Cities, Bodies, Language - and a Fairytale Princess

murmur in the inventory, erica lewis (98pp, 8.95, Shearsman)
, Alexandra Sashe (79pp, 8.95, Shearsman)
Particle Soup, Lindsey Holland (56pp, 7.00, Knives Forks and Spoons Press)
Leaf Graffiti, Lucy Burnett (99pp, 9.95, Carcanet)
A Cold Woman, Nicky Mesch (73pp, 7.00, Knives Forks and Spoons)
Flashes, Jennifer Firestone (79pp, 8.95, Shearsman)

Among this intriguing group of new collections, erica lewis' book stands out even from its title: in the marvellous word 'inventory' for memory - resonant both of precise cataloguing and of inventing - and in the lovely emblem of the 'murmur' as a way to diminish the habitual self-importance of the poetic line. If there's a subject here, it concerns unspecified losses addressed to unspecified 'you's, as each of the five numbered voices mumbles, murmurs or just thinks, in unpunctuated lower-case, in a Beckett-like isolation of octavo-sized white space. Lines are disconnected phrases, with consciously pithy moments ('you are your own ghost'), gems of oddness ('a dislocated cloud//hits the bone') and witty fragments ('the memory of'); two, three or four spaces usually separate them, acting either like long pauses or absences, or as if something's been unheard, so that any possible sequitur is at best unreliable. The feeling grows that the poems themselves could begin and end anywhere, by the half-line of dashes heading the pages: '------------------------the answer is no//what the storm removes///talking///your old time religion///these separations'. There are recurrent images - fragments, ghosts, water, storm - an austere vocabulary and repetitions of repetitions, but such a listing doesn't do justice to the dizzying accumulation of the whole. I was won over from scepticism to beguilement, since this challenging level of abstraction is rarely done so effectively.

Paul Celan seems to be the presiding genius of Antibodies, with its curt formulations, coinings of new words, intermittent titling, multilingual facility, use of the Bible and botany, and even its locations in Vienna and Paris. It enacts, or embodies, the attempted talking-cure of some unspoken and unspeakable trauma, perhaps (viz the title) thanatophobic or sexual. At any event, it's an unsuccessful cure insofar as no exit is found from the dashes of changed direction and the self-defensive vocality. And oh, the long, long winter. The fog, hiding the world but also the speaker. The depressive crows... Regarding the neologisms, I preferred 'tablestead', for one's habitual cafe table, to the verbings of 'butterflied' and especially 'parataxize'. And this is the kind of poet who will say 'aestival' for 'summery', and 'boreal' for 'northern'. All that aside, the intensity of feeling, the evident intellectual power, the convincing use of specialist vocabularies, the hellenisms balancing finely between medical and rhetorical meanings ('syncopal silences') and the lilts and attentive enjambments should be sufficient to attest that this is extremely high-quality stuff:

   come over here to break the glassware, the windows, the
                          moon's cup, to tear
   the linens, the lacework, the pages
   from mid-shelves, to burn
   the candles, the bridges, the
   stained clothes, the long long hours...
          [from '(from the cycle 'Invocations')']

And if there were room, worth quoting at greater length.

Particle Soup is an ultraslim collection (thirty-five pages with poetry on) containing retrospective poems of urban youth, travelling, relationships and hard-earned maturity, elliptically surfaced and featuring lines of the genre, 'On humid nights, we'd get drunk on Leffe,' and 'cartons of rancid milk sat/ with piles of flyers.' It's more distinctive for the ghoulish way that it gives ordinarily bland things a kind of horrible animation. 'White paint spreads its skin.' Barcelona has 'monochrome/ bleached ribs, bad cavities'. 'Aeroplanes/ keep on/ stretching'. Bodies rot, petrify or are simply gruesome: 'Murdered/ limbs are pixelated/ and glow'; 'toes as if they're only a variation/ on schist'. Most intriguing is a continual Moebian or tortured reflexivity: 'I [...] clip myself.' 'I pin myself'. 'I'd filled myself'. 'Five years/ wasping around yourself.' 'You take/ the journal of yourself'. 'It's important/ to do this: shut yourself'. Poems, if not beginning in medias res with a conjunction, like to use the 'colon opening': 'It's important to do this: lie'. 'We used to do this: talk'. 'You feared these things: yachts'. Verbs accrete in that asyndetic, present-tense manner that's become something of a contemporary-poetry cliche: 'They push/ vertebrae, press hips, force movement/ on resistant flesh'. 'He creeps through the Raval,/ keeps to the edges, stops in a doorway,/ flips the cap on and off a water bottle.' There is the odd howler or typo ('por favour'?), but also many arresting and lyrical moments.

Leaf Graffiti contains an absolutely marvellous poem. It's called 'Yellowbells' and starts innocuously enough - 'somewhere is a place/ i don't know yet and i'm/ walking there' - but via gentle twists in each three-line stanza ended up delivering (for me, anyway) that mysterious feeling - so upsetting and pleasureable to a critic - of being unexpectedly cut off by a sudden tide of emotion. But then the long, vibrant opening sequence is rather good too. It consists of unpunctuated seventeen-line pentameter stanzas using longer spaces for caesuras, and zings with an energy like beat poetry over car-parks, cafes, bank queues, Sunday hangovers, cycle rides, office work and a whole ecology of the urban environment. Often using a joyous communal 'we' - 'our lifestyle is a bit like whiplash' - it focuses especially on how the natural world intrudes, as slush 'like porridged brain' or spiders' webs 'sprung with dewdrop bling' or migrating birds. The 'we' modulates to an 'i', and sometimes the poet at her window appears to be grabbing for the fortuitous instant: 'cheers announce the scoreline in the match/ just down the road'. The collection has a strong visual sense (the terrific cover-image is by the poet too), a nice way with simile (a city seafront 'like built graffiti') and a number of closing poems about Icarus, who notes wryly that 'It's a warmer world/ the closer you fly/ to the sun.'

The most enjoyable read of this selection was Nicky Mesch's. This plain-covered, blurbless, noteless, biog-less, uninvitingly-titled book opened up into the pleasures of narrative and character like old friends. That reviewers' cliche about 'risk-taking' is worth rehoisting here, confronted by surely the most poetically unfashionable of genres, the fairytale romance. Our unnamed princess is cursed from birth with a touch that turns everything to frost and ice. A local peasant woman is raped by an ice-demon and bears a son who becomes a royal stable-lad. The son and princess meet, 'yet how can she have him/ when their first kiss/ might be his last?' The tale zips along in a deft and rhythmical free verse heavy with anaphora, psychologically resonant and smartly whimsical. I liked the heroine's 'ball-gown/ [...] of hand-frozen butterflies', and here's her paternal inheritance: 'from her father/// the gift of indifference// so lightly given/ so impossible to accept'. It's witty, moving, erotic, nicely playful about its genre, and definitely a find.

Jennifer Firestone's long poem, a view of city life from close to the bottom of the pile, is made up of about sixty short, untitled parts. With their underpunctuation, telegraphese and feeling of hurry - and despite the title - they are less like flashy quotidian epiphanies than humble notes-to-self. 'Time of new government/ suits with badges somehow intrinsically connected/ to new foundation'. 'Electronic cards replace food stamps./ Should we say terror as in who's at my door.' 'The buildings block this building/ so light between/ is what I call mine'. Light, space, safety, quiet and even sky are at a premium. The commentary on the relentless news of war, terror and political theatre, with the suggestion that it affects individuals' mental stability and neighbourly relations for the worse, is delivered in a humane, angry, depressed voice that, for me, constituted much of the book's appeal. The main form of resistance offered is rhetorical, as if abrupt changes of tense and register, often from the wrought poetic to the everyday ('Sadness sits on curves of letters and I figured/ it's best to approach it head on'), circumlocutions ('my silver cage' for a supermarket trolley; 'a long silver tube' for an underground train) and disjunctions of metaphor ('passages seem derailed') might wrong-foot the slick corporate noise. And from all the evidence above, perhaps they can.

    Guy Russell 2013