Poetically Fresh

Love's Bonfire, Tom Paulin (52pp, 12.99, Faber)
The Dark Film
, Paul Farley (56pp, 12.99, Picador)

I was surprised and deeply engaged by Tom Paulin's new collection Love's Bonfire, his first for 8 years. The poems are alive and ennervating - a vigorous and welcome step outside of the easy-going, 'well crafted' and 'accessible' versification that distinguishes contemporary British poetry at the moment. In these poems, Paulin's writing is spare, often stark, yet characterised by a searching improvisation - the poems are continually asking questions of themselves, wondering whether that was the right way to remember it, or whether that was the right word to choose, or whether that was that where it actually happened? In that sense, the writing follows in a tradition opened up by Beckett, forever questing, forever interrogating itself, and is not dissimilar from the poetic technique of Lee Harwood, for example, who also invites the reader in to the poem to ask if the expression suits, or to complete the thought for him.

All this adds up to make Paulin's an underdetermined
poetry; one that is well-suited to our times, and which is content to exist in uncertainty, or multiple interpretations, to foreground poetry's primary function of musical, image-led inquiry. As a result, Paulin's guard is often raised against the loose and easy speak of contemporary culture: 'It was some phrase like level playing field / that gunked me as he said it', or 'let's try to unpack this gave me the cue / to leave'. Poetry is, quite rightly, a guardian of the language.

The poems that make up the centre of the collection are translated versions from the work of Paulin's contemporary, the Palestinian poet Walid Khazendar. Paulin's writing here responds to the more surreal tendencies in Khazendar's work. They also allow for sophisticated chimes between the Irish troubles (which are a recurring feature of Paulin's own poems) and the 'Palestinian situation' (a feature of Mr Khazendar's). 'Starting From Scratch' questioningly documents the inhabitation, and political division of both lands... 'the island / al-Jazireh / that - now we know it - is Mesopotamia / its borders redrawn one country house weekend / in a not quite island called England.'

Poetically fresh, politically alert, musically engaged and technically inviting, I very much recommend this book.

In the carefully constructed poems of The Dark Film, Paul Farley wrestles with mortality and nostalgia. Perhaps that's why there are so many 'projections' and images of the movies here, with all their implied longing. Mortality and nostalgia make the poet restless: 'I'm ageing at the same increasing rate' as 'friends come and go', he writes. There are numerous poems tackling mortality head-on: poems about bodily organs and their functions and failures; poems about passing out of this world feet first; and poems in which 'the mind comes to the bit it dreads'. There's a poem about burying a dead pet dog. Farley also writes a good few poems about childhood and memory. In these we encounter 'bored and disrespectful' children; children returning home to their 'birth streets' which 'greet you with an ambush of smells'; poems examining the 'dreams of youth' and mis-spent days 'sewer jumping in a childhood twilight'. Two of the poems name 'nostalgia' in their titles. One (another childhood memory called 'A Thousand Lines') has the reader 'Passing by your old school / spare a thought for lost blackboards, / the slow erosion and tap of chalk / that notated long afternoons', in Farley's own characteristic mode that wishes to reach out to and include the reader in the poem's own democratic memorialising. It ends with the imperative of writing lines as a school punishment: 'I will not write nostalgic poems. / I will put these things out of mind'.

Facilitating this pathos, this carefully deployed nostalgia, Farley's great skill is to pass as seamlessly as possible between past and present. In 'The Queen', he uses the constancy of the image of the English monarch to hold half a decade together, whilst in another he imagines 'cows and pigs from another century' to write about a memory of watching brawn being sliced at the butcher's. Further developing this technique, Farley brings the 21st Century into the police inquiry rooms of 1960s TV detectives, just as he juxtaposes Agincourt and the Somme, or has Beau Brummell rub shoulders with Mods and Rockers as a way of discussing how time periods telescope in on each other so that, in the end 'none of it matters'. This resignation, and the indifference of time to the individual story, is also picked up on in 'Creep', in which Farley telescopes geologic time, listening to the 'scree, keeping / its stony, ancient time, ticking, // a kind of rock drizzle [...] // a pulse running / within the mainspring of a world / that keeps gaining and doesn't care.'

Farley also takes on the big theme of 'power', interrogating those things that fuel our lives and empower our lives; things that give us agency. In 'The Circuit', the last poem in the book, Farley fuses his two major themes, imagining himself being laid to rest in a substation'. Throughout these poems, images of machinery (and the body as machine), odometers, wind power, Brent Crude Oil and other 'powers' abound. From stellar and universal powers, to the perceived power of zooming-in using Google Earth; from the sardonic gas storage stations that store 'the spite and gloom of post-industrial towns', to domestic irons that 'steamed full ahead / across the wrinkled fabric of the world / into the kitchen cupboard's dark sea bed'. Paul Farley's latest book may be dark
by its title and themes, but it is given a redeeming hope in the quality of its prosody, its poetic musicality, and the muscularity of its contemporary images so neatly fused with those of the past.

     Andy Brown 2012