Palanquin, Cabriolet, Schooner


Justified Sonnets, James McLaughlin
(76pp, £8.00, Knives Forks and Spoons Press)
Lever Arch, Mark Burnhope (47pp, £6.00, Knives Forks and Spoons)
The Devotional Poems,
Joe Hall (69pp, $14.95/ £9.62, Black Ocean)
Leading Edge Control Technology
, Rupert M Loydell
(24pp, £5.00, Knives Forks and Spoons)
Softcore Cloudstep, Sian S Rathore
(82pp, £6.00 or free download, 79 Rat Press)

Bottled Air, Caleb Klaces (79pp, £12.99, Eyewear)


The most immediately curiosity-piquing of this group of new collections was Justified Sonnets. Its content, however, consists of present-tense bucolics of weather, flowers, rivers, trees, botany and colour-words, with gestures towards the time-honoured nameless addressee, and nature-inspired thoughts about rebirth, the self (‘where did I leave my life and / become nothing’), love and so on. There are congenial oddities (‘as smells have taste/ nuance has inclination’; ‘which branch/ of philosophy is this leaning/ arm to the water’) amidst a few less exciting collocations (‘dire punishments’? ‘splintered shards’?). That these parodic meditations are a foil, however, seems signalled by the title: their vindication is elsewhere. They’re fully-justified, in the typographic sense, and, being all of fourteen lines and the same width, each page presents the same compact, blocky aspect. Some blocks are dense, others have great holes in them – not so much rivers of white space as lakes – or bits cut from the sides. The unusual punctuation, of pipes, slashes and dashes (with the odd comma or quote-mark) prevents it looking like prose, and its ambiguity or inconsistency (a pipe doesn’t really ‘equal’ a full stop) prevents it reading as such. The internal looseness and the lack of restful space after a line play their part in proffering a strikingly original alternative to both the conventional poetic line and the sentence. The difference it makes can be seen in, for instance, Sonnet Eight, which is a recycling and merging of two poems which have formerly appeared in more conventional free-verse dress. You could compare these blocky snapshots to the modern world’s packaged consumptions, framing technologies and lives in cuboids, and remark on their presumably ironic opposition to their pastoral subject-matter. And even venture that the format – if it got any attention – could spawn imitators or adapters. James McLaughlin, as Stride readers’ll be aware, has a long-standing interest in both shape (viz, his pattern-poems, and the marvellous poetry-circuit-diagrams) and punctuation (the leading-dots poems). He's admittedly had an interesting ‘voice’ for a while, but he’s now usurped it with something far more fitting to the 2010s: a very interesting ‘packaging’.
 

 

Typography is equally important in Mark Burnhope’s new collection. Aptly for its title, the poems look as if they were created by a strike-on typewriter, with eroded, blurred and spattered characters prompting connotations of the pre-digital 70s, manual effort, authenticity, poverty – or just, ‘what a clever new app’. Since The Snowboy, this poet’s sentences, punctuation and capital letters (except, notably, the ‘I’) have vanished; instead, the monospace font enforces an alignment to the poems’ otherwise diffuse layout and draws attention to the letters’ vertical relations. This gets backed up by a conceit that the carriage has sometimes slipped or returned at fortuitous moments (‘the seam/ outh’) which, depending on the reader’s taste, may be excitingly disjunctive or rather irritating. The spaces often signal tempo, as in ‘swan law’ which rewrites ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ (‘swim    lay/           sweat/ chair                 /              y              / hoist’) in largo. At other times, they act as gaps in syntax or sense (for instance, ‘my yoke        easy        burdened’, a sampling of Matthew 11), and give narratives a staccato or list-making feel. All this stuff is a Black Mountain aesthetic, and Larry Eigner is helpfully cited at the start. What’s added are an English propensity for dreadful puns (‘capital settee’,  ‘the blake sheep’), a sensitivity towards mental and bodily infirmity and a keen engagement with the biblical tradition in culture through Hopkins, Blake and the metaphysical poet John Cleveland. In fact Christianity features heavily, as if the poet were energised by his own resonant surname. In the beach-side landscapes, the sea sort-of-represents Don Cupitt’s Sea of Faith, with the speaker (as it were) stranded. Indeed, Cupitt’s source in Arnold is revisited in the final poem of this thoughtful, well-constructed book.


The mother fuckings and cock palming of the opening sequence disabuse you immediately that The Devotional Poems are the conventionally devout stuff you might first imagine. Its quotes from 17th Century religious writers and its apostrophes to Mary, Christ, Lord and (the) Beast are heavily burlesqued (‘What is a lamb, Christ?/ Do you take from slaughter?’), while its ubiquitous ‘I’ is a manic persona with the wayward attention-span of someone on speed, declaiming dreams or visions like a crazed or inspired prophet. The visions themselves are of the apocalyptic grotesque: of ‘the head that feeds on fingernails’ and ‘the billboards of incinerated continents’. Occasional honeysuckle and doughnuts get vastly outnumbered by electrodes, screaming, trash, maggots and intestines. Prayer is abuse, exorcism causes more sickness and catechism is mere sports affiliation. The book opens at high speed with Whitmanesque (or Howl-ish) long lines and a paucity of full-stops, but also has its briefer and more languid parts, though the oneiric mode is always prevalent. Some poems go on and on, which can be exhilarating or exhausting, or both. Here’s a gentler sample of this intriguing, superhardcore work:

   In the theater my silver wrists divide into almond tree
   branches. They flower. I leave. I can’t remember
   the movie. When I begin praying to you
   Mary, you are an icon carved
   from a yellow tusk, you become
   a horn thickened by milk, then a garlic clove
                 [
from ‘Our Lady of Supreme Happiness’]


 

It’s easy to forget how much of language remains unexplored territory to contemporary poetry. While poets jostle to say new things about blackbirds, whole continents of the quantitative world remain distant and unvisited. Certainly, big scientific ideas like quantum theory or biogenesis get mused on with varying degrees of amateurism, but who are the poets of the ground-level detail of civil engineering, systems programming, spectroscopy, econometrics…? Leading Edge Control Technology, in which the discourses of discovery (and even colonisation) are set up in the opening poem, makes a rare reconnoitring. The book’s in two sections. The first, with its triadic titles (‘Transfer, Codify, Analyse’, ‘Project, Index, Distance’) supplants the generalising authoritative airs of an older poetry (‘About suffering they were never wrong/ The Old Masters’, say) with the impersonal voices, imperatives and delimited statements of the textbook. ‘In theory, a flow network is a directed/ optimal lane-based evacuation route.’ ‘The scoring mechanism presents a novel view of risk.’ In a language-poetry manner (and the book’s title is like a witty synonym for ‘avant-garde poetry’), these lines and sentences don’t link semantically; narrative is in the mind of the beholder. In the second section, the ante is upped further as the context-free sentence starts to fade out in favour of the context-free collocation, juxtaposing polysyllables shorn completely of surroundings:

   residual subsidy
   shaggy arrogate
   chicory terminal

   kosher cistern
   inactive literacy
   baldpate dogma
          [
from ‘The Greenhouse in Winter’]

This removing of objects from context has long been an aesthetic strategy – so that through defamiliarisation we might see their beauty-in-itself – but can also be an analytical one, in which the observation of isolated variables aims to reveal something about how language actually works. The effect’s buttressed by a laconic humour, and the confidence in the technique seems secure when, in an unforeseen twist, the book’s final line (‘wanting to kiss your neck’) returns us abruptly to the conventional poetries of desire, personality and intimate address. Is this earned? Does it work? How does it make us re-evaluate everything that’s gone before? It’s thought-provoking and discussable stuff.


With Softcore Cloudstep, we’re definitely back in the world of personality and desire. Sian S Rathore’s book offers a terrific cocktail of music, drugs, mental health, a splash of suicide and gallons of love affairs. It indulges a young-and-knows-it feel, too, in its narrator’s worries about getting older and gaining responsibilities, its references to the online world far outnumbering its literary ones (which are mostly Wuthering Heights and American Psycho) and in its voluble acknowledgements. Admittedly, many enjambments are refractory or inexplicable (‘New/ York’?), most of the one-word lines feel suspiciously egregious (‘Milk’?), and the TS Eliot/Toilets gag, for example, makes a tired appearance, but the sheer exuberance of tone carries it through. It has a particular strength in its simultaneously fond and satirical treatment of passionate relationships. Lovers make delightfully impossible and whimsical wishes: ‘If you really loved/ Me you would/ Duplicate your/ Body so I can/ Have two of you’; ‘I’d like it if I were an osprey in your reservoir’; ‘I wish that stamps had your face on and not the Queen’s’. In addressing the absent lover-friend-ex, their emotions are comic in their intensity: ‘I want to go stealing from clothes shops/ Because I miss you so much’. In one unexpectedly touching poem a woman sends a text to her dead husband describing the delights of iPhones. Another imagines the minute details of a relationship ending before she’s yet begun it. Exaggeration is used to nice effect: ‘I swore at/ The moon, for showing its face. It responded by/ Spitting stars’. Narratives are built up from speculations that run wildly out of control: ‘Imagine Heathcliff and the Weathermen have started a band together/ And they play one of the smaller stages at ATP’. It’s a funny surrealism frequently reminiscent of Luke Kennard (who in fact provides a nihil ad rem introduction) and for many that might be recommendation enough. But it’s more visceral and felt than he is, and the poetry system might be overdue for a new self-destructive romanticism. So could be big?


 

Bottled Air adopts a surefire methodology for prize-winning poetry: take widely-dispersed nuggets from history and literature, link them to family and personal and social issues, reprise them in stylish new ways as the book progresses, build an overriding big theme (mortality, say) and do it beautifully. In this case, the writers include Thomas Browne (a 17th Century writer and doctor), Kapuscinski, Borges, Eliot and Mike Davis (of the terrific Planet of Slums). The start-off topics include voluntary work, archaeology, being-a-tourist, medicine and refugees. The locations are Texas, China, Tanzania, &c. But it’s the words that make the difference. I liked how the names of nuclear test sites (‘Palanquin, Cabriolet, Schooner’) or photos of poverty can be ‘beautiful […]/ but difficult/ to enjoy’. How air is only a shared resource until we’re in our coffins. How ‘we are not sure how to dislike people we meet/ when we are visitors’. How ‘to love and hate [someone in history] is only/ to love and hate the impure atmosphere’. How ‘One day/ […] the sea will be housed inside the whale/ inside the Sea Life Centre’. How the very rapaciousness for everything – even for raw material for culture (‘We move from room to painted room,/ the cave library, the whale’s head– // we make our visit’) – takes people over. And the title itself: how a poetry collection is just another packaging. Then, the images: the ‘hull’ of the massive skeletons of whales; fences as ‘the […] uprights of ownership’; self-assemble furniture as ‘flat-packed space’; used shoe-covering bags for mosques as ‘the waste products/ of holiness’. The poems infiltrate the notes and vice versa; some notes seem like poems waiting to happen – or even replacements for them, making you feel you ‘didn’t really need/ to read the poem/ after that’. Above all, in a way that many of us can’t, the book resists cynicism, smartness and despair, and even though a progressive humaneness in poetry is as common now as elitism once was, it makes it exciting, refreshing and inspiring, often by its well-judged consideration of the contradictions and difficulties in taking an ethical stance, ‘with them/ but over here’. It’s good sign of admiring something when you just want to keep quoting from it. Even by the atypically impressive yardstick of this review-batch, it’s an outstanding collection.

    © Guy Russell 2013