Shearsmen of sorts


Raven
, Alan Wall (26pp, 6.50, Shearsman Books)
Rain Down Can
, Kit Fryatt (34pp, 6.50, Shearsman Books)
Small History
, Seren Adams (34pp, 6.50, Shearsman Books)


After so many years of concentrating on full-length collections, Tony Frazer of Shearsman Books last year launched a new series of pamphlets, Shearsman Chapbooks. Their production is well up to the imprint's high standards, clean, uncluttered and durable, the covers wearing much more of a livery than Shearsman has been wont to use. The range of authors is deliberately wide - from those still in the early stages of their careers but meriting a readership in advance of their first bigger collection, to more established names with self-contained sequences around the 20-25 poems mark.

Turning to the better-known names first, one can only salute Alan Wall's chutzpah in launching straight into Hughesspeak in his first poem in the collection Raven
:

   Raven was astounded when serpent spoke.
   Now where, he wondered, did the snake learn that?
   Are there summer schools these days down there?
   Distance learning for winter visitors
   even those descended from an unendowed urethra?
            (from 'Raven and Serpent')

A careless reading might see this blend of the mythic and the anthropomorphic, centred on a corvid with just a little more cachet, as the vain strivings of another poet to become visible in the shadows cast by the church of Crow,
via the songs of a Mytholmroyd tribute band or strenuous attempts of a Corvid Liberation Front to reclaim the treetops for other poets.

But linger with the poems awhile, and you will see, as well as all the things the poems are not  (alternative cosmology, anti-Genesis, vision of apocalyse, red-clawed combat with God and self ), all the things that they have to offer - poise, control, mordancy. This raven is a rather European figure, urbane and well-travelled, grounded in continental history (often dire enough) and geography (Ravenna, Ravensbruck), a habitue not of Trickster narratives but of emblem books and their precise equivalences, integral to the scenery and the ecosystem with a weakness for soft tissues:

   Never once doubted that the world was round
   while your flat-footed granddaddy Neanderthals
   took care they didn't look over the edge of things
   and fall.

   The world designed to fit exactly in each eyeball
   ours or yours.

   Something we ponder frequently enough
   while chewing.
           ('Copernican')

There's some very good writing here; persist through the first impressions and you'll be well-rewarded.


There's certainly a tremendous verve in Kit Fryatt's Rain down can, with a mix of slant narratives and an emotional load that references old ballads and lyrics such as Western wynd. Her appreciation of that magical segue in Planxty's first album, from Raggle taggle gypsy o to Tabhair dom do lamh, takes me back to my own years in the soft rain of Cork. Fryatt is playful, with word-games, variations in line and length and dynamic outbreaks of rhyme giving the poems a kind of performance feel - but they also have a very strong page presence, their complexity in fact demanding movement through them at the pace and with the instant rewind of the eye. The reader is never allowed to get too settled, too comfortable - some fresh piece of invention, some unforeseen swerve, takes us into uneasy places.

   you are not so Sweet to me
   as aince ye wer
   but then, how could you be?

   There's been time
   for sugar & elastic
   to go out the gum.

   Call up that pooch
   & watch the mouthpiece
   pucker, bugle, gnash.

   Bimbo and me lit out
   for a lightshow
   in this Teutonic grot.

   My garter's tight
   as a tourniquet
   but not as this vice -quite-

   my head's pinned in
   wrist & ankle buckle
   tongue guard, and begin.
             (from 'Crude black strap')


Finally, the prose poem. The line that's not for turning till the margin looms. So difficult to tread that fine line - on the one hand, there's the tendency to the monotone, the monochrome, the lack of spirit, the leaching-out of vitality, the tight-lipped strain that comes from cutting out too much; on the other, the word or phrase (or two) extra that affects the set-up, that slackens the rigging and lags the forward motion, the temptation to lapse into self-indulgence and fine writing, loading cargos of the precious till the good ship Poetic Prose settles low in the water. Without benefit of the paradoxical freedoms and spaces of metre, without the concealment and revelation and reinforcement of meaning that the line endings of free verse can play with, the writer of prose poems may well believe that her/his medium is the most demanding test of poetical sensitivity, of linguistic antennae, that there is.

Seren Adams enters this part of the forest with a certain engaging insouciance. Her lines, mainly in prose poem form but sometimes shrinking to a more slender verse, are controlled, pared but driven on by an obvious engagement with place and the lives lived there. Not a forest, exactly, at least not recently, but the Somerset Coalfield, approached not through the mis-guidings of the psychogeographer but via excavation and clean articulation:

     Stillness is all that remains, since trees grew over the valley. Small traces
     can be found beneath the new growth still: a piece of rock uprooted from
     deep below, an enduring metal post, a slip of disuses track running nowhere,
     bare open space where a building once stood, the scattered birches.

     This landscape remembers every language, each dialect to have filled its
     valley. History is what it speaks, its mother tongue. It speaks to you, if
     you listen, through the quiet and stillness, soft spoken. You can look and
     miss it all, live within it and not know.
           (from 'Prelude')

Adams finds and re-establishes the connections you would expect - the millennia of vanishings and transmutations, the waxing and waning of lives and settlements that depended on the coal, the losses and changes of our own lives, the metaphors for working the seams of language. She escapes most of the pitfalls of the prose poem already raised, though occasionally the listings purged of grammatical connectors leave the clauses stacked like planes waiting to land. And on the whole the collection is accomplished and sometimes moving, a work of promise, though these initial engagements with the big themes of landscape seem more in the nature of skirmishes, bringing on this occasion nothing really unexpected or particularly penetrating, rather affecting none the less. A name to watch.

       Alasdair Paterson 2013