1. Chris McCabe, Speculatrix (Penned in the Margins, £9.99)
    Andre Bagoo, Burn (Shearsman Books, £8.95)
    Dorothy Lehane, Ephemeris (Nine Arches Press, £8.99)

    Chris McCabe’s collection Speculatrix juggles language like he’s juggling knives, mixing contemporary urban scenes with Elizabethan and Jacobean references – sparks flying from the clashes and contrasts.

    After a surreal prose prologue citing Twin Peaks, mynah birds and black box recorders, Speculatrix launches with a 25-page sequence of unrhymed, irregular ‘sonnets’. Fragmented, unpunctuated sentences offer a torrent of motifs – skulls, the plague, London, fire, violence, money, the body, detritus, destruction. Presented as monologues by characters from English Renaissance drama, they rest uneasily between eras, sporting anachronisms with pride. Each begins with a short, lucid prose summary of a narrative from, say, The Revenger’s Tragedy, or The Duchess of Malfi. These introductions then contrast with the scattergun voices that follow – characters from the plays transported into modern London, with its hedge-funders, business lunches and mobile phones.

    A central concern of these ‘sonnets’ is mortality and decay: “This question that grínds the/ mind’s pumice : why has time this death lease?” (‘The Duchess of Malfi’). But the poems deny the reader clear narrative threads or symbolic patterns; the reading experience becomes a search for arresting phrases: “we come up for air in The Great Serotonin Comedown/ of 1622…” (‘The Changeling’); “…this city can lick figs I’ll gum its silks/ with cláy      stuck full of black & melancholic worms” (‘The Alchemist’). An impression forms at times that the voices are teasing us by “speaking in tongues & tonguing in languages/ known only to us…” (‘Women Beware Women’).

    McCabe loves lurking in the recesses of the city, where his visceral conviction fits his subject. He explores language as much as he offers political or emotional statement. A poem about 2011’s London riots is a verbal flight of fancy:

    no bricks, no riots but acts, acts
    of nights, skies made gold, flecked with bricks,
    four acts, each act of words, electrics dead,
    out, out – no dream is here, no dream is there.
    Sez who? These are all my skies, we’ll make
    red dreams and recognise it with my words,
    train our dreams in latticed fields, catch the skies…

    [‘Teenage Riot, Daydream Nation’]

    McCabe disturbingly combines the morbid and the vital:

    mouths frost trenchfoot dentured in nettles, mouths
    white slugs mangled by salt, mouths wombed navels in bombed-
    out structures, mouths marbled fat minced new by silence,
    mouths black cavities on SE1 railings, mouths boiled ox-tail served
    with black larvae, mouths freaked organs lactating the crucifix

    [‘Francis Bacon’]

    His fascination with the human body emphasises our groteseque humanity: “the lungs, crystal kebabs, atom clouds, little Hiroshimas,/ mortsafed with fabrics against the bodysnatch of the last collapsed/ breath.” (‘Lungs’). Sometimes his language arguably strains a little too hard into melodrama or jarring metaphor; but McCabe is deliberately testing the limits of his lines and the poems are never less than memorable and dramatic. Overall, these are complex, strange, boisterous and unsettling poems that refuse to allow the reader to relax.

    Andre Bagoo’s second collection Burn challenges the reader in different ways. Its language is accessible, its sentences fluent; yet context is often obscured, narrative again evasive. With patience one approaches meanings, but perhaps not completely. The opening poem, ‘Burn’, is a case in point:

    Time takes so long. I wait here, in a box that
    closed itself, for your eyes to open. They are
    come to rifle me, all two hundred and eighty-six
    of them, brown as guinea owls. They mull me,
    leave me bullet holes on smoke-white wall, spiral
    sieve of my mind. I smell a pyre. I have been
    on you all these dessicated centuries. Some
    days I wake and cry with joy – the thought
    of having no thought of you. Jet-lagged, I sleep
    at wrong hours, wake in dark, out of sorts.
    Like the fruit which, by burning, is now solid
    forever, my walking thoughts, upturned
    left as grave heads, left as seed.

    An intriguing voice speaks – perhaps human, yet it has existed for “dessicated centuries”. The setting is playfully enigmatic: is that box literal, or figurative? The attentive relationship with the “you” figure (“I wait… for your eyes to open”) remains ambiguous – the speaker admits: “I wake and cry with joy – the thought / of having no thought of you.” Who are the “They” of which there are two hundred and eighty-six? Fearful of threat, even destruction (“They are/ come to rifle me”, “leave me bullet holes on a smoke-white wall”, “I smell a pyre”), the speaker is unsettled: “Jet-lagged, I sleep / at wrong hours, wake in dark, out of sorts.” The final image is paradoxical – the speaker is like a fruit that is “solid/ forever” despite burning, and representing two opposites – death (“grave heads”) and life (“seed”). The music and imagery here is striking, seductive. Individual lines conjure specific emotions; yet as a whole the poem tantalises cryptically.

    Bagoo harnesses motifs of European culture – poems about Christian imagery, classical music (Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Schubert), paintings (Caravaggio, Sir Charles Bell), and literature (a surreal sequence about Auden). Other poems are inspired by locations in Trinidad and Tobago, though physical setting is not always their priority – for example ‘Lady Young Road’, quoted in full:

    Undo what has been done
    And do what must be done
    Around the corners bend
    Let leaf mend a lost plane

    A fascinating sequence (‘Christina Gardens I, II, III’) describes a neighbour – “Ms Ramsay… the dark lady” – who is the object of fascination (“Daddy woke us and told us, watch”) and sexual awakening:

    I grabbed the hair of the dark lady who looked up
    in August, from the rich sea-weed floor
    and said, foaming, she was coming to kiss me.

    [‘Christina Gardens II’]

    Increasingly unsettled in mood (“He woke us and told us, watch./ For she was to eat his heart.”), the poem ends with desire for (self-)destruction: “For we would wake with yearning./ For days blasted by ruin.”

    Bagoo’s understated music combines with striking imagery; subtle and various, he explores attachments, delusions, obsessions, hauntings, rituals, griefs and dreams.

    Dorothy Lehane’s book Ephemeris fuses elements of physics, astronomy and personal relationships for an interesting chemical reaction. With verve and exuberance the poems leap register from line to line, revelling in their jolting effect; yet a playfulness surfaces, keeping the reader on the writer’s side. A supernova is a “worrying little striptease” (‘Supernova’), the phenomenon of a wormhole is a “mucky intestine trellis […] bankrupt umbilicus […] weeeeeeeee      what a pivot” (‘Einstein-Rosen Bridges’). A poem about Black Holes concludes “I am thinking of rhubarb –/ how rhubarb will destroy everything.” (‘Black Hole’)

    One can enjoy parsing the apparent desultory randomness, searching for patterns. Take the prose poem ‘Vintage’, where a portrait of old age emerges:

    White dwarfs encumbered by aged bodies. Here and now. Appellation Contrôlée; Reblochon, Pinot Noir, Yellowism. Core collapsing, barbituates in pillboxes; everything learnt into a compressed philosophy, blue menopause, diamond judgement, no one likes a jaunty soundtrack. Crystallised rue, dementia is luminous: look away if you want retinal survival, go cubic lattice, yes.

    However in some poems the reader is faced with apparent linguistic mutiny; unifying themes do not always emerge.

    The collection is dominated by poems taking stars, planets and moons as their ostensible subject – ‘Supernova’, ‘Keyhole (NGC1999)’, ‘Phobos’, ‘Crab Nebula’, ‘Coma Cluster’, ‘Moon’ etc. But Lehane isn’t interested in documenting the universe in a predictable way. In ‘NGC 7317 (Stephan’s Quintet)’, the named galaxy is a stepping off point for an improvisation on sibling rivalry and violence:

    Limb by limb, legless, kiss me combatant, are we brothers or are we bastards, bystanding is a sin for the fey. Sneaky loggerheads, bitter-Sodom-whacked-out-Gomorrah, at each juncture criminal, how they audio prowl under your skin, hot-headed, surviving. Move out siblings, bystanders are the ones to watch; slitting throats as you sleep…

    Lehane isn’t exactly capturing the beauty of the cosmos; but she is documenting its variousness, its disorder, and the variousness too of language and its problems:

    Mimicry of the vastness,
    think chime and parallel,
    unstable universe, dyslexic cadence.
    We are nothing if not fluxed…


    One effect of her fragmentary technique is that personal narratives (griefs, disappointments, the struggle to connect) aren’t allowed to settle. Lehane is interested in the questions raised by her aesthetic. In two poems (‘Pulsar’ and ‘Reader’) there are deliberate notes of self-doubt –

    maybe you’d prefer post mortems…
    not this clarion stunt dr. persona,
    who will validate by science
    this pointless manifest…


    there is no room
    left for me
    left for My witness to all this
    My pulse is dulled

    my pulse is in the margins
    carried or thrown
    from person to person and this person-act


    Sometimes it feels like the poems’ chemical reactions are still in process and the results haven’t always had time to crystallise distinctly. But Lehane’s language is frequently startling, and the impact of these poems is in their remarkable style.

    Michael Loveday

    Chris McCabe’s Speculatrix is published by Penned in the Margins, 2014, £9.99

    andre bagoo burn
    Andre Bagoo’s Burn is published by Shearsman Books, 2015, £8.95

    Lehane Ephemeris
    Dorothy Lehane’s Ephemeris is published by Nine Arches Press, 2015, £8.99

    Michael Loveday’s debut pamphlet of poems, He Said / She Said, is published by HappenStance Press (2011). He also writes short stories and flash fiction. He lives in Hertfordshire and teaches in adult education.

  2. Alec Finlay writes mainly short, fragile poems, using lineation to draw attention to the felicities and poky bits of language, leaving things unadorned, cutting away everything but the nub. More than anything he seems to be interested in people speaking. His practice as an artist might lie behind his knowing when to step back and leave well alone, although sometimes this reticence means the rewards are rather slim. Be My Reader is a funny, odd, formally curious, easy yet elusive book.

    The book opens with by far its longest poem, the sequence ‘The Wittgenstein House (Skjolden)’, about a hut on Norway where the philosopher stayed in 1914. The sequence is formally various, but at its heart is the tercet, used sometimes with an indented third line which recalls Horace’s odes. That seems apt, given the subject matter of rural retreat and contemplation:

  3. Rupert Loydell is not one of those poets who will publish a mere 100 or so gems of perfect poetry over a whole lifetime. He’s not Larkin, or Bishop, or Bunting. He’s more like Emily Dickinson, or John Ashbery: he writes a lot of poems and sends them out into the world, and isn’t afraid of over-production. I find this refreshing myself: but inevitably, it means that among the books, pamphlets and collaborations he’s sent forth over the years, there will be some poems that work for me and others that don’t. Like Ashbery, his poems are basically about his life and times; unlike Ashbery, though they sometimes use cut-n-paste techniques and are sometimes humorous, there’s none of the odd angles and non-sequiturs of the New York poet. These poems are often in plain, simple language, often conversational and personal, with a kind of resigned grace to them that is very appealing to me:       I don’t know what to do with my arms.       They fall off the sides or end up numb       under the pillow. Spiders build nests       in my arm pits and my muscles won’t       work in the morning. I don’t know what       to do with my head.            (‘When I Sleep’) Wildlife is in many ways not very different from his previous Shearsman collections. There are the Animals Are Not Your Friends poems, interspersed throughout the collection, which meditate on various subjects but seem increasingly aware of mortality, and there are poems about family and art, poems which may or may not be collages. Rupert Loydell’s world is strangely beautiful, or beautifully strange, but it’s also strangely familiar. He writes about middle-class family life, holidays and children growing up, in ways that make them seem like the freshest of subjects, because there is always the sense of the intangible behind his words:       Symbols and cymbals glitter       in the mirrored distance,       These moments do not reflect,       do not compute; it’s a good job       we have email or I’d never be able       to write to myself.            (‘Not Made to Last’) I suspect he’s not as well-known in poetry circles as he perhaps should be because he’s never gone the poetry career route, and his Stride website can contain some very trenchant and sometimes unfair reviews (usually not written by him, though). He’s non-mainstream without being massively experimental, though he is prepared to experiment when he thinks it necessary. What I like about Loydell’s work is his commitment to a kind of truth, not to experience so much as to language. He doesn’t fuss over his language, he’s never showing off his clever images, or making you gasp as he steps over rhetorical tall buildings with his wit. He can be witty, he shows his intelligence all the time, but he never shows off about it. To me, that’s a great virtue, and long may he produce more of it. Steven Waling [Steven Waling’s last two collections are Captured Yes (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, 2009) and Travelator (Salt, 2007). He lives in Manchester. ]

    Wildlife by Rupert Loydell is published by Shearsman Press, £8.95) [for blog review 2, see Cath Nichols on Gregory Wood’s ‘An Ordinary Dog’.] [for blog review 1, see Mark Burnhope on Katy Evans-Bush’s ‘Egg Printing Explained’.]