From Thrilling to Thrilled

by Isobel Thrilling, 88pp, £8.95, Shearsman
by Gerry Loose, 146pp, £9.95, Shearsman
by Christian Hawkey, 136pp, $14.00, Wave Books
by Susan Tichy, 102pp, $16.00, Ahsahta Press

I find myself in a bit of a dilemma with Isobel Thrilling's fourth collection, The Language Creatures, as it oozes quality, yet leaves me cold, if not slightly irritated. In terms of diction, rhythm, structure, flow and overall use of language, Thrilling definitely knows how to put it all together. However, there's something terribly twee about the result. Whether this comes down to subject matter (lots of family, flowers and knitting), or has something to do with cultural differences between us, it's hard to say.

She certainly manages to keep them flowing using a variety of tried and tested techniques, though, in the end, many of these poems come over only as slightly mesmerising listings, whether of objects or activities or descriptions. As a couple of examples...

     Ghosts of buildings,
     half-visible ribs against clouds,
     walls caught
     in the act of a haunting
     echo their own sense of substance,
     women with camouflage,
     who could fade into any furniture,
     at one with Regency stripe,
     or floral design
     on silk, chintz or uncut moquette.
          [from 'In Imitation of Eden']

     The book you sent has conjured
     an aromatic cloud,
     winter-savoury, mint and thyme,
     jasmine and hedges of box.

     Spoors of perfume track
     the carpet,
     steal into furnishings,
     shock of pine,
     lilac, chrysanthemum and phlox.

     I could fry flowers from the elder,
     steep rose petals in vodka,
     make a still-room,
     an arbour, medieval plot of knots.

     Balloons of scent will float
     their rainbows,
     infusions from peonies,
     pressings from blue hyssop,
     a carnival of shelves
     packed with sachets, bottles, pots.
          [from 'Rose-Petals in Vodka']

Equally, in bringing each to a conclusion, there's frequent, perhaps too frequent, use made of the tanka-like envoy – a summing up in a short, final, isolated, seemingly unrelated phrase. Although they maybe don't quite stick out like sore thumbs when taken out of context, here are a few...

     We are all pieces of amber,
     the universe re-made running through our veins.
          [from 'The Amber Shop']

     All language trails the weight
     of a trackless deep,
     where creatures wait to be born, given a name.
          [from 'The Language Creatures']

     I recall a child who craved
     a kind word more
     than a sweet – I devour the same cadence.
          [from 'Variations on a Theme']

     Others will wear her journeys,
     put on the skin of her afternoons.
          [from 'Woman Knitting']

     Arcadia was always
     primed with wounds; Helen, Hesperides, Eden.
          [from 'Apples']

Sermon-like, she also employs the first person plural to the point of over-use, as though attempting to make moral statements.  For example, in 'Before Lazarus', 'We were raised from the dead.' In 'Tracking the Gold Frog', 'We, too, follow tracks in the cosmos, / astral paths, great beasts of light'.  In 'Aquarium', 'we browse / our own sunlit / reefs'. In 'The Fabric-Maker', 'We, too, are reworked fabric, / spun in space, / threads from ancient suns...'.  In The Daughter's Tale', 'We all absorb griefs through kin'.  And in ' Honey', 'we / are golden-throated, / spoon long sugars of stopped sun'. There are more, but you get the gist – these are not references to a specific 'we', to the narrator and other named characters in the poems – these are a generalised 'we' used in the hope of generating an association with the reader, to make the reader feel there is a personal relevance to these poems. The reality is that, after a while, it wears thin.

Indeed, it actually reaches the stage of silliness with 'Creation' in which, 'It's the tremor / we feel when children / in cardboard crowns / tell the Christmas story.' The risk of making sweeping generalisations inherent in using 'we' becomes more than apparent as, personally, I have never worn a cardboard crown nor told the Christmas story while wearing one, and she has no right to assume I ever have.

One final irritant is her habit of peppering her work with metaphorical references to herself as a writer and the act of writing.  For example, in 'Pumping Iron, essentially a poem about her blacksmithing ancestors, she concludes with, 'And now I'm hammering words / to the hooves of language, / send them galloping across the page.' Similarly, in 'Rose-Petals in Vodka', a poem about the things she could do with a list of plants and flowers, she decides to do none of these because, 'Instead, I plant the seeds / of words / grow mythic gardens from the stocks.' This attitude could easily be taken as pretentiousness, particularly when read alongside the credits which list numerous literary competition prizes and anthologies – though, again, that's maybe just me, always having viewed literary competitions with the complete contempt any form of self-promoting, middle-class ostentation deserves.

All in all, though, if you can ignore these irritating foibles, there's some quality writing going on here. However, if, like me, you are of the type who finds these foibles too irritating to be ignored, The Language Creatures
is maybe best left for others less discerning.

Far from twee, however, is Gerry Loose's Printed on Water, a selection of new and older poems drawn from the past thirty years. As it says on the cover, 'Loose is a poet, dramatist, horticulturalist, ecologist and activist, whose poetry needs to be better-known outside Scotland.' I couldn't agree more.

His work is both varied and purposeful, socially aware and personal, minimal yet dense. As Tom Leonard, the Parochial Godfather of the Glasgow Clique says, in describing Loose's work, it is, 'A poetry of wonder, sexuality, angry wit.'

Certainly, it's wonderful, occasionally downright horny and often sceptical, if not brazenly cynical.  There are moments of humour, such as the couplet in 'the facts of the matter' which runs, 'pink and funny / as a grinning dog's cock', or as in 'Eitgal', a sequence about monastic life...

     Failbhe Patrick and myself
     came to an island.
     We had vowed
     (among other things)
     silence save once each
     every seven years.

     After seven of them I
     was sick of lumpy porage
     and said so.
     Seven years later that sourpuss
     Paddy told me to
     make it myself
     and another seven years passed.
     It's high time (said Failbhe
     after 21 years in that place)
     you two stopped arguing.
                    [from 'Eitgal' verse 24]

Although it's reminiscent of an old Buddhist story and, therefore, not entirely original, coming, as it does, amidst an otherwise bleak poem, and with a hint of the Celtic brogue, it does add an extra dimension to the work.

Loose is also unashamed in showing his politics, not only through exposure of his left-wing anti-nuclear stance in the long, perceptive sequence 'Holy Loch Soap', but overtly peppered throughout...

     money of course destroys the brain
     it's a well known fact
          [from 'Songs of Commerce']

     Always be a free man when you speak
     not a slave.
     Abolish the rich.
         [from 'Eitgal' verse 32]

...and generally, colouring the perspective of the entire collection.  In fact, Loose brings ideological politics and esoteric religion deftly to bear in all his work. He is committed to both in the political stance he takes and in his outlook on Life, guided as it was initially by Zen and as it has gradually become by Tibetan Buddhism. In bringing these life-affirming beliefs to his poetry, without making a song and dance over them, and no matter the subject, Loose produces work that has considerably more substance than much of the middle-class tittle-tattling that passes for poetry.

And, if it's eroticism you're looking for, how about...

     Eitgal wants a woman
     quiescent member tumescent menhir
     rock hard rocked into menhir socket
     erected with ropes hauled into
     soft earth moist mother
     exposed to weather
     hail flailed crack of lightning

     ah the horned god wears my meat.
          [from 'Eitgal' verse 9]

In a way, it could be argued that the staccato phrasing and minimalist syntax of his work often makes it read like listings.  Equally, he does refer to the word and its use (and, therefore, the act of writing) regularly throughout the collection, culminating in 'from
the deer path to my door' with 'such a small beetle passes so / easily across the written lines I labour over'. But where these two aspects were obtrusive in Thrilling's The Language Creatures, they are handled with an adroitness and subtlety by Loose that make them blend with the whole much more agreeably.

Even when it comes to the use of first person plural, where Thrilling was heavy and sermon-like, Loose keeps it in reserve for when it's purely personal, and, in so doing, handles it considerably more successfully, such as in 'from
Stroke Mother'.

     with air and with sound
     we grieve
     with full heart and throat
     through the line of photographs
     on the chest


     the word we are hear to discuss

                                      I cannot say

If there was anything remotely negative to be said about Loose's work, it would have to be that, given the syntactical and grammatical minimalism, along with the staccato style, where single lines are more often than not complete phrases, there are times when the rare enjambment is not obvious and flow-breaking re-reading is required. However, in my always having believed the reader should be made to work, this, ultimately, is no big deal.  Indeed, if anything, it adds greatly to the satisfaction of having read these truly globally-relevant poems.

Needs to be better-known outside Scotland? I couldn't agree more.

Much harder to agree with is the blurb that comes with Christian Hawkey's Citizen Of, in describing it as, 'an edgy and ominous second collection from one of contemporary poetry's most promising new voices.' It's neither edgy nor ominous and I've come across considerably more promising talent than is displayed here. If the effect he was after was of that weary old stream of consciousness thing, the result is closer to a torrent of pish.

It comes over as a smugly mechanical cut and paste job that is essentially immature and self-indulgent in its insistence on punning word-play and far from poetic American colloquialisms, and has the general nature of inane nonsense that flits superficially over so much that cries out for further development. On the last of these points, if it was some form of fantasy he was seeking, this only works when there's a sufficient image created upon which to linger and build.  That's why, at root, it is neither edgy nor ominous. Rather, it's random and vacuous.

It's such a dreadful collection of drivel, I feel quoting any of it gives it greater importance than it deserves and would serve only to illustrate the many facets of the disdain I feel towards it. There aren't even any odd sections I could quote as being redeeming in any way. In short, I've never been so glad to reach the end of a poetry collection. It was neither an enjoyably entertaining, nor a pleasurably challenging experience. If I was pushed to quote, all I could justifiably select, though, for what reason other than it momentarily tickled me, would be from one of the many poems in the collection entitled 'Hour' (the page 35 one), which reads

     Tadpoles are a form of punctuation.

Now, given all that, you can imagine how I approached the next book in the pile with considerable trepidation. This wasn't helped by my first scan of the blurb, which looked as though I could be heading towards having to waste my time in wading through the mire of an unhealthily long sequence of war-widow's grief-torn reminiscences.

Not a bit of it!

What I encountered with Susan Tichy's two part collection, Bone Pagoda
, was page after page of pirouetting lines and phrases, collaged from a spectrum of documentary and anecdotal sources that lent the collection expansive, intelligent and, in many ways, playfully crafted qualities.

     My precious collection of English words
     'Till the bridge brak and we fell in the mire

     Cryptograms and all known plants
     What happened that day and to whom it happened

     What happened that day and to whom it happened
     A rocket went through his neck

     Handbook of omens, melos, love
     Sliced in half like a flatfish

     Sliced in half    consummated
     But not on the last page

     This page says
     If numbered by numbers   truth in ash

     Consummated but not here
     The first line is repeated

     The first line is repeated here
     Are parallel lines that never meet

     But carry
         [from 'Desk and Chair']

Yes, it's about war and her latterly late husband's role in it. But it's also about her youthful fight against it and their return to its theatre, guided by the wisdom of maturity.

     'Soaked in petrol and self-burned'
     Far down into the photograph

     Far down into the photograph
     A hammered brass picture of soldiers

     Says my diary, says
     Temple-goer servant wood

     South-East soldier's water bottle
     Clay metal plastic then

     'Interrogation of a bound man'
          [from 'Museum']

It's about the process of writing and the use of language.

     Disject   verb intransitive
     Adjoin    verb in this sense

     Always near
          [from 'Swerve']

     Write one line for thirty years
     Find inside a verse this

     Black verse, turn and turn
     Of a small soul some machinery

     Whose use now escapes me
          [from 'Swerve']

     He said who wished to translate
     And to save

     Pastness of memory
     Pastness of remark, the

     Absolute violence of our language
     Not material then
          [from 'Bone Pagoda']

It's about loyalty and exposure. It's about humanity and inhumanity.  It's about individual struggle and collective responsibility. It's about the personal and public.

It's really about everything.

Yet, it's much more than being about
anything.  It's a journey through rhythms that mesmerise, language that blinds and emotions that are real and raw.  It's pure poetry.

     And my Willy Peter burns to the bone he

     Sticks like shit to a blanket is
     What they say they say as they

     Descend the planes
     Almost low enough to see my

     Aine William sweet and true
     My Willy sweet my only sweet and

     True Willy true Willy my my-my my
     Sweet my true my sweet my true

     Distended and dis sended you
     To baseness, yeah   to business
           [from 'Persephone']

     Cat in a cage dying
     Monkey in a cage dying

     Toy jeeps toy tanks toy trees toy planes
     And one shoots down the other
          [from 'Desk and Chair']

     Midnight at a desk
     Where poems turn unbeseemingly

     Traditional, traditionally
     They say that art consoles.
           [from 'Versari']

It's one woman's survival plan laid bare, but so much more than simple catharsis. It's a response to the irony of having endured, shared and emerged, only then to have tragically lost. 

It's really quite spell-binding. Buy it!

                 © John Mingay 2007