Playful and Curious

Variations on Painting a Room: Poems 2000-2010, Alan Baker (Skysill Press)

Skysill Press are a new outfit to me but it looks as though they are publishing some very interesting material going by John Phillips' recent selection and this fantastic new book by Alan Baker. Baker's work reminds me of so many other writers
as he combines the tactic of working with 'found texts' - Giles Goodland, Tony Lopez, for example - with the probing but ever so lush lyricism of a John James or a Nigel Wheale. And yet, although I'm also reminded of Barry MacSweeney and Robert Sheppard, Baker's material is all his own while speaking to us in a voice which is both critical and nostalgic - in the best possible sense of that word - while embracing wordplay and a delightful lyricism which truly hits the mark. I've probably been reading too much poetry recently but when you come across material as good as this it all feels worthwhile.

In the first section we're immediately in a world of:

     a darkened country
     where money doesn't grow on trees
     & doing your best

     with your foot forward
     on that shifting path
     might take you by surprise
            (from 'A Darkened Country')

There's a sense of a Blakean innocence and experience here, both in his referring to the 'original' industrial revolution - and all the contradictions and conflict that entailed - with an exploration of more contemporary times, from the negative aspects of the 'Thatcher revolution' (homelessness, divisiveness, poverty, polarisation …) to the recent wars, increasing globalisation and economic crash of the Blair/Brown/Cameron period:

     Mechanics of perception
     a white canvas, ghosts
     stalking the geographical wonders,
     the great coaching inns fetching trade
     along the routes of industry,
     a Grand National Trades Union
     a layered perception flowing underground
     science of hope, mechanics
     of a new society.
             (from 'Joseph Wright')

We are presented with the world as it could be and as it is but there is no didactic argument here, no ideology or statement of intent. As Lee Harwood eloquently writes about Baker's work - there is 'a willingness to take risks, and an awareness that what matters is not to be found in the obvious but in the half glimpsed, half said, half understood.' Yes, exactly that.

     Thus spake the Housing Act 1996

     & once a tree spread its green
     over children, council houses
     on the edge of the green belt
           of the green world
     a pond with newts & frogspawn
     where under, in, throughout,
            the tree's domain
     an odyssey of nets & boots
            sought scents of other places
     in defiance of what it knew
           (from 'A Lull')

There's an account of the natural world, which is both melancholy and fraught, while also being irrepressibly itself, in opposition and keeping us cheerful and resilient in the face of so much gloom. There's also plenty of self-referential humour here, something which Baker carries off with aplomb and which makes me smile, as well as there being a phenomenological awareness - these texts are filled with knowledge and information but in a very breezy and easy to access manner. Baker is never less than 'a good read', even as he promotes thought and reflection:

     Who will speak for the birds? They have no language of their own,
     flung here and there by windy air, and ignorant of charts,
     as if low-pressure systems grew on trees, which of course,
     they don't, at least not that I'm aware. …
           (from 'All Around Us')

There's an intriguing section at the end of the collection, entitled 'Reading Songs' which is at least partly constructed by working with quotations from blurbs and book reviews. I know this because, apart from the acknowledgements section in the End Notes, Baker has lifted a snippet from one of my reviews (of John James' 'Collected Poems', as it happens - I'm very chuffed!) and I'm so impressed and even slightly surprised at the way this all hangs together and indeed manages to tell us such a lot about what's going on around us. Baker is a political writer in the sense that he clearly has a political viewpoint but his way of expressing this is both subtle and sophisticated as well as appearing as natural as breathing. I think it was Alan Baker - please forgive me if I've got this wrong - who wrote a review of a relatively recent anthology of Socialist Poetry (Croft and Mitchell, 2003), arguing that while there was plenty of good material in the collection, the alternative traditions of the experimentalists (in all their varieties) had largely been left out of the selection in favour of a more 'traditional' and social realist angle. This was a missed opportunity and left an incomplete picture of what, for want of a better term, I'm going to call oppositional poetry. This could be the start of a real debate on the subject and the strength of Baker's own work, it seems to me, is that it combines an easy-to-read flow with a whole range of experimentation and risk-taking which delights rather than alienates, while also making you think, feel and experience. I'm not sure you could ask for more than that:

     a rich, lucid prose inviting
     comparisons, inhabiting
     Cambridge pubs,
     embracing non-sequiturs

     and apparently-random
     thoughts. The presence
     of an ancient
     rotting city. The idea

     of heavenly music
     A palimpsest where
     edges are blurred
     and erased.
           (from 'Reading Songs')

The centrepiece to this collection is 'The book of Random Access', comprising 64 prose blocks loosely based on the I Ching. Baker's chance methods and intriguing juxtapositions are in full flow here and provide plenty of humour and delight as well as the ever-present stimulation to contemplation and thought. These are beautifully constructed passages which have a wonderful sense of flow even where the flow is being interrupted by a host of 'stuff'. Sentences are reprised throughout the texts, ideas and thoughts follow through, are shifted and a whole range of 'echoes' stir memories and possible connections as the reader makes his/her way through the undergrowth. One of the pleasures of reading this kind of material is picking up on the chance associations, or recognising a reference - even where it's been shifted or adapted - and then going with the flow. Don't think too hard, although you will have ideas and thoughts, just feel your way into this writing and enjoy the pleasures of the text! I'll quote a random passage here - they are all good though some, inevitably, are 'better' than others:

     Of all Charles Dickens' novels,
Middlemarch is the one I like
     best: 'Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how
     the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments
     of Time'. Things I have to do: research into buying a new car
     (ours has done 88,000 miles), book a holiday before the cheap
     deals get snapped up, send a sympathy card for Uncle Joe, email
     Clive, get my haircut, remember my father thirty years dead
     (he got on well with Joe). When I was a child adults praised me
     for my curiosity. Now, other adults think I am a curiosity, at
     at least when I tell them I'm a poet. Also, buy envelopes, book a
     dentist's appointment. Time: a measured or measurable period, a
     continuum that lacks spatial dimensions. ………
        (from 'The Book of Random Access' - no 62)

And so on ….. . That opening line and the following quotation may lead you a merry dance if you desire to follow up the puzzle but you don't have to do so! Here the subjects of time famine and information overload are located deep in the text, anxiety inducing and formidable yet Baker's irrepressible response is to turn this material into poetry which is rich and diverse, bubbling over with playfulness and curiosity.

This superb collection is filled with riches and diversity, in fact it's a real peach of a book. I'm going to finish by quoting a poem which references Barry MacSweeney and includes a snippet from one of my favourite
Hellhound Memos.


            i.m. Barry MacSweeney

'…it is altogether time
          to nip under
          the plover's wing and sleep…'

     The work's unfinished
     under wraps
     & hung with signs saying

     flexing poetry

     to bend the bars
     slip the chain-gang
     lose the corporate bloodhounds

     & find some delectable upland
     free at last
     on Tynedale fells

     from B&Q
    & the enterprise Zone

     from a heritage
     of law, linn  and lough
     & a dream of Silver Lonnen

     into moneyed elegance
     in the cafes of Grey Street

     & a born-again quayside
     where Paddy's Market hawked
     its ragamuffin merchandise.

I love the idea of losing the 'corporate hounds' rather than loosing them! Fantastic poem if a tad sentimental but I think Alan Baker can be forgiven that. This is a fantastic book. Please buy a copy - you won't regret it.  

                © Steve Spence 2012