A Splendid Job


Identity Parade: New British  & Irish Poets,
edited by Roddy Lumsden (Bloodaxe)


Identity Parade can surely lay claim to being one of the most interesting of the current crop of poetry anthologies, perhaps even the best Bloodaxe anthology ever. There are 85 poets in this mammoth (380 odd pages) collection, mainly those born between the 60's and the 80's, so it's a selection decided by generation, with a rough parity between male and female authors. Editor Roddy Lumsden cites Edward Lucie- Smith's groundbreaking anthology, British Poetry since 1945 (Penguin, 1970) as his model, or 'signpost', and you can see why, although the differences between the two are intriguing. While Lucie-Smith gave some impression of context via his intro and 'chapter-headings' based upon rough groupings of poets, Lumsden simply arranges his writers in alphabetical order with little attempt at suggesting influence or alliances tending towards a movement or 'group'. He makes no claim to predict or chart a zeitgeist yet what his work has, positively, in common, with Lucie-Smith's, is an attempt to embrace variety, difference, a 'pluralist' approach. Neither book can lay claim to being entirely inclusive - such an objective would inevitably fail - but both aim at as wide a representation as possible, under different circumstances. Lumsden's book, in this sense, is exemplary, probably the most successful attempt at presenting the various mainstreams and experimentalisms (and their various hybrids) so far gathered in one British anthology. I'm sure I'll be shot down in flames for suggesting this but I can't think of another book, apart from Keith Tuma's Anthology of Twentieth Century British and Irish Poetry, which attempts this, and Tuma's anthology arguably had a wider brief, across time.

I can't possibly do justice to all the material in this book so I intend to discuss the work of some of the poets included, in alphabetical order, giving space to those from different traditions, whose poetry I find most interesting. As always, this will be a subjective overview - others will find different work to admire in this generous and wide-ranging compilation.

Patience Agabi, best known as a performance poet, is represented by four pieces here, the first, 'The Wife of Bafa', loosely based upon Chaucer's 'The Wife of Bath'
. There's a hint towards a streetwise rap mode in this poem and her work combines an entertaining, 'stand-up' feel with a feminist perspective. She's at the best end of the 'performance' scene because, like Linton Kwesi Johnson, her poetry also works well on the page.

It took me some time to warm to David Briggs' material but he is an interesting poet whose work mixes techniques from both the mainstream and from more experimental modes of writing. 'Winter Music' reminds me of Ian Duhig's work though Briggs is less of a 'political' writer than Duhig.

It's good to see Andy Brown's poetry here and although I still prefer his early, more playful and experimental work to the quietly reflective, domestic yet eco-based poetry included, there's still a sense of philosophical enquiry and exploration which works well with his more lyric mode. I look forward to further developments.

Vahni Capildeo is a real breath of fresh air. Her work combines erudition with access, is filled with unexpected moments, fuelled by unusual vocabulary and quiet music. Inner thoughts are expressed through an engagement with the natural world and she's not averse to a spot of satire when the occasion demands ('What Is Your Guy Really Like?).

     Haunting, hunted. Exquisite. They require
     Another lexicon than I possess.
     A toxic bouquet of hitchcock-women
     Compelled to a longstemmed waterglass death.
          (from 'Lilies')

We need more poets like Tim Cumming. His work is never dull or precious and whether creating a mood, with minimal fuss, as in 'Late Picasso', or forging strange narratives through imaginative reconstructions of moments passed ('Snow'), his poetry is the real thing. This is attitude mixed with a sort of nostalgia, a stream of images suggesting information-overload creating a feeling of anxiety, yet it's an anxiety that can be managed....just. Despite creating an environment in his poetry where everything is provisional, perched on the abyss, he manages to keep the ship afloat. I feel a sense of satisfaction when reading these poems - they flow and they're full of interesting stuff.

Chris Emery, as well as being the head of Salt Publishing, is an accomplished poet. I have to admit that I had less than a passing acquaintance with his work before picking up this book but I'll certainly be exploring his poetry further. He has a strong grasp of traditional technique (and traditional subjects) but there's also a somewhat surreal, experimental streak. Some of his work here reminds me of early Ian Macmillan and I mean that as a compliment:

    All day the destroyers have arrived
    handing in their burnt umbrellas to the coat check boy.
     His acne shivers above the escritoire
          (from 'The Destroyer's Convention')

I probably shouldn't like Sophie Hannah's poetry but I do enjoy its easy rhythms andskilful rhymes and her grasp of different forms. She manages to carry off social commentary without getting all lugubrious about it and she doesn't take herself too seriously, unlike Wendy Cope, for example. Like Pam Ayres, Hannah is witty and unpretentious, skilful and entertaining and I like that. This poetry has limitations but within these limitations, Hannah is a star.

Luke Kennard's work is post-modern and somewhat theatrical, hardly surprising perhaps, for a poet who has also written for the stage. You often get the feeling that you're in a pastiche of a hard-boiled detective novel when you're reading a Kennard poem yet his narratives are absurd and have a dreamlike, surreal quality:

     I kissed the scarecrow: the scarecrow was cold and inert and tasted
     of sawdust. It was damn silly. Abelard took the photographs and
     advised me as to how I should kiss the scarecrow - with a hand
      on its shoulder, for instance.
          (from 'Scarecrow')

Kennard's rise in the British poetry scene has been mercurial and it remains to be seen how influential his work will prove in the long run. He's certainly opened up new areas of experience and possibility, which should have an effect on younger, up-and-coming poets yet there's an apolitical aspect to his brand of post-modernism which I can't help seeing as a lack.

Sarah Law's poetry is unusual in that it manages to meld the numinous with the experimental: her strong lyric voice is often interrupted by a more enigmatic, puzzling mode and when this comes off, at its best, her work is intriguing and impressive. There's a lush, textured quality to her writing which can be both a mood-enhancer and a provocation to thought:

                            Ascetics are marching
     through this sumptuous city, arresting
     silvered eyes and swathes of waist.
     One day you order this; a genius paints
     my face in afterglow, and your wealth is sealed
     in this room with its bloom of hidden veins.
          (from 'Parisian')

Chris McCabe is another young poet whose work straddles the mainstream and the more avant-garde British traditions. Like Kennard, there's a surreal quality to McCabe's writing but his work is more experimental and has a gritty, politically alienated feel which is both serious and combative. He's a great live reader of his poetry and his work is also humorous and expansive. He is simply one of the very best younger British poets currently engaged in exploring the urban environment.

     I needed air and went to do the community circuit at two
     in the morning. Didn't see so much as a shadow of another.

     Barracks of endless terraces & not one with a light on.
     Brandless wafer of the forked church.

     Like an airport attache case the first fox stops.
     Another moves in the shape of the night it is not.
         (from 'The Essex Fox')

I'm very pleased to see Helen Macdonald's work included in this collection. I can recall a Wednesday afternoon a few years ago, discussing one of her poems with a friend and can still remember how pleasurable that occasion was. Her poetry isn't easy but the obstacles to reading it (if 'obstacles' is the right word) are all part of the fun and I never feel remotely bored or 'blocked out' when reading her work.
Shaler's Fish is simply a magnificent book. Much of her writing is related to an interest in birds of prey and falconry and thus we are given an 'airbound' view of things. She manages to fill her poetry with knowledge without being remotely pompous or overbearing and the curious reader will go with the flow. She's impossible to quote from in small bursts but here goes and hopefully you'll become as addicted to her work as I am:

     I can't be seen at night. And during the day, I'll hide.
     I'm good at that. There are parts of the air so thin
     you can slip inside them, and then, with the wings
     hitched and the coverts raised, each little feather
     with its four tiny muscles erect and the air between
     burred with the warmth from her back, she'd sleep.
     Never wanted to be nocturnal. But dusk
     and dawn are enough: larks sing in the dark, and
     I know that blackbirds do, too.
         (from 'Poem')

I first came across Peter Manson's work in some excerpts from his prose writing
Adjunct: an Undigest, and it was the mix of incongruity and humour which took my fancy, that and a sense of philosophical probing which was rooted in reality and didn't take itself too seriously. The poems here include 'In Vitro', based on Mallarme (one of Manson's poetical obsessions) and 'Poem', where a dense 'stream-of-consciousness' is flooded with different forms of vocabulary and language, perhaps produced by a cut-up method which mixes the lexicon of feeling with that of a more abstract nature. There's sense of a social critique being conducted at a distance, through suggestion, but there's also a hint of lyricism and humour.

Lyricism is also at the forefront of D.S. Marriott's poetry, alongside an oblique and densely textured engagement with issues of race and political displacement. This work is filled with movement and a sense of melancholic anxiety; landscapes and people are described but always at a distance and out-of-focus, as if history is being reconstructed from the viewpoint of the loser. Marriott is one of the few black writers I'm aware of who has been influenced, in part, by the Cambridge School and his work needs to be made more widely available:

      The shore of the lake comes first,
      bringing gamesmen, tourists, keepers, and peasants.
      Sunset hid its modesty
      behind a few curtains of red cloud
      as she drives past imagining the night's wolf eye
      and the flash of knives in the forest.
          (from 'Over the Black Mountains')

Daljit Nagra's 
Look We Have Coming to Dover!  is one of Faber's few contemporary success stories insofar as serious poetry is concerned, and the clue is all in the title, with its multi-punning, multi-cultural questioning which still manages to raise a smile.
Nagra's early work, published under a pseudonym, had a more streetwise and sassy quality than the work included here but his satirical talents, allied to a serious attempt to explore his mixed cultural background are still well in evidence. There's a relish for language here which revels in its own pleasures but which also aims at an explanation, or at least, a description, of the complexities of modern British society and its relation to 'Empire', from the perspective of  'an outsider' who is also on the inside. The allusion to Philip Larkin in the title of the following piece is simply hilarious:

     Ah the Raj! Our mother-incarnate Victoria
     Imperatrix rules the sceptred sphere as she oversees
     legions of maiden 'fishing fleets' breaking wave
     after wave for the 'heaven born' Etonian. Smoke
     from cheroots, fetes on lawns, dances by moonlight
      at Alice in Wonderland no the Viceroy the Viceroy's ball!
        (from  'This be the Pukka Verse')

Nagra brings in high art and popular culture to fuel his critique yet manages to fuse the two in a levelling tactic which reminds me of that consummate American postmodernist, Paul Violi. This is sophisticated and funny, challenging and filled with perception. Like I said, one of Faber's few contemporary hits!

Lo and behold, here's another. Alice Oswald is best known for her award-winning collection,
Dart, published by Faber & Faber in 2002. If her work is essentially pastoral, then it's a form of pastoral somewhat at odds with swathes of cliche-ridden nature poetry produced by unnamed poets living in the Devon countryside. There is a quiet, contemplative aspect to her poetry but her work is often offbeat and unexpected, mixing reverie with humour, celebration with a mild-undermining (you wouldn't call it satire) and a succinct and satisfying descriptiveness with an underlying sense of awe. She reminds me, at times, of Stevie Smith and I mean that as a huge compliment:

     Last night I thought I'd stop
     at the Shamrock cafe, behind the shop

     It was dead quiet, only me,
     my serviette and my cup of tea,

     and I was looking at buying one
     of the prints on the wall of Neanderthal Man

     when I heard this tremulous moaning, just
     what a gale beginning or a gust

     of a hurricane would make at sea.
     I threw an anxious glance at my tea.

     There to my horror, was a small
     row-boat sinking in a whorl,

     and round about the rim a foam
     of tea waves crashing in the gloom,

     which I drank. All unawares,
     a fat girl came to the foot of the stairs

      and stood there, with one hand
     on the banister, swinging around.
          ('Shamrock Cafe')
           
One of the pleasures of dipping into good anthologies is that you often discover interesting work by writers you'd never encountered before. Perhaps this is one of the best arguments in favour of producing poetry anthologies. Richard Price is described as being 'the youngest of the Informationist group of poets so I'm slightly surprised I've not come across his poetry before. His use of wit and wordplay is very attractive and there is a playful quality to his writing which also embraces a more serious, investigative aspect. This is poetry which straddles the mainstream and the experimental and makes best use of both traditions:

      They did not pass the test. Just past the school for private girls, in
      coats of strips of black blazers, they colonise the flooded pits.
           ('Cormorants', from 'A Spelthorne Bird List')

Catherine Smith impresses in a different way. She often works outwards from small details or re-investigates common areas of experience to produce something unusual, often skewed and dangerous. Her work is glamorous and dark, sometimes erotic yet she avoids the cliches by embracing them and creates something new in the process:

                                           My hand went out
     instinctively to trace the inscriptions -
     whisky, gin, vermouth. Oh that word, vermouth -
     evenings in a silk kimono, louche, bohemian,
     sipping my drink, listening to Rachmaninov,
     living the life I deserved.  ....
          (from 'The Set of Optics You wouldn't Let Me Buy in Portobello Road
            Market, September, 1984')

Sandra Tappenden is another little known gem whose poetry really ought to be much better known. Her recent collection from Salt, entitled
Speed, from which this poem is taken attempts to deal with the information overload and time-famine, which are foregrounded aspects of contemporary western society. Her work is provocative and unusual, expectations are confounded and stable truths are questioned, yet Tappenden manages to avoid despair amid an accumulation of anxiety. Her poems are filled with different kinds of information, pleasurable to read and they stimulate thought as well being enjoyable:

     Patterns are transported across the river
     in complicated ripples, like the river
     on a windy day of confused reflections.

     I know someone is pulling a rope
     attached to a promise, I know
     my heart is in the right place.

     It's just the way they come to my ear,
     one second hidden in cloud, the next,
     take care, take care. Do I ever.

     All this knowledge of being in debt
     they carry over; the explicable grief
     their airborne phalanxes even up.
          ('Bells')

There's a lot more work in this collection that I admired or found interesting and some material that I wasn't so sure about but its abiding strength (some might say weakness) is the incredible range of poetry included. It's not that often that you are likely to see Peter Manson in the same collection as Clare Pollard, for example - this must be a first. I think Roddy Lumsden has done a splendid job with this book and more power to his elbow.

          Steve Spence 2010