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Steven Waling Reviews ‘The Games’ by Harry Josephine Giles

There’s something about this collection, The Games – by a poet previously unknown to me – that is immediately enjoyable, and even fun – without necessarily being able to ‘get’ everything in the poems. Poetry with an air of experiment about it sometimes can see po-faced and over-serious in ways which can make it seem artificially distant from the reader; but in this collection, I find myself smiling at just the concept of the poem, without having worked out what it was about.

Take ‘The Following Content is Acceptable’, an erasure poem made from an official document about various acts banned in UK pornography. The poem is a scatter of words across the page but, across the poem, the text is perfectly accessible, and suggestive too. It uses the language of official documents to satirise the whole idea of censorship. Phrases leap out: “Fist is acceptable”; “knuckle is acceptable”; “Art      transient      and extreme.”

The book’s title is apt. These poems are games; some of them actually describe games, others are “concrete”, after the manner of Edwin Morgan and Ian Hamilton Finlay; but there is a serious point to the games, as there is to the ‘concrete’ of Finlay and Morgan. Ecology, history, sex and power all come in for some serious games-playing. The very free translations of poems like Rimbaud’s ‘Voyelles’ (here become ‘Vouels’) uses Scots dialect words to make a point about language; but this is also a poem to sound on the tongue, even if like me you can’t read it in a Scottish accent:

aa yird, ey pa, ii chaak, oa sea: thee sound
as a chantab o atoms but a sang o shaeds:
aa, braad broun, lippered ower the wey on the grund
as deid haither an sharn, ploud field an soldier heid…

There is a glossary beneath each of these translations, for those of us who can only speak English.

At heart, there is a serious politics about the games-playing. These poems are challenging the identity of what a poem can be, as well as often espousing a radical political idea. That an almost erased text can be a poem, that the rules of a rather surreal game can be a poem, or a spell, is taking the idea of what poetry can do and giving it a good shake. And doing it with a great sense of fun as well.

Harry Josephine Giles has produced a very fine collection of poems, and one that gives the lie to the idea that experimental always means difficult. Not that the poems are always easy to decipher; poems should have some resistance about them, some aspect where the reader lifts their head from the text and says, “Hmm, interesting: I like that, but I don’t quite understand it.” Sometimes, as in ‘Tae a Sex Toy’, there’s an immediate clarity that is startlingly direct (and in this case, directly and gloriously rude) but there’s a whole commentary on Scottish nationalism contained within its ‘offensive’ surface.

Steven Waling

The Games by Harry Josephine Giles is published by Out-Spoken Press, £8.99

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