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


I 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: 'Back Room'.

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 desert nations
     they played the tape backwards
     with no soundtrack,
     and lip-read 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 relationship.

     I've bootlegged them from stray moments,
     distilled them, like moonshine
     spirit in a white-labelled bottle

     or an illicit remix on a club disc.


The 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
     on some barren cloud. Go and play
     with Metallica or with matches.
     Go with 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 out....
   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, but...

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