Books by their covers
William Rowe (66pp, £8.00, Knives Forks & Spoons Press)
Juliet Troy (55pp, £8.00, Knives Forks & Spoons Press)
Tones Fled All,
Mark Goodwin & Julia Thornley
(28pp, no price given,
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
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
good intention with
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:
black fans at the back of
London buses, which you can
the top deck of another
a sinister look, they seem
looking back at you.
functionally, if you think about it,
rationally, they must have to do
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
longing for things past it is a full hour of crying
before Christmas ...
... as we
walk slowly back a bird of prey keels down
overhead and lets out an eerie call it is nearly
and the world is a flock of fading red and
[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
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.
a wind meta
[from 'Fields All Stone']
'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:
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.
between graves & grass
a world absolutely beautiful as
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
itself into sense. An eternity of mourners
open doors, open language here
[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
on the steering wheel. He's been guilty
since before he was conceived. Has never
since he could read.
wife whose own post-colonial guilt is the cringe
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
border is every place I've ever thrown
London, Belfast, and very best
beloved north west, every place
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