isness and notness
Notness - Sonnets, Richard Berengarten (92pp, £9.95, Shearsman)
Dark Islands, Tom Chivers
(60pp, £12, Test Centre)
Careful What You Wish For,
Peter Sansom (63pp, £9.99, Carcanet)
Richard Berengarten's output remains prolific and this new
collection of poetry comprises 100 sonnets which were composed between 1967
and 2013. 'Notness', as Berengarten points out in the Afterword, is an
anagram of Sonnets and the play in these poems between 'isness' and
'notness', while suggesting a 'never-ending dance' also touches on the
metaphysical aspect of Berengarten's work, suggested by the subtitle. A few
of these poems are based on those by Serbian, Greek and Croatian writers,
which hints at Berengarten's international perspective, and are split into a
number of sections which give a general 'subject area'. While you could say
his themes are of universal concern these poems are also very much those of
an individual and there certainly appears to be an element of confessional
purpose in these powerful pieces. Take the following poem, for example:
I longed for
I longed for
fame. It would not be bestowed
nor will -
till dead - if then - of that I'm sure.
But I'll walk
on unswerving though obscure
traveller on the shimmering road
ash behind us. Hopes that glowed
before me hereby I abjure
and all the
lovely outlines whose allure
by ways and
waysides jarred me where they flowed.
jangling images! You blurred
lines of the way I had no choice
but track and
follow to the brimming rim
of now, in flood. Listen - a dull brown bird
song out on spontaneous voice
sky. What impulses fire him?
(from 'A Discipline')
It's a familiar theme and Berengarten is highly attuned to the traditions
whereby the emotional intensity of the writing is working against (and with)
the formal device of the poem. You can certainly feel Shakespeare and Keats
in this writing, in the lyrical beauty of the lines but there's also a more
modern tendency within his work which allows for the continuation of
tradition, something which I think is very important in Berengarten's work as
a whole. It's possible, even, to interpret the 'argument' of the text as
being between tradition and modernity - '…I had no choice / but track and
follow to the brimming rim / of now, in flood', as well as dealing with the paradox of consciousness and
the desire for an intuitive beauty 'unsullied' by the power of thought. If
it's difficult to broach such 'metaphysical' questions in a contemporary
setting, Berengarten is certainly the man to do it, even if, as implied again
in the Afterword, he does so not from a position of 'an expert in philosophy'
but as a questing individual in search of meaning - 'Others more adept at
quieting this buzzing mind will know a good deal more about this than I do.'
This is a cracking collection of poetry which gives an insight into Richard
Berengarten's engagement with the sonnet form over a long period and if
you've not come across his work before this is a good place to start. The
cover typography is very stylish.
Tom Chivers' new collection - Dark Islands - has strong dystopian overtones, hinting at both
the work of Iain Sinclair and J.G. Ballard and also tipping its cap towards
the late Ken Smith in his magnificent (now vintage), London-based,
on-the-run epic, Fox Running.
This is both a celebration and a critique of the city, combining the buzz of
digital culture with a dark foreboding and a sense of colonial history which
is coming home to roost. History is ever-present as the text combines
imaginative projections with passages of description and there's a witty edge
to the writing which at times feels like a parody of hard-boiled detective
fiction. There's a sense of speed and movement about the whole project which
both excites and disturbs and also a questing desire for some sense of
stability, even certainty, amid the transient noise and menace. Chivers' writing
has a 'self-awareness' which plays with genres and storytelling in a very
contemporary manner but rarely in a way which feels intrusive or awkward:
On the fifth
day we sailed our frozen island out
shipping lanes. We counted all the evil things
and cast them
in an ice hole. They were only numbers.
On the fourth
day we opened high-yield savings accounts.
camps were fast becoming commuter towns
the crater. Jets of steam were seen from the tor.
On the day
before the first day we fell into geometry
children. The sky was a chemical peel.
alone and restlessly through the shipping news.
ii. The Event')
Historical figures merge with direct observation, often in amusing asides, as
in - 'Boozy Boudicca has lost her brassiere / on bonus day in Cornhill' -
from 'iv. The Bells'. The references are wide and multicultural, the writing
busy and penetrating, combining thought-flow with observation and domestic detail.
Every so often you come across a line of arresting lyricism, as in 'Poplar
Gut', where we get this - '…vapour or cloud or both leaking / like a thread
of silver mucus in the upturned basin of the sky.'
There's a wide erudition and a mass of information enclosed in these
intermingling texts where narrative structures are interspersed with more
fractured writing and where humour jostles with self-observation. Make of
this what you will:
The urban fox
darts from beneath the Telford Homes boarding,
turns towards me in the middle of Old Castle Street,
eyes glowing in the darkness like the eyes of Iain Sinclair.
This is a collection to dip into, to go back to and to think about, though
there are more immediate pleasures to be had and I suggest reading it through
quickly as an initial strategy. Dark Islands is presented as a pocket edition with the type
reversed white out of black and it looks and feels splendid.
I haven't read much of Peter Sansom's work before and I
felt a curious resistance before I actually approached these poems but I have
to say that I warmed to them on a first reading even though the sort of
poetry he writes is not the kind of poetry I most like. I was immediately
struck by the poem 'Instead of Going to Work', which beautifully encapsulates
those feeling of guilt and avoidance and the mood of 'anxious ennui' which
can surround the process of 'bunking off' and make the stolen time a ruinous
occasion. I don't say that I agree with the sentiment, or apparent moral
underlying the poem but the evocation is perceptive and convincing, even down
to the closing lines which effectively underwrite the whole text:
I should be
doing more with the day
than the nothing
I did instead of going to work.
This is the kind of 'closure' which I often find myself objecting to but it
works here, in the context of this poem, and I find myself admiring its
In 'Claim to Fame' we are given the scenario of the protagonist (I'm assuming
though I know I'm not supposed to, that this is an 'autobiographical' poem)
playing tennis with Ken Dodd, an arresting idea, and once again it works
because of the unexpected nature of the narrative - 'He was witty, I didn't
expect that, / and the only person he sent up was himself.' The poem is
written from the perspective of a teenager playing tennis with an older man
(Ken Dodd) and then the scene is 'repeated' when both the players are older:
And when we played again
he wasn't a
day older. Not a day. But you know
how it goes.
Five sets, then three,
years, then a knock-up base-line
time. He said he didn't owe
Revenue a penny
lived by the sea.
'Claim to Fame')
I've just had the thought that if this poem is/was 'a fiction' in the sense
that the supposed factual element of the narrative was an invention, would it
be a lesser poem? I think not but it's an interesting question nonetheless.
'Nocturne/Reading Festival', includes some effective nostalgia which
references 'Yes', 'The Magic Band' and Soft Machine' and works, I think,
because of the manner in which Sampson integrates his own reflections into
the generality of the event. It's an interesting point because so much
writing 'in this vein' doesn't work because the reader gets terminal boredom
a quarter of the way through the poem and either wants to nod off or to
drastically rewrite or edit the text. As I said before this isn't my
favourite kind of poetry but I did enjoy reading these poems because they
mainly work well and have interesting stuff in them. The two longer poems -
'Diary of a Night in Matlock Bath' and 'Sofa', are more rambling and
discursive but they still manage to retain the reader's interest throughout.
'Lava Lamp' hints at a more experimental form of verse (slightly e.e.
cummings, so not exactly contemporary!) and 'On Ian Macmillan Avenue'
comments on popular culture (perhaps an oblique reference to 'Abbey Road' in
the opening lines - 'In PART ONE, a neighbour climbs in / the kitchen window
with the Thatcher Years again.') with a passing reference to Martin Stannard
as Lord Byron and 'Hinge and Brackett at the Town Hall.'
This isn't the sort of poetry which really gives me that 'pleasure rush' but
it is authentic and effective and well worth reading if you're in the right
mood. Good stuff.
© Steve Spence 2015