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.

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