TROUBLE IN THE LEAN-TO
Trouble in the Heartland by Joel Lane, 69pp, no price, Arc
An Occasional Lean-to
by Ian Pople, 77pp, no price, Arc
like titles. I find titles useful, sometimes amusing, and often essential to
my reading of a poem. In Trouble in the Heartland, Joel Lane uses titles in an exemplary manner. 'White Label',
and 'A Neat Bloodstain' complement their poems' raw content whilst displaying
an edge of humour. In contrast the poem on page 32 tells a short story of death by drunken driving, but its
title 'Take my Hand' spooks me. Take whose hand? The dead? The living? In
this uncertainty the title offers a frisson of pleasure.
Despite my fondness for
titles, on one occasion I barely registered a seemingly-innocuous title. Here
the religious tone and imagery (music, dreams, hunger, kneeling, 'lines of
a face'), and final couplet 'I'll meet you by the river / where the gods are
rotting' led me to overlook
'The air's thin with amyl nitrate, / and the shapes of hunger // are
more visible, at first, / than the forest of silent men'. Oops! On a second
reading I noticed it was, of course, a poem about anonymous gay sex. The
title I hadn't absorbed reveals all to those with a bit of gay cutural nouce:
The second Arc book, An Occasional Lean-to by
Ian Pople doesn't do titles. At least not in the regular sense. Here we have
just the book title (which doubles up as the title of the second section),
and 'Texts', the title of the first section. There are seven further
subtitles, and that's it. Clearly the poet has his reasons for this, but it
still feels a like a missed opportunity to me.
In Pople's favour his
technique is precise and exact: 'The gecko is important, / that runs the
ceilings / for mosquitos' (p. 23) and 'The heron is open above / and apple
blossom below;' (p.22) have strong appeal, even when I find myself looking
for an absent verb. There is also a pleasing 'gate-leg table/ opened out for
breakfast / in an angle of light / that turns under the eye.' (p. 31)
Not a lot goes on but it
is beautifully described.
Returning to Trouble in the Heartland, Joel
Lane explores relationships in mainland, multicultural Britain, but he also
goes to war. In the poem 'Read My Lips' survivors are ordered to chant
'freedom' for the cameras. There is a sinister end.
But in the
the tape backwards
the word 'murder'.
I also enjoyed the near-sinister 'White Label': '...For weeks / I've been
saving up your best lines / to echo in my head'. Most of us will have been
guilty of this kind of fruitless dwelling upon of memories at the end of a
bootlegged them from stray moments,
them, like moonshine
spirit in a
or an illicit
remix on a club disc.
reverse scenario (where the narrator wants a lover to leave) appears in
'Second Draft'. Camp references nudge up against coruscating anger, possibly
directed at the ex-lover's infidelity.
Go and sculpt a nude archangel
barren cloud. Go and play
Metallica or with matches.
anyone who asks.
It is written in 36 continuous, often witty, lines, which adds to the
impression of a flow of righteous anger.
If you flick through Trouble
in the Heartland, you will see not only this
form of poem, but couplets, three to seven line stanzas, and a variety of
line lengths. In contrast Ian Pople restricts himself (after the opening
section, 'Texts') to just three stanzas per page, each five lines long. So,
fifteen lines per page for 56 pages. This is relentless. Either you must read
it all in one sitting or find yourself lost in a repetitive stillness - which
may be the desired effect (it never harmed Gregorian chants)! Pople appears a
talented poet, I am just not sure that he holds my attention sufficiently.
Another minus for me was
the large number of unfamiliar words: bowser, adit, blebbed, catenaries,
gelid, to name just a few. Once I had looked these up I was occasionally none
the wiser. Bowser, for instance means tanker for fuelling aircraft, or
Australian term for a petrol pump. I loved the
first part of the stanza that contained this, but the bowser lost me. Here it
is: 'The function of this pond / is apprehension; / both torque and bowser.'
Also, soffit. A lovely
word. It means the underside of an arch or balcony. Pople uses it to describe
a snail 'under the soffit'. Excuse me? Doesn't that now read 'under the
underneath of the arch'? Mind you, this was the effect of some of the
passages I was reading: I felt my mind warping into the outside of inside
Everyone has their own
tolerance level for obscure words and lack of titles, etc., and you could
argue that I am a poor reader to want more 'clues' to a poem's intentions. I
know there is some good stuff here, but overall the book provoked a sense of the emperors' new
clothes (or satrap's new clothes if you
prefer Pople's word for 'governors of ancient Persia' used to refer to doves
and ravens on page 29). It's all very lovely and worthy in small doses,
Let your own taste and patience dictate which book you buy. If you can
sustain concentration over monotonous terrain and want to explore the sacred
and the secular through nature An Occasional Lean-to will be perfect.
If you're after the noise
and trauma of the city, a fractured narrative from different voices, and a
bitter humour then opt for Trouble in the Heartland.
© Cath Nichols 2005