One Hand Clapping

Prospero's Mantle
, Kevin Bailey [unpaginated, £4.99, Bluechrome]
Carrying Fire
, Oz Hardwick [70pp, £7.99, Bluechrome]
American Voodoo
, Michael Paul Hogan [92pp, £7.99, Bluechrome]
Shades of Grey
, Poul Webb [58pp, £7.99, Boho Press]

Poetry presses always excite my interest. By any sort of Darwinian law they should not exist. Against the odds they provide an outlet for voices which otherwise would be seldom heard. There is something of Camus' absurd in such commitment. Bluechrome Press should be lauded for this recent batch of titles.

Bailey's collection features haikus or translations of such. This work will be little discussed here, because of a prejudice: my own. I don't think that they work in English. The Anglo-Saxon playing of the Zen card, with or without season or seasonal vegetation rarely does it for me. I don't hear English so syllabically stressed as a 5-7-5 three-line trick. En passant, there are times when Bailey does give a crisp instant, a carefully realised moment which is a joy to read. There are also occasions when the editor should have found the scissors, such as this `phallo-eccentric' patronising paean of prurience:

     like the best fruit, the
     mellowed older woman spreads
     basking in sunlight

The above almost invites a skit: 'like grocer's leavings // wasted prune, old man reaching // for his Viagra.' Forgive me, there are many fine miniature poems to be found in Bailey's collection.

Hardwick's 'Carrying Fire' is an accomplished collection with a definite sense of its own internal order. The only imbalance comes from an almost obsessive use of the first person. Granted that this gives the pieces an intimate feel, appropriate to Hardwick's themes, there are occasions where a shift of viewpoint would be refreshing. What is galling, is that you almost get this in many of the poems, but like an unwelcome Peeping Tom, the `I' enters stage left in the closing lines. A minor fault that could be easily cured by the odd poem being left to speak for itself without the intrusive I. My favourite, a walk on the surreal side, is Hardwick's Belgium poems, 'Cow Parade: Brussels' which opens:

     The first surprised us on the Rue des Bouchers.
     Mapped, antique, it knew its place,
     impassive, unperturbed in the mill and surge
     of late night diners hitting the town.

And ends with the comic ecstatic:

     As the sun rose we shared one dream.
     We followed a skybound herdsman, high
     on the Cow Path: Magritte striding stars,
     driving his cattle home, singing.

Inevitably, there are those odd poems which don't quite earn their place: ‘Merlin's Cave' ought to have been left stranded off the page, despite its tight form. A curiosity which I did enjoy was the poet counting one to ten in the old Brythonic, of what is now, Cumbria. That this extract of counting sheep is left waiting for a footnote, leaves me wondering whether Hardwick has been unduly impressed by the wilful obscurantism of Pound; och bhoil, sin a bhfuil

To conclude, a highly readable,  entertaining collection; on the strength of his Belgium poems, Hardwick ought to be made the poet laureate of Bruges.

Michael Paul Hogan's American Voodoo, is, as the poet almost admits in the preface, something of a curate's egg. Many poems in this collection stand out as exciting, innovative and enjoyable, but that is the problem: they stand out. Further, I am sure that the poems that leave me cold, that seem to have lost their way via 'On the Road', and thereafter hitched a ride with this title, others will thoroughly enjoy. The problem is that there are two, perhaps, three collections in here that would be better served standing alone. If you are a real fan of Hogan and everything he has written or will write, then you have a bargain. Coming fresh to his work, the chances are you may find yourself on a rollercoaster of amusement and disenchantment.

Yet I like Hogan's wit,  his eye and turn of phrase, his use of random, long-lines. But there are times when a bit more focus and discipline would lift poems from impressive `almost there' draft to polished piece. On page 49, second stanza, in the second part of 'Hurricane Season', we have: 'Tree branches crash randomly against anything. // A fence ripples and unzips.' The first line gives up trying to say `anything' original, a dull non-statement, but the second is a visually strong and witty simile. These poems need a shake; dead lines, spent words, and other textual chaff need separating, because there are some very fine poems in the mix.

What really holds you in Hogan's work is that every page or so you stumble upon a startling, poetic use of language and you are pleased that you picked the book up.

Poul Webb's Shades of Grey
, is published by The Boho Press, which seems to be an imprint of Bluechrome, or at least strongly related to it, hence its inclusion here. And it is worth including here, for it shares the same defect as the above titles. It needs a tight edit. Fine poetry is lost in dross.

Webb starts weakly with the twee stroll along a beach, complete with moody introspective poet. More interesting internal landscapes are explored, for example in 'Empire Diner', which shifts the mood and impetus of the collection. Other shifts in location bring an evocative,  sensual feel to the poet's musings. The locations and creation of atmosphere is the chief source of delight in Webb's work.

Unfortunately, just when you begin to enjoy this journey, he'll bore you with a cliche, such as the opening of 'Smile' on page 14: 'He loved her, // Her smile was as elusive \\ as that of the Mona Lisa.' I'm sorry, but that is as about as fresh as 'What's a pretty girl like you doing in a dump like this?' The poem is saved from the purely trite by the closing lines, but the poem still should have been dumped or the editing scalpel found. The same sensation of a poem missed occurs with 'Frank', where the end-line 'in my head' reduces the impact and the originality of the poem.

Every time Webb seems to be moving away from the pedestrian, he retreats to tired hackneyed phrases, as in 'Painting by Numbers': 'You are far more complex than I imagined, // with hidden depths - one colour after another - '. This diminishes what  could be workmanlike poetry, not startling, but good. It is not enough to have a good idea and lines that work only to kill the poetry dead by being dull; in 'Portrait' Webb fails his work by the overworked, 'etched in my memory'; in 'First Cigarette', he ends the poem with 'My last coffin nail'.

The man can write, but he can't discriminate between the words that count and the words that are out for the count, exhausted of anything worth saying.

I dislike sneering critics, the pompous and self-inflated opinionated. I am impressed by Bluechrome's commitment to poetry. Overall, I have enjoyed reading this latest batch, despite negative points made. Oz Hardwick, in particular, I greatly enjoyed - and relished his enthusiasm for 'Belgium'. Hogan has written lines that bite. If I did not find Zen with Bailey, I certainly found some carefully crafted miniatures of exquisite preciseness. 

Yet, it has been frustrating, for all of the collections could have been so much stronger. It is as if the writers, editors and publisher have not quite cared enough. I say this with regret even as I applaud Bluechrome's endeavours.

          © Daithidh MacEochaidh 2006