EIGHT DIFFERING VOICES

TROUBLE CAME TO THE TURNIP
by Caroline Bird, £9.95, Carcanet Press
NORTH FLIGHT by Lynne Wycherley, £8.95, Shoestring Press
OUT OF THE BLUE by Nadine Brummer, £8.95, Shoestring Press
DESIGNED TO FADE by Mary Coghill, £9.95, Shearsman Books
NEW & SELECTED POEMS BY Fred Beake, £9.95, Shearsman Books
THE EASTERN BOROUGHS by John Welch, £9.95, Shearsman Books
THE STRANGE CITY by Alan Baker, £3.00, Secretariat
NOCTURNE IN CHROME & SUNSET YELLOW by Tobias Hill, £8.99, Salt


There are some reviewers and critics who cannot resist the opportunity to complain about the 'state of contemporary poetry'. That they think they are in a position to make such a judgement amazes me. To make such a judgement would require attentive reading of several hundred collections a year. I think I've done well if I've read a random selection of say thirty or forty in a year - books I've seen reviewed and bought, books sent to me by friends or sent for review And this is not counting poems one reads in magazines and journals. The large number of publications hardly suggests an unhealthy situation. Publishers are publishing and readers must be buying.

Anthologies these days no longer trend-spot but either deal in themes or celebrate diversity and/or simply represent the reading experience and taste of their anthologists. Where is today's equivalent of Alvarez's The New Poetry or Morrison and Motion's The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry? Where are the anthologies that can generalise and say what's happening now and suggest where things are heading? As Sean O'Brien admits in his The Deregulated Muse (Bloodaxe, 1998) 'shifts of taste, interest and literary power may always be marked by an interregnum, but our situation is at any rate complex, in that the very variousness of contemporary poetry seems to prevent, at any rate dispute, the emergence of a dominant line.'
           
So let's enjoy MacNeice's 'drunkenness of things being various.' And let's start with a firework display. Caroline Bird's
Trouble Came to the Turnip is a second collection from someone still only nineteen. It is like nothing I've read before. At times surreal, hallucinatory, playful, always vividly imaginative, yet controlled, in a way I can't quite put my finger on - the poems somehow feel 'achieved', somehow make us aware of a genuinely serious shaping spirit behind the highly entertaining flights of fancy Bird enjoys and allows herself. These are remarkable poems and, if anything (though it would be wrong to claim direct influence), they remind me of the verbal exuberance of the young Dylan Thomas. Caroline Bird has given the language of poetry a real shot in the arm.

Lynne Wycherley's
North Flight is likewise a second collection. It comes with a positively stunning cover picture of a sculpture by Ánason. What I value in this collection is Wycherley's sharpness of vision conveyed in such precise language that the poems themselves seem lovingly sculpted and polished to a brightness. I was reminded of Jane Routh's work which, among other things, explores the bleaker northern parts of the British Isles. Wycherley takes a similar journey - from the Fens to Orkney, Shetland - but sails on further towards Iceland. This impressive collection also contains beautiful poems about John Clare. Nothing unhealthy about these lovely poems.

Another second collection, this time Nadine Brummer's whose first was a PBS Recommendation.
Out of the Blue is a reassuringly comfortable collection. In using the word 'comfortable' I don't mean the poetry is in any way complacent, simply that the well-crafted poems in this book are quietly meditative and very satisfying to read. Poems about gardens, colours, various creatures - the ordinary and everyday thoughtfully, quizzically contemplated and presented to us with freshness. Poems about looking, 'seeing how strange forms are/the closer you look.' I wish I had room to say more but here's a taster, the poet's response to a painting of tulips:

    Yet, there's passion in standing still -
     in the bowl's almost metallic
     patience, the way
     it comes in from the dark
     not glittering but more alive
     than those three tulips -
     there is this emptiness inside
     that brings the eye to light's location.


Shearsman Books favour - for want of a better word - not mainstream but something  more 'modernist', experimental. Already in Stride I have given warm welcome to Shearsman books by the Laurie Duggan and Gael Turnbull. In Designed to Fade Mary Coghill is given space to construct a narrative about a woman (and according to the blurb 'a woman's poetry') on one day's journey through her native London. The poem largely fails to come to life for me: it is less a re-creation (like Joyce's stream-of-consciousness Dublin day or Willliam Carlos Williams' Paterson) than a set of often over-intellectualised statements:

    I can break it all into anacoluthons, ride on metonyms, elaborate
    with metaphors, state half the truth, use a prosodic term or two,
    or relate artfully, induce fear and pity.

There is certainly plenty of interesting variation in the lineation of the poem and there
are moments when I'm imaginatively in the poem but most of the time I feel I'm reading the lecture notes of a bright Theory student. It's clearly an ambitious piece of work…but (and I know this is begging the question) poetry?

I have reservations too about Fred Beake . The blurb calls his 'an unusual poetry, and hard to place in terms of the modern scene. It occupies a position that is equidistant between the Imagists and Objectivists, the Surrealist, and much older things.' Well, I don't know about that last sentence but the first is certainly true. Compared to the other collections under discussion here, Fred Beake's feels unkempt and baggy. The poetry is an uncomfortable mixture of all sorts of things. It feels rough and unpolished, not worked-on sufficiently, allowing itself too many abstractions - sometimes it's arcane, here and there old-fashioned in flavour: one comes away from reading it with one's vision blurred rather than revitalised. Or at least I did.

The Eastern Boroughs is another kettle of fish. This time a fifth collection. For me (not having, to my shame, come across his work before) a real discovery. Welch's mind is a fascinating place, mainly because it is fascinating to him: he has suffered breakdown, the partial removal of a brain tumour, undergone psychoanalysis. Like Eliot's, Welch's subject matter is kinds and degrees of consciousness - where to locate the 'self', especially in and through writing. He has a fine eye and ear for landscape and cityscape (London) and a way of making them real to the reader; there is vivid description but with always the sense of a rigorous intellect controlling and shaping so as to make it as effectual and telling as possible. And there are serious confrontations in which silence and absence are key motifs. He has been dubbed a 'late modernist' but this is not just a matter of technique or style…in any case, as someone wise once said, technique is simply the ease of the master. And these are masterful poems. Here's a taster from 'Isle of Purbeck':

    In front of the bay's shallow curve
    Crabs and lobsters were trapped
    In a brick pool down on the Front.
    They scuttled to the edge as if to shelter.
    Mind and body both slowed leaning over
    To watch, in the daze of late afternoon -
    Such beautiful machines!

    I stayed and stayed
    Being so much here the tenant,
    At last, of my own silence.

Alan Baker too is new to me. His small pamphlet offers a set of poems about coming to terms, like Coghill's and like some of Welch's and Tobias Hill's poems, with living in a city. This time the cities are Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Nottingham. Baker hopes for 'a better life/in which the generous,/the communal means better… that common aim once thought beautiful in early evening
  
    Castle Rock, the Trent
    blues clubs and seventies reggae,
    lacework, female labour

    railway, canal, factories
    a sight once held most magnificent

    it might be said, to undercut works
    of hands, forgotten

    hopes, sidling acquaintance
    with layers of

    up-to-the-minute and waiting to be lived,
    out across the land, tacking

    to a common aim, Arcadia by lamplight
    a common hope across the years.

The Strange City
is patchy, impressionistic, has echoes of Eliot, but the heart is in the right place.


Salt has a real winner in Tobias Hill's Nocturne in Chrome & Sunset Yellow. The book does brilliantly what Mary Coghill for me fails to do. If you enjoy reportage, commentary on events and experiences rather than imaginative re-creations of them then Coghill is not a problem and, in her own way, can be impressive and interesting technically But if your preference is for a poetry you share in, enter into imaginatively, then Hill is your man. I was interested to see the recommendations of George Szirtes on the back cover. Though Hill hasn't the dazzling techniques of Szirtes, he does try to give poetic life to London as Szirtes has done to Budapest, not in the same manner but in the same spirit, bringing London to life sensuously, giving it a real cosmopolitan lived-in feel. There is beautifully observed detail, for example in this witty simile:

                             Pigeons sit
    in rows along the hoardings, like
    those boys who had never brought themselves to dance
    but stood all night and necked their beers.

I can't better Szirtes's 'London in
Nocturne in Chrome & Sunset Yellow is an object of love with the shadow of 7/7 hanging over it, the poetry touching it gently, curiously and carefully with full awareness of its fragility.' Let me quote the November poem in the fine sequence A Year in London:

   
London - there's a rhythm to the name,
    its ending an echo of its beginning,
    as if
London were the name for somewhere
    full to the brim with its own echoes.

    I think of the sound of ordnance
    each November, the guns echoing
    through  the fog and the minute's silence
    in remembrance of themselves,

    and the bomb's echo that shook the air
    miles north of the Natwest Tower
    the night my father came cycling home,
    shepherding his bike into the hall
    before he said he wasn't well,
    his heart foundering in our hands,

   and the sound of fireworks, that night
   we stopped on the stairs in Bell Wharf Lane
    to watch them fall across the river,

    the thunderous openings like hands, or
    arms thrown wide in embraces,
    each one falling short of our places
    on the black steps of the wharfside stairs.
    Those rockets coming down in glorious gold
    into the river. Who were they for?
    How would we ever know? The echoes
    filling up the streets around us
    with a sound like
London, a sound like Lon

   
Don. And all that brilliance was ours
    in our dreams that night, even
    if none of it was ever meant for us.

See what Szirtes means?


       © Matt Simpson 2006