Clever Girl “Verbs that Move Mountains”, edited by Claire Trévien, reviewed by Jessica Mookherjee

verbs that move mountains 2

Clever Girl: A Review of Verbs That Move Mountains: Essays and Interviews on Spoken word cultures around the world. Edited by Claire Trevien.

 

Jessica Mookherjee; Poet, “Swell” (2016, Telltale Press), “JoyRide” (2017 Black Light Engine Room Press) “Flood” (2018 Cultured Llama). Highly Commended for Best Single Poem Forward Prize 2017. https://thejessicapoet.wordpress.com/about/

Poetry and Art

I first heard of Claire Trevien on radio four, driving home from work. She was reading from her 2014 collection “The Shipwrecked House” and I recall a little bit of my life changing. The haunting quality of the way she connected with me reminded me of what I had wanted to do as a young performance poet in my 20’s, fresh out of media school. I wanted to bring multi media poetic beauty to performance and make poetry as popular as rock music. Well, I didn’t – I was too scared, and what I heard was was a poet doing just that. She inspired me to perform again – twenty five years after my first attempts.

Trevien’s (ed) “Verbs That Move Mountains” follows her interest in the conversation of the democratisation of art, the blurred lines between art and culture, the establishment, the traditional ‘ivory tower’ holders of the poetic cannon in academia and their relationship to the sawdust and spit of slam poetry / spoken word performance, and ‘the cult of the noble amateur’.

Controversy and Pop Culture

This book is bold and thrusts its shoulders assertively into the Watts / McNish ‘controversy’, which for the blissfully unaware – is the latest media peak into poetry’s mysterious world of spats; this time an age old debate between high art and low culture. Watts, a poet, declared that poets like Tempest and McNish, who use YouTube and Instagram, are populist panderers and mark a kind of ‘dumbing down’ of poetry. McNish, I think, blew a raspberry in response.

“Verbs that Move Mountains” is a fascinating collection of essays that provides an exploration and addition to the growing body of work on the phenomenon of poetry as oral and performative tradition as well as discussing the urgency of this democratisation as it exists in a fast changing, globalised and yet increasingly tribalised context.

Clever Girl

I once had a surprisingly upsetting argument with a friend when I said there was no way Citizen Kane was in the same category of art as Jurassic Park. She really let me have it. Had I missed the devastatingly Shakespearian death scene – where Muldoon says “clever girl’ thus showing that the velociraptor is the scientists’ equal, and then (spoiler alert) the clever girl rips his head off?  Perhaps I had missed it. She certainly ripped my head off.

Pleasingly for me, the book’s journey begins in India. Scherezade Siobhan (check out her digital work called “Bone Tongue”) had me at Krishna. She eloquently writes about the many forms of Indian poetry, from Kavya to Ghazal. In fact, her chapter reminds me of the Hindu parable of the beggar and the Brahmin. The Beggar tends the infant Krishna, sings to him with devotion. His gruff tones offend the classically trained Brahmin singer – who sends the beggar off for ‘offending God’ with dreadful singing. The Brahmin sings in technical perfection yet wakes young Krishna – who, upset and angry, wants his beggar back – because in the beggar’s voice was love and desire to connect with god, all the god hears in the Brahmin is the desire to sound clever and precise – which to the god – sounds horrible.

Democracy of Voices

Siobhan is nuanced in the chapter, she rightly says, that when the poet is dead and can no longer sing to us, we need the words to hold us. The book and page holds the echo of a poets perfomative presence. She states boldly that the dichotomy of page vs stage is false. There is something about the multilingual nature of India that enables the richness of the oral tradition to explode. She describes the pluralistic voices, the small regional dialects and the strength of the classical poetic tradition. The chapter hints at what the whole volume goes on to explore in different aspects and layers – that of the new democratisation of poetry. The relationship between the grass roots and the literary can appear to be threatening and revolutionary before being co-opted onto structured curriculum in schools and colleges. Who decides which poets will live on in the pages of the future? Will, in 200 years, Scotland celebrate Don Patterson night?

This democratisation rests the canon away from old white men and gives voice to the traumatised, the vulnerable, women, those who say the unsayable. She writes that the intent of this new poetic democracy is to engage, empower and to connect.

Space for Healing

Sharon Moreham and Alice. S. Yousef both have chapters on the consequences of catastrophe in building community and voice. The question of how to re-build a people’s spirit where the poem becomes a voice of ‘demanding to be born’ and having the right to exist.

Moreham describes the use of poetry groups in the aftermath of an earthquake in New Zealand and Yousef recounts the Palestinian spoken word experience that moves from silence, through trauma of erasure into rage. Both chapters speak of the power of narration and storytelling as healing, showing the art of being visible and the support offered in growing the voice.

Emma Lee’s chapter is about creating space for healing. She underlines both Moreham and Yousef in describing the dual needs of the trauma survivor for acknowledgement and validation. Much has already been written on poetry as witness, here Lee writes about the performance space as witness to the poet’s trauma and enabling healing to occur. The ability of the condensation of the poetic form to be an organising principle of the chaos and shame of trauma, enables healing to happen. This has been documented by singers and musicians. Lee describes how in the performance space the poet can also be a ‘person’ with a platform to connect, whereas the printed page and the world of publishing can be viewed by many who lack confidence, as elitist and sterile in comparison.

Class and Community

Artist, Grayson Perry says we drink in our aesthetic differences with our mother’s milk, inferring that class and taste are inexorably linked. Perry talks about the working class needing community more then middle classes – who are more concerned with individuality and originality, and rules and breaking rules. I found it fascinating to apply these notions to Trevien’s collection of essays. The creation of a poetry scene in the Midlands where events such as Word! and Shindig are community building and supportive, where applause and validation are necessary steps to empowerment also linked to McCrum’s chapter about Glasgow and Edinburgh. She declares that who has access to community is a political question, for in performance poetry there is opportunity to interact with the promoters and punters, there is space for conversation without the mystery of why you have not made it onto the pages of PN Review.

Buchannan’s chapter about the Shropshire poetry scene which is stanza and festival focused, has big poetry names reading at Wenlock – quite a middle class affair, right through to Debra Alma, the Emergency Poet – who gives one to one performances, the ‘nurse of verse’.

Voices Loud and Quiet

The politics of democratisation are immense – and “Verbs that Move Mountains” is a worthy contribution to this conversation. The book asks important questions about poetry and performance. The Chapter by Batineh on Saudi Arabia, Iran and Jordon remind us not to take this democratisation and political space for granted. The ability to have voice and to speak against authority is necessary for art to remain alive – and this chapter describes how sometimes this is impossible in the native soil and the poet must find exiled spaces, on line and censorship as the battlegrounds, she talks about ‘armed voices’.

It is the exuberance of the voice desiring to be heard that is the overriding theme of the collection of essays. The freedom of voice is the full expression of the poetic experience, and Trevien explores this with Martin Raqel. Poetry is about communication at it’s heart and there is a beautiful point made in the book that it is when a poem is performed and heard, life is blown into the spirit of the page.

The book asks important questions about art. Many of the chapters deal with the aspect of giving confidence to the previously unheard, be they women who have suffered years of marital oppression, men who feel crushed by the forces of capitalism or a whole group of people who are marginalised and ‘othered’. The book asks what are the rules within this ‘lawlessness’ and revolt against academic authority? Is there a hierarchy that is unspoken, will those that ‘do well’ at performance events leave the community and get ‘published’ or move to paid gigs and rock star status and then, where does this leave the community? Will the local events have to constantly re-invent itself when the ‘local leaders’ tire of running them? This is interestingly observed in the chapter on the history and creation of a spoken word scene in Singapore.

Being Authentic and Selling Out

This leads to the questions of ethics and who are your community of peers? How can the grass roots survive if there is no one to continue to support it? The ethics of truth are explored, after connecting with an audience will they tolerate an appropriation of another’s identity? Have you the right to to perform poems about the experience of being black – If you are not black? It certainly doesn’t bother actors or novelists, but there appears to be unwritten rules of engagement in poetry. There is an interesting observation in the book that poetry designed to ‘win’ slams, such as the overblown confessional, the overwrought sentimental and comedic poems are treated with suspicion by audiences after a while. The nature of selling poetry and the sell out- where the poet stops being authentic is also discussed.

Craft Work

The book also raises questions of craft and excellence in performance. Many of the – arguably – more experienced poets talk about the ‘art’ – how silence, quietness, staging and music can be used to good effect, it doesn’t all have to be spit and vitriol and shouting about terrible childhoods. The use of theatrical craft can elevate the text, a good text is performable and brought to life by the poet if they know how to connect with the audience. Ultimately the book rests on the premise that spoken word and performance is ‘live literature’. This is how I felt when I heard Claire Trevien’s work for the first time, how I responded to Kate Tempest, how I felt about Tommy Sissons aged just 17 when I first saw him perform,  how I thought he was the next Shakespeare, and of course Shakespeare himself, who comes alive – from the past – when he is performed. There is a rock star nod at the end of the book, and I’m glad of it. Most of us grew up listening to Mark E Smith, Morrissey, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Bob Marley just as much as Hughes, Plath and Heaney, and often more then Shelley, Yeats and Blake.

The Conversation

This book has a wealth of information for poets, promoters, publishers, sociologists and anthropologists. It is part of the conversation that moves poetry forward as one of the most democratic participant-led art forms of the 21st Century. Buy and read this book and the works of the poets who feature in it. Also – do not be afraid to get on stage and read your poem– never mind the bollocks, get on YouTube, your local word night and push your voice out.

March 2018.

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Whereas by Layli Long Soldier, reviewed by Clara B. Jones

WHEREAS
Layli Long Soldier
2017
Graywolf Press
120 pages
$16.00

Reviewed by Clara B. Jones

 

WHEREAS confronts the coercive language of the United States government in its responses, treaties, and apologies to Native America peoples and tribes, and reflects that language in its officiousness and duplicity back on its perpetrators.” Publisher’s release

“I am a citizen of the United States and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, meaning I am a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation—and in this dual citizenship I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.” Layli Long Soldier

Minority poets have found their voices, writing a variety of forms and themes from the conventional to the boldly experimental. Shortlisted for the 2017 National Book Award in Poetry, Layli Long Soldier’s reputation has catapulted into the limelight with the publication of her debut book, WHEREAS. With an impressive grasp on storytelling, common in indigenous and minority traditions, Long Soldier introduces readers to her personal and tribal histories—emphasizing acts of cruelty and dismissal relieved, emotionally and thematically, by her experiences as a daughter, a partner, and a parent (“Father’s Day comma I am not with you. I stare at a black-and-white photo of you comma my/husband in a velvet shirt comma your hair tied back and your eyes on the face of our sleep-/ing daughter.”). In order to decode many of the poet’s references, it is important to know certain aspects of Sioux history. The book’s epigraph, “Now/make room in the mouth/for grassesgrassesgrasses.”, refers to a tragic event whereby a trader, Andrew Myrick, refused food to a hungry group of Lakota Sioux, telling them to eat their own dung mixed with grass. Sometime later, Myrick’s body was found with grass stuffed in his mouth. Throughout WHEREAS, “grass,” and, to a lesser degree, “green,” appear (“…I grass/nothing/here I meta-/grass I sleep-/walk grasses….”; “…split/grass wires/little bulbs/silver/green/drop/lets….”), forcing the reader to share Long Soldier’s trauma and, possibly, rage. Indeed, many of the poems address identity, dreams, myth, and the unconscious, and it might be interesting for an analytical scholar to interpret the poems from a Freudian perspective (“…a symbol for/electric/current/something/having the shape/of i/ego…”). The poet does not stray far from politics (“…who what when where why/at behest of the local leadership/e.g. Officer, my name is __________/from Standing Rock….”). Long Soldier’s use of white spaces, erasures, and a variety of forms shows that she is intentionally disrupting formalist rules, though the poems retain musicality and are not didactic or literal for the most part. Part 2 of the book, WHEREAS, refers to a proclamation written by Barak Obama apologizing to Indigenous Americans for their treatment during the colonial period (and beyond?). According to Long Soldier, no Indigenous Americans were invited to the ceremony and, as I recall, the event was not widely reported in the media. In my opinion, Part 2 is the most moving section of the book, and a strong case might be made that it should be placed before Part 1, THESE BEING THE CONCERNS, in order to provide context and currency for the Myrick incident. WHEREAS, is written as a Proclamation in its own right, rendering a powerful response to Obama’s oversights (“I recognize/the special legal and/political relationship/Indian tribes have with/the United States and/the solemn/covenant with the land/we share.”). While Long Soldier’s stories are sometimes heartbreaking, her writing does not take the reader to the edge of despair. This young poet’s work is highly recommended, and I hope that, in future, the poetry community will embrace many more Indigenous American poets.

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Bio: Clara B. Jones practices poetry in Silver Spring, MD (USA). As a woman of color, she writes about identity, culture, & society and conducts research on experimental poetry, as well as, radical publishing. She is author of three chapbooks, and her poetry, reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in various venues.

You’re The Most Beautiful Thing That Happened by Arisa White, reviewed by Clara B. Jones

You’re The Most Beautiful Thing That Happened
Arisa White
2016
Augury Books (NYC)
96 pp
Paper, $16
ISBN: 9780988735576

More than 20 years ago, the artist, Andrea Fraser, suggested that works by women don’t have staying power because women are generally marginalized or incorporated—remaining invisible. Reviewing artistic work by women, then, may be seen as a recovery project to highlight women’s practices that may, otherwise, be overlooked or ignored. In a patriarchy, females are objects, men, subjects, and men speak for women, creating a particularly challenging landscape for women expressing themselves via the spoken or written word (language). One of the pleasures attendant to reviewing books of poetry written by young, female, women of color (e.g., C.M. Burroughs, Francine J. Harris) is reading work with “interpretive power” (Helen Vendler) worthy of being taken seriously by other poets—men and women alike—and worthy of persistence over the long haul. I have been impressed with the degree to which many early-career writers of color, and, many young poets in general, are successfully expanding the strictures of Formalism by integrating form, language, and function.

I read Arisa White’s, You’re The Most Beautiful Thing That Happened (hereafter, YTMBTTH), after reading an essay on feminism and postmodernism by Craig Owens who quoted Fredric Jameson—“…it suddenly became clear that ‘D.H. Lawrence’ was not an absolute after all [a male spokesman about women], not the final achieved figuration of the truth of the world, but only one art-language among others, only one shelf of works in a whole dizzying library.” Young female writers of color, and other female writers, especially, feminists, have taken their place in the “dizzying library” of non-patriarchal forms and, like Harryette Mullen before them, have taken their place among postmodern poets disrupting the status quo by writing, as Owens put it, in opposition to “Western man’s self-appointed mission of transforming the entire planet in his own image.” Contrary to most male writers, most female writers, especially feminist authors, have boldly chosen to address comfort; personal narratives and personal relationships; egalitarian associations rather than ones based on power differentials; emotions and feelings; language as authentic communication rather than abstraction and symbolism; and, a holistic and an organic view of the world.

White’s book exhibits the foregoing characteristics, as well as, being an ambitious and intimate map of one woman’s experiences as a female citizen of the world. Based on an e-mail interview, White stated, “I identify as a feminist poet in the same ways I identify as a black, queer/lesbian poet—these are identities I stand in and write from and out of. These are social locations that help me examine our political and cultural institutions and systems of thought. They are lenses and sites for feeling and knowledge. In many ways, all these things work together to help me nuance the world around me, give language to particular experiences. I am feminist because I care about the political parity of women/females, and I believe this sexist oppression is the root of all oppression.” In YTMBTTH, White addresses themes both subjectively and universally, including, childhood, loss, love, and chaos in lyric-like poems demonstrating a respect for form, function, and, especially, language (“There are little words,/that can fit in little places,/if you say them small enough.”; “She is pretty and perfect in sleep before language must be assigned—“; “When your friends are around, your hands language/near her to confirm she’s close:…”).

White’s poems are decidedly not derivative; however, their cryptic use of language and meaning remind me of Meghan Sterling’s autobiographical and understated, yet strong, poems about female issues relevant to anyone concerned with a humanistic interpretation of life and living. White’s poems invite the reader into her interior space without being didactic or literal (“Men, when they do, cross their legs in the way of academics./Never in the way of churchwomen who keep the secret/covered—there’s nothing to be implored, explored, discovered./In the way of academics, the whole body thinks….”). White’s lyricism often takes the form of homages, usually, to lovers (“Sounds the body/makes to keep quiet/while I take/your camisole down:/purple. Our sable bodies/an inappropriate math/in one stall.”). The author deftly addresses intense issues (HIV, sex, self-concept) without losing control of her emotions or language or focus or material. At the same time, her poetics and style communicate the limitations of language for exposing the full range of experience (Post-modernism), indicated, in part, by her frequent use of nonsense words, repetition (“…There’s no going back from raw. New story/you, mezzo and wood bending. My love, you’re the/darling dang—true-dat, true-dat, true—dat-dat-dat.”), as well as, avant garde conformations (see, especially, and, notably, the poem, “Four Square,” on page 71).

Other themes that struck me as I read YTMBTTH were references to West Indian/Caribbean culture (see poem, “Auntie,” on page 17), and British (colonial?) habits (“I prefer my tea with sugar/when I talk to you. You make/each minute an island where we,/crowned and carpeted by green,/sip Dragon Well from our palms.”). And, then, there is the matter of race—usually present but rarely explicit (however, see the poems, “Who Invited The Monkey To Omen’s Party,” on page 16, and “Drag Up…dedicated to the white people who were asked to raise their hands if they would choose to be black,” on page 18). Via e-mail, White shared, after reading one of my essays, “The essay has me thinking about what it would mean for me to write directly about race, how does it feel creatively within? Immediately, I thinkfeel [sic] about being in an ‘interracial’ marriage, which is more so an intersectional state of being (race, gender, sexuality, class) than a singular way of identifying. I think the pressure is how to write from these intersections/interstices. . . using polarities to make a third thing, to create a lens for seeing what the opposites map out. If black and white are said to be my points of reference, what is the gray communicating in relationship to the blue-black?”

The “intersectional” is postmodern, indeed. Since the 1970s, approximately, identity has become a fluid, personal narrative. My essay, referred to in the previous paragraph, argued that many early-career poets of color, male and female, LGBTQI and hetero-normative, are defining race-gender-class on their own terms rather than writing about race explicitly, directly, or literally. Many of these poets are writing, following Emily Dickinson, “slant.” By her account, some of White’s major influences are Saul Williams, Carl Hancock Rux, Erykah Badu, Toni Morrison, Patricia Smith, Rebecca Seiferle, Pat Parker, Audre Lorde, Hart Crane, Medbh McGuckian, Harryette Mullen, Tyehimba Jess, and Ross Gay—artists who challenge Modernism’s meta-narratives, crafting individual voices and impulses derived from their personal experiences, interpretations, and perceptions. White’s next project is in this tradition, “a craft talk about my queer imaginary [that will] unpack the queer imaginary that informs my work, examining the way my lesbian aunt and her friends languaged [sic] themselves in the world and how that became a model for how I create a poem.” My advice to the reader of this review is—Do not wait for her future projects in order to savor Arisa White’s compelling work. Each of the poems in You’re The Most Beautiful Thing That Happened is necessary, deserving a wide audience, and, with this collection, the author has made a valuable contribution to the literary community.

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The bird that sings in winter – a Review of Antony Owen’s ‘Margaret Thatcher’s Museum’ by John Davies

A review of Antony Owen’s Margaret Thatcher’s Museum.

(Hesterglock Press 2015)

by John Davies

..

That black leg Easter you wept,

Thatcher glided by in a Daimler,

Like spit on union coats.

The little things destroy us

..

A weight of history rests on Antony Owen, not just in this missile of a pamphlet, a real sett of poems, but also in his name.

“Mark Antony’s family traced its origin to an otherwise unknown son of Heracles named Anton.” Paul Zanker writes in The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. “He used the identification with Heracles to best effect as the macho soldier fraternizing with his men.” The name was spelled without the ‘h’ until the 17th century as in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. According to urbandictionary.com “an Antony is someone who deliberately says or does whatever it takes to piss you off.”

Owen is the anglicized version of the Welsh name Owain. The most celebrated is Owain Glyn Dŵr, the last native Welshman to be Prince of Wales who fought a long campaign of rebellion against English rule.

According to babycenter.com, Owen means “young warrior” or “well born”.

Poetry warrior Antony Owen certainly lives up to his name.

These thoughts were prompted by a memory of Paul Muldoon’s essay in his book, The End of the Poem, Oxford Lectures on Poetry, on the significance of her name to the poet Marianne Moore. More relevantly, in another essay Muldoon quotes a New York Times interview where Robert Lowell describes the impulse that “when private experience converges on the nation’s experience you feel you have to do something.”

That impulse runs through Owen’s collection lobbed at the establishment whether poetic or social: a cobble, though far from cobbled together.

But while the ostensible themes and targets are public and political, beneath the surface of these poems is much that is personal. The private and national converge.

The pamphlet’s title – and what a great, topical title it is – refers to the planned £15 million Margaret Thatcher Museum, or Margaret Thatcher Centre. In its call for support the Centre website claims “She delivered. Now it’s our turn.” It goes on to state that “As well as serving as a source of education on Lady Thatcher herself, the Centre will also offer an insight into the UK in the 1980s and the role of Prime Minister in the UK.”

Antony’s pamphlet is a sparky intervention, flipping the story pov to that of a youngster growing up in the Coventry of the late seventies and eighties with a blue collar father who works at the Jaguar in Browns Lane.

The poems are preceded by some brief contextualising notes about Exhibits, such as Exhibit B: “ ‘The whole of the Midlands is a Thatcher Museum, she bloody made it.’ Self-made businesswoman at a bar in Coventry.” And Exhibit D: “ ‘ …there won’t be no fifteen million quid spent on a miners museum.’ Ex-miner, currently on zero hours contract.”

(miners is an example of Antony’s idiosyncratic punctuation, by the way. Apostrophes tend to be erratic. Perhaps a good proofreader would have helped but the grammatical inconsistencies in his work are somehow part of his fabric and character, in a Billy Childish kind of way.)

Here I need to declare an interest.

Firstly I’m a Midlander, born and bred a Brummie. My mother’s family had been silversmiths in Birmingham since the 17th century. For me Birmingham was and is the capital city of a region called The Midlands. We were neither North nor South but had and have just as much definition and strength of character.

In 1980 I first went to the Jaguar plant at Browns Lane in Coventry, working for my father’s audio-visual production company. In the boardroom I pitched and won the account and proceeded to work with Jaguar on all kinds of projects – from car launches to racing films ­– for the next ten years. My time working with Jaguar ran parallel with Thatcher’s time in office.

In particular, my work involved communication with the workforce by the emerging company’s board, as it moved from being a drab manufacturing facility under the British Leyland banner back to Jaguar Cars Limited. I became a propaganda storm trooper for the new regime, writing scripts and directing films aimed at showing ordinary working people the dangers of poor product quality in an age of global competition and to encourage pride in work. I went on to work on similar projects with similar aims in shipbuilding and other industries. Of course, the ultimate objective was privatisation. Improved quality and a compliant workforce were an essential ingredient of share value.

Antony’s collection therefore provides me with a parallel and challenging text for my own life experience.

I was first introduced to Antony’s work by Bernadette Cremin and went on to publish his pamphlet The Dreaded Boy and his collaboration with Joseph Horgan The Year I Loved England with Pighog.

His work has always had a quality I’ve come to think of as knapped, like a stone flint. Just as a knapper shapes a stone tool by striking and knocking, so Antony both artfully and artlessly fashions his poems through word collisions, and image impacts – literally striking images.

From white flowers of hoarfrost

you watch cinders of starlings

turn pages of hymnbook sky and

throw your sister into the moon.

Kim Kardashian broke the Internet

 

Here too you can also hear the way Antony creates the music and rhythm of his poems through their sonority – sounds knapped into place throughout the poem, though not all hard and short.

… a fox spills the guts of a bin bag

a badger is culled by a hearse.

Kim Kardashian broke the Internet

This knocking sonority is also reflected in the way Antony often ‘knocks on’ an image towards another a few words on. For example, in the following:

In foothills of his alp white beard you

swam depths of those sad blue pools and

surfaced as a boy lost in the broken glass of space.

The Otherworld

these connectors knock on to each other and interweave:

foothills – alp – depths – lost

swam – depths – blue pools – surfaced – lost

white – blue

I think the unconscious effect, often in poems with a pastoral lean, can be of a machine performing a regular repeating function that then creates a kind of background industrial hum, the very thing that has diminished so much in Britain since 1980, as here with:

walk – wandering – paths – lead – slow

trees – tree – leaves ­– nutkins

un-building – wheels – moving – clock – slow

wheat – harvest – shepherd – fields – harvest – hectares

..

Let us walk under trees un-building the city in us,

these wheels of wheat are moving us to harvest the tree that bleeds our little

outcasts, back up leaves to nutkins split from cots, a bit like us

wandering four on paths that lead us to shepherd cumulus, and

blue fields of sky we forget to harvest in the clocks slow hectares.

The loch we left our city in

In Margaret Thatcher’s Museum, this technique is used to great effect in a display of poems around different core themes, with the effects ‘knocking on’ – multiplying and ricocheting within and across the different poems.

If I were writing the Interpretation Panel for Antony’s Museum, I would say that at the most accessible level, the themes include diversity, the homeless, the jobless, the decline of the blue collar working class, urban life, children and parents. They interweave through the poems and provide access and handholds of meaning.

..

After shifts I watched my Dad take deep breaths by the gate,

looking for the son in himself so he could pal as sky broke,

and he broke, with half price bread that smelt of turmeric.

The Cold War

But there are some deeper themes that stood out for me. Winter and winter weather are present in a number of the poems, perhaps reflecting the perceived winter of Thatcher’s time in office, the slow freezing of working class credit and the burying of working class protest beneath a drift of legislation and propaganda.

..

After shifts I wanted to be like my Dad and bend things with fire

but something made the snowman collapse into itself whilst smiling,

it was a bit like all of us that winter in nineteen eighty two.

The Cold War

Here there’s also the decline and transfiguration of the traditional working class hero, the de-manning of factories and the un-manning of men who drew their identities from strength and manual labour.

This is reflected in Antony’s rhythms that flux between the harder iamb and the more uncertain, tentative anaepest.

..

I once made an angel from a half smoked Marlboro,

wanted to be just like Matty’s Dad

a Steve McQueen of cul de sacs

riding through the prison.

Growing up like Steve McQueen

Mothers and Fathers feature strongly. Perhaps this collection is Antony’s eulogy and elegy for both his parents.

..

I was the son of an unremarkable woman

who wanted to be clever but a Mother more,

yeah; I was the son of a song never heard.

The Other Iron Lady

There’s a lot of love here too – of family and friends.

..

You captured the newts from the broken glass

the brook where the ammonia mixes with pansies

this place that was shortlisted for Brum in bloom

yet you were the man who shot Birmingham and it lived.

The man who shot Birmingham and it lived

A recurring image is of birds, who sing a flurry of commentary throughout the poems. Birds are very present – even through the winter poems. Bird images feature in fourteen or more out of twenty-five poems. There are redshanks and penguins, sparrows and doves, blackbirds and starlings.

I loved the phrase ‘a quink of blackbirds’ and I loved the way birds crop up in the unlikeliest of places.

..

You captured the cage and set free the Magpie

Wedged in the chrome nest of a Mustang

The man who shot Birmingham and it lived

The unmanufactured world, the unmade world of beings and things around us we don’t project or generate from our imaginations, are present even while they are unmade by urban and industrial encroachment.

But if I were asked for an overarching theme, I would argue that it is the Massacre of the Innocents, the subject of the original Coventry Carol. It was the second of three songs from the Pageant of the Shearsmen and Tailors, one of the Coventry Mystery Plays. It ends:

That wo is me, pore child, for thee,

And ever morne and may

For thi parting nether say nor singe,

By by, lully, lullay

In Antony’s poems the innocents may be ‘unmourned chavs’ or unborn children, immigrants or the generation who grew up under Thatcher, the sailors on the Belgrano or children and butterflies in Gaza:

…the flagless breaths of all the hand me down butterflies that lay in the depot of Gaza’s pounded heart.

I dreamt of Gaza last night and it woke me

Antony’s Coventry Carol ends:

..

If I untied Coventry from claws of its Phoenix

Men would rise from old world again

Breaking windows of fat brown envelopes

Making their blitz from Daw Mill coal.

..

The Innocents here are the redundant men who lost their jobs in the eighties and didn’t deserve the fate that many suffered – to lose job, home, identity.

And families suffered too.

Childhood was a magic trick,

it vanished with the work,

sometime in the eighties.

The little things destroy us,

anchors to childhood are heavy,

sometimes they drown us.

The little things destroy us

Yet the Phoenix, the bird rising from the ashes in Coventry as elsewhere, is creativity, human ingenuity, the computer games designer or the poet. The death of the old man allowed the coming of the new.

Throughout the poems, the bird is ultimately the poet, ever present on the edge of things, asking questions and trying to sing, whatever the weather.

I cannot praise this collection highly enough. The music of its percussive language is a joy to read, especially aloud. Its crystals of imagery satisfy as much as they entice. It’s a collection of different forms – from ballad-like to prose poem, from short lyric to almost-sonnet. It is deeply felt and originally thoughtful, catching the spirit of the times in its far-flung net, and at the same time singing about something deeper and more timeless about humanity and change.

25 October 2015

John Davies

John Davies was born in Birmingham and now lives in Brighton. From 2002 until 2014 he ran Pighog Press. He is well known as Shedman, the original poet in a shed (www.shedman.net)
His work was published most recently in Our Storeys: Art & Poetry in Healthcare edited with artist Sue Ridge.