Rob A Mackenzie reviews Katherine Gallagher’s Carnival Edge: New & Selected Poems (Arc £11.99), Alan Wall’s Doctor Placebo (Shearsman £8.95) and TEN: New Poets Spread the Word ed. Bernardine Evaristo and Daljit Nagra (Bloodaxe/Spread the Word £8.95).
Katherine Gallagher has produced only four collections since her first in 1974 and perhaps that’s one reason I hadn’t heard of her before opening my review copy of Carnival Edge. Poets who complete a book every two or three years keep themselves in the public eye. Whether most maintain a high standard and make progress between books is another matter.
Only a short sequence survives from the 1974 collection; an intriguing, fractured piece on the theme of visual perception. It’s quite unlike the poems that follow eleven years later – lucid, emotionally perceptive explorations, usually with a strong narrative and featuring characters moored between past and future, tragedy and hope, life and death. The struggle to move on, to make interior and physical journeys though difficult terrain, is at the heart of these pieces. In The Trapeze-Artist’s First Performance:
The scene is drunk on air –
that she must navigate.
Although fears are real and nothingness an ever- present threat, Gallagher doesn’t view the world with hostility. Neither poet nor trapeze-artist walk alone. In this case, the audience are “balancing her with their eyes.” There’s no fake, rosy picture of the world; hope comes with courageous struggle against the odds. If imagery in some poems felt too obvious, such as the kite held by dissidents “before the eyes/ of their jailers” (Political Prisoners), I was impressed by how her plain, narrative poems suddenly become provocative, with far wider implications than first seemed likely, such as Girl Teasing Cat with Mouse, a disturbing domestic drama which reformats itself as a microcosm of human war:
predators, lust, the moment of no return –
all spinning out of control.
And the girl knowing and not caring.
My favourite section is from the fourth collection, Tigers on the Silk Road, originally published in 2000. The first four poems are particularly strong, moving and reflective, each centring around flight, but encompassing long-distance love, bereavement, defiant celebration, and – in Jet Lag – the limits of human ambition:
So much for all that sky-gazing,
wanting to get off the ground.
Now I’ll just sleep on possibilities.
I’m still thirty thousand feet up,
nudging clouds like a sunset,
the day slipping through my fingers.
Slight poems exist in this book: those which overcook an extended metaphor (Poem for a Shallot) or stock memory (The Lesson, which explores the father-daughter relationship through a bicycle lesson). However, most avoid such dullness. A new poem, Seeing the Hand, pictures a hand flying around a beach, preoccupied with its actual history and what it might otherwise have done. It becomes the bearer of every reader’s past regrets and potential hopes. People who, as in the poem, initially “exclaim at its strangeness” will find it discomfortingly familiar by the end. Ambitious sequences like After Kandinsky from 2006’s Circus-Apprentice suggest Gallagher is still on the journey of discovery and struggle her poems embody:
Let yourself believe – in love, in colour, the way
it directs your eyes, treats you to sharp angles,
throws you unannounced onto each brink.
You hardly know yourself when your feet
touch ground and the colour has remade you.
Alan Wall is another new name to me, even though he has written eight novels and two works of non-fiction, and Doctor Placebo is his sixth poetry collection. The fictional Placebo is a doctor-poet and his learning encompasses literature, history, philosophy, theology and science. Spinoza, Nietzsche, Milton and Darwin are among the cast of thinkers who feed his ruminations and, somehow, Alan Wall pulls it off with a remarkably light touch. The poems deal with complex truths and are also highly entertaining. In the opening poem, The Doctor, Placebo reflects that historical fact may once have represented ground for certainty, but a modern mind-set opens up everything to doubt. Well, almost everything:
Charles Péguy remarked in Clio
That History constitutes dark reflections
Upon falling things.
Shortly afterwards History assassinated him
For this impertinence.
Despite death’s certainty and history’s way of silencing any attempt to poeticise its brutal facts, Placebo is convinced that “life is not soluble in rationality” (His Bafflement). When disciples of Pythagoras murder a member of their group who had “discovered an irrational number/ Which threatened the brotherhood’s existence,” Placebo’s response in The Square on the Hypotenuse is “He drowned, they say,/ Though irrational numbers would soon resurface.” However, Placebo has no time for illusory optimism. He faces up to truth squarely, knows rationality isn’t sufficient to determine it, but refuses merely emotional consolations. The obvious comparison is with the great Polish poet, Zbigniew Herbert, and his flawed everyman-character, ‘Mr Cogito’, whose detachment enables him to cut through convention and received opinion. Wall’s Placebo, however, seems emotionally stunted, melancholy and lonely, usually unable to connect even with people he is supposed to help. From Bibliophile Placebo:
The volumes have outgrown the house
Finding a footing with each stair and landing.
They trip him each day with mute considerations
Sometimes more real to him than his patients.
Placebo’s name, of course, hints at his limitations, but he nevertheless has a keen eye for a potent, diagnostic image. In 20th Century Elegy he finds a moor-top view and
Yet all he saw even here
Was a night-stadium sodium-lit
Whose envelope of darkness couldn’t contain the cries.
The poems are concise, well-timed, galvanised by restless leaps of thought and – despite Placebo’s personal emotional failings – often resonate both intellectually and emotionally, an absorbing and unusual read. There are a few other sequences in the collection, the most notable being Ruskin and Sesame – a dramatic, sad, humorous narrative structured in two time-zones and covering sex, economics, trashy journalism and madness, eventually becoming a bruising celebration of art and freedom in the face of pressure to dumb down and commodify. An excellent piece of work, I thought.
Less than one percent of published poetry collections are written by black or Asian writers. That finding led to the TEN New Poets anthology, a collaboration between the Spread the Word Writers Development Agency and Bloodaxe Books. Established poet-mentors were paired up with ten emerging British black and Asian poets: Karen McCarthy Woolf, Rowyda Amin, Mir Mahfuz Ali, Denise Saul, Roger Robinson, Shazea Quraishi, Malika Booker, Seni Seneviratne, Nick Makoha and Janet Kofi-Tsekpo. The anthology contains a small selection of poems from each mentee, each preceded by a biography and photograph and an introduction by the mentor.
Nick Makoha fled with his mother from Uganda during the Amin regime and exile is his prominent theme. The Drive-In concerns a car journey to an open-air cinema to see a James Bond movie. “The earth grinds to black butter under the tyres,” “dragonflies float in the inertia,” the narrator is “sipping a Fanta soda in a glass bottle.” The images are vivid and all the more emotive when we consider the experience of exile in which, “As the credits fall I learn to say goodbye to things I knew by heart,” and “James Bond throws a fish to the floor. I was born in a fishing village.” This meeting-place of memory and slippage, where he is reminded of home and of all that he can’t remember, informs several of Makoha’s haunting, psalm-like poems.
Janet Kofi-Tsekpo conjures up dream-like landscapes. These become the loci of threat but also persistence in the face of repeated historical catastrophe. She employs phrases that catch the reader unawares and require attention. Poem for Rumi begins, “You’re indecent, innocent animal/ leaking all over my edges.” The imagery shifts to the “you” as a distant patter of feet and then to the memory of a maggot wriggling away, pursued by the narrator. The poem concludes:
… It moved persistently, as we do,
by the same invisible thread that ties me
like a shoelace, like a prank, to you.
There’s a fluid movement about these lines, weirdness in the similes and connections, and original ideas, which keep me returning to her poems.
Karen McCarthy Woolf ’s Yellow Logic, a six-poem sequence, is dedicated to Otto, “born and died 7 August 2009.” The sequence begins in fragmented disarray, evidencing underlying turmoil. Emotive material requires skilful technique to create good poetry, and the pauses, spacing and line-breaks combine to create a memorable picture of struggle:
There is a God and he dwells in the perfect
horse dung on the bridle path.
Evening is the hardest skin we carry.
The poem becomes increasingly direct as it goes on, always under control, but the emotional effect isn’t deadened by clever technique. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Other individual poems that stick in my mind are Roger Robinson’s The Stand Pipe, Malika Booker’s Pepper Sauce, Mir Mahfuz Ali’s My Salma and Denise Saul’s City of Coffee and Rain, but I enjoyed most of this anthology and felt all the poets were very much worth reading, and publishing.