Alan Baker's poetry embraces both the lyrical and the
phenomenological in this new publication from the excellent Oystercatcher
Press. There's a speculative approach to the new day, both ordinary and 'out
of this world', a sense of anxiety induced partly by the intrusion of the
media and its tabloid worldview, balanced here by an openness to the 'natural
world' - lots of birds, both known and unknown. The world is both a place of
calm and retreat and a place of chaos and disorder where bad politics seems
to prevail. Yet Baker's celebration of the here and now, aided by his
speculative musings and exploratory lyrical phrasing, achieve a kind of
victory over the daily round. His work reminds me of Lee Harwood's, where
those quiet spaces have what I can only describe as a kind of secular
spiritual quality, magically lyrical yet cognitively tough and combative. This
may be lyric poetry but there's nothing fey or insubstantial about it, in
fact it's a place where thoughts and feelings are articulated together in a
splendid 'duality'. Take this section, for example:
should it be the sign of something more
when the square of sunlight on the hall floor
takes shape again at dawn?
should the trees behind the house
be more persuasive?
should the words 'star' and 'breeze' be ours?
or 'siren' and 'motorcade'?
let the TV news in the next room come to an end
let the police car be a police car
let the trees behind the house go
let the questions go
let go the siren, the TV, the motorcade and the breeze
This is poetry which is 'about language' while also retaining a connection to
the real 'real world' and it's excellent stuff. The cover artwork and elegant
but unfussy design keeps the standard high.
Paul Bentley's collection Largo, is prefaced by two quotations, the first from an
interview with Margaret Thatcher by the late commentator Brian Walden in
1983, and the other a passage from Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at
Wounded Knee, a powerful lament for the
enforced demise of the North American Indians. Both passages deal with the
notion of 'Victorian Values' and set the scene for part one of this short
collection - 'The Two Magicians' - which deals with the period of the 1984-85
Miner's Strike. Bentley's autobiographical sketches mix in references to
popular music from the time with elements from the conflict involved in the
dispute, family loyalties, sexual adventures and frequent references to
fishing. There are extracts from natural history publications and histories
of the strike which are used as prefacing quotations and are thus integrated
into the text. It's an intriguing mix of materials which embraces both a form
of realism and a sort of 'super-realism' which creates an effective discourse
of mayhem and confusion, Kes
meets surrealism perhaps, and I mean that as a compliment. It's both gritty
but upbeat and assertive, full of life and the 'smells and sounds' of a
particular time and place, heightened by the form and juxtaposition of the
Dark again. A flash of light showing -
a silver gleam, now a silver voice
resolving itself to Sandie Shaw
on Top of the Pops with the Smiths.
For the good life is out there somewhere,
So stay on my arm you little charmer...
Mum laughing - barefoot at her age,
all in leather. Dissolving into mist.
A window cracks from time to time -
Scab! Scab! Scab! Scab! Kev
pulling her curtains aside. Oh bide, lady, bide.
The chant repeated, night after
night after night. The enemy within
the enemy within.
A dark house. Empty now. Her eyes meet mine -
something deepening, widening, in our stare.
(from 'Two Musicians V')
There's a blend of psychology and sociology here, aided by the aftermath of a
60's culture, mired in conflict and enforced poverty. The title of this piece
probably relates to the folksong of the same title. Those who lived through
this period and felt themselves to be in opposition to the prevailing power
in the land may recall the phrase 'the enemy within' with something akin to
The short title poem, Largo,
mixes a reference to Dvorak's 9th Symphony - '(the Hovis music to
you and me)' - with football references, and the final piece 'Barnsley
Abu (a postcard to Paul Muldoon)', prefaced with a quotation about psycho-geography by Ian McMillan, also
includes football references which pass me by, I'm afraid, not being a fan
of the beautiful game. That said, this is an intriguing collection which
combines bluntness with a multi-layered complexity and reminds me, in both
form and content, of the fiction of David Peace.
It's taken me some time to properly engage with and
indeed, to warm to, David Briggs' poetry but I think I'm getting there. His
mix of playfulness and exotic erudition, combined with both traditional and
modern poetic tropes make for an intriguing read, even when I'm not always
sure of where 'he's coming from'. He reminds me, to a degree, of Ian Duhig,
though Duhig is clearly a more anti-establishment, 'oppositional' writer than
Briggs appears to be - this is an observation, not a criticism.
One of the pieces that first took my attention in Rain Rider was 'My Rival', a poem which effectively deals
with the notion of 'factional in-fighting among poets.', and, by extension
the themes of reputation and ambition among writers. I can recall reading
Clive James' poem 'The Book of My Enemy has been Remaindered' which had a
typically Jamesian show-off, up-front facetiousness to it. Briggs' piece is
more measured, genuinely amusing and in its final lines has a degree of
emotional credibility, whereas in the James poem this feels forced and aiming
for 'effect' -'When people learn I write poetry/they tell me I 'absolutely
must read' my rival's poems'. Briggs is not always as restrained. In 'No
Prisoners', which I take to be an autobiographical poem relating to the
wanton destruction of a sandcastle replica of Wells Cathedral made on the
beach by his father, the final lines are intemperate and have that genuine
force of justified revenge:
When the revolution comes, I'll have them
buried to their chins in the sand,
expunged slowly from the horizon
by a merciless, incoming tide.
(from 'No Prisoners')
The title poem - beautifully illustrated by the unnerving cover photograph,
incidentally - combines a straightforward evocation of a natural event - a
rainstorm which appears at speed - 'a drum roll/on snares, across furrowed
counterscarps,/coming at pace.' - with something more magical and
otherworldly. Briggs' use of alchemical and hermetic traditions to invoke and
evoke transcendent states is often at odds with a more modern, sceptical
stance which appears here, and the dramatic effects of this are at the heart
of what I find most interesting in his work so far.
'Test Card - for Angus Wolf',
is a good example of Briggs'
interest in science and the 'magic' it creates and is, I assume, a homage to
the young girl - Carol Hersee - who appeared as a fixed image on TV before
the days of 24-hour programming. It's a neat idea for a poem and one which
manages to sustain itself throughout, unlike many 'good ideas' which should
remain one-liners from the start:
just as the plug's livewire must always be brown;
you, my pixellated playmate,
who ceased to liaise at the old rendezvous -
between the highlights and downtime,
at the junction of hope
(from 'Test Card')
His other impressive 'homage' poem in this collection - 'When Sam Beckett'
includes the wonderful lines:
But when Sam Beckett played piano, it was Debussy, in the
dark - hunchbacked, planting chords in a row, seeding the
room with tears.
As I've said before, Briggs has a knack for 'arresting openings'. In 'The
Fear' we get this:
A lifting of the scales
and I see my brother
for the putative cannibal he is;
Which moves towards a finale which evokes both Titus Andronicus and the ending of Peter Greenaway's deliciously
dark satirical film, The Cook, The Thief, his Wife and Her Lover:
Just promise me this:
spitroast me no longpigs;
eat neither ears, hands, genitals or feet;
forego the side plate of crackling.
Briggs' references are wide-ranging - he's clearly as concerned with films,
art and music as he is with literature. There's much more of interest here -
'The Bridge', with its deep existential suggestiveness, for example, and
'Resolution', which sets up an intriguing dialectic between different forms
of intelligence (the 'jack-of-all-trades' Renaissance Man, opposing a more
narrow, very modern form of focus); also a series of poems related to the
idea and the mythology of The Fool, which appear at various points. This is a
short collection but it's a good one and, once again, I look forward to
seeing Briggs' next book - I'm not sure where he's going to go next.
© Steve Spence 2013