Assault on the Clouds, John Hartley
Williams (Shoestring Press)
Devil Among the Tailors, Simon
Curtis (Shoestring Press)
False Memory, Tony Lopez
Wrong Evenings, Simon Jenner
Arboa, the island on which the action in this strange and
intriguing collection is set, could almost be an extension of Gulliver's
Travels, for Hartley Williams is a poet
who combines the satirical with the unorthodox, adding a fair mix of 20th
century surrealism along the way, together with his own skewed and displaced
view of things, heading inexorably into the future and irretrievably into the
past. Like Walter Benjamin, he incongruously mixes the past and the present,
hopefully pointing towards a more salubrious future but he also throws his
cards into the air, relying on chance and circumstance to dictate where they
fall while keeping his anarchic tendencies just about in check by a firm
grasp of craft and technical know-how.
This is an upside-down world where the monomaniacs are in control and where
it's difficult to read the crazy desires of the powerful, a combination of
Robert Maxwell and John Hurt as Caligula in I Claudius, the tv version. In 'New Model Army' the
'General's latest wheeze' is for a regiment of 'cavalry' mounted upon pogo sticks, to which the poet's
response is to admire the relative intelligence of fish and to practise
avoidance like the plague:
surface of the lake
the dazzling jump
occasional carp, or pike.
Ah, to hold
destiny within your
The poet reads a wondrous
leans against a tree trunk,
(from 'New Model Army')
There's a Fellini-like exotic strangeness in Williams's erotic ponderings,
yet it's also one which has a democratic urge, and where sexuality, in all
its mad desire, acts as a libidinal alternative to the corrupt lunacy of
wishes to paint
a woman who,
from the waist up
She is a
He is adrift
on a coloratura river.
surprisingly powerful thighs!
remind him of her cries.
(from 'Early One Morning 1')
This is poetry which is as entertaining as it is sharp-edged, energetic and
playful as well as satirical and surreal. Williams' world has its dark side
for sure - reflecting a replay of early 20th century modernism, perhaps - but
it's also an attractive place to linger for a while, full of vigour, salty
humour and irreverent attitude. Whistling in the dark, perhaps, but whistling
nonetheless and his tune is ludic and defiant.
buzzard-ripper of a nose?
How give the
side of that impressive chimney
a look of
absence of a
lengthening the tunic collar
and adds a
leaves without detecting
protruding from his ear
emerging from the other
(from 'A Portrait of the General')
This is a world in which power is not 'talked to' but has to be flattered, on
the surface, yet satirised discreetly, not a million miles away from actually
existing societies.Yet this fear-laden situation creates a perfect backdrop
for Williams' humane and absurdist critique, which feeds on pomposity,
totalitarian vanity and is also often fuelled by a strange libidinal energy
which he treats with relish:
Above her, a
and a crane
of her room.
The eyes of a
and she knows
her poet is
(from 'Beauty and the Beast')
In 'Thoughts of the Poet' Williams speculates upon the place of the public
poet (or artist) in society - 'It is necessary to be hungry to achieve fame'
- surely a fantasy and one which he elegantly daydreams about, here as
elsewhere. His gentle rhetorical rhythms are a joy to read, laden as they are
with a lush lyricism, infused with an undermining satirical surrealism and
concluding in intoxicated escapism. Wonderful stuff.
The title poem appears to combine elements of science fiction (very J.G.
Ballard, in fact) with a Swiftian commentary on the delusions of power ('The
Assault on the Clouds' appears to be just what it says!) yet amid the
colloquial asides - 'What twaddle, uh?', which are simply hilarious - there is lyrical
beauty which is also quite breathtaking. The way in which Williams holds
these elements together and combines both genre and sensibility is simply
wonderful and a quality which always makes him very readable. He's one of our
very best mainstream poets working in English and on the evidence of this
collection I'm looking forward to reading his next.
Another collection from Shoestring Press, a publisher I'm
not over-familiar with, but on the strength of these two collections I'd say
that Shoestring has much in common with the principles of Carcanet, in the
sense that both outfits seem to combine a liking for the innovative and
challenging with the traditional and tried-and-tested. Which isn't to say
that I disliked Simon Curtis's poetry. In fact there is much to admire in his
skilful handling of form and subject matter and his occasional ability to
surprise or to frustrate the reader's expectations ('To fuck-up on a whopping
scale -', for example, from 'Crunch', as in 'Credit Crunch'). Curtis's
territory is very 'English', combining Hardy-like ballads with a Larkinesque
critique of the modern and there's also a touch of the John Betjeman about
some of his poetry. This is essentially light-verse, often embracing comedy and
mild satirical commentary, poems about death, loss, the generation gap and
the culture clash, observations which often evoke a passed or passing world,
mildly melancholic and critical yet often also buoyant and irrepressible in a
relatively relaxed manner. There are seaside vignettes - 'Seafront Cafe Bar'
- and Supermarket reflections - 'Cliche' - and even a 'Plymouth Vignette',
which has its sharp-focussed moments and is in praise of Beryl Cook. There's
nothing here which is offensive or particularly sarcastic, or seriously angry
for more than a moment and it's all very mild-mannered and pretty
well-tempered, on the whole, even on the rare occasions when it's not. This
is one of the better bits, from the poem 'Satie at the End of Term' which
refers to a moment of 'coming up for air' after struggling with the
heavy-going literary load:
fitful-fresh as April sun,
low clouds of syllabus
There's nothing here which Wendy Cope would disapprove of, although Curtis's
work is somewhat old-fashioned, and he certainly has an eye for detail which
is more than be can be said of many.
Originally put out by Salt in 2003, this timely
re-publication of False Memory
includes a useful contextual essay by Robert Hampson and still feels sharp
and bang up-to-date almost ten years on. The book is made up of eleven
sections, each section having a title and being made of ten 14-line poems.
Each poem is a montage, formed from a range of diverse materials so there is,
from the outset, a sense of this being a continuous project, rather than just
a bunch of selected poems. This has been an important aspect of Lopez's work
for some years now and its success rate has been high and consistent.
There's a surface glitz to these poems, which makes them attractive and
readable, aesthetic artefacts produced by a magpie mind, which mixes the dark
with the glamorous to intriguing effect. Take this section from 'Brought
In the ethnic
collection, a mix of synthetics
With a grubby
Virgin Atlantic sweatshirt
Right out of
the gym. For the cover we chose
railway track leading into a wood.
Lopez's ability to smooth out the non-sequiturs creates a kind of flatness
within the material and the interruptions to this are often of the
comic-surreal or historical dark varieties. There is a feeling of speeded-up
channel hopping which both comments satirically on the 'information overload'
issue while also aiding a sort of dizzying pleasure in the act of reading
itself. The last line, however, with its mix of marketing speak and dark
holocaust association (at least, that's how I read it) makes you pause for
thought. This could relate to the choice of an album cover or a dust jacket
for a book - we're not told and don't have access to the original text - but
it's hard to avoid the ominous suggestiveness of 'A rusty railway track
leading into a wood'!
Another aspect of this smoothed-out montage method is that you get the
feeling of a mind talking to itself, a sort of continuous monologue
interrupted by memories, incoming information, accumulated knowledge and
speculation. The inclusion of material obviously taken from advertising copy
and from newspaper/journal articles aids this idea and there's also a sort of
jaunty, upbeat feel, generated, I think from the process of cutting and
editing and the breadth of subject matter:
A thread goes
through the book, I don't mean ideas but each
four sheets sewn into sixteen pages
Which are I
suppose ideas, even those that are blanks.
in the poem as a goddess, an idea
(because she is a goddess) good to eat and rollover with.
It is not
autumn at all, she comes home with groceries
And gets into
a hot bath. I think in Bonnard reproductions.
drips of water running on the little stones.
I was born in
the city but I don't live there now,
it. This is the subtext of After Lorca:
pools, mirrors, the denial of the father.
(from 'Assembly Point D')
His new book Only More So (also
Shearsman) is a much bigger project, using similar techniques and comprising
long prose sections. It's a book which demands a lot of attention and one
which may well turn out to be his most important and successful in the long
run, representing a peak in his working methods. Its multitudinous material
and its length means it's likely to prove a slow-burner and it needs to be
taken a chapter at a time. Like Ulysses it's a book you may well find yourself returning to.
Simon Jenner's poetry is best described as being
late-modernist and the strange richness of its varied subject matter makes
this a compelling if not always easy book to approach. There are an awful lot
of end notes here, some of which are informative and provide useful
background information, occasionally add further complexity and richness and
sometimes provoke sheer bafflement. Jenner is clearly an erudite scholar and
whereas the scholarship doesn't always rest easily with the poetry I do enjoy
the provocation of his work and its wide range of reference and 'angle'. Take
'Death of A Socialist', which seems to be 'about' someone attempting to come
terms with the empty glamour of the Thatcher years - he was about thirty when
Thatcher was ousted - using the relationship between dreams and changing
technology to map the social changes of the time.
of my birth ghost in
day-scorched twenties. They're brittle
slogan red posters tat to gravity,
timbre drops with age. Nostalgia's
but a wind
broken voice, a scratch
sixties in orange.
It's a copy
of an original
existed. We effervesce
stutter it was dreams owned dimension
and a running
pace; but eyes open on a plasma screen.
stroke treacle till I drown.
(from 'Death of a Socialist')
What could be said to be lacking here is an overall viewpoint but this is
hardly didactic poetry and its off-centredness could be seen as a strength.
There's an almost postmodern notion of relativity here, the sense of the lack
of any stable centre and the anxiety this can create. Or as one perceptive
19th century commentator once said - 'Everything that is solid melts into
air'. The imagery of the poem's last line seems to imply a sense of loss and
floundering in a changing world of virtual reality but I find it hard to
extract any real sense of positioning in this poem and I find that
There are many references to illness in this collection, a sort of hazy,
penumbral suggestiveness which permeates the whole, allied to a hint towards
narrative which is rarely made explicit. Sometimes the notes do suggest ways
in but given the often 'cloudy' nature of the storytelling perhaps the notes
are superfluous. One of the pleasures to be got from this kind of poetry is
to do with interpretation, even if you don't always get it right first time,
that and the unusual use of imagery and its oblique
In 'Blowing Hot and Cold' we get this:
The air holds
revived in oxygen.
matches, idiot savant, to whatevers,
incandescents, those left standing.
This mix of the concrete and the abstract is typical of Jenner's style and
may explain why he's difficult to read in a 'go with the flow' manner. Still,
as I've said before, there's complexity that I think is worth persevering
with and that which never seems to bear fruit. Jenner remains in the former
category and compared to the strained showing-off of Clive James, for
example, his poetry is magnificent.