Never Sitting Still for Long

Her Various Scalpels
, Sophie Mayer (84pp, £8.95, Shearsman)
Chrysalis in the Desert
, Wendy Saloman (99pp, £8.95, Shearsman)
The Land Between,
Wendy Mulford (60pp, £7.50,Reality Street)
The Size of A Human Dream
, Ralph Hawkins (Skald)

The diversity of poetry in these four titles is truly indicative of the range of British poetry, though you wouldn't realise if all you read were the catalogues of Faber & Faber and the mainstream presses, all of whom seem to sound the same. Take the poetry of Sophie Mayer: a collection much influenced by the cinema and film theory that nevertheless manages to avoid most of the cliches of the film-poem. Instead, its use of montage and cutting creates a space for the film to happen in the reader's mind. There are, in fact, ‘Two Scenarios for Short Films’, including ‘You Are Here’, where a city becomes a glacier, but where it works best is in a poem like ‘Imagine/Arm’ where a single sentence pans from outside to inside, from landscape to a glitterball:

Open calls to open, geographically: draw a longitude and there – in a
snowstorm of light – she sings to the glitterball.

This vertiginous quality is all over this collection, from poems about cities real and imagined (every city is half-imagined anyway) to poems that connote actual films. This is a fine collection and I can't say I didn't get lost at times among the images, but in a good way, in a “I'll have to read that again” way.

Wendy Saloman is a very different kind of poet, one with a keen sense of history as well as a strong lyric gift. The history in particular is the history of the Jews throughout the centuries, especially its history of persecution and pain. This makes for a very melancholic poem, and sometimes one rather overloaded with images of the sands of time and yearning. However, on the whole, these poems deal with their melancholic subject with gravitas and dignity appropriate for their subjects:

…A figure in the wind
resolute in sanctity of twilight
you cross bridges scattered with images
turning over an over
to truth of a river
roughed-up – querulous as Job –
remembering that hour estranged from itself…
(‘Chrysalis in the Desert’)

It’s a sonorous music, much influenced I suspect by the Psalms and the poetry of the Old Testament, and it’s difficult to pull off this kind of language in an age when poetry tends largely to the demotic; but on the whole she pulls it off with great skill, if not with a great deal of humour. But then it’s not a humorous subject.

Wendy Mulford is another kind of poet all together. A poet as influenced by the wide-open spaces of American Black Mountain poets such as Charles Olson as Wendy Saloman is influenced by European Jewish writers such as Celan, this is nevertheless a book informed by grief. The central sequence, titled simply ‘poems 2008’, seems to be speaking to an unnamed other who is no longer here. This is not, however, the grief of a whole race over centuries, but a very ordinary, personal, modern bereavement, where language nevertheless breaks:

Skin-fingering toe-crawling bedside blankness
underneath the unwanted world admonishing
someone wet your cheek someone offered refreshment
the handhold’s gone there’s no cocktail to buy
one last light.
snap. trap. darkness. Your dying was robbed you.
(‘Crumbling pence, ebbing tide’)

On either side of these poems, however, are poems with a more positive spin on the world. ‘China I Am’ is like a series of brush strokes, with images and impressions of a visit to China, and the final section contains more general poems with varying subject matter that show a poet constantly open to new experience and new ways of expressing the world. She’s a veteran of the 70s’ poetry wars, but these are not the supposedly difficult puzzles some might expect from poets of that era (who were never as difficult as they were made out to be anyway) just good, open-hearted poetry from a major woman poet neglected by the mainstream.

The last of this group, a small pamphlet by Ralph Hawkins, is also the only collection with any real humour in it. I don’t know if this is to do with his being the only man in the bunch, but he tends not to take himself quite as seriously as the other poets here. His poetry is rapid, shifting, somewhat drunken and yet beautifully timed, with a comedian’s panache:

Once upon a time there was an Ugly Bear
There were three of them
The Ugly Fruit resides in the bathroom next to Oil of Ulay and Pond’s Cream
Have you seen an Ugly Bear naked, naked and bare
There they sit at the porridge table
On baby chairs and baby stools
All far too big for them
(‘The Dream of Gerontius’)

which is like an ordinary domestic scene viewed through a distorting mirror. It might seem trivial beside the somber tones of the two Wendys, but this too has a vision of reality behind it, more anarchistic, more jump cut but no less intense. This is an enjoyable short pamphlet that reveals a poet who never sits still for long before going on to the next sensation, but who nevertheless sees the world with a clear-eyed wonder and appreciation for its wonder. I wish there were more of it, and more poets like Ralph Hawkins in the world.

© Steve Waling 2009