Doubling Up

Mollicle, Claire Crowther (32pp, 5.00, Nine Arches Press)
, Claire Crowther (28pp, 4.50, Flarestack Poets)
the day maybe died (tributes and torch songs) Imagining China
, Nathan Thompson
     (32pp, 5.00, Knives, Forks and Spoons Press)
An anabranch with slug
, Tim Allen (16pp, 3.00, Knives, Forks and Spoons Press)
incidental harvest
, Tim Allen (24pp, 4.50, Oystercatcher Press)

Of the making of poetry pamphlets there is thankfully no end in sight, despite the depredations of the giant Online, the straitened business models of bookshops and libraries and the statistical improbability of review. Each plump bag of pamphlets plopping through the reviewer's letterbox is a small argosy of hope proclaiming the tenacity and vigour of poetry - certainly as regards its writing and publication - in the UK today.

For the more established poet such as those featured in this review, the pamphlet is a building block of the new full collection; or something tightly thematic, complete in itself, suited to the smaller scope; or something experimental or at an angle to the previous writing that may be a one-off or may signal a new direction. The poet may tap into a new readership that the publisher has already reached; there will be something bite-sized to sell at readings or festivals or online - and print runs do regularly sell out, even leading to second and third printings. In addition, as some of the pamphlets listed above confirm, switching publishers as readily as a jockey swaps racing silks at a race meeting allows the poet to maximise the output of somewhat disparate work within a limited amount of time.

At the lucid end of the spectrum, Claire Crowther's considerable reputation can only be enhanced by her two most recent works. Mollicle
is full of relationships and encounters, described with a deceptive clarity and poise. Reflective in both senses, they open up unexpected vistas before and behind the reader, become suddenly opaque, slip from voice to voice, take unexpected turns. 'Self-portrait as windscreen' shows style and argument in fusion:

     Do you think I'm clear on every issue
     just because I'm glass?
     Have you heard yourself calling 'Claire

     Claire, Claire, Claire' when you're confused?
     A name is lulling
     when you aren't clear on every issue.

In Incense
Crowther has found a verse form, the fatras, so appropriate to her subject - the social, medical, commercial and psychological dimensions of fat - that I had to look it up to make sure it wasn't a Borgesian invention. But no - it's a medieval form, used for nonsense poetry and a word still in use in French to signify a hotchpotch, a gallimaufry. Each poem is a 13-liner, with a riddling introductory couplet composed of the first and last lines of the ensuing 11-line poem. The movement is: initial couplet; body of exposition leading to the previewed last line; travel back to the beginning to savour the new resonance of the opening couplet. Fat gain, fat loss, the tyranny of the changing room, the treachery of our body chemistry - all are given a memorable jolt by the form with its (slimmed) initial message, for example: 'fat is killer and duvet - soft cosh /flashing nucleoli in the dark'.

Nathan Thompson is an insouciant traveller in the strange lands of Oulipo and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, and in his newest collection it is no surprise to find language at the throttle, more or less, creating its meanings and with them the writer's on-page persona. His characteristic work offers the elements of a reality, for the duration of the poem, to be stitched together by you the reader according to your own understandings and associations. In the right hands, and these are the right hands, this is a beguiling poetic; one of the attractions of Thompson's practice is a good-natured and optimistic authorial acceptance - and sharing - of the reader's occasional bemusement. There is also a default musicality and a smart-as-a-whip reaction to the promptings of language, a negotiation with aplomb of the poem's downhill slalom.

the day maybe died (tributes and torched songs) Imagining China
is dedicated to Lee Harwood, a notable influence on Thompson as on so many others, and something of Harwood's engaged diffidence, his progress through a poem via apparent deflection, unattributed quotation and purposeful hesitation, comes through. The collection is an insistence on the importance, the feasibility, of affection and intimacy in a fragmented and sometimes unaccountable world:

     it really is too dark to see     I'll enter
     your thoughts into the ledgers of roses
     and dance simply from now on
     accounting for blank faces with a
     presentiment of bees telling the old stories
     our garden with flowers parting left
     sharing smoke with your shadow's fandango

Tim Allen, a leading light in what must be seen as a golden age of poetry in Plymouth, has a multi-layered concern with language in its personal and political dimensions. The surface of the poetry crackles with energy and intent. The proverbial, the descriptive and the imagistic are subverted and refashioned into something unsettling, powerful and often very funny.

An anabranch with slug
is described as a 'robotic pastoral'. It's robotic in the sense that Allen employs a form called the pantoum, involving the transfer of line 1 and 3 of one quatrain to lines 2 and 4 of the next, and so on (here for 8 pages, and with an increasing number of introduced mutations). The repetitions hold together the work, which at the quatrain level looks like a set of 4 disparate lines, and give it fantastic energy. In the tumbling verses Raymond Roussel, initiator of travel books written on the principle of systematic punning and repetition/ mutation, and John Ashbery rub shoulders with Adorno and Father Ted. The anabranch, glossed as 'a stream that leaves a river and then returns to the river further down', is a good image for the poem as a loop out of everyday discourse, for its 'reality' as a divergence from and a reconnection with 'everyday reality' and for the place of the poem in Allen's publishing history, having been sidelined since the 90s and now tweaked back into the oeuvre. It's a wonderful whitewater trip, spinning through lines like: 'sick girl compressed inside her shoulders/ like a bear on a racecourse the talent scout'.

incidental harvest
is a set of 23 untitled poems and here we have some more examples of Allen's wit manoeuvering us into reflection on the methods and goals of poetry.

     it's good to be
     careless and careful

     it's the only only way to write
     things like

     farewell fishing shroud

and elsewhere:

     you will have to choose
     which poem
     this poem
     removes from the world

There's also his hilarious one about his favourite language poets, referred to in the most uncritically positive terms, and his least favourite, condemned in confidential sotto voce. How much about the contemporary poetry scene is encapsulated there?

Five pamphlets, then, any of which would be a worthwhile addition to your poetry collection. Or all five for 22. Or 127 pages of poetry at 17p per page. Or... but that's enough now, Mr Gradgrind. Suffice it to say, the pamphlet lives.

         Alasdair Paterson, 2011