Baker, Bentley Briggs

all this air and matter, Alan Baker (Oystercatcher)
Largo, Paul Bentley (Smith/Doorstop)
Rain Rider, David Briggs  (Salt)

Alan Baker's poetry embraces both the lyrical and the phenomenological in this new publication from the excellent Oystercatcher Press. There's a speculative approach to the new day, both ordinary and 'out of this world', a sense of anxiety induced partly by the intrusion of the media and its tabloid worldview, balanced here by an openness to the 'natural world' - lots of birds, both known and unknown. The world is both a place of calm and retreat and a place of chaos and disorder where bad politics seems to prevail. Yet Baker's celebration of the here and now, aided by his speculative musings and exploratory lyrical phrasing, achieve a kind of victory over the daily round. His work reminds me of Lee Harwood's, where those quiet spaces have what I can only describe as a kind of secular spiritual quality, magically lyrical yet cognitively tough and combative. This may be lyric poetry but there's nothing fey or insubstantial about it, in fact it's a place where thoughts and feelings are articulated together in a splendid 'duality'. Take this section, for example:

            should it be the sign of something more
            when the square of sunlight on the hall floor
            takes shape again at dawn?

            should the trees behind the house
            be more persuasive?
            should the words 'star' and 'breeze' be ours?
            or 'siren' and 'motorcade'?

            let the TV news in the next room come to an end
            let the police car be a police car
            let the trees behind the house go
            let the questions go

            let go the siren, the TV, the motorcade and the breeze

This is poetry which is 'about language' while also retaining a connection to the real 'real world' and it's excellent stuff. The cover artwork and elegant but unfussy design keeps the standard high.

Paul Bentley's collection Largo, is prefaced by two quotations, the first from an interview with Margaret Thatcher by the late commentator Brian Walden in 1983, and the other a passage from Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a powerful lament for the enforced demise of the North American Indians. Both passages deal with the notion of 'Victorian Values' and set the scene for part one of this short collection - 'The Two Magicians' - which deals with the period of the 1984-85 Miner's Strike. Bentley's autobiographical sketches mix in references to popular music from the time with elements from the conflict involved in the dispute, family loyalties, sexual adventures and frequent references to fishing. There are extracts from natural history publications and histories of the strike which are used as prefacing quotations and are thus integrated into the text. It's an intriguing mix of materials which embraces both a form of realism and a sort of 'super-realism' which creates an effective discourse of mayhem and confusion, Kes meets surrealism perhaps, and I mean that as a compliment. It's both gritty but upbeat and assertive, full of life and the 'smells and sounds' of a particular time and place, heightened by the form and juxtaposition of the materials:

            Dark again. A flash of light showing -
              a silver gleam, now a silver voice
            resolving itself to Sandie Shaw
              on Top of the Pops with the Smiths.
            For the good life is out there somewhere,
            So stay on my arm you little charmer...
            Mum laughing - barefoot at her age,
              all in leather. Dissolving into mist.

            A window cracks from time to time -
              Scab! Scab! Scab! Scab! Kev Robinson's sister
            pulling her curtains aside. Oh bide, lady, bide.
              The chant repeated, night after
            night after night. The enemy within
            the enemy within.
            A dark house. Empty now. Her eyes meet mine -
              something deepening, widening, in our stare.
                                        (from 'Two Musicians

There's a blend of psychology and sociology here, aided by the aftermath of a 60's culture, mired in conflict and enforced poverty. The title of this piece probably relates to the folksong of the same title. Those who lived through this period and felt themselves to be in opposition to the prevailing power in the land may recall the phrase 'the enemy within' with something akin to horror.

The short title poem,
Largo, mixes a reference to Dvorak's 9th Symphony - '(the Hovis music to you and me)' - with football references, and the final piece 'Barnsley Abu (a postcard to Paul Muldoon)', prefaced with a quotation about psycho-geography by Ian McMillan, also includes football references which pass me by, I'm afraid, not being a fan of the beautiful game. That said, this is an intriguing collection which combines bluntness with a multi-layered complexity and reminds me, in both form and content, of the fiction of David Peace.

It's taken me some time to properly engage with and indeed, to warm to, David Briggs' poetry but I think I'm getting there. His mix of playfulness and exotic erudition, combined with both traditional and modern poetic tropes make for an intriguing read, even when I'm not always sure of where 'he's coming from'. He reminds me, to a degree, of Ian Duhig, though Duhig is clearly a more anti-establishment, 'oppositional' writer than Briggs appears to be - this is an observation, not a criticism.

One of the pieces that first took my attention in Rain Rider was 'My Rival', a poem which effectively deals with the notion of 'factional in-fighting among poets.', and, by extension the themes of reputation and ambition among writers. I can recall reading Clive James' poem 'The Book of My Enemy has been Remaindered' which had a typically Jamesian show-off, up-front facetiousness to it. Briggs' piece is more measured, genuinely amusing and in its final lines has a degree of emotional credibility, whereas in the James poem this feels forced and aiming for 'effect' -'When people learn I write poetry/they tell me I 'absolutely must read' my rival's poems'. Briggs is not always as restrained. In 'No Prisoners', which I take to be an autobiographical poem relating to the wanton destruction of a sandcastle replica of Wells Cathedral made on the beach by his father, the final lines are intemperate and have that genuine force of justified revenge:

            When the revolution comes, I'll have them
            buried to their chins in the sand,

            expunged slowly from the horizon
            by a merciless, incoming tide.
                                    (from 'No Prisoners')

The title poem - beautifully illustrated by the unnerving cover photograph, incidentally - combines a straightforward evocation of a natural event - a rainstorm which appears at speed - 'a drum roll/on snares, across furrowed counterscarps,/coming at pace.' - with something more magical and otherworldly. Briggs' use of alchemical and hermetic traditions to invoke and evoke transcendent states is often at odds with a more modern, sceptical stance which appears here, and the dramatic effects of this are at the heart of what I find most interesting in his work so far.

'Test Card -
for Angus Wolf', is a good example of Briggs' interest in science and the 'magic' it creates and is, I assume, a homage to the young girl - Carol Hersee - who appeared as a fixed image on TV before the days of 24-hour programming. It's a neat idea for a poem and one which manages to sustain itself throughout, unlike many 'good ideas' which should remain one-liners from the start:

            just as the plug's livewire must always be brown;
            you, my pixellated playmate,
            who ceased to liaise at the old rendezvous -
            between the highlights and downtime,
            at the junction of hope
            of modernity.
                                    (from 'Test Card')

His other impressive 'homage' poem in this collection - 'When Sam Beckett' includes the wonderful lines:

            But when Sam Beckett played piano, it was Debussy, in the
            dark - hunchbacked, planting chords in a row, seeding the
            room with tears.

As I've said before, Briggs has a knack for 'arresting openings'. In 'The Fear' we get this:

            A lifting of the scales
            and I see my brother
            for the putative cannibal he is;

Which moves towards a finale which evokes both
Titus Andronicus and the ending of Peter Greenaway's deliciously dark satirical film, The Cook, The Thief, his Wife and Her Lover:

            Just promise me this:

spitroast me no longpigs;
            eat neither ears, hands, genitals or feet;
            forego the side plate of crackling.
                                    (from 'The Fear')

Briggs' references are wide-ranging - he's clearly as concerned with films, art and music as he is with literature. There's much more of interest here - 'The Bridge', with its deep existential suggestiveness, for example, and 'Resolution', which sets up an intriguing dialectic between different forms of intelligence (the 'jack-of-all-trades' Renaissance Man, opposing a more narrow, very modern form of focus); also a series of poems related to the idea and the mythology of The Fool, which appear at various points. This is a short collection but it's a good one and, once again, I look forward to seeing Briggs' next book - I'm not sure where he's going to go next.

             Steve Spence 2013