Jo Burns’s debut pamphlet, Circling for Gods, skirts across the seas of Northern Ireland to Asia, South America to Africa, in search of a way to bundle the mind-bending wonder of religious belief into words. “the only real belief / is benevolence”, she eventually concedes in ‘Green Milk’, but there’s a whole lot of musing that comes before this conclusion.
Burns’ poetry strives to pin down the enigmatic forces that elude human understanding; framed with a focus on religion, but ultimately coming back full circle to dissect the most baffling mystery of all: the creation of life. These dynamics are demonstrated in ‘Conception’, and with an image that perfectly encapsulates the attention to detail and accuracy of her approach:
I lie, this night, pregnant, propped to dream, searching for some tool, to pull this news through needle eye, to sew, to stitch the world down to what I know.
The speaker then catches sight of her baby’s face for the first time in ‘Cosmology’, a physics-inspired poem that sews chaos into the childbirth theme. The encounter is a catalyst for emotions so powerful that it thrusts her world quite literally askew. As magnetic fields collapse with catastrophic force, a failing that flattens the Himalayan mountains, shifts and shoves the tectonic plates, flings birds off their flight path and fiddles with the equator’s co-ordinates, the language commendably holds its ground. The spectacular chaos is carried by a measured control over sentence length and structure, snipped short to snag tightly in the memory. “Dizzy with promises, I held him. Then the earth stopped.// Inertia forces threw me east. Magnetic fields collapsed, the Himalayas flattened.” The poet unpacks this metaphor to reflect on the dynamics of human relations and with inch-perfect aptness of application: “I started spinning in reverse […] everything reverted from what I claimed to know.”
Elsewhere, Burns taps into the mysteries of mythology, like the Celtic Raven Goddess in ‘The Word RabenMutter’, even the mysteries of foreign languages in ‘Untranslatables’. The world-upturning dimension to migration finds its way in too, as in ‘Migration of the hummingbird’, where birds squint through smog in a metaphor of disorientation. This makes the pamphlet even more relevant, a handbook for dealing with modern day disorder.
John Challis’ debut pamphlet, The Black Cab, hurtles through the diverse layers of London at break-neck speed, kicking up ketchup-covered tabloids and countless inner city tales in its wake. The poems transport us – its obliging passengers – from one fanciful yet all too familiar episode to another; the dive for shelter during a downpour, sodden feet and a soggy heart in tow, the gritted teeth of a gridlocked rush hour, the wait for a ride that never seems to arrive.
“This is my cab”, Challis writes in ‘Cabbie’s Creed’, commandeering attention with self-assured conviction. Like the clever meter inside the cab “that knows the maths to turn time into money”, there’s a snappy directness to Challis’ writing; a lack of circumvention that shuns excess sentimentality and unnecessary detail (“My age is unimportant.”). The style points to a precision of thought whose destination is always on the horizon. “All space is unsold media”, he remarks, going on to fittingly package the rest of his poems into neat, structured, and orderly forms.
The most intriguing poem is ‘The Knowledge’, which draws inspiration from his father’s experience of being a black cab driver. Here, the speaker reminisces about “the knowledge / I heard my father practise, out loud after tea […] Maps that covered the dining room […] a clipboard / on his handlebars, to expand his hippocampus.” The poem casts a nostalgic glance back to a pre-GPS era when maps were memorised and taxi cab drivers consequently held a different, higher status in society; one associated with navigational wisdom.
Whilst the cabbie theme of this book could easily come across as constraining, the project spills out to probe into other issues like the politics of the workplace (‘Hansard’), its hierarchies and the soullessness of it all (as in ‘Advertising’; “handshake after handshake […] men sell their unwanted wives”). Challis is cautious about creating dead-end alleyways when it comes to interpretation, even in the poems that do park themselves firmly inside the taxi theme. Like the “London’s maps in more than three dimensions” in ‘The Knowledge’, there are several dimensions to be discovered, and most readily is the social commentary. The poems are highly attuned to class disparity, winding down the windows on fast-food wastelands one minute, then ferrying the decision-makers from Canary Wharf to Porticullus House the next. The pleasure of navigating this pamphlet is found precisely here; the all-encompassing freedom of movement that flits us from one person’s life experience to another.
Pamper Me to Hell & Back by New Zealand poet Hera Lindsay Bird is a bold and brazen pamphlet, with a startlingly provocatively style. It was published as part of The Laureate’s Choice, a project organised by The Poetry Business in collaboration with Carol Ann Duffy, and it’s definitely the most original out of the bunch (the others are Nathalie Burdett’s Urban Drift, Keith Hutson’s Troupers, and John Fennelly’s Another Hunger). Duffy labels Bird’s collection as “Without doubt the most arresting and original new young poet – on page and in performance – to arrive”, and she’s certainly not wrong.
The pages of Pamper Me to Hell & Back are packed with sardonicism, particularly when it comes to death. The theme seems to flare up her sceptically humorous streak, as in ‘Everything is about to go wrong forever’, for example, when all she can focus on at her own funeral is the ham sandwiches going to waste. A certain paranoia comes out to play as the speaker plans for both hands to be chopped off by a helicopter blade, only to flutter off and slap her mother in the face, twice. Elsewhere, she describes love as “a fascinating disease” and heartbreak as a “tax audit of the soul”.
There’s no sentimentality or romanticism to be found, but there are clever remarks between all the 90s celebrity references. Yet, she insists that “Being clever is a waste of time” in ‘Speech time’, a poem that’s ironically the most intelligent one of the lot. “Poetry is like pushing a pram through the dawn/ But the pram is on fire, because the fire is your baby”, she explains, going on to add: “It’s a bedside draw packed with snow”.
Bird is gifted with an abundant capacity for absurdity, a command of witty diction, and an unerring ear for the deep music of laughter that she inspires in bundles from this reader.
Jade Cuttle read Literature at Cambridge University, is a Ledbury Poetry Festival Emerging Critic, and was named Best Reviewer (Editor’s Choice) in the Saboteur Awards 2018.