There's Something in There?

, Ken Edwards (112pp, Shearsman)
Frank Freeman's Dancing School
, Cliff Yates (70pp, Salt )
Save the Last Dance
, Gerald Stern (91pp, $13.95, Norton)
Every Salt Advance
, Andrew McMillan
(32pp, £4.00, Sand Chapbooks, Red Squirrel Press, PO Box 219, Morpeth, NE61 9AU)
Holes in the Map
, Nathan Thompson
(24pp, Oystercatcher, 4 Coastguard Cottages, Old Hunstanton, Norfolk PE36 6EL)

I'm not really as vain as to try to bullshit myself out of a corner when I patently don't understand something. So, I freely admit there's just something I'm not getting in Ken Edward's Songbook. Both the title and the back cover tell me it's all about songs - 'songs that have never and never will be sung: anti-lyric and narrative poems for which a musical equivalent has been constructed; and text written specifically for musical purposes'. There are even twenty pages of fascinating musical notation that give some idea of how the texts relate to the music.  But, there has to be something I'm just not seeing in it all.  A musical conundrum it may be, perhaps, but there really must be something. Otherwise why would Edwards feel the need to remind us that...

     There's something in there.

     At least...there may be. Who can say more than that?

     It comes in there, or is
there, sometimes. It's suggestive of...

     No-one can say what it is.
             [from 'There's Something In There...']

But then, without the advantage of hearing these songs in context, with their music, the exercise begins to read as a long, long list of terse, vernacular juxtapositions of urban mundanities and anecdotal trivialities that are obtuse beyond literary necessity and that do themselves serious collateral damage by being bound to the pages of a book.

     She said:

     I'm in the middle of dirt

      Inside the colours is a house

     Water surrounds the house

     I am starting from nothing. So slowly

     I once said 'a rose is my cunt'

          I'm searching desperately for an airport

     'there's no smoke without fire'

         The street that I'm on is about to end
             [from 'Red: Narrative Poem']

That, of course, is the crux of the matter. These are
songs. Songs need to soar, aurally.  They don't belong, silently, on the pages of a book, particularly not from a publisher we have come to know and love for producing sparkling editions of poetry. If anything, by being so, the expectation generated is of there being poetry within. But this expectation is soon dashed.  I'm left disappointedly holding a song book.

So, putting the song book aside, Cliff Yates' Frank Freeman's Dancing School offers the promise of some real poetry. The cover has all sorts of literary worthies saying good things about him and it has a picture of a hippy in a top-hat, beads and dark glasses playing a soprano sax. It has to be good!  I dive in, head first, surprised then only to be perplexed by my seemingly immutable neutral reaction.  It takes until the poems facing each other on pages twenty-two and twenty-three to realise the reason for it. And it's not very complicated.

There are three voices used in Yates' poetry. The first is that of the observer-poet, purely so, as here from 'At the Smell of the Old Dog':

     Telescope needs a coin
     to see the boat bright sun.
     Kids in wet suits jump. Boy
     cradles a bottle of raspberryade.

     Three girls arm in arm
     wade chest deep across the bay
     their voices carry.
     They're on the hill maybe

     a little cold and hungry.
     You'd give a fortune
     no. Something forgotten...
     fishing boat, rope faded orange, blue.

Then there's the voice of the narrative poet, as here from 'Proportion':

     He was never off sick but the day
     that he was, unfamiliar in faded pyjamas,
     unbrushed hair, I climbed in with him
     with a pencil and a new sketchbook.

     He  showed me how to draw in proportion:
     hold the pencil vertical at arm's length,
     measure the distance with your thumb, mark it.
     Now horizontal. We drew the window...

Then there's the third voice - a combination of the other two - the observed-narrative or the narratively-observed. However, whichever appellation is applied, what comes over is a poetry that is unappealingly quaint, if not just slightly smug and overly reliant on the punchline (oh, to leave you with a smile on your lips!), in that Northern sort of way Ian McMillan describes (and if anyone should know, he should) as the Skelmersdale Mystic/Domestic idiom, as in this extract from the end of  'Your Limbs Bound and Mouth Full of Cloth':

     Stand still while not standing still.
      Sit up while climbing.
     Lie down while not lying down.

     Dream of knives and bullet-proof vests.
     Your chest is a face, have you thought of that?
     Looked at with this in mind, any landscape
     becomes a friend.

    The beach deserted except for an old crab. And I mean old.

So, in effect, what there is, which will bewilder any mathematician worth his or her salt, are two positives being cancelled out by just a single negative, this being what I clutched at to explain my neutral response as I read. Funny thing, though, is that, even then, armed as I was with this new awareness, pages twenty-four onwards did nothing to alter my disappointing feeling of ambivalence, neither one way, nor the other. In short, I was left as flat as the cap on a mill-worker's head.

Gerald Stern, on the other hand, with his collection Save the Last Dance, had me hooked. Why? Well, two reasons above all.  Firstly, Gerald Stern is no spring chicken. The obvious advantage he has is that of age and, therefore, in its broadest sense, experience.  The older one gets, the more real-life material one has to draw on, and, the more one has, the more one can filter out the dross, leaving every morsel one uses shining brilliantly and confidently on the page. And Stern makes every possible use of his own extremely rich personal history, drawing on and drawing in these observations and recollections to craft a glorious cacophony of musings.

     I learned from him and I
     learned something once from a bird
     but I don't know his name
     though everyone I tell it to
     asks me what his name was
     and it is shameful, what
     was he, a dog? The Klan
     was flourishing all the while
     we dreamed of hydroelectric
     so we were caught in between
     one pole and another and
     we were Hegelian or just
     Manichean, we kept
     the hammer on top of the manhole
     so we could lift it to get
     our soft balls and tennis balls
     though he who weighed a pound
     could easily fall into
     the opening, such was our life
     and such were our lives the last
     few years before the war when
     there were four flavors of ice cream
     and four flavors only...
             [from 'Save the Last Dance for Me']

Secondly, then, in addition to Stern's poetry being intentionally serious, in that it's very much a poetry that tells of and comments on the human condition, it is also written in such a way as to have allowed a warmly natural, mirthful rebelliousness and a genuine, personal enthusiasm for the possibilities of language to be perceived tumbling from line after line.

     The very thing I was trying not to see was
     so close to my nose that I couldn't see anything
     else, and I had to rely on a stranger to
     distinguish one thing from another, and
     on one occasion the edges were smoking so
     and the smoke crawled to the middle in such a way
     that I had to depend on smoke alone, and fog,
     and clouds and steam and such to light the way...
              [from 'Rapture Lost']

This combination smacks of character, of personality. It is human.  It is a generation away from the sterile cut-ups and collages that all too often pass for award-winning poetry amongst many younger US (and some UK) poets. Observations and recollections there may be, but quaint it ain't. Nor nostalgic. As one of the back-cover reviews puts it; 'Stern writes with a gruff, seen-it-all knowingness and with the distillation, leaps and pivots acquired over a long life of poetic practice.' I can only agree wholeheartedly and recommend that, now, you find out for yourself.

Where Gerald Stern has the obvious advantage of age and, therefore, in its broadest sense, experience, Andrew McMillan has no such advantage. The life he has had to draw on, thus far, is limited and, so, the breadth and depth of his poetry is equally limited. As a debut collection, Every Salt Advance, has all the hallmarks of adolescent angst and only holds its head above water with the aid of youthful enthusiasm.

     love is just love and I'm in it
     for the ride o.k.?
     love is just an elevator
     and man you sure can push
     my buttons but you've got a voice
     that tells me just exactly
     what I need to hear
     and nothing else
            [from 'translated love letters']

Obviously, McMillan will have been developing a following of equally young minds for whom the travails of love and parental relations are naively relevant, but there's a good deal of maturing to be done yet before he can be truly said to have found his voice as a poet of substance. Still, do keep an eye out for him in the future even though, for now, in all honesty, we must be thankful Every Salt Advance
is a short read.

The second pamphlet in this bunch, Holes in the Map by Nathan Thompson, is a shortish collection of shortish poems of the type that make me scream deliriously for some normal syntax and for just anything even resembling standard grammar. Although it probably takes a complete reading of the collection to reach these heights of delirium, here's the whole of one poem, 'near harbour radio', which, hopefully, will serve to illustrate my point:

     so many angles    light off
      the sea    touching us    gentle

      rounding on boat-chimes
      to back where we came from

      sorting ley lines in the dark
      you    a brush of musk

     sandalwood    curtains drift
     soft air    lips to kiss    returning

     a lent-on promise    open
     light swell    tomorrow south-westerly

There's something of love and sex in this and several others in the collection, sure, but there's so much of everything else, delivered in razor-like shards and crammed in, that, ultimately, all meaning is lost. It is a list of generally unconnected, curt phrases that sit on the page like some nightmarish, Freudian association test. The overall effect, then, I'm sad to say, was for it to leave me, obversely, feeling quite disassociated, if not just plain disinterested.

     lost in leafy tradition    burnt his
     sentimental eyes on imaginative reconstruction

     red tape    no introduction foreshadows
     'just to stop inaugurates angels in a tree'

     dear addiction    cheaply acquired
      this is plagiarism with amendments
             [from 'built over']

              © John Mingay 2010