have not wished for /a black or brown person /as a neighbour. // And now they have a camel...' or Penelope Shuttle's similarly themed 'Master Town' with its 'upright nutmeg light', where 'the sea comes along / to muss the orchards'. There's also Jacob Polley's exquisite four-line 'After Rain', and Brian Patten's rich, exuberant 'Feeling a bit hungry, the poet decides to write a poem -' which becomes a metaphor for writing and imagination, beginning with 'Look what I've found in my pockets! / In one pocket I've found / Honey bees and hives, and yellow pollen, / I've found the eggs of humming birds/ And salt from the widest oceans.'
 
It's hard to envisage this book being bought as the 'Review of Contemporary Poetry' it claims to be; however, as a fundraiser it's a commendable idea. By buying it, you benefit the Stroke Association by 10, and in exchange get a good few interesting new poems.

      Elizabeth Burns 2005