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.
Fish garble in the filaments of rope,
with their unblinking dial eyes
(from ‘Early Harbour)
It’s intriguing, if oddly incomplete. This is probably deliberate, and it’s good that she avoids neat conclusions; I’d like to see how it develops with more space.
Zaffar Kunial’s collection stands out from the pile. He is soft-voiced and assured; it is quite hard to catch hold of individual lines and hold them up because the work isn’t immediately dazzling, but it’s full and rich, and repays repeated readings. He has an obvious joy in the play of words that catches the eye, whether it comes in an off-rhymed sonnet, or a compressed, rhythmic nature poem (‘Butterfly Soup’) or one of the looser meditations on the cracks and trails of language that shift back and forth between English and other languages, or unnamed dialects thereof, between Grasmere and Kashmir.
This poem begins with the image of skate tracks on the frozen Windermere:
To cut across the —
of a star. I’ve scored that place because shadow
first held sway. And wrongly, as light can’t cast
dark. Next up, the star’s image would land where
his skate passed. Then the curt Latin, at last:
reflex. Fitting the foot.
Kunial’s patient dissection here of the art of writing, though he quotes Heaney, reminds me more of Tony Harrison. It’s possible that most reviewers will note his day job (“full-time ‘Creative Writer’ for Hallmark Cards”); I wanted at first to avoid that, largely because the only poem that refers to it (‘On The Brief’) is the only weak poem in the set. But perhaps it’s unavoidable; it’s all underpinned by a careful craft and even when the rhythms are broken, they never spill, they keep a gentle lilt. ‘Spider Trees, Pakistan’ begins with a line about English mists; moves on to the floods in Sindh and ends with the lines
…racking my brain for lines to catch how they carry
the gravities of home. Worlds I can’t marry.
He might be surprised how well he has.
I’ll discuss Will Burns and Declan Ryan together. They are different from each other, and I hope I’m not doing them an injustice. Burns’s is an art that sets itself to pick something special out of the mundane: “Down/ to the angles of the earth itself, the nature/ of your work and all other men.” This is from one his strongest poems, ‘Guy’. It ends:
To feel all that was certain cut and run
under the folding steel,
like garden birds that scatter
from a bird of prey.
Other poems, however, are less dynamic, or start with a strong image and then drift out of focus. Declan Ryan too is ploughing a curiously old-fashioned path, in a way, with narrative poems that have a clear subject and are certainly well-crafted. The heart of his collection is a powerful long poem called ‘The Range’, a bitter and claustrophobic lament for a rural Irish family. It stands well on its own, with nods to ballad form, yet always staying just the right side of kailyard pathos. A lot of poets whose work can get dragged down or bogged down in the prosaic could learn from it. In the lines “There were robins, for death, and blackbirds./ They are for resignation. You died at home,/ light as a bird, bald as a young, blind bird”, for instance, the thrice-repeated ‘bird’ could so easily be clunky, yet works with the alliteration like a hammer-blow.
Will Burns at his best does something quite like this: he has a memorable description of black-headed gulls in a “wheeling pattern that/ left the field as bleak as bone,” but elsewhere there are lines not nearly so taut, or line-breaks that seem to dissipate the tension they were building up to little effect. Ryan is not absolutely free of such touches, but at his best, he reaches higher. See for instance the line almost at the end of ‘The Range’, “I could not live where the young leave before the old” in which the half-rhyme of ‘live’ and ‘leave’ seems to invite you to switch the words around. The two related meanings flicker together, and it sets the poem up for the punch in its final line. Similar alliterations and short lines lend a stately glow to his closing poem ‘Trinity Hospital’ too:
Just after rain,
sunlight stood between us
like a whitewashed wall
[I] will be delivered through orange groves
to you, the white church of my days.
Geoff Sawers (b.1966) is a poet, historian and lettering artist. He learnt Welsh in the pubs of Swansea and consequently can be understood only by a handful of sympathetic listeners
(to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘reviews’ tag immediately below)