Craving More

Waiting for the Sky to Fall,
Dan Wyke (Waterloo Press)
Flight and Smoke
, D M Thomas (Francis Boutle Publishers)
Charmed Lives, Mike Barlow (Smith/Doorstop Books)
the liberation of (placeholder), Dylan Harris (Knives Forks and Spoons Press)

Dan Wyke's poetry is accomplished and very readable, the sort of writing that makes you crave more of it. He has a way with unexpected and arresting similes which make you pause for thought and interrupt the flow yet you carry on refreshed and somehow more conversant with the 'half glimpsed and half understood' than you were before:

     A second-, third-, maybe fourth-hand black
     Breton fisherman's jacket, so stiff and thick
     that when put down stands of its own accord
     like a cobra charmed by its posture, a wigwam,

     or something worn by the invisible Man. More
     than once, its backbone seam has kept me from
     curling up; its hidden pocket held my heart
     in place when tugged towards the sleeve.

You could argue that there's an agenda here, a hint of a platonic shadow world perhaps, a spiritual significance but it seems to me that the 'argument', if there is one, is more of a humanist plea, a calling out from a deep sense of isolation to a place where self-acceptance is both warming and, hopefully, leads to conviviality. Other than this, of course, it's simply a poem about a much-loved coat!

Wyke finds unusual ways of saying things we can all relate to without in any way diminishing the individuality of the actual experience. Many of the poems in this collection are to do with bereavement, sadness and loss yet he is exceptionally gifted with an ability to both 'tug the heartstrings' and thus create a community of empathy with his readers while also making it new. He does this without in the least resorting to sentimentality, an astonishing achievement. Take this short poem for example:

     At Last

     Nothing can prepare us
     for the moment when, mid-breath,
     a stranger's face replaces her own;
     a mask behind which
     there is no one;
     and as her soul wings
     or doesn't wing its way to heaven -
     either way, ceasing to suffer -
     how easily we leave her bed,
     the world outside as it is
     to someone released from prison;
     that freedom.

In 'The Final Scene' he describes the ending of a relationship with a precise and chilling evocation:

     Later, she unfolds a duvet
     badged with their flaking fluids,
     then says goodnight from her doorway.

     Fully-clothed, I lie on the futon,
     staring at the light under her door
     and listening to her murmuring coyly on the phone.
          (from 'The Final Scene')

This is not, existentially, a place you want to be, but Wyke's expressionistic description is succinct and effective in its materiality and that last long line is coolly emphatic!

There's a pervasive Buddhist atmosphere around these poems and empathy is a key term. Wyke is almost at his best when writing about animals:

     Taking turns, one trotted slowly behind
     the other, drew level, then reared
     its heavy head and bowed down softly
     to touch the other's neck, entwining
     like sea horses when they wake.
          (from 'Two Horses')

Or take this extract from 'Cat': 'slick purring engine/powered with more than mechanical ease,/ until something that shall remain a secret/tells it to stop'
There's a sense of playfulness in this writing, an expansive and generous giving which celebrates mystery and what we don't understand but not in any 'new-age' empty-headed manner. Wyke's work combines a generosity of 'spirit' with a linguistic adventurousness and an enquiring mind yet he is striving, it seems to me, to be at ease with the world and in his own skin, delving into a wealth of experience which is both dark yet common to us all and also celebratory.

In 'Fleadh' we are given a series of impressions of musicians playing in tandem and soloing. From Whistler we get this:

     Instantly entranced, like snakes by a charmer,
     to watch his thick-fingered hands typing
     on his toyshop stick a calligraphy of notes
     that tie loops in the air, leading us by the ear,
     Pied Pipering the other players.
          (from 'Fleadh')

which contrasts with the 'stampeding hooves' of the bodhran  and the harpist who is 'playing rain with her fingers'. Evocative, precise and energetic.

I still find a lot of what I'm going to generalise as being 'mainstream' poetry to be so closed in on itself, straining after that containing and underlining ending which has to be the last word and reeks of control. Wyke's work, though of the mainstream, isn't remotely like this and it's a pleasure to read even in its darker moments. Highly recommended.

D M Thomas has a way with comparisons which both seem to encapsulate and to throw up disturbing images. Take the poem 'Images' from the first section of this collection, entitled 'Travelling with a Photographer':

     Lenin, in London for a Congress,
     every morning dressed quickly
     in his Kensington Square lodgings
     pulled on his flat cap and hurried out
     with one thought
     in his icecold brain, one sight
     in his piercing Tartar eyes:
     the stall outside
     King's Cross station selling
     the fish-and-chips he relished.

     On the Kolyma River,
     reported the Soviet journal Nature,
     a 'working' party
     discovered a frozen stream
     in the permafrost, containing
     a perfectly preserved prehistoric
     salamander. They hacked out the
     30,000 year old fish from the ice,
     thawed it and
     devoured it straightaway
     'with relish'.

I'm not sure whether you can strictly describe a salamander as being a fish but you get the picture. The parallel is both arresting and grimly comic, dealing with the big subjects of the 20th century while making its political point neatly - some would say too neatly - and incorporating domestic details, which combine the epic with the mundane. I've no idea whether Lenin actually loved fish and chips but I'm willing to give D M Thomas the benefit of the doubt. There's a lot going on in this poem nonetheless and its techniques are expanded in 'A Jewish Tryptich', which takes disturbing vignettes from the holocaust and describes the horror in a somewhat detached manner:

                                       Then he shot them all
     with the one shot. 'Please, we're sisters,'
     they had begged; 'let us die together.'
     He had nodded, happy to blend
     kindness with expertise.
     One sister screamed when she
     was thrown into the fire,
     but you can't expect perfection.
          ('An Incident at Auschwitz')

Thomas, best known as the novelist who wrote
The White Hotel, is fond of combining the dark materials of 20th century horror with an erotic dimension which is often filtered through Freudian dreamscapes, sometimes working in taboo areas beloved of the surrealists. In 'Learning to Translate' he recalls or invents an early sexual awakening which is troubled and confused and mixes desire with disgust and displays the deep abyss between the child/adolescent and the adult world:

     He could hardly have been angrier
     with the Germans he'd bombed.
     I must have done something terrible.
             (from 'Learning to Translate').

In fact one of his major concerns seems to be around the issue of sexual taboo and its relation to violence and to warfare and the way in which violence is often seen to be less of a problem than sexuality. This is deep water and while I don't think Thomas always negotiates it successfully he does at least make the effort, which is more than can be said for many.

There are some less heavily laden poems here, I'm glad to say, including a memoir of  Thomas's late friend Peter Redgrove ('Easter Reading') even where this piece is filtered through an anxiety dream. Some of the less dark erotic material almost has a Betjeman-esque quality, as in 'Suspender Belts' though there is also a melancholy, death-awareness aspect to this poem, redeemed in an almost desperate manner by a
claim on the more permanent nature of love, though this itself feels ironic and not entirely convincing.

'Dover beach is located in europe' is a poem apparently based on a student's critique of Arnold's poem which Thomas discovered on a website. It's slightly difficult to determine the tone of this piece as at one level Thomas is clearly exhibiting the not entirely unreasonable response of a disaffected lecturer (which he once was, I believe) on coming across the howlers and errors of an uninterested or uninformed student. But the piece also has an irrepressibly comic aspect which I feel allows a degree of ambiguity into the proceedings:

     Arnolds is by now an old vet,
     looking back personally thru the hellish haze
     of omaha n all, to when he begged a doll stay true,
     when nothing seemed true in the whole world.
     this poem means a lot to me,
     I may write more bout it so y'all should get
     your asses back over to read more ltr days.
                 (from 'Dover beach is located in europe')

Howard Jacobson would have nightmares but there's more to this than meets the eye. Thomas is an interesting poet. His style and opinions and pre-occupations don't always appeal to me but there's something going on here and it's useful to be reminded that he's still putting out work of this quality. There is a range of poetry in this stimulating collection, including a near sonnet written from the viewpoint of Fanny Brawne and other high literary pieces, which refer to Shakespeare's sonnets, for example, as well as material which has less lofty origins. Well worth dipping into.

Mike Barlow is a visual artist as well as being a poet and the cover art of Charmed Lives - 'The Logician's Sense of Herself' - is a colourful construction which references some of the key themes and names of classic modernist art. The poems in this collection have a wide range but a common factor appears to be that the characters and personas are mainly 'up against it', surviving and even sometimes flourishing against the odds. For example, Uncle Harold who 'died at 86, cheating at crib', used to peel off his shirt to reveal his tattoo of the Bayeux Tapestry, an eccentric chauffeur who obviously failed to 'tick any of the boxes' and was clearly the better for it (from 'Masterpiece').

In 'The Gift of Words' Barlow throws light on the rarely explored subject of Tourette syndrome:

     They jump from his mouth,
      mid-conversation, a propos
                       of nothing but themselves,
     gratuitous, vandals
                       from a black logic.

This is both 'in-your face' and humorous yet provocative and thoughtful in the sense that the poem questions the way which our labels - our WORDS, in fact - determine the way in which we are judged and in fact make judgements on others. There's a definite sense of the subversive in these poems, a kind of alternative worldview 'from below' although Barlow is rarely as caustic or irrepressibly scatological as Ian Duhig, for example, who works a similar seam.

I loved the brevity and playful darkness of 'Heads' where we get:

      Head on a stake. Traitor's gate.
      An English betrayal. The barge
     brings its successions.
     Love impaled.
     Counsellor. Queen. None escapes.

which combines myth and archaeology with an Alice-in-Wonderland sense of the bizarre, a dream turned nightmare which is suggestive of a sophisticated but dangerous game.

If I have a criticism to make it's that occasionally the endings of these poems feel a little too well formed, too predictable in the sense of rounding off the subject and having the final word, which of course they don't. I'm being picky though as I mainly enjoyed reading Barlow's work which is well constructed and often challenging and provocative.

Alec Newman at The Knives, Forks and Spoons Press appears industrious and prolific in the sheer quantity of new writing he is publishing. The quality of this varies though it has to be said on the evidence of this book that the production values have gone through the roof. I've not come across Dylan Harris before - he appears to live in France - but this chunky tome with landscape layout includes both images (mainly photographs, distorted and tampered with in many cases) and text. There are 4 longish poems, each other page being complemented by an image. Again, the writing varies in quality, some of it is rather good and some I'm not so sure about and it all has a 'beat-like' feel, grasping the immediate and transitory and running with the ball. Each poem is printed in a different colour - blue, red, grey and orange - and I have to say that while I quite liked the combination of light grey (on white paper!) in an aesthetic sense, it was damned hard to read and surely this defeats the object unless you're deliberately setting out to alienate the reader, in which case I'd say success is assured.
Harris writes in English but drifts in and out of passages of French and German, which is also slightly irritating if your French is as bad as mine but you can go with the flow as the writing even at its worst isn't difficult to engage with. I was (again) slightly irritated by some of the more obvious rhymey stuff on the grey text pages, which added somewhat to the irritation!

I enjoyed a lot of the images for what they were, although quite how they relate to the text seems unclear and possibly isn't important. There was a 'double-image' shot of a tram, deliberately printed the wrong way round, which I was very taken with and some of the 'wave' imagery and glass reflected material, while a bit old hat perhaps, was nevertheless visually appealing. I'm not sure exactly what the image on page 70 is but its textural qualities and its colour combinations are stunning and I actually liked the idea of being unable to be certain of its origin:

     in a pub of pensioned men
     and stale dˇcor
    two newly women enter
     one fires her smile

     she's young and tough
     and her hair says she's trying too hard
     and she's occupying clothes
     that leave so much caress undressed
      she's raw her own self-portrait

     but that glance was mercantile
     i was about to buy a drink
     yet the smile was welcome
     like the scent of shocked basil
     on a humid summer day
           (from 'la ville-lumiere')

This reminds me a little of the young Lloyd Robson in its concern with recording the moment and its demotic immediacy although Harris's work possibly has less 'attitude'. This is writing which shows promise though I think there is a way to go. It may be that this mix of artwork and poetry will become a more common feature and I guess this isn't necessarily a bad thing, though there may be a problem of lack of focus. I enjoyed this debut collection as a mild refresher and look forward to seeing more of Harris's work in the future.

         © Steve Spence 2012