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Zip.

A Fortnightly Review of

Mercury
by Simon Smith
Salt Publishing 2006. 180pp paperback $17.95 £11.99

London Bridge
by Simon Smith
Salt Publishing 2010. 84pp paperback $15.95 £9.99

Gravesend
by Simon Smith
Veer Books 2011. 56pp 16x16cm stapled. £5.00

81 Austerities
by Sam Riviere
Faber and Faber 2012.  128pp paperback, $9.90 £9.99

I am a Magenta Stick
by Antony Rowland
Salt Publishing 2012. 96pp hardback, $16.10 £12.99

By PETER RILEY.

smithmercuryTHREE YOUNG BRITISH poets – under 55, which is young enough – all producing in different ways a poetry characterised (in their blurbs if not elsewhere) as fast, urban, witty, youthful, immediate, accessible, playful, risqué and all the rest of the adjectives that offer relief from staid, serious or pastoral poetry. All of the blurbs on these books1 include the word “funny”. My own preferred word would be “zippy”. I find this characterisation appropriate but misleading to various degrees, most extremely when the publisher describes London Bridge as “accessible, funny and immediate”, as if we might expect some kind of a stand-up comedy script. Parts of the book, and most of Mercury, are in their way difficult, disturbing and at first unyielding. All three poets have a seriousness which underlies or subverts their zip.

Smith’s vocabulary is wide open from odyssey to DNA to ketchup, though he maintains a sense of privacy and carefully marks out his own ground in this welter of words.

Simon Smith’s poetry seems to be on the move, increasingly agreeing to a cohering transcription after a period of linguistic disruption which is most marked in Mercury, all under the banner of a presiding nervous urbanity. Since the 1990s he has developed his own manner of swift-moving unpunctuated poems which veer constantly towards and away from a sense of telling. Verbally conceived, constantly starting and stopping, they view the world as at once a real and a written thing, and set their aims at making a sharp-edged  rhythmically lively construction by means of verbal wit and the fragmentary incorporation of circumstance. All these statements are liable to exception and contradiction in particular cases, but perhaps one of the most important principles is that there shall be no selective vocabulary, but all terms, spoken or written, are to be found on the ground wherever the poet is. The vocabulary is wide open from odyssey to DNA to ketchup, though he maintains a sense of privacy and carefully marks out his own ground in this welter of words. If there is (he says there is) a politics beneath the surface it must operate at least partly by breaking down the comparative class or status value of English words. The routes taken among these fairgrounds of word and percept are both smooth and disjunctive, forming in many poems a list of semi-connected items patterned by the lineation, with a taste for novelty which makes him translate ‘La Jolie Rousse’ as ‘The Auburn Stunner’.

 Mercury may represent a limit, in the degree of disruption, non-sequitur or countering which takes place, and which is even expressed formally – the line of poetry is emphasised by upper-case initials and double-spacing throughout, while at the same time the most outrageous enjambment can take place across these reinforced lines, quite likely to disorient the reader. In this way and others the writing constantly offers a place, and so a route, and so an understanding, and then takes a sharp turn into a side-road. A poem begins as one thing and becomes something different, all within the parameters of his stylishness–

Mending Wall

Frost said free verse is like tennis
Without the net, well fuck that poetry’s
No game, it’s a way of life we are
Calling to each calling hat on heart
Hand on hat, Ideas by any other
Form of phoneme: hill Hell tell
Trail pill till chill feels heels heal
And anything that means you
Take the ch

The “ch”, which for some reason I want to read as “chicken”, is not a typical act. It either conceals a Frostian reference which escapes me or is there to cause trouble. But in spite of the switch from subject-matter to word-list there is a kind of argument pursued throughout, which passes over a serious appeal in the middle before ending up jabbering. There are other places where Smith continues to fight the old free-versus-formal battle, rather surprisingly these days, but I suppose the drift here is that the free play of echoic sound-values is a contrary to Frost’s formalism, probably more mocked than advocated,  a reactive collapse or an ethic reduced to rhyme. His own position is in the central balance.2

This poem belongs in a group, which opens the book, concerned with American writers (Spicer, Updike, Frost, Pound, then Spicer again, pp.4-12). Rather than studies of these subjects they are more like quotidian events, items of the now, for a constant “hodieism” as some anthropologists call it, pervades his writing. They happened to him, and there is throughout a sense of picking up on whatever happens from day to day, and thus on where he is (London, south-east England, Kent) – scenes, events and people of concern to him, freely including what he reads or studies, and propositions wherever they come from which have flown across his sight, and these percepts are weighed and extended and ignored, always in quest of a bright and often deflective construct, summated in the rhythm of the last line, sincere or casual or flippant or broken as it may be, but always with a phonetic finality about it. In Mercury more than anywhere else, particularly in the first section of the book, this process leads to some defeating formulations, where in some cases not the source, nor the nature nor the progress of the event which got the poem going, is evident–

First Aid Box

You you you and you in this instance
First mirrors then coat pegs where we are in this sentence
No single one alias my mirror first mirrors first maybe we do maybe
We don’t don’t we make lists seep edges

If this is a problem there are two possible answers. Firstly, something is taking place in this poem: seek it. (Maybe a lot of reading of people like Saussure and Derrida would elucidate Smith’s forays into perceptual investigation, though personally I’d rather have a puzzling poem than either, and so I think would he.) More broadly, there is especially in this book a sense of the sequence of short poems as a diurnal continuum, approaching a journal or even a narrative, in which phrases and images recur close at hand to suggest a temporal phase, though not by any means plentifully. (The previous poem contains a version of the third line, without, I have to say, revealing anything to me but contributing to a sense of a domestic context in which an emptiness, a white sheet, a “sound you can’t open” becomes a mirror and the poem passes on to a list of worldly differences.)  These echoes or recollections from poem to poem, usually occurring in clusters (as the American poets do) don’t of course create any actual elucidation. The texts remain ever shifting and evasive; they refuse a contextual summation in favour of a verbal one or a gesture of dismissal. If nothing else they allow the reader to stay in the same place in the company of the poet, and to assume that the words mirror a version of what happened on different levels or under different aliases. The author helps by worrying about this himself–

Thump

This is one of my poems that starts serious and high
Then tails off. Do we have a story or a plan?
Do we have a story then? So up it pops as soup
Soap. Breathe overall finish with a sign
Like a sign a dead body away from this side on this
Occasion finish with

As with the Frost poem the address is abruptly terminated by unconnected words, soup and soap, which are presumably what happened next while the one seems to derive from the other (which is one of his methods of progressing through a poem). I suggest a serious intimate condition as the resolution of this poem, as of most of them, in which the “we” is you and I, in which “sign” and “side” are echoes of absent “sigh” and “sighed” and the tone is regretful and final– it is finished.

Mercury is in three sections in which the degree of hinting incompletion (which is also to say the degree to which I am reminded of the work of the senior English poet Tom Raworth) is progressively diminished, though the sense of masked intimacy is not, nor all the worry and concern which spreads out from it. At the end of the book there is recurrent imagery of stars within a reversal of scale –

Constellation

Cello and cellar
They don’t know and I don’t
A black hole would make good a necklace of significances
Maybe the consolations remembrances they are the stars

and he ends a poem with “We are the absent star // Boxed outside the skylight” – surely a perfect notation of distance as confinement in an unspoken sense of loss. In episodes like this I find that the seemingly impertinent phonetic play, the silences, the reversals and the whole craft of it form a truly dramatic writing.

Smith may consider London Bridge a lightweight production,  a miscellany, of distinct pieces of various kinds without aspiration towards the large-scale (but with Smith large-scale is small-scale). But I warm to it rather more than to the earlier book, and I think it consummates all his former modes and influences. I also find that the writing of a substantial poem can be an operation of grander scale than a whole  book of fragments held together by intuitive echoes. Smith’s typical gestures are still here: the shifting/shifty obliqueness, the quasi-epigrammatical endings (that is, sounding like the final lesson but not saying it), and all the speed and urban zip he has cultivated for so long, but held in poems which welcome the reader and may even conform to recognised purposes: topographical, satirical, occasional, personal, and one permutational. But there is still the sidewise lurch, the wry diversion, or the shift to the unpredicated, through which he tracks a course which remains calm and thoughtful. There is a poem, ‘Least Most’ of quite straight socio-economic comment “…a world where gambling means saving and Nectar points / Mean prizes and prizes mean.”  which suddenly ends “As the details speak for themselves I realise orange rhymes with language.”– of which make what you will but it clearly could be the last line of a completely different poem. It is a complete turning away from the subject, with no hidden agenda attached, no ulterior back-reference. It does not answer the preceding problems. Contrariwise, there is a poem entitled ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ of which the first line is “I’m wearing odd socks nobody can tell, but I know.” and then launches into all sorts of diverse matter, so that the title seems merely an excuse for outrageous bathos. But then the poem turns to admiration of personal beauty and at the end comes round to the long postponed Keats within a kind of apologia –

The synchronicity of it:
So Chance and Procedure are file-sharing with Truth and Beauty,
‘To see how things go’ is one incredible finishing line, and all you need to know.

– for all the diversity and disconnection through the poem, from socks onwards, is unified in all being now, which is always his domain. You cannot catalogue the now, there is too much of it, but Smith’s strategy is to build up an ensemble, often quite short, of salient and contrasted points which he refuses to resolve except in the shape of the poem.

This writing is frequently on the edge of satire; the world is viewed with tongue in cheek. Sometimes this emerges fully as in the poem ‘Text’ which I take to be a satire on linguistic philosophy, lining up four continental magi against four top prize-winning British poets as if in some game (implying an equivalence) and shortly afterwards–

A tale to share over dinner,
Once upon a time, the text
was unhappy, boo-hoo, boo-hoo
‘The slippage of the signifier
Across the signifier makes
The signifier the signified
For another signifier.’
But the modern poets left no message
[…]
Meanwhile on the ground
Les Tricoteuses knit one pearl one knit one,
‘Di Dum, Di Dum, Di Dum, Di Dum, Di Dum’

The small book Gravesend is actually programmed, as other texts may be without our knowing it. The poems were written on a regular train journey between London and Chatham and there was a rule that they should contain whatever occurred on the train or out of the window at that point. This does not in fact make a lot of difference, they are still very much Simon Smith poems with the quotas of diversity and irrelevance we might expect with or without a programme. You could study an Ordnance Survey map of the route or you could make annotations concerning Dickens’ association with Chatham and many other points, but Smith’s skill in assimilation will always be ahead of you, partly because it assimilates ruthlessly to his own present tense, and partly because total assimilation is refused in favour of sheer presence.

I finally think that any clear-cut categorisation of Simon Smith under the urbane, fast, zippy etc. headings, misses the mark. You could say that Smith takes a particular line out of modern poetry, involving poets such as Frank O’Hara and John James, who are openly acknowledged. But he also talks to different poets such as Jack Spicer (in Mercury), and anyway such categorisation doesn’t entirely fit either O’Hara or James. His translations in London Bridge include finely crafted versions of Martial, and Propertius, as might perhaps be expected in terms of urbanity, especially the preference for Roman over Greek, the avoidance of the mythic load  (he has also translated Catullus). But there is this poem in Mercury–

Theseus’ Dad

Black sail, white sail light wing as easterlies drop canvas
Billows light as light Aegeus reaches out for silence

Apollinaire is also present which might seem again to confirm the anti-formal stance as against the classical basis of Baudelaire or Rimbaud (schoolboy winner of prizes for Latin poems) but Smith also translates a major poem of Rilke, and is perfectly at home with it, and has translated Reverdy. When he comes to Apollinaire’s  “La longue querelle de la tradition et de l’invention / De l’Ordre et de l’Aventure” his version seems to show some impatience with the formula: “This interminable argument the formal versus / the free-form Order V Adventure”. All this confirms to me that there is more in Smith’s verbal play than the usual labelling permits and much of it deserves a slower and more considered reading than the zippy epithet encourages.

IT”S SURPRISING THAT Sam Riviere’s poems should have an affinity with Simon Smith’s, because in many ways they belong on opposite sides of The Great Divide. But they do, perhaps most evidently in the fast unpunctuated patter with comparable habits such as a vocabulary of the moment and the liability to lurch into different tones and image-zones. There is a similar unwillingness to interpret or explain; experiences and allusions are left as he finds them (“I hate when life like an autobahn explains itself”). I find him closest to Smith, and generally at his most effective, in smaller poems–

The Handsoap Cares

It’s stopped snowing as bedhead comes on my headphones
On the top deck I’ll have to walk home in the cold again
just like last time I should’ve brought my bobble hat
but feel bad seeing jenny wearing the hat emma
knitted me so         it’s started snowing again

– and this includes the fact that, as with Smith, the title often seems oddly detached.  But only rarely is there any sign of a real  enigma such as this one –

Too Poetic

*{Poetry}, or a relation thereof.
*{Anthony_Ian_Berkeley}, a deceased rapper and hip-hop
producer, or a relation thereof.3

More normally there is smooth-running talk, skilfully crafted to navigate through the syntax without punctuation, forming accounts and addresses of many kinds and there are longer poems (such as “Regular Black”, p.51) which become perfectly serious through, or in spite of, the acerbic jocularity and shifting attention, as an account of cultural change.

Being much more open than Smith in its declarations, the poetry is much more involved with apparent authorial attitude and opinion, and there is an inclination to strike poses, especially masculine poses. Love is here a matter of “girls” who sometimes get addressed mistrustingly, and are not infrequently deprecated at the end of the (?love-) poem (“& I thought I would be glad / you called but I’m kind of not”). We are told at one point that “being from the north” is “way outmoded” which is pure poseur material. Like his lines his world seems a lot less cluttered than Smith’s, and he is more evidently pleased with himself and his zippiness. The poems move to conclusions which stay within the theatre of the poem, without offering anything conclusive except gesturally. In spite of his publisher and his habit of picking up prizes there seems little to connect him with the practices of the poetical “mainstream” except for the habit of setting up an authorial figure for admiration and sympathy, including posing, frequently tempered in his case by the restlessness of the discourse and moments of self-deflation.

I would have said that this poetry avoids politics, but the blurb denies this. Apparently the book was originally conceived  as a response to the “austerity measures” introduced by the coalition government in 2011, hence the title. I would say there is little trace of this intent left in the majority of the poems or if there is it well disguised. But given this hint it is possible to notice connections, such as the poem “Help Yourself” (p.107) which must be a parody of the questionnaire forced upon recipients of benefit about which there has been much complaining recently. There are a few others, but otherwise if we allow this aspect of the poems we must see it as contributing to the generally sardonic tone, which is normally personal in effect. His best is his contribution to the long history of realist casual anecdotal poems –

Chocolate Milk

The sort of really attractive junky sitting
on the wall by the Magdalen Street
drop-in centre who said I looked
4-dimensional and asked me
to dance in the gorgeous
level light of 5.45

There is a kind of appendix at the back, little prose comments on the poems which I find add well to the genial aspects of the book, including self-doubt and light-heartedness, but would contribute more if the poem referred to could be identified with greater ease.

ANTONY ROWLAND HAS plenty of zip but it is a very different matter. There is, for a start, a clear subject-matter to each poem, of great variety from local comedy to the Holocaust, and with that a range of genres and especially of vocabularies, many of which are rarely found in poems. He ruthlessly exploits idiolect – language use of a particular group defined by association, age, relationship, occupation etc. and the text is liberally scattered with names that very few will recognise. It is possible to become quite comboblicated (a word he uses himself) and anyone under 45 is at a disadvantage. Nothing, whether a foreign word or a remote provincialism, is ever explained.

The effect is often enough comic but a seriousness also pierces through the vocabulary and in connection with this there is also (to make matters worse, as it were) a poetical figuration which can be both dense and tense, with abstrusely conceived or risked metaphors, sometimes a touch “Martian” (“the bar taxidermy of pickled eggs”) but normally more resonant. The opening of “Little Germany”–

Rugby posts cloud the evening
wireless tuned to squatch
in a box room thinking

of the beck’s dip, shuttle
terraces and the geography
of the park, us frozen in.

and later–-

Pace out
the rubble wound: we are sorry
to announce a lease heritage
of before and absence, like

white Sowerby hill-slicks.

Explanations? Little Germany: the old business quarter of Bradford (where he comes from) of Jewish foundation, which is probably important because later we get “I hooked an arm around Nazi punks in The Rawson Arms”.  Squatch: don’t ask me I’m over 45. Beck: stream. Shuttle: probably thinking of industrial looms with their rows of shuttles. Bradford was once the trade centre of the northern wool industry. Lease heritage: probably thinking of the leasehold system, one of the curses of England. Sowerby: old mill town in the Calder Valley about twelve miles from Bradford.4. But quite apart from the local vocabulary, there are questions such as how rugby posts “cloud” the evening, how a “lease heritage” gives us “before and [after] absence” (perhaps because in the leasehold system there is no “after”: you buy a house and eventually it reverts to its original owner). I think that such questions represent a use of modernistic figuration (of the British kind) which is meaningful, whether thought-out or risked in the moment. This is in many cases where the poems command attention, giving us in this case a serious topographical reminiscence, acutely identifying the signs of change and worse, refusing to go into generalising terms. This is what he does best, half concealed, as it were, behind the peculiarities of his style and thus all the more engaging.

Most of the poems in the book come in unannounced groups. There is a topographical group which includes ‘Manchester’, which is like Ginsberg as a northern comedian – a genuinely funny poem (but you need to be under 45), and there are groups concerning food (gravy, beer, pudding, sausage), zero-star hotels (“I do not like the biting animals in the carpet /and, overnight, the chocolate in my dressing gown / had been eaten by something…”) and there are poems determined by their particular idiolect (toddler-speak, English as a foreign language, and recurrently the dialect of city youth). Some are entirely subject-bound as much as any 18th Century poem on sheep-rearing: ‘Sausage’ runs through all known types of sausage, with stray comments, and then stops.

Rowland’s idiom is not exactly difficult…He himself supplies the word for what he does – awkward.

Rowland’s idiom is not exactly difficult or exactly obscure in the sense of concealing, and it is apparent that what he does is done very deliberately as a tactic, a use of modern poetry with serious implications. He himself supplies the word for what he does – awkward. He is the author of Holocaust Poetry: awkward poetics in the work of Sylvia Plath, Geoffrey Hill, Tony Harrison and Ted Hughes.5 I am not involved with this book here because the poets he discusses do very different things from what he does. But in it he expounds his definition of “awkward poetry” as a way of referring to the Holocaust among these poets in various kinds of disturbed language: stilted grammar, conceptual juxtaposition, subversion of tradition, domination of authorial idiolect which rejects objectivity, moral ambiguity, etc.   –  a self-conscious, self-doubting,  means of relating poetry to the Holocaust without appropriating it for self-serving artistic ends. It is an anti-aestheticist position devolved from Adorno’s prohibition of “poetry” after Auschwitz and the related comments of people like George Steiner, interpreted as meaning that poetry has to change its face rather than cease.

I think this awkwardness is what he does, and deliberately, not with the same specific historical reference, but as a critique of the socio-linguistic condition he inhabits, especially kinds of standardisation and corruption, implying that to speak of the world in the standard modes of poetry would be to condone, not by beautifying the damage but by appropriating it to an artistic purpose. That such a serious idea should produce some comic and grotesque poems is quite in order, since it is important to steer away from the central reservation at all costs, and anyway few of them are without hints of past or present atrocity. Even “Sausage” has one.

I was surprised to encounter this ethic in such a place, since I have long been accustomed to a more extreme version of it from the militant avant-garde. Likewise owing a lot to Adorno, these poets will deliberately focus on atrocity (British treatment of Iraqi prisoners was tremendous meat for them) as the stage on which to uglify both poetical language and the human image to the point of repulsion.  Rowland is of course much milder (which to them would mean complicit) and spreads his vision more widely, viewing the social theatre at large rather than through highlighted instances, but the principle is similar if not the same, for both found their systems on reactions to major atrocities as forms of opposition to the artistic, and at times the language use is comparable, though Rowland will locate his avant-garde idiom in such zones as the practical world of people trying and failing to speak English.

This attitude comes into its own in the last three poems of the book, collectively titled “Führerhäusen”, recording visits to three of the death camps. The perilously ambiguous position of the tourist is quite delicately dealt with, as is the whole question of preservation and display, the ethical meaning of neat lawns in such places. Guilt too is handled with care rather than being plastered on every watercolourist in sight. But above all the experience is authenticated in a poetical diction which is at many points deliberately “awkward” or unyielding, and indeed there is a lot of local language which is not translated, but by current standards it is not rebarbative, but rather an original and thoughtful handling of a major European modernist mode which predates the Holocaust and in its faltering meditational discourse accepts calm noticing  as at least as authentic as violent anger. It is an enhancement of perception. From “Birkenau” –

After Kraków’s holding beers
a skylark in throttle
over Zauna,

full ubiquitous yellow
butterflies padding
historical ponds,

a birch woodpecker couched
in red, a light trick
of the crumbling orb,

and terminal moraine:
brick chimneys maroon
absent wood aesthetics.

THE PUBLIC PRESENCE of poetry such as Smith’s and Roland’s has owed a lot to the work of Salt Publishing, who for all their banal terminology in publicity (everything always “exciting” and usually “funny”) have specifically encouraged such writing in both experienced and new poets and worked tirelessly to promote it, as well as publishing precedents in an older generation such as the Collected Poems of John James, of John Temple, and of David Chaloner. They recently announced that they will publish no more books of poetry (except annual “Best of…” anthologies, which don’t really count), so this phase is now ended.


Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry – and some of prose. His latest book is The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet, 2011). He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.

NOTES:

  1. Gravesend does not bear a publisher’s announcement, only three commendations from others which, like most such quotations on the Salt books, attempt to entice the reader by offering fun and obliquity more than anything else, or emphasising quirky references. From the blurb on I Am a Magenta Stick: “…these poems always tackle the important questions. Where does beer come from? Why was Shakespeare fond of gravy?…” etc.  Don’t worry, it seems to say, this is not really poetry.
  2. It is by the way typical that chasing Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” gets you nowhere.
  3. It must help to know that Mr Berkeley’s professional name was “Poetic”.
  4. Sowerby puzzles me. There are quarries but it’s not a limestone area and their offcast is not white. Perhaps something I never noticed. I wonder if he knows it’s pronounced “sorby”.
  5. Edinburgh University Press 2005.

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