Books by their covers

 
Nation
, William Rowe (66pp, £8.00, Knives Forks & Spoons Press)
Motherboard
, Juliet Troy (55pp, £8.00, Knives Forks & Spoons Press)
Tones Fled All
, Mark Goodwin & Julia Thornley
   (28pp, no price given, Leafe Press)
Choosing New Omens
, Rebecca Bilkau (18pp, £5.00, Wayleave)
 

It's an old saw - and a truism - that one shouldn't judge a book by its cover. One is, however, perfectly justified in judging a book by its cover price, and the £8.00 apiece that Knives Forks & Spoons Press are asking for Rowe and Troy's collections is pretty steep, particularly given that their publication was subsidised by Arts Council/Lottery money.
 
At the risk of sounding bitchy, Rowe's collection almost makes a case for being judged by its cover. Title and author are commensurate with the standard portrait aspect cover design for a book; the image, a horribly reproduced black & white photograph, is landscape. In other words, the image is offset at 180° to the lettering. Troy is better served by a striking and enigmatic cover image and less obtrusive lettering. Neither have any favours done to them by the blocky typesetting. Certainly Troy's use of longer lines would have been better served by a font size two points smaller.
 
What of the poetry itself? Early on in Nation
, the six-page 'index' presents a list of retail outlets and street names bookended with indifferent blocks of verse. It's easy to divine that Rowe is working towards a comment on the soulless homogeny of zero-hours commercialism, but the technique is unimaginative and the misspellings of McDonalds and Bang & Olufsen suggest that this is a retail landscape experienced second hand rather than a product of the poet's own immersion and observations.
 
That said, Nation
then immediately offers up 'learning to learn', a poem of precise and controlled intensity which signals the first indication that Rowe's “voice” is beginning to cohere. 'rough work' continues the good work, the poem itself held together by
 
            a glue so simple it sticks
            memory to good intention with
            ideas of repair
 
And when Rowe foregoes length for distillation, things get better still. 'found event' establishes connections between the police state and the complicity/voyeurism of social media in just six lines, while 'Stefan George' functions on an impressionistic level and makes good use of negative space. There is still a certain amount of apprentice work interspersing these highlights, but Rowe ends the collection on with his best piece: 'growth' binds observation, imagination and the harder-than-it-looks conversational style of the best American poets:
 
            the three black fans at the back of
            some London buses, which you can
            see from the top deck of another
            bus, have a sinister look, they seem
            to be looking back at you.
            functionally, if you think about it,
            rationally, they must have to do
            with ventilation in hot weather, but
            what is the function of the function?
 
From this beginning, Rowe unspools a fantasia on the sinister implications of everyday - perhaps even overlooked - objects. Nation
is best considered as a collection-long trying out of ideas and styles; however its final salvo looks forward, confidently, to Rowe's future works.
 
Juliet Troy's Motherboard
is an intensely passionate collection, railing against the offences of modernity against the natural world. Troy's poems add up to a sustained j'accuse that finds humankind resoundingly guilty of greed, corporationism and disinterest; only motherhood is offered by way of mitigation. Frustratingly, though, Motherboard fluctuates between two voices. One is that of a poet in full control of her subject matter, able to craft piercingly direct turns of phrase which are shot through with empathy and experience:
 
            It is vast and shapeless and aching    it is a leaning to
            and a longing for things past   it is a full hour of crying
            on Friday before Christmas ...
                                    [from 'Wombs']
 
            ... as we walk slowly back a bird of prey keels down
            low overhead and lets out an eerie call   it is nearly
            Christmas and the world is a flock of fading red and
            blue balloons ...
                                    [from 'For a child']
 
The other voice is that of an experimentalist slamming words together in a sequence of page-long Hadron Colliders, a technique that sometimes sparks intriguing juxtapositions and always strives to find connections, but more often results in great blurts of sesquipedalia: “homogenous spirographically resonant flower heads” [from 'Lawn'], “endocytosis exocytosis endoplasmic / reticulum” [from 'Sublittoral zones']; and all too frequently throws up the kind of tautologies that an editor's blue pencil should have excised in the early stages of the manuscript: “bituminous macadam”, “fenced and boundaried lots”, “a pointillist mass  moving dot / concentration”, “smudge of grease smear on the lens”. Elsewhere, phrases in French, Flemish and a teeth-gritting attempt at Jamaican patois overload the poems with something very close to pretentiousness.
 
At her best, Troy proves that direct language, elegantly applied, trumps verbosity every time. The lesser poems in Motherboard
disappoint purely because her overarching theme, her aesthetic and intellectual purpose, is so damned important. Her message is one that needs to be shouted from the rooftops; screamed into the faces of those who have a mandate to take action. It's a message that needs to throw off the trappings of artiness and announce itself purposefully.
 
Landscape and its ruination by profiteers and industry is also central to Mark Goodwin and Julia Thornley's Tones Fled All
. Goodwin's section comprises an introductory poem in which he discusses, in visceral (even scatological), terms the unexpected inspiration of Peter Riley's poetry during a visit to St Peter's Church in Alstonefield, followed by a long poem “by a Mark Goodwin, being a gleaning from some of a Peter Riley's poetry”. The use of the indefinite article posits that Goodwin is less concerned with identity than the importance of the poetry itself.
 

Goodwin's technique is similar to Troy's in that he uses splintered language to reforge connections between words, images and ideas; the difference is that Goodwin has a keener sense of how this works. His lines are sparse, his lineations jagged.
 
            slight river
            & white held
            a wind meta
            -phrase belongs
            to the heart
            stone's river-prose
                        [from 'Fields All Stone']
 
            hill half &
            groaning land more
            profit easier our
            hurts not over
            -tones
                        [from 'Fields All Stone']
 
Goodwin's gleaning of Riley is followed, in six admirably terse poems, by Thornley's gleaning of both of them. The effect is a metatextual reassessment of an already difficult piece. Thornley sets her stall out in her opening poem, 'Disgested Read', which I quote here in full:
 
            a poet retraces
            a fellow poet's
            footsteps to
            St Peter's churchyard
 
            sheltering
            from
            a summer downpour
 
            he writes of
            memory & loss
            change & permanence
 
But there's more to Thornley's contribution than simply a bridging of aesthetic gaps between Riley and Goodwin; she's an excellent poet in her own right, and understands the power of the medium to capture the effervescence of the natural world.
 
            freewheel between graves & grass
           
a world absolutely beautiful as raindrops
            races beneath a sheltering beech
                        [from 'Memories unwritten']
 
Gifted with an evocative cover photograph by Nikki Clayton and no condescending back cover blurb - in fact no back cover blurb at all - to soothe the reader into what is never less than a gnarly and challenging piece of work (what my father would call a “put your thinking cap on job”), Tones Fled All
embodies the rigorous intellectualism and commitment to artistry that are the hallmarks of Leafe Press's publications.
 
Like the other collections considered here, Rebecca Bilkau's Choosing New Omens
is rooted in a sense of place: the experience of a new life in Germany following her marriage to a native German. Linguistic and cultural differences reconcile in Bilkau's empathetic and sensitive verses, but it's the weight of the past that haunts this pamphlet.
 
                                                Slowly the name
            translates itself into sense. An eternity of mourners
            must find open doors, open language here
            where fact shatters speech.
                        [from 'On Not Going to Bergen-Belsen']
 
Bilkau pinpoints this as a moment of division in their marriage (“I pull my hand / back from Michael's attempted squeeze”), the vast distance of generations like a barrier between them until realisation reconciles:
 
                                                My husband rests
            his head on the steering wheel. He's been guilty
            as sin since before he was conceived. Has never
            known inculpability
                                                since he could read.
            Like the wife whose own post-colonial guilt is the cringe
            of history under the bloody carpet.
 
Elsewhere, Bilkau reaches further back into Germany's history, wittily rewriting folk tales of the Middle Ages ('A Novice Holds Her Peace and Sews, Klocksin, Mecklenberg, circa 1299') or sympathetically imagining hardscrabble working class lives ('A Silver Miners' Toy, circa 1846'). But the present always returns her to considerations of birthplaces and belonging; of travel and transience. In 'My Continent of Rain', the planting of a new garden leads to thoughts of immigration and the putting down of roots
 
                                                ... and it's clear
            every border is every place I've ever thrown
 
            a seed; London, Belfast, and very best
            from my beloved north west, every place
            turning hallowed now they are floating memories.
 
Choosing New Omens
 is simply but elegantly presented; the appealing cover image by Mike Barlow is a good match for the keen and detailed perspectives on offer within. If I were being as bitchy as I was at the beginning of this review, I might carp about how pricey £5.00 is for 18 pages of poetry, but when the poetry's this good it's a moot point.
 
    © Neil Fulwood 2016