OUR FAIR CITY

Phoenix New Writing
edited by David Morley
147pp, £7.99, The Heaventree Press, PO Box 3342, Coventry, CV1 5YB


This is an anthology of poetry about Coventry. Best get my scoffing out of the way in the first paragraph. According to David Morley's introduction, 'The writers are either from the city, or they have chosen to come to Coventry to live, study and write.' (My italics) Such projects are usually only of passable interest to any who live outside of the city in question. Have you ever voluntarily purchased or even flicked through something called, say, Luton Unbridled or Taunton Writes Back? Speaking as a reader, Place, for Place's sake, has never really got my vote.

So I was pleased to discover that, although largely concerned with Coventry, this collection is expansive and well selected. Its three chapters are entitled 'I: Phoenix', 'II: New' and 'III: Writing'. Parts one and three contain poetry as an 'act of community, either in the workplace or classroom' and are all about the city. Part two contains larger selections from no less than nineteen Coventry-based writers. Criticising an act of community feels rather like sneering at a town carnival. Still, having grown up in Luton – which is at least as moribund as Coventry (and had a really tacky carnival)– I feel qualified to comment. Not least because this collection has much to recommend it – some truly exceptional moments and several very strong contributions, on which more later.

Phoenix New Writing
is essentially an assertion of cultural relevance by a city perhaps not associated with the literary cachet of a Bath or an Oxford. It's a convincing assertion – establishing, beyond argument, that Coventry is home to a thriving and talented writing community. I think almost any city you care to mention is home to a talented and thriving writing community of one sort or another; but it’s good that Coventry has one too. I'm all for that.

The first and third chapters include numerous works by children, complete with E.J. Thribb (aged 17) parentheses after their names. Some of them are very fine indeed, particularly Isaac Proudfoot (aged 8)'s confident and accomplished use of the Pantoum in 'When I Became Ruler of Coventry'. The repetition demanded by the form is used to haunting effect here, the poem beginning and ending on the line 'Because it was ruined once, then twice.'

Indeed, formal structure is well represented in
Phoenix New Writing
– and the poems written to strict form tend to be the strongest on show. The Pantoum makes another superlative appearance in Karl Kahn's lyrical and melancholy cityscape, ‘Late-Night Trains Circa 1943’ which concludes: 'the city's rumpled in its greycloud clothes. / It swings a battered suitcase as it goes.' A resonant and truthful portrait of city life, haunted by a modulating refrain, including: 'it winds a rusting watchspring as it goes'; and 'It wakes up in tattered party clothes. Like many of the best works in Phoenix, this is a fine example of something beautiful emerging from drudgery. An equally noteworthy mastery of metre can be found in Swithum Cooper's excellent 'Two Foot From Snow', written in Terza Rima, and in his Rondeau, 'Carnivalette' – 'We two-stepped to the three-step on our own...'

Certain subjects of local interest arise with inevitable frequency: Lady Godiva, air-raids, the cathedral, graffiti, dogs... Vera Nkungu (aged 11)'s 'Haiku to the Legend of Lady Godiva' is excellent and complies strictly to the haiku form:

   Taxed, rained-on, mighty
   sorry for themselves, people
  
need
a bit of flesh.

These days, as is recorded elsewhere, they may avail themselves of the strip-joints – that is if they're not too drunk to be refused entry...  I'm still not quite buying the old 'rising from the ashes' analogy. Indeed, many of the pieces on display are more concerned with how wearisome everything is. Typical enough, this tercet from Paul Rowland:

   I watched our blue Ford Cortina Estate
   burn like a bonfire, in the car park
   of the services just off Junction Eight.

Bummer. And Matt Nunn, poet in residence at Birmingham City Football Club, makes an appearance with his vindaloo of buzzwords, underpinned by a vague sense of urban sadness. If I could be poet in residence of anything, I think it would be a French patisserie – or maybe a nice pub.

More convincing is Jonathan Edwards eloquent lamentation in 'This City is the Equal of Any on This Earth':

          ...On Saturday nights, the lads who pee
   like lager onto the streets do not know where
   they are, and the only cars on the road make money
   by transporting everyone away from here.

Beautiful cities are beautiful after their own fashion; all unhappy cities resemble one another. And on Saturday night everywhere sucks. However, as Edwards concludes, 'This city's what is there when I am not. / Home.' Luke Heeley's unusual and fascinating poems also capture what it is to live in one of these giant run-down shopping centres most of us have to call home. 'Operation' begins with the discovery of 'a translucent white surgical glove / and an empty bottle of vodka' under a railway bridge – typical yet somehow alarming city debris. By the last stanza:

   I lie down on the pavement
      and make myself comfortable.
      Shadows advance with military precision
      The footsteps slip through my ears
      as cleanly as dental floss.

This left me feeling that as you can lie down on the pavement, it doesn't really matter where you live. Heeley is at his best when he avoids 'flickering on the edge of oblivion' and instead focuses sharply:

         I burnt some time
   pumping coins into a fruit machine.
         The guts clanked as it puked back the metal.

This urban sensibility is blended with some well-justified references to Pascal and Frank O'Hara, making Heeley stand out as one of the most interesting poets in the collection.

Much to my delight,
Phoenix
contains several prose-poems, the best being Denitza Vlaeva's extended piece, 'Grassroots and Gravel'. Vlaeva urgently delineates the life and death of a novelist whilst altogether avoiding metafictional histrionics. The cold, philosophical turn brings to mind Samuel Beckett's prose (itself always on the edge of poetry) sharing also a talent for bursts of arresting description: 'His alarm will be ringing. He will go back in. One strip of sunshine, as if stolen, on his carpet.'

The pregnant narrator of Anna Lea's powerfully understated '16' evokes a nightmare situation:

   I don't believe you will find the money.
   Your mum is calling you for tea
   And Home and Away is starting in the background.

It works – because it is funny, desperate and recognisable, like a Raymond Carver short story. Good writing somehow makes the familiar strange and remarkable – Lea achieves this with alarming effect. 'I will put down this brown phone / sweating like a horse in my fist. We leave her listening to the static 'unfold and unfold and unfold.'

Phoenix New Writing
is an eclectic and beautifully presented anthology. There is much to be savoured here– and while it may not have me racing back to Coventry with a camera and a diary, it certainly has me looking forward to the Heaventree Press' next anthology.


         © Luke Kennard 2004