Sunday, 30 September 2012

Guest Review: Mayhew On Green

Jessica Mayhew reviews
by Jess Green

#romance is a collection that revolves around connections and interactions. However, as shown in the Twitter-inspired hashtag title, these are connections strongly influenced by the contemporary. These poems will speak strongly to the social media generation, and are tinged with the voyeurism that has crept into life through technology, as shown in ‘#romance.’ Green has a very modern voice; even when referencing ‘a Hughes and Plath affair’ (‘Another One Broken’), comparing it to her own emotionally damaging relationship, the reader would not place the poem in any other timeframe but now

Green’s poetry does away with traditional idealisations. In ‘Another One Broken,’ the speaker of the poem remembers sitting alone in a cheap hotel, recounting the broken promises of her older lover:

I drank champagne from the bottle
in the blustering wind of an open window,
the mugs were still stained with tea
and you said you’d bring back washing up liquid...
(‘Another One Broken’)

The mundanity of these images contrasts against the poet’s desire to be ‘...fucked up/ so I’d have something to write about,’ the desire for experience. Green artfully maintains this atmosphere to the final stanza, where she betrays an almost sadomasochistic wish to ‘ask for my feelings back.’    

However, there are also tender moments of connection within this collection, such as in ‘Potatoes.’ Again, this poem begins with a sense of isolation:  

I was lonely when she first arrived
in a house so huge
it spent time in the eighties being flats

Despite initially setting herself against her new flatmate and ‘the private school she worked in,’ the speaker of the poem ‘bonded over my lack of potatoes/ and her having some fried with blue cheese.’ The friendship even survives separation:

when I stumble back to my mum’s house...
I pour myself another wine,
stick my headphones in
and have a one woman Tina Turner party 
she’d be proud of

Even within the poems concerning friendship, Green is clearly concerned with political and social commentary, and poetry’s place within it. This is most clearly communicated in ‘Stop The Poetry,’ the final poem in the collection, taking inspiration from the recent demonstrations in London, in which she declares, ‘kettle us, keep us, beat us and berate us/ but you won’t stop the poetry.” Here, the internal rhyme shapes these final lines like a slogan, something the reader could imagine being shouted aloud. These class struggles are coloured with personal experience, shown when she is told:,
scratch your degree from your CV.
It’ll make you more employable,
‘cause no-one wants a show off
afraid to get your hands dirty
then off to the theatre.
(‘Scratch Your Degree’)

However, any anger is also balanced with moments of humour, as shown when she rewinds time back through her degree:

I never shook hands with Brian May,
and in any case
that would have been ok
because I only know the words to
Don’t Stop Me Now
(‘Scratch Your Degree’)

Green effortlessly switches between the serious and the light-hearted with no loss of pace or drama. #romance is a short pamphlet, consisting of eight poems in free verse. It is clearly poetry that is intended to be spoken aloud. However, the words also work beguilingly on the page; ‘we sway up those spirals/ crack egg shell painted walls’ (‘Deep Down In The Avenues’). Here, the satisfying sibilance reveals a poet experienced in the musicality of language. Jess Green’s language speaks from the page with a vibrancy that encourages you to see the poems performed. 

Jessica Mayhew is a Masters student at UC studying English Literature: Issues in Modern Culture.  Her pamphlet Someone Else's Photograph was recently published.

Guest Review: Nobbs On Moore

E.E. Nobbs reviews
If We Could Speak Like Wolves
by Kim Moore

In the pamphlet If We Could Speak Like Wolves (Smith/Doorstep Books, 2012) most of Kim Moore's 20 poems are set in Cumbria and nearby places. Some of the people we meet are (or were) actual people, such as world-famous Graham Short in “The Master Engraver”.  Often the speaker is an "I"; sometimes a lover is being addressed, as in the titular poem – where the speaker poses hard questions about intimacy and roles:

… if a mistake could be followed
by instant retribution and end with you
rolling over to expose the stubble and grace
of your throat, if it could be forgotten

the moment the wind changed…

Moore’s people are in relationships, in communities; they holiday in the Lake District, go picnicking, get picked up at pubs, and attend services where psychic artists dial up long-dead grandmas while the congregation sings Abba songs.

 “In Praise of Arguing” is an ode-rush of adrenaline with the energy of a Beethoven overture.  A couple are cohabitating; it’s probably their first year. The action is fast and furious:

And the vacuum cleaner flew
down the stairs like a song
and the hiking boots
launched themselves
along the landing.

I both sigh and giggle every time I read it. And the twist at the end is “glorious”.

There's the everyday mundane; there's murder and other tragedies - big and small (people drown, moths immolate on lamps). There's wry humour, wolves and fairy tales. And tall tales. Myths and mountain tops. Even the Titanic. There’s fog and trains and boats and tides – always the tides.  And sheep. And unusual ways of getting to places

In only 20 poems (and none of them are long poems), Moore works her magic.  Together they are like a hymn of praise for the gift of being alive. And of being part of a whole. Of a community.

She's a skilled teller of stories. Sometimes, the speaker takes on the role of bard, as in the benedictive poem, “The Rabbit and the Moon” with its "Let me tell you the story of a high, lonely place..."

What stands out for me is the musicality of all these poems: the lines are rhythmic, and the words dance, and echo off each other. They are technically impressive.

I have at least 15 favourite poems in this pamphlet: one of them is “Train Journey, Barrow to Sheffield”. This poem is (at least partly) about a train trip. It has seven verses, five lines per verse, all similar lengths - the poem looks like a train. I like attention to shape. The speaker first tells us what she does NOT like about the train, and her reasons are funny (ha/ha). In the fourth verse, the speaker acknowledges: "still I love the train, its sheer unstoppability,/ its relentless pressing on...".

Then she's questioning: "if the sheep aren't rounded up//will they stand and let the tide come in, because that's what sheep do, they don't save themselves".  And suddenly, she’s relating details of a horrifying and tragic human event. We return to the hoped-for safety of the train; yet in the last line of the poem, a passenger is shouting: "I've got to find the sword." But I don’t want to spoil the surprise; so I'll say no more.

If We Could Speak Like Wolves is a joy to read and re-read.

E.E. Nobbs is a Canadian poet based in Prince Edward Island.

Poetry Focus: Maria Taylor

Maria Taylor (pictured below) was born in 1978 and is a poet and reviewer from Leicestershire.  She is Greek Cypriot in origin and was raised in London before moving to the Midlands. She has had poetry published in a variety of magazines including The North, Staple, The Guardian and Iota. She has also reviewed for The TLS and Sphinx, as well as co-editing the magazine Hearing Voices. Her debut collection, Melanchrini, is available from Nine Arches Press which was launched this summer at the Ledbury Poetry Festival.

Maria Taylor, poet and reviewer




September. Someone hands me a copy of Larkin,
thirty eager teenage faces search me for clues.
I will love teaching Larkin, I will embrace Larkin,
‘A’ Level Syllabi, York Notes, Spark Notes;
we’re going to crack this Larkin like a walnut.


October. Larkin has moved in. My photographs
are all of Larkin, the face on the television
belongs to Larkin. In the crisp mornings
birds are tweeting Larkin! Larkin! Larkin!
It’s Sunday lunchtime, thirty essays on Larkin
scream at me. Was Larkin a misogynist?
Was Larkin a misanthrope? Was Larkin a joker?
I give up and go in search of food. Larkin passes me
the leeks and compliments me on my choice of wine.


The term ends. We have done our Christmas quiz
on Larkin. ‘I hate Larkin,’ says a small girl with eczema.


‘Tis the season to be Larkin. I go home with a suitcase
full of Larkin. On Boxing Day I drink brandy
and salute Larkin. I think I’m going Larkin.


Last night when I was asleep, Larkin was on top
of me again, grunting. His lenses were all steamed-up,
he enjoys the feel of the living, the way we move.
I fended him off with a hardback of New Women Poets
and woke up, relieved to see someone else.


You may turn over and begin. Mr. Larkin is your invigilator
for today. I raise my hand, ‘How do you spell MCMXIV?’
He clips the back of my ear with a shatterproof ruler.
I draw a Smurf in the margin, I have forgotten everything
there is to know about Larkin. He gives up on me and leaves.
Larkin’s shoes echo noisily through the gym.


August. Twisted. They’re opening little envelopes,
some smile, some cry.  A photographer from the local paper
takes photos of students throwing Larkin in the air.
I’m better now, cured of Larkin. The girl with eczema
has a lighter. I find a charred copy of High Windows
behind the gym with a used condom and a can of Lilt.
Never such innocence, as I think someone once said.

poem by Maria Taylor; reprinted online with permission by the author.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Guest Review: Bailey On O'Donoghue

Peadar O’Donoghue
Salmon Press, 2012

I can pinpoint the moment when I knew this book and I were not aligned unusually precisely; it was when, having written a note about ‘control?’ on page 19, I turned it over to see page 21’s title: ‘This is a Controlled Poem’. And I thought well, that told me, except it doesn’t really, on reading it, as it’s not so much a poem displaying control as it is a poem dismissing it as a helplessly grey and sensible presence, “a Golden Labrador, the Sunday Times, / a bay-windowed Victorian semi, / a neatly-pressed shirt for the office on Monday.” If I tried to approach this implicit poetic as I normally read, it would be like bringing gravy to a sweet course; bear with me as I try to avoid the category error.

It’s not just an implicit poetic; I later found O’Donoghue telling Robert Frosts Banjo that:

I feel that the magic is in the rawness, a rough diamond, polished pieces are not my style. I’ve tried a few times and the whole thing falls apart. I’m not too hung up on form or style or punctuation or even spelling, within reason of course.  Some writers are alchemists, I’m just a miner, I keep digging mainly coal to keep the fires burning, but if the odd piece of gold turns up now and again then I’m happy!

So let’s trust that - is there gold? Yes, I think there is. Take, for example, the “darkling tarmac” of ‘Cardboard Kings’, the image of the improvised firing squad in ‘The Birth of a Nation’ where “those that had no guns / pointed fingers”, or, from the poem I put that original control note against, the “nothing but starfish, / starfish on the beach.” Each of those is striking and can develop in the ear, the imagination, the understanding. The opening poem makes reference to a “blandiose” refurbishment of a bar, which is an apt and expressive portmanteau.

There’s a sustained shine across poems like ‘The Summer in Siam’, which dances through the other seasons to shed light on the titular one as it is recalled by “these closed eyes under / penny weights”. That structuring suggests it’s had more polish than we’ve been led to believe; similarly the sustained anaphora in ‘This Christmas We’, which builds a happiness in the face of circumstances where the speaker must “contract, / cut-back, / shrink and save”. That’s the last poem of the book, one that ends in an acknowledgement of relative wealth in the world where “We [...] rejoice in the hope / and are glad”, which is an admirable sentiment and one you’re carried along with as a reader, making this a strong conclusion. 

Sadly, there are rather more poems where I find myself uncarried than I would like. I have tried to bring something other than gravy, but still I find some of the poems in here to be stretched jokes, others that spend their second half ensuring we understand the point of the first, and several with noticeable amounts of text that ambles along conversationally. It might be me, rather than the poet at fault here; my worries about the lines being conversational tap straight into the opening fret about control. Perhaps this is Wordsworth’s language of men talking to men brought into 21st-century web-connected speech and I am simply being a whale-boned mentat for worrying.

A test of this: when you read this last sentence of ‘Star Lovers’,

We filled the void
with the smallness of ourselves,
our closed petals daisies
were eyelids kissed,
and I said ‘I love you’
more than the average amount of times.

do you find it stumbles after its rather lovely daisies with that uncountable “amount”, rather than the countable “number”?  To me it’s a problem, and a fixable problem, that undermines the poem in its closing moments; a point where the surrendered control disconnects poem and reader. If you agree here, it won’t be the only place you feel this way.

If you disagree, though, you may side with Rachel Fenton, who asserts in an interview based around the book that “if Wordsworth could have cracked a few more jokes and let the metre run he’d have been your equal.” O’Donoghue, to his credit, laughs off that evaluation, but Ian Duhig’s positive (and more realistic) back-cover assessment may outweigh mine: for him, Jewel is “a book of joy and power”, full of energy, delight and an eye for the ridiculous. Much as I recognise those starting points, too often I find the poems let their energies dissipate under the weight of attention, just as the opening quotation fears they might from polishing. That might, of course, be just the gravy talking.

Andrew Bailey is a writer based in Sussex, with a first collection, Zeal, available from Enitharmon. He has worked with various arts and educational organisations.


A WORK IN PROGRESS... I am writing this first part on the eve of New Year's Eve day - and as new remembrances come to me, I may well...