More complex stuff

fishing for beginners,
James Bell (tall lighthouse)
, Rhys Trimble (Cinnamon Press)
Chocolate Che
, Damian Furniss (Shearsman)

I passed over these poems the first time I looked at them although hearing James Bell reading some of the material from his first collection recently gave me pause for thought. Bell himself says he knows little about fishing, which may well be true but the work in fishing for beginners has the feel of being written by someone who is very familiar with the estuarial river bank and the wildlife which lives there. It's easy at first to perceive these poems as fitting into a received pastoral theme, the kind of writing which is easy to parody and perhaps easy to write but there is a deceptive 'simplicity' at work here, where observation merges with un underlying melancholy which is nevertheless life-affirming in a strange way.

There's a sense of plain statement here which often belies a wry humour or a more serious, ought I to say philosophical, mode of writing which is very satisfying to read when you begin to familiarise yourself with Bell's tactics and approach:

     it is customary to throw the fish
                 the line - include bait at one end
                          hold the other - if nothing happens
     be assured the fish has not drowned
             (from 'fishing for beginners')

This is writing in the tradition of Thoreau's Walden,
rather than, say, Marvell's more metaphysical conceits, where an exploration of the 'natural world' is seen as an antidote to the ways of mankind and a working environment where time is a valuable commodity. Yet to state this so boldly is to miss the subtlety of Bell's work, which is more than a late-Romantic response to industrial/post-industrial society, which would be a clichˇ before it hit the page and very hard to pull off. Bell's observations set up a relationship between the watcher and the seen and also between language and world:

     you craved the river
     wanted the timelessness

     undisturbed by its wild
     by its calm - how time has passed
     since you saw water last

     revel in the heathen awe
     what is craved you realise can be close
     to craven, but thankfully too a haven
            (from 'craved')

Bell is a skilful lyricist, he uses rhyme carefully and is occasionally quite an experimenter, particularly in 'gossip round a river crown', where he develops a method of repetition which aids the flow of the piece. What comes across most about these fine poems is Bell's individual take on the world and his deceptively plain yet information-rich observations which make you think about matters anew. They are both attractive and strangely surprising when you get beneath the surface and it's certainly worth taking the effort to do so.

Rhys Trimble's poetry couldn't be more different than Bell's but is equally interesting in its own way. This is poetry saturated in modernist technique and history yet has, at times, an emotional thrust which propels the reader forward. Some of the more interesting contemporary Welsh poets - Lloyd Robson, Peter Finch and David Greenslade, for example - may have an awareness of Dylan Thomas and R.S. Thomas, but their work is more informed by avant-garde influences, American and European in the main. Trimble is a new name to me and one, who like Finch, at times, uses the Welsh language alongside English. While I have no semantic access to this, it certainly looks good on the page and complements some of the multi-syllabic words he utilises (Roger McGough isn't the only British poet influenced by e.e. cummings). It probably sounds wonderful read out loud. There are themes and subjects explored in these poems, from literary topics like Frank O'Hara to Welsh mythology but it's the texture and fractured nature of the texts which really appeals to me:

     last hum
     of acousticstring cadence
     on schoolchild's
     black hirsgwar

                                      metalruler welting

                                        prism of slate

You can see the influence of Barry MacSweeney on these lyrics, certainly one which Trimble acknowledges and it's good to see that this particularly creative seam hasn't finished in a dead-end. Trimble's work looks good on the page and his mix of expressive word-play, strange lyric fragments - suggesting subjects not explored in more conventional sentences - also hint at Maggie O'Sullivan, whose work I suspect he's familiar with.

In the Noisy Sounds
, we get:

                                          lupine stance
     she-night and wet
     with afterdrink
     with soapy smoke
     veneers of
     headlights, panels, wolfgod in

     lupus homo hominis

                  the smell
     of premeditation


This work seems quite close to Lloyd Robson's in its mix of condensed language and narrative snippets, less cheerful and 'excessive' perhaps but it's good again to see the influence. Rhys Trimble is a poet whose work I'll be looking out for in the future.

Damian Furniss is a fantastic reader of his poetry and his work translates wonderfully to the page. The three sections relate to periods of travel, mainly in Cuba and in India, and the central selection - My White Ghosts - is comprised of poems inspired in various ways by painters and their work. Of the latter, I was particularly taken by 'Bacon Dust', where we get:

     The art connoisseur
     Will say 'Vintage stuff!'
     As he gets a nose
     of this fragrant muff,
     Snort it like coke
     Or sniff it like snuff,
     A line or a pinch -
     Pure bacon dust.

These are poems which generally scan and often rhyme in traditional ways and they are very satisfying to read or hear read out. Furniss has a knack of combining a sense of the 'importance' of his subject which an earthy injection of the frailties of the body and the dangers of romanticising. This is most evident in 'Che's Hands', a puzzling, riddling poem where he explores the notion of Che as martyr of the Cuban revolution:

     Che's grave is not Che's grave.
     And the bones in it are not Che's.
     And those photos of the dead Che
     as Christ, with the generals playing
     Romans, display neither Christ,
     nor Che, nor Romans. And his wounds
     are not wounds as we know them.

     And if you say that Che was a saint,
     You either did not meet that Che
     or you have never met a saint.

I can remember reading a piece by John Berger, years ago, suggesting the iconic links between the corpse of Che and that of Christ and while Berger in his own way is deeply involved in deconstructing images he comes from a very different place from Furniss. You get the feeling from reading these poems that Furniss is a poet who has seen a fair bit of the dark side of life and of death in his early travels around the world and his take on things has a more spiritual resonance. I admire this poem and what I take to be its 'argument', despite the fact that I still have a soft spot for Noam Chomsky and wish that American foreign policy really could become a force for good in the world.

Poems about paintings often 'miss the mark' but Furniss is an exception to that 'rule'. In particular his pieces on Egon Schiele and Edward Hopper capture something of the backdrop, the mood, the style and milieu of the respective painters:

     I can take lines for a wicked walk
     with my fingers, nibbed like quills;
     smear on swabs of colour with
     the pads of idle thumbs. ...
             (from 'Nip the Bud')

which manages both an amusing aside to Paul Klee and to express something of the 'disturbing meatiness' of Schiele's work.

                   Her flips the sign
     from open to closed, dims
     the lights, and dusk comes in
     from where the road merges
     with a smothering of trees.
             (from 'Gas,1940')

Hopper appears as the American equivalent of De Chirico, where the emptiness of the landscape has an ominous quality of its own and where people are marginal and their psychology goes unexplored. Road movies where the subject is the road.

There's a jaunty side to Furniss' work, expressed in taut rhythms and debunking relish:

     He wore a marzipan beret,
     Its insignia that rarity-
     A perfect star-shaped strawberry-
     To strip the comandante
     Who took the I from industry
     Of the badge that gave him dignity.
     They gagged him with a Cadbury's flake
     Imported by the C.I.A.
     And stretched him on a rack of cane
     Lashed onto a Chevrolet,
     Carved him up at Gitmo Bay
     With harvest blunt machetes-
            (from 'Chocolate Che')

The excess of the American Dream, a consumer glut inside a horror story like the final act of a Shakespearean tragedy. This is more complex stuff than it first seems and Damian Furniss has put together a collection that demands to be read and re-read. A triumph.

              © Steve Spence 2010