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ISSUE 24

University of Hunger
by Martin Carter
edited by Gemma Robinson  Bloodaxe  ISBN 1-85224-710-X £12

                    Most of what we communicate in conversation is conveyed non-verbally. In writing, tone does the work. It betrays sensibility as inevitably as voice-colouration. Literature doesnít get written by the powerless until they start to rise. They need, at least, a basic education. Their sensibility is different from that of the powerful or the comfortable. It contains more urgency and insurgency. When the powerless write out of their experience, it can seem strident and vulgar, like the importuning of a beggar. Writing and powerlessness sit oddly together because writers are assumed to be superior in discipline, in the strenuous effort to write what is true; and why should anyone with the talent and will to do that be powerless ? Itís reassuring when the truth of literature comes from people with position. The common illusion of our culture is that people with place are superior ( even though everyone knows the boss is a fool). The contrary holds: those without position are unworthy, they have failed,  are incompetent or stupid or weak or feckless. Snobbery sees those without money or power as inherently inferior, racism does the same to people of colour. Martin Carter was on the receiving end of both. He was politically active, fighting upwards against colonialism, racism, capitalism. Born in 1927, he was just the right age to get it in the neck from the British during the 1950s emergency. What was he supposed to write about ? Daffodils ? Coffee spoons ? What else could he write about but the injustice that was the air he breathed ? There are those who blench from writing which makes social justice its theme. What they are really saying is that its victims should keep quiet. Carter wouldnít keep quiet and he went to jail. His writing is marinated in the sensibility of the powerless, the poor, the downtrodden. The superior discipline of high talent together with the voice of the dispossessed. Uncomfortable stuff for the powerful and their cultural emissaries.

                    This book contains Carterís poems and some of his prose. It is edited by the excellent Gemma Robinson. Diligently introduced and annotated, it provides a superb guide to Carterís work and influences. Robinson is thorough and astute. Her scholarship is impeccable. Itís heartening that she teaches in a British university. Her students are very lucky. Lucky for us all too that she has made Guyanese writing her speciality. 

                    The style of Martin Carterís poetry is determined, as style always is, by its subject matter. The first piece is his famous TO A DEAD SLAVE. The title itself is enough to have made Eliot wince and Larkin write a cynical letter to Kingsley Amis. In the atmosphere of contemporary British poetry, itís a bit embarrassing. Isnít poetry supposed to entertain ? Isnít it supposed to win prizes that can be reported in the qualities ? To a dead slave ? Really, itís not the kind of thing you want to talk about in the Groucho. Let sleeping atrocities lie. After all, wasnít the British Industrial Revolution funded by money made from the slave trade ? This isnít irrelevant to the poem. Nothing could be more relevant. Carter, like Flaubert, knows we donít choose our subjects. The art of writing is to find the means to write about the subjects imposed on us. Hence Carterís style. Superficially itís like that of much poetry of the past fifty years: clear, straightforward, uncluttered. But the tone is special: itís that of a man writing through his tears. Compare it to Philip Levine. He too writes in a plain way and about the lives of those on the receiving end. But Levine is American and white. To be poor in America is nevertheless to belong to the most powerful society on earth. Carter came from relatively well-heeled circumstances, but he was black and colonial. Levineís poetry lacks the sense of hurt which runs through Carterís. Itís this underlying tenor, the heartbroken cry of the degraded which marks out Carterís writing.  

                    The underlying tone is one thing, the variety of surfaces another. Carterís poetry is thoroughly achieved because these two never clash. One effect of the combination of plain-style and confessional in modern poetry is a tone of absolute confidence, which can be nothing other than arrogance. Most modern poetry is written from a perspective of surety. Carterís is written from questioning: 

                              I come from the nigger yard of yesterday
                            leaping from the oppressorís hate
                              and the scorn of myself;
 

Even lines as apparently unambiguous as this are full of asking.  

                              Over the shining mud the moon is blood
                              falling on ocean at the fence of lights.

How does the tone of doubt and pain ease through these words ? Itís hard to say, but it does. 

                    The last thing Carter does is to entertain. His poetry pulls no tricks. He never shows off. Nor does he go for the cheap laugh or the slick jibe. This is poetry pulled up to its full height: courageous, dignified, principled, disciplined. There is no poetry of the twentieth century in English better than this.  

                    The book also contains forty pages of prose. ďLife in a country as materialistic and philistine as B.G. soon blunts the edge of the mind.Ē Sound familiar ? Carter is a thinker of real insight and a prose writer of genius. Read his Open Letter to the People Of Guyana (1979) and think about our present condition. Remarkable, isnít it ? Whatever you do, donít be without this book. Itís  one of those volumes youíll go back to over and over and wonder how you ever lived without it.


 

BAD SHAMAN BLUES
by W.N.Herbert
Bloodaxe ISBN 1-85224-728-2 £8.95

                    Iíve never met W.N.Herbert or heard him read, but I bet heís a chatterbox. His poetry has that sense of compulsive talking, the need to buttonhole and get it off your chest. Unlike Martin Carter, he has nothing of great urgency to convey. He hasnít stared at his condition and found that he is denied the choices that inform identity. Rather, he is a product of that culture which has unbent the springs of action, to paraphrase Hoggart quoting de Tocqueville. This culture presents us with the situation of a man of advanced European sensibility fallen among savages, like Schneebaum being forced to eat a still warm human heart. As a writer, Martin Carter spoke for his people. Who can Herbert, or anyone else speak for, these days ? Itís necessary rather to speak against, and then, who will read you ? This is the dilemma of the writer in an advanced democracy in the grip of infantile popular culture, a debased political discourse and the triumph of vulgarity. Herbert gets round it, though he doesnít solve it, by refusing to be serious. Just as Carterís tone always intimates hurt, alienation, resistance, so Herbertís is always, at least slightly, facetious. Put these two together, compulsive talking and persistent facetiousness, and youíve got the essence of Herbert.  

                    In For Andrew Waterhouse, Herbert is essentially serious; this is a tribute to a dead friend and fellow poet after all. Yet the facetious tone still creeps in: 

                              Displacement is our theme of themes
                                        itís what remains:
                              the way we canít remember dreams

The second line is the key. Herbert canít suppress himself. He canít restrain his bubbling chatter or his need to impose himself on his subject matter. Yet heís a very skilful writer so thereís much readable and highly entertaining poetry here. He uses rhyme and formal structure adroitly and in the Scots dialect poems challenges our linguistic insularity and cultural pomposity. He can make you smile and laugh and takes you into familiar territory, doing lengths in the public baths for example, in poems that make the usual unusual. Itís easy to see why heís popular at readings: try many of these pieces out loud and they read very well. Herbert is already well-known and this book was shortlisted for a major prize. His readers will like it. Itís what they expect and itís very well written. Yet it also illuminates our problem: who can be bothered with the effort of poetry when you can turn on the telly. And if that effort is too much, isnít every other kind ? How do we reset the springs of action ? How do we escape  the defence of our facetiousness ?


         

STRANGER TO NOTHING
by Philip Levine
Bloodaxe ISBN 1-85224-737-1 £9.95

                    Levineís tone is conversational, easy. The blurb calls him ďthe authentic voice of Americaís urban poor.Ē He says of his writing that he had to ďtemper the violenceĒ he felt towards those who ďmaimed and cheatedĒ him so that he could admit ďtendernessĒ to those who had ďtouched and blessedĒ him. Perhaps this goes some way to explain his style. It could be that the tempering has become the essence. Certainly, there is hardly anything close to anger in Levine. You canít imagine him writing a poem of Byronic satire and sarcasm, castigating his political enemies, those who have maimed and cheated him and his people. The poem here which perhaps captures best how he works is Gin

                              The first time I drank gin
                              I thought it must be hair tonic.
                              My brother swiped the bottle
                              from a guy who father owned
                              a drug store that sold booze..
 

It tells a story and isnít truly distinct from prose. Not all the poems are as direct, but they all tend to this simplicity, narration and prose-like structure. These are Levineís strengths and he uses them skilfully. The poems are easy to read, are all carefully structured and never drift away into rambling or indulgence, nor seem over-long. He has an astute ability to judge when he has said enough which imports a sense of precision. Heís gentle, witty and amusing company and thereís both intelligence and courage beyond the ordinary in the way he uses a plain demotic to write of everyday things. He also explores the full range of human emotions: nothing human is alien to him. He is a writer of extraordinarily high talent and this is a book anyone with an interest in contemporary poetry shouldnít miss. My caveat, however, emerges from Levineís success in his chosen enterprise. He views the world from the point of view of a secure self. The I of these poems speaks as if it knows itself thoroughly. Compare this to Carter whose self is, inevitably, alien. Carter is truly alienated. His self has been stolen by the injustice and brutality of colonialism. He writes from the point of view of a man who canít know himself because the freedom to establish his own identity has been denied. Or more accurately, his identity is that of a rebel: someone who has to fight off oppression. He is ruled from without. Perhaps we all are. Maybe our precious sense of identity is illusory, but to able to experience yourself as choosing  makes a crucial difference.  Perhaps Levine, living in democratic America, able to put pen to paper and write what he likes, really has elaborated a sense of selfhood without alienation. Or perhaps the apparent self-knowledge is part of the ďtemperingĒ. I wonder if the secure tone isnít partly a compensation ? At least, what I miss is the excitement of alienation for it speaks of hope, of promise. When our intelligence tells us something in our lives is wrong, we have to gird ourselves to change it. Levineís voice, clearly on the side of the lonely, is, all the same, comfortable. Perhaps this is inevitable in America where radical opposition to the prevailing economic system has become all but impossible. Perhaps a cool, self-possessed knowingness is all thatís available. Literature always raises these questions: why this voice ? Why this tone ? Why did these particular conditions produce these particular forms ? Levine is a fine writer, but Iím puzzled as to the origin of that integrated self.


 

POEMS BEFORE AND AFTER
Miroslav Holub
Bloodaxe ISBN 1-85224-747-9 £12 

                    Holub was a highly cultivated European scientist. His field was immunology. This book is divided between the poems which preceded the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and those which followed. He is so well-known, hardly anyone needs to be reminded of his style: clear, simple, wry witty. What makes Holub so remarkable, is his ability to open up a sense of our limits and the foibles that accompany them. Thereís a lovely funny poem called Napoleon:         

                              Children, when was
                              Napoleon Bonaparte born,
                              asks teacher.
                             A thousand years ago, the children say.
                              A hundred years ago, the children say

Detached, funny, compassionate, objective as scientists must be. The punch line is hilarious and illuminates the inevitability of misunderstanding. Holub has pointed to the likeness of poetry to science: the discovery of the unexpected by intense concentration. So his work is always searching. There is a group of poems whose titles begin Brief reflection on.. Most of them focus on an idea or phenomenon with scientific steadiness in order to uncover a surprising and usually amusing aspect of the taken-for-granted. This is the virtue and delight of Holubís work: like science it refuses to take the taken-for-granted for granted. This takes us back to Levine. Holub canít speak of the world with the assurance of Levine, or rather, his assurance is that of the radical questioner. Levine, on the other hand, is usually writing from a selfhood which presents itself as beyond question. Holubís work canít accept that anything is beyond question. Nor is Holub convinced that the so-called personal voice is quite so personal as we think: it was the editor Jan Grossman whose advice established his voice for him. This doubt about the claim of the intensely personal nature of poetry is ever-present. I suspect he would have agreed with Flaubert that poetry is as precise as geometry. And what could be less personal than Euclid ? This sets him apart from most contemporary poets, from that widespread presumption that the poetís perception and sensibility are self-justifying which at its worst descends to the view that all emotion is self-justifying because personal. But are emotions any more personal than geometry ? He has said ďI would say that one of the illnesses of modern poetry is too much subjectivity, too much toothache.Ē Holub has an appealing  way of suggesting the relativity of his own point of view, of all points of view. As the final lines of the lovely little poem Distant Howling put it: 

                              Only the virus
                              remained above it all.

This is a substantial volume, just over four hundred pages. It should be in ever library in the country. Holub is a truly great and memorable poet and this collection will grant a lifetime of surprise and joy.         


 

CICADA
by Tatiana Voltska
Bloodaxe ISBN 1-85224-704-5  £8.95

                              In the Soviet Union, poetry was popular but censored. If you werenít an approved writer, you had to go underground. Samizdat literature, of course, kept alive what the Stalinists wanted to kill off. It means self-published. But it wasnít vanity press. It was a matter of survival. Voltskaia found many of the poems that most influenced and affected her in samizdat publications. People wanted to get hold of that stuff. Now itís no longer necessary ( or maybe it is ?), poetry is retreating to the margins, where it lives in Britain. Folk prefer thrillers. What does this mean ? That the free-marketeers are right ? Give people a free choice in the market and theyíll choose the low and easy. Maybe it proves the opposite: that people value only what is hard won, what has to struggle for its life. They read thrillers to pass the time, not because theyíre culturally hungry. And cultural hunger is a symptom of hope.  

                              Voltskaiaís poetry is straightforward, undemonstrative, it has something of the objectivity of Holub. There is a sense of quiet tragedy running through her work. She carefully avoids melodrama, rhetoric, the cataclysmic. Yet throughout this collection she invokes a sense of collapse and loss in the midst of which people are thrown back cruelly onto the personal, as if the personal isnít social. As if intimacy exists in a vacuum. In her poems of intimacy, there is always foreboding. Itís as if people have all the elements of happiness but canít or darenít assemble them. Nor does intimacy provide any escape: 

                              In this town where all of us will come to dust
                              The outlines of a mouldered church dissolve
                              And lazy fluff floats by. 

Where all of us will come to dust. Thereís a terrible, hard-headed realism about that. She is tenderly hard-headed. One thing. The translations are excellent, as is the introduction by Emily Lygo. But the beauty of the Russian is, inevitably, reduced. For example, the line endings of In the kitchen donít rhyme in the English version but in Russian the sounds are: vetcherkom/ prinecen/ chaikom/ syem/ lay/ mee/ teplay/ tmee/ Lucifer/ notch/ er/ pomotch/ odna/ veleet/ vina/ boleet. This doesnít give much idea of the lovely sound of the Russian, but there is real music in the original which itís impossible to convey. Still, this is a bi-lingual version so anyone with a  desire to savour the Russian sounds can take a few lessons and start to get the idea.


 

THE SEA CABINET
by Caitriona OíReilly
Bloodaxe  ISBN 1-85224-705-3 £7.95

 

                              The first poem in this collection begins:

                              The pool at the centre of the broken-tiled room
                              was once a swimming pool for local boys.
 

Seven lines later, OíReilly repeats ďswimming poolĒ. If the repetitions are deliberate, theyíre ill-judged. If not, theyíre clumsy. Poliomyelitis isnít a bad poem, but it doesnít have the polish youíd expect of a highly-praised writer. I think it may be that OíReillyís work suffers from the illness Holub diagnosed. Not that she writes endlessly about herself, but when sheís writing about something else, itís as if, sheís writing about herself. Much of the writing seems foggy, but here and there it emerges into vividness: 

                              By the campsite, travellersí
                              greyhounds lick the junk they find
                              and sniff along a wall sprayed 
                              RELEASE IRA PRISONERS
                              and further on , HANG THEM ALL.

Suddenly the language connects. Hereís a recognisable bit of reality with a range of gripping associations. But these moments are rare. Mostly, OíReilly hides behind imprecision, or perhaps itís fairer to say the imprecision of the excessively precise. The title poem is about the Town Docks museum, Hull. I think it provides a good example of OíReillyís over-precise writing which tips into vagueness. She wins prizes and plaudits, but itís hard to find much in her work which is clear and memorable.


 

BLOODAXE POETRY INTRODUCTIONS
edited by Neil Astley   ISBN 1-85224-739-8  £7.95 

                    A selection of work by Enzensberger, Holub, Sorescu and Transtromer with introductions, interviews and comment. Four of the outstanding poets of the second half of the twentieth century. This is a superb little volume and provides more than an introduction. Even if you know these poets well, as most serious readers do, this is a neat little quartet of geniuses and the accompanying comments are enlightening. Clear and direct in style for the most part, wry, oblique, sceptical in outlook, they provide an excellent guide to the best in the poetry of their epoch. Excellent too that they are foreign. The old English insularity is rapidly breaking down and we are coming to accept that all literature is world literature. Congratulations to Bloodaxe for its consistent contribution to this improvement.


 

I STUDIED ONCE AT A WONDERFUL FACULTY
by Tua Forsstrom
Bloodaxe ISBN 1-85224-649-9 £8.95

                    Holubís diagnosis of too much subjectivity in modern poetry, too much toothache, seems pertinent. Subjective has a straightforward meaning: personal. Modern poetry, then, is too personal. My tooth ache is, of course, personal. But everyone knows what toothache feels like, or at least can know. Toothache is a common, shared experience because we all have teeth and our nerves are wired in the same way. The same is true of emotions. We understand Othello because we can all imagine being driven mad by jealousy. Jealousy is a shared, common experience even if what makes us jealous differs from culture to culture. Emotions never pre-exist their context. They are social.  

                    Since, at least, the ascendancy of the Romantics, there has been a conviction that emotions are personal. But if they were, theyíd be useless. If jealousy were just mine, what purpose could it serve ? It would be as superfluous as a private language. Emotions work because they are social. Weíve evolved to be mind readers and in the faces, demeanours, tone of voice of others we discern their emotions. Emotions in me that others canít read or emotions in others that I canít read are worthless. The awful deprivation of the autistic world is the inability properly to read emotions. Emotions are public. Itís much easier to hide an idea than an emotion. I never bother telling my religious friends Iím an atheist, but they glean from my demeanour that I donít share their belief.  

                    The illness Holub detected in modern poetry is, I suspect, the sense writers have that if they stick to their emotions, theyíre writing about something private and, therefore, beyond question. It is, after all, beyond question that I donít like beetroot and that soap opera makes me nauseous. So I can write about disliking beetroot and soap opera and no-one can question. But distaste and dislike are shared, common experiences. To understand a poem about disliking beetroot, you have to have experienced dislike. So my retreat to the subjective in search of an unassailable position is an illusion. As soon as I begin to explore my dislike or distaste, Iím on common ground, Iím writing of something social. Modern poetry is bedevilled by an attempt to escape into the personal. Escape from what ? The recognition that emotion is social, the personal social, the self social. Also, there is a confusion between social and public. Sexual mores are socially engendered, but sexual acts can still be intimate, private. In the same way, there is a confusion of social and political. Itís assumed that to retreat to the subjective is to escape the political. True, in a superficial sense. But there is no escape from our social being expect death. Just as, if we refuse to accept we need oxygen to respire, we are doomed.  

                    Too much toothache. Doesnít Holub mean too much writing about toothache as if itís mine, as if doing so exempts from objectivity ?

When modern poets write I, itís as if theyíre speaking of something they understand fully. Yet, nothing in the universe is more difficult to understand than your own mind. To say I is to evoke the unknowable. Holub likes the objectivity of science, the search for a moment of discovery. This is what poetry should do. But the I of modern poetry is written as if its reality is already discovered, as if there is nothing more to be said about I, as if I is a constituted reality about which there can be no question. Of course, we must all live as if this is so, but writing is another matter. Holubís little poem about Einstein and Valery points the way: Valery asks where Einstein jots down his new ideas, Einstein replies that in his field new ideas are so rare, when you have one, you donít forget it. The same should be true of poetry. In fact it is. Poetry written by the modern I is full of commonplace ideas, clichťs. The I is so full of itself, it feels it must write of every little experience. But where is the discovery, where the revelation ? I donít like beetroot. But this is dull. Why write a poem about it ? Too much subjectivity. Poetry should be as objective as physics. The Theory of Relativity is a short book. If what youíre writing really is a discovery, you donít need to write much. On the other hand, Cervantes needed a thousand pages. The point is to address objective reality and to reveal something. The point is to not say I,I,I.

                    I counted eighty-eight uses of I to the halfway point of this book and gave up. Of course, the nature of the usage matters: a poet can give voice to a third person character speaking in the first person. In Forsstromís case, the I seems to be identified with the poet. An example: 

                              I slit open an envelope
                              with a knife, freshly mown grass
                              steams in through the windows
                              Itís the suddenness !
                              In slow processes !
                              I say that I regret it all
                              I regret it almost all, it
                              makes no difference
                              I knew you since I was a child
                              and thought like a child
                              Yes, water and light.
                              Cracks in the socle.
                             Inflammations. 

First of all, is with a knife necessary ? What else would we picture ? Secondly, six uses of I in thirteen lines. Thirdly, the curious evasive disjunctures and non-sequiturs. And then, for me this creates no lasting image. Nothing stays in my mind. Nothing, I think, is supposed to, except I. Itís unfair to use such a small piece of poetry as typical, but I believe it is. Forsstromís technique, as I understand it, is to destroy everything except I. It is the only image that remains after reading her work: the writer writing it. She is expert at drawing attention to herself. Itís for this reason, I think, that the cover blurbs use words like ďmagic ritualĒ and ďmysticalĒ. She isnít writing about anything but herself. Her poems are carefully constructed to undermine a sense of the common, the shared, the social. They come from the atomised world where solipsism is mistaken for individuality. Society is atomised, but how should we write about that ?   

                              I stopped too long
                              in the forest, itís important to appear,
                              not talk so much.
 

How does the second clause relate to the first ? What image emerges. We think in images. The whole point of literature is to spark up pictures in heads. Forsstrom deliberately fights this. Like a possessive and narcissistic mother, she wonít let her children go. She binds them to her with rings of steel. These poems are mine ! She wonít let them become public. She wonít let them belong in that social space which is the only place a poem can live. 

                    She has prizes galore and is thought of as Finlandís greatest. All the same, this seems to me to have a terminal case of the illness Holub diagnosed. Not just too much toothache, but nothing but toothache. This is the kind of poetry for which posterity will curse us. It should be fought against with all the literary resources we can muster.


Blink-of-an-eye reviews 

 

IN DEEP
by Matt Simpson
Shoestring Press  ISBN 1-904886-28-0 £8.95. 

                    Simpson seeks to evoke the familiar through slightly unfamiliar uses of language. He can structure a poem. Heís careful and meticulous and he can search out telling similarities. Maybe, though, he sticks a little too close to the personal: our way with bales of cotton. Here and there he stumbles into sentimentality or corniness, but mostly heís readable, friendly, appealing, matey. The second half of this is about marriage. Marriage is a social matter, of course. The increase in divorce has devastated many lives, especially childrenís. Simpson evokes the well-known highs and lows. But where did the change come from ? Why the battlefield ?


LIGHTING UP TIME
by Jeremy Hilton
Transference LE1 7FW ISBN 1-905237-71-5 £8.99 

                    Perhaps the key poem of this selected is ĎJenny doesnít cry any moreí. Hilton is the poet of broken hearts. He has been a social worker. In his work, generosity reaches out in dismay at the damage we do to one another. As is the poetry, so is the man: compassionate, principled, thoughtful. This volume covers Hiltonís work from 1991 to 2004. His style is ambitious. He rejects the retreat to gnomic, constrained poems. He tries to open up his poems so that his characteristic generosity flows through. Song Of The Lost Children Of Memory is a good example. Itís not like Matt Simpson. It embraces huge spans of time and disparate cultures. It do so in order to make us aware of our true nature, to bring us down to size, to make us see that only by learning how to treat one another well do we fulfil our humanity. All the rest is a mistake. The writing is always secure. Hilton should be praised for opening a pathway that most modern poets wouldnít have dared follow. This book is an antidote to our cynical and vicious times. 


WINTER BREAKS

by Gordon Hodgeon Smokestack Books ISBNO-9551061-5-X £7.95 

The first thing you notice about a poem is the layout on the page. Gordon Hodgeon's poems tend to be chunky. Their occupation of the page reflects the way they read. Many of them tell stories. They evoke the details of common things and point to the lessons of disillusion. Some of them use formal structure and rhyme. At times, he uses, perhaps, more words than he needs. But the comfort of recognition he seeks is often evoked.

 

FLUTE MUSIC

by John Lucas Smokestack Books ISBN 0-9551061-4-1 £7.95 

Meet The English is a neat poem of eight couplets which sums up and spikes English class obsession and snobbery. It's one of the best pieces here. Lucas revisits many of his favourite intellectual and cultural locales: Dickens, jazz, Crabbe, Clare, cricket. He's attractive in his enthusiasms. Curiously, it struck me just how English a writer he is. Though he has a long association with Greece, his poetry belongs in an English tradition almost untouched by foreign influences. The title comes from a poem derived from Socrates learning a tune on the flute while the hemlock was prepared. It informs the rest of the collection poignantly: suppose every moment were your last Would you do anything different ?

A courageous life is lived as if every moment might be the last and this collection tries to discover that courage in the ordinary.

 

ONLY NOT WALKING

by Niall Spooner-Harvey Smokestack Books ISBN 0-9551061-2-5 £5.95 

Spooner-Harvey suffers from cerebral palsy. He writes about being disabled, but not exclusively. He is clever, witty, funny, wry. This is, unfortunately, a short collection, eighteen poems. They are all instantly likeable without being throwaway. Spooner-Harvey makes his serious points through charming, hilarious and downright bawdy humour. The only pity is the collection isn't longer. He is a superbly individual and original writer and the sensibility behind this book is self-deprecating, generous and courageous. Delightful stuff.

 

SEDGEMOOR

by Malcolm Povey Smokestack Books ISBN 0-9551061-3-3 £7.95 

Based around the battle of Sedgemoor this unusual collection shifts timescales and draws parallels between the event of the late seventeenth century and modern conflicts like Kosovo and Iraq. Povey tells the story of the Dorset and Somerset Rebellion in a way that lifts it from its context and turns it into an archetypal battle. Quietly, Povey suggests the stupidity of war and disdains the class structures which give rise to it. He is a very intelligent writer who wisely writes within his talent so the poems are all soundly constructed and a pleasure to read. Here's a short piece in full: 

Bad Folks 

Jeffreys hanged them:
Divvied out their cash.
Bush bombed them:
Divvied out their oil.

Plus ca change. Not many poets try something as different and ambitious as this. It deserves to be widely read.

 

POETRY:THE NOTTINGHAM COLLECTION

Edited by John Lucas Five Leaves NG5 4BR ISBN 0-907123-23-6 £7.99 

Fifty-three poets with a connection to Nottingham. There are plenty of well-known writes here and almost all me writing is competent, firm, underpinned by discipline and imagination. A particularly memorable poem is Julie Lumsden's Staying Awake For The Results. Interestingly, the style of this piece is slightly different from most of the poems and is neatly in keeping with the disillusion she evokes. This isn't the cynicism of post-modernism, it's the disappointment at the cynicism of post-modernism, fit doesn't have a name. Perhaps it should be called deficitism: that pervasive sense of the seeping away of all values, meaning, content. The arrival of a cultural desolateness in which a phoney, exaggerated, regressed selfhood forces itself to the centre of attention and all subtlety must hide its face. Where did it come from ? Capitalism must seek new markets where it can. No longer a manufacturing nation, no longer able to command the world, British capitalism sells g-strings to ten-year-old girls and mobile phones able to access hard porn to ten-year-old boys. AH values must be destroyed in the pursuit of profit, and if your teenage son is getting high on hard porn, don't complain Capitalism has done its work. The mobile phone entrepreneurs are raking it in. That makes this collection something of a curio: most of its writers haven't caught up with this change. They write as if values of restraint, consideration, moral discrimination still prevail. But those values could live only when capitalism kept itself alive by the imposition of widespread poverty. After the Labour victory of 1945 some means had to be found to get hold of the rising disposable incomes of the once poor working-class. The result is a debased consumerism which reveals the old values of restraint, consideration and moral discrimination as flimsy and hypocritical. A new set of values can't arise out of nowhere. Conditions must change first. So we live with the deficit and the deficit demands a revolution in literature. The revolutionary voices are there but they are marginalised. Why, for example, is McSweeney on the periphery ? Hughes, Heaney, Duffy, Armitage, O'Brien, Motion. They don't speak any longer to our condition. Nor, interesting as it is, does this collection. We are waiting for Apollinaire.

 

GOODFELLOW  by Kirn Taplin
Field Cottage 0X5 3AB £5

SNOW BUNTINGS AT BARTON POINT by Kirn Taplin
Sixties Press SM13PJ £5 

Words aren't arbitrary. Try Ramachandran's test: say all the words you know that mean small - tiny, minute, petit, klein, pequeno. What movements does your mouth make ? No do the same with big ó huge, enormous, vast, grand, gros. And this time ? The reason your mouth imitates the meaning of the word is that there's a pre-existing cross translation in your brain between the visual centre which imagines the meaning and the linguistic centre which produces the sound. Kim Taplin seems to have an intuitive understanding that words aren't arbitrary and delights in their sounds. This makes her a little unfashionable. She's prepared just to play with sound and meaning;something of a sin these days. Goodfellaw is a long exploration of the idea of the free spirit. Kaplin is interested in the myths of fairies, sprites and so on which have been a way, down the centuries, of keeping an anarchic spirit alive. The writing skips and rolis along taking in a variety of landscapes .characters and ideas. The second collection is very different but it's full of Kaplin's ability to find metaphor and example in the natural world, her desire to pull us up sharp in our arrogant abuse of the planet and one another. She's a poet who, by now, ought to have a had a substantial selected. In the meantime, read these.