Working Class Voodoo
Offord Road Books, £10
The Caught Habits of Language
Edited by Rachael Boast, Andy Ching and Nathan Hamilton
Donut Press, £15
See the review as it appeared in the magazine
There’s a cinematic quality to Stav Poleg’s slim collection/chunky chapbook that fully justifies the expectations created by her title. Images, impressions, perceptions and fleeting thoughts flicker constantly past the reader, with Poleg remaining constant as the still centre, observing everything that’s going on. Crucially, though, she never stops questioning exactly how she, and indeed all of us, go about doing that observing, and then recording what we experience. This is the poet as both lens and filter, rather than omniscient, infallible chronicler.
Take a poem such as the superb Leftovers. It starts with an admission of the inadequacy of poetry, or perhaps all language, to do justice to experience:
——-For years I’ve been editing winter.
——-The rain, inaccurate. The sea,
——-acres of unwrapped water and nowhere
——-to find you,
——-even when I settled for finding you
——-in other people’s coats
——-or move-abouts or late-night drunken
——-weather. Now I know enough
——-of winter to never
——-get it right.
This is poetry about writing poetry – or creating other forms of art – that never descends into self-indulgence or navel-gazing, because Poleg is concerned to show that all forms of art are about struggling to find different ways of seeing the world, and that we all do so, whether we think of ourselves as artists or not.
That passage also points up one of the stylistic features of Poleg’s poetry – her use of line-breaks and enjambment. Often, as in “nowhere/ to find you…” and “drunken/weather…” (both from the quotation above), she uses them beautifully, both to control the pace of her writing, and to set up and then confound expectations. Just once or twice, such as with “5am// train…” in the poem Tooth, I found myself a little baffled and my line of thought derailed, but it’s a minor gripe with a collection that is otherwise sure-footed and well controlled.
Listen, You Have To Read In A Foreign Language is another stand-out, a plea to readers to trust their own instincts and allow for the possibility that not everything will make perfect sense. Its closing “But listen – don’t listen/ to me. Listen to yourself. You wouldn’t/ believe it” serves as something of a manifesto for Poleg’s aesthetic, and stands as good advice to anyone wanting to enjoy this excellent book.
Bobby Parker’s poetry is so utterly distinctive that within the first four-line stanza of the first poem here, Fruit Machine, you know you could be reading no-one else. He’s unflinchingly honest about the bare details of lives (most often his own) that otherwise slip below the radar of so much contemporary poetry, but also absolutely true to his own way of seeing such experiences, so that the potentially problematic Thank You For Swallowing My Cum, for example, feels strangely tender, rather than straining for shock effect. Moments of beauty – redemption, even – rub shoulders with drugs, dirt, disappointments and degradation, and most of the time that feels perfectly natural.
In fact, Fruit Machine contained one of the few bum notes in this collection, for me, with the ending “No one said/ this/ was going/ to be beautiful/ but, for some reason, it is” feeling a little bit forced, but by the end of the next poem, King Of Eggs, he’s right back on the money:
——-…creeping upstairs to look down
——-from the bedroom window
——-at all the shattered shells
——-and glistening yolks
——-on the silent road
——-by my work
That mixture of fear and wonder permeates every poem here, and it’s what makes Parker’s poetry both riveting (you genuinely won’t want to put the book down until you’ve read it at least twice) and emotionally resonant.
Parker achieves this partly by the way he punctuates his in-the-moment, reportage style with pathos, black humour, and absolute precision. So, in Edible Ghosts, he writes:
——-There must be 1,000 photos
——-of my daughter on my phone.
——-I look at them every day and feel
——-pain like the discovery
——-of a new planet.
——-She is approximately 131.9 miles away.
The end result is as good a poetry collection as I’ve read this year, or for several years past, for that matter.
The Caught Habits of Language is subtitled “An entertainment for W S Graham for him having reached One Hundred”, and perhaps the first point to make is that it is very much exactly that – entertaining. In part that’s because of the highly catholic approach taken by the editors. Some of the poems here were commissioned, others submitted after an open invitation, and others are previously published tribute poems by friends and associates of Graham. Of the latter, the most affecting is perhaps inevitably his widow Nessie Dunsmuir’s gorgeous For A Winter Lover, with its final stanza:
I do not know and never shall
what grave or joyful mystery
inhabits your head’s holiness,
but my strong heart has made your ease,
my eyes inherit a lightstruck world.
In addition, there are a number of previously unpublished and/or uncollected poems by Graham himself, and these would be worth the price of admission on their own, even were the rest of the work here not of such high quality. In poems such as The Curlew, as so often in his work, Graham remains aware of the dangers of co-opting the natural world for symbolic or metaphorical effect:
——-Curlew, what is to happen to you
——-Celticly along flying across
——-All the moors of my memory?
——-You need not answer that. You are
——-Beyond them all.
“I know I am using you”, he adds later in the poem, and it is this self-awareness that is one of the most attractive aspects of Graham’s poetry, and that of many of the poets here who have followed his lead.
That aforementioned “lightstruck world”, it seems to me, is what all the poets here are attempting to recreate, and that image of illumination recurs several times, most notably in Tamar Yoseloff’s A Letter To W S Graham, which suggests:
——-…you’re ahead, in a lonely place (we make our own,
——-you said); from there you must be able to see us all,
——-lighting lamps with our voices.
Crucially for the book’s success, there’s plenty that isn’t obviously imitative of Graham, or paying direct tribute to him. Instead, the majority of the poems make quiet nods in the direction of the great man, often by emphasising inclusivity and inviting the reader to become a part of the creative process.
So, Emily Critchley’s In Memory WS Graham warns against closing off possible meanings and interpretations, as well as slipping in the sort of syntactical innovation that Graham himself might have appreciated:
——-…Don’t drive into that
——-rhyme knowing what you know:
——-how it will all end. The story’s not
——-yet straight with me & lyric I
——-‘s become unfashionable again.
Zaffar Kunial’s playful yet utterly serious W*nd, on the other hand, questions the ability of language to adequately describe a sense of self, a tack taken by a number of other contributors, while Carrie Etter’s One For London was a favourite for me: The lines
——-Language, I’m going to need you
——-shortly, if I’m going to sustain
——-the moment’s teeming
seems to me to perfectly capture the adventurous, energetic spirit of so much of Graham’s poetry.
Elsewhere Vahni Capildeo’s Seastairway is probably the most linguistically innovative poem on show, and all the more rewarding for it, while Ian Duhig’s use of ballad-form speaks to Graham’s The Contemporary Dear (which precedes it), and nods to Graham’s own Irish ancestry. That there is such variety on show is one of the book’s great strengths, but it’s also testament to how Graham’s work has influenced seemingly disparate and diverse ‘schools’ of poetry – you’d be hard pressed to sort the contributors out neatly on either side of the tired old mainstream/avant-garde divide.
Other highlights, for me, come from Tony Williams, Kathryn Gray, David Briggs, Kelvin Corcoran, Charles Causley and Peter Riley, but repeat readings reveal new riches.
Finally, the anthology scores highly as a physical object. The poems are given plenty of room to breathe, and are punctuated by quotations from Graham, and black and white photos of him. As a celebration of the work and ongoing influence of one the UK’s major post-War poets, it’s hard to see how it could have been bettered.
Matt Merritt is the author of four poetry collections (most recently The Elephant Tests, Nine Arches Press 2013), and two natural history books. He blogs at polyolbion.blogspot.com