The poems came first


An Alphabet for Alina,
Frances Presley and Peterjon Skelt (Five Seasons Press)  
Waters of the Night - complete poems 1974-84
, Howard Mingham (Caparison)
A Place Where Odd Animals Stand
, Simon Williams (Oversteps Books) 
Blaze a Vanishing and The Tall Skies
, Alan Morrison (Waterloo Press)
My New Job
, Catherine Wagner (Fence Books)
Praying for Flow
, Sophia Wellbeloved (Waterloo Press)


An Alphabet for Alina is a beautiful designed collection written partly for the artist's (Peterjon Skelt) daughter but also, for us all. Presley's poems, which start, predictably with 'A' for apple, are mainly put together in three five line stanzas and become less predictable as the process gathers momentum. Skelt's illustrations, mainly pen and ink line drawings but with some lovely textures, including an apparent frottage in 'F', are quite wonderful, usually relating to the poems in an oblique manner. Sometimes, as Presley explains in her afterword, the poems came first, sometimes it was the other way around.

I love the playful, meandering aspect of this work, the way in which a child's viewpoint is made to interact with that of the adult, something Presley touches on in a recent essay in Cusp
(Shearsman, 2012), where she talks about things which have influenced her development as a poet, in a fresh and intriguing manner. While there's a playful, exploratory aspect to this writing - curiosity is a keyword in Presley's work, I've come to realise - mixing a sense of fun with a discovery about how 'slippery' language can be, there's also an element of the dark side here, as snippets from folklore, nursery rhymes and fairy tales appear throughout the text, suggestive and resonant in their imaginative evocation.

She also plays with the euphony of language in relation to phonetics and the 'gap' between the written symbol and the sounds they suggest:

                          in most novels
                   the tutor and his pupils
                 have gone on a nature hunt
            while nanny and her children find
           an ewt   an ettle   and   an ickname
                 (from 'N')

Try saying a newt, a kettle, a nickname and then repeating the process with 'an' in place of 'a'. The logic of the grammatical rule comes directly from the sound as one rolls off the tongue much more easily than the other.

In Q (for queue) Presley adopts a longer line and the effect is pure delight:

     the numbers in a queue have a bearing on the tale
     the one in front is not the equal of the one behind
     she is just the queen who has to be seen
                                                               at the tail end is quark
     corpuscles and ringlets entirely unchequed
               (from 'Q')

Peterjon's illustration for 'V' (for village) has a cubist compression which could almost be a set design for an expressionist film. The variety in his drawings is a good match for the varied material of the poems and the fact that the whole is generated by an 'arbitrary' yet central system of signs - the alphabet - creates a framework which is appealing and charming. I really enjoyed reading this book and I hope you will too.

Howard Mingham is yet another new name to me, a poet who died in London at the age of 32 in 1984 and who apparently suffered from schizophrenia. I'm a bit loathe to use that term as it immediately creates an 'expectation' in the reader but it's mentioned in the introduction, by David Kessel and Ken Worpole, and also in the afterword by editor Alan Morrison so it feels important. My first impression of reading these poems, however, especially in the light of having recently taken part in an informal 'seminar' on the work of Ivor Gurney, is of a strange haunting quality, somewhat aided by the unusual and irregular rhyme patterning and by the mix of immediacy and abstraction of the writing itself. There's a touch of the archaic about this poetry, which seems at odds with its brevity, yet it also has a high modernist feel - I kept being reminded of T.S. Eliot, that blending of the colloquial with the unexpected. Whatever, these poems are oddly impressive in their apparent simplicity and strange use of imagery. They are both bleak yet somehow optimistic, conflicting in their passionate engagement with ideas and with the world yet clearly the work of an 'outsider' and I don't mean that to be a patronising remark. These twenty-seven poems are all that have survived from his work and we're lucky to have them as they are striking and unusual and I think, quite beautiful in their strange way, having also something of John Clare and Richard Dadd about them. Take this piece:

    
What the Thunder Meant

    It vanished in a halo.
    Early morning,
    the sun clearing its throat,
    birds shining like pebbles,

     the stream that could know no resistance
     but laughter, goes.

     It is vanished in the flow.
     Asleep,
     its body of motives stirring in dreams,
     sharp as the canyon's brink,

     sight, looking into that great leap,
     opened and broke


     silence,
     snows collected in their drop,
     night, and light on its toes
     as every planet, balanced on the dawn,
     and vanished in the morning smoke,
     rolled a hand from the distance

    and holding lorries to their convoy,
     the distant cannon whispered and spoke.

Mingham's work feels both laden with a wide range of literary influence and yet
strangely fresh and immediate. The book's cover artwork is cheerfully upbeat and colourful.


I've enjoyed watching and hearing Simon Williams read his poetry for some years now and the pieces I most enjoyed in this entertaining and wide-ranging collection were those 'performance poems' such as 'Numbers Up' where his rhythmic dexterity makes even an innumerate duffer like myself feel enthused:

    
One 2 one, you 2 me, her 2 him, he 2 she
     Tea 4 two, for 2 be, decimal, binary.
     000 001 010 011 100 101 110 111
              
(from 'Numbers Up')

Or take these wonderfully knockabout last lines from 'In Praise of Graphene':

     Graphene, graphene, as thin as bubble sheen,
     the same array of atoms as Buckmaster Fullerene.

Hilariously funny even if he only just gets away with the inventiveness of 'Fullerene'.

There's a lot of material in this collection which deals with matters scientific and mathematical, and Williams is a class act, he has the 'common touch' in his performance and knows how to bring his material to life. I'm sure he'd make a great teacher and for all I know, he's been one.

The opening poem, 'Goats', a villanelle which refers to the book's title, is based on a newspaper story of a Swiss man, caught speeding in Canada, who defended himself by saying that he was taking advantage of the chance to drive faster without hitting a goat. The book's cover picture (lovely photo, shame about the typography), features a goat standing in the middle of the road on a bend, while the poem itself, in its oblique yet entertaining strangeness, is typical of the work in
A Place Where Odd Animals Stand, which is mainly offbeat material, intriguingly presented in an entertaining fashion.

There's an invented 'letter as poem' from Cromwell's daughter to her father which refers to the crushing of dissidents after the English Revolution and is both humane and understated (there's a degree of ambiguity here which Andrew Marvell would have loved), and an amusing tale of the Australian redback spider entitled, appropriately enough, 'Sydney Spider' which has a lovely last stanza:

     My mother asks,
    
Are they poisonous?
     Ah, givya
     nasty nip.

There are prose poems and sonnets - Williams is a dab hand at traditional sonnets and he usually manages to stick with ten-syllable lines - and even a piece written in couplets which refers, presumably, to a trick played upon a schoolboy (I guess this is autobiographical) who is fooled into thinking he has a part in a production of Brecht's Galileo ('Walking the Doge'). His key talent, it seems to me is to make these poems entertaining, even the more serious or occasionally erotic ones. There are also several 'fish' poems here - 'How to Amuse Fish'; 'Louie Spray and the 69lb Muskie' (which refers, I think to the catching of a specimen American Pike, also known as the Muskellunge); and my favourite, 'Stout Infantfish', where the repetition really hits my receptors. It's not quite as mad as I'd like but it's getting there:

     The Stout Infantfish doesn't take much exercise.
     The Stout Infantfish spends long days thinking.
     The Stout Infantfish doesn't want to be a couch fish.
     The Stout Infantfish orders an exercise bicycle.
           (from 'Stout Infantfish')

Most of the poetry I really enjoy reading these days isn't anything like that of Simon Williams but I
do enjoy his work (especially when he reads it live) and admire his technical accomplishments. I'm also slightly envious of his ability as an entertainer.

Alan Morrison aims his sights high as a poet, not in the sense of having an overweening ambition, but this substantial collection - hard on the trail of his recent masterpiece
Captive Dragons -  is ambitious, in its serious intent and in its unrelenting formal and emotional majesty. He's a furious powerhouse of a poet and   we're very lucky to have him. His work really ought to be more widely appreciated than I suspect it is.

As with his all previous poetry and prose, for that matter, Morrison comes at it with a mix of attitude and rare political robustness of purpose while also celebrating the artistic achievements of those he admires and acknowledges, often those, one has to say, who have little enough recognition in the wider world. So while we have talk of Eliot and Strindberg, Auden, Orwell, Swedenborg, Bergman and Plath, there are also the unknowns and disregarded (including the little-known English poet Howard Mingham - briefly reviewed above) who find a place in his epic narratives, great blocks of solid text which look good on the page and which entice you into their depths.

The book is divided into two sections - the first
The Tall Skies (De Hoga Himlarna, in Swedish) relates to Swedish literary/artistic/political matters and also with Morrison's visits to Sweden and his admiration for the Swedish way of doing things. His partner, Matilda Persson, is Swedish and this partly explains the connection. Section two, Blaze a Vanishing, deals with business closer to home and is as ambitious and information fuelled as The Tall Skies. In fact, it's the combination of an almost obsessive grasp of information and wide vocabulary, allied to an emotionally charged yet analytically coherent thrust that makes his work so readable and so intriguing. Alan Morrison is clearly a sensitive soul but one who knows how to assert himself and to tell a story with confidence and grace, even when that story runs counter to prevailing 'wisdom'. This is a skill that may be well worth cultivating in the dark times ahead. There's also plenty of angst here though, an element which, surprisingly perhaps, feeds his poetry and projects outwards in an energetic 'blaze' of driven emotion.

This section from 'Autumn Cloudberries', which deals in part with the psychology and work of the filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, gives some indication of the flow and intensity of Morrison's work:

     Sensitised. Nerve-strained. Ghostly. Disembodied from
     Sensation, taste, sight, sound. When everything seems unreal,
     Yet unbearably profound. Glutinously sublime. When
     Objects throb with insoluble symbolisms obsessing our eyes
     By what our souls project in them: tortuous mouldings we bore
     Into their bossages. When every moment whittles us
     To stooping pallbearers. It's then we must remember autumn
     Cloudberries: glimpse them in the unprotected warmth
     Of thawing smiles. Study them. Peer into their close ambers.
             (from 'Autumn Cloudberries VI')

Or this section from 'Blaze a Vanishing', which adapts the opening from
Richard the Third for its furious onslaught:

     Now in the Autumn of our welfare state, razed to rubble
     By this Tory torch, at the last chewed-up fag-end
     Of the Grasping Age, a decade of austerity stretches
     Its talons to claw at scuttling mice; cheat a generation
     Of beginners from the chance to prove themselves on the page,
     Cut those first collections and compete for further passports
     To posterities - ....

     Ostracised from trimming mainstreams; ignored by apparatchiks
     Of poetry as special privilege. ....
              (from' XII. The Casual Angels')

There's a comparison to be made with Barry MacSweeney here, in full splenetic ranting mode, yet Morrison's poetry is also filled with pleasurable wordplay, a wide range of subject matter, celebration, attack and an intensity of approach, which combines the playful with the angst-ridden in a detailed, encyclopaedically informed onward flow. There are times when he goes over the top a bit and this is excusable but I find his work very appealing and full of interest - rare and precious in the best possible sense. This collection has a fantastic cover image too.


Catherine Wagner's work could exist in an alternative universe to that of Alan Morrison yet I warmed to it after a first reading, which proves, I think, that it's perfectly possible to enjoy and engage with utterly different kinds of poetry with a little re-orientation. Her work is upbeat, brassy (to use a good old-fashioned word), quick-witted and inventive and often embraces a sort of 'sing song' rhythm, which has both charm and intensity. It seems at one moment 'throw away' and immediate then upon reflection, considered, sharp and steely. She's one smart writer and once you've got some sort of take on her 'thought-flow' you begin to enjoy the game and yet can't avoid being aware of the seriousness of her project.

The page layouts of this substantial collection aid the overall reading experience - this is a beautifully designed book - as the following sections from 'Roaring Spring' might suggest:

     3
     Tell yourself in the world
     “The handle of it was blue”
     sky and who grabs it?

     Black-capped chickadee

     the lilac is BLOOMING

           
     Oh let's play with cuntent. Oh let's play with firm.

     “Lyric insertion”

     “Look into thy heart and write”


     7
     A fly! on the window. The
     daff. leaves
     up.

     I'd better go.
                       
     “Heathcliff, draw back your bow”
              (from 'Roaring Spring')

If you're lucky enough to hear her read live you'll be entertained by a further dimension to her performance. Mercurial, playful, intense and focussed.

I'm not a Jungian and although I can understand the attraction of Jung's work for a lot of people I still find Freud's writing more interesting and potentially a lot more liberating. Sophia Wellbeloved does seem to operate within a 'Jungian paradigm', although she also appears to have been influenced by the riddling, allusive fiction of Borges and this is probably what makes her poetry interesting. While I can see a didactic intent within the arguments, fables and meandering notations of Praying for
Flow, I did find some of the actual writing interesting, stylistically and, at times, in terms of the ways she deals with the question of technology overload. Not at all what I suspect Andrew Duncan has in mind but there's a lyrical dreaminess about some of these pieces which I found quite stimulating and attractive:

            In the sky
            the swifts are hurling themselves into
            pulsing swerving contractions and expansions
            exposing the currents of air, and also their
            own mysterious incomprehensible selves
            churning separately and together.
(from  'And in my Flesh
...')

We could get into a spot of bother about what the terms 'mysterious' and 'incomprehensible' might be suggesting here but I prefer to let it go because I enjoyed the overall feel of the piece. Or we could take the following extract:

     Since then I've learned that extremely
     charming people often have slightly
     deformed consciences,
     being free of doubt or guilt,
     they are pleasingly light and free
     they take
     what they want and are
     comfortingly relaxed
            (from 'Senseless in the Empyrean'
)

Again, we may be talking 'archetypes' or perhaps Wellbeloved is simply making a value-judgement based on experience, something it's harder to argue with. There's a lightness of touch here and elsewhere which has a magnetic pull which is difficult to resist so the best thing to do is go with the flow and enjoy the ride. This isn't really the sort of material I usually go for but there is perception here and she has a great facility for 'storytelling', pulling in material from all over the place, which makes for an enticing first read. I'm not sure that this poetry would sustain my interest on a re-reading but I certainly enjoyed skipping through this book and there were moments when I had to pause for thought.

     © Steve Spence 2013