Excerpts, Excellence and Excrement
some recent poetry books

I've just been come across Jed Rasula and Steve McCaffery's Imagining Language. An Anthology [MIT, 1998] in the university library. It's good to be reminded of the extremes of poetic form and experiment. Shift & Switch, New Canadian Poetry [eds. Derek Beaulieu, Jason Christie & Angela Rawlings; Mercury Press] has a similarly energizing and liberating effect. I'm pleased that people out there are still experimenting with collage, comics, concrete poetry, photography and performance, as well as linguistically innovative and post-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing.

I'm particularly taken with Frances Kruk's excerpts from 'Thought Process', a mix of typographical experiment, minimalist poetry and scratchy drawing. If I have a problem it's that the illustrations are by someone else... it's hard to see how the text could stand alone, such is the close inter-relationship between the visual and verbal here. Elsewhere Jamie Hilder documents poetic interventions in the landscape, with his photographs of banners hung above highways; Matthew Hollett offers both found poems and striking photos; and Gustave Morin takes collage toward both visual pun and thoughtful abstraction. I'm less convinced by Chris Fickling's reworkings of famous paintings or Rob Read's rather staid and dull 'Hieroglyphs' where he makes images from the letters of a word, although his treated spam poems are intriguing.

What is interesting is how much of this anthology features excerpts from sequences, which of course has a downside as well. Although it's good to see people planning and undertaking thought out projects, excerpts leave you wanting more and feeling as though you've simply dipped your toe in – perhaps that was the idea? To act as a taster or primer, in the hope that readers will go out and buy the complete works of certain authors. Not a bad plan, and
Shift & Switch is certainly an enjoyable and intriguing publication.

Away from experiment, the main thrust of interesting writing seems to be happening where the lyric is being reinvented [or resurrected?] in the light of 20th century experiment. John Burnside can be relied on to bring us startling and surprising images of the landscape as well as chart emotion and effect in relation to society and place. Recent work has drawn heavily on the stepped line and the Scottish landscape, so it's good to be reminded in his new Selected Poems of his harsher, grittier earlier work. Selected Poems [Cape] is a generous and wide-reaching selection, and includes the marvellous prose-poem sequence 'Suburbs' which I'm especially fond of. All his books are well-represented here, and if not all my favourites make the selection, there's still a clear indication of the breadth and achievement of Burnside's work, as well as a log of poetic movement. Recently, Burnside has made the light and space of landscape his own, with extended sequences, sustained and inventive metaphors, and an attention to detail and effect. He seems to have gained a sense of 'home' and a certain contentment seems to have descended, but the earlier work here charts darker territory and thought processes, with the poems' narrators and characters uneasy in their physical and emotional relationships. Burnside is one of the few who can make happiness and contentment, wonder and delight interesting and poetically effectual, whilst continuing to question the world around him.

David Grubb is another writer who continually questions. His poems are rooted in the sensual and playful modernism of authors like Peter Redgrove and W.S. Graham, as much about thought and language as the memories and locations which spark the poems. Out of the Marvellous [Oleander Press] is his best collection yet, a 116 page paperback in three sections that continues to chart his ongoing obsessions: madness; nostalgia; lost places, people and memories; what it means, or meant, to be English; faith and doubt; war and peace; the very nature of poetry and language itself.

Having previously organised his books thematically, this volume is in many ways a hodgepodge of work, with images and ideas reoccurring throughout. Bizarrely, it works, as the reader gradually builds up an overall picture of Grubb's concerns, for example returning to meet Grubb's grandparents in 'the orchard', or his constant niggling obsession with the idea of belief or God. Inbetween these kind of poems there are intriguing one-offs: snapshots of the landscape seen afresh [hidden under snow, for example], eulogies for or commentaries on writers and historical characters [Henri Michaux, William Burroughs, Samuel Beckett, Jenny Joseph and others], bizarre surrealistic excursions, playful poems about poetry, beautiful meditations and witty asides.

Grubb is often accused of writing too much, but I like the way he returns to subjects, pecking away from many angles, each time bringing something new to our attention. Peter Redgrove did something similar in his work, detailing his ongoing occult and sensory explorations. I also like the way Grubb can take a phrase, such as 'Look at us not dancing here' or 'The priests are on strike' and run with it, generating a poem and keeping the lines flowing from there on. The poems are all carefully revised and worked, but have that wonderful illusion of spontaneity and linguistic ease about them. In one of the first poems in the book, Grubb posits that '[m]en are really listening all the time', and Grubb's poetry bares this out – here is an author writing and watching and listening all the time, someone with the past and landcsape flowing through them, constantly inspiring and challenging him, just as his poems challenge and inspire the reader.
Out of the Marvellous is truly marvellous.

Tomaz Salamun is one of the authors Grubb writes about [in the excellent 'Drums Of Winter', where 'the words do not have to obey anything at all']. Salamun's last book was a complete disappointment but his new one, Row [Arc Publications] is much more interesting. If at times I still balk at the cod surrealism or coyness of an opening line such as 'You don't know how to behave parrot' [or the poem's title, 'I'm Not Used To It, Lieutenant, I'm Not Used To It!'] or the verbiage of a line such as 'Karakorum of the obliterated, lukwarm halva' which opens 'Poet Leaves The House And Doesn't Leave The House', elsewhere there are poems and images which surprise and delight:

     I am a gulp.
     I am the blessed munching body.

he declaims in 'Love', while in 'Sirens'

     I blossom into shoulders.
     I throw the sphere of a horse into cranberries.
     Unhinged. A pine-beauty. [...]

This is imagery pushed into new places, although we also have to deal with mundane phrases such as 'I'm falling apart my love, I miss you.' ['Karst'] and the occasional long ramble where Salamun simply riffs on a theme. So a bit of a mixed bag, nowhere near as good as the American
Four Questions of Melancholy: New and Selected Poems, which remains for me the touchstone of Salamun's work.

Billy Collins'
The Trouble With Poetry and Other Poems [Picador] is much more clear cut. When I first read Collins' work it was refreshing, lighthearted and clever poetry; now it's often merely banal or smartarse, sometimes both.

     How suddenly the private
     is revealed in a bombed-out city

we are told in 'Building with Its Face Blown Off'. Wow! Collins has noticed when a wall falls of a building you can see into the rooms.

     In the morning I ate a banana
     like a young ape
     and worked on a poem called 'Nocturne'

     In the afternoon I opened the mail
     with a short kitchen knife,
     and when dusk began to fall

     I took off my clothes
     put on 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo'
     and soaked in a claw-footed bathtub.

This is a dreadful attempt to be witty. It doesn't make me laugh, or even grin, truth be told. It's the sort of thing every writing student in the country turns out when they are asked to make the known unknown or the familiar unfamiliar. 'It was then that I heard / a clap of thunder and the dog's bark,' he goes on, 'and the claw-footed bathtub / took one step forward'...  Great! A storm makes the dog bark, and to emphasise the point, and attempt make it surreal, the bathtub the narrator is in leaps around the room. Wake me up when it's over. Or at least pull the plug.

In the title poem, Collins perceptively says 'the trouble with poetry is / that it encourages the writing of more poetry'. I have to say in the case of this book I veer between total despair at why anyone would publish this half-baked collection, which makes me want out of poetry; and the simple fact that, thank goodness, there's a lot of poetry out there which is a damn sight better.

       © Rupert Loydell 2006