Soft Focus Sweep

Shifting Registers
, Ian Seed (82pp, 8.95, Shearsman)
Bona Vada, Jeremy Reed (114pp, 9.95, Shearsman)

These are poems imbued with a dreamy European Surrealism, evoking both visual and literary media and managing to combine, extraordinarily, both a sense of a taut, zoomed-in focus with a more nebulous, hard-to-define quality. The book's title and its cover (a hazy, soft-focus photograph which has a very painterly feel) are both apt encapsulations of this masterly collection:

     Even now nothing is certain: my train
     is an hour late, and I have to make my way
     through faces which multiply and blur
     like tears at the end of the platform.
          (from 'Resemblances')

There is a sense of mutability and a 'lack of solidity' to these poems  - images which reflect these concerns abound and yet there is, generally, a lack of anxiety in these pieces, created partly by their seamless quality, even where the 'narrative' appears discontinuous or shifting or the sensual apparatus seems to change gear mid-sentence. As in, 'Through', where we get 'The surface gleams but it isn't the colour of the dream'. A hazy lyrical ambiance jostles with a more abstract, mathematical quality and while there is a tension between the two, the results, as in the aptly named 'Results' are usually elegant yet puzzling, endlessly elusive yet filled with charm and promise.

There's a dream-like quality to 'At the border', which may include a joke or a misperception which relates to identity and memory or might hint at something more sinister, yet in the hands of a Kafka or a de Chirico this haunting quality would have a darker side, perhaps slightly paranoid or existentially bleak. Ian Seed's writing is more softly exploratory, ever moving away from its target, mixing intimate detail with a more cinematic, panoramic viewpoint and blending these different perspectives in a smooth transition, which is the opposite of abrupt. Yet they are always suggestive and 'elsewhere', never to be pinned down or clearly defined. I found these poems stimulating and fascinating and I'll certainly be looking out for his next collection.

I don't know how Jeremy Reed manages to write as much as he does but I'm glad he does and in his case quantity doesn't seem to be at the expense of quality. Despite which there's a sort of 'throwaway' aspect to some of his work which means that a rumination on the difference between the qualities of tea in posh London stores can jostle next to an earthy evocation of Frank Sinatra or a puzzled discourse on the exploits of a discriminating 'book thief'. Elegies to Syd Barrett and Derek Jarman cross swords with the ipod generation, via Pete Doherty and an obsessive preoccupation with the cataloguing of books. There is an exploration of how this can be an invitation to an imaginative re-creation of the sixties and an exuberant celebration of the here-and-now - tempered by an awareness that we live in darker times.

Reed is irrepressible, all life is here and this collection, one of four, I believe, to be published in the last year (!) shows that he can still cut the mustard and produce work which is as good as anything he's written. He has his critics for sure, whether those who are jealous of his success, his output, the quality of his work, a suggestion of privilege, critical of his lifestyle or of his upfront proclamation that he is a POET (combined with a somewhat retiring aspect) but these are confounded by the range and quality of his admirers.

Reed has a knack for imparting a great deal of varied information in his poetry yet manages to maintain an attractive and glitzy surface and he's always so readable. Even the dark materials - there are a couple of pretty harrowing pieces on depression, for example - are filled with perception and thoughtfulness and his work is never boring:

     The damage grew until we couldn't reach
     you for the lies, and now you turn away
          from everything familiar you knew,
          as though you want the world to pay
     for what you've lost, but still I see a light
     burn in you like it's locked inside a safe,
     constant, untouched, because it's really you.
                  (from 'To a Friend in Despair)

Amid the guitar riffs and the celebrations of Hendrix, Baudelaire and London there are quieter moments together with another amusing reference to J.H. Prynne (Reed is clearly a fan) in 'Kitchen Poem'. There are also those unexpected and startling similes for which he is justly famous:

     Most of my thinking happens there,
     lateral, intuitive, the flashes
     like a choice of brand marmalade
     red as the defining moments in a redhead's hair.
              (from 'Kitchen Poem')

Reed's poetry, like that of Peter Redgrove and Barry MacSweeney, represents a major achievement in terms of its imaginative sweep and is epic quantity. My guess is that in years to come he'll be recognised as one of the great names in late 20th century British poetry, despite the fact that his work most usually celebrates the 'here and now'. Bona Vada is yet another accomplished collection from this fertile and productive talent.

        Steve Spence 2011