Viva Exurbia


Exurbia, Andy Brown (67pp, 10.00, Worple Press)
Silent Highway
, Anthony Howell (96pp, 10.95, Anvil Press)
Burnfort, Las Vegas
, Martina Evans (64pp, 9.95, Anvil Press)


Somewhere out there, on the very edge of the lazy suburbs, beyond their angled verges and marine-corps sheared lawns, exists 'exurbia'. A man-made hinterland that (a quick Google Books Ngram shows us) boomed post World War II and heralded the dawn of a commuter-driven world; one in which developers conceive of estates with a predominant economic function: to house people who work far away. As a result, these communities boast little in the way of activity beyond a small number of retail establishments, preoccupied with serving the residents.

It is here on the outer limits of suburbia that Brown's eighth collection begins, in:

   The borderland between renewal and loss,
   the boundaries we build and hide behind,
   under the eaves of our habits and beliefs.
        (from 'Selvage')

This is a collection that pays close attention to the ways in which we build our homes 'surrounded by the constant hum of change' and, as such, is alive to the music of nature and characterised by edges, transition and change.

   this common space beyond our small conception
   where we are called to things and rooted in
   witness...
         (from 'Things')

Here, Brown's vocabulary is recognisably diverse and intriguing but never affected or contrived, attaining a tone that is akin to measured melancholy.

Though Exurbia
is, broadly speaking, conventional in tone Brown's poetry branches out at welcome intervals to embrace the complexity of his subject. Poems such as 'The Last Geese' leap out at the reader with its experimental structure, boldly reflecting the words of each line back from the centre-point as though formed itself from geese in formation. Later in 'Outskirts', a sequence of elegiac poems inspired by Borges, Brown joins the Argentine poet in shared mourning for his father.


Meanwhile, in Silent Highway, Anthony Howell adopts the role of cicerone as he leads readers through a well-observed and varied collection that conjures disturbing descriptions of modern Britain and explores the relationship between history and the present.

Howell's poetry enjoys the comfort that one can expect from good research well spread throughout a collection, particularly in the collection's central sequence 'Silent Highway', which invokes the (in order of appearance) the Fire of London, Pocohontas' voyage, the arrival of Jamaican immigrants upon the Windrush and the mysterious death of Roberto Calvi. Through these ranging references, the poem explores in lurid detail the river's ever-changing persona, I enjoyed his ranging use of diverse and assured reference which evokes in lyric a portrait of the river Thames and its integral role in the evolution of London and laid the foundations for the development of the nation we see today.

   Downstream, where the river widens,
   Eager to engage the seas it bullied in imperial times
   When 'all the liquid world was one extended thames'
         (from 'Uncle Rufus')

These are elegant poems which demonstrate Howell's talent for avoiding the predictable and deconstructing the recognisable. In 'The Deserted Garage' the speaker delivers a eulogy to an abandoned petrol station and appears caught somewhere between grief at the passing of a business that supplied jobs and mobility

   Cracks have appeared in the concrete and some tough, urbanised
          grasses
   Have sprung up. You can't get onto its forecourt with wheels any
          more:
   Some circular blocks have been dropped across entrance and exit
   While metal roller blinds have been pulled down in front of its shop.
        (from 'The Deserted Garage')

and a pleasure in the pastoral that captures the tendency of nature towards rebirth, reminding readers of the impermanence of human industry as he visualises that

   By the debris of the air machine. Then nettles and vetch will
          assemble
   And thorn-trees, and maybe the wild plum and certainly thickets
          of bramble
   Where thrushes will nest, and small creatures running on smaller
          ones,
   While bugs and gastropods will come to inhabit an overgrown
          copse.


In Martina Evans Burnfort, Las Vegas icons give way to icons as she moves from the impact of American culture and the advent of rock'n'roll on her home town, a small Catholic community in rural Ireland in a collection that seats itself somewhere in the shared fact and fantasy of childhood recall. In the titular poem the speaker explores what it means to be a follower of both Jesus and Elvis:

   There were stranger things then,
   to believe in, only now I think
   it was more like Vegas, all those
   signs, the games of forty-five
   and my Elvis tape playing.
   A few months ago
   the novelty mug frightened us all
   by spontaneously bursting
   into Viva Las Vegas
and I took that
   as a sign, did what any
   catholic would do put up a shrine. 

Unlike the two former collections, Evan's poetry springs from memories, anecdotes of local characters pulled up like vegetables, children's books and cartoons all jostle for importance and touch on the conflicted emotions that stem from nostalgia for the imagined simplicity of a thing in its prime. For example, in 'My Darling Clementine' the speaker seems caught between a kind of saudadic pity and a sense of wistful pride for her father, writing that:

   I think of the story of Daddy suddenly angry
   one night he had had enough
   and refused to be pacified with a drink
   which he sent flying down
   the Formica like Doc
   with the back of his hand and that was
   a funny anecdote to be told afterwards,
   the dramatic gesture so unlike him
   and I think of his swollen crooked fingers
   and how he was almost always powerless.

Burnfort, Las Vegas
is an assured and solid collection that will appeal to all who enjoy witty, narrative poems formed from a close observation and mimicry of conversational tones that, in such poems as 'Gazebo' (a hilarious poem in which the speaker recalls that 'Gazebo was the word my mother used to describe a mad exhibitionist or a queer hawk') and 'Low Key', realises rural life with great sensitivity.

   ... My mother
   grew up near landed gentry
   and the gazebo hidden in their gardens
   must have entered her language
   like escaped seeds,
   growing into wild tramps
   that struggled along the Rathkeale road,
   on strange, overblown feet.
        (from 'Gazebo')


                  Phillip Clement 2015