Added to the Mix

A Haunting
, Nathan Thompson (Grafton Street Irregulars)
Love / All That / & OK, Emily Critchley (Penned in the Margins)
Icarus Was Right, Christopher Brownsword (Shearsman)
Of Whales, Anthony Caleshu (Salt)

Nathan Thompson is upfront about his procedures in this collection of twenty-six sonnets and in that sense is in a long tradition of modernist poetics. It's no coincidence that there are twenty-six letters in the alphabet, and each of these poems leaves out the appropriate letter, though as Thompson also indicates in a brief introductory note, these rules do not necessarily apply to the titles. The fact that the sonnet form itself - whether the rules are strictly applied or not - has survived so long and was initially developed as a form of intellectual game, highlights the artificial nature of language and also an essentially playful aspect which could appear to be at odds with, and subversive of, its functional mode. What is astonishing though, in Thompson's exemplary poetry, is the way in which the foregrounding of aesthetic method in no way diminishes its emotional impact.

These poems are patched together in bite-size phrases, individual, self-enclosed lines - which nevertheless appear to cohere semantically due to a judicious use of conjunctions - and near-sentences, which may run over several lines. There is a lack of punctuation and capital letters at the beginning of each poem which puts the emphasis firmly on the musical and sonic aspects of the writing, allied to a desire on behalf of the reader (this reader, at least!) to make connections between apparent disjunctions and discontinuities. There is nevertheless a quite smooth - not seamless - sense of ongoing musicality, which is at once soothing and slightly provocative; 'provocative' in the sense that the regular syntax implies semantic content. This poetry is not sonically abrupt or intentionally abrasive yet the energy of the writing seems to come primarily from the tension between its form and content.

The actual material of the compositions, its 'stuff', appears to originate from a variety of places and you can never be sure how much of the writing is taken from 'pre-existing' sources. I like the open-ended ambiguity of this, the fact that some of these phrases or 'sound-bite' lyrics may or may not be the poet's own daydreams or reported echoes of echoes from elsewhere. Certainly there is a richness, a resonance in Thompson's lyric cadences, which at times come from 'reported speech', conversational titbits or high-art lyric references, of which there are certainly plenty. In
'x' for example, we get: 'the room filled with suddenly and passing', which seems to me to echo MacNeice's 'Snow', while in 'why and wherefore' the opening lines encapsulate a centuries-long history of literary (not to say theological and scientific) endeavour in a manner which is almost throwaway:

     to begin again    shall I compare

     an apple and a rose    so simple as

     to be affected    neurological

     firings below the head    membranes

     a web of construction    I tremble at
     the touch of rough knives on white china

     pricked sounds of the Marie Celeste
           (from 'why and wherefore')

Are we talking creation myths here, or Gertrude Stein, or simply the writing of the poem? All three, perhaps. This casual referencing across time (and space!) implies the speed and 'spontaneity' of thought processes yet is questioning and aesthetically pleasing at the same time. I'm thinking Robert Creeley and Tom Raworth here, quite a trick to pull off. I thoroughly enjoyed reading these poems and hope you do too.

Although Emily Critchley has previously published a number of chapbooks this cracking collection - Love / All That / & OK - appears to be the first full compilation of her poetry. While her background is in academia - she completed a PHD at Cambridge in American women's experimental writing and philosophy - her work seems to have incorporated influences from popular culture and from a more-streetwise feminist critique. Certainly there is a critical faculty in her poetry, which is combative, intellectual and probing but this seems tempered by an upbeat and more popular sense of engagement, which makes her unusual and interesting. I'm thinking John James here and despite the gender/generation difference it's good to see the barriers between 'town and gown' can still be transcended, hopefully in this case, leading to a genuine form of public-poetry, which can embrace both pleasure and critique without being either chic posturing or a sell-out to the market, such as it exists within poetry publishing!

The thing I most enjoy about Critchley's poetry is the way in which she manages to suggest an ongoing sense of 'self-dialogue' within her writing. Whether she's talking about love (and as the title suggests, there is a lot of material about relationships) or politics or art or academic work, there's always an inner-dialogue going on, a self-assertiveness questioned in the light of a relationship to the 'public sphere'. This is enhanced by the euphony of these poems, a sense of conversational flow, which the Americans generally seem to manage much better than us 'Brits' though I'm thinking of Lisa Robertson here, and she's a Canadian. Perhaps the best example of this feature is in the poem 'When I Say I Believe Women' from which this is an extract:

     Whenever I write
you it blends and morphs into
     so many others. That's what comes from being
     informal I guess. Or not cool. Or erotic. When
     I get respite from absence, when I think about
     SPACE - annihilating all that's made… I don't
     know about presence (metaphysically), I never
     felt any. …..

When I say I believe women & men read &
     write differently I mean that women & men
     read & write pretty differently. Whether this is
     biologically 'essential' or just straightforward
     like when you left the toaster burning or
     because women have a subordinated
     relationship to power in their guts I don't
     know. Is this clear enough for you to follow. I
     don't know.  

In' Honeymoon After Tikrit', there's a more rhythmically expressive sense of purpose, playing with repetition and possibly the popular song lyric:

     Won't you clip my wings & post them home, won't you melt my
          ways, then go out & buy yourself a telephone? Won't you live
          with me & be my love,
          & won't you harvest me & all my pleasures prove?

     Won't you do all this, & more, for me,
          Won't you, darling?

Her mixing of the high literary with the colloquial is also very entertaining, especially when performed live and Emily Critchley is a very fine live reader. Don't miss her if you get the opportunity.

The cover of Christopher Brownsword's Icarus Was Right features an incongruously calm and lush photographic illustration of the said Icarus, either reaching for the sun or possibly falling, just at the moment after the wax has melted and his descent begins - it's hard to be sure. He seems to be clasping a wing and displays an almost ecstatic facial gesture, eyes closed and right arm outstretched vertically. The background texture has the feel of a tapestry in blues, greens and pinks and there are dark blue birds in the top-hand corner of the picture. The book's title is taken from a 'one-off  Dada journal of the same name' and as George Bataille features in the end-notes and seems to 'underwrite' the themes and preoccupations of  Brownsword's work, it's fair to assume that the illustration also refers to his early essay on Picasso, The rotten sun, a critique of the limits of enlightenment thinking which revolves around the theme of Icarus.

The book is split into three sections, each titled and each prefaced with what I take to be a sound/visual poem, centred on the page in capital letters. These are too minimalist to be compared to Bob Cobbing but they seem to add to the overall theatrical and ritual resonance of the text, which appears to be an important aspect of this impressive and somewhat disturbing collection. Many of the titles of the poems originate from other texts, including works by Alesteir Crowley, H.P. Lovecraft, Jean Genet, J.G. Ballard, William Burroughs, Clive Barker and A.C. Swinburne, which gives the reader some indication of Brownsword's areas of investigation. So we have an interest in the occult, in magic and in ritual, in dystopia, in surrealism, the visceral and in the extremities of horror and nightmare visions. These preoccupations are allied to a modernist poetics which includes, I'm pretty sure, elements of the cut-up and montage - though these are finely-tuned - with a reduced yet slightly skewed syntax which creates an overall distancing effect and yet adds to the dark ceremony
and power of the work. This isn't late symbolism though, as the techniques are up-front and naked, sceptical perhaps. I'm thinking here of A.C. Evans and perhaps early Andrew Jordan as reference points:

     Bandaged out
that's how these things are done

     keep knives in back
     of throats

                                      for unit per capita. Wax
     lymph stream, brine run slowly
     through the column
     (drawn by blotting paper by capillaries). Tallow
     on the quick assemblage; one hand wash
     flame pulled                              down

     on flap of skin, washed timid like gristle
          (from 'Quadrant of Pythonesses')

Of course there is a playful aspect to this writing and it's the way that Brownsword manages to 'texture' his various vocabularies into an overall sense of organised chaos that makes these poems so interesting to engage with. Some poets working within a framework of experimental techniques (I'll mention no names) simply bore the pants off me because their work appears to offer little in the way of fun or pleasure for the reader. Half the enjoyment to be gained from reading a decent poem comes from whatever the reader is able to bring to the process so it's a two-way thing and I guess the material I most enjoy these days is that which enables me to get lost in the work and find my own way into producing its 'meaning'. I don't know what this hidden quality is but Christopher Brownsword (is this a pen name, I wonder?) has it for sure, even allowing for his preoccupation with 'dark materials'. Try reading these poems fast, working with the line breaks and listening for their sounds and resonance.

Of Whales, Anthony Caleshu's most recent poetry collection, is a story of one man's obsession, with Herman Melville, for certain - Moby Dick was J.G. Ballard's favourite novel and this massive tome has an abundance of contemporary admirers - but perhaps also with the sea and the idea of THE SEA, and with the idea of storytelling and the structuring of fiction. Caleshu uses quotations from Melville and others to preface many of these poems, epistles and prose pieces, a device which Melville himself used to create a sense of the multifarious nature of his subject, an epic topic, a quest in every sense. He writes his way into the narrative by making himself a subject in the poems and as a narrator telling the story of the whale to his young son. This is one of those books you can read through at a sitting then come back and dip in again at random, so perhaps the best way for me to express my sense of pleasure is to do just that:

     Men in our family sail for the same reason men in others fly…
     until there is no land in sight….               until the way home is
     unknown but to the seabirds who scavenge their scraps. If one
     day you manage to catch a seabird and threaten to eat it for
     lunch, I can tell you now it will not talk.
             ('Lunch', from 'What makes thee want to go a whaling, eh?')

It's that idea of the mystery of the sea and the life that exists therein which fascinates us and the further notion that one way of dealing with this mythic subject - even given our present state of information - is to build our own stories and areas of
knowledge which can be added to the mix:

     I sailed with thee along the Cornish coast last voyage and,
     carefree as I am, you taught me how to tie a rope.
     The whales we followed were white waves
     breaking over hues of blue.
             (from 'First Voyage')

This is both a personal history and a more general story, an experience shared by many and encapsulated here in crisply lyrical exactness. This book is filled with information, with experience, with storytelling and with anecdote. It's a triumphant celebration of a subject, which is at once mythical and vast and yet as real and 'earthy' (sea-bound would be a better phrase!) as it is possible to be. The way Caleshu works around his subject is a just tribute to both Melville and to the act of storytelling yet the concluding line in his final poem - 'Still Song' - has humility as well as pathos:

     We remind ourselves that it is just a book: even if it tells the
                story of our lives.

Wonderful stuff.

        © Steve Spence 2011