Going with the Flow

Private Utopias or 'Noises in the Head',
Peter Dent (Oystercatcher)
Without, Maxine Chernoff (Shearsman)
The Voice-Thrower, Tim Allen (Shearsman)

The sub-title of this excellent new 20-pager from Peter Dent is humorously suggestive as well as pointing towards an obsessive curiosity. Formally, the poems are split into three 'sections': double-spaced pieces, fourteen-liners (four three-liners and two single-lines) and eleven-line blocks. The visual effect of this has a pleasing aspect - not unimportant - and I imagine that working over a long period with clearly defined constraints enhances the process of composition. There is certainly a strong musical component to Dent's writing as well as an intriguing element, which boils down to an apparent intent to confound the reader's expectations. Much better, in fact, to go with the flow, enjoy the wordplay and serious investigation, even where it may leave you puzzled or buzzing with a sense of excess.

Take this extract, for example:

            Past midnight it's an odd dog that patrols the streets - at least
            in these parts a 'reversal' in real life can have consequences

            for even the liveliest interpretation: it would take a solicitor to

            shake down this year's almonds   for a minute there you could

            begin thinking about the clock and its relevance but naughty

            children will pretend it was never them   then when I dream

            out loud I come up with neat structural devices able to render

            even the finest historiographer redundant  ……
                       ('from 'Switching Modes')

I love the way that this begins as a possible narrative, which is then constantly interrupted with 'thought processes' which take you off at tangents. Dent's ability to mix registers and different forms of language into a 'coherent' surface is both impressive and entertaining, to say nothing of very funny at times. There's a sort of obsessive focus here with is both intense and playful, sophisticated without shutting the reader out and also filled with pleasurable moments.

            I could be a gift to an implant manufacturer   one creating

            private utopias but it's late in the day   curiosity about the
            instruments of Java and Bali combines with the howling of a
            pack of wolves to restore hope in a world more dangerous

            than it sounds but before you trigger a metaphor think how
            often it's the slow movement that really pulls you in   I've
            been waiting a lifetime now for the correct kind of thunder

            tell me where's the justice in that? ……
                       (from 'Noises in the Head')

I kept wanting to read 'private utopias' as 'pirate utopias' yet these noises in the head may well apply to the information overload we all experience in our everyday lives.  Dent's response is to make art from this various material, juxtaposing phrases from public and personal discourse to produce writing which is unsettling and puzzling yet stimulating in many ways. He's established a serious body of work over the years and it's always a pleasure to reconnect with his particular oeuvre.

Maxine Chernoff is an interesting poet whose work I've only recently discovered. I was lucky enough to hear her read a few months ago although I'd not previously encountered her on the page, so to speak. The poems in Without grow on you, as is often the case with work you come to like after an initial resistance or misunderstanding. These are minimal poems, rarely do they go over the page, they all have quite short lines and little punctuation or use of capitals. The piece I most liked, on first or second reading (I've read this collection several times now and I suspect that I'll return to them at some point), was '[without immortality]' and I think this is partly because of its association with Wenders' romantic film Wings of Desire, which remains a favourite (it's about time I watched it again!). I was immediately reminded of Bruno Ganz, the 'fallen' angel, returning to earth and revelling in his mortality because he'd fallen in love with a circus performer and wanted to live. As the film is set in Berlin you can't help being reminded of Walter Benjamin's 'angel of history' either and Chernoff captures something of this resonance, a meeting of the material and the 'spiritual'. I'd go further and suggest that the whole collection circles around this duality, intriguingly:

            I'll lose
            my wings
            for you
            he says
            muted sound
            but words
            and now
            he falls
            and loves
            the crash
            dirt never
            so sweet
                       (from '[without immortality]')

In '[without memory]' we get:

            peach crate summers
            ruby-throated nights
            the blanching stars
            in winter's house  

            maybe you'll freeze
            trying to forget
            how things were
            before they weren't
                       (from '[without memory]')

Which is a wonderful encapsulation.

            go from your homes
            remnants of
            a loquacious past
            we know your reasons
            your stone towers
            how nothing lasts
            except the request
            when darkness loses
            its waiting mirror
            and tuning forks
            stand in for solace
                       ('[without love]')

There's nothing sentimental about this writing, which is fragmented and pared down yet it leaves enough room for a reader prepared to work a bit and fill in the gaps. These poems resonate on re-reading, whether dealing with war - as in '[without peace]' where
'NATO helicopters mistook them for insurgents' or as in the final poem, '[without without]' where 'you dream/that our deaths/open easily.' I didn't find them immediately accessible - definitely an advantage - but neither did I feel shut out. I wouldn't say this was the most interesting poetry I've read this year but I'm sure that I'll return to Maxine Chernoff's work as I do find it intriguing.

Tim's Allen's The Voice Thrower is as impressive an example of 'mutant modern expressionism' (his term, I think) as you're likely to come across this side of insanity. It's an extraordinary achievement in 333 quatrains, partly autobiographical, fuelled by an obsessive concern with wordplay and the consequent endless possibilities for going off at a tangent. It's also emotionally charged, formally impressive and a 'controlled' tour de force of modern poetry, not that you'd realise this if your choice is still determined by the options available in your average branch of Waterstones. I recall seeing/hearing Tim read the whole of this long poem one Sunday afternoon a year or so ago and it was an experience I won't forget in a hurry. That he managed to get through it all, with its new word-combinations, endless veerings and unconventional line-breaks is something of a miracle but it was an event to witness.

You don't need to know much about the background to this work, though the fact that it's based to some extent on Tim's childhood and youth in Portland and features his mother as a sort of leitmotif, is probably useful knowledge. Otherwise, just dip in, go with the flow and experience this James Joyce for the twenty first century with as much vigour and existential brio as you can muster. Oh - there's also a relatively short reference section at the end which may help if you get stuck. Here's a brief extract to give you the flavour. Enjoy.

            Every day is the
Day of the Triffids for the lighthouse
            keeper How many light bulbs does it take to change a
            surrealist? My mum wanted me to speak properly she
            didn't want me sounding like the other island urchins she failed.

            Gullfruit boatrat and girlflesh in rhizoid ray of light
            Boatfruit ratflesh and girdlegoo on a rhizoid raft of lite
            Has anyone here seen helium or hydrogen forthat mat
            ter Tarbaby basket fledge Shaftwater's sinew fleche patterslog.
The Voice Thrower)

                   © Steve Spence 2013