Sea Pie - A Shearsman Anthology of Oystercatcher Poetry,
edited by Peter Hughes  (132pp, £9.95, Shearsman)

This is the most interesting anthology of poetry I've come across for quite some time, a substantial collection of work sampling the authors so far published by Peter Hughes' groundbreaking Oystercatcher Press. As well as providing a publishing opportunity for a selection of interesting poets largely excluded from the 'mainstream picture' - including both young and more senior writers, I'm glad to say - this splendid looking edition maintains the high production values of the Oystercatcher chapbooks while also furthering Shearsman's aim of promoting a wide range of high-quality poetry, work which might often otherwise struggle to reach any sort of readership.

Editor Peter Hughes is a painter and musician as well as an accomplished writer and I believe the cover artwork, a semi-abstract and splendidly subversive watercolour, is also by him. It's a piece which manages to balance a strong lyricism with an archaeological perception, much as his poetry also appears to do.

There wasn't any work here that I didn't enjoy reading, often re-reading and the diversity is impressive. At the same time this is in no way an 'awkward anthology' in the sense that nothing here seems out of place or not up to scratch. This is certainly a book that Fiona Sampson should take a look at.

As there are over forty poets included I can't usefully mention everyone so here is a selection of the work that I thoroughly enjoyed reading, bearing in mind that although I obviously have my favourites there is no poetry here that I found less than stimulating.

Sophie Mayer combines a playful enthusiasm for language with a sharp intellect, a feature of her work which follows through in live performance if you're lucky enough to see/hear her read:

    you're a kiss-in in
    an aquarium gold
    fish lips and bottlenose a little
    pokery (when jiggery
    makes waves you stay in the still
    ness you pitch trough
                  (from 'XO 5th S(eaN)ymphony)'

Her use of traditional poetic technique is used in the making of work which appears both streetwise and 'out there' while also having that quality of being well-made, even though it reads as if scripted 'on the hoof'. Irrepressible, enjoyable, sharp-witted and great fun.

Catherine Hales admits to being a great fan of Peter Dent and his influence certainly features in her work, not that I'd want to make too big a thing about that. Her sonnets are fractured into phrases and segments and her mix of register is sometimes breathtaking as well as highly entertaining. She plays with cliché and with received 'literary language' and like Sophie Mayer, combines a sharp intelligence with a sense of playfulness and with the music of the language. Euphony is a key word here:

                                                    here be
     endless consumer choice with unbelievable prices
     o brave new world she moaned & caliban snickered
     control freak dad out & about on the island
     with ariel & a storm building in the east
                  (from 'a bestiary of so(nne)(r)ts')

Read these poems through quickly then go back and 'rethink' them. Her mixing of the language of the classics with modern idioms appears to aid a commentary on 'the now' but her work also has that feel of being composed upon the instant, spoken at you in monologue which is more a 'self-conversation' than dramatic event. Intriguing and very enjoyable.

Sophie Robinson has something in common with both of the above, in that she combines the playful with the serious yet there's also a strong sense of 'attitude' here, which is tempered by anxiety and an 'interior' monologue. This is poetry which is assertive and prickly, loaded with wordplay and primed for performance:

     The modesty of caramel - burned , earthy
     & smashed against my wanton mouth in stickled
     smudges - make a meal of my gushing brains, take
     my faith as fallen & my delicate curls
     unshaven. Pimp your pickles with my bluish
     pelvis. I crook myself upon you, dribbling
     with an anorexic urgency, and I don't see
     your workload lightening beneath the crusted
     halo of your charm, cowboy, so knuckle down.
                 (from 'Hunch and Shuffle')

Here's another poet who combines a sense of euphony with a love of words but in Tim Allen's case the wordplay often becomes the subject itself, even on the occasions when he has a story to tell. At times the commentary breaks out into daylight, even if it's only a temporary respite as evidenced by the final line in the quotation below. Here we have something approaching Tim's views on conceptual art and academia:

     in an art gallery near the quay
     the paintings are accompanied
     by long explanations of process
     and cultural context

     beautifully produced notices
     taking up more time than the paintings

     out at sea    walls of mist

                    (from 'incidental harvest')

Nigel Wheale's work has a strong lyrical tendency but it's a more multi-dimensional lyricism than the word is usually credited with having. In 'The Soul Stands Open', for example, there's almost a sense of 'catechism' in the formal qualities of the poem, which hints at the proverbial, yet the moods range from the melancholy to the satirical, to the blunt to the subversive and finally to the assertive and the reconciliatory:

     'I'd give you my heart,' says the difficult man,
                whose glance is just my father.

     'Puss, Puss!' These lives so refined
                 they don't even spend a name on the cat.

     I'm irritably checking date stamps in his fridge.
                 'This cheese has turned to stone,' I tell him.
                              He replies, 'Aye, that's older than God's dog.'

     And now, whatever life is, has quit the body
                   It no longer needs, and leaves a small, cold child
                               urled about nothing. Let's not be sad in this world.
                   (from 'The Six Strides of Freyfaxi')

John James' poem 'Reading Barry & Guillaume in Puisserguier' is a homage to both the late, great Barry MacSweeney and to Guillame Apollinaire, via MacSweeney's last completed work
Horses in Boiling Blood'. James is another poet - like MacSweeney in some ways - who can combine a lush lyricism with intelligent attitude but his late work has a more mellow feel and apart from a heartfelt aside to the poet laureate this poem has a somewhat reverential yet very human aspect:

     I had been asked to read by the beautiful Karlien & Lucy
     but I leave my spectacles in the breast pocket of my coat
     hanging at the back of the venue
     I read the last poem anyway & improvise
     before I close the book with a coup d'emotion

     Barry & Guillaume I love your poems
                 (from 'Clouds Breaking Sun')

Giles Goodland is a bit like Edwin Morgan in the sense that he seems capable of almost anything when it comes to poetry. Some of the poems included here under the heading
Near Myths seem to be playing with Ted Hughes' rewiring of mythology and combine Goodland's usual linguistic querying and playfulness with a deeper philosophical speculation. That he manages to suggest so much in so few words is a testament so his prodigious skill:

     Mechanics of flowers, old man God
     paced in his cell. He had so much work to do
     like reason a way out with
     a knife made of water. Now where was
     that other language, the one hidden inside this one.
                 ('Myth of Death')

John Hall's poem from
The Weeks's Bad Groan has an intriguing aspect in that the 'beauty' and the 'grubbiness' of  'the real' world are interweaved with a painting by Miro to investigate what we may know of the world and to what extent we may (or may not) have any influence on our place in it. This is a sophisticated poem which retains a sense of lyric beauty and where language - particularly the words corporate, grubby and resistance - is investigated in a manner which is both playful and … dare I say it, spiritual.

Ian Davidson's 'No Go Areas' brings a more overt political perspective to this anthology but it's also a complex piece which appears realistic in its apparent lack of optimism but not, perhaps, of hope.

                 Maybe the sound of revolution is the alloy
     Wheels turning and the residual kindness of community.
     Better the curled lip of those that never have all the fruit and
     Veg they need or mothers fit to cook them than the overstuffed
     Vitamin laden smoothies laced with condescension.
     Within the nominal optimism of Chavez lies the word Chav.
                   (from 'Familiarity Breeds')

I think Owen Jones might quite like this one.

Kelvin Corcoran's another writer who deals with political issues in a manner which is both complex and deep yet committed to humane values at a time when it's increasingly hard to hold onto any sense of 'the positive'. His long piece here 'From the hen-roost' has the intriguing preface:

     War, one war after another, men start 'em who couldn't put up a
           good hen-roost'

and the way in which he moves across historical time, using the past to comment on the present is both impressive in its sweep and reminds me a little of Barry MacSweeney's Ranter, though Corcoran's work has a more analytical grasp:

     And Thatcher's nasty little war
     and Blair's nasty rented wars,
     at some point they believe
     then retire to revelation on the Red Sea

     We hear voices like ghosts in the air,
     the false tone burning, smearing on a nation.
            (from 'What Hit Them')

Simon Marsh's poem 'Onda' seems to mix the dream world with a sense of a geological time-frame in which all time is present at the same time, a kind of T.S. Eliot without the angst. I couldn't help but speculate that this poem might have been the starting point for Peter Hughes' cover painting - I believe they have collaborated with poetry on previous occasions - but I'm probably wrong about this. Whatever, the poem is a delight with its '…Giant Starfish/plucked from waterless heaven/its trail turned cold so very long ago'.

I also enjoyed Michael Haslam's charming wordplay and traditional technique and Philip Terry's Dante's Inferno, which is streetwise, hilariously funny and very playful in a highly sophisticated and erudite manner. Emily Critchley is a poet whose work continues to impress with its mix of the high lyric voice and a more penetrating, analytical engagement while Peter Hughes' work also celebrates the here and now in a manner which combines his painter's eye with a poet's awareness of language:


                    apricots & black
              coffee by the mattress
                  on the floorboards we breathed
                       an aftershock of happiness

                               cotton refuge

                    glide between wing-beats

      your memories coming up the stairs

                    O Vienna!
             (from 'Behoven')

In his succinct introduction to this excellent anthology Peter Hughes says the following:

     This is a period of political regression, and of the erosion of
     opportunities for independent thought in education, and of the
     remoulding of 'consumer tastes' by multinational corporations. In
     such circumstances it is easy to underestimate the importance of
     modern art, which begs to differ.

Which also serves here as a useful postscript. This anthology is a bargain and a real peach of a book. If you only buy one poetry anthology this year make it this one. You won't regret it.

     © Steve Spence 2012