Friday, 20 August 2010

Identity Parade, Part One

In this series of features I plan on writing a little bit about each of the poets on show in Roddy Lumsden's Bloodaxe anthology, Identity Parade, which proclaims in its introduction to be representative of the "pluralism of contemporary British and Irish poetry": plural in "its register", its "regional and ethnic diversity", and plural in "its subject-matter" as well as "in its form and style".

Patience Agbabi

Agbabi’s poetry, while initially interesting, quickly reveals itself to be weak and lacking in depth. Her first piece, ‘The Wife of Bafa’, is a character monologue based on Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, in which a Nigerian woman recounts to us from a market stall fragments of her life. It is funny, implicitly political and entirely believable. It gave me a warm feeling upon finishing, but I’ve no desire to read it again.

‘Postmod:’ is a snappy but bland lyric. ‘The London Eye’ would probably like to be a witty, light skewering of consumerist London, and is refreshingly playful, any criticism left, as with the politics, implicit. There are some lovely lines: a man “writing/squat words like black cabs in rush hour”; “The South Bank buzzes with a rising treble”. But ultimately it fails to transgress tired metonymy, another London poem in which the city is conveyed simply by listing things that are in it, and I find its chatty, buzzy tone irritatingly, self-consciously ‘contemporary’.

‘Josephine Baker Find Herself’ is the most interesting of the lot, a specular poem in the vein of Julia Copus. So of course, it is impressively structured. It is the voice that bothers me, the persona on show, as well of course as the way Agbabi renders the voice. It yearns to be ‘contemporary’, to be ‘relevant’, and features embarrassing lines like

‘She samples my heartbeat and mixes it with
techno so hardcore it’s spewing out Audis
on acid for fuel.’

I get the impression that hers is the kind of stuff that’d likely help kids at school get into poetry, away from the tedium of Carol Ann Duffy on repeat. Which is an undoubtably good thing. But for me, it does nothing.

Jonathan Asser

I’d not heard of Asser before reading him here. I’m a bit dismayed, prematurely I hope, by the fact this is the second poet in a row, the second poet in the anthology to be writing about London. His first poem, though, is pretty good: there’s an unexpected lightness of touch, a darkness of humour. It is a snapshot of some people in London, ripe with (more) London metonyms which inform the safe epiphany at the end.

‘Something To Do’ is much better – the same sort of thing, this time a list of observations of a microcosm of London in which the speaker aims to “lick each cobble in the mews, to feel/the individual curve against his tongue”. There are some wonderful descriptions and, thankfully, no real conclusion. It perfectly conveys what it wants to convey, but at the end I’m not particularly eager to read again. It’s not Asser’s fault, of course, but I’m sick to death of poems content to be little more than mini-scale representations of London. Tom Chivers in How to Build a City did it brilliantly – the city was the backdrop on which the quality and original composition and thought could commence. Anyway, I digress...

The next poem is the same as above. Observation after observation, some quality imagery, no epiphany. It almost reads like it is observing all the things it needs, the raw materials, to write an exceptional poem, like it is eloquent notes. Am I wrong to be so curtly dismissive of this kind of thing? It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that I find it dull. Yes, there are lots of nice-sounding images one can derive from a big city, yes the humour is engaging, but I want something more probing, something bigger, from the poetry I read.

Tiffany Atkinson

Now this is more like it – Atkinson’s poetry is richly imaginative, perhaps even too richly imaginative.

‘Portrait of the Husband as a Farmer’s Market’ is just that, and a striking, entertaining introduction to her poetry. It is basically just a list of metaphors, and despite their quality, their intensity (or perhaps because of the latter), it doesn’t quite work. Or, more accurately, it is, as I said, just that.

I enjoyed the rest of the poems a lot more. Atkinson is in tune with the recent, ‘innovative’ poetry I like so much (largely American, for some reason), comfortable with its theoretical concerns, appreciative of the artificiality of linguistic reconstruction – almost all of her poems comment on what they are doing. ‘Autobiography Without Pronouns’, for example, does a lot more than its title implies. It portrays the idea of capturing something autobiographically as untrustworthy, not only in its refusal of pronouns but in its filmic imagery: “the sea/for miles on the passenger side/like the hiss of Super-8”. It implies that there is no set self one can truly capture and truly represent linguistically, and that trying to do so in a poem, in this poem, is like trying to record something that is not recordable in the first place. Which is why its end (“And love insists, like gravity”) is such a letdown – it comes from nowhere, seems tacked on and contradictory.

The main fault I have with these poems, the only fault, is that they feel a tiny bit undeveloped. They bombard the reader spectacularly with metaphor, dazzle and impress, but often seem to wear themselves out by their conclusions, like an awkward silence after a big display. As if later work, in which she is more controlled or refined as a writer, is what these pieces are aiming for. Which is why ‘In this one’ stands out. It does the same things as the rest, but the imagery and metaphor never swallow the poem’s intentions. It is beautiful in its tactility and restraint, compared to the others: “His/skin has sun in its unconscious”, “my tongue’s a husband in a dress-/shop”, light hitting earrings “quips back”.

I look forward to her forthcoming Bloodaxe collection in 2011.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Two Poems - Colin Dardis

The Warmth of Ice

No carving, chip of chisel knocking.
Cool smooth curls of fresh skin
brush pass me as autumn air,
a fabric weaved to perfection.

My kisses skate
over the frozen lake cheeks,
soft ice warmed with beauty.

Oh angel in my bed,
come flatten out
the creases between us
and let our love be
as calm and peaceful
as your image is
with candescent lips, bedtime cheeks.

On Mistakes In Drawings

I make my drawings
in pen, permanent marker;
no HB graphite shit for me,
that’s stuff for the fakers
and the patient.

I draw fast,
lopping arcs of pendulum ink
swing across the page.
More often than not,
a line goes out of orbit
and I cannot erase.

You work with your mistakes,
blend them into the whole,
another word in the silent poetry.

If art reflects life
then there should be no chances
for corrections.
Hold the artist accountable
and let the canvas be his guilt.

Colin Dardis is a writer and artist based in Belfast, Northern Ireland . He helps run a monthly open mic poetry night called Make Yourself Heard, and edits a small poetry journal called Speech Therapy.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

One Review

Tobias Hill - Midnight in the City of Clocks (1996) [Salt Publishing, 2007]
by Joshua Jones

The most spectacular thing about Tobias Hill’s second collection is how abrupt the transition is from it seeming exciting and alive to it becoming, ultimately, boring. This Salt version, its third incarnation, is a beautiful edition, hardback, the cover art a blurring sunset cityscape, swathed in green and yellow, murky and enticing. The title promises something strange, something other, an enigmatic collision of time and space. It informs us that Hill has been “selected as a next generation poet”, and comes with the Poetry Book Society’s seal of approval, as well as praising pull quotes from such ‘big’ establishments as The Guardian, The TLS, Poetry Review and Poetry Wales. All of which conspire to boost one’s expectations going in. Even if you don’t especially rate the mainstream leanings of these heavyweights, the fact it is on the esteemed Salt Publishing creates an aura of authenticity, of something quality, of importance. It’s a shame, then, that Midnight in the City of Clocks only ends up staid.

The problem with Hill’s poetry is as explicable through its form as its content. They adhere for the most part to loose pentameters or tetrameters, sometimes for effect but often arbitrarily and destructively. Many of the poems would have worked better if ‘tradition’ or ‘the norm’ had been not just disregarded but attacked. It never really is, and the collection’s formal blandness sadly reflects the poems’ content.

Take Part One, entitled ‘Transit’. It is a series of poems written abroad, the majority of them set in Japan. They have two modes: attempts at character writing and lyric snapshots, postcards of travel. While the writing is technically strong, it has the air of being written by an educated man on an extended gap year. The character pieces are dull imaginings, fleeting as a train passing through a station and with just as much depth. The poems’ main strength comes from the originality of their imagery, although even this is wildly varying in quality. There are many occasions when, in attempting to describe originally, Hill overstretches, as in this poem about a sumo wrestler in a sushi bar:

'[...]the floor-mat
learns flatness under his weight.'

(from ‘Sumo Wrestler in Sushi Bar’, p. 18)

And then you’ll get an excellent description (this one not only in the same poem but on the next line):

'His thighs flop down like sunstruck apes.'

Elsewhere he reaches for a distinctly Japanese lightness and lyricism, for the most part unsuccessfully. It reads forced and affected, if pleasant:

'[...]A white scorpion
waits without motion
in a frail cloud of blossom.'

(from ‘Green Tea Cooling’, p. 20)

Part two, ‘Back in the City’, utilises the same techniques, albeit the Japanese lightness is reduced and a forcefulness and brutality appropriate to London replaces it. Which is, at least, appropriate. The problem is that Hill’s knack for interesting, idiosyncratic imagery is not put to good use; instead we get banal lyric after banal lyric, a slightly embarrassing fascination with the city’s underside (as in ‘North-West London, 8.15’) and a massive waste of a descriptive talent.

The blurb describes it as a collection “crammed with a young man’s curiosity and eye for detail”; I would translate this into “a collection of poems crammed with a (not so) young man’s lyric self repeatedly superimposed over scenarios that could have been more interesting if they weren’t so stricken by a formal adherence often failingly compensated for by too much detail”. But then that doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Nonetheless, the third piece, ‘Prisons in a Departure Lounge at Midnight’, is a masterful fragment of travel, of the dazed observations one makes late at night when the plane has been delayed, of the glazed separate worlds we can see from the outside but never get inside, where things have become slightly unfamiliar: the praying man’s “white beard left on like shaving foam” (p. 6). Maybe skip this collection and just Google that poem. Because after the book’s sixth page it’s all downhill from there.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Three Poems - J.R. Pearson, w/ Illustrations by Tom Moore

from '8 Equations'


Tumco Mine & the Inability to Find Integers

Capable of Containing Human Emotion

What's left?
The automation of an omen older than fear coiled in the silver-cursed call of gunshots gone blind over radio static. All night we taste the stars & sand caught in shattered rain blown downwind from Castledome's abandoned mines haunted back to life. Imagined stain of gas-masks against skin, sun-faded gasoline cans & animal femurs littering the glitter-gold floor of square shafts angled thru mountains. Stakes in a heart. Stories tope-tinted with Tequila & greed by proxy. Stories of stories of older stories. Steel bleeding beneath the sun. Rusted bones & forgotten gears buried or ground under a heat that dances all night. We walk, looking for something, awed by nothing and flashes of what-- Combines with comet tails eat green until the night is full of eyes. We sleep in the open. Our bodies sing silent decibels above desert syntax, above planetary code-pulse, above the stars humming in harmony. There's something here in the silence: 4 primal forces, she's the fifth chord song-spun from nothing. The words of a dream: in my head I know we're old but my heart is young for her.


Heroic Couplets with Karma & Unfound Human Talents

for Raising Dead From the Already Dead

Your space is here here & here,
just keep your fluids to yourself.

Don't bleed on me.
Tourniquet tourniquet!

Turn dagger's volume up past maximum
amperage in the mind's electric fingers.

My my what have the planetary corpses
left us. A brain full of rain & fire's

unspeakable talent for renewal minus finger-lightning
or belted teeth still stingy white

from laughing & laughing at us at payback.
And Karma you bitch, We still owe you a kick in the face!

How about we settle up with our secret Rx for raising maggots
miraculously out of dead bodies--

Abracadabra & presto chango!
worms have wings & even these thump

flight in bosoms with vacuums
where hearts vanished long ago.

This is spontaneous generation of myth-making.
Concept concept! Build me a theory,

take one electrode
place it beyond sight

& lance streams of plasma
thru the last cortex curtain cut--

I see a thousand claws burnished
to a single sun, alternate space speaks

in heartbeats & bass patterns &
random noise picked up on the highway.

Says: something unseeable moved
in subtext: what the universe

says about re-returns & reverse psychology:
stand five minutes face up in shotgun sleet

& mouth it verbatim:
what you always thought you never knew

about the easy strength in an unwound blade
about the symbioses of human flesh & the fanatical

gleam in sharp teeth
about what "fuck" means to retractable fangs

& why secret maps baked
in limestone are buried

under the last place you'll ever look


Sonnets to Symmetry

There are things beyond rationality
& the warm pull of gravity. Scale models
of pyramids that keep steel razors sharp for centuries. How an owl's
wings silent as yellow smoke
in a valley of wormwood drift
over your sleeping eye. How every civilization finds people
in the sky. Hard to believe the face on a nickel. Believe flash-drunk
blindness & a homeless man's need for possession. Believe retractable fangs

coiled & sun-spent in heat's best swing of the hips.
Believe eyes full of sweat-stained shade
on the sheet's underside & blister resin
left white until it fills with starlight. Believe flesh waltzing the fine line
between live-wired to spinning wattage & cold-spit dead ends.

Let's unrehearse the facts. We've all slept in beds made before we're born,
headboard names & dates, predictable "plate-glass sheets"
& dreams of a miracle that slit your throat. Truth is they carry sniper rifles
& plant your prints on murder weapons. Pose as witnesses. Said I heard it all.
Said it was suicide. Toe fingering the trigger.
Said you never listened. There was something out there, salvation
with your name on it. Another second chance. Last minute misplacement
of I. O. U.'s. Truth is every morning we dig fingernails into flesh
under running water to get clean. Again. Try to leave behind thoughts

we thought were buried deep enough to forget.
The sight of our faces, throttled splayed to the earth.
Finally a toast: here's to symmetry!
Here's to falling face first into wet cement.
Here's not to death per se just a rational failure to exhale.

J.R. Pearson played "Jonny B. Goode" in 1st grade with an audience of 15 people.
Once, I seen him eat a whole case of Elmer's Glue. He was terrible at finger painting
but he's proud of these poems. Read his stuff in A Capella Zoo ,Word Riot,
Ghoti, Weave, Boxcar Review, & Tipton. He recently was included in an anthology:
Burning Gorgeous: Seven 21st Century Poets.

Tom Moore is from Grimsby, Winchester and South London. He graduated from Camberwell College of Art's Drawing degree. His work has been in several group and solo shows in London and Edinburgh. He won The Pictures first film prize. His book, Politicians, is published by Monster Emporium Press.

Monday, 2 August 2010

One Review

Annie Katchinska – Faber New Poets 6

Katchinska is the first of the Faber poets I’ve really got excited about. She is, as far as I’m aware, the youngest of the bunch, and her poetry reads so: it is flailing, wild and jumpy at times, speeding through striking images, not unhoned but certainly not as craftsmanslike as some of the others. And that’s precisely what I like about her. Well, that and the fact her work has a unique energy and vitality to it, notably different to most other young British female writers I’ve read. She perhaps most closely resembles Caroline Bird, albeit thankfully less irritating and narcissistic. Whereas Bird’s similarly wild imagery is often simply messy or showy, Katchinska’s feels genuine, feels necessary. Feels, for the most part, properly utilised.

A sample:

My head is scarved in choir, a crowd
of flame who must have floated down
last night. I call them candle clouds;
they sing for hours.

(From ‘Orthodox’)

She said that sun was her sarcophagus,
she told us we should walk and walk, too poor
for ice cream, sun cream, gulping in ghosts
of whores and triumphs, turning to the ball
that sings the way exploding fruit will sing.

(From ‘Peach’)

Whatever she turns her pen to, whichever feeling or thing she seeks to represent can become lost in the explosions of metaphor, the desperate lyricism; but regardless of any criticisms about her poems’ coherence (most of which are, for the most, minor), the represented object or situation or moment always ends up revitalised. Her poems skip across the lines of their narratives, all the while fluctuating and flailing away from it into image yet always retaining a thread to link them back to their core, a style which, in the end, defamiliarises the subject matter and imbues it with an original and exciting quality.

If she keeps on like this, her debut collection will be a significant and important addition to the list of new writers who not only tick all the obligatory boxes but who reinvent the questions. This early batch of poems will leave you frustrated at your inability to feel satisfied: I want more!

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