Be On Your Guard
So Easy Thing, Rosie Shepperd (30pp, £5, Smith/Doorstop)
Cluelesss Dogs, Rhian Edwards (63pp, £8.99, Seren)
Witch, Damian Walford Davies (80pp, £8.99, Seren)
When poems are described on a book's cover as "erudite,
well-travelled, witty and sexy" it's perhaps advisable to be on your
guard, for what may be heading your way could be poems displaying not only
the poet's learning, but also what they did on their holidays. As for wit and
sexiness - well, this is all subjective, isn't it?
Rosie Shepperd's poems may not themselves be literally well-travelled (there
is no way of telling if they have ever seen the inside of a suitcase) but the
poet is (quite): Portofino, the Hotel St. Boniface (in Paris presumably,
because later in the poem we have "yesterday at the Tuileries"), Eyjafjallajkull (I think perhaps the poet was not
there - it's dangerous, but her chap in the poem is away somewhere, and she
misses him, and the poem is based on an eruption metaphor (volcano, eruption,
passion, love - get it?)), the Dulwich Picture Gallery, Lake Superior, Nevis,
Florence and Rome are all here. What is also here in That So Easy Thing is what so
often is lauded in poems these days: what might pass as sharp observation
("The air moves as a man passes"), a sensitiveness that is, um,
sensitive ("Some things cannot be explained; some creatures swim and
breathe and cannot be caught.") and the whole caboodle given a little
edge by what we might as well call wit for want of a better word ("I ask
if the Vatican has broadband"), but the whole languishes beneath a
dominating concern with personal relationships (love) and family (death in,
etc.) - more than half the poems here are to do with one or other of those
subjects. We have been here before, for we too are well-travelled in the
realms of a certain kind of poetry.
Here I almost typed "Forgive me...." but I caught myself: I see no
reason why I should beg forgiveness for finding rather tedious poems that
take me absolutely nowhere new, or rather, and to be more precise, poems that
by and large show all the qualities I have already mentioned and which are
pleasant enough but manage to pretty much skip the one thing poems cannot -
for this little man at least - do without: imagination. It's all so damned
anecdotal. And when one encounters yet again devices (the appropriation
of traditional forms, the naming of commercial products, a certain diary-like
quality to some lines, giving attention to the minutiae of the day) which
when used in American poems fifty years or so ago embodied personality and
energy as well as intellectual engagement with what surrounds us, one cannot
but feel a little disheartened, because here those strategies are watered
down to the point where they do nothing more than demonstrate how the poet
has an "ordinary" life, and is the kind of poet we can identify
with, who writes poems with "everyday" things in them and has the
same feelings we have. What we end up with now is poems that people
will read or listen to and be able to recognize sentiments and feelings they
can share. No amazement, no bemusement, no sense of wonder or possibilities.
No new experience. Only self-expression to show how we are feeling. I am
It's a similar ball-park (self-expression, family, etc) but, if the
first few pages are anything to go by, an infinitely more interesting player
at work in Clueless Dogs. The prospect of poems recalling the poet's
babyhood and childhood don't generally make me lick my lips in eager
Mother is ill
and close to death.
lie in wait.
my plot is played out.
My dolls die
I hum to
them, cradling their lifeless
bodies to my
are worth it just for those pillow sharks. (Note: these opening remarks have
been written after reading the first six poems in the book. Now see what
happens after reading poem number seven.)
Poem number seven, 'Bridgend', is about the nineteen suicides of young people
in Bridgend, South Wales, which happens to be the poet's hometown. It ends
with an account of bureaucratic ineptitude that would certainly raise a smile
at a poetry reading, a place where people like to smile at bureaucratic
ineptitudes and do not care quite so much for pillow sharks. But I am
disappointed. No pillow sharks. And the tedium continues with the next poem,
a faux-colloquial account of the life and of course death of a South Wales
miner (this is poetry, so the miner has to die as a result of being a miner,
otherwise what's the point?). One can hear the Welsh voice in this poem
("Good chapel girl see") but I don't know if that's a good thing or
a bad thing.
On through the first section of the book (which is divided into two parts in
the contents pages but not in the text itself, which is odd) childhood is
childhood, growing up is growing up, and youth is youth:
You fell to
your knees in the garden
and in the
cold grass earned your fellatio wings.
but the pillow sharks or their linguistic relatives never return and apart
from one poem ('Ghost Water') that wallows in vague metaphors Marc Bolan
would have been proud of ("You chased the arc of the sun/ and learned to
lap up/ the sugars of your parasites.") it's the kind of stuff that -
well, whatever. Childhood. Youth. It wasn't fun, was it?
And when you've grown up, what then?
in the face
of our nudity
I am not
nearly naked enough
Well, yes. But the tone and language of these poems are more often of the
poetic kind where a wasp "tightroped the Christmas card string",
where "tightroped" is the kind of word a poem must have, or
He ghosts the
as she knits
a clement world
where that "unwanting" is not self-conscious at all, is it?
Eventually I began to realize this book is not really aimed at me. It's aimed
at people who give a damn about reading poems all about how other people
feel. Feel. I pretty much gave up, to be honest; I could feel my time and my
life slipping away. But the final poem is two pages long, and thinking it
might be quite important, it being long and at the end, I skipped to it. It's
called "Girl Meats Boy". Yes: meats. Meats. Meats. It begins:
goose-necked fork and the cat-fanged knife
apart, like soldiering guards,
easting a world of plate
tatters of a man,
I did not finish reading this poem. I did not finish reading this book.
Looking back, I see how earlier I wrote "It's a similar ball-park
(self-expression, family, etc) but, if the first few pages are anything to go
by, an infinitely more interesting player at work in Clueless Dogs." Oh my,
oh my. I was duped by pillow sharks.
Two things (among several) these two collections have in common are they both
contain poems previously published in "prestigious" magazines and
come laden with plaudits and prizes; the other is that with perhaps just one
or two fleeting exceptions all the poems have to do with an experience the
poet has had and then chosen to write about, so we know what it means and how
it feels. I'll leave you to figure out what these two things mean.
Witch is a completely different kettle of sharks - (dreadful "joke", but I'm
trying to cheer myself up) - a collection comprising seven sections, each of
seven poems, each of seven couplets, telling from the various points of view
of those involved the tale of a witch-hunting incident in Suffolk in the 17th
century. All well and good; try not to think about The Crucible while reading.
One question immediately occurred to me about this somewhat ambitious (well, slightly
ambitious) project: why bother? The cover blurb describes it as "a damning
parable that chimes with the terror and anxieties of our own haunted
age", but with the best will in the world and after reading the book
last night in bed I think that's what might be called "a stretch".
Putting that aside, what of the poems? Well - I have three (perhaps four)
things to say.
(1) There is a lot of alliteration in these poems. I could give two or three
examples but I honestly can't be bothered. You know what alliteration is, and
so do I, and it's there in almost every poem. Alliteration is a common device
in poems (it says in my "How To Be A Poet" manual) so I guess it's
okay. The manual says nothing about overdoing it.
(2) There are several words that have either fallen out of common use but
which, one assumes, were in common use in the middle of the 17th
century in Suffolk or that are simply obscure apparently just for the sake
of it. (Examples: "her neck blebbed with the bad thief's blood",
which is also a good example of alliteration, as it happens.)
(3) The people who speak, from the gentleman down to the villagers, all seem
to sound the same. Here is the gentleman:
in the middle
of a field, a blue
round her head,
spills of silver at her feet.
And here is one of the villagers:
In the curl
of steam and giddy
spearmint, we saw
the boy's trunk blanch. It was
two fingers in
to hook the
cord, drew out
pursed her lips
until he bawled.
The latter is blessed with the same gift of alliterative language as the
former, it seems to me. I kind of suspect in real life these people would
have sounded different, but I could be wrong, and I don't know if it matters.
I don't know if any of this matters. Also, I do not profess to have any
knowledge of Suffolk in the mid-seventeenth century but I did live there for
twenty years in the late twentieth, and nowhere in this book did I feel I was
in Suffolk. I could have been in a university English department almost
anywhere in the United Kingdom, even in Wales, in the early 21st century,
where poems are full of similes and alliteration and words dredged up from
the past. But it's a pleasant enough read, for all that, and takes about an
hour. Try not to think of The Crucible, though.
© Martin Stannard 2012