Letting go of control

   
Dreams of the Caucasus
, Norman Jope (Shearsman)    
Sticky, Andy Croft (Flambard)    
Black Russian: Out-Takes from the Airmen's Club 1978-9, Jeremy Reed       
(Waterloo)    
    

Norman Jope's new collection is, in his own words, 'as much influenced by contemporary developments in 'literary' travel writing as by the poetry scenes in which I have participated'. These prose poems include imaginative explorations of his home territory, Devon and Cornwall (Jope, alongside Kenny Knight, perhaps, will be seen in retrospect as the early 21st century literary recorder of the place known as Plymouth) as well as an engagement with Hungary and its culture - based on actual geographical experience - and imagined explorations of both the Arctic and the Sahara related to a more speculative and 'dreamlike' journey, charting a meeting between the map and the subconscious mind. The book's cover art, a sort of 'abstract Richard Dadd in glorious blue' is once again by Lynda Stevens.    
    
Like much of Jope's writing the work in this collection combines a well-researched, almost journalistic, level of reasoned argument and thinking, with an often speculative and dreamlike reverie which features some beautifully constructed writing which soars away into the stratosphere while remaining perfectly engaged at an internal, thought-provoking level. There's also a wide range of cultural reference, particularly to do with music, which includes an inspired piece on Gyorgy Ligeti and the appropriateness of his work in the out-of-this-world psychedelic moments in Kubrick's 2001. A further musing on the (incongruous?) relation between Bartok and The Groundhogs, relates to his strange recollection of the latter's 1970's 'Split' while travelling by train in rural Hungary:    
    
                         Much of rural Hungary, particularly east of the Danube,
     is redolent of what, for me, is the far side of Britain, a terrain I now
     know even less well than that of the
puszta      so the connection
     is clear, if only in my mind, and the Groundhogs succeed, this
    April morning, in blowing Bartok off-stage.    
            
(from 'Superimpositions')    
    
Whereas in his last collection -
The Book of Bells and Candles - I felt there was a strong tendency towards a 'medieval worldview' here Jope juxtaposes the modern with the historical to great effect, placing himself as an observer who projects his consciousness into unfamiliar geographies and histories. If this is more Bruce Chatwin than postmodernism, then all to the good, as Jope's always careful descriptive facility, aided by an almost-painterly sense of evocation creates some beautiful, breathtaking moments:    
    
                                                  Jewels thick in mud, crowns in troughs,
     the winnowing of dust from dust and the scrape of a scythe with
     the smile of a god.    
         (
from 'The Accoutrements of Silence')    
    
There's a sense of, if not exactly empathy with the natural world and the 'other' inhabitants of our planet, then an appreciation, which avoids sentimentality and is curiously moving in its starkness. In 'Ursus Maritimus', for example we get this description of the polar bear, a creature living and surviving in an extreme climate at the edge of possibility:    
    
     Our enemy, in so far as it is curious, can run at thirty kilometres an hour,    
     and can kill a seal with a blow of its claw.    
    
     Our enemy, because it lives on meat like almost everything of any size in    
     these parts. Like us.    
         
     Our enemy, a soldier blessed with a built-in body arsenal, who will not    
     apologise or atone but move on to the next feast. Intelligent, yes, but    
     beyond anthropomorphism.    
    
     Our enemy, sharing the same blue planet.    
    
     Our enemy - marooned, starving, on an ice-floe drifting out into the    
     mildness of an Arctic summer noon, too exhausted to swim to safety.    
     Lost from sight - like so many of our enemies, our neighbours and our    
     friends.    
              (
from 'Ursus Maritimus')    
    
There's plenty of humour here as well, occasionally of the belly-laugh variety but more often self-deprecating, as in 'Crawl', where 'The city dreams of itself, like any city, in a number of ways'. The 'Crawl' in question, is of the pub variety, where the author imagines/recollects an occasion where - 'As I crawl to the Dolphin, the salt begins to gather in the tide-pools under the street lamps'. It's a novel way of defamiliarising the familiar, something which Jope often does when writing about his location in the landscape, particularly when the reverie is for somewhere he knows very well. The closing sentence of this paragraph has both pathos and bathos, an encapsulation which may be too neat but in a way it sums up the sense of movement and stillness, the commonplace and the exotic, the intelligence which has at its centre a melancholy awareness of mortality and the redeeming nature of the absurd!:    
    
     Later, there's a laurel wreath of seaweed, caught in my hair, that no-one    
     appears to notice and which lands on the empty seat of the bus beside    
     me - at which point I return to myself, the city's salt-encrusted Tarot    
          intact.     
                   (
from 'Crawl')    
    

Andy Croft is an unreconstructed leftie of the old school, a fine poet who writes very skilfully in carefully formulated metrical stanzas and whose knack for resigned satire is possibly about to enjoy something of a resurgence. Although the last poem in the collection, 'Letter to Randall Swingler Part 3', is its centrepiece, in terms of its epic quality and its outlining of Croft's philosophy. His ongoing engagement with the political poetry of the thirties is brought bang up to date by his continued railing against the excesses of a Capitalism now in deep trouble, and one doesn't have to be a paid-up member of the Communist Party (somewhat of an anachronism in any case) to see that he has a point:    
    
     In such an age of salivating snobbery,    
        Democracy now wears an Eton boater    
     And Freedom's code for economic robbery.    
        The delicacies offered to the voter    
     Are either bare-arsed sleaze or bare-faced jobbery.    
         Equality's a dream that gets remoter.    
     When talking of the have-nots and the haves    
     The working-class is now known as the Chavs.    
              (from 'Letter to Randall Swingler Part 3')    
    
Croft has spent a lot of time teaching poetry in schools and prisons and there's a complete section of this book - prefaced by an appropriate quotation from Ken Smith's
Inside Time, which relates to his prison experience. Although I occasionally find the rhythms a bit clunky there are some very subtle rhymes in these poems and the emotional appeal of the work is direct and, at times, very moving:    
    
     There's poets on the landings,    
        And there's lovers on remand,     
     There's lines of poetry up for grabs    
        In smuggled contraband,    
     While those who're good at free verse find    
        Themselves in much demand.    
                    
(from 'The Ballad of Writing Gaol')    
    
His prefacing aside to a McDonald's advertising jingle in the section devoted to Brecht is apt and sardonic and his yolking together of references from popular culture and football (you can tell I'm not a football fan) with political ballads and modern allegories is refreshingly unfashionable and definitely not post-modern! His second poem based around the pronunciation of place names 'Either or Eyether' is hilariously slapstick and I'm sure sounds great when read out loud. One of my favourites here though is 'Checkpoint Charlie' where:    
    
     You can grow a tache like Dali,    
     Clank your chains like Jacob Marley,    
     You can learn to speak Bengali,    
     Look for polar bears on Bali,    
     Be a rebel like Steve Harley;    
     You can wave your arms like Kali,    
     Quench your thirst with lemon-barley    
     In the desert sands of Mali,    
     Sing
The Internationale    
    
In Somali or Gurkhali;    
     You can celebrate Diwali    
     In the barrios of Cali,    
     Get a tattoo in Kigali,    
     Try to act like Joe Pasquale    
     In the slums of Mexicali -    
     But no matter how bizarrely    
     You act    
     It's a fact    
     There's only one proper Charlie.    
             ('Checkpoint Charlie')    
    
This was possibly generated during a teaching exercise - I'm not sure - but it's the letting go of control, dictated by the minimal structure of the end rhyme which appeals to me; there's a impish delight in silliness which comes through in unrepressed abandon.    
    

Andrew Duncan's claim that Jeremy Reed's 'Junky Tango Outside Boots Piccadilly' is his masterpiece is a bold one but I'm not so sure. This poem from his recently published collection Black Russian, is of its time and represents work written between 1978-79 which has only just seen the light of day. Certainly Reed has a long backlist of impressive material to his credit and his poetry has been consistently of a very high standard, whether the formally impressive nature poetry or the gothic excess or the celebrations of pop culture and dystopian visions of contemporary London. The work in Black Russian seems unrelentingly dark and quite complex in its experimental nature. Clearly there is a serious reflection on drug culture here - the central poem involves the suicide of an addict - and there's a constant environment in which lives are being explored at the edge, of poverty, of addiction, of extreme cases of 'outsiderness' where suffering and physical degradation are explored in depth. Feeling filters through the language yet there's an almost abstract element to the poetry itself, which makes clarity indistinct and leaves you helplessly admiring the quality of the writing (Reed is always fluent and exacting) while wondering about the content. Certainly there are hints towards Scott Walker and David Bowie and the strange references to aeroplanes (an overwhelming metaphor?) somehow brings to mind that disturbingly skewed and mad psychedelic/suburban environment of Donald Cammell's film Performance. Take this extract:    
    
     It begins like this. A simulated    
     jarring of a cat's saucer on concrete    
     and grows in sound until it's amplified    
     to no contingent source but that inside    
     the head, then it's so loud it has to blow    
     windows three feet inside without fracture,    
     and shiver contact lenses in mid-brain,    
     and strip the high-rise exterior of    
     its veneer, until its orange antirust    
     primer shows through on a steel structure    
     bare as scaffolding.    
    
                    You wonder    
     if it ends or takes up on another     
     plane, and this time the cat's saucer is real,    
     and it's your mind gone, pretending to feed    
     something, anything which will crawl    
     from the sidewalk to make contact, human    
     is irrelevant, things aren't as easy    
     now as to make for differentiation    
     between species, anything with warm blood    
     even if a muzzle or a helmet dulls    
     true contact, everything's so near extinction.    
                                  ('Take it Up')    
    
I'd hazard a guess that this is an attempt to explore or recapture the thoughts, sensations, feelings of a person experiencing a drug-induced trip. The heightened sound, the apparent loss of a sense of 'self', followed by the slightly more anxious 'episode' of the second, connected stanza, which possibly describes a state of coming down. Perhaps the subject doesn't matter, the quality of the description is what counts and this is cool writing, slightly disconnected yet also disturbing, not, I think the 'melodramatic realism' suggested by Duncan in his introduction. I'm intrigued by this writing though, slightly outside my comfort zone (not in itself a bad thing) and I'm sure I'll return to this book at some point though I'm not sure it's my favourite variety of Jeremy Reed.    
    
         Steve Spence 2011