Rhyme & Pun-ishment
Impossible Objects, Bill Greenwell (98 pp, £7.99, Cinnamon Press)
Sound of Mountain, Bruce Ackerley (102 pp, £7.99; Cinnamon Press)
Over the past few years Jan Fortune-Wood has been doing a sound job supporting new and more established writers editing the attractively produced Coffee House Poetry at the same time as she has been getting her new Cinnamon Press up and running; all this in tandem with a number of ambitious poetry and novel competitions. The latest development is that she is shortly to take over as editor of the long-running Envoi and will subsequently wind up Coffee House but keep Cinnamon Press going. These two texts reflect much of the work she has been doing: Bill Greenwell's Impossible Objects which has been short-listed for the Forward Prize for best first collection is her first big success story; Bruce Ackerley's Sound of Mountain is another debut collection.
Bill Greenwall's Impossible Objects is clearly designed to entertain, and will certainly go down a storm at poetry readings. He includes a number of very funny poems, but can also bring out life's poignancy or tragedy. Many of the poems work by way of bizarre juxtapositions or by taking a single idea and running with it often with entertaining results. The one jarring note for me in this otherwise 'sparky' collection is the fact that though wordplay comes across as his forte in some poems it is also something of a curse because he just can't resist slipping puns and the like at every opportunity. Fortunately this 'punnitis' is less prevalent in the later poems of the book, so it's worth sticking with it.
To deal with 'the bad news first' the wordplay become wearing because there is just too much of it, thus, in some of the early poems we have the cumulative effect of lines like: 'I tossed a tantrum at you, /...the pin was still in /...I knew I'd catch it'; 'he takes a handful of sweet/nothings', followed rapidly by the wordplay-inundated 'Life three':
One day the cat got his tongue
It was through grief that you met
who couldn't swim to
save his life. He
died in your arm-bands.
since then you have drawn water
No-one knows to what end.
However, just as you're about to make the third and final groan you encounter the powerful poem 'Absent Fathers' which is good enough for us to forgive his phrase 'evasive inaction', for here we have the vital ingredient of emotion and everything else we need to make a poem work: imagery that is sustained and a situation that is moving and real:
When they missed the rehearsal,
they found themselves without a line
or even a squint of the limelight:
they are walk-ons, extras.
In their chafed faces, you can still see
the silhouettes of intention,
before the absence, and before
the daily pilgrimage to the child's slide.
One feels one does have to hunt out the emotion in the collection but when you find it it's clear it's something Greenwell can do well. In 'Tournesol' he explores a chance quotation from Dr Brewster's Reader's Handbook (1911) which includes the wonderful comment: ' 'The sunflower turns on her god when it sets'...This may do in poetry, but it is not correct.'':
The world's on a swivel, all of it,
searching for grief and what
that means. Which may do in poetry,
although of course, it isn't correct.
Straightforward, precise description is another effective way in which in conveys emotion to the reader as in 'All Mist, No Sea' which provides a touching portrait of someone close and here the wordplay 'you cannot read your writing' manages to say something subtle about human complexity and self-knowledge:
You take three wisps and plait them
unconsciously, your hair
frizzing in instants.
there is sand between your toes. You stoop
to brush it away, like a duchess
who has mislaid her maid. You cannot
read your writing;
the ebb rinses its meanings, touches
We see him doing something similar in 'Tumbledown House' with this moment of tenderness:
If I looked for a rhyme, I would find it
in your face, in mine, in the moment
you grazed your fingers
over my arm.
But when it comes to funny, this is certainly something he can do without qualification. We have the very funny poem 'Gig' which describes, as one might expect, a really, really bad gig with an audience that is mainly 'comperes' who live in hope of a booking at the local library and a bassist who 'has been on medication. It might have been/meditation, in fact, but that's drugs for you'. 'Troubadours' is clearly a performance poem that cleverly places the troubadours in a contemporary setting and vice versa:
just underneath your casements;
ooby-dooby troubadours, chancing their
arms and their puff sleeves with silvery
serenades, refrains, and encores.
Woo, woo, Hey.
Now I send you slim cassettes,
tucked into jiffy bags, wrapped in
anonymity, mail-order melodies so that
your husband shan't suspect.
You have me taped.
yeah, Woh. I am your
troubadour. I am in
Best of all is when he manages to mix sad and funny as he does so well in 'How to kill yourself'. Here, his playing around with a stock phrase works because it is sustained throughout the poem and is also making a serious point:
With kindness. This is the hardest.
You need to sling a smile
round your neck, and
give yourself a bit of a break.
...With a smashed heart.
Usually works. Just fall in love
with someone who cannot
love you, and vice versa.
Or stop breathing. It helps
if you ask someone else
to hold your breath gently.
'Cleansing Fluids' is very funny poem that also provides that 'shock of recognition' for anyone of the same era with its TCP and DDT in those days when mothers seem to have all sorts of lethal cleansing fluids at the back of cupboards. This is straight stand-up in his description of CTC:
...It could lift gum, grease,
Flies, lies. It was tick-toxic. It was sweet.
how my father could drink the stuff.
And 'The Swizz' is another one for kids of the sixties (speaking as one who still has the last Reading trolley bus ticket lovingly preserved):
The swizz is extinct. Official.
It went the way of Spangles.
Cremola Foam, the interlude,
the trolley bus, a third of a
pint of milk at playtime,
and the threepenny bit.
And in the end, I would argue he is describing something genuinely tragic about modern life:
In came lager, the avocado,
pots of yoghurt, the salt
and vinegar crisp, satellites,
and regular invitations
to enter a pension scheme.
What a swizz.
A final poem which is entirely driven by Greenwell's love of wordplay and which effectively combines humour with the profound is 'You open the door' exploring the notion of what the cat might bring in, and thus showing what he can really do when he gets it right :
the sounds of waves, prowling the prow
like mutineers, and in the waves
you hear the hands of God
rinsing the world of bloodstains, pain, the pandemonium
of martyrs, the spittle of innocents,
and the boiled anger of man.
Look what the cat's brought in, you say,
showing it the door.
Thus we have a collection that both entertains and has things to say about the human condition. It is also full of ideas that might be useful on creative writing workshops, but please Bill-let your sleeping puns lie.
Bruce Ackerley's Sound of Mountain is a wide-ranging collection: he explores the various physical and spiritual landscapes of home and abroad; draws on his interest in art, cinema and avant-garde music, and includes a number of poems on failed relationships. In the process he succeeds in writing many strong poems, showing himself to be skilled at crafting language, with words that are carefully chosen and poems that have been cut back to the bone. However, evidence of a poet still finding his way lies in the occasional lack of clarity and the inclusion of poems that don't make a strong enough point. Since there are plenty of poems in the collection that do, he might be wise to be a bit more selective in his final choice-an option readily available to him since he has included around ninety poems.
One of the last poems in the book is worth quoting in full for it provides evidence of Ackerley's poetry when he gets everything right: craft-the carefully chosen and placed selective details of the scene, clarity and honest and painful admission of emotion (and the lack of it):
It's in the small print of grief-
this falling back on cliche
The death that stole in
like a blessing, that dry resolve.
But what kind of day was it?
Mild. A lone bell in the Cheshire
murk, the church, sporting her
witch's hat for a steeple.
I recall the box-its smallness,
as though the wood conspired
to forget those ninety-odd years,
instead, offered a child to darkness.
Your winter, was a shrinking
business, mouth and mind dulled
to the pitch of life; guess I loved
you once but when we lowered
your husk down into its six-by-two
clay pit, just what did I feel? Not enough
There are numerous of examples of poems that are similarly self-contained: 'Hirta', 'Corpse flower', 'Days...' 'Woodland Suicide', 'Scarecrows' and 'Hunters in the Snow' to name just a few. On the other hand, though he does provide some helpful notes (reinforcing the obscure subject matter of some of the poems) they aren't enough to make all the poems clear. The poem 'Sisters', for example, which Ackerley tells us is based on the 'Mulrooney religious suicides-Ireland 2000' tells you nothing if you don't know about it already, and although the verses give some kind of clue that maybe these sisters were abused or starved in some way one is really fumbling in the dark with no means of being enlightened without some major trawl of the internet. Poetry readers are generally happy and even want to have to do some work but they like to feel they are starting from an even playing field.
In many of his landscape poems one could see close observation of subtle changes of mood in the scene before him but you sometimes wonder where it's all going, then one encounters his poem 'Starlings' and one is provided with a nature poem that achieves a satisfying whole as we move from observation to a cathartic experience:
They shoal and fade, shoal and fade-
each pure, abstracted wave a statement
of genius. You're drunk, raised topped
up with godly invention, pull up a stop
short of faith.
When it comes to his poems on relationships there is some really good stuff going on. Ackerley really shows his poet's credentials in being prepared to say the unsayable as he reveals his darker self meditating on his own cruelty towards others. We have lines like in 'Guilt Trip': you/sick as a dog and me-neglecting the art of kindness' and this cruelty in himself is one he takes head on and tries to dissect, in the concise 'Hearts of Glass':
Feel that you can't
that you won't be tender.
Like Herzog's priest-
Skellig bound, boxed in
by his own cold metaphysic.
Fatally indisposed to any
world that might be leavened
by love, laughter, sleep.
Sometimes he also just has some damn good lines as in 'Manitoba': woke ragged-edged to the mountain--/convalescent from our failed love'. All these poems are consistently good and his poem 'Fantasy Man' is also very funny, since he includes the failed relationship within the fantasy that of course defeats the very point in having a fantasy:
So I took his icon home
and dreamed us both a life.
Our first night-the bar, the booze,
the filthy talk-way I like it.
The bliss, short-lived, and sunk
by a tyranny of need. Then the lies;
his quiet, prophesied
betrayal; my fury.
And to conclude a powerful and moving poem with a strong concluding line, and providing illustration of the vivid physicality that he brings to many of these love poems:
END OF THE AFFAIR
His clothes still toxic on their hangers,
were the icons of a morbid lust; like
you, starved for their fill of brawn.
But when he slept, tummy up, arms
pitched back on the pillow, dozy
foil to insomnia's rage you hated him;
felt tricked by your own dream,
having asked for love, not this mania.
and raised to a god what you mislaid
in him, of course, was the human.
© Belinda Cooke 2007