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REVIEWS - ISSUE 28

 

SMOKESTACK REVIEWS

 

BEANS IN SNOW By Jennifer Copley ISBN 978-0-9560341-2-0  £7.95 

                The fifty-five poems in this collection are divided into three sections: the first reworks famous fairy tales to connect them to adult preoccupations; the second treats of the loss of the author’s brother; and the third is an attempt to recapture the lost relative. The book is dedicated to Hartley, who died in 2005. Dedications often fail to influence a book’s interpretation, but here knowing the poet’s grief and inevitable nostalgia for the shared childhood, makes a difference. The first section, thirty-four poems, doesn’t relate directly to Copley’s loss. The conceit is that fairy tales never leave us and that they adumbrate the difficulties and dark aspects of adult life.. Book built round a conceit are often difficult to sustain, but Copley does this very well. The poems are all sturdily constructed; she writes within the modern mode but what she does she does very competently. This isn’t to suggest a lack of invention: she’s very imaginative and can evoke a surprising image and find an unusual combination of words. The first section is an interesting, clever read, but the collection comes into its own in the second. There are only seven poems here but they penetrate so poignantly the experience of loss, they wrench the collection to a new level and hit that memorability which makes great poetry. One piece in particular is heart-rending and unforgettable: Brotherlessness. Very controlled, beautifully structured, it’s an excellent poem though its poetic resources are modest. Copley has worked hard at reaching the best her talent can deliver and in the best poems here is working at a very high level. The fourteen poems of the final section concern the after-life, in the sense of the poet’s continued imaginative connection to her brother after his death. Does she believe in life after death? The question is irrelevant. What the poems reach is the experience everyone who has lost a close relative knows: the enduring presence of their influence and along with it, the impossibility of not imagining them as a living influence. Even the most resolute materialists, such as the editor of this magazine, are subject to this psychological truth. Copley deals with this subject expertly and shows a command of her medium which, while not highly original, is brilliant. I was reminded of Carol Duffy’s The World’s Wife, because of its reliance on a conceit.. Which is the better ? Without being invidious, I’d chose Copley. She may be published by a small press and known only to poetry enthusiasts, but she is, at her best, every bit as good as most of our “leading” poets.

 

book of days  by Linda France  ISBN 978-0-9560341-3-7 £7.95 

                Since the start of 2006 Linda France has written each day a renga, and their accumulation is this book. Renga is an ancient Japanese form; poets coming together over tea or saki to write about a specific set of subjects.. The form consists of  five lines divided three and two. There are 365 of them here, each one a little word picture and together they make up a record of a year passed, the serious jostling with the trivial. This is an ambitious undertaking but there’s always the risk that resolving to write a poem every day for a year is a bit like resolving to have sex with the same regularity: there’s bound to come a day when you just can’t be bothered. Some of the pieces have that feel: they were written because of the self-imposed stricture.
 

HOLE  by Kathleen Kenny ISBN 978-0-9560341-1-3  £7.95 

                The best poem in this collection is The Small Drum. It exemplifies the way Kenny works and the virtue of her kind of writing. She’s not trying to do anything new or subversive, but wants to pin down experience through simple language in poems put together in a recognisable way. When this works, as in the poem mentioned, it creates a very memorable effect; a more difficult thing to do than it may seem. It’s true enough that great poetry usually breaks free in some way from all the work around or before it, but it’s nonetheless true that poets often dismissed as “minor” can produce, by taking hold of the resources created by their poetic superiors, work which lingers just as convincingly as that of the undoubted innovators. The Small Drum  is a little masterpiece of tone and perfect structure. It’s excellence enhances a collection which evokes the curious circumstances of Kenny’s upbringing with  humour, insight and some bewilderment. Kenny is a very sure-footed writer and this book is well worth the few hour’s attention it requires to read it. 

 

THE SEER SUNG HUSBAND by Bob Beagrie ISBN 978-0-9560341-4-4  £7.95 

                I met Bob Beagrie, once, a few years ago. He looked different from the rather smart academic pictured on the back cover. He teaches at the University of Teeside so I guess he has to look a bit respectable not to scare the students; but at least he still calls himself Bob not Robert. J. Beagrie, or S. Robert Beagrie, or some other self-important nomenclature which you must use in addressing him at the risk of having beer poured over your head.  His writing has moved on a lot since I first came across it too. This is an ambitious work which takes The Pilgrimage of Grace as its subject and through the narration of Tobias Shipton, husband of the Yorkshire “witch” Old Mother Shipton explores the power struggles, the beliefs, the myths, the paranoias and the possibilities of the period. The writing sticks to the task of telling the story and evoking the atmosphere. This makes it a straightforward read. Usefully Beagrie includes a list for further reading and this is the kind o book which sparks up an interest in the period it treats and sends the inquisitive reader to track down more detail. If that was Beagrie’s intention, the book is a great success. I can’t imagine any reader who isn’t familiar with the period not wanting to enhance their knowledge. It’s good to see a poet doing something other than the customary fifty or sixty miscellaneous pieces and though the poetry itself betrays no ambition to remake contemporary writing, the reaching for unity over fifty pages is impressive.

 

KEIR HARDIE STREET by Alan Morrison ISBN 978-0-9560341-6-8 £7.95 

                Alan Morrison has had work published in the pages of this magazine. In the first half of this book he creates a fictitious narrator, Allan Jackdaw who encounters the shades of various great writers as he travels the underworld of the underground. Morrison’s technique is different from the ethos of understatement which dominates modern poetry. Rather than shortening the leash on the poetic poodle he sets his Rottweiler free. The language freewheels and tumbles. It piles up like the traffic on a bank holiday motorway. The effect can sweep you along. The second half of the collection explores the horrors of night-shift working. There is an echo of Fred Voss here and much recognition effect. Working the night shift, of course, amplifies the absurdities of what goes on in the workplace in the daytime. I think, maybe, the wry angle on work could have been exploited a little more. Subtract the grim tragedy of reduced lives and most workplaces are hilarious. But Morrison is a poet who sticks to his socialist guns (metaphorically of course) and who has the chutzpah to pump up his language till it almost bursts. No-one could accuse him of being a slave to the modes of modern writing.  

 

PAVILION by Deborah Tyler-Bennett ISBN 978-0-9560341-5-1 £7.95 

                Brighton and dandies, two subjects which fit very well, are the substance of this collection by the editor of The Coffee House. She’s fascinated by the slightly seedy, the night-time escape from the world of work (if you don’t work nights), the possibilities created by entertainment, leisure, disposable income and the “sexual revolution”. It’s interesting territory and it leaves you with a strong sense of the way our culture needs the safety-valve of letting your hair down at night and the weekend because it buttons so much up the rest of the time. Tyler-Bennet has been widely published and knows how to structure a poem. She has a tick: the suppression of the article, which here and there gives the impression of note-taking. You can see the kind of abruptness she’s after but maybe it’s used a little too frequently. There’s much here to get you thinking though: dandies are fascinating and they cock a snook in their perhaps superficial way. But any snook is better than none at all. And Brighton manages to be one of the few places where something remotely like a bohemian community (though a pretty well-heeled on it has to be said) can cling on. It makes you nostalgic for the days when it really was possibly to live differently and survive. But someone other than the Prince Regent needs to awaken the spirit of Brighton today. 

 

EVERYMAN STREET by Julian Colton ISBN 978-0-9554028-8-3 £7.95 

                A story, disturbing and tragic, told through the events in different houses of Everyman St. Most of the poems are identified by a house number. The narrative follows a winding path through the pieces. The writing is as recognisable as a street, direct, sometimes functional. It’s self-consciously reduced, like the lives of most in the street, and at times pitches into a vulgartity and brutality which suggests the corrupting power of circumstance. In the same way, Colton is liberal in his use of cliché, as if to evoke minds which can go no further than the commonplace. This is a readable collection which gets at the feeling of lives lived without much sense of conscious purpose, events in the saddle; and the story keeps you eager to know the outcome. Interesting that another poet wants to write a book with more cohesion than simply several dozen individual poems. Maybe something is beginning to stir ?

 

DARK ROOM ELEGIES by Michael Shepler ISBN 978-0-9554028-9-0  £7.95 

                Tina Modotti was an Italian émigré to the United States who was a passing Hollywood star, photographer and revolutionary. She spent time in Mexico and  featured in some of Rivera’s paintings. She was active in the Spanish Civil War and died in odd circumstances in Mexico City. Shepler is fascinated both by her life and the swirl of bohemian and revolutionary activity in which she became caught. The cast of characters in these poems is certainly intriguing and the poems gain from their association with heady political and artistic events and times. It’s interesting, for example, to read a poem in the vice of Lenin’s personal secretary writing from Leningrad in 1942. You don’t need much historical background or political orientation for plenty of associations to be sparked off. Shepler keeps his language simple and relies on the cumulative impress of the poems to engender a sense of the danger, excitement, possibility and tragedy of the epoch and Modotti’s life. Like some of the other titles reviewed here, it’s a book which encourages more reading and in its fascination with an era very different from our own, nicely points up the social nature of mind.   

 

KING DIDO by Alexander Baron New London Editions  ISBN 9781905512812 £9.99 

                                New London Editions is an imprint of Five Leaves, Ross Bradshaw’s excellent Nottingham-based publishing enterprise. This re-issue of Alexander Baron’s 1969 novel is in keeping with Bradshaw’s imaginative list and his impulse to shed light on forgotten or somewhat neglected works of real value. Baron, of course, is very well-known among people with an interest in fiction by or about the lives of the working majority. His most famous and highly-thought-of work is the Second World War novel, From The City, From The Plough, which sets the experience of ordinary soldiers against the officer-class dominated literature of the post-war years. King Dido is set in the East End between 1911 and 1917. Ken Worpole’s astute introduction tells readers all they need to know about Baron’s background and the origins and setting of the novel. It’s a well-written book with a talent for vivid scenes as keen as Lawrence’s. Perhaps there is something about the experience of working-class writers, at least those of a certain generation, before the education system diminished autodidacticism and sent some of the brightest working-class children to grammar school and university, which gives rise to directness of expression and vividness of evocation. Baron knows how to tell a story. He evokes character in a few strokes. He is entirely serious in his work as a novelist. He is capable of convincing poetic flourishes but for most part writes in relatively short, straightforward sentences composed of simple language. The prose doesn’t draw attention to itself and is devoid of the slightly buttoned-up primness found in some post-war middle-class novelists. The King Dido of the title is Dido Peach, eldest son of a widow whose husband was a hard-drinking, self-indulgent street fighter who died in a drunken fall under a brewer’s dray. The Peaches live in Rabbit Marsh, only slightly more respectable than the slum of Jaggs Place. Mrs Peach keeps body and soul together by running a rag business. Dido does hard physical work, but his status changes when Ginger Murchison, the Jaggs Place racketeer threatens and insults his mother. In the ensuing fight, Dido wounds the huge, powerful old man badly and take his place as the protector of local shopkeepers. Violent, like his father, yet all the same essentially honest and eager to be respectable, Dido is locked into an inarticulate, brutal masculinity which leads him to rape the first woman he has anything to do with and to commit an act of terrible revenge which contributes to his downfall. He behaves with strict filial respect to his mother almost unflinchingly and is a substitute father to his younger brothers. Yet his striving for betterment is defeated. There is a suggestion that he has inherited the bad ways of his father. Is he a victim of his genes ? On the other hand, the condition of poverty, the emotional inarticulateness it engenders, the brutality of his surrounding circumstances, combine to drive him down when he would rise. The determinism in this novel is as powerful as that of Madame Bovary. It’s interesting that all Dido’s aspirations are middle-class. He imagines a better life in the shape of the one led by his social superiors: respectable, decent, occupying a nice little home, staying clear of the riff-raff, having steady work and an income you can manage on. It’s a thoroughly conservative vision. Both Dido and his mother are snobs. They think of those around them as low and unworthy. Early in the book, Baron observes: “…one of the few pleasures of the downtrodden is to tread upon others.” This insight is worth much. Dido never for a second imagines his salvation  in transforming social circumstances. He is utterly remote from the political world. Disenfranchised by his self-defeating brutal defensiveness he can see no way out but to climb. Yet, even his legendary honesty is put to the test in conditions which render it worthless. After the birth of his daughter, an experience which opens a new vein of feeling in him and promises a more open personality, his wife wants to emigrate. He needs fifty pounds. Unable to borrow, he commits violent burglary against a former employer who sacked him and is hunted down by Merry, the police inspector who represents the forces of order protecting the middle-classes Dido wishes to join. Though the dogged policeman is a cliché, Baron bring Merry to life and his vindictive desire to see Dido not brought to justice, but crippled and ruined, is psychologically convincing. The novel ends with Dido abandoned and reduced, thoroughly adjusted to his appalling conditions, a wounded animal no longer king of his territory living out a tragic existence and waiting to die in the only familiarity that he knows: that of the near-slum.  

                There isn’t a dull page in this book. Its power to depict lives destroyed by conditions of human making is beyond question. Dido, his mother, his brothers Chas and Shonny, like all the other characters, are depicted in their proper uniqueness. Would it be plausible to interpret this uniqueness as inherent and therefore to see Dido as the architect of his own demise ? To do so would be to fail to respond to what Baron never makes explicit but which informs every scene: these people are struggling to realise the best of their capacities but are cruelly thwarted by economic and social realities over which they have no control.  Dido is repulsive in his violence but nevertheless it’s impossible not to want him to find a way out. His wife and daughter escape to South Africa. What could be more ironic ? If his daughter does find a better life, it will be at the cost of racial oppression. Finally, then, the novel suggests there is no escape, just the hard task of making a society that doesn’t mutilate individuals. This is a better novel than some that have won the Booker prize. All credit to Ross Bradshaw for bringing out this new, timely edition. 

 

HAMMERS AND HEARTS OF THE GODS by Fred Voss ISBN 978-1-85224-846 £8.95 Bloodaxe Books                

                This is Fred Voss’s third collection from Bloodaxe and it continues his production line tales and observations. The factory is Voss’s inferno. It burns and melts not just steel but men, their dreams, their affections, their possibilities, their identities. This is the American factory, but it is peopled with Mexicans, Vietnamese, citizens of the “developing world” whose labour is bought and abused by the rich. Voss, scion of the middle-class, destined for a Phd and tenure chose, over thirty years ago, to live the life of those for whom destitution is one wage packet away. For  three decades he has written simple poems about the absurdity of work, the brutalisation of the industrial workplace, the idiotic division of management and workers, the joy of work well done, the rare epiphanies of shop-floor friendship. What motivated Voss to make the choice which led to his mother disowning him ? Why did he feel that to be authentic as a writer he needed to escape the seminar room, the lecture hall, a professorship, a big house, a fancy car ? Few writers would agree with his assumption. On the contrary, professorships, residencies, life as far removed from the grim realities of life at the bottom economically and socially are pursued as resolutely by writers as bonuses and golden goodbyes by bankers. What runs through Voss’s work is a straightforward conception: a society is defined by the way it treats the most vulnerable, the most expendable, those with few resources and little power. It’s an old idea but it remains potent. The America where Voss works everyday isn’t the land of the free but a bear pit of survivalism, ignorance, violence, racism, humiliation and escapist fantasy. Is this the real America or merely a lumpen sideshow in the shiny, fairground free-for-all of enthusiastic capitalism ? As in all capitalist societies, the dream of material ease or better falls to the minority. The majority of Americans earn modestly, ninety per cent of them earn within a relatively narrow range. It’s only in the top few per cent that wealth confirms capitalism’s promise. The divide in wealth between the races is stunning. America is founded on racism and violence. The genocide of the redskins and slavery are its defining foundations. Democracy is an afterthought. The men Voss works with leave their democratic rights at the factory door. They are bullied and shouted at by supervisors: 

                                I have seen men go to every extreme they can
                                to prove
                                they are still
                                human.  

These men are defined by work. The rest fails to provide a sufficient counterweight or alternative. Work invades and possesses their personal lives. They lack space to develop their capacities. Yet it isn’t work that cripples them, but employment. They work at someone else’s command, for ends they don’t choose and pay decided by those who make profit from them: 

                                and I fire up that razor-sharp cutter at 500
                                or 5000 rpm
                                never knowing if I’m about to cut myself a sweet dream
                                or a nightmare. 

Will he be making valves for diving helmets or handles for a bomb bay ? The choice doesn’t lie with the worker. He is mere labour. The promise of democracy, that no-one shall be submitted to arbitrary power, is denied in the factory.  The supervisors are dictators whose power resides in the unemployment, homelessness and poverty the men will be consigned to if they refuse to conform. The democratic political framework doesn’t hold back the power of capital: 

                and as the boss comes down the aisle cold and angry
                and screaming for parts
                I wait
                for the soothing touch of that sun on my fingers to tell me
                that someday
                we may put our cold competitive time clocks and bosses away
                and find a warmer
                way to live.  

Heat and cold are metaphors in Voss’s work for love and power, for relations rooted in mutual consent and fulfilment or founded on command and control. The men in his poems may try hard to find a warm life, but the cold of the factory and its overweening demands defeat them time and again: 

                . men who are as hard as the tool steel wrenches they tug on 

They are hard not only in the muscles which must lift the steel and wield the tools but in their minds. To give quarter to others is to make yourself vulnerable: 

                ..men would rather go to County Jail
                than read a book of Keats  

Finer feelings and higher thoughts are too expensive; it’s safer to stay brutish, thoughtless and crude. Voss doesn’t despise the men who are like this. He likes them. Even the psychopaths have redeeming features.  What fascinates and appals him is how little of the best the human mind has produced these men know.  Voss’s position, the highly-educated, well-read author in the midst of men who have had no choice but employment on the shop floor, is of course slightly artificial. He could have been a professor. This artificiality highlights the desperate division between manual and mental work in American society. Not that people who work with their brains are spared the power-struggles and the backbiting of the workplace, but the work which makes the planes on which CEOs travel or which drop bombs on Iraq is disdained by the culture which depends on it:  

                this the bolt that holds those C.E.O.s so high up in the clouds
                what if one day we refused
                to make another ? 

The subversive thought isn’t part of any self-conscious political ideology. Nor is the agonising Voss experiences over the use of some of his products in Iraq. Voss has a simple heart. The machinations of power seekers are outside his psychology. His responses are innocent, like a child’s questions. He is the Candide of the tin-walled workshop and says what is forbidden. It is this political innocence which gives his work its power for if it were allied to a doctrine it would lose its freshness. Voss isn’t interested in holding power but in setting innocence against it. He is determined to observe with eyes not blinded by ideology.  

                Voss’s technique hasn’t changed since his first collection: he tells stories in simple language and searches for an illuminating angle, an irony which opens up feeling. At first glance his poems look like chopped up prose but the lines are carefully chosen and the rhythms are clear when you read the poems aloud. He is very good at driving an idea through a poem so you follow it along various twists and into a resolution. He is an example to all those poets who think it easy to write in this simple way and knows a poem needs to be pushed a little higher than mere broken prose in order to lodge in the mind. His work remains extraordinary. Work ought to feature largely in our literature, after all, without it we can’t live; but because employment is essentially degrading, because work is robbed of its intrinsic pleasure (even sweeping a floor can be pleasurable if you’ve decided it’s important to do and you are in control of doing it), because employees are wage slaves, there is an inevitable shame and embarrassment in writing about what we all do every day. Bert Lawrence thought he was setting us free by writing frankly about sex but sexual repression and prudery were means to another end: control over minds marinated in fear. Now, American capitalism treats sex like any other commodity and no-one blushes. But employment is another matter. To say that to be employed is to inhabit a reduced humanity is taboo. Yet this is the truth Voss faces. There is nothing essentially degrading about the work which goes on in his factories: on the contrary, much of it involves real skill and discipline.  It is the brute fact of employment, that some must sell their labour to others to live, which dehumanizes.  This is, of course, well in advance of our political doctrines which take employment for granted. It’s a remarkable poetic achievement to have gone to heart of our culture’s essential dehumanizing relationship without a hint of politics. Voss’s poetry is rooted in the present but for all time. He is truly a great contemporary American voice.  

 

SOMEWHERE IN HEAVEN by Tom Kelly ISBN 978 1 906700 17 1 £6.99 

LOVE-LINES by Tom Kelly ISBN 978 1 906700 04 1 £6.99 

DREAMERS IN A COLD CLIMATE by Tom Kelly ISBN 978 0 9554027 4 6 £6.99 Red Squirrel Press 

                                Tom Kelly’s work is rooted in his native north-east, especially Jarrow. He writes mainly short, spare pieces. His style is direct and unadorned. He is very good at evoking the emotions which belong to particular moments, and in Love-Lines especially, touches on a range of experiences common to us all in our families. His work gets very interesting where it arrives at the seam between our public and private selves. He writes of his working-class upbringing and some of his poems are located in the economic and social reality of the north-east. Yet he is never far away from the personal; there is always some echo in his work which reminds you that our economic and social activity exists so that we can do what really matters: build those loving relationships which touch what the cold world of money, production and efficiency leave aside. This is not to suggest he dismisses the public world as futile; on the contrary, but through his work there runs a strain of dismay at how we have allowed dehumanizing forces to invade and occupy. He is acutely aware of how this has been negative for his class. What is heartening about these books is that they resist a lurch into a political response which wrenches away from the tenderness and connection which he knows is essential to our well-being. Taken together, these three collections provide a clear view of Kelly’s preoccupations and style. They are the work of a secure talent a keen conscience and a good heart.