STRANGE LAND by Tim
Kendall, 54pp., £6.95, Carcanet Press
THE THEOLOGICAL MUSEUM by Paul
Stubbs, 79pp, £7.50, Flambard Press,
Stable Cottage, East Fourstones, Hexham NE47 5DX
LIVING ON THE DIFFERENCE by Mike
Barlow, 55pp., £6.95, Smith/Doorstop,
The Studio, Byram Arcade, Westgate, Huddersfield, HD1 1ND
These three first major collections each suggest the
struggle to carve out a distinctive poetic niche, with varying degrees of
success. Two of them, Tim Kendall's and Paul Stubbs', exhibit distinctive
takes on religion.
Tim Kendall, former enfant terrible of Thumbscrew magazine, has always seemed a promising talent.
His contributions to Oxford Poets 2000, published when Carcanet inherited the Oxford list, were one of that
volume's few saving graces. I read Strange Land hoping to recognise a distinctive poetic voice,
but it remained a strangely heterogenous gathering. I could live without the
anecdotal prose-poems and the long satirical piece, 'Ship of Fools':
But when war
came, as come it always must,
we hurried in
vers libre to show disgust
take slightly longer to compose
verse, or, in rivals, chopped-up prose)...
The title sequence is more successful, referencing childbirth and CDs, and
the poem for soldier-poet Keith Douglas emotional an apt, but I missed the
wit and playfulness of his assessments of other poets. 47 pages of poems for
£6.95 seems a bit thin, too.
The Theological Museum has
great claims made for it: Alice Oswald commends it to the reader with lavish
praise, the book promises radical, dislocated syntax, a 'Beckettian
post-world' (whatever that may be) and fragments of traditional religion.
This all adds up, apparently, to 'a new idiom for a new age', so I approached
it with high hopes.
Unfortunately, this seems to boil down to long free-verse pieces, arrayed
with lots of indents, dashes and ellipses and little regard for the shape of
the line. Ah, but the line isn't important as a unit of composition, you say;
why is it still present on the page as a unit of visual appropriation, then ?
What sense of random logic governs a line-break like 'mirac-// ulously cured'
across not just a line but two stanzas ? It's not metre or syllabic rhyme,
nor tricksy wordplay; the lack of poetic craftsmanship escapes me, I freely
confess. After a few poems reversing theological assumptions, the cumulative
effect is depressing and predictable; the title poem, a tour around the said
museum, seemed unfortunately like a childish attempt to shock. It concludes
So then to
bible, your thermometer and your match...
'Head', a strong poem about a Bacon painting aside, I can find little to
recommend or enjoy here.
If Paul Stubbs is 'a poet of the new millennium', then
I'll stick with writers like Mike Barlow. Recommendations on the back cover of Living on the
Difference make much of experimentation
within the ordinary quotidian world and it breathes life and experience,
rather than showy iconoclasm or lukewarm glimpses of scenarios. There are
less impressive poems in this volume: Barlow uses repetition to close poems
too frequently and 'Believe This', an otherwise powerful slice of criminal
life, comes across as Armitage-lite. There are, however, two loose groups of
highly impressive poems : firstly, several quiet, meditative poems of
domestic nights and mid-life ruptures, including 'Idle Talk', set during a
sudden flood, the water hinting and eddying, a sensitively-handled symbol.
Secondly, there is a group of powerful rural sketches:
meet it'd be Now then and a
the bare bones of itself. Once we passed
the three of
them walling the lane to the ford. The dogs
for us. He took his time to call them off,
grudged us a
nod. Aye. They don't like folk.'
Trouble Between Us')
There it is: the real thing, measured out in ordinary words. And perhaps
that's all you need to recommend this volume above the other two.