There's Something in There?
Songbook, Ken Edwards (112pp, Shearsman)
Frank Freeman's Dancing School, Cliff Yates
(70pp, Salt )
Save the Last Dance, Gerald Stern (91pp,
Every Salt Advance, Andrew McMillan
(32pp, £4.00, Sand Chapbooks, Red Squirrel Press, PO Box 219, Morpeth, NE61
Holes in the Map, Nathan Thompson
(24pp, Oystercatcher, 4 Coastguard Cottages, Old Hunstanton, Norfolk PE36
really as vain as to try to bullshit myself out of a corner when I patently
don't understand something. So, I freely admit there's just something I'm not
getting in Ken Edward's Songbook. Both the
title and the back cover tell me it's all about songs - 'songs that have
never and never will be sung: anti-lyric and narrative poems for which a
musical equivalent has been constructed; and text written specifically for
musical purposes'. There are even twenty pages of fascinating musical
notation that give some idea of how the texts relate to the music. But, there has to be something I'm just
not seeing in it all. A musical
conundrum it may be, perhaps, but there really must be something. Otherwise
why would Edwards feel the need to remind us that...
something in there.
least...there may be. Who can say more than that?
It comes in there, or is there, sometimes. It's suggestive of...
say what it is.
[from 'There's Something In There...']
But then, without the advantage of hearing these songs in context, with their
music, the exercise begins to read as a long, long list of terse, vernacular
juxtapositions of urban mundanities and anecdotal trivialities that are
obtuse beyond literary necessity and that do themselves serious collateral
damage by being bound to the pages of a book.
I'm in the
middle of dirt
the colours is a house
surrounds the house
I am starting
from nothing. So slowly
I once said
'a rose is my cunt'
searching desperately for an airport
'there's no smoke
The street that
I'm on is about to end
[from 'Red: Narrative Poem']
That, of course, is the crux of the matter. These are songs. Songs need to soar, aurally. They don't belong, silently, on the pages of a book, particularly
not from a publisher we have come to know and love for producing sparkling
editions of poetry. If anything, by being so, the expectation generated is of
there being poetry within. But this expectation is soon dashed. I'm left disappointedly holding a
the song book aside, Cliff Yates' Frank Freeman's Dancing School offers the promise of some real poetry. The cover has all sorts
of literary worthies saying good things about him and it has a picture of a
hippy in a top-hat, beads and dark glasses playing a soprano sax. It has to
be good! I dive in, head first,
surprised then only to be perplexed by my seemingly immutable neutral
reaction. It takes until the
poems facing each other on pages twenty-two and twenty-three to realise the
reason for it. And it's not very complicated.
There are three voices used in Yates' poetry. The first is that of the
observer-poet, purely so, as here from 'At the Smell of the Old Dog':
needs a coin
to see the
boat bright sun.
Kids in wet
suits jump. Boy
bottle of raspberryade.
arm in arm
deep across the bay
the hill maybe
a little cold
You'd give a
rope faded orange, blue.
Then there's the voice of the narrative poet, as here from 'Proportion':
He was never
off sick but the day
that he was,
unfamiliar in faded pyjamas,
I climbed in with him
with a pencil
and a new sketchbook.
He showed me how to draw in proportion:
pencil vertical at arm's length,
distance with your thumb, mark it.
horizontal. We drew the window...
Then there's the third voice - a combination of the other two - the
observed-narrative or the narratively-observed. However, whichever
appellation is applied, what comes over is a poetry that is unappealingly
quaint, if not just slightly smug and overly reliant on the punchline (oh, to
leave you with a smile on your lips!), in that Northern sort of way Ian
McMillan describes (and if anyone should know, he should) as the Skelmersdale
Mystic/Domestic idiom, as in this extract from the end of 'Your Limbs Bound and Mouth Full of
while not standing still.
while not lying down.
knives and bullet-proof vests.
Your chest is
a face, have you thought of that?
with this in mind, any landscape
The beach deserted
except for an old crab. And I mean old.
So, in effect, what there is, which will bewilder any mathematician worth his
or her salt, are two positives being cancelled out by just a single negative,
this being what I clutched at to explain my neutral response as I read. Funny
thing, though, is that, even then, armed as I was with this new awareness,
pages twenty-four onwards did nothing to alter my disappointing feeling of
ambivalence, neither one way, nor the other. In short, I was left as flat as
the cap on a mill-worker's head.
on the other hand, with his collection Save the Last Dance, had me hooked. Why? Well, two reasons above all. Firstly, Gerald Stern is no spring
chicken. The obvious advantage he has is that of age and, therefore, in its
broadest sense, experience. The
older one gets, the more real-life material one has to draw on, and, the more
one has, the more one can filter out the dross, leaving every morsel one uses
shining brilliantly and confidently on the page. And Stern makes every
possible use of his own extremely rich personal history, drawing on and
drawing in these observations and recollections to craft a glorious cacophony
from him and I
something once from a bird
but I don't
know his name
everyone I tell it to
asks me what
his name was
and it is
was he, a
dog? The Klan
flourishing all the while
we dreamed of hydroelectric
so we were
caught in between
one pole and
Hegelian or just
the hammer on
top of the manhole
so we could
lift it to get
balls and tennis balls
though he who weighed a pound
such was our life
and such were
our lives the last
before the war when
four flavors of ice cream
[from 'Save the Last Dance for Me']
Secondly, then, in addition to Stern's poetry being intentionally serious, in
that it's very much a poetry that tells of and comments on the human
condition, it is also written in such a way as to have allowed a warmly natural,
mirthful rebelliousness and a genuine, personal enthusiasm for the
possibilities of language to be perceived tumbling from line after line.
thing I was trying not to see was
so close to
my nose that I couldn't see anything
else, and I
had to rely on a stranger to
one thing from another, and
occasion the edges were smoking so
and the smoke
crawled to the middle in such a way
that I had to
depend on smoke alone, and fog,
and steam and such to light the way...
[from 'Rapture Lost']
This combination smacks of character, of personality. It is human. It is a generation away from the
sterile cut-ups and collages that all too often pass for award-winning poetry
amongst many younger US (and some UK) poets. Observations and recollections
there may be, but quaint it ain't. Nor nostalgic. As one of the back-cover
reviews puts it; 'Stern writes with a gruff, seen-it-all knowingness and with
the distillation, leaps and pivots acquired over a long life of poetic
practice.' I can only agree wholeheartedly and recommend that, now, you find
out for yourself.
Stern has the obvious advantage of age and, therefore, in its broadest sense,
experience, Andrew McMillan has no such advantage. The life he has had to
draw on, thus far, is limited and, so, the breadth and depth of his poetry is
equally limited. As a debut collection, Every Salt Advance, has all the hallmarks of adolescent angst and only holds its
head above water with the aid of youthful enthusiasm.
love is just
love and I'm in it
for the ride
love is just
and man you
sure can push
but you've got a voice
that tells me
what I need to
[from 'translated love letters']
Obviously, McMillan will have been developing a following of equally young
minds for whom the travails of love and parental relations are naively
relevant, but there's a good deal of maturing to be done yet before he can be
truly said to have found his voice as a poet of substance. Still, do keep an
eye out for him in the future even though, for now, in all honesty, we must
be thankful Every Salt Advance is a short
pamphlet in this bunch, Holes in the Map by
Nathan Thompson, is a shortish collection of shortish poems of the type that
make me scream deliriously for some normal syntax and for just anything even
resembling standard grammar. Although it probably takes a complete reading of
the collection to reach these heights of delirium, here's the whole of one
poem, 'near harbour radio', which, hopefully, will serve to illustrate my
angles light off
sea touching us gentle
rounding on boat-chimes
where we came from
ley lines in the dark
you a brush
soft air lips to kiss returning
swell tomorrow south-westerly
There's something of love and sex in this and several others in the
collection, sure, but there's so much of everything else, delivered in
razor-like shards and crammed in, that, ultimately, all meaning is lost. It
is a list of generally unconnected, curt phrases that sit on the page like
some nightmarish, Freudian association test. The overall effect, then, I'm
sad to say, was for it to leave me, obversely, feeling quite disassociated,
if not just plain disinterested.
lost in leafy
tradition burnt his
eyes on imaginative reconstruction
red tape no introduction
'just to stop
inaugurates angels in a tree'
plagiarism with amendments
[from 'built over']
© John Mingay 2010