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...
ribs against clouds,
in the act of
own sense of substance,
fade into any furniture,
at one with
chintz or uncut moquette.
Imitation of Eden']
The book you
sent has conjured
winter-savoury, mint and thyme,
hedges of box.
chrysanthemum and phlox.
I could fry
flowers from the elder,
petals in vodka,
medieval plot of knots.
scent will float
from blue hyssop,
a carnival of
sachets, bottles, pots.
'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,
re-made running through our veins.
trails the weight
creatures wait to be born, given a name.
I recall a
child who craved
a kind word
than a sweet
– I devour the same cadence.
'Variations on a Theme']
wear her journeys,
put on the
skin of her afternoons.
wounds; Helen, Hesperides, Eden.
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,
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...
Patrick and myself
came to an
We had vowed
of them I
was sick of
and said so.
later that sourpuss
Paddy told me
make it myself
seven years passed.
time (said Failbhe
years in that place)
[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...
course destroys the brain
it's a well
'Songs of Commerce']
Always be a
free man when you speak
not a slave.
...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...
member tumescent menhir
rocked into menhir socket
ropes hauled into
crack of lightning
ah the horned
god wears my meat.
'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
heart and throat
line of photographs
on the chest
the word we
are hear to discuss
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
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.
collection of English words
bridge brak and we fell in the mire
and all known plants
that day and to whom it happened
that day and to whom it happened
A rocket went
through his neck
omens, melos, love
Sliced in half
like a flatfish
But not on
the last page
by numbers truth in ash
but not here
line is repeated
line is repeated here
lines that never meet
[from 'Desk and
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.
petrol and self-burned'
Far down into
Far down into
brass picture of soldiers
soldier's water bottle
'Interrogation of a bound man'
It's about the process of writing and the use of language.
Disject verb intransitive
Adjoin verb in this sense
line for thirty years
Find inside a
turn and turn
Of a small
soul some machinery
Whose use now
He said who
wished to translate
And to save
violence of our language
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
shit to a blanket is
What they say
they say as they
enough to see my
sweet and true
sweet my only sweet and
true Willy my my-my my
Sweet my true
my sweet my true
dis sended you
yeah to business
Cat in a cage
Monkey in a
Toy jeeps toy
tanks toy trees toy planes
shoots down the other
'Desk and Chair']
Midnight at a
They say that
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