Tuesday, March 26, 2013
Remember that long drive back from the Lakes,
all lightning-lit through rolling rain?
Some nights I dream us on that stretch again,
the road like a river with a line of silver
fish that seem to leap about its centre;
leading us to Newby, Lawkland, Cleatop.
These times, though, the car shudders as if
someone about to collapse or vomit –
a thunderbolt, all cinematic flash,
throwing us forward through time
with the dashboard dials spinning;
making a DeLorean out of your Yaris.
The windscreen warps with scenery,
like some epic zoetrope at full tilt.
We watch the road narrow
into a dirt track, cars evaporate,
the trees shrivel into nothingness
while others burst up in their place.
Dumbstruck, we sit in its awful wake.
And I want to tell you that the world
we find is a glorious one,
some bucolic idyll bathed in light,
only I can’t. Stepping out into heat
and a sky like hell, a murder of crows
screeches in the field to the west;
the trees all diagrams of hurt and harm,
the dry earth barren in an eerie calm.
Walking, a vast silence for what
seems like hours. Then, when I turn to
say as much, you’re nowhere to be found.
By rights, that nightmare should end there.
Instead, on a kind of autopilot,
my dream-self carries on, hopelessly
trekking a dust trail. All to find nothing
aside that weird, familiar outline in the heat,
a shape on the horizon. It’s then that I wake.
poem by Ben Wilkinson; first published in Poetry Review (102:1, Spring 2012)
Thursday, February 14, 2013
"Who says havoc is a vice of the young?" asks the speaker in the title poem of Jacob Polley's third collection, The Havocs. You'd be hard pushed to level the accusation at Polley, whose commitment to the nightmarish, creepy and unstable has intensified with each of his books, and tends to feed his best poems.
Polley's first collection, The Brink (2003), published while he was still in his 20s, was notable for a pared-back diction and descriptive flair. Its colloquial patter in poems of postmodern pastoral, father figures and secular spiritualism saw Polley combine the influence of Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes and Simon Armitage in approaching his own vision. But the book also zoned in on nature's chaos and human malevolence. Here was a crow conjured from the biblical tale of Cain's murder of Abel, or the "floating knuckle" of honeycomb in a jar, "attesting to the nature of the struggle". A second volume, Little Gods (2006), gave this supple lyricism a more formal grounding. Melding an intense music with the transformative power of metaphor, its incantatory poems delved deeper into death, despair, disappearance and dismal weather, with Baudelaire as their presiding spirit.
The Havocs presents itself as a rangier book than its predecessors. Tripping through assorted rhythms, sonnets, end-rhymed quatrains and the looping lines of its centrepiece, it is as formally vibrant as the luminous letters that adorn its cover. A few poems even find Polley cracking jokes: in an attempt to define "havoc" by taking cues from Les Murray's "The Quality of Sprawl", the title poem frames our societal anxieties with a warped sense of humour. "As if I was a pencil and havoc sharpened me," scoffs its speaker, "havoc is committed to care for the elderly, education for all, and narrowing the gap between rich and fabulously rich."
Yet the comedy is spiked with obvious venom, just as the book's colourful cover images rise from a jet-black backdrop. Likewise, the poems' formal breadth belies those thematic concerns – death, love, work; fear, wonder, nature – and the persistent aura of unease that have dominated Polley's work from the start. Despite its handful of cosmetic changes, The Havocs finds Polley exploring his favoured territory in familiar ways.
Fluid boundaries between the seen and the unseen, the known and the unknown, continue to flourish. "Hide and Seek" strings together earthy images in its definition of being by negation; in "Dark Moon", the Earth's rocky satellite is its "own VACANCY sign" when full, while in donning "the hood of night", it "can't be seen so can't be lost". The problem is not that the stock lyric symbolism of the moon and ominous darkness were dominant features of Little Gods; rather, it is that they reappear here to similar ends. The same must be said of water, or more specifically, torrential rain.
In Little Gods, rain was a biblical force, "the sound of the day undone"; in The Havocs, the poet buys "a book of water" whose "one page read disorder / in letters tall as rain". These poems may display an increased pithiness or impressively novel phrasing, but this offers little recompense to the reader already familiar with Polley's poetry. By the same token, several vignettes harbour a satisfying air of menace but, when not reading like fragments lifted from the work of Don Paterson, tend to suffer in comparison with the inventive brilliance of those from Polley's earlier books.
Yet, in spite of such repetitious moments, there is a good deal to admire in The Havocs. Its boldest poems reveal increased attempts to make sense of what matters to us most, even if they find the world frequently shifty and shifting, wriggling free from further understanding. Sometimes this is down to tired strategies, but it is also due to the poetry's serious ambition, committed to piercing through the deceptive realm of the habitual in pursuit of the near-ineffable and mysterious. The book's opening poem, "Doll's House", is an incisive exploration of the fragility of our familial lives, moving from the haunting description of "a table set with tiny plates" to gentle moral instruction: "Be brave. To live is not to fear / despite the scale of what's at stake." This desire for direction and purposefulness also surfaces in "Keepers", where the poet finds himself admiring beekeepers, envious of their cultivating "something / of substance, with a taste and use, obvious to anyone."
In this way, an Audenesque sense of poetry's social capacity, already traceable in Polley's earlier work, suffuses the more ambitious poems. "The News" adopts a punchy tetrameter in its jolting account of endemic indifference, while "The Ruin" modifies an Anglo-Saxon lament for a collapsed stronghold, imbuing the derelict remains with human presence and feeling. "It Will Snow Before Long", a beautiful meditation on childhood and memory, also deserves praise. But it is "The Weasel", a sinister ballad adapted from the well-known nursery rhyme, that is surely the most remarkable poem in the book. Devastatingly simple, its tale of lives and loves gone awry showcases the standout qualities of Polley's verse: deft concision, musical prowess, syntactic verve, and a voice that rings painfully true.
The Havocs may be an uneven collection that sometimes finds Polley treading water, but a handful of its poems are so moving and memorable you might just forgive him.
first published in The Guardian, Saturday 5 January 2013
Friday, January 18, 2013
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
Monday, December 17, 2012
after Paul Verlaine
So what of that night we ended up in some club,
dancing for the first time in years?
Again and again I was playing the chump
in the glitter of your perfect elegance.
You know I’ve this knack for self-sabotage –
trashing anything close to happiness –
though the countersunk bulbs in the ceiling
were stars, blinking back at your radiance.
How we stumbled into morning’s silence,
the full moon’s light like a torch left on,
setting off the sobs of the Peace Gardens’
fountains, and that snatch of purest birdsong.
poem by Ben Wilkinson
This poem is part of an ongoing portraiture project, in which I have drawn on the works of Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) to produce new poems of my own. It is also an attempt, in some small way, to honour and revivify interest in a great French poet whose work deserves to be held in higher regard. Other poems from this project have so far appeared in Poetry Review ('Joie de Vivre'; 'October') and the Times Literary Supplement ('The Nightingale'; 'The Young Fools').
Thursday, December 06, 2012
Andrew Jamison’s debut collection, Happy Hour, is preoccupied with the towering themes of time and money, but the deceptions of “the clock on the wall” are a particular concern. Unable to buy into the world view of “The Starlings” where “a tick” is simply “a tick, a tock a tock, time time”, time and again the poet witnesses “obliterations of the commonplace”, whether in the form of optical illusion (a cinema’s “ocean / of curtained wall” recalled from childhood), “the strange behaviour of unnameable birds”, or the way that “nothing / comes but every way that nothing can”. Jamison knows that, however we spend our time, time spends us: the book’s title speaks of the fleeting nature of happiness and our clumsy pursuit of it, but also hints at the energetic, demotic, wistful yet upbeat tones the poems strike. Here is a poet with “disappointment deep / in the mayonnaise of my chicken sandwich”, but one who quickly catches himself out, exposing the artifice when
disappointment and nostalgia spray-paint themselvesHappy Hour is dominated by two types of poem: the intense vignette that takes a moment – the “after after-dinner” of a summer’s evening, or the confusion of shoppers in “Winter Clearance” – to plumb our modern lives for sense and significance; and a swiftly discursive, often longer single sentence piece that strings clauses together with half-rhymes and pulsing rhythms. The best – and indeed longest – of these, “Thinking About the Point of Things”, is a tour de force of personal, public and political dimensions, jumping from “placards of touched-up, / photoshopped, yet puffy, pasty-faced politicians”, through the redolent image of the garden’s “faded Gilbert rugby ball” and midges like “a swarm of small sun-gods” before arriving at a single robin, embodying a strange truth at the poem’s core. Elsewhere, a series of candid reflections take in a first trip to New York, in which Jamison’s eye for the telling detail and sense of humour meet head-on. A few of the book’s shortest pieces are probably too slight, indulging in nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. While Happy Hour owes some obvious debts – Louis MacNeice, Paul Muldoon, Simon Armitage – it is an entertaining, enjoyable first collection that should attract admirers.
onto this journey home.
first published in the Times Literary Supplement
Monday, October 22, 2012
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 oddly 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
Sunday, October 21, 2012
The title poem of Don Paterson's first collection, Nil Nil (1993), tells the sped-up tale of a football team's inglorious decline. Yet its panoramic sweep takes in much more than sport. The comedy and search for ontological significance typify the mix of the quotidian, the surreal and the mystical which remain a hallmark of his writing. "From the top, then, the zenith, the silent footage" we witness a "fifty-year slide / into Sunday League", but the missing dash found in a football score also makes the title a strange double negative. "Nil Nil" is both nothing and everything, it seems to say. Both poem and collection introduced readers to a striking new voice.
Sean O'Brien has written that "few poets can have covered as much ground in 20 years as Don Paterson". Reading this remarkable Selected Poems, which ranges from the ludic depths of Nil Nil to the plainer cadences and frankness of 2009's Rain, one is inclined to agree. Yet, coupled with "Nil Nil", Rain's title poem brings us full circle, as another double negative surfaces between release and restraint: "and none of this, none of this matters". Alongside the poetry's stylistic variety and growing tonal authority, what Paterson's selection from his six volumes to date reveals is the underlying thematic consistency of his oeuvre.
The poems are often full of seeming paradox and contradiction, a feature which can wrong-foot just as it provokes and delights. "I took myself on for the hell of it," says the poet of playing pool against his double in Nil Nil's "The Ferryman's Arms", a sense of poetry's artifice jostling with the conviction that a poem should enact some seriously complex thinking. The persona is swaggering yet (literally) divided; the planetary order of balls on the pool table is undermined as "physics itself becomes something negotiable"; the false doppelgänger ends up seeming truer than the departing speaker; strangeness swells up everywhere through initially grounded reality. Nothing is ever quite as it seems. Just as the speaker's lover in "The Trans-Siberian Express" is seen "shedding veil after veil", these poems seek truths beyond the waking dream-world through which we blunder. The darkness comes to envelop Nil Nil. A handful of poems explore social class, not least the punchy "An Elliptical Stylus", but these also tend towards eerie territory, or else unpick the constructed nature of the self.
Paterson's follow-up, the irony-laden and audaciously titled God's Gift to Women (1997), is represented here by some of his most arresting poems. "A Private Bottling" beguiles with heightened lyricism and colloquialism, achieving a gently damning commemoration of the poet's former lover, both lifted and undermined by its intoxicated context of late-night whisky sampling. The tonal range is extraordinary. Where "Addenda" develops delicate snapshots of the poet's brother's lost life, the unsteady formal prowess of "Imperial" reinforces just as it collapses notions of male authority in a subtle send-up of the Renaissance love poem. Combined with the unreliable narrative of its Marvellian centrepiece – part dramatic monologue, part seemingly confessional catharsis – God's Gift documents the exhilarating struggle between Paterson's wilful sassiness and a meditative lyricism fighting for more ground.
These issues were neatly sidestepped in The Eyes (1999), a book comprising loose "versions" after the Spanish poet Antonio Machado. Notable for their unabashed spiritualism, the poems also deliver a refreshing anonymity amid the clamour of much contemporary verse. As "Poetry" has it: "Beneath the blue oblivious sky, the water / sings of nothing, not your name, not mine." Similarly in "Sigh", a fountain "sings", yet "speaks / its love-song / to no one".
It will be a shame if The Eyes – not least "Advice", "Profession of Faith" and "Siesta", all included here – is solely remembered as catalyst to the marked turn in Paterson's work evident from Landing Light (2003), in which the dark ego of the divided self blends with the emotional scope inherited from Machado. A sizeable, even baggy fourth collection, it is represented here by more work than from any other volume. Starting with "Luing", a declaration of our capacity for love, we come to poignant sonnets for the poet's sons, moving through polished rehearsals of the doubling motif and a fantastic reworking of "The Forest of the Suicides" from Dante's Inferno, before arriving at arguably Paterson's most ambitious poem to date, "The White Lie". This philosophical treatise expounds – just as this Selected Poems reveals – what he has long seen as poetry's transformative responsibility, as the world we think we know is "reconsumed in its estranging fire". It sets the tone for 2006's Orpheus, a version of Rilke's masterwork which sharpens the questing at the sonnets' cores: "But is that true?", "What was real in that All?", "O, where are we now?"
For many, Paterson's most recent collection, Rain, placed him among the front rank of English-language poets now writing. It is well represented here, with poems such as "The Swing", "The Circle", and the disquieting elegy for the late Michael Donaghy, "Phantom", all testifying to a stepped-up musical intelligence, a pithy idiomatic ease that owes debts to Robert Frost and Robert Garioch, and the undiminished ability to elevate and surprise, revivifying traditional forms with panache. Dynamic, interrogative and unsettling; crafted yet open-ended; fiercely smart, savage and stirring – from the get-go, Paterson's poetry has been essential reading. This Selected Poems blazes with the best of his meteoric ascent.
first published in The Guardian, Saturday 19 May 2012
'This is how I recognise an authentic poet: by frequenting him, living a long time in the intimacy of his work, something changes in myself, not so much my inclinations or my tastes as my very blood, as if a subtle disease had been injected to alter its course, its density and nature. Valéry and Stefan George leave us where we picked them up, or else make us more demanding on the formal level of the mind: they are geniuses we have no need of, they are merely artists. But a Shelley, a Baudelaire, but a Rilke intervene in the deepest part of our organism which annexes them as it would a vice. In their vicinity, a body is fortified, then weakens and disintegrates. For the poet is an agent of destruction, a virus, a disguised disease and the gravest danger, though a wonderfully vague one, for our red corpuscles. To live around him is to feel your blood run thin, to dream a paradise of anemia, and to hear, in your veins, the rustle of tears ...'
- from 'The Parasite of Poets',
in A Short History of Decay
by Emil Cioran