1. I don’t like jazz. Therefore, I had immediate misgivings when confronted with the pastel-painted jazz scene adorning the cover of Hannah Lowe’s latest collection Chan. Not wanting to judge a book by its cover, I forged ahead, only to find that no less than the first fifteen (fifteen!) poems were, more or less, all about jazz, centered around some saxophonist I’d never heard of, littered with lines like “now blow that gold, Joe blow it!” and “it’s like painting sound” and other such snatches of conversation commonly heard on the lips of those who love jazz.

    But in between these jazz-infused lines arose observations (“the wooly din/ of a batch of sick sheep”) and descriptions (“she wore a tight rope of chubby pearls”) that drew me beneath the jazz-laden platitudes into the language of loss and desperation that Lowe captures throughout the book.

    I also strongly dislike baseball and avoid it like the plague, yet I still recognize the opening of Don DeLillo’s Underworld as one of the best examples of modern Anglophone literature. The same goes for Lowe’s work: despite my trepidations, these poems unspooled in all kinds of polyphonic and contrapuntal ways, drawing me into the tragedy they depict. As the poems progress, the saxophonist Joe Harriot, an early proponent of “free form” or abstract jazz (I looked him up), slowly shrinks, losing his battle against time in the poem ‘Ethology’, “where he slumped and had to sit to play// and like the animal who disappears/ to die alone, he packed his sax.” I found myself mourning someone I had never met, whose music I (still) haven’t listened to.

    A similar sort of winnowing through time pervades the rest of the collection, echoed by Lowe’s father’s Jamaican patois that bubbles up now and then, as well as in her observations of him (“He was smaller”—a singularly devastating line when it comes in ‘My Father’s Notebook’). The self-assured authority of the details Lowe employs means she can create entire worlds, histories and plots in short sparse lines, particularly in poems like ‘Boxer’ and ‘Schoolboy’. In the latter poem, which details a boy being sent to England for school, two tercets stand out for their vividness and brevity:

    but i don’t care
    she sold my pig
    for the ticket

    coughing in the yard
    to rope him
    nightie hanging off

    The scene remains right behind the eyes, even if only snatches of the whole image can be captured.

    It’s hard to separate the intersectionality of Lowe’s own identity from her work, mainly because the plurality of voices echoing, and competing, in her multiethnic past make their way to the page, especially in the latter two sections Ormonde and Borderliner. Lowe’s confidence and aforementioned authority keep this diverse chorus from slipping into cacophony, even when the relationships and connections addressed, such as the passage from the Caribbean to England, are nothing but confusion and trouble, marred by both history and the present.

    A run of poems towards the end of the collection manifest this intersectionality and continual clash of identities in a more concrete manner: smashing two poems together on the page and separating them only by typeface, e.g. in the titular ‘Borderliner’:

    I’m skirting the bold lines of the map border-liner, might mean white girl
    neither here nor there, but home in the border places with corkscrew hair
    Tijuana, where rich American boys slam tequila or brown girl with flat hair
    or controlled drugs, or down the fence slipping from one side to the other

    At first the technique seems too “obvious,” two voices both competing and cooperating in a somewhat forced concatenation. Lowe’s telling us we can read these poems several different ways and I, for one, don’t always like to be told. But, as with the entire collection, these poems rewarded repeated close readings, sentiments left unuttered finding space between in these packed lines.

    Lest one think this collection deals only in loss and tragedy, a certain melancholy optimism burrows up now and then in images leaving a soft imprint of hope, as in the last poem of the Chan section, ‘If You Believe: One Pale Eye’:

    Chan pulling his cards from his pocket
    and holding each one up to his lighter
    until the flame spread and the symbols
    and faces cindered, and he flung them out
    across the dark still water, like firebird.

    Austin Diaz
    Austin Diaz, a born and raised Texan, currently teaches Latin (in German) in Switzerland and is working to prove to the proper authorities that he could also teach English.

    chan hannah lowe

    Chan by Hannah Lowe is published by Bloodaxe, £9.95.

  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. Omnesia is remarkable for being not one book but two – a ‘remix’ and an ‘alternative text’ – and W.N. Herbert prefaces both with an apology to the reader for requiring them to deal with two mirror texts. The content of each book is different, though there are some shared titles, refrains and echoes. The intention, Herbert suggests, is to reflect a culture full of “mash ups remixes and directors’ cuts”, creating a poetry book flexible in its basic structure. But how to read it? Should you take in one book first, then the other? Alternate poems from each? Approach the two collections entirely at random? It’s a daunting enterprise

    With a shaping concept like this, the danger is that structure overrides content – it’s inevitable that a book of two mirror parts will make a show of its own form. I decided to approach Omnesia with a view to questioning whether the poems succeed in their own right, regardless of the framing device behind them. The answer, overwhelmingly, is that they do.

  4. Stephanie Norgate’s collection, The Blue Den, is a thoughtful study of the people and things which inhabit the edges of the conventional society. The poems are so well constructed that the reader becomes enmeshed in narratives that demand continual attention, even when the verses take a turn towards the viscerally violent, which they do often. In the poem ‘Anguius Fragilis’, about a glass snake’s relationship with a garden, this violence is implied by the mention the narrator makes about nearly slaughtering the slow worm’s harmless young: those small flickerings, Silver gold esses, Saxon smith work, that I almost killed for baby vipers The poet combines appropriate Saxon alliteration with imagery to convey to the reader the sense of something beautiful that is nearly irretrievably lost. More than that, the poet uses the implication of violence to lend value to a creature that so many overlook as just another facet of the garden. ‘Rabbit in Leamington’ combines brutality, (both literal and implied), close observation and the free play of association to explore the relationships between individual people and the larger world. The speaker, addressing the reader from the present, is reminded of another trip she took years ago when she catches sight of a rabbit from the window of a train. It reminds her of the creature she saw soon after she and her boyfriend were attacked by a drunken homeless person. The man “battered the phone box…” and the boyfriend immediately falls into the role of protector: And my boyfriend put his arms around me and blocked the opening door with his back. And still the drunk kept hammering, The speaker mentally merges the drunk man with the rabbit, possibly because he lived a wild outdoors life, but once she makes that association others follow and the roles of all the players shift:

    Somehow the rabbit was the tramp the tramp the rabbit, but the good boyfriend was still the good boyfriend holding the heavy door shut, and I thought of him at home in his garden, gently preparing a rabbit, undoing its skin with a knife, and turning it inside out. Associating the drunk with a wild thing, a rabbit, transforms him to prey, and implies the shift in the speaker’s perception of the ‘good boyfriend’ from protector to predator. The boyfriend’s action is transformed, the roles of victim and victimizer are implacably altered. The story stops being about the survival of a couple attacked by a madman, and becomes a question of how the man ran mad to begin with. The person preserving the mores of civilization is, after all, the one who has hold of the knife. The poem which lends its title to this book, ‘The Blue Den’, is in many ways connected to the previous poem. It features a man who has chosen the edges, “This is him now. / A bunch of old doors for walls.” He lives on the beach in a house made of old doors, with only one that still serves the purpose it was meant for, symbolizing the number of choices the man has left, “He can choose from several horizons./ The electricity lines. The sea.” What those two choices really are, and which one he has chosen, becomes much clearer as the poem progresses. There are two things that the poem makes very clear: one is that the sea and the sky can look very similar, but they are not; the other is that there are two routes to death: one rambles, the other is quicker The poem implies that the sea, the quick death, is not the one that he has chosen. The narrator says this of the man who found the blue paint he uses to camouflage his shelter the day ‘the girls’ abandoned him, “It’s harder to fade into the sky than into the sea, / however many blue coats he puts on.” It is safe to say that the poems in this book will not fade quickly in your memory. This is Norgate’s second full collection; it is worth a deep read, a long contemplation. Bethany W Pope Bethany W Pope’s first poetry collection, A Radiance was published by Cultured Llama Press in June. Her second collection, Persephone in the Underworld has been accepted by Rufus Books and will be released in 2016.

  5. Drawn from her past observations while working as a psychiatric nurse in London, Sally Read’s third collection, The Day Hospital, contains dramatised accounts of twelve patients over one day in a psychiatric hospital in London. Despite their longings and compulsions triggered by different personal encounters, the obsessions of these patients bear a strange resemblance to each other. History looms in the background, as the patients come to terms with their past experiences and present reality – the invasion of Poland, Auschwitz, political unrest in Ireland, racism in globalised cultures. Compared to the notion of madness expressed in Plath’s works, Read’s approach comes across as a more philosophical enquiry, bringing into perspective the convergence between personal history and collective society.

    The boldness and lyrical language in these dramatic monologues articulate the coherence and transformative power of self-obsessions. The fragmented stories of marginalised individuals in London are imbued with a drowning sense of loneliness and anonymity, set against an urban landscape where affection and understanding are lacking: ‘words are gunned down by cars’ (p.8) and ‘birds sing up here, for no one.’ (p.53) In ‘Maurice’, the Jamaican recalls a history of failed relationships and yearns for sexual intimacy. Through the story and language of Maurice’s self-delusion, Read parodies the untruths in the propaganda of social inclusion and acceptance:

  6. In his essay concluding Jade Ladder, Brian Holton discusses the trials, tribulations, negotiations and compromises involved in translating Chinese poetry into English. Some of Yang Lian and Qin Xiaoyu’s first choices were shelved, he writes, “because the joke just wasn’t funny in English”, poems “were speaking only to Chinese readers’, or they ultimately “fell flat in translation”. The translators generally avoided footnotes unless they appeared in original poems, or unless they would “transform a poem that otherwise would be closed to the reader into something more accessible and enjoyable”. My first questions, as I began reading: in being “more accessible and enjoyable” to an English-speaking readership, would the book sacrifice cultural authenticity? Would it pander to me, a non-Chinese speaker new to contemporary Chinese poetry? Because for all that I’ll admit my ignorance, I am hungry to experience unfamiliar language, concepts and ideas. I want to meet this book halfway. Luckily, Holton continues:

    “What we did not do was omit poems because of their difficulty. This was a matter of professional ethics: the student or beginner complains, ‘It’s too difficult’ – but the professional is more likely to complain that a task is too easy, because, where no challenge exists, there is no chance to extend your craft skills, or to become a better practitioner.” The poems are categorised into six sections: lyric, narrative, neo-classical, sequences, experimental and long poem. After a brief yet thorough introduction by Qin Xiaoyu, each follows its stream through some of its best contemporary examples. The poetries inevitably intersect. For example, Xiaoyu writes: “the first poet in the history of Chinese poetry whose name we know… Qu Yuan is best known for his long poems, including ‘Tian Wen’ (Heavenly Questions), a poem which established the image of the poet as questioner, and, arguably, suggested that the true poetical motive must be the questioning of oneself”. This “true motive” illuminates all of the poetries in this book, thanks to their shared origins in classicism. Indeed, classical narrative poetry’s ‘the order of things’ could be said to be another expression of this true motive: when our stories are in order, so are our lives. Lyric poems take up the entirety of Part One, and for good reason. Qin Xiaoyu writes: “Since The Book of Songs, traditionally reputed to have been edited by Confucius in the 6th century BC, the lyric poem has always been the mainstay of classical Chinese poetry.” The contemporary threads which have frayed from it are constantly aware of its precedence, even when cutting ties. English-speaking readers would do well to consider how a deeper familiarity with the Chinese lyric might invigorate their own. I am particularly struck (and a little ashamed) that surreal juxtaposition and fragmentation are not ‘trendy’ but well-established, even crucial, features of Chinese poetic language. In Chu Cheng’s fragmentary ‘We Write Things’, the “insects looking for paths in a pine-cone” are startlingly original but entirely at home, culturally true. In Duo Duo’s poignant, disturbing elegy ‘I’m Reading’, the extended metaphor is as Chinese as Pinsky’s ‘shirt’ is American, and just as capable of covering a host of personal and public concerns. Thanks to the subtle marker of ‘hooves’, the animal arrives into the poem slowly and subtly, where it might have galloped clumsily into any number of UK poems: In the November wheat field I’m reading my father I’m reading his hair The colour of his tie, the crease of his trousers And his hooves, tripped up by shoelaces Now skating on ice, now playing the violin The scrotum shrinks, the neck, knowing too well, stretches toward the sky I read as far as my father’s being a large-eyed horse Quality remains high in Part Two, with standout poems in every category. All traditions are excitingly combined in the experimental section, as in Yu Jian’s poem-file mash-up ‘Zero File’, the Names and Devices of Gu Cheng’s ‘Liquid Mercury’, or the joyous, post-ironic “tongue-twister to try”, Yang Xiaobin’s ‘Super-Cutie Language’: say there’s a bird called a bride bird and there’s a board called a breadboard and, maybe, there’s a face called a bored lid suppose, you put all the bared faces together would they join up to make a blinded blackbird? say I’m blacking my face – that’s also blocking my face. But if the black leaves the board can the bread-head, eyes barred, draw a bead on the bride? Inevitably, apart from the book’s necessary dialogues with, for example, American modernism, occasional phrases and ideas feel so universal that I’m left wondering what is uniquely Chinese about them. When the subject is language, as it often is in the experimental section, what difference does it make that Chinese literature’s ‘visual poetry’ contributes as much to its meaning as sound and sense? What was sacrificed in the translation of these poems into bland English type? I’m curious, especially after reading, in the experimental section’s introduction, about the poet Suhui and her alleged ‘word square’ of Pre-Quin dynasty times, or Gu Cheng’s experimentation with American Language poetry and Chinese characters, which, as he beautifully puts it, are “like plants that grow continually”. Still, if poetry is what gets lost in translation, we need not mourn the losses. Ultimately, much more has been gained here, for the individual reader and for international poetry itself. W.N. Herbert and Yang Lian, along with Brian Holton and Qin Xiaoyu, have completed a remarkable project which should be valuable to casual enjoyers of poetry, serious students of its historical and cultural contexts, and everyone in between. Mark Burnhope Mark Burnhope’s work has appeared in various magazines in print and online, as well as anthologies including The Best British Poetry 2011 and Lung Jazz. His pamphlet collection, The Snowboy, was published by Salt. Jade Ladder: contemporary Chinese poetry edited by W.N. Herbert & Yang Lian with Brian Holton & Qin Xiaoyu, is published by Bloodaxe, 2012, £12.00

  7. The title poem, ‘House of Tongues’, is after Paul Bowles’ 1947 short story A Distant Episode which recounts the capture and physical mutilation of a linguistics professor travelling through an unnamed country that is probably Morocco. The professor suffers an emblematic violence when his tongue is cut out by a band of Reguibat tribesmen. It’s a strange and compelling narrative that stays with you long after reading and House of Tongues has a similar effect: these are subtle yet invasive poems that creep into your psyche and occupy space.

    In the poem, Wicks skilfully interweaves the original narrative with a more intimate domestic tableau, where

  8. In one of many gems in this extraordinary first collection, Ailbhe Darcy compares her emotional (and, implicitly, artistic) self to “a solitary magpie”:

    reflecting every colour and none, playing I-Spy with the gleams of a mind

  9. A short piece on the short poem

    Written by Karen McCarthy Woolf at 9:03 am

    I am going to start this article with a statistic. No poem under 10 lines has won the National Poetry Competition since (online) records began in 1978! The website shows winning poems only prior to 2000, but between 2001-2010 you can see all the shortlisted poems and only a handful of them were under 14 lines and none under 10 lines. The shortest is Frank Ortega’s eleven line poem Searching for An Affordable Crossbow which was commended in 2009.

    I use the National as an example, as they keep very comprehensive records online, but this trend bears out. Mslexia shows the last seven years with no short poem winners, while the Cardiff International Poetry Competition offers the exception in 2001-2 with Joan Newmann’s commended Carrageen Mousse and the Boy from Nepal which surely must have been a contender for the title alone.