Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Some Reviews

Jonty Tiplady
Zam Bonk Dip
Salt Publishing, 2009
reviewed by Andy Spragg

Choosing to engage with excess has long stood as a hallmark of a kind of poetry that tends to be labelled – sometimes pejoratively – as 'experimental'. As poetic strategy it is often embedded within a particular slipstream of theory; an acknowledgement that the poem's frame is one that inevitably works to exclude a variety of dialogues in favour of developing some form of narrative or epiphany-driven coherence. At its worse this exclusion creates a totality anchored in the tediously domestic, a sort of complicit agreement between reader and writer that asserts an absence of linguistic or thematic challenge. If such an approach defines itself by its ability to disregard the incongruities that hover beneath the surface of language then Jonty Tiplady's book forms its refreshing antithesis. He is all about excess, both linguistically and thematically. As a poet he evokes JH Prynne's 'Nearly too much / is, well, nowhere near enough' from Down Where Changed, an desire to engage with such a vast and eclectic range of stimuli that the poem's frame strains to contain it all.

Zam Bonk Dip collects together a number of Tiplady's chapbooks, and serves as an excellent showcase of his distinctive approach. The writing is defined by a technique that manages to be doggedly consistent without losing its innately compelling edge, a style that takes its cues from the saturated language of both the media and the internet. It's playful, funny and highlights the hyper-speed tenacity with which our vocabulary currently evolves. This is no more apparent than in the third section of the title poem, where Tiplady exclaims '{...}anoint the/blobject beckoning on the Olympic Stadium.' ('Zam Bonk Dip') He could well have pulled the whole thing out of a Guardian article on Stratford's latest folly, or from a comment posted under a Youtube clip, or found it amongst the quagmire of writing that populates blogspot – he may well invented it himself – and in that fact lies the most engaging aspect of Tiplady's work. It is full of such moments, and yet it manages to be tender as well: 'It's always time to sing again/careless soul.' ('Zam Bonk Dip') Here's Whitman's contained multitudes, albeit shot through with a twitter-feed attention span.

Tiplady is not the first of his contemporaries to make gestures towards an inclusive meshing together of high and low culture by any means. In fact, case could be made that it is an overly familiar strategy, even amongst the more 'mainstream' poets of the day. Luke Kennard (with whom Tiplady shares Salt as publisher) demonstrated an ambitious scope in source material throughout The Harbour Beyond the Movie, however his usage conceded to a certain authorial flourish, a sense of the writer signposting his own reading list. With Tiplady it feels like a natural extension of the language, the mode of expression itself, rather than a contrivance or device.

Another thing that distingushes Tiplady is his comparative fearlessness when it comes to the 'low' culture component in his writing. It's hard to imagine Kennard writing, 'I met this girl the other day, she had a nice ass. I wanted to tit-fuck that ass.' ('Dear World And Everyone In It') Taking such a line out of context is unfair as it strips away that which frames it; it does, however, highlight the intrinsic value judgements that usually deflate a poet's decision to engage with excess, that they tend to be guided by an unconscious aesthetic conservatism. For Tiplady no such reservation exists, or if it does then it plays out beneath the surface; his usage of such difficult concepts draws attention to the dialogues that infiltrate deep into culture. There is a curious double logic at play. Internet pornography's popularity embeds certain linguistic codes into the cultural strata, regardless of where the individual may stand morally; likewise when Tiplady exclaims 'LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE' ('OOV'), it is impossible to not know who he is referring to. There is an affirmation (a word that Tiplady charges with particular significance in 'Dear World and Everyone in it'): here are the dialogues, now what shall we do with them?

For all its heteroglossic intensity, Tiplady's work manages to describe patterns of love and human relationships in a novel and emotionally striking way. The poems that demonstrate real success are the ones that manage to contain elements of genuine tenderness in the narrative voice; no mean feat when you consider some of the aggressively chauvinistic language Tiplady's chosen to incorporate. Lines such as, 'and I love you, through to/pieces of heaven{...} give me my conker back' ('Manic Milk') are demonstrative of Tiplady's desire to communicate something of love, something of communication itself, through his fractal language games. It's the striking tension between these two that sustains Zam Bonk Dip throughout, a want for clarity amongst an excess of signification. Tiplady's success lies in his ability to make this a compelling exercise; one that acknowledges its own inevitable failure, but is no worse a read for it.

Sandra Tappenden

Salt Publishing, 2007
reviewed by Joshua Jones


Sandra Tappenden’s second collection is a wilfully idiosyncratic, forcefully contemporary and strangely confessional work of fractured lyric and prose poetry, riddled with absurdism and wreathed in irony. It is for all of these reasons that it, initially, is a compelling read, but upon closer inspection reveals itself to ultimately be lacking in force. While she has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of striking imagery, her phrasing is always cocooned in a rather banal safety net of irony, and while she is evidently aware of the difficulties of using language, particularly in light of the philosophy of the 20th Century and poetry since the Language movement, she seems content to merely present an awareness of this, an acknowledgment of its difficulty{1}, the – “constantly uncapturable” (5) – before retreating from the danger of meaning into the supposed prevention of criticism that is blank irony; or, more irritatingly, into Bridget Jones-esque domestic singledom. In ‘Blame’, following on from the above quotation:

Tenuous moral concepts depend upon
where anyone stands. It’s easier
to lay down, groovy-single,
playing the same track
over and over.

True. But surely the role of poetry is to resist the easy option? Of course, the poem from which this is taken can also be read as ‘giving in’ ironically – earlier in it the speaker makes reference to her “compromised heart”. But where does that get us? For a collection entitled Speed, Tappenden really is often a quite lazy writer, happy to rehash postmodern poetics, sprinkle in a bit of self-conscious idiosyncrasy” (“I’ve found it helps to carry an egg in pocket” [1]) and trite, ironised confessionalism, and voila, we have a book of poems happy to sit there not really doing anything much other than chasing circles around itself.

Which is not to say the book is without merit. On the contrary – her imagery at the very least creates the illusion of singing with movement and vitality. So why not apply the same exuberance to content? In a characteristic line, again from ‘Blame’:

Naivete is forgivable when both parties
are unaware they’re innocent.


The story now has gaps where once I knew all the lyrics.
There are clues here in a lyric full of holes.

(‘St Swithin’s Day’, p. 16)

In a long sequence – ‘Matthew Arnold Refuses To Exit the Building’ – Tappenden somehow manages to create what I can only describe as a pastiche of pastiche{2} . The second in the sequence (‘To behave repeatedly like an idiot does not mean I am an idiot’):

All I can think to say is that if I had a hammer
there’d be one less cat in the world or I’m sorry
I seem to have confused you with my dad.

But it’s not really a shop, it’s a mist-ridden 7 a.m.
Sunday boot fayre where you rush up in red or dead
hangover shades with a fiver for a something lovely.

It takes moments to realise crucial pieces are missing
but hey you say it’s all part of a long game
a bit like bridge or that other one called crevasse.

To which all I can muster is a yawn. Throughout the sequence, cats and arrows and other deliberately blank signifiers appear, their sole purpose being to relate with one another to produce the implication of a possible meaning, one that clearly isn’t there; but even this isn’t done with a purpose, with a political or philosophical aim the way the Language poets consistently did. Instead it is simply being ironic for the sake of being ironic, behaving like an idiot for the sake of behaving like an idiot. This is a poetry which seems terrified of even the possibility of having to engage with anything beyond banality and pointless circularity. More than that, she seems to actively have little faith in her own medium. References to poets and poetry abound:

Where does anyone live nowadays?
Certainty is a product like anything else
and poets are not much use are they
I often think I overhear someone say.

(‘People who are drawn to take free stress tests’, 42)

If I tell you the sunset is salmon topped with grey...
[a long breathless assault of imagery follows which is actually pretty decent]{3}
call me a liar will you

(‘Mastery’, 4)

I should like to be rigorous without seeming pedantic.
I should like to drink the Indian and the Atlantic.
I should hope. I do, but I’m howyousay? compromised, so.

(‘There must be something in the water’, 55)

Once upon a time being a poet meant more

(‘The unexamined life is not worth living’, 65)

And so on.

Tappenden knows how to write appealing, infectious, bouncy, exuberant images and how to play with enjambment and to deadpan &c&c. The problem is her poetry takes failure as failure, and despite all its energy it seems to me it has little faith in the concept of movement{4}. I’d recommend not bothering with this collection. Kennard’s nailed contemporary absurdist, ironic and distinctly English poetry that is actually doing something and believes in itself; Speed, on the other hand, is fluff.


1.  "to state the difficulty, to state the difficulty of stating, is not yet to surmount it – quite the contrary" - Jacques Derrida

2. I picture Fredric Jameson hitting himself over the head with his own book.

3. The parenthesis is, in case it’s not apparent, mine. (I also happen to think it would, if developed, make a far superior poem to the one that is actually there. But hey, that’s just me, right?)

4. For a nice summary of what I mean by movement see Neil Williams’ essay here. It is of particular interest in its situating its discussion of movement in Plato’s philosophy, which serves to reinforce and further explicate notions of movement familiar to readers of Heidegger and Derrida.

Jim Goar - Seoul Bus Poems and David Gewanter - The Sleep of Reason
by Rovert Van Egghen

Urgh, I thought, when presented with Seoul Bus Poems by Jim Goar. A collection of poems, most of which, according to the blurb, “began on a bus, [one] began in Bangkok, and others in rooms in rooms between Yonsei University and Bongwon-sa”. No doubt there will be a lot of gap yah anecdotes and half-baked political pieties in a bubble-wrap of self-righteousness. Fortunately, proving that old adage about books and covers true, I was wrong, very, very wrong.

Seoul Bus Poems is a subtle collection, and indeed at first reading it can seem rather flat and uninspiring. Opening with “I don’t want to write / about leaves. The change in / seasons. my love”, almost begs the response of well, good for you. It also does not help that Seoul Bus Poems contains some absolute clunkers: my favourite being “Just do me a favour, my suicidal rose / And get of the ledge / You’ll kill the dirt if you fall”. Emo angst has never been done so well. Yet it would be too easy to dismiss Goar’s collection as the kind of poetry the ‘experimental’ kid reads at your local Open Mic.

The key to appreciating Seoul Bus Poems instead lies in appreciating the sounds of the words on the page, the dances with language which Goar undertakes. Lines like “breaking little rakes akimbo” and “blocks of western migration / lemon rubbed teeth of cicadas” roll around the tongue, and sound fantastic when read aloud. What Goar is doing then is creating a sensation of sound, a Cageian clangour of percussion in a most wonderful impression of the noise of a bustling Seoul. What does “lemon rubbed teeth of cicadas” mean? Who cares? What matters is how it sounds, the way the sound of a city rises from Goar’s words.

These poems appear then like little sketches of an environment, fleetingly viewed from a bus window as the landscape passes by, already gone before it can be comprehended. It is this transparency which gives Goar’s poem their curious lightness, There is a fluid lucidity to them, as images are revealed with all the vividness of rememberance. Witness:

        Opera of Korea

             fish in the store     window

                red lights

                    and around      more

                        red lights

Simultaneously a capturing of the fish viewed, the baffling uniformity of a city at night, and the sense of journeying through a city at night, Goar is able to create a challenging urban perspective through his masterful formatting and economy with words.

Goar’s collection then is one which promises little but delivers lots. Its loose fluidity means Seoul Bus Poems is unlikely to stay in the mind days after reading, but it does provide food for thought, evoking a landscape which is slipping away as it is being seen. It is, as Goar puts it, “a map under glass remembering”.

If only the same could be said for David Gewanter’s The Sleep of Reason. Again proving that old adage, The Sleep of Reason sounds great, promising “alternately delightful and startling poems” where “allegory comes alive” and “Gewanter’s delicate musicality and keen sense of humour sparkle”. Instead the only sound to come out of the collection is one big cumulative yawn. By the end of the collection, I felt like a cheerleader who had snagged a date with the star quarterback, only to find out he cried when we made love.

Not to say that our star quarterback does not have some good qualities; his hair is nice. And the concepts behind a lot of Gewanter’s poems are promising. ‘Gag’ is about a comedian who eviscerates his family for laughs, which could, indeed should, be fantastic but Gewanter does not so much press the moral of the poem as slam it in our faces, ending with “Should we call it art / just because real people / get hurt”.

This also occurs with the last poem in the collection 'Hocus Pocus' which begins with a quote from Mariah Carey. However, apparently Mariah is not enough name-dropping, as soon Cassius Clay, Adam Ant, Mr Graham and, inevitably, Oscar Wilde appear - none of them adding anything to the poem, other than giving it an air of burlesque comedy which jars with Gewanter’s moral about mortality and “the Angel / hustles back to the girl’s bed”.

The poems in the collection which are more focused, such as 'Cobbler’s Children and Divorce' and 'Mr. Circe', work better as instead of seeking to entertain, confuse and lecture us all at the same time, Gewanter demonstrates an effective tone. However, there is something flat about much of Gewanter’s writing - a lack of energy which means that what might be “an offbeat satire for an off-kilter age” is actually bloody boring.

Gewanter seems to possess neither an ear for the musicality of language, nor a mastery of form. Most of the poems in this collection take a vague free verse form, and on the rare occasion that there is a bit of variety, One-Page Novel for example, it seems tacked on and redundant.

The Sleep of Reason then is a disappointing collection. It sounded brilliant on the blurb. A poem about 100 rabbits with herpes?! Bet that’s brilliant, funny, quirky and off-beat. Well it’s not, not even a little bit.

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