Healthy Diversity

 
ANDRASTE'S HAIR
by Eleanor Rees, 72pp, 12.99 (hbck), Salt Publishing
FORGETTING TO COME IN
by Paul McLoughlin, 76pp, 8.95, Shoestring Press
BRECCIA
by Malcolm Carson, 66pp, 8.95, Shoestring Press
THE SAFE HOUSE
by Chris Jones, 66pp, 8.95, Shoestring Press
 

I read Andraste's Hair three times, wondering what to say about it and how to say it. Each time the experience was like that of looking through a kaleidoscope, giving it a shake and then looking again: each time what you see is brilliant but different.
 
There is something hallucinatory about the poems - you feel as though you are in a shifting dreamscape. Sometimes they take you on solitary walks through places that are both familiar and strange. Sometimes you feel you are swept up in a hectic verbal dance. Always on the move, the poems refuse, like stream-of-consciousness writing, to be pinned down. You'd hate to be asked to say what they are 'about'. You'd have to say they elude aboutness; they are what they are - incantatory, spell-like, trance-inducing - poetry as magical utterance to which you have to submit, make a willing suspension of disbelief.
 
Often the language makes sudden unexpected metaphorical leaps, which can, without your fully knowing how or why, simply dazzle:
 
                The wind's touch is courageous.
 
The stars are stags,
                antlers pointed at each new shore
 
                sailors discover
                far from here, in some sunny waters.
 
                I open to it like a mouth.
                                                [from 'Night River']
 
Or the poems dislocate your sense of the real by creating impossible-seeming situations, as in the nightmarish
 
                I lie face down on the road,
                cars circling like lions.
                A wolf howls in Church Street.
 
                Two eyes,
                yellow radar seeking scent.
                Stay still. Keep calm.
                                                [from 'Seams of Dust']
 
You feel as though you're in a room full of the paintings of someone like Chagall.
 
In The Waste Land
Eliot calls London an 'unreal city' and metamorphoses it to become all the cities that were once the throbbing hearts of great civilisations. Eleanor Rees has made Liverpool into an 'unreal city' by conferring a sort of mythic or magical status on it. By 'unreal' I don't wish to imply anything fake but rather mean it's transformed to something rich and strange. It becomes a city that haunts and is haunted. Most of the action takes place at night. For Rees Liverpool is mostly a night place:
 
     My city is wearing costume jewellery tonight -
     glittering and unreal.
                        [from 'Roadworks']
Or again
 
     I set off in the blue-black midnight,
     flowers and shops closed and crowded with dark -
 
     In soft warm blue,
     barefoot, bra-less,
 
     flung westward.
                        [from 'A Nocturnal Opera']
 
Rees's is a unique voice.  Who else would use a word like 'flung' here? Or, in the earlier quotation, see a wolf's eyes as 'yellow radar seeking scent'? I don't see anyone quite like her around today. She is hard to characterise. The poems are intense and atmospheric; in them the personal becomes strangely impersonal, something constantly and rapidly metamorphosing; they are experimental, subversive yet not self-consciously so; they are full of creative ambivalences; vividly impressionistic; sometimes scintillatingly, sometimes disconcertingly surreal; they are rich musically. Each time you read them they take on new aspects and prospects. Make one of those readings out loud. Andraste's Hair
has been shortlisted for this year's Forward Prize.
 

I must confess that Forgetting to Come In by Paul McLoughlin grew on me and gained in strength and authority. My initial feeling was of being treated to inconsequential reportage, writing failing to lift off into significance, language that was just too ordinary. I have got nothing against plain-speaking poetry: I recently praised Jim Burns for that very quality, of which Burns has long been a master. And, yes, there are poems in Forgetting to Come In  that feel as though they've stayed at home, more meaningful as private than shareable. Then there are poems responding to paintings or sculpture which leave the reader who doesn't know the works in question out in the cold, and poems that feel like arrangements or re-arrangements of the words of others (perfectly legitimate if a poem is the outcome but sometimes one is left wondering, as in From the Spanish, what the purpose really is,). And poems in which McLoughlin, like Browning, ventriloquises and you realise the full impact only after a re-started reading. All this ultimately makes the collection a little on the patchy side.
 
That said, there is also much that is impressive. The range is wide: Ireland, jazz, football, cricket, teaching, farming, childhood, fatherhood, art; there is a real sense of control, even in those poems one may feel left out of ; there is gravitas when it is needed and there is wit. The casual and anecdotal can in the best poems have genuine impact: in a piece for Brian Jones we read
 
     You once said that where we end up
     is a pretty good indication of where
     we were always going. But then
     we've wasted time not recognising
     who we are, or hoping it might be
     otherwise, our pillowed heads
     resisting what's insidiously true.
                        [from 'Grouch']
 
The plain-speaking here has tautness - sustained for a further two stanzas - and is playful in a manner that's thoughtful and serious.
 
At his best McLoughlin uses language with accuracy and sensitivity...in poems like Private Screenings, The End of British Farming, Grouch, Kingfishers and Herons, Stealing a Smoke, Something to Say, Birds, The Annunciation, Trust, Flugel, There's Always This, Lady Tansfield's Memorial.
These make for rewarding reading.
 

Malcolm Carson's Breccia is a find. 'Breccia' is a geological word, which, according to the encyclopedia, denotes 'a rock composed of angular fragments or minerals in a matrix that is a cementing material that may be similar or different in composition to the fragments.' If the poems are fragments, then the book is a rock, yet another fragment. It is a good title. It suggests a kind of modesty and yet solidity at the same time. The modesty is sounded in a poem about a train journey called Carlisle -Newcastle which throws up a jumble of memories but which ends with the thought
 
     Giddy with it all I can only settle back
     contrive landscapes of my own,
     hope to know those.
 
Carson's poems, however, are by no means fugitive, they are such as need no apologies. The voice is strong, the language sensuously enacts what is described - principally landscape: Ireland, Lincolnshire, Kent, Cumbria. His themes are those of loss and gain in an ever-changing world, the limits of knowledge and remembering, the making of order from disorder and of how disorder can make a nonsense of our attempts to control the world about us. He is poignant about relationships: there are poems in which, revisiting the past, he explores his sense of an identity, sometimes recalling difficult encounters in childhood with strange behaviour in the adult world; he is sometimes troubled by a sense of not quite fitting in, of his standing in the eyes of  his father. In Belfast Lough
he talks about 'stabbing memories into life' and of 'inviting them in, sons and wife,/to my remembered past.' The past is a place or places to look for understanding of oneself in and, hopefully, share it with others. Sometimes the memories are damaged or sidetracked by a clamorous present:
 
     Our host though had other plans.
     He wished a show, terpsichorean in extravagance,
     for out of his car boot - some anxiety there -
     he drew his juggling clubs, his paraphernalia,
     took on motley. His tricks lit
     the Antrim sky as my sons watched
     his dexterity, entranced.
                        [from 'The Dreen']
 
Sometimes they are of happy occasions. For example, working on a farm, spreading manure (or 'manna' as it is pronounced in Lincolnshire):
                        We could get the wheelings right
     roll back the baize, make strips
     beyond the ha-ha and industrial barn,
     refashion history with our tableau.
                        [from 'Manna']
 
I was particularly attracted to the poems in the third section of the book, poems about the Cumbrian fells, which strongly reminded me of the poetry of Norman Nicholson, who died twenty years ago. A deep sense of geological time as a context in which to understand human time is present in both poets, and Nicholson would, I'm certain, have admired these poems as much as I do. At the end of Blencathra
, Carson observes that the mountain
 
     rises in its saddle to mark
     your arrival from the east
     where broken Pennines falter,
     shakes off these irritations
     in the greater drama
     that bubbled from the earth's core.
 
Or again in Skidddaw

 

     Even then Devonian deserts
     obliterate what had seemed
     an architecture of sorts.
     Glaciers came, excoriating valleys,
     shifting granite, slate, erratic
     until the retreat from
     Skiddaw's peak. Rain softened
     slopes and lakes, made it easier
     to be vain in our understanding.
 
For Carson, the landscape is somewhere to be active in, to be forever moving - 'a trudge towards/obvious summits of farther hills.'
 
     I slow my running before Causey's fist. A day
     such as this, sun livening skin, shoulders,
     sway of hips, skip over shards of time.
                        [from 'Causey Pike']
 
I have had to omit discussion of other aspects of this book - the muscularity and sheer accuracy of the language and the poems about painting in the last section for example - and I realise I have only been able to give little more than a general impression. But you should be able to tell that this is very much my kind of book. Anyone who likes reading fine poems will think so too.
 

 

Chris Jones's The Safe House has much going for it: he has a special way with language that lifts the poems off the page and ensures serious concentration. Let me get my quibbles out of the way first. As with McLoughlin, there are occasionally pieces, in an otherwise very attractive collection, that feel as though they mean more to the writer than to the reader, one or two poems in which one isn't quite sure of one's bearings or where the otherwise lively language admits a word or phrase that baffles. For example, in an affectionate poem for his great-grandfather, we end with
 
                        I'd like to repair him
     before light washes those trousers to milk,
     before it cools the firewood of his skin,
     and spins his hair to the finest silk.
 
'I'd like to repair him' is excellent but 'washing...trousers to milk', 'firewood of his skin' I, for one, fail to get inside. I am reminded a little of Dr Johnson on the Metaphysicals and his phrase 'heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together'. I don't know if this very occasional push into a kind of tricksiness is a result of trying too hard to be 'original' or a failure to realise a distinction between what's personal and what's private. When it works, as it most generally does, the effect can be startling and refreshing:
 
     I served up pasta (loopy, sticky worms -
     with livid trails of sauce that licked the chin)
     and was surprised, made awkward by the terms
     of our sitting, not knowing then how thin
     you sliced the bread.
                        [from 'Appetite']
 
Jones is good in love poems and writing about domestic intimacies: these are done in a warmly delicate way. His poems arising out of experience of a writing residency in a prison are honest, moving, humane; his poems about places and travelling are engaging, turning, like his work generally, the familiar into something rich and new. This is partly because, like Eleanor Rees, Chris Jones can unexpectedly energise the language and bring it to more vivid life. That said, he has his feet on the ground; he knows about urban and industrial ugliness and danger...and, while readily admitting uncertainties, fallibilities, vulnerabilities, what he mostly offers is - somewhat exceptional in contemporary poetry - celebratory:
 
     Can you imagine me living out here?

   
 Yes. Sunlight on white walls like coral,
     the speckle of thrush song pouched in your ear.
     Shot through your garden grasses, wild garlic, sorrel.
                        [from 'Sorrel']
 
Returning home from his work in the prison, we find him observing and thinking
 
     At the station, after work, a pregnant
     woman - silky and shiny
     as a seal in water - sits beside me,
     and I take it as a blessing.
                        [from 'Prison Paper']
 
Or in Karaoke
;
 
     But now, love, while I'm getting in the beers,
     you're up there swinging, filling the room
 
     with renditions that rip the heart from me.
     In this spotlight, I think, you're most alive,
     teasing the boys as you lower the key;
     singing without falter I Will Survive.

 
The four books under review are first-time full collections and testimony to the healthy diversity that obtains in contemporary poetry.
 
           Matt Simpson 2007