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The Wide Summer Shelf, 2018 II.


barbed rule

By Peter Riley.

barbed rule

New poetry Summer 2018
Reviewed, noted or just listed
In three parts: First part reviews Carol Rumens and Judith Willson. Part Two reviews Sheila Hamilton, Em Strang, Vahni Capildeo and Dorothy Lehane. Part Three: Steve Ely,  Nick Totton, Aidan Semmens, Scott Thurston, Alex Houen, James Russell, Andrew Wynne Owens, Antony Rowland; short notes, anthologies for Denise Riley and W.S. Graham, and criticism by Sandeep Parmar et al.

Poetry restrained and risky: Hamilton, Strang, Capildeo and Lehane

barbed ruleSheila Hamilton
The Spirit Vaults

Green Bottle Press 2017 | 68pp paperback | £7.00

I WAS DRAWN to this one (and the next) because it seemed be involved with negative and destructive manifestations of our history and condition as poets generally aren’t, not directly (see below on Steve Ely). And so it does: Lidice, Beslan, Ekaterinburg, Eyam, Jan Palach and others, but also poems on single static things and situations: The Lindow Man, Jarman awaiting death at Dungeness, a photograph of a dead dog, loups-garou, and others. They are recounted and remarked quite straightforwardly, amounting to summary retellings or reflections. There are other things too, atmospheric poems on Clare and Neruda and two longer descriptions.

The trouble is that the poetry does not go far enough, it holds back. The emotions remain quite mild and many of the poems are just reminders of past histories or uneventful reflections on various subjects. Poetry can go so much further than these rather craftless retellings: inflamed by anger or lamentation it can push the poem forwards towards causes and revenge, and it can get much closer into the interstices of the dead body…

Sometimes the writing does open its eyes, as in the poem about the man at Ekaterinburg who dug into the buried bodies of Nicholas II and his entourage in his garden and kept silent about it for fifteen years : “I didn’t want my spade to hit bone, but it did” … “Every spring that tangle of ribs and corsets is visited by moles, worms…” But mostly the poetry keeps its distance and we get violent and disturbing acts, situations, things, summarized in unexcited free verse.

Em Strang

Shearsman Books 2016 | 80pp paperback | £10.00. $17.00

WHAT CAN YOU DO when faced with a poem like this one?

There’The Feast

There’s nothing inside this morning

There’but a blackbird.

He’s pecking steadily into my eye-socket,

He’s pecking the yellow beak’s fidelity

making a clean meal of my eye’s meat.

But it’s OK.

But it’s It’s good to be useful.

(1) Another glass of wine. (2) Scrutinise every word one by one in order to realise as fully as possible the scene, what happens and how the writing engages you. This is possible, but surely the shock of the third line depends on a swift approach to it. (3) Say “It’s symbolism”. Unhelpful. (4) Devise reasons why in the present condition of the world and of the world’s language it has to be like this, the blackbird has to torture us. No, don’t do that. (5) Sit back and take the whole thing in as something both shocking and enigmatic but which is as it is, like a folk-tale. Here the wolf eats grannie because he always has.

The last is the one I would prefer, which is to acknowledge the strength of the writing and the skill of staging it in that tense, spaced way, producing a total which defends itself against rational appropriation. But I’m not sure that the poem will let me do this.

This is because of the epigraph, which I deliberately omitted. It reads: “There are no more people in Yarmouk, only skeletons with yellow skin. – Umm Hassan, Syria, 2014”. Yarmouk is a large refugee camp for Palestinians outside Damascus established in 1957. In the Syrian civil war it was the scene of intense fighting which by 2014 had reduced the population to a tenth of what it was. Is this, then, the blackbird, or is this the morning news or some other invasion that attacks our eyes, standing thus for all such news, of which there seems always to be more? Is the theatre of the poem then a rational symbolising of an external disaster, news of which “hurts”? The epigraph clearly raises this possibility but an epigraph is only an epigraph and the poem remains, with more in it than the singular connection can account for, so that unanswered questions remain: “fidelity” to what? (the truth?). Why only one eye? (because we need the other for the here and now?) What is the force of the casual ending? To what useful? I wouldn’t want to attempt to answer all these questions without careful consideration.

This is an intriguing book of unusually intense poems…

All this is but a preface to saying that this is an intriguing book of unusually intense poems, none of which much resemble “The Feast”. They form various kinds of telling, above all mini-stories, generally placed in a shifting remote rural/coastal (presumably Scottish) location, bearing a sense of nervous isolation and strangeness, in which these carefully crafted poems present short narratives or events, a significant number of which concern the convergence, or confrontation, of human and animal more often than human and human. The point about the narratives is that you don’t find out what happened in the end. This is particularly disturbing as most of them seem to be moving towards some kind of disaster or at least a problematic resolution, and are diverted, often at the last moment, into a static contemplation, uncommented details of the scenario as if the eye has looked away to avoid the result, and fixes on something else, which may be integral to the narrative but does not complete it except in an irrational or enigmatic sense.

They are not all like this. Some consist entirely of enigmatic depiction or glimpses, others are fairly easy anecdotes, generally lacking a point, and this is clearly deliberate. The explicit, and the connected, are avoided, and attention focuses on the telling itself, the line which pulls us along with its balance and urgency in rhythm and sound, and always manages to end the piece with an effect of poetical settling, a quest for the final cadence through rhythmic slowing or phonetic or syntactical echoing. I think that probably you are not encouraged to seek further, but to accept the incompletion as a token. I can’t claim that these traits always work together well. Some pieces are collections of unexciting metaphors, some fail to conceal an obvious and inconsequential conception behind hints of something more ominous. And for some of us there is a worry about the technique of omission being used to suggest an irrational or even mystical turn of events which cannot be proven or even fully shown.

I keep noticing in recent poetry something about the meeting of human and animal to the point, sometimes, of identity, in a distinctly uncomfortable way.

I keep noticing in recent poetry something about the meeting of human and animal to the point, sometimes, of identity, in a distinctly uncomfortable way. This is naturally among poets whose field of action is rural and remote, with shreds of pre-Reformation imagery hanging from it, especially Scotland and Ireland. It began when I reviewed Daragh Breen’s book What the Wolf Heard. It arose recently in Disko Bay by Nancy Campbell (Enitharmon 2015) particularly the sections which have recourse to Norse and Arctic lore. Her poem “The Seal People” mounts a classic stage for such a drama, but these are “the vindictive spirits of dead seals” (therefore male—male animals are generally unwelcome in Strang’s book too). I suppose it might go back to Ted Hughes, though such things are for him, as best I can locate them, theatrical castings, or puppet shows. Em Strang is heavily involved in the idea of fashioning dramas from human and animal convergence, but really she is nothing like Daragh Breen with his dark and ominous scenarios of pain, the bull mask eating into the human skin, the she-wolf jammed in an oak trunk receiving the last rites as her pelt peels back to reveal the old woman crouched within, “the sea is in its drowning colour”…. Nor is there anything to match his biting humour. In Bird-Woman the process is more of a merging, an accommodation of one to the other, remaining metaphor or dream, or an image drawn from psychology, as when in one of her stories “It doesn’t take a genius to know my mother wants to be a horse” leads at the end to “When we walk back, we walk back slowly, my mother upfront with her tail swishing.” The poem is entitled “For We Are Not Horses” . The tone can be threatening but does not extend to the truly sinister — in fact the animal/human convergence can also be literary and playful.. One of her most effective pieces is a portrait of Whitman as a brown bear (“Oh fish I eat you! Oh berries I eat you!…”)

To disagree with the blurbs, she is not a shaman and does not “restore to us abandoned mythologies” (the tales are just not on that scale). John Burnside’s very serious statement, “…right dwelling is not just a theoretical or ideological concern; it must also be rooted in the gravity that structures everything, rich in the old pagan knowledge…” is impressive but rather pre-emptive and box-ticking. We cannot all live among the lochs and brochs. The “pagan” and the “shamanistic” are both more demanding of self-sacrifice than Strang’s evaporating tales of the highland zone. Breen’s is still the only incursion into this territory I know to represent the horror and agony of primeval process (but see my remarks on Steve Ely below). That doesn’t stop me from agreeing that Strang’s book is in its way a “delicious collection”.

Vahni Capildeo
Venus as a Bear

Carcanet April 2018 | 112pp paperback | £7.39. $11.73

VAHNI CAPILDEO’S LAST book, Measures of Expropriation (2016) was reviewed at length here in The Fortnightly Review, and I think that a lot of the description I gave there of her various modes of poetical writing, and the way they signal to each other, for the most part still holds. My grasp of “identity politics” at that time failed to recognize the extent of its absolutism or to formulate a human response, which I think Capildeo does unhesitatingly, not arguing but grasping the temporal contradiction, as in this terminal stroke of defiant irony:

Slavery days are over.
In the heritage industry kitchen,
a web-linked grandmother makes fudge.

…but more thoughtfully and powerfully in what is perhaps the most important piece in the book, “Crossing Borders: Assuming the Habits of Day and Night”.

The objects and events of the poems are starting-points or even excuses for a meditative study of experience through figurative language which she insists on resolutely.

Her discourse is if anything more complex and unpredictably diverse than it was, but there is a kind of reader’s hand-rail available in the sectioning and titling, which relates the writing more firmly and consecutively to places and source experience. There is even an index of places at the back. Almost every piece is thus contextualized, and, of course, shoots off into unknown lands of the mind body and soul at the first opportunity. Some of the reviews I have seen speak of these places, animals, personal encounters and so forth as if they are what is attractive about the poetry and, perhaps, the reason for its success. I think this is wrong. The objects and events of the poems are starting-points or even excuses for a meditative study of experience through figurative language which she insists on resolutely. It is as if there is a constant descant which extends the poetry word by word but is also a source of delight which the fiercest protests can only benefit from. Indeed there are times when the figure of speech is on the verge of something less constructed, like glimpses of a double world, as in this headlong prose from “Crossing Borders…” —

When the white costume is in motion with such a clean line that it cracks so you hear it you know from the sound like a sound effect there is action that is going right but you cannot see the film and this is not acting when you advance the edge of your arm so the sharp bone blocks it may cause both hurt but causes none pain when you become two metres of direction and two knuckles of surface you are concentrated you may be in contact you are not in touch it is going through you are the maths and machine through which it goes through when the white costumes are in motion.

I think (and I think this mainly because of what goes on in the next section of the poem) this is about a homosexual love-making under constraint from a triple (trinitarian) force which understands the person as body + clothing (costume) + spirit, as against a duality in which the white barrier is disabled and body and spirit are free to reach each other directly, and much of the figurative language represents the sight of that possibility as an actuality rather than a metaphor.

So there is that kind of writing (like the first quotation) and that other kind (like the second) and about as many other kinds of writing as there are poems. For Capildeo seeks and locates a new and particular verbal edifice for every idea of a poem and works through it to, usually, an ending which both clinches the matter and releases you from it. One cannot but envy the resourcefulness of the poet who arrives from elsewhere with a story to tell which deeply concerns us.

Dorothy Lehane

Nine Arches Press 2014 | 64pp paperback | £8.99. $11.32

deep freeze mother
primordial grime
primdon’t speak now, hypoglycaemics.
Titan, shrugging freeze

trigger clement
meet you on the hillside
say what a small new world
don’t say toska
toska won’t cover this.

Opening this book I confront not just the poet but an unknown quantity of poets in at least two generations.

I AM STOPPED in my tracks by a sense of plurality, that opening this book I confront not just the poet but an unknown quantity of poets in at least two generations. Not that the writing is either unoriginal or depersonalised; it is shot through with personality and experience. To quote Andrew Duncan from the back cover: “Lehane’s poems are intensely personal and highly coded. Everything profound loves a mask.” I was involved with this kind of poetry, or at least the persons who concocted it, for a long time and thought I could break the code (principally by not pestering it with rational queries; just take and absorb, as directed on the bottle) but no solution was ever realised. In fact there was no code; there was only a negative and perverse instinct to obstruct transmission and trust in blindfold driving not to run you into a wall. And what was personal, that is, what this or that particular person had found and needed to speak, was blocked by the fiction of a mask and remained unknown and unsaid.

This is a harsh thing to say about somebody’s first collection, but there was a choice. Retiring pre-defeated, I recommend this book for anyone who wants to tackle the same problem, which is a problem, in the end, concerning the state of the world and how language works in it. Ephemeris is useful because the writing many times withdraws from the extreme possibilities of the choice and does offer a recognition or glimpses of one but recognition is quickly withdrawn, and it would be good to know why, and probably a rewarding exercise. Probably anyone seeking to participate in the fullness of contemporary poetry should at some time undertake this confrontation. (Hypoglycaemics = low glucose level in blood, though grammatically shifted in some way, perhaps the study of. Toska is a local band. I’m not sure if these finds help or hinder).

I anticipate returning to this subject in reviewing a quartet of books from Boiler House Press later this year.

Part Three: Steve Ely,  Nick Totton, Aidan Semmens, Scott Thurston, Alex Houen,
James Russell, Andrew Wynne Owens, Antony Rowland;
short notes, anthologies for Denise Riley and W.S. Graham, and criticism by Sandeep Parmar et al.

Index: The Wide Summer Shelf, 2018.

Fortnightly ReviewsPeter 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 (including The Glacial Stairway [Carcanet, 2011]) – and some of prose. He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.

Peter Riley’s latest books are Pennine Tales and Hushings (both from Calder Valley Poetry) and Dawn Songs (Shearsman, 2017). His Due North (Shearsman), a book-length poem, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection, 2015. A collection of his ‘Poetry Notes’ columns has been collected in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, and published in 2015 by Odd Volumes, our imprint. An archive of his Fortnightly columns is here.



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