1. Blog Review 41: Katherine Stansfield Reviews ‘The Midlands’ by Tony Williams

    Written by Katherine Stansfield — March 6, 2015 10:13

    Tony Williams’ second collection, The Midlands, begins on a rather gloomy note, with the first line proclaiming, ‘The Midlands are crying’. But the detail of what provokes the despair makes it convincing, heartfelt and all the more pervasive:

    They cry in the carparks of aerodromes, deep in the cellars
            of buildings that used to be bookshops.
    They cry over fences, at steam-engine rallies.
            They cry over dogs and bags of granulated sugar.

    The poem tells us that ‘Here is neither one thing nor the other’; the Midlands is presented as a place of loss and ennui. Yet the speaker knows their terrain – geographical and psychological – and shows wry love for the ‘suburb-like towns and town-like suburbs’ with names like ‘Dirgeville, and Grieflington, and Sad-at-Heart’. There’s knowingness at work in this opening poem that suggests taking it a face value would be reductive.

    More poems of urban places follow and then the collection moves into nature poems in a Wordsworthian mode. The man himself makes an appearance in two epigraphs. But before such a mode becomes too heavy-handed, impassioned poems of protest appear. ‘The Rural Citizen’ links historic enclosure acts with contemporary lack of access to footpaths. The speaker scorns ‘the honey-pot mountain with car park and centre / where local crafts are displayed’ for the ‘commonplace hill’. In doing so they meet ‘the ghosts of the drovers and the driven’ as well as the more modern shades of those who are ‘interred’ by the price of petrol and their heated homes. The poem collapses different time periods, digging down through layers of history and land-use and making them contemporaneous in the ‘now’ of the poem’s present, a technique which runs right through the collection. In the opening poem, ‘an unfound grave of a Mercian king’ is shown to us despite its hidden location ‘under wurzels, new housing, and out-of-town Asdas’.

    Such ‘excavating’ of the past is often accompanied by a sense of longing for what has gone before. Poems reach deep in to the ground, or deep in to a place’s history, to find knowledge or understanding that might ultimately be intangible. Some poems manage to be arresting whilst digging, such as ‘Under Masson’, in which the speaker slips under the titular hill and finds an enslaved workforce building a statue of some kind of overlord. In contrast, ‘Welsh Dresser in the Old House’, uses the well-worn image of furniture holding personal history:

    It’s a lifetime’s work,
    how the dresser takes
    the rooms of all its years
    to heart and locks
    its dancing dumb,

    This kind of non-finding becomes a little wearing. Some of the poems concerned with the countryside, often featuring a ‘self moving through landscape’ theme, share this flatness. In ‘Just a Late Visit’, for example, a man returns to a place and remembers his previous experience of walking there which is largely uneventful:

    […] he walks across
    the empty car park
    carrying a net
    cars beside the river
    someone going up
    gruff and nodding greeting
    more than enough

    The poem rather underwhelms in content and language. Elsewhere, poems are flush with strong sound, often achieved through half rhyme and short lines, such as ‘The Snail of Masson’:

    Help me look for it –
    straight into the night,
    pulling on your coat.

    Rhyming couplets are a regular feature, used with half and true rhymes. I found the couplets that use true rhyme less successful due to their creation of flippancy in poems that seemed to be reaching for a serious tone, but that may well come down to a question of personal taste.

    Williams’ work is at its best when his humour and imagination are allowed free rein. There are poems in this collection that astonish with their originality. I’ll end on lines from my favourite, ‘Laura, a Seamstress’, in which Laura falls in love with a mole:

              A purse in my hand.
              Podgy. Slumbersome.
    He can keep his waistcoat on when he enters me.

    Katherine Stansfield
    Katherine Stansfield’s first collection of poems, Playing House, was published by Seren in 2014. http://katherinestansfield.blogspot.co.uk/. @k_stansfield

    The Midlands Tony Williams

    The Midlands by Tony Williams is published by Nine Arches Press, 2014, £8.99

    (to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘reviews’ tag immediately below)

  2. It says something, perhaps, about the power and mystery of Rosemary Tonks’ life (once the toast of literary 1960s Soho, turned religious recluse who repudiated all of her work) that I should have heard of her long before I read one of her poems. The image I had of her was a person who had disowned the craft of poetry but was still followed by a select band of stalwarts, initiates and rare booksellers. Until recently, I think there has been some truth in that, but Neil Astley is to be praised for all of his excavation, research and archival work in collecting together Tonks’ long out-of-print work and bringing it so accessibly to our attention in Bedouin of the London Evening: Collected Poems. My major fear before reading these poems was that Tonks’ uniquely fascinating but agonised life story would threaten to eclipse the achievement of her poems, or at least strongly influence my reaction to them. Indeed, Astley’s detailed and scrupulous introduction gives us plenty of extra biographical information whilst also retaining a hint of the enigma, but the main achievement of this collection seems to be to present a rounded sense of Tonks as an artist prior to the radical change in her life in the late 1970s and her retreat from writing and literary life. For instance, Astley reprints two of her reviews and a rare interview with Peter Orr, which shows the visionary intensity and integrity that shaped her work:

    TONKS: …”I don’t understand why poets are quite ready to pick up trivialities, but are terrified of writing of passions…I want to show people that the world is absolutely tremendous.”

  3. Call for contributions – Magma 63 on the theme of ‘Conversation’

    Written by Susannah Hart & Lisa Kelly at February 1, 2015 18:11

    ‘What is the use of a book’, thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation?’ Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

    At Magma, we’ve been talking. As you know we’re having a National Conversation (about poetry) and we want you to share your poems on the theme of ‘Conversation’ with us to be published in Magma 63.

  4. Blog Review 39: Geoff Sawers Reviews the 2014 Faber New Poets Pamphlets

    Written by Geoff Sawers at January 27, 2015 9:19

    There are four pamphlets in 2014′s Faber New Poets series: 9: Rachael Allen 10: Will Burns 11: Zaffar Kunial 12: Declan Ryan

    Sixteen pages is quite a slender space in which to make your mark, but Rachael Allen gives us, in effect, two separate sequences, as her pamphlet interleaves found language/trash-culture prose poems with a set of childhood memory/Cornish landscapes. All offer quite static images; no movement is attempted, and the relationship between the two sequences isn’t clear, as they bleed at times into each other, leaving a giddy, slightly seasick, sugar-rush feeling in the mind. But she has a rich vocabulary, and in the tightest of the poems (‘Kingdomland’ and ‘Old Fears Are Still Valid’ stand out) strong, compelling imagery.

  5. The Magma Poetry Competition 2014/15 closes at midnight TONIGHT

    Written by Wes Brown at January 19, 2015 12:33

    This is your last chance to enter the Magma Poetry Competition 2014/15!

    Magma’s Poetry Competition has two contests, one for short poems of up to 10 lines, and one for poems of 11 to 50 lines. Poems of 11 to 50 lines will be judged by Jo Shapcott for the Judge’s Prize. Poems of up to 10 lines will be entered for the Editors’ Prize and, reflecting Magma’s unique rotating editorship, will be judged by a panel of Magma editors.

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