Death Comes for the Poets
a round up of recent publications


Sleeping with the Ice Cream Vendor, Ian Seed 
     (Knives Forks and Spoons Press)
Melancholia (An Essay), Kristina Marie Darling  (Ravenna Press)
Cabin Fever, Paul Sutton (Knives Forks and Spoons Press)
Lobe Scarps & Finials, Geraldine Monk (Leafe Press)
Death Comes for the Poets, Matthew Sweeney and John Hartley Williams
     (Muswell Press).
Orange Sunshine, Jeremy Reed (SAF Publishing)
Looms, Camille Martin (Shearsman Books)
Out There, Jamie McKendrick (Faber)


There are so many memorable passages in this new collection from Ian Seed, memorable in the sense of a recalled dream where the image can be sharply defined and fixed yet strangely penumbral and inexact, a paradox which is typical of his work in general, I'd say:

     So many undreamt dreams
     emerge like ants
     from a cracked paving stone.

    Just now, someone unseen
    has come to lay his hand
    on my shoulder
          (from 'By that token')

Yet these poems also have a subject, which appears to be loss, of love and intimacy, and a possible recovery of these, the possibility of a homecoming. There's a quiet spookiness to these pieces which embraces both abstract ideas and concrete images, mood-evoking minor odysseys, post-T.S. Eliot self-reflecting meanderings which have a strange, optimistic feel to them despite their faltering uncertainties:

     This is the first sentence, hunched at the beginning
     of the tale. Next is the one you loved endlessly
     criss-crossing. Tenderly turn the page.
     There you can join the dots of the plot

     to put back together the face whose features
     have dropped out.  ...
             (from 'Authenticity')

These are poems to return to, to puzzle over, to think about and possibly to dream about - the images are so focussed and yet so shifting. I can see quite a similarity between Seed's work and that of Nathan Thompson, to whom he dedicates the final poem 'The material connection'. I continue to be intrigued by his poetry and enjoy grappling with its delicate complexity. Great stuff.

The notes at the end of Kristina Marie Darling's 'poem as essay' give source works by Judith Butler, Sigmund Freud and Julia Kristeva, among others, so we are in the realm of high theory when approaching this short, neatly packaged pocket edition. That said, my first impression of gisting Melancholia was that of an elaborate game, played out using academic protocols of footnotes as a primary formal device. Flann O'Brien immediately comes to mind, but I was also reminded of the puzzling, shifting, landscape-drenched variations of Peter Greenaway's gorgeous yet elusively stylised movie The Draughtsman's Contract. I was also 'memory-jogged', less obviously perhaps, by some of Max Ernst's nightmare dream constructions. The point being that there is a sophisticated and playful element to these 'poems' which centres around dictionary definition and high art. The title hints at a mood which denotes both luxury and loss and the function of memory in relation to a fin de siecle aesthetic. Quoting extracts here won't give an indication of the overall delicate balance of these 'variations' but may suggest something of the mood and of the playfully riddling nature of these ritualised poems:

    
1 A series of painstakingly engraved violets,
     which curled along the sides of these exquisite
     glass boxes.

     2 She broke the latch after placing a bracelet
     inside. When she heard it shatter, the room
     seemed to murmur with the most startling
     music.

     3 He had given me a decadent jewelry box,
     which was wrapped in blue paper and tied
     with a cluster of green ribbons. Now each
     necklace lies tangled at my feet.
               (from 'Footnotes to a History of the Jewelry Box')


The term cabin fever suggests a state of distemper caused by spending too much time alone, locked away from one's fellows and beleaguered by wild and dark imaginings. There's a sense in which this is an apt title for Paul Sutton's new collection which is fuelled, in part, by misanthropy based on a reading of contemporary society no doubt related to direct experience and consequent interpretation. While in no way wishing to collude with what seems to be a pretty right-wing view of things, there are poems in this collection which had me in stitches. The sheer volume of venom aimed at a liberal left establishment has a refreshing quality, which avoids hypocrisy like the plague and yet at times Sutton seems to be sawing off the branch upon which he is sitting. Passages which appear nationalistic, somewhat xenophobic, and unambiguously in praise of empire are juxtaposed with those which humorously deconstruct current poetical practice - where does Sutton's work feature in the listing parody that is 'Last Words', for example?:

     Deadliest of all art forms. Practised by

     Urban arrivistes.

     Lyrical deadweights.

     Collaging kleptomaniacs.

     Bollock sniffers.

     Experimenting typographers.

     Revisionists of resentments.
 
     Thyrotoxic sales assistants.

     Epiphanic self-combusters.
              (from 'Last Words')

As there is also a plethora of voices or personas in these poems, fragmented and various as they are, it's difficult to attribute a political attitude to the overall author although it seems pretty clear where he is coming from. You can quite coherently argue that the damage done to the economy and to the 'state of the nation', to say nothing of a more global critique, can be laid square on the head of the British and American governments who ruled in the eighties. You don't have to be an anti-capitalist to hold this view, just read Will Hutton, for goodness sake. End of political lesson - Paul Sutton's poetry is about more than politics but you can't evade the subject when it's flaunted so blatantly.

Forgotten heroes such as Hereward the Wake are re-imagined in less than romantic scenarios as Sutton undermines his own obvious sophistication with a down-to-earth refutation of what he sees as 'bullshit':

     Back in my room, I flick through Walter Benjamin. Readable on the
     plane, now feckless and homosexual in affectation. Small wonder
     chased country to country?

     Deadly thoughts.

     I could start a rightist tract, follow him across borders?
           (from 'Amalfi staring')

Provocatively politically-incorrect, yet robust and sophisticated, or mean-tempered and determined to cause trouble as a means of self-promotion?

If there's a strong element of the fantastic in Sutton's often raw and expressive narratives there are also moments of heightened lyrical beauty which are easily missed in the abundance of rage and urgent anxiety which permeates his writing:

     Near Oxford I swim with children.
     On Port Meadow, placid clouds drifting past,
     gorgeous light through willows.
                (from 'Montague Druitt's River Odyssey')

I realise that I'm taking this at face-value and might be missing something here but there are sections in this book which have an entirely different feel and don't appear to be generated by angry disaffection. Perhaps I'm simply being nave. Other poets Sutton remind me of slightly here are Peter Reading - with his direct and uncompromisingly bad-tempered narratives of 'how bad things really are', also darkly funny at times - and David Harsent, where the lyrical music of the writing softens the often acerbic harshness of the attitude. I don't think Sutton is as good as Harsent but there are qualities in his writing which make it impossible to dismiss him simply as an unpleasant right-wing ranter.

The poems which refer to Andrew Motion
and Iain Sinclair are both hilarious and rawly observed satirical strokes, savagely funny squibs which also express a hopeless anger, deconstructions which speak of an outsider's anguished bitterness - at least that's how I read them. This is a complex book, one which I found a challenge to engage with and which made me feel argumentative and ratty a lot of the time, so I guess if there's a degree of wind-up going on here then Sutton has achieved his aim. But I also sense a genuine anger amid the sophisticated scenario-setting, a sense of disaffection and aggrieved alienation which has made its mark. While I don't share his somewhat sour and jaundiced outlook I can see it as a symptom of our current economic plight and I can certainly respond to the emotional pull of his work. I'm trying to be generous here and I've spent far too much time on this piece already. That said, I think Paul Sutton's not a bad poet but I'm also unsure how deep his 'attitude' runs.


I love Geraldine Monk's poetry. The way she manages to combine humour with an exploration of language is very special and she clearly revels in her enjoyment of the process itself, something which is also apparent if you're fortunate enough to hear/see her read live. Maggie O'Sullivan is one of the few other British poets I can think of who fuses a probing investigation of meaning with an excitement about the sounds and textures of words and phrases in a manner which is both experimental and entertaining. Monk's work should be much better known than it is. Take these stanzas from 'Poppyheads':

     It was like the Marie Celeste except
     we weren't at sea and no one was missing.
     In a late summer night courtyard illuminated
     shafts of wet creaked in a simmering up-deep.

     [...]

     How greener is the other side of the
     body incorruptible?
     Keep un-pouting glass. Cold soars.
     Eternal life is everlasting pants.

The first section of this book - 'Glow in the Darklunar Calendar' - takes a fresh look at a very much explored topic, the moon, where Monk manages to combine the colloquial with the esoteric in a way which is often a bit spooky, filled with textural delight and madly inventive to boot. You'd think this might be a subject that had been 'done to death' and cliched beyond redemption but Monk brings to our accumulated cultural baggage a refreshed sense of immediacy and vigour, which is to say nothing of her offbeat humour:

     hot breath crosses
     bristle of chlorine a soft a
     real soft slash of cherry reddens
     turquoise at either side the
     deep continental
     drift casts a bad eclipse on
     municipal glass
     ceiling
           (from 'Snow, February')

     Glass slippers & night scented
     frocks waft towards the city
     lights. From the yellowing
     festive tree the stuffed
     snowy owl plays at being
     scary ghost bird and succeeds.
             (from '
Cold Time Moon, December')

Quite brilliant.

This is a collection in seven sections, which is endlessly quotable from. You can dip in and enjoy the language on a multiplicity of levels, accumulate new vocabulary, think about what's going on, have a belly laugh or simply marvel at the excess of energy which is Geraldine Monk. The final piece 'Just another Day' is an unanticipated love poem, a perfect finale to a very enjoyable collection:

     what's another O
between
     you and me. Just another birth of a
     another precious day ...

Death Comes for the Poets, a collaborative novel project written by two of our better-known poets, is a real delight, tipping its cap towards Agatha Christie and recent Nordic crime fiction. It also refers to the Ern Malley affair, so there's an element of hoax and pastiche about this book, an hilarious black comedy which spoofs the current poetry scene with merciless satire and savage perception. Matthew Sweeney and John Hartley Williams must have had a lot of fun putting this book together.

Poets are being murdered in a variety of bizarre but 'appropriate' situations - the opening chapter partly staged in a Maidstone Indian restaurant sets the scene with grotesque humour - and an organisation known as Artcrimes, run by the suave and sophisticated closet poet Victor Priest, swings into action. London lad about town Joe Biggs and his Scottish girlfriend Naily Dunbar are brought in to help and there's also a strange comic book hero, Bard Slayer, to further complicate the plot.

Cliches are played with - the young, impoverished romantic poet, Daniel Crane, for example - and false trails are abundant, yet despite the essentially comic nature of this novel, there's a serious intent which both satirises the hype surrounding poetic reputation and the contemporary publicity machine. Few of the persons in this book come out looking unsullied and the 'character stereotypes' are scarily realistic, if a tad exaggerated.

The final chapter is something of a surprise and not, I'm ashamed to say, a feature that I'd anticipated. I'm not giving anything away here but the poems will have you in stitches, test your critical faculties perhaps and make you question your own literary judgements. This is a fantastic idea for a novel - you have to wonder why it hasn't been done before in the poetry world (Dorothy Porter's
The Monkey's Mask is the nearest publication I can think of and that was written in verse) - and carried out with the sort of panache and comic darkness that I've come to associate with John Hartley Williams. I think it could make quite a splash. There could even be a film!


Orange Sunshine is Jeremy Reed's big book about the sixties, mainly the music of that period but also its styles and attitudes, a history of the counter-culture, in verse, warts and all, yet a celebration by one of our most prolific and consistently accomplished contemporary poets. The central chapters deal with the Rolling Stones and there is arguably a case for a shorter version of this collection (it's currently over 230 pages) which might feel more focussed and tight and be a more viable commercial proposition. The only other fault, if such it is, that I can envisage, is to do with how easy Reed makes it all look. His writing is so prolific and 'overflowing' that it can at times appear almost facile, not that this is a serious criticism. This is a short review and I'm going to quote an extract from just one poem, 'Saturnalia', one of the last pieces in the book, a sort of overview and a requiem:

     They hex a continent by playing mean
          Crowley's aficionados
     combining caviar with snow,
           faces frozen like petroglyphs
                     presided over by a queen
                     in cerise satin. When they theme it slow

     they're sad like rain falling through a deep wood
           at night, a melancholy
                refrain invasively
         speaking of loss and common pain
                  and that deep river in the blood
                  putting a narrative to every hurt.
                           (from 'Saturnalia')

If you're not au fait with Reed's poetry this is probably a good place to start, a collection which has a big subject and which combines both an optimistic sense of possibility and an expansive flourishing with a downside of excess and dark materials.
His masterpiece.

I've little idea what Camille Martin's prose poems are about but I loved their dreamily abstract meanderings and the musicality of the writing. Martin is yet another new name to me - America provides a super abundance of interesting writers and it's hard to keep up - but I'm unsurprised to discover that she's both a collage artist and has a  musical background. There's an interest in the euphony of language for its own sake which enables the reader to savour the 'physicality' of the writing but she also has something to say, even where this is expressed obliquely and often in riddling form. I'm sure I'm going to read more of her work in future and I'll certainly go back to the work in
Looms when I've got time. For the moment take this randomly selected extract as a sample of where she's coming from:

     Bewilderment strolls down a dead-end
     alley through cottony plumes overflowing
     from buckets of dry ice. A gumshoe yearning
     for the scenic archipelago he deserted yanks
     blinds up and down. Flickering light enters
     multiple apertures across the street where men
     with contorted faces gaze at an abandoned
     suitcase their nemesis crammed with desire. Limbs,
     always belonging to the other, slice through mist
     the ocean liner on a nearby set calls fog.
               (extract from untitled, page 62)

Her work has a very painterly, noir feel, alienated and penumbral, taut yet expansive. Impressive and addictive.

I don't recall having read any poetry by Jamie McKendrick before.
Out There, his new collection, is a bunch of poems which deal, in various ways, with the dangers involved in being 'out there' in the world. I have to say that they didn't do a lot for me. I can admire his technical facility but kept yearning for a bit more oomph! He's clearly erudite, scholarly and knows a lot of stuff and there is a wide range of subject matter here but despite reading through these poems carefully twice I didn't find much that made me want to try again. I'm sure he has plenty of admirers and he's probably very good  - he'd have to be to be published by Faber! - but his work doesn't, for the most part, touch my pleasure sensors. I mean, there's a lot of material here that mixes high art with popular culture, something I'm usually very keen on, but apart from the occasional observation - a reference to Clint Eastwood's 'grimace in the spaghetti westerns', for example, in the poem 'Toscanelli', I wasn't really enthused. There's also a didactic quality to some of the poems ('The Literalist', for example) which feels so obvious and spoils, for me, what is otherwise a fairly good idea. There's also a dryness to some of his pieces which just doesn't hit the spot. I'm sure this must be my failing and I'm beginning to remind myself of Martin Stannard, so perhaps I'd better leave it at that. Get hold of this book and argue with me, let me know what I'm missing out on. I'm sure I must be. Either that or I'm suffering from cabin fever.

        Steve Spence 2012