A Lot Going On

, Robert Dickinson (Waterloo Press)
Ladbrooke & Others, Alan Brownjohn (Enitharmon)
Emergence, Fanny Howe (Reality Street)
The Name of this Intersection is Frost, Maryrose Larkin (Shearsman Books)

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:

     Forget what you've heard:
     Helen, the ten-year siege, the trick with the horse,
     none of that happened.
     The truth is, Troy fell in a week,
     the King fled south.
     His court 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
     the universe is like a tablecloth
     on shifting sand. The world
     is the possibility of the world,
     the chance of it happening.
     I say: consider light moving through water,
     the properties of rods and clocks
     in the dilation of time.
     They are only words.
     So here is a formula concise as a slogan,
     meaning nothing, and part of everything.
          (from 'Biopic')

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.

     Nobody came. He took the head from the bag.
     It balanced on his palm, the size of an apple,
     its eyes 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 head',
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:

     One evening his very latest has some 'sad news'
     (If this is sad what is hilarious?)
     Ridyard failed to impress with a 'presentation'
     And was 'surplus to requirements' the same afternoon.
     Ludbrooke never practises schadenfreude of course...
     Even the least attractive sort of post-modern creature
     Deserves a passing compassion; especially if
     He can advance his cause by showing it.
It's a disgraceful world, he says, happy to appear
     To console, although he is not applying
     'Disgraceful' to what has happened, but to Ridyard's world.
     It surprises and impresses her when his hand
     Closes 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':

     In ingenious graphics, a dance
     Of computerised death fills the screens
     Where the language of management rules,
     Cloaked in mantras which conceal
     The crimes of its ignorance.
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 badly awry:

     I am sorry to fear, now it's dark,
     That only the worst lies ahead;
     Though the least we could show from now on
     Is an odd affirmative spark.
               (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:

     -'The unbelievable cold in the fuselage
     In the "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
     "I couldn't tear myself away" without being

     Twenty-six 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 live.

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 complete contradiction!):

     I can't die twice
     In Nebuchadnezzar's dream
     Of a universal history
     Like Jefferson's
     The pendulum stopped

     On the tonic of its scale
     I was near despair
     A mother of children
     For what is given is only sufficient
     To those who interpret the world
     And still leave it there.
          (from 'On Time')

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.

     Suspended and sick, my body is the effect.
     Crows through paper waxy as a white illness makes a racket.
     Departure's imminent. I hear what I can of morning:
     Franciscans mention the danger of liberation as a word.
     A great winged sorrow maps the trees
     when you discover your preparation was for an event
     already over. Now you recognise its worth
     among the people of eternity and wonder
     Will I be this lonely then as if there is another home
     after God, another heart after human?
          (from '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:

     I am 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

strange ascending     division starlings

whipping chance limbed to drift   fence seize and   heavy mixed
grasped with light and starlings in contact with ground rain   and
bitter change the west surface
          (from '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.

     © Steve Spence 2012