A Bit of a Song and a Dance

The Solex Brothers (Redux), Luke Kennard (£12.99 hbck, Salt)
The Harbour Beyong the Movie, Luke Kennard (£12.99 hbck, Salt)
It Comes With A Bit of Song, David Grubb (£12.99 hbck, Salt)
My Thieves, Ethan Paquin (£9.99, Salt)
Covers, Tony Lopez (£12.99 hbck, Salt)
Prop, Peter Jaeger (£12.99 hbck, Salt)
Aerolith, William Cirocco ($14, Harbor Mountain Press)

Let's make no bones about it: I know and have published most of these writers. If you want detached, aloof critical commentary leave now. “Step away from the review. Turn round slowly and lie down with your hands behind your head.'

Luke Kennard? What can I say? Larger-than-life Luke somehow combines Monty Python with avant-garde poetics, a genial and bumbling personality with critical insight, and still writes glorious poetry and prose whilst researching the prose-poem so we can call him Doctor. (Doctor Kennard? Oh, really!) Anyway, like I was saying, I know this chap, used to hang out with him in Exeter... and published the original The Solex Brothers, which I'm sure will make it highly collectable and sought-after in years to come; what a pity I only kept one file copy.

For this new edition, Kennard has done a T.S. Eliot and added an absurd (and absurdly good) set of notes, which have no relevance or bearing on what they supposedly refer to, but are a new piece in themselves. Here is prose-poetry taken to new heights of absurdity. I still laugh out loud at this book, from the blurb ('Like a toboggan of wolves who have eaten their rider,
The Solex Brothers rushes blindly through the forest...') through the text to the biographical note on the back wrapper. I never knew Kennard had 'an involuntary rictus of disdain', but now I do. Cheers!

Guardian Review contained a review The Harbour..., which is a good thing, but managed to link Kennard with surrealism, which is not. I've never had much time for Baudelaire and his boys, still don't. Stay away from the surrealists Luke! The Harbour... is a wider- and wide-ranging book, which is perhaps in the end less silly than The Solex Brothers. Some of these poems tackle big issues, as well as sliding around in language. Puns, wisecracks and unnerving and enervating commitment to bluster and tangents, juxtaposition and jokes, are Kennard's tools, and here he sculpts a great number of succesful and approachable poems and prose-poems.

At this point, can I be the first to say I don't actually like the new Salt hardbacks? I loved the fact that, until now, Salt did bumper paperbacks. I like having a good 100-page wodge of poetry to read... And now we have skinny, overpriced hardbacks. Yes, they look nice, but, but, but... Back to the Collected, Selecteds and voice of chunk please.

David Grubb seems to me to especially lose by going slimline (though I note with some relief that Salt have somehow persuaded him, which I could never do, to become plain old 'David Grubb' without any initials in the middle [hypocrisy I know]). Grubb's work thrives on the fact that he returns to themes over and over again, niggling at them, scratching away at sores, until they bleed. It's a process that works, the reader (this reader, anyway) starts to feel they know Grubb's mother, father and other subjects, starts to understand the doubt that always plagues the poet and his embrace of spirituality and belief.

That aside, It Comes With a Bit of Song is one of Grubb's finest volumes. Like Kennard, he ranges far and wide, knows a lot about language, but is never less than highly enjoyable and approachable. Like Kennard, he has a knowing and witty tone, but never strays into slapstick or satire. Grubb is concerned with how language affects him and his readers. How can he tell others what he has seen being done in the war zones he has visited? How convey his bewilderment and joy at the narratives we make of our lives, how share the everyday and the unseen? A poem sparked by a reading we did together at Falmouth Library not so long ago is followed by a short list poem, 'Why We Do', preceded by a bitingly satiricial piece about the President and his speech entitled 'Be Very Afraid'.  As someone inclined toward planning thematic or processual collections of poems I have no idea why this scattershot approach works, but work it does, as does the constant narrative confessional tone Grubb adopts:

     This is me. I am sitting in an alone.
     I do this every day to know that I am alive.
     There are voices, on and off. There is the
     noise of my own voice to tell me that I am.

I for one am glad that Grubb's voice is here again in this important new collection.

Like Luke Kennard, I published Ethan Paquin's first UK collection which later got reissued by Salt in tandem with another volume. My Thieves is his strongest yet, although I know that I take that view partly because of the subject matter: 'the relationship between the visual and literary arts'.

Like Grubb, Paquin wrestles with the question 'What is Language?' although he draws more on Robert Lax for form than Grubb's take on W.S. Graham. There are two things I question with Paquin's work here: the notion of mimicry and the occasional lapse into archaic 'poetic' language. Paquin I'm sure knows what he is doing, indeed he questions the whole notion of influence, hommage, pastiche and approrpriation throughout this book; and opens it out even further to question 'self' as a concept. Like Kennard, Paquin can be very funny and also experiments with form, including the prose poem.

But I like Paquin's writing best when he lets lyric and language relax into poems. I'm afraid I find some of the more awkward and experimental work simply that, awkward and experimental. The scaffolding doesn't seem to justify the building; I'd like to see what has been built now finished off and edited further. I am, however, glad that Paquin continues to experiment, innovate and elaborate, and come up with wonderful openinglines like this:

     Rothko has made us notice daily
     the spider's chance--
          ('Nothing But Setting Out')

Tony Lopez has always used process, particularly collage and juxtaposition, but until now he has always syntactically and grammatically smoothed out his poetry before publication. I don't mean it's been easy reading, but the collage is never in your face. Until now. In Covers he chooses to make a feature of process and linguistic awkardness as part of his social critique. It's devastating stuff, vitriolic and (justifiably) aggressive at times towards its subject(s).

Strangest of all, perhaps, is a talk piece Lopez performed at a conference, where he navigates around a text the audience do not get to read or hear via discussion of its substance and subject, demanding of the audience both evocation and invention. I'm not one hundred percent convinced, but it's a brave and risky piece of writing. (I wasn't witness to its actual presentation.)

What's interesting with Lopez is that hand-in-hand with the indignation, satire and comment, there is a lyrical and at times elegiac voice which surfaces and won't be kept down. Whilst you'd perhaps expect it in a poem like 'The Estuary Oliver' a poem for Douglas Oliver, it's more surprising within the scatterbomb approach of 'Unfolding', which concludes

     A bomb on Hammersmith bridge explodes
     the greatest sorrow I have ever known

or 'Equal Signs', a mash-up of Ezra Pound, where

     Sounds and energies
     during the course of
     acute loneliness
     does indeed fuse
     revolution or death

This is astonishing writing.

Equally astonishing, to me, is the fact that I have never come across Peter Jaeger's work until Prop arrived here. His brief, short-lined lyrics are fragile and delicate, but hesitant and exploratory too. They are rooted in the moment, self-awareness of thought and vision and place. Imagine Robert Creeley writing imagist versions of Basho (this is praise by the way). Look at the way this (untitled, as indeed all the work here is) poem moves between emotion ('need'), abstraction ('monkey tides') and the purely visual & notated ('sun-bleached logs'):

     need was cooler than a shout
     for drifting anchored loosely

     pulling here & there
     the monkey tides lap up

     against the sun-bleached
     logs, how they come & go--

     what anchor but a yellow petal
    gust of wind or even

Note, too, how the poem opens up at the end, its total resistance to closure, despite that very real yellow petal in the wind.
Prop is full of apparently slight and casual poems like this, that through clever and deft image and word, stick in the mind.

William Cirocco's poems in Aerolith work in a similar way, although many of the pages here contain even fewer words for the reader to mull over. I know Cirocco mainly as a fine printer and publisher, and own beautiful editions of both Robert Lax and his own work; it's quite a shock to see a trade edition, and realise it is Circocco's first! Like Jaeger Cirocco combines the everyday seen with leaps of imagination and thouht to make something new for the reader. Circocco's poetry is perhaps less surprising than Jaeger's, but it too is full of beautifully crafted song and vision. My favourite poem in the book at the moment is this:


     Night crushes consciousness
     with the onus of memory,

     the mind excavates sleep

     no bird sings,
                   no wind mourns,

     and the still stars
                   are the eyes of the dead.

             © Rupert Loydell 2007