Channel Hopping

Assault on the Clouds, John Hartley Williams (Shoestring Press)
Devil Among the Tailors, Simon Curtis (Shoestring Press)
False Memory, Tony Lopez (Shearsman Books)
Wrong Evenings, Simon Jenner (Waterloo Press)

Arboa, the island on which the action in this strange and intriguing collection is set, could almost be an extension of Gulliver's Travels, for Hartley Williams is a poet who combines the satirical with the unorthodox, adding a fair mix of 20th century surrealism along the way, together with his own skewed and displaced view of things, heading inexorably into the future and irretrievably into the past. Like Walter Benjamin, he incongruously mixes the past and the present, hopefully pointing towards a more salubrious future but he also throws his cards into the air, relying on chance and circumstance to dictate where they fall while keeping his anarchic tendencies just about in check by a firm grasp of craft and technical know-how.

This is an upside-down world where the monomaniacs are in control and where it's difficult to read the crazy desires of the powerful, a combination of Robert Maxwell and John Hurt as Caligula in
I Claudius, the tv version. In 'New Model Army' the 'General's latest wheeze' is for a regiment of  'cavalry' mounted upon pogo sticks, to which the poet's response is to admire the relative intelligence of fish and to practise avoidance like the plague:

     Barely a shudder moves
     the windless surface of the lake
     except for the dazzling jump
     of some occasional carp, or pike.

     Ah, to hold destiny within your
     finny self! The poet reads a wondrous
     sentence, leans against a tree trunk,
             (from 'New Model Army')

There's a Fellini-like exotic strangeness in Williams's erotic ponderings, yet it's also one which has a democratic urge, and where sexuality, in all its mad desire, acts as a libidinal alternative to the corrupt lunacy of military power:

     The painter wishes to paint
     a woman who, from the waist up
     is a ravishing madonna.
     She is a dwarf below.

     He is adrift on a coloratura river.
     What surprisingly powerful thighs!
     The unfinished picture
     will long remind him of her cries.
             (from 'Early One Morning 1')

This is poetry which is as entertaining as it is sharp-edged, energetic and playful as well as satirical and surreal. Williams' world has its dark side for sure - reflecting a replay of early 20th century modernism, perhaps - but it's also an attractive place to linger for a while, full of vigour, salty humour and irreverent attitude. Whistling in the dark, perhaps, but whistling nonetheless and his tune is ludic and defiant.

     How to satirise
     that buzzard-ripper of a nose?
     How give the eyes
     on either side of that impressive chimney
     a look of toilet windows
     and still remain alive?
     The painter overcomes
     absence of a neck
     by lengthening the tunic collar
     and adds a furtive noose.

     The General leaves without detecting
     a claw protruding from his ear
     a beak emerging from the other
     beneath his barbed-wire thatch.
              (from 'A Portrait of the General')

This is a world in which power is not 'talked to' but has to be flattered, on the surface, yet satirised discreetly, not a million miles away from actually existing societies.Yet this fear-laden situation creates a perfect backdrop for Williams' humane and absurdist critique, which feeds on pomposity, totalitarian vanity and is also often fuelled by a strange libidinal energy which he treats with relish:

     Above her, a grunting soldier
     and a crane spreading
     its great wingspan across
     the ceiling of her room.

     The eyes of a sorrowing lion
     and she knows
     her poet is watching her.
            (from 'Beauty and the Beast')

In 'Thoughts of the Poet' Williams speculates upon the place of the public poet (or artist) in society - 'It is necessary to be hungry to achieve fame' - surely a fantasy and one which he elegantly daydreams about, here as elsewhere. His gentle rhetorical rhythms are a joy to read, laden as they are with a lush lyricism, infused with an undermining satirical surrealism and concluding in intoxicated escapism. Wonderful stuff.

The title poem appears to combine elements of science fiction (very J.G. Ballard, in fact) with a Swiftian commentary on the delusions of power ('The Assault on the Clouds' appears to be just what it says!) yet amid the colloquial asides -
'What twaddle, uh?', which are simply hilarious - there is lyrical beauty which is also quite breathtaking. The way in which Williams holds these elements together and combines both genre and sensibility is simply wonderful and a quality which always makes him very readable. He's one of our very best mainstream poets working in English and on the evidence of this collection I'm looking forward to reading his next.

Another collection from Shoestring Press, a publisher I'm not over-familiar with, but on the strength of these two collections I'd say that Shoestring has much in common with the principles of Carcanet, in the sense that both outfits seem to combine a liking for the innovative and challenging with the traditional and tried-and-tested. Which isn't to say that I disliked Simon Curtis's poetry. In fact there is much to admire in his skilful handling of form and subject matter and his occasional ability to surprise or to frustrate the reader's expectations ('To fuck-up on a whopping scale -', for example, from 'Crunch', as in 'Credit Crunch'). Curtis's territory is very 'English', combining Hardy-like ballads with a Larkinesque critique of the modern and there's also a touch of the John Betjeman about some of his poetry. This is essentially light-verse, often embracing comedy and mild satirical commentary, poems about death, loss, the generation gap and the culture clash, observations which often evoke a passed or passing world, mildly melancholic and critical yet often also buoyant and irrepressible in a relatively relaxed manner. There are seaside vignettes - 'Seafront Cafe Bar' - and Supermarket reflections - 'Cliche' - and even a 'Plymouth Vignette', which has its sharp-focussed moments and is in praise of Beryl Cook. There's nothing here which is offensive or particularly sarcastic, or seriously angry for more than a moment and it's all very mild-mannered and pretty well-tempered, on the whole, even on the rare occasions when it's not. This is one of the better bits, from the poem 'Satie at the End of Term' which refers to a moment of 'coming up for air' after struggling with the heavy-going literary load:

     So fitful-fresh as April sun,
     You're welcome, clown;
     Your good melodic dissonance
     Will pierce low clouds of syllabus
           With humour's grace,
           Mercy of irreverence.

There's nothing here which Wendy Cope would disapprove of, although Curtis's work is somewhat old-fashioned, and he certainly has an eye for detail which is more than be can be said of many.

Originally put out by Salt in 2003, this timely re-publication of False Memory includes a useful contextual essay by Robert Hampson and still feels sharp and bang up-to-date almost ten years on. The book is made up of eleven sections, each section having a title and being made of ten 14-line poems. Each poem is a montage, formed from a range of diverse materials so there is, from the outset, a sense of this being a continuous project, rather than just a bunch of selected poems. This has been an important aspect of Lopez's work for some years now and its success rate has been high and consistent.

There's a surface glitz to these poems, which makes them attractive and readable, aesthetic artefacts produced by a magpie mind, which mixes the dark with the glamorous to intriguing effect. Take this section from 'Brought Forward':

                                                       Sub-couture touches
     In the ethnic collection, a mix of synthetics
     With a grubby
Virgin Atlantic sweatshirt
     Right out of the gym. For the cover we chose
     A rusty railway track leading into a wood.

Lopez's ability to smooth out the non-sequiturs creates a kind of flatness within the material and the interruptions to this are often of the comic-surreal or historical dark varieties. There is a feeling of speeded-up channel hopping which both comments satirically on the 'information overload' issue while also aiding a sort of dizzying pleasure in the act of reading itself. The last line, however, with its mix of marketing speak and dark holocaust association (at least, that's how I read it) makes you pause for thought. This could relate to the choice of an album cover or a dust jacket for a book - we're not told and don't have access to the original text - but it's hard to avoid the ominous suggestiveness of 'A rusty railway track leading into a wood'!

Another aspect of this smoothed-out montage method is that you get the feeling of a mind talking to itself, a sort of continuous monologue interrupted by memories, incoming information, accumulated knowledge and speculation. The inclusion of material obviously taken from advertising copy and from newspaper/journal articles aids this idea and there's also a sort of jaunty, upbeat feel, generated, I think from the process of cutting and editing and the breadth of subject matter:

     A thread goes through the book, I don't mean ideas but each
     Gathering of four sheets sewn into sixteen pages
     Which are I suppose ideas, even those that are blanks.
     Autumn walks in the poem as a goddess, an idea
     But also (because she is a goddess) good to eat and rollover with.

     It is not autumn at all, she comes home with groceries
     And gets into a hot bath. I think in Bonnard reproductions.
     Mosaics with drips of water running on the little stones.

     I was born in the city but I don't live there now,
     Can't afford it. This is the subtext of
After Lorca:
     Swimming pools, mirrors, the denial of the father.
                      (from 'Assembly Point D')

His new book
Only More So (also Shearsman) is a much bigger project, using similar techniques and comprising long prose sections. It's a book which demands a lot of attention and one which may well turn out to be his most important and successful in the long run, representing a peak in his working methods. Its multitudinous material and its length means it's likely to prove a slow-burner and it needs to be taken a chapter at a time. Like Ulysses it's a book you may well find yourself returning to.

Simon Jenner's poetry is best described as being late-modernist and the strange richness of its varied subject matter makes this a compelling if not always easy book to approach. There are an awful lot of end notes here, some of which are informative and provide useful background information, occasionally add further complexity and richness and sometimes provoke sheer bafflement. Jenner is clearly an erudite scholar and whereas the scholarship doesn't always rest easily with the poetry I do enjoy the provocation of his work and its wide range of reference and 'angle'. Take 'Death of A Socialist', which seems to be 'about' someone attempting to come terms with the empty glamour of the Thatcher years - he was about thirty when Thatcher was ousted - using the relationship between dreams and changing technology to map the social changes of the time.

     Accents left of my birth ghost in
     from my day-scorched twenties. They're brittle
     visionary instants:

     a halogen world accelerated.
     Coffee, slogan red posters tat to gravity,
     the way timbre drops with age. Nostalgia's

     a sugar-hit, traces nothing
     but a wind broken voice, a scratch
     repeating sixties in orange.

     It's a copy of an original
     that never existed. We effervesce
     Lucozade. ....

     Then I stutter it was dreams owned dimension
     and a running pace; but eyes open on a plasma screen.
     I'll breast stroke treacle till I drown.
               (from 'Death of a Socialist')

What could be said to be lacking here is an overall viewpoint but this is hardly didactic poetry and its off-centredness could be seen as a strength. There's an almost postmodern notion of relativity here, the sense of the lack of any stable centre and the anxiety this can create. Or as one perceptive 19th century commentator once said - 'Everything that is solid melts into air'. The imagery of the poem's last line seems to imply a sense of loss and floundering in a changing world of virtual reality but I find it hard to extract any real sense of positioning in this poem and I find that intriguing.

There are many references to illness in this collection, a sort of hazy, penumbral suggestiveness which permeates the whole, allied to a hint towards narrative which is rarely made explicit. Sometimes the notes do suggest ways in but given the often 'cloudy' nature of the storytelling perhaps the notes are superfluous. One of the pleasures to be got from this kind of poetry is to do with interpretation, even if you don't always get it right first time, that and the unusual use of imagery and its oblique

In 'Blowing Hot and Cold' we get this:

     The air holds synchronized swimmers,
     tapers revived in oxygen.
      My skin matches, idiot savant, to whatevers,
     the incandescents, those left standing.

This mix of the concrete and the abstract is typical of Jenner's style and may explain why he's difficult to read in a 'go with the flow' manner. Still, as I've said before, there's complexity that I think is worth persevering with and that which never seems to bear fruit. Jenner remains in the former category and compared to the strained showing-off of Clive James, for example, his poetry is magnificent.

     Steve Spence 2012