Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Next Generation Poets 2014 In Focus:
#5 Emily Berry's Dear Boy

If one of the most liberating moments in a writer's life comes with the realisation that lyric poetry allows you to make things up, the true revelation occurs when this deliciously sinful inventiveness delivers, somewhat paradoxically, the most eye‑opening and heartrending truths. Dear Boy, Emily Berry's first book of poems, is immediately striking for its sophisticated awareness of such artifice. Opening with a darkly comic account of life as a dramatised and scrutinised performance, the collection presents a host of surreally reimagined everyday scenes in which speakers and characters, by turns emotionally, intellectually and physically compromised, perform accepted, expected and imagined roles. "'Time for another / caffeine fix methinks!'" proclaims one, half intent on reinventing herself, before confiding that "I am not allowed coffee / because of my nerves, but the biographer doesn't / know this". Much of Dear Boy reads as an attempt to map the gaps between who we think we are, how we present ourselves, and who we end up appearing to be.

Whether drawing on ostensibly personal material or delving into the depths of her imagination, Berry's big theme is relationships. Patients are found at the mercy of deranged doctors; a confused mother faces a "perpendicular daughter" she is utterly at odds with; a teenage girl allows her boyfriend to squeeze her into ever tighter corsets; and in the haunting "The House by the Railroad", a child trapped in a nightmarish fairytale searches for a parent held perpetually out of reach. Such searing, often painful subject matter makes for a curious mix of deadpan comedy and irony. The book's title poem, a playful missive that showcases a good deal of Berry's tonal repertoire, achieves a strangely convincing balance between intimacy and solipsistic extravagance, veering from dismissive jokiness ("I'm not sure if you were there or not. / Did you want to be?") to heartfelt emotion: "I tangled your legs in mine. We were a knot in the grain of the world." Not dissimilarly, "The Way You Do at the End of Plays" frames the tussle between life's everyday froth and those near-indescribable feelings given voice through art in the faintly tragic meeting of two estranged lovers. This ability to make the unspoken precisely and vividly apparent is one of Berry's most striking gifts. Though you find yourself wondering if, at times, telling it quite so slant merely serves to further mask some painful, unavoidable truths.

Little is held back, however, in the other letter poems that thread through the collection, charting the anguish, confusion and yearning of a long-distance love affair. These grammatically freewheeling, staccato outpourings, combining persuasive candour with foreboding undercurrents, exhibit Berry's more confessional side, recalling John Berryman, Sylvia Plath and, at times, Sharon Olds. "Letter to Husband" in particular drips with the achingly Plath-like image of a "dark mouth hovering over me", ending on the "desperate / undeviating wish" that the beloved "please come". Elsewhere, sorrow and desire may be tempered and kept in check by life's distractions and a willed lightheartedness, but in bittersweet fashion, the poems find such feelings always return. Even if, as "Love Bird" uncovers, love takes "many shapes"; and even if, as "The Old Fuel" conjures in the perfectly judged metaphor of an "old spaghetti machine", "cranking out oodles of love" can be hard work. Dramatic, honest, unstable and beautiful, what unites these poems is Berry's understanding that absence is to love as wind is to fire: it may extinguish the small, but it kindles the great.

From its most sentimentally intoxicated to its more socially engaged poems, a crucial aspect of Dear Boy's knowing aesthetic is the precise and telling detail. "Plans for a Future Romance" invests a kind of cinematic significance in specific memories of a blue scarf and "text messages about snooker and sleep"; in "The Tea-party Cats", a group of improbably suave yet absurd poseurs preen whiskers that "nicely referenced their bowties". "Nothing Sets My Heart Aflame", a witty lament for the ennui and anxiety that consumer capitalism engenders, even finds the poet musing whether "perhaps there was something missing in your life and it was a mid-century lampshade". For all the archness and cleverness, however, such images betray a serious and incessantly inquiring mind that seeks out epiphanies almost anywhere, analysing feelings, objects and the behaviour of others to the point of paralysing uncertainty. "Does nothing more / detain us", asks the procrastinating speaker of "Preparations for the Journey", "Have we forgotten / nothing?" In a world where you wake to "a bad new government" with "austerity breakfast", harbouring a love-hate relationship with the city you "fell for", it can be easy to imagine the only alternative to the reflective life, as "Devil Music" suggests, is to deny a fundamental part of the self: "I worked. I silenced myself / devotedly until my devil soul twisted / and bucked, and was still."

Yet, despite such moments of feverish bleakness, Dear Boy never seems too dejected or wearying, recognising our need to connect, feel and love, however painful the consequences. If anything, its memorable imagery and range of registers, coupled with a formal restlessness that encompasses everything from loose quatrains to tumbling prose poems, make it an unusually animated and refreshing read. Like the skilled ballet dancers in "Thirty-two Fouettés", this noteworthy debut sees Emily Berry making bravura turns again and again, in poems of polished phrase, seductive technique, and, in spite of the smoke and mirrors, genuine feeling.

first published in The Guardian, Saturday 23 March 2012 

You can find out more about Emily Berry and her work here.

Monday, September 22, 2014


Photograph copyright and courtesy of Alex Davis

The one I saw on the bypass that night –
antlers like a winter oak
as it strode from the roadside –
came again in a dream; keeping
its distance as it does every time.

When I met it for real I kept mine:
a stalled presence
on a stretch without streetlights;
its silhouette held there
before it turned and left.

In the dream, though, I follow –
into fields and meadows
where it spots me, begins to trot,
picks up pace before bolting off.
What if I could get close enough,

look it in those cavernous eyes?
What else could I hope to find
but yours, as all you said
echoes in my mind,
its glare passing through me?

poem by Ben Wilkinson

from For Real (Smith|Doorstop Books, 2014)

"The limits of our inarticulation": Antiphon's take on For Real

'Whenever I read Ben Wilkinson’s work I find myself admiring his craft. It carries a precision of thought and expression that’s hard to reproduce, in a syntax which is natural and a voice which is easy to hear, yet the poems abound with subtly used devices and effects. So natural is the tone that, when you hear him read, you can easily miss the fact of a carefully crafted sonnet or perhaps some clever variation on one ... Wilkinson disguises his full-rhymes with enjambement, so the audience experience both form and ‘natural flow’ at the same time. He’s always conscious of form, but rarely lets form dictate to him.'

The rest of the review can be read here, and for a limited time, For Real can be purchased with free UK p&p here.

Friday, September 19, 2014

A Place to Make Sense of the World

For Real (smith|doorstop Books, 2014).

Ted Hughes said writing is about trying to take hold of the reality of your life. Why else work away at poems, redrafting and honing them? For me, the poem’s a place to make sense of the world and your place in it – to conjure up things that move, thrill and scare you. The poems in this pamphlet chart a period of intense personal change. Clinical depression hit me. For the first time I understood what others, friends and family alike, had fought with. I understood more about myself – how it was something I’d always carried, but also how hope and happiness come from the (sometimes painful) self-knowledge that poetry confronts. No coincidence one of the best-selling anthologies out there is called Staying Alive. I’m after emotional truth in these poems, though, not the documentary truth. Truths I hope anyone can recognise, rather than the illusion of a reliable account. I’m interested in different ways of seeing. We fall in love, and the world takes on a different shape and colour. A young boy stands in a football crowd, awestruck and scared and excited, caught in the moment. The hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Life goes on.

Notes on For Real, a pamphlet of poems by Ben Wilkinson.
Winner of the Poetry Business Prize and the Northern Promise Award
First published in The North #52, 2014.

For Real is now available to UK readers for £5 with free p&p, through PayPal with debit/credit card payment. More info here.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Next Generation Poets 2014 In Focus:
#4 Sam Willetts's New Light for the Old Dark

With the Poetry Book Society's Next Generation Poets 2014 list landed, announcing 20 new voices who're lighting up the British poetry scene right now, I thought I'd have a rummage around the Wasteland archives, and revisit those few reviews of their first books I scribbled, invariably published in the Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, or elsewhere. Today it's Sam Willetts, and his debut collection New Light for the Old Dark.

It is an audacious move for a poet to include a poem titled “Digging” in his first collection.

Fortunately, the similarities between Seamus Heaney’s celebrated meditation on work, identity and tradition and Sam Willetts’s vivid portrayal of heroin addiction and recovery end there. Willetts’s “Digging” concerns the junkie’s search for a vein, the “lantern-show flicker of tail-chasing, nameless days // spent waiting, cheating, waiting”, before “the waking-up to all that’s lost”. It’s a remarkable poem, owing to the manner in which the subject matter is handled - jangling rhythms and vivifying phrasing - and not merely the subject itself. Poignant firsthand experiences never guarantee good literature: many a misery memoir testifies to that. Yet the blurb for New Light for the Old Dark is keen to draw attention to the autobiographical nature of Willetts’s material. More should be made of his descriptive finesse, plain yet telling observation, and ability to transform despair into affirmative revelation.

Aside from the harrowing world of drug dealers and addicts, this volume contains poems on complex personal relationships, Willetts’s mother’s escape from the Nazis in Poland, and much fraught foreign travel. “Tourist” in particular successfully combines these themes, depicting the poet’s visit to Warsaw in pursuit of a fuller understanding of his mother’s history. Here, a failure to find answers leads “back to tourism” and the effacing effects of development, where “huge cranes were moving, courtly, confident, / building another new Warsaw”. This sense of erasure - the past collapsing before we can truly come to terms with it - is central to Willetts’s work. It pervades poems addressing twentieth-century horrors (in “August 9th”, the atomic bomb is seen “blowing out the walls and windows of history”), as it also filters into quieter pieces such as “Honest John”, where the poet John Clare, exhausted and delusional, keeps “walking back to what does not exist”.

Yet, for all the isolation and darkness, the strength of Willetts’s poems stems from their uncovering hope and beauty in unexpected places. “Starlings” sees “a vast / reach of birds” as “the opening and closing of a hand”, while the anchor in an unusual riddle poem is beautifully envisioned: “best man / in the wedding of the sailor / to the sea”. At times syntactically clumsy and given to overreaching for effect, Willetts’s work is not without faults. But New Light for the Old Dark introduces a poet of compelling talents, whose best work is both affecting and cerebral.

first published in the Times Literary Supplement, 25 February 2011

You can find out more about Sam Willetts and his work here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Michael Hofmann's Manifesto of the Flying Mallet

Poetry is—as the poet said, though his subject was butterflies—an army of stragglers. Contemporaries, aeons, and cultures apart slog wordlessly through the mud together, not at all pally, not at all like Virgil and Dante. There’s no uniform, no team shirt, no battle or plan of battle, no weapons, no organization, no hierarchy, no ranks or badges except for homemade ones that don’t count, enemies and detractors everywhere. Its colors you should think twice before rallying around (I don’t know what they are, perhaps sable on sable), and its only cavalry is the reader, and there’s only one of him or her, sitting at home minding his or her own business, without a horse to hand, or a thought of you. There are plenty of fellow travelers, whom you can tell from their air of confidence and impunity, and because they tend to get there faster. (Even though of course there is no “there.”)—How can I call anyone to the barricades?

What really matters in relation to poetry has probably never been said—Ezra Pound’s “logopoeia” (doing things with words) the nearest thing. All there is is confusion, pretense, contradiction, and instinct. Most of what proposes itself—or is hailed or dismissed—as poetry at any given time probably isn’t. Poetry is soluble intelligence, but it reserves to itself the right on occasion to be stupid. (And sometimes it is nothing but feeling or eyesight or glossolalia or journalism.) Poetry is subtle, but sometimes “as subtle as a flying mallet,” as the man says. Poetry isn’t about rules or about infractions, but there is something by definition rebellious in its use of speech for its own purposes. Poetry may be effective or ineffectual, but it is never overly designing. Poetry is delayed, instant; unending, brief; electric, tiny. Each poem is an insurrection against the world before it existed—or a desertion from it.

There are no plurals, only chance or temporary agglomerations. The only plural forms are what Wallace Stevens—plural himself, as you might think—referred to as “functionaries” or “hacks,” and Lou Reed as “jim-jims.” As the world shrinks and grows, there is only one thing: be singular. Ezra Pound said: be against all mortmain. Gottfried Benn said: disappoint the season-ticket holder. Say not the straggle nought availeth.

by Michael Hofmann
published with permission of the author
first published in Poetry magazine

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Next Generation Poets 2014 In Focus:
#3 Emma Jones's The Striped World

With the Poetry Book Society's Next Generation Poets 2014 list landed, announcing 20 new voices who're lighting up the British poetry scene right now, I thought I'd have a rummage around the Wasteland archives, and revisit those few reviews of their first books I scribbled, invariably published in the Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, or elsewhere. Today it's Emma Jones, and her debut collection The Striped World.

The Striped World must have seemed to Australian poet Emma Jones an almost inevitable title for her debut collection, replete as it is with images of tigers, cages and containment.

From the “bright barred ... empire animal” of a pearl, a recurrent symbol throughout the book, to the “barred heart” of “Sentimental Public Man”, these poems reveal an abiding - at times exhausting - interest in barriers of all kinds, and in particular, a Cartesian fascination with our own marooned consciousnesses; how we inhabit our minds, as one poem has it, “like a paradisal ape / lives in a garden”.

At its best, Jones’s work is capable of enjoyable duality, taking historical events and gleaning an intimate, personal significance off them. The sequence “Zoos for the Living”, for example, relates the relocation of Adaminaby, New South Wales (a town that was moved uphill to construct a lake, but whose old infrastructure resurfaced due to drought), as an extended metaphor for the poet’s own mixed heritage and ongoing search for belonging. “Zoos for the Dead” reveals a similar approach in its engrossing story of a parrot which, having once been owned by now dead Aboriginal siblings, is the surviving guardian of a dead language. In their sprawling, vatic and inventive nature, these poems show both Jones’s narrative skill and her unusual imagination.

Elsewhere in The Striped World there is the sense of an emerging poet trying on various personae, not all of which come off. The confessional tone and eerie imagery of “Waking”, for example - “Here it is again, light hoisting its terrible bells” - smacks too much of Sylvia Plath: that voice so often imitated, yet seldom equalled. Fortunately, this influence is typically offset by Jones’s descriptive gifts, as well as her depth of thought. Despite its thematic repetitions and minor stylistic faults, The Striped World is a lively, provocative and intelligent debut.

first published in the Times Literary Supplement, 16 October 2009

You can find out more about Emma Jones and her work here.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Next Generation Poets 2014 In Focus:
#2 Alan Gillis's Here Comes the Night

With the Poetry Book Society's Next Generation Poets 2014 list landed, announcing 20 new voices who're lighting up the British poetry scene right now, I thought I'd have a rummage around the Wasteland archives, and revisit those few reviews of their first books I scribbled, invariably published in the Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, or elsewhere. Today it's Alan Gillis, and his third collection Here Comes the Night.

Alan Gillis’s third collection, Here Comes the Night, borrows its title from a song by the 1960s rock band Them: an upbeat, breezy pop tune that masks a lyrical tale of loneliness and unrequited love. It is a fitting anthem for a book of poems whose bounding rhythms, fizzy slang and runaway clauses waver between melancholy and contentment, typically when the poet loses himself amid the bustle and blur of modern city life. Formal yet freewheeling, mixing descriptive detail with breakneck pace, most of Gillis’s poems run to several pages: the opening piece, “Down Through Dark and Emptying Streets”, kicks off unpromisingly with its references to Google, Facebook and MySpace, but its cinematic sweep develops over twenty quatrains into an unnerving appraisal of the virtual world and memory’s corridors. As with Gillis’s last collection, Hawks and Doves, MacNeice often seems the presiding influence: from the “going here, going there, getting nowhere” of “Rush Hour”, where “traffic passes like money”, to the grievous excesses and grim characters of the title poem’s sprawling dreamscape; from the jump cuts of “Everyone a Stranger” with its odd mixture of the sinister and absurd, to the vision of Death as a loan shark in “The Debt Collector”, which views life through the lens of financial crisis.

Yet, while the thematic scope of certain poems justifies their length, others read as rambling bids for a significance they fail to deliver. “Looking Forward to Leave” convincingly adopts the voice of a female army cadet, skilfully segueing from the clarity of childhood to the confusions of war, but pieces such as “On Cloughey Beach”, though not without descriptive flair, lack both impetus and focus. Such misfires would be less frustrating if they came from a poet of less ample talents. What impresses most about Here Comes the Night is its capaciousness and inclusiveness. Lovers, police officers, gangsters; cyclists, revellers, soldiers and shelf-stackers: not many collections of verse nowadays are crowded with so many characters, while fewer still depict and inhabit them so fully, or so funnily. The book is too long by far: two protracted sonnet sequences pad it out to nearly 100 pages. But it also contains some highly memorable poems - not least the ambitious “On a Cold Evening in Edinburgh”, which bites and stings in the way Kafka recommended - leaving the lasting impression of a poet of invention and verve.

first published in the Times Literary Supplement, 22 April 2011

You can find out more about Alan Gillis and his work here.