POEMS PEWED, LET LOOSE & PROSE
Insight is seldom popular. To pursue popularity is to
turn from insight. To pursue insight is to embrace unpopularity. Diderot's
wisdom is, all the same, worthwhile: to know posterity will judge you well
is a present pleasure. A pleasure Emily Dickinson must have known, unknown
as she was. Poetry is an unpopular but enduring art. Perhaps a poet's
ambition should be to be popular with hundreds across centuries. To pursue
popularity with contemporary millions is the business of mere
entertainers. Entertainment is a popular but ephemeral affair. Poets,
then, can revel in unpopularity. Out of or ahead of your time, as a poet
you're at home. Quirky, awkward, misunderstood you're safe. Why then
uniformity? Why work which reads as if produced by the same mind, out of
the same dull school of don't offend, win prizes, be well-liked? I'd
rather be offended than be bored, if offence is witty, interesting, alive.
Voices From A Silk-Cotton Tree
by John Lyons (Smith/Doorstop ISBN 1-902382-41-2 £6.95 The Studio,
Byrom Arcade, Westgate, Huddersfield HD1 1ND) has barely a memorable line
and not a memorable poem. Everything's beforehand. Nothing's hard won
through language. His is an everywhere style. Even the seating of the
poems on the page is customary. Poems in church. A rough edge, a jab, a
rise of anger, a falling of despair, something not polished, unruly, odd,
oblique. Anything but poetry production-lined. What writers can be taught
to do doesn't make them writers. It's what they own and no-one else does
that matters. Swaledale Sketchbook
by Chris Considine (Smith/Doorstop ISBN 1-902382-5-5 £3) is just as
neatly pewed. Ms Considine's won prizes. So much for prizes. She can
write, like choristers can sing. A trained writing. A received, direct
style, no ruffle, no jolt. Not good for prizes. What sticks to the mind is
oddness. Make it new, yes. Make it odd. This doesn't stick, it drains.
You'd have to force remembrance. Debatable
Land by Annemarie Austin (Smith/Doorstop ISBN 1-902382-44-7 £3)
won a prize. Ah, prizes. Ms Austin too has learnt to think first and write
after. Writing needs to catch a thought in flight. This too knowing stuff,
the language afterwards, has deadness at its heart. Poetry's more than
just neat words on a page. Different though is
Rainbow by Diana Syder (Smith/Doorstop ISBN 1-902382-38-2 £6.95).
Syder is Britain's most interesting poet of science, though science isn't
all her poetry. She is a genuine original. She writes strikingly about
banality but her peak is reached in science. She understands those arcane
things beyond the reach of many untrained minds. Yet writes for all of us.
The awe of it. The change. Darwin's changed us. So has Einstein. Not
mystics anymore, we know our origin and set a use-by date on every star.
Dark is the true stuff of the universe. Both its meanings hold: light is
an exception and what it's all about is hidden.
there is a God if I'm not careful, if I forget
to remind myself that we're bound to take
pleasure in what we've evolved with
The world's not made for mind but mind for world.
Religion's on its head and we are small.
If complexity is rare,
the result of fluctuations
in the fundamentals from one part
to another, then we're an anomaly
in the giddy ways of space-time
and the worth of every creature
rockets sky-high; my cat
is doubly precious, a termite gains
irreducible worth and the man
on the bus is a crucial geometry
to be added to the sum of the universe
Poetry about something. Something that matters. Something
big. Yet modest poetry touching on what makes us what we are. Science has
done what preaching never could: shown us our uniqueness, as a species, as
individuals. Uniqueness out of chance. Unrepeatable uniqueness. God can
start again. Evolution only happens once. We are a curious exception on a
curious planet. As individuals and as a species, we have a short
residency. We're ail just passing through and the huge, beyond-us physical
forces that made us will wipe us out, mercilessly. A fair idea then not to
wipe out one another. A fair notion to enjoy it while we can. Syder's
writing on science is thoroughly humanizing. It lifts us up by bringing us
down to size. Syder's insight is devastatingly accurate: life is
infinitely precious because infinitely rare, infinitely chance. A belief
in an Intelligent intention behind the universe and that life continues
after death leads too easily to abuse of life. Science's lesson, that the
very fact we are here is chance beyond imagining of chance, interpreted
through a sensitive poetical sensibility like Syder's, teaches that abuse
of life is arrogance. The reverence religion sought but destroyed through
certainty and bigotry eases through her work. She's full of insight caught
in flight. She won't be popular, but she'll last. Remarkable poetry too
from Gavin Bantock in Floating World
(Redbeck ISBN 0 946980 86 1 £6.95). Bantock writes gracefully, robustly
about what might shock. He brings alive the culture of a Japanese
bath-house or the technological assault of a passing bullet train. He has
a long pedigree and has won prizes. All the same, he's an excellent
writer. Except. Does he really believe this: a nuclear cataclysm would be
as natural and purifying as previous world scourges were; and....therefore
we should accept its coming as an event beneficial to Mankind. If so, he's
mad. In this particular at least. Yet he seems to. It's the substance of
the third section of Hiroshima, written in 1964.
shall lead a wonderful destruction
Evidence of how religion can destroy the mind. Even the
minds of real writers. I can't believe any Christ I can imagine would
welcome nudear war. Bantock should read Syder. There's no God. We're here
by chance. Our worth's sky-high. Natural? Purifying? No. Just mad, vile,
vicious, horrendous, wrong. A shame that should good writing should be
marred by such lunacy. Another Redbeck writer Anthony Edkins in Life
As It Comes lacks Bantock's original turns. Well-composed poetry with
intelligence behind it, but back in church. The rows are neat. It's all
predictable. Edkins writes like too many others who write like Edkins.
Syder's difference is what he needs. Patricia Pogson has some of
that. Holding (Flambard ISBN 1-873226-58-6 £4.00)
contains twenty-three poems for Geoffrey Holloway. She was married to him.
She still is. All the poems speak both to and of him. Pogson realises
beautifully the slow pain of loss. She virtually never puts a syllable
wrong. All her hallmarks are here: clarity, poise, apparent lightness.
Very difficult to write so well about something so painful. And a fitting
tribute to Holloway as poet, man and husband. Peter Bennett,
another Flambard writer, reworks an old saga in
Long Pack (ISBN 1-873226-59-4 £4.00). Unfamiliar with the story
and this long poem lacks meaning. The writing is solid and perhaps the
collection springs to life to those for whom the references are easy.
Perhaps a poem like this limits its audience too much? Perhaps, on the
other hand, if the writing's good enough it will drive readers to find
out. This writing, I suspect, lacks that edge. If contemporary poetry can
disappoint, the best of the Anglo-Saxon is robust, vital, full of
word-delight and alliterative energy. At the risk of being sexist, it's
poetry with bollocks. In order not to be, it's poetry with cunt. A good,
honest Anglo-Saxon word. Graham Holderness has gathered and
translated an inspiring collection. Craeft
(Shoestring Press, 19 Devonshire Ave, Beeston, Nottingham, NG9 1BS
ISBN 1-899549-67-6 £7.50) is a book to read and reread and cherish.
Divided into three sections, songs of battle, lament and praise it
contains five extracts from Beowulf which will be familiar to many
readers. But Holdemess's translations brim with life. And this:
A death-destined breath-catching
Fleshwrapped body, woke
From a sleep of senescence
By a word-web woven
Of cunning contrivance and curious
Craft, mouth-made in another
Tongue, yet sung
By a darkling bird in waste
Night-watches of shivering
Sleep, dug deep Into pain and praise
Why don't poets write like that anymore? What is the
essence of that style? Isn't it impersonality? Isn't impersonality what
we've lost? Isn't so much modern poetry vapid because inward?
" Fate has no mercy. I mourn alone,
Telling myself the tale of my griefs.
There's no man alive to whom I may talk
Frankly of my fate, or confess my cares.
It's only too true that a man is wise
To trap his thoughts tight in his head,
And fasten his feelings firm in his breast.
A spent spirit cant fight fate..."
No self-pity. No soppiness. No proclamation of self
either. Isn't modern poetry characterised, often, by an assertion of self
that is assumed to be known and in control? What kind of self is this?
Isn't it paradoxically true that self only begins in relationships? Isn't
it true that the personal is built out of the impersonal? Isn't language
paradoxically a system of impersonal rules through which we can express
the personal? Doesn't much modern poetry dismiss these paradoxes in its
assertion of a self presumed to be self-defining? These Anglo-Saxon
writers wrestle with reality and in so doing produce muscular, beautiful,
honest poetry. Their selfhood is strong in separation. Ours is weak in
blending. Work of this kind is a tonic. Few these days can tackle the
original. The more Graham Holderness translates the better. Jennifer
Copley isn't as thrilling as the Anglo-Saxons but her poems at least
touch on real themes and conjure those epiphanies of disappointment,
failure, hatred, love that mark life's watersheds. She does it without
fuss and some of her lines surprise. Ice
(Smith/Doorstop £3) has just twenty poems. An introduction, if she
pushes in this vein and takes the boldness that rises in some of these
poems as her banner, she'll write much worth reading. Hubert Moore's
Touching Down In Utopia (Shoestring Press ISBN 1 899549 68 4 £6.95) is
the work of a wide-ranging mind and an attractive sensibility. The writing
is confident, steady, unshowy. An occasional line twists the mind and
sticks. All the poems are readable and one or two rise to distinction. Gary
Allen is well-known to readers of the little magazines.
(Flambard/Black Mountain ISBN 1-873226-57-8 £7.00) confirms him as a
stalwart. No ground-breaker, his poems are all small units of energy,
subtlety, insight. He goes a quiet, modest way to his wisdom and his
language is careful, neat, always leading you gently to the next line. To
the end. To the next poem. Gentleness is a quality in this collection.
Alien is part of that body of small press writers whose honesty and
thoughtful honing sustain the art and keep language reaching for the best
in the mind. Not to read him is a loss.The same could be said of Jenny
Swann. Soft Landings (Flambard ISBN
1-873226-55-1 £7.00) has several poems which derive from her interest in
art. For the rest, she's usually domestic. Her style is dear, uncluttered
and unhurried. If she has a fault, it's that at times she's too knowing
about herself. A poem is a bad place to advertise your virtues. Sharing
adolescent giddiness at a concert by an incompetent orchestra isn't as
flattering as its appearance in one of the poems collected here suggests.
It's a small fault. But poetry is an astringent form, it magnifies small
faults. Finally, to prose. Jack Debney's
Crocodile's Head (Redbeck £8.95) is a collection of nine short
stories which justifies the existence of the small presses. He is a master
of the form. He has a talent for the striking detail and the perfect
sentence. His writing penetrates, fastens, convinces. And the stories
build into small, self-confirming, cleverly biased measures of interest,
wit and observation. Debney exhibits the qualities of the supreme
short-story writers- Maupassant, Chekhov, Lawrence, the Flaubert of the
trois contes. This is what little presses are for, because big publishers
ignore work like this, work of the highest accomplishment. Not one of
these stories disappoints. Every one of them made me eager to read more
Debney. This is real literature. Superb.
WISING UP, DRESSING
DOWN by Edward Mackinnon
Shoestring Press, 19 Devonshire Ave, Beeston, Nottingham,
NG91BS. ISBN 1 899549 66 8. £6.95.
Edward Mackinnon is one of the few poets who write about
tennis. He writes about it well. William Scammell was, of course, an
excellent tennis player who made reference to the sport in his work.
Mackinnon is obviously an exponent and lover of the game. There are two
tennis poems here both full of Mackinnon's verve, dislike of cant and
pompousness, and impatience with injustice and stupidity. Mackinnon, to
his credit, kicks against the pricks. This is one of the features which
distinguishes him from many contemporary poets ; beneath much of the
poetry of the past twenty years there lurks an implicit submission, an
almost concealed sense that a note of rebelliousness is unseemly. This
underlying obedient politeness expresses itself most often in a poetic
solipsism: how can I write about what I don't myself experience?
imagination, of course, is about being about to leave that narrow
definition of experience behind. Mackinnon has this quality. His poems are
often driving out from a dissatisfaction with the way things are. He is
never programmatic but he conveys a sympathetic unease. At the same time,
he is fully aware that a poem must stand against the corrosive power of
time and cannot be built like a flimsy house of rhetoric. He is highly
skilled in employing rhyme, rhythm, assonance, alliteration, parallelism
of every kind to make his poems hold together. Often, the technical
resources are deployed with that mastery which makes them barely
noticeable. He is a real artist who has taken time and trouble to develop
his art. He also has a lovely, warm, down-beat humour which finds its way
into much of the work. Confessional Poem, for example, has much fun with
the discrepancy between the poet's imagination and society's demand of
conformity. Mackinnon is a mature, humane, witty, erudite poet. One of
those writers whose work comes back to you when you're stuck in traffic on
the bus or when your boss is being particularly obnoxious. He most
definitely improves on the blank page ! Read the book, you'll
TRANSIENT by Jeff Vande Zande
March Street Press 3413 Wiltshire Dr, Greensboro NC 27408, USA
http:llmembers.aol.comlmarchst ISBN: 1 -882983-2-9
Jeff Vande Zande's subject in this book is the alienation
embodied by the freeways of America. This is a territory he has made all
his own. In the title poem, TRANSIENT, Vande Zande writes of how the
existence of freeways is directly connected to the destruction of
The country's soul lies in the road...
....Neighbourhoods turn over
faceless nomads, real estate signs
for Halloween decorations
nothing tribal, just masked strangers...
.....The only cultures
that revere their elders have no freeways."
This alienated way of living has replaced traditional
ways of relating to family and neighbours, as shown in the poem MOVING
AWAY, where Vande Zande describes moving house with his family to a
different state. What they "have left behind will haunt" them.
Their children will "wail in the backseat I and then go silent for
decades I connected and separated by interstates." His new neighbour:
"hugs a ladder and paints his walls.
We will both go to bed, unacquainted
for years, our labors unfinished."
in the transient world of freeways, nothing is real
except "the glow of the dashboard /.. .with its slow march / of
numbers..." (NIGHT TRAVEL). The rest is a sequence of mistaken or
"For half a mile I watch
a light wind rock a barrel
on the bed of a tow truck,
until it stands, slaps its hands
across its pants
and stretches its back
in what remains
of the evening's available light."
In the ironically titled ONLY BIRDS AFTER ALL, no driver
can see the complete story of a "giant whorl of starlings"
taking off and landing, but only a small part of the whole:
"Speeding toward their own exits
only a few see how the shape
finally shatters, each darting
for a space among the miles
of telephone wires. They land
apart, shivering and puffing
down in the cold morning light."
The implication here is of the fragmented quality of our
lives, and of the loss which is ours because we do not witness events from
start to end. The poet also plays on the similarity between us and the
birds, which "land / apart". At the beginning of the poem, these
lines could also apply to men:
"As though abandoned scraps of night
startled by the rush of morning headlights, they
Vande Zande writes of the separateness of drivers, who
can know nothing of other drivers except "the outlines their
headlights shape... like the silhouettes Ahat trudge the miles of gravel
and dirt I eclipsed on the other side of the pylons." (INTERSTATE
TRAVEL). The only emotion visible from outside is that of anger as some
"batter their dashboards" because of delays. Yet the anger is
wasted since "nobody hears." There is a terrible ruthlessness to
this unreal world as "blinkers stab like knives trying to cut
There is no freedom on the "free" way. Angry
drivers are like prisoners as they jerk slowly forward, the way / an
unseasoned gang stumbles against /the slack-taut-slack motion of the
Perhaps the only genuine power drivers have is the power
to kill. In the poem AFTER SEEING THE SPECIALIST IN DETROIT, "father
and son drive into darkness" and a sign showing a buck deer flashes
past. As the father falls asleep in the passenger seat, he remembers
instructions given to him should a deer cross the driver's path. The
instructions build up relentlessly to a chilling conclusion:
"...Hit the gas.
If you're going to hit it, kill it.
Otherwise, it lies all twisted
in the long grass and just twitches."
Here there is separateness even between father and son.
The poem leaves us with the son's angst alone at the driving wheel as he
"watches the edges, ready for anything."
Those who would help others may become victims
themselves. In LENDING HANDS, a security guard "on his way to the
graveyard shift" stops to give a down-and-out hitchhiker a ride and
is repaid for his kindness by being stabbed to death.
It is also too late for most of us who would wish to
escape this kind of life, since we have lost the knowledge and ability to
survive outside our civilization. We could easily finish like THE
SURVIVALIST, who tries to make his home in the wilds and whose "body
thawing on the bed" is stumbled upon by a DNR officer at the end of a
All this makes for a pretty bleak vision, which Vande
Zande faces head on and describes in a compact poetry which doesnt pull
any punches. Yet this vision is compelling, firstly because of the
beautiful images he brings back from the world of freeways and, secondly,
because there is, in spite of everything, a "community / of yellow
dashes and lines":
"...Somewhere in the race of voiceless lights,
a turn signal blinks
with the rhythm of a handshake."
Vande Zande also knows that in many ways he is more
fortunate than men of previous generations, such as his father whose
"hands / with frostbitten, open palms / look nothing like my own,
warm / and closed over the steering wheel." (SOUTH MICHIGAN
INTERSTATE, NEAR DETROIT).
I mentioned just now the strange, haunting beauty of the
freeway, which Jeff Vande Zande's TRANSIENT draws us into skilfully and
inexorably. In the last poem in the book, ROAD SIGNS, the poet offers us a
celebratory glimpse of that beauty, even if "in these ways we are
"He notices the branches are losing leaves, bare
limbs against the cold, and his high beams blink down to dims for an
oncoming windshield, beauty in the jump of his fingers." It is in the
end, perhaps, the ambivalence of this vision, expressed through
outstanding poetry, which makes it work so well for us.