Be On Your Guard

That So Easy Thing, Rosie Shepperd (30pp, £5, Smith/Doorstop)
Cluelesss Dogs,
Rhian Edwards (63pp, £8.99, Seren)
, Damian Walford Davies (80pp, £8.99, Seren)

When poems are described on a book's cover as "erudite, well-travelled, witty and sexy" it's perhaps advisable to be on your guard, for what may be heading your way could be poems displaying not only the poet's learning, but also what they did on their holidays. As for wit and sexiness - well, this is all subjective, isn't it?

Rosie Shepperd's poems may not themselves be literally well-travelled (there is no way of telling if they have ever seen the inside of a suitcase) but the poet is (quite): Portofino, the Hotel St. Boniface (in Paris presumably, because later in the poem we have "yesterday at the Tuileries"),
Eyjafjallajškull (I think perhaps the poet was not there - it's dangerous, but her chap in the poem is away somewhere, and she misses him, and the poem is based on an eruption metaphor (volcano, eruption, passion, love - get it?)), the Dulwich Picture Gallery, Lake Superior, Nevis, Florence and Rome are all here. What is also here in That So Easy Thing is what so often is lauded in poems these days: what might pass as sharp observation ("The air moves as a man passes"), a sensitiveness that is, um, sensitive ("Some things cannot be explained; some creatures swim and breathe and cannot be caught.") and the whole caboodle given a little edge by what we might as well call wit for want of a better word ("I ask if the Vatican has broadband"), but the whole languishes beneath a dominating concern with personal relationships (love) and family (death in, etc.) - more than half the poems here are to do with one or other of those subjects. We have been here before, for we too are well-travelled in the realms of a certain kind of poetry.

Here I almost typed "Forgive me...." but I caught myself: I see no reason why I should beg forgiveness for finding rather tedious poems that take me absolutely nowhere new, or rather, and to be more precise, poems that by and large show all the qualities I have already mentioned and which are pleasant enough but manage to pretty much skip the one thing poems cannot - for this little man at least - do without: imagination. It's all so damned anecdotal. And when one encounters yet again
devices (the appropriation of traditional forms, the naming of commercial products, a certain diary-like quality to some lines, giving attention to the minutiae of the day) which when used in American poems fifty years or so ago embodied personality and energy as well as intellectual engagement with what surrounds us, one cannot but feel a little disheartened, because here those strategies are watered down to the point where they do nothing more than demonstrate how the poet has an "ordinary" life, and is the kind of poet we can identify with, who writes poems with "everyday" things in them and has the same feelings we have. What we end up with now is poems that people will read or listen to and be able to recognize sentiments and feelings they can share. No amazement, no bemusement, no sense of wonder or possibilities. No new experience. Only self-expression to show how we are feeling. I am falling asleep.

It's a similar ball-park (self-expression, family, etc) but, if the first few pages are anything to go by, an infinitely more interesting player at work in Clueless Dogs. The prospect of poems recalling the poet's babyhood and childhood don't generally make me lick my lips in eager anticipation, but
lines like

     Mother is ill and close to death.
     Pillow sharks lie in wait.

     In whispers, my plot is played out.
     My dolls die of starvation.
     I hum to them, cradling their lifeless
     bodies to my unstarted breast.
          (from 'Broken Lifeboat')

are worth it just for those pillow sharks. (Note: these opening remarks have been written after reading the first six poems in the book. Now see what happens after reading poem number seven.)

Poem number seven, 'Bridgend', is about the nineteen suicides of young people in Bridgend, South Wales, which happens to be the poet's hometown. It ends with an account of bureaucratic ineptitude that would certainly raise a smile at a poetry reading, a place where people like to smile at bureaucratic ineptitudes and do not care quite so much for pillow sharks. But I am disappointed. No pillow sharks. And the tedium continues with the next poem, a faux-colloquial account of the life and of course death of a South Wales miner (this is poetry, so the miner has to die as a result of being a miner, otherwise what's the point?). One can hear the Welsh voice in this poem ("Good chapel girl see") but I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing.

On through the first section of the book (which is divided into two parts in the contents pages but not in the text itself, which is odd) childhood is childhood, growing up is growing up, and youth is youth:

     You fell to your knees in the garden
     and in the cold grass earned your fellatio wings.
            (from 'Petra')

but the pillow sharks or their linguistic relatives never return and apart from one poem ('Ghost Water') that wallows in vague metaphors Marc Bolan would have been proud of ("You chased the arc of the sun/ and learned to lap up/ the sugars of your parasites.") it's the kind of stuff that - well, whatever. Childhood. Youth. It wasn't fun, was it?

And when you've grown up, what then?

     Looking me dizzy
     licking me drunk
     in the face of our nudity
     I am not nearly naked enough

Well, yes. But the tone and language of these poems are more often of the poetic kind where a wasp "tightroped the Christmas card string", where "tightroped" is the kind of word a poem must
have, or

     He ghosts the girl,
     forgetting to want her,
     as she knits a clement world
     around his unwanting.
           (from 'Crossed')

where that "unwanting" is not self-conscious at all, is it? Eventually I began to realize this book is not really aimed at me. It's aimed at people who give a damn about reading poems all about how other people feel. Feel
. I pretty much gave up, to be honest; I could feel my time and my life slipping away. But the final poem is two pages long, and thinking it might be quite important, it being long and at the end, I skipped to it. It's called "Girl Meats Boy". Yes: meats. Meats. Meats. It begins:

     The goose-necked fork and the cat-fanged knife
     stood poles apart, like soldiering guards,
     west and easting a world of plate
     of petticoat white,
     piled mole-mound high,
     with the tatters of a man,
     who had recently expired.

I did not finish reading this poem. I did not finish reading this book. Looking back, I see how earlier I wrote "It's a similar ball-park (self-expression, family, etc) but, if the first few pages are anything to go by, an infinitely more interesting player at work in Clueless Dogs
." Oh my, oh my. I was duped by pillow sharks.

Two things (among several) these two collections have in common are they both contain poems previously published in "prestigious" magazines and come laden with plaudits and prizes; the other is that with perhaps just one or two fleeting exceptions all the poems have to do with an experience the poet has had and then chosen to write about, so we know what it means and how it feels. I'll leave you to figure out what these two things mean.

Witch is a completely different kettle of sharks -  (dreadful "joke", but I'm trying to cheer myself up) - a collection comprising seven sections, each of seven poems, each of seven couplets, telling from the various points of view of those involved the tale of a witch-hunting incident in Suffolk in the 17th century. All well and good; try not to think about The Crucible while reading. (Impossible.)

One question immediately occurred to me about this somewhat ambitious (well, slightly ambitious)
project: why bother? The cover blurb describes it as "a damning parable that chimes with the terror and anxieties of our own haunted age", but with the best will in the world and after reading the book last night in bed I think that's what might be called "a stretch".

Putting that aside, what of the poems? Well - I have three (perhaps four) things to say.

(1) There is a lot of alliteration in these poems. I could give two or three examples but I honestly can't be bothered. You know what alliteration is, and so do I, and it's there in almost every poem. Alliteration is a common device in poems (it says in my "How To Be A Poet" manual) so I guess it's okay. The manual says nothing about overdoing it.

(2) There are several words that have either fallen out of common use but which, one assumes, were in common use in the middle of the 17th century in Suffolk or that are simply obscure apparently just for the sake of it. (Examples: "her neck blebbed with the bad thief's blood", which is also a good example of alliteration, as it happens.)

(3) The people who speak, from the gentleman down to the villagers, all seem to sound the same. Here is the gentleman:

                  Alone, her mother's

     in the middle of a field, a blue
     rag wadded round her head,

     grass in spills of silver at her feet.

And here is one of the villagers:

     In the curl of steam and giddy

     tang of spearmint, we saw
     the boy's trunk blanch. It was

     Addy pushed two fingers in
     to hook the cord, drew out

     the head, pursed her lips
     and blew until he bawled.

The latter is blessed with the same gift of alliterative language as the former, it seems to me. I kind of suspect in real life these people would have sounded different, but I could be wrong, and I don't know if it matters. I don't know if any
of this matters. Also, I do not profess to have any knowledge of Suffolk in the mid-seventeenth century but I did live there for twenty years in the late twentieth, and nowhere in this book did I feel I was in Suffolk. I could have been in a university English department almost anywhere in the United Kingdom, even in Wales, in the early 21st century, where poems are full of similes and alliteration and words dredged up from the past. But it's a pleasant enough read, for all that, and takes about an hour. Try not to think of The Crucible, though.

            © Martin Stannard 2012