To the Lighthouse

Seventeen Horse Skeletons by Charlotte Runcie (18pp, £4, tall-lighthouse)
Your Own Devices by Richard O'Brien (19pp, £4, tall-lighthouse)
A Fictional Dress by Ailbhe Darcy (21pp, £4, tall-lighthouse)
The Stream by Simon Pomery (17pp, £4, tall-lighthouse)

Should young poets heed Virginia Woolf's advice not to publish before they reach thirty? Perhaps. Among other things - like the fact that there'll always be more pleasure in writing than seeing your name on the spine of some book - it comes down to whether a poet reckons their work's ready for publication, whether they think their poems have something to offer to readers, and a self-interrogation of their motives for doing so. Some think too much poetry's published, others say publish and be damned. Whatever the case, the rise of the poetry pamphlet in recent years has afforded fledgling poets the opportunity to, at least in part, side-step these questions. If committing to a full debut collection seems a step too far, the pamphlet offers an opportunity to test the waters; publishing a sampler with the hope of interesting readers.

Tall-lighthouse press's Pilot series, a venture which publishes pamphlets by British and Irish poets under thirty, set out from the beginning to offer young poets the opportunity to do just that. The four slickly produced volumes sat on my desk are the last in this series, and in their crisp, black, white and red binding, they at least look impressive. But their collectable feel and enticing cover images aside, are the poems inside actually any good?

Charlotte Runcie's
Seventeen Horse Skeletons is certainly a lively read. In the broadest sense, her theme is journeys, coupled with a fascination with the future's uncertainties; unsurprising for a poet just out of her teens. But Runcie's succinct lines steer her poems clear of daydreaming: the tone here, though not without feeling, is typically sharp and to-the-point, lending her poems a seeming purposefulness: 'Yes', begins opener 'The Seventh Winter', 'we've lost that many men to avalanche'. What follows is a study of insecurity: at the hands of the elements as it goes, but this snow, figured as a 'murderer' who has 'pushed his one white foot / into our house', could be any untameable force that impinges on, or even threatens, our lives. 'This is how it is with us', states the wearied narrator, 'We hold back snow with bones'.

If this is too grim or portentous or even faux-Plathean for some, the range of poems in
Seventeen Horse Skeletons - at least thematically speaking - is happily broad. Runcie has two main tricks up her sleeve. The first is a knack for vivid, sometimes original description, which keeps the reader interested even when the driving force behind her less persuasive poems seems to be description for description's sake. 'Glassblower' sees the eponymous speaker 'create and shape cages for tiny suns', while in 'Grotesque', the abnormality of two joined toes become painted 'Siamese showgirls, / bald heads inclined // in opposite directions, as if split / and mirrored, blinded / by a cherry sheen'. The second, more beguiling skill is Runcie's ability to take a predictable enough theme - the highs and lows of young love, say - and enliven it with an off-kilter perspective or, in some cases, by imaginative dislocation, historical or otherwise. Take 'Crossed', which replaces the archetypal thwarted lovers with 'marine biologists and astronauts', or 'Dating the Anglo-Saxon', a sonnet which shifts from humour to serious contemplation:

A clichŽ, but I took him to the fair,
and in between the whistling circus notes
he skimmed my shoulder, dusted off my coat
and murmured harp songs, shivering, to the air

that rippled back, reflected by the moon.
His breathing was off-beat, and harsh, and wet;
his hair was black and wild, his nose re-set.
He didn't call, but wrote to me in runes: [...]

Seventeen Horse Skeletons is a rich pamphlet, mixing the past and mythology with the present and the fantastical in poems which combine a familiar idiom with colourful imagery. Charon, Samson, even the mythical Selkie, a seal able to shed its skin and become human - it's a feat to fit this much into a short book, but in also recasting these characters, Runcie's lush imagination bodes well for her future writing.

The poems in Richard O'Brien's first pamphlet, Your Own Devices, are less observational and more reflective than Runcie's work. His interests aren't the palpably strange and otherworldly, but the complexities of everyday relationships. This poet's style may be loosely formal, but it is also baggy and freewheeling: the chatty and straight-talking voice of a smart and cynical twenty-something dominates which, when combined with the poems' rhythmical qualities, places him within the English male lyric tradition. Here are the opening stanzas of 'Hymn for the Cigarettes':

The girl I started smoking for
could polish off Coronas like Sambuca shots,
learnt how to drink from wild boys
gone feral after boarding school
who filled her head with drum'n'bass
and herbal cigarettes. (And what she gets
she wants, and what she wants she gets).

The girl I started smoking for
took off her clothes like someone
running for a train, and afterwards
lay down as if I'd tied her to the tracks -
and what she lacks in grace she papers up
with pace, unsubtle sudden storms.

The anecdotal style here owes a debt to Simon Armitage; the insouciant dealings with the subject matter of male-female relationships are perhaps closest to Roddy Lumsden; the autobiographical, quasi-confessional tone suggests the influence of Frank O'Hara. But while some readers will baulk at this kind of stuff - particularly those inclined to rubbish poetry which draws extensively on the poet's own life - everything boils down to how you put your subject matter to use, and O'Brien's combination of neat observation, attentive insight and occasional humour ('Feeling weak I slept in libraries. I drank - / sometimes I drank in libraries') tends to work well. 'Infinite Regress' is a formally-assured take on the personal corridors of memory, concealing its rhyme-scheme impressively; 'Alone with the Fish' draws a thought-provoking comparison between the displaced isolation of creatures in an aquarium and a young girl, missing out on life, who works there. There are also poems which reveal an interest in the slippery semantics of language ('Moses in Medieval Glass'; 'Session Voices') and some fairly imaginative pieces (in 'Chlorosis', a boy literally witnesses his 'hands turning into leaves'); evidence of a curious mind at work. At its best,
Your Own Devices is the pamphlet of a young man with a lot to say and a knack for saying it with wit and (aside occasions when certain poems lose their direction) economy. I look forward to a first full collection - on the proviso that, in a new phase of development, O'Brien outgrows the adolescent thoughts and themes that can sully his writing.

Ailbhe Darcy is the sort of poet who will attract attention for the same reasons that recent T.S. Eliot prize-winner Jen Hadfield has: her poems reveal a beguiling, sometimes baffling, yet unique slant on the world. Her debut pamphlet may go by the title A Fictional Dress, but these poems often seem an attempt to get at some form of hard truth, albeit a typically personal one. Take the opening lines of 'He tells me I have a strange relationship'

with my city. As though I were something divorced
from the skin I'm in, could scrap or elope with
my own tattooed scapula, pouting belly, saddle curve
of his palm's kiss.

But here's the vein on my left wrist
fat as Liffey; my right skinny
lost Dodder; slit,
they run murky and thick
with city. My left breast
thingmote, my right sugarloaf,
my throat a high and narrow pane, frogged
and pointed like a lancet.

This vivid transformation of body into city, veins as rivers and breasts as hills, is richly complex: at once celebrating Dublin in the poem's joyous list-making while hinting at the damaged history that city harbours ('slit, / they run murky and thick'; 'pointed like a lancet') both in the poet's own memory and in a wider social context. It is this kind of merging of the specific with the general that appears to similar effect in 'Crossing', where a bunch of kids' wide-eyed wonder at witnessing an Hungarian sword-swallowing act is contrasted with the otherwise mundane: 'The border police came and went [...] and we shared our compartment with a Romanian / coming home from a student union meeting in Prague'. Or at least contrasted to begin with: a little explanation, and the sword-swallowing act soon crosses the 'border' from spectacular feat to well-rehearsed trick. Things, the poem suggests, are never quite as they seem.

On such a showing, it is a shame that some of Darcy's other poems fail to convince. While her best work is intent on getting at as honest a perspective as possible ('Mrs Edgeway' is a powerful vignette on motherhood, marriage, and the path not taken), other pieces are clearly pa¤dded out with mystifying, albeit interesting, objects and images as if to lend them a sense of direction or symbolic purposefulness ('Breakfast with Braden' is an interesting sketch, by way of example, but the reader is left, as the poet elsewhere, 'trying to find some thing of substance'). But then a few duds are bound to be nestled in any pamphlet, and it must be said that Ailbhe Darcy is a young poet with a fairly distinctive voice and a knack for sustaining complex conceits. Read the darkly beautiful and restrained sequence '
Unheimlich', which views familial trauma through a storytelling lens, and you get an idea as to what this writer can do.

Last, but by no means least, Simon Pomery's The Stream is an accomplished first pamphlet of metaphysical verve and lyrical concision. Which is to say that, admirably, these poems do not strain after their effects, but in their unassuming music reveal a smart mind at work: no small feat for a poet still in his twenties. Here in full is 'Animus Mundi', one of a number of poems that draw on the epistles of the Roman philosopher Seneca:

The soul of the world abides.
It doesn't distinguish between
those born in town or country:

it makes its home in the wild sea,
the blur and seam of the horizon,
the cloud-racked firmament itself.

The space that separates the gods
from men unites them also, where stars,
like watchmen, sleep out in the open.

Like most of the best poetry, these lines display a hard-won clarity; managing to blend the everyday and the spiritual in a closing image which, for my money, is close to perfect. What's more, Pomery is just as good at combining complex reflection with linguistic precision when a poem's focus is less abstract and more observational. 'Eulalia' may open with a worldly visit to the eponymous cathedral, but our attention is drawn to something else entirely:

The petals fell
over a maze of lanes, my girlfriend, and the friend
I no longer wish to know,

over two women sharing a needle
as if at a picnic, on cloistered grass
by the Cathedral of Saint Eulalia,
as one of them dropped, flat on her back.

By the end of the poem, the woman has 'raised her arm skyward, like a maenad, or a saint', and what seemed an incongruous, even violent, comparison, serves to remind us of the tortures to which the Romans subjected Saint Eulalia herself. Splendor and destruction are inextricably linked: the cathedral and Eulalia's crucifixion; the woman 'smiling' and the shared needle; even the petals falling and the suggestion of infidelity. That such a short poem is capable not only of being both beautiful and disturbing in the same breath, but of doing so on so many levels, is testament to Pomery's talents.

This short pamphlet is threaded through with gems like these. 'Butcher Boy', for instance, balances a tender descriptiveness with intimations of mortality in its survey of a trade where 'money begets more family', while 'North Wind' demonstrates almost cinematic sweep in its flowing, atmospheric lines. Pomery is also good with form, and not just in the sense that he can write sonnets that at first glance succeed in disguising their neat rhyme schemes (although he does that too). Rather, the looser pieces here show an ability to marry form with content as much, say, as the complex rhymes of 'Steve Reich's Variations' that take musical compositions as their model: in 'A Drop of Snow', the thawing white stuff is sudden, fleeting: 'each dropped powder dot [...] an infinity // of chance, choice, aloneness, / accident and cause'. Right through to the moving close of 'To an Innocent Prisoner',
The Stream is a provocative, intelligent, and astutely realised pamphlet, suggesting that a first full collection of Simon Pomery's poems will be worth looking out for.

            © Ben Wilkinson 2010