Big Notes, Small Changes

Hedge Fund & Other Living Margins
, Helen Moore (90pp, 8.95, Shearsman)
Book of Changes
, Paul Naylor (88pp, 8.95, Shearsman)
No School Tie
, Peter Phillips (80pp, 8.99, Ward Wood)
Tikki Tikki Man
, Caroline Carver (64pp, 8.99, Ward Wood)
, Will Kemp (64pp, 7.99, Cinnamon Press)
, John Fraser Williams (62pp, 7.99, Cinnamon Press)

Halfway through one of Helen Moore's engaged, multi-voiced reflections on the lethal complexities of our relationship with the natural world, it might come back to you that the poem you are reading is in fact called 'The Unsung Pilchard'. But the smile that may have played about your lips initially will have gone (a pilchardist response anyway, surely?) and your hand will no longer be reaching for the labels po-faced and preachy, so often earned by ecopoetry, but for their good twins, serious and polemical. And compassionate and angry: a compassion that extends to the fate of the fishing communities dependent on vanishing fish-stocks, an anger whose charge is not allowed to impede or blur the language and the argument it bears. Granted, the language sometimes teeters just the right side of the borderline with the cliched and the crass, but this is the risk run by such candid, open love of - and fear for - the world.

As the title indicates, the horrific collapse of global financial markets gives Moore a fresh batch of cross-referencing opportunities, from themes to resonant vocabularies. Compare and contrast indeed. Moore also winds back to the rural past and engages the spirit of John Clare in her defensive and offensive strategies. Not flawless by any means, but in the great tradition of visionary politics in British poetry.

                                  Little lines of sporting wood run wild
                                  where hands heaved stones
                                  to enclose - drove John Clare crazy.

                                  Today these walls left to crumble -
                                  cracking bark, and Hawthorn
                                  boughs once plashed,
                                  now ancient elbows' fold
                                  and sinew; Hazel, Ash -
                                  all create a delicate asylum.

     Money markets usually lie
      at the core of the financial
     system, functioning quietly
           (from 'Hedge Fund')

In the variety, risk-taking and sheer volume of Shearsman Book's output there is no let-up. Tony Frazer calmly dispatches half a century to the boundary each year, and poetry beyond the mainstream is enormously in his debt for this. Paul Naylor's variations on the I-Ching, very much in the Shearsman mould, take off from the personal changes brought by the deaths of parents and the birth of a child in his own life, and fragmented moments of these perturbations of adult life fill and play against the hexagrams of ancient wisdom.

So far so good, but this reader found some of these short, unpunctuated forms difficult to read. This may be deliberate, but the work done in discerning the syntax can get in the way, at a first reading, of an appreciation of the meaning and its expression. Sometimes, you get halfway down a poem before discovering that the title word is actually a part of it (though usually it isn't); sometimes you come up with attractive misreadings (apparently) like 'lyric/debris':

            even as anger
       eludes these words
     turn like leaves to lyric
         debris becomes
            spring's new

But of course, having won through to the optimum reading, you'll probably find subsequent re-readings less effortful and will be able to concentrate on the understated and timeless moment of reflection each poem strives for. This is a whole poem, hexagram and all - see what you think...

              ____  ____
              ____  ____
              ____  ____
              ____  ____

         there is no beyond
      words stake their claim
          before what isn't
         here the act back of
           which nothing is
              on its own
                   ('Taking Action')

Ward Wood is a relatively new press, producing neat editions of poetry rather more grounded in the mainstream. Peter Phillips' poetry, on first reading, seems low-key, mildly reflective, relying as much on the shared experiences of the topics - grandchildren, schooldays, love and loss - that readers will bring to bear as on anything extra brought to them by the poet. A second reading obliges you to work harder to bring the poems to life, and there are some quietly felicitous moments, some amusing lines and some restrained melancholy, but several poems just seem destined to remain pulseless. It's the third reading that brings it all to life, and you notice the more complicated things, always stated with deceptive simplicity - intimations of distant separations inherent in the joyous everyday with children, the poignancy of the continuing conversations you have with those you've lost, the many varieties of learning only to be noticed in retrospect.

     Two hours dismantling errors,
     squinting at instructions

     as concentration slides
     through my fingers, building the swing.

     It's ready. I stand back
     amazed, want to climb in.

     In he goes. The motion of a first
     push moves him, his face is a blur.

     A wide-angle smile focuses.
     He's away.
          ('Present from Woolworths')

Caroline Carver's Tikki Tikki Man
is much stronger meat; one long poem telling via flashback, shifting landscapes, fantasy and shadowy reality a story of the damage inflicted by child abuse. This is harrowing stuff, though never explicit, proceeding through inference, menace and imaginative fugue towards an ultimately redemptive conclusion. Inside it, one is apprehensive and disoriented but at the same time beguiled, compelled to read on without knowing what, or where, may come next. A marvellous achievement, like nothing else I've encountered.

     when you're asleep your breath
     moves more slowly
     ghosting down mountains
     like a nightdress without a person

     this breath
     is like fretted water
     creeping over crushed oyster shells

     until it catches you in nightmares
     diving deep into forbidden places

     and you wake gasping for air

For smaller-scale mainstream publishing, Cinnamon Press is one of the contemporary success stories. Handsomely turned out in the company livery, well-designed and readable in Palatino, the collections by Will Kemp and John Fraser Williams maintain the good line and length we've come to expect.

Now Cinnamon poets don't, by and large, get themselves into a lather about form or language, but have something to say in poems that are solid and well-made; and what they do very consistently, while embracing many of the values by which the great mass of contemporary verse is written, is to avoid the risks of these - a sclerotic stiffness in mind and method, a suburban switching from smugness to sighing regret and back again, a fast-fading impression left by a poem that had no particular reason to be written.

Will Kemp manages to fill almost his whole volume with nocturnes, poems written in or about night-time and its experiences - the cosmic, the domestic, the ontological, the musical. The senses adjust to the dark and experience the world differently; memories cluster round. This is a collection of successful evocations and quiet illuminations, and the shorter, sparser poems (including those put together in a sequence on the power and associations of classical compositions) are the more effective:

     Above the night-charred branches
     of bare ash trees

     a flurry of orange clouds
     as if the sky had been switched on

     or somewhere far away
     a city was burning to the ground

John Fraser Williams' first collection is written, as he says, 'to keep the oath: not to kill amazement'. In 'Scan', the strongest sequence here, the reality and metaphor of hospital scans carry a powerful biographical charge and an enhanced sense of life's vulnerability. Elsewhere, his topics include rural Wales (past and present), portraits from the edges of society (crack addict, prophet, poacher), travel and the intimacies of personal life. On this evidence he is a resourceful poet never short of an original phrase or an unusual angle on the world, though the collection seems to get increasingly bogged down in mellifluous listings and a rather over-used stylistic feature, the piling up of verbs behind a solitary pronoun.

     You like romance, custom, legend,
     but some must change the signs,
     the bays and farms and valleys,
     to names you'll understand.
     You've settled now, corrected maps,
     bequeathed your deeds and titles,
     swallowed centuries of lullabies,
     weather-born, across another sullen land.
          (from 'Llyn')

               Alasdair Paterson 2012