Robert Dickinson's Micrographia is a strange collection, combining the urban
setting of south London with images of classical antiquity and a vocabulary
which though mainly contemporary often suggests the archaic, not always in a
manner which comes off, I couldn't help feeling. He certainly creates a sense
of the mythic, whether referring to recent history, as in Norfolk
Conspiracy, which fuses - I'm guessing -
childhood misunderstandings with elements of the assassination of J.F.
Kennedy, ('There were boxes in storage/labelled "Hoffa", "McCartney", and
"Monroe"-') or, more deconstructively, as in 'The fall of Troy', which
queries the nature of the myth and its historical counterpart but in a manner
which barely raises any interest in the subject:
Helen, the ten-year siege, the trick with the
none of that
The truth is,
Troy fell in a week,
the King fled
stayed on to kneel before the Greeks.
('from 'The fall of Troy')
This book has been highly praised so I must be missing something here.
The long poem 'Biopic' is better, using cinematic cutting to play with the
notion of authenticity (or not) in the telling of a life-story - 'Here are
the newsreels to put me in context./The newsreels are fake.'- yet his mixing
of vocabularies and the underlying deconstructive philosophising feels very
cold and unconvincing to me:
But I say
is like a tablecloth
sand. The world
possibility of the world,
the chance of
consider light moving through water,
properties of rods and clocks
dilation of time.
They are only
So here is a
formula concise as a slogan,
meaning nothing, and part of
The writing is taut and there are no wasted words, yet the overall tone is
one of 'I couldn't care less', which is fine except that it all feels very
unsatisfying and lacking in engagement. Perhaps this is exactly its point and
I'm certainly not insisting that everything has to be expressionistic and
emotionally demanding but this level of neo-imagism really doesn't do it for
me. Even the final lines of the poem -'Look closely at my hands. However much
they tremble, they are young.' - which seem as though they should be
arresting, are anything but and I guess this is quite an impressive
achievement but I'm left feeling so what? Which is, more-or-less, how I was
left feeling after having carefully read this collection - twice!
Jack-Without-Land rolled the head of the giant
into the sack
he'd brought from the village
and, sack on
shoulder, set off down the mountain.
He took the head from the bag.
on his palm, the size of an apple,
tight as a fist, its mouth a long smile.
(from 'The tale of the giant's head')
The one poem that I did find more interesting was, 'The tale of the giant's
possibly because of its enigmatic fairy-tale/folk origin, but also perhaps,
because despite there being the usual sense of this being a story without
meaning or any sense of purpose, there was a redeeming humour. The sense of
enigma remained after I'd read the poem and its imagery felt convincing and
somehow warm. The same underlying 'disconnection' was in place but I could
see a context for this, not exactly satirical but something close to satire,
and the poem worked for me up to a point. I suspect this may be really good work
but it didn't quite hit my pleasure sensors.
I haven't read any new work by Alan Brownjohn for some
years and fearing that my tastes had well and truly changed I decided against
reviewing this collection. That is, until I read it. The 60 thirteen line
sonnets (if there are such things) which make up the first section are all
based around the life of the eponymous Ludbrooke, an ageing man who is
determined not to give up the ghost. These poems are engaging, funny, clever
and ever-so-readable. It's already been pointed out that Ludbrooke is
somewhat similar to an early character of Brownjohn's - The Old Fox - an alter ego perhaps,
whose devious wiles fool the establishment in small ways. This clearly represents
Brownjohn's socialist viewpoint - you win the small battles where you can,
defeating bureaucracy and inhumane legalities as part of the daily battle.
Ludbrooke is a much older character and his battles, often of the libidinal
variety, have a charm and devious resourcefulness even where his success rate
is not exactly high. Take this example:
his very latest has some 'sad news'
(If this is
sad what is hilarious?)
failed to impress with a 'presentation'
'surplus to requirements' the same afternoon.
never practises schadenfreude of
least attractive sort of post-modern creature
passing compassion; especially if
advance his cause by showing it.
a disgraceful world, he says, happy to
although he is not applying
to what has happened, but to Ridyard's world.
and impresses her when his hand
briefly over hers. I'm sorry...you liked him?
(from 'His Humanity')
There's something of Richard Berengarten's The Manager in this section of the book, in the sense of it
being an individual's odyssey in a not always friendly world, but Brownjohn's
book is lighter, has more comic touches and is not perhaps as experimental as
Berengarten can be.
The poems in the second section ... And Others, are not themed in the same way
and contain more variety of content. The final poem 'December 31st
2009' is the most powerful, being an energetic repudiation of the shallowness
of our 'managed society':
graphics, a dance
computerised death fills the screens
language of management rules,
mantras which conceal
The crimes of
The humour of the Ludbrooke poems is not as in evidence in the second
section, or rather, where it exists it's of a darker variety and there isn't
as much resourceful charm either, but as a testament to where we've landed up
and where we might be headed it's a powerful reminder that things have gone
I am sorry to
fear, now it's dark,
That only the
worst lies ahead;
least we could show from now on
Is an odd
(from 'December 31st 2009').
There's a story from WW2 which underlines Brownjohn's dark humour and is
probably an appropriate place to conclude this review. It concerns a bombing
raid over Germany where:
unbelievable cold in the fuselage
"stratosphere" from which we had started bombing.
I felt for
Grant...He had to relieve himself,
And his urine
froze. And his - well, he himself
Froze to the
metal can. I can't hear the phrase
tear myself away" without being
thousand feet above firestorm Dresden'.
(from 'Of An Airman's Understatement')
This may not be great poetry and it's arguable that his best work was written
when he was younger but Alan Brownjohn is still producing poems which resound
with wit and compassion and he's an astute observer of the world in which we
I've not read a lot of work by Fanny Howe before and was
slightly apprehensive when opening this book. I needn't have been because
this collection - a brief selection of work from the 1970's to the1990's -
isn't difficult to engage with as long as you go with the flow and leave the
serious thinking 'til later. Her writing appears as a mix of something like
autobiographical sketches, oblique political commentary, gentle but insistent
self-interrogation and a continual awareness of the world out there, which
feels distanced yet is occasioned by brief flashes of 'muted acerbity' (if that isn't a
I can't die
Of a universal
On the tonic
of its scale
I was near
A mother of
For what is
given is only sufficient
To those who
interpret the world
leave it there.
No doubt this is a crass generalisation - hopefully it's something other than
that - but Americans poets seem much more at ease with breaking down the
barriers between the spoken and the written word than their Brit counterparts.
This often leads to a kind of continuous flow, which seems to embrace thought
and observation and a whole plethora of 'stuff', which feels integrated into
the overall structure of the poem. I can remember, for example,
seeing/hearing Robert Creeley read once and it was almost as if he was simply
talking to the audience, spontaneously and without notes, a sort of monologue
which yet felt natural and not at all a 'performance'. I'd like to hear these
poems read out and I must access some of her work if it's available.
sick, my body is the effect.
paper waxy as a white illness makes a racket.
imminent. I hear what I can of morning:
mention the danger of liberation as a
winged sorrow maps the trees
discover your preparation was for an event
Now you recognise its worth
people of eternity and wonder
Will I be
this lonely then as if there is another home
another heart after human?
'Walk to Work')
There's a lot going on in this section, presumably, given the title, a
representation of thoughts and feelings happening on the 'walk to work'. Line
two is a cracker, both in terms of its 'sound' and in its descriptive
expressionism - there is a relation between the external (the birds
'triggering' the thought, perhaps) and the internal (state of mind - perhaps
referring to an actual illness, we don't know) and clearly refers forward to
'A great winged sorrow maps the streets...', where a more general sense of
malaise may be suggested, a sort of late version of the pathetic fallacy. Yet
the second part of the sentence 'when you discover...' takes you somewhere else
again and the following speculation becomes cosmic/spiritual before being
grounded again in the human and material, filled with longing yet thoughtful
too. This is becoming a bit too much like literary criticism. Suffice to say
you can enjoy this writing for its composition and its immediate effects, the
way it can flow over you, but there's a lot to think about too. Great stuff.
Maryrose Larkin writes what you might call nature poetry
with a difference. While her work is very unlike that of her ('green
experimentalist') British namesake Peter Larkin, there is an overlap in terms
of subject matter, even if the approach is somewhat dissimilar. These are
poems that attempt to reflect time, space and change in a simultaneous
fashion, using a mix of documentary technique and unusual lyric interjections
- I particularly liked 'heavy phrase ravishment', for example - to produce
work which feels both narrowly obsessive in terms of its vocabulary, while
also having an expansive and generous 'worldview'. There are a variety of
stanzaic poems, others that can be read horizontally and vertically and a few
prose blocks, which may in fact be prose poems. There are also times when the
observer becomes more of a participant in the processes:
unsettled under the action or under the influence of the
action or under the influence of pushing through yolk unhealed
and unlimbed hand mouth wing lung small and lung large
whipping chance limbed to drift
fence seize and
grasped with light and starlings in contact with ground rain and
bitter change the west surface
'Late Winter 30')
These poems seem to improve with familiarity, as you become more attuned to
their rhythms and with the linguistic patterning. They do remind me a little
of the late Richard Caddel, whose work I much admired even though it
occasionally all felt a bit precious. I could gently apply the same criticism
to Maryrose Larkin here but this is sophisticated work, a serious project,
filled with information and a taut lyrical phrasing with I often found
satisfying. Some of these pieces also sound really good read out quickly and
I suspect I'm going to return to her work at some point.