TAILS, TRICKS AND HERRINGS

Tails
by Kona MacPhee, 64pp, £7.95, Bloodaxe
Vanishing Trick by Sue Butler, 58pp, £6.95, Smith/Doorstop Books, The Poetry Business, The Studio, Byram Arcade, Westgate, Huddersfield, HD1 1ND
The Yugoslav Women and their Pickled Herrings by Cathy Young, 90pp, unpriced, Cornford Press, 6 Salisbury Crescent, Launceston, Tasmania 7250


I suppose it’s inevitable publishers bring out books evincing promise as well as – or, in some cases, rather than –  achievement . Nothing wrong with that. Except that sometimes you are led to suspect the competence and/or taste of the publisher/editor and/or feel that a judicious bit of editing would not have gone amiss. In certain instances you wonder whether writers have not been brought on stage too early or because they are considered part of an observable trend or current fashion; in some cases you might think some writers should not have been brought on at all. This latter observation does not, I hasten to say, apply to any of the writers here. They are, in very differing ways, all worth reading – MacPhee not least for her verbal texturing, Butler for her quiet-voiced seriousness, Young for a raw honesty.

Tails, we are told, is an auspicious debut. It is certainly an ambitious one – experimental, risk-taking – which, for the most part, pays off. There is versatility here, the trying-on of different voices and different musical registers (the blurb tells us, somewhat vaguely, that MacPhee ‘sings with the music of language’).  And though the achievement is considerable, there are times we have to say promise scores over it. In other words, times when praise has to be qualified – as when the poet is occasionally seduced by alliteration or goes in for over-egging with adjectives or produces tautologies like ‘Tilted aslant’, ‘that veils her skin/in cloudiness’ or when she plumps for the exotic word like ‘sinuates’ or invents one as in ‘wheatstalks perpendict the lines’ or, more rarely, makes one squirm with a line like ‘Perspective’s engine hauls the eyes’. However, these are the good faults of over-ambition not the bad ones of sloppy writing.

MacPhee grew up in Australia (she now lives in Cambridge working in astronomy as a software developer) and a number of the poems are set there. In Melbourne she finds the sun

     now tucking in until the morning, furling
     the eucalypt linen of clean blue ranges
     to its chin; the murmured benedicte
     of late sea breezes to the exorcised heat.

(‘benedicte’ perhaps sounds a little precious?) She is genuinely good at evoking the exotic qualities of down-under landscapes, the ‘land of subtle colours, land/or larger air’. All in all, her poetry is a search for ‘the rightness of things’. But not without entertaining a deep sense of the fragilities, the instabilities that sensitise ordinary daily lives. Loss and suffering play their part. During a course of IVF treatment she feels ‘all hope/leaching from between my legs as blood/tinges the water’; and again with a nurse’s announcement ‘She’s gone. I’m so sorry…The car stops. Your breath stops. Everything stops’…those last three clipped sentences clear evidence that MacPhee can make her lines re-enact what it is they say. The poems in this book cling on to hope, despite the pull towards its opposite It ends with a moving four-liner called ‘Home’:

     Beside me on the couch, the cat, asleep,
     types a soliloquy in twitching feet.
     Your shoulder’s warm, our baby breathes above;
     some wounds need no remedy but love.

MacPhee is surely a poet to watch.
Tails (a low-key title compared to Cathy Young’s) contains fine poems, the reading of which offers the excitement of poetry often working with genuine precision and poems coming to properly clinching endings. A poem about misting up a window with breathing ends:

     We wake to the unmistakable trace
     of life: this glass we can’t see through.

In ‘Flying to London’ we find

     The seatbelt light comes on; the plane banks low;
     its engines spill a last Australian heat.

Having flown back from an Australian summer into a Manchester Airport winter, I can feel the force of that last line.

Sue Butler’s poems possess a straightforwardness that reminds me of Jim Burns, poems that are simply a way of saying something directly and completely without pretension:

     Gunther comes in with blood on his trousers,
     speaks slowly and with much miming
     about which farmer’s pigs struggle longest
     and whose calves have the palest flesh.
          [from ‘Vanishing Trick’]

Though we’re told she ‘currently lives in Hertfordshire’ I imagine her as having North of England origins. Her poems have what Norman Nicholson once called a ‘certain homebred gumption’ about them:

     I spit on both palms
     because that is what lumberjacks always do,
     rise on my toes to wield the huge axe
          [from ‘Grammar Lesson’]

And her poems always ‘arrive’, they get, satisfyingly, to where they are going. Try this poem called ‘Proposal’, one of the several which explore experiences encountered on a trip to Russia:

     Down back streets with women
     double his age, he queues for pears.

     Inspects the eyes and gills before buying
     herrings from a trawler.

     Bakes their flesh with dill,
     stews a sauce from their severed heads.

     He covers the gate-leg table with a cloth.
     Arranges lilac in a milk bottle.

     At ten to eight he melts fresh butter,
     flash fries the pears.

     Stirs in sugar, cream, crushed cloves,
     until every mouthful is deafening.

See what I mean? That final word detonates the whole poem.

But the straightforwardness is deceptive. Sue Butler’s poems may be down-to-earth; they are also subtle.  O what a world of profit and delight is offered by poems that begin:

     I stop crucifying Mahler
     on the pre-war piano
     to watch my mother burn leaves:
     curled yellow pear that fell early this autumn.
         [from ‘Burning Leaves’]

or

     I once spent a day as sultry as this
     discussing God with Pasternak.

On the back of the book George Szirtes talks of ‘Tiny adjustments, large effects’ and likens Sue Butler’s world to that of Chekhov: ‘On the one hand, delicacy and desire, on the other, wild grass.’ It is not hard to see why.

If you like your poetry raw, unpolished, hard-hitting, then The Yugoslav Women and their Pickled Herrings could be for you. Sadly, its publication represents Tasmania’s Cornford Press’s swansong. It is to publish no more books. This one flaunts a subtitle: Some Hard-Working Women Poems 1960-2000, SA & Victoria, giving a voice to women who have endured the harsh conditions of ‘migrant life, institutionalised labour…and other “down” jobs (factories, strippers, prostitutes, outsourcing).’ It is an uncompromising, nothing-spared account of the conditions of a marginalised sector of Australian society.

Cathy Young comes originally from my neck of the woods, Bootle on Merseyside and I can well imagine her having that kind of Scouse hard-knock, no-messin’ toughness that women who live in big ports (certainly the case in Liverpool) tend to acquire. It is no doubt this that has helped her survive a variety of hard-life situations down-under and make poetry out of them. (When I was in Australia I soon discovered that Oz and Scouse temperaments were similar – both have a kind of mock-aggressive debunking wit).

We soon get the impression that Cathy Young has no time for poetry-niceties; her work is almost belligerently rough-and-ready: you are going to have your nose rubbed in it. This also makes me believe that she must be a wow in Australian performance poetry. What looks raw on the page (not poetry in a conventional sense) has the sense of being scripted for hard-hitting readings:

     old British Empire daughters
     now old ladies on their own
     often hire cleaners
     one morning a fortnight
     $5 per hour
     they have their own systems
     you follow their order
     to the word
     kitchens first then a cup of tea and a biscuit
         [from ‘We will have tea in the garden one day]

or

     If you got up for the
     five o’clock in the morning
     mass
     you could have
     2 scoops of custard
     for your dessert
     in
     “The Pines” Catholic Girls Home
          [from ‘Hello Francene’]

or yet again

     daughter of a
     single working woman run ragged
     cleaning kindies minding kids stacking night shelves
     with granny in the front room in her old wedding bed
     giving her orders a bit strange on top
           [from ‘Another lesson learned’]

These poems have never been workshopped. You turn the tap on, out they come – blousy,  brassy. But they are politically vibrant, committed, no shit!

         © Matt Simpson 2004