Beth Tichborne, Hungry for Air, (Eyewear, 2014), 32pp., £5, ISBN 978-1-908998-64-4
Matt Howard, The Organ Box, (Eyewear, 2014), 34pp., £5, ISBN 978-1-908998-61-3
Gale Burns, Opal Eye, (Eyewear, 2014), 32pp., £5, ISBN 978-1-908998-63-7
Rachael M Nicholas, Somewhere Near in the Dark, (Eyewear, 2014), 42pp., £5, ISBN 978-1-908998-62-0
Reviewed by Neil Fulwood
[Originally published in LP10, July 2016]
Eyewear have a knack for homing in on new talent. They have a knack for beautifully designed pamphlets with eye-catching and durable covers. Less appealing are the tiny font and sometimes parsimonious approach to content (the shortest of these contains just 21 pages of poetry, for a fairly hefty £5 price tag), but those are my only real criticisms. As with any volume of poetry – be it pamphlet or doorstopper-sized Collected Works – it’s the quality that counts.
Beth Tichborne immediately establishes a terse but eloquent poetic voice with ‘Digging twig’, the opening poem of Hungry for Air:
Thumb on a twig-bud scar,
pulls, twists bark and opens
sap to sky. Flicks straight,
These are lean, tactile lines, every word chosen for its impact and precision. Throughout, Tichborne’s writing is direct and unambiguous without sacrificing depth or complexity. Her evocation of the natural world is unsentimental, particularly in those pieces when the urban landscape muscles in. ‘Signs’ begins:
A road-sign shimmers with a rainbow in the rising sun,
foaming like the soapy scales of a fish in a white sea.
Here, Tichborne shows a confidence with the longer line that is rendered all the more effective when the second stanza reverts to the starker delineations that characterize most of the other poems:
… a river in spate,
a storm-grey sky …
The pamphlet closes with ‘Bat’, a nocturne imbued with mysticism that left me hoping Tichborne might develop the theme and the character into a Crow-like sequence.
… If you can look up to my bat-eared,
long-tethered self, that the wind blows through, and the light,
and not miss one beat, then you will see yourself …
The immediacy crackles on the page. The imagery is precise and controlled. The intelligence behind the work is palpable. Tichborne is a very good poet indeed.
The linguistic expansiveness of Matt Howard’s The Organ Box is in stark contrast to Tichborne’s purposeful sparsity. ‘The anatomical storeroom inventory’ enumerates an increasingly grotesque sequence of objects, which cumulatively stand in for an antagonist relationship:
You suggest I’m heartless as that aortic arch
thickened with syphilitic aneurysm
and point me to the concentric jewel of a boar’s epididymis,
the complete votive of a three-week old whale foetus.
It takes no small degree of skill to finesse “aortic”, “syphilitic aneurism”, “concentric”, “epididymis” and “votive” into just a few lines; Howard manages it elegantly and with humour. Read alongside ‘A jar of moles’ and ‘To an anatomical Venus’, ‘The anatomical storeroom inventory’ forms a kind of surreal and darkly comic triumvirate.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t serious, even melancholy, poems here. ‘The House of Owls’, the five-poem sequence at the centre of the pamphlet, establishes from the outset a sustained metaphor:
… she came with a heavy scent of hawthorn,
and all men were taken by her owl-white skin,
by such silent graces. She took just one
to the far meadow. He went meek as a harvest mouse.
Later, ‘The fall of the House of Owls, 1914’ establishes a weightier context; that date is backed up by the grim lines:
A white feather chased two sons away,
then the front door lintel pocked with holes
where they say the mother, mad with hope,
nailed countless barn owl carcasses.
Taken as a whole, the sequence functions much like a William Trevor novel, charting a decline in fortunes, a changing social order, a fin de siècle.
Engagement with the natural world continues in Gale Burns’s Opal Eye. And, like Tichborne and Howard, he sets out his stall with the very first poem, ‘The Worm’:
No eyes, no mouth or gut;
a prince of dark, stretched
seven metres length,
clamped by suckers to mucosa;
ecstatic at self-sex,
wriggling at a whim …
These vermicular musings aren’t just observation; they suggest the poet himself burrowing deeper and deeper, determined to get at not just the truth of his subject but its unique and defining features. Burns’s trademark is that he often does so in oblique fashion.
‘What we learned in playgrounds;’ ostensibly reads as a list poem, the title’s semi-colon almost making a passive-aggressive statement of intent. The first few lines do little to dispel the assumption:
the mystery of public space, unfettered.
How adults do not rule everywhere.
An affinity for airstrips and roads; the taste
of asphalt, sucked from wells.
Through carefully primed turns of phrase and use of imagery, however, the poem reveals itself as less about recollections of childhood from the knowing standpoint of the adult world than the interrelationship between harsh truths learned at both stages, and how nostalgia filters and rationalizes. Burns says all of this by setting up the material and allowing the reader to extrapolate, never forcing the interpretation. It’s not quite a via negativa, but it demonstrates that Burns is confident in his utilization of poetry as two-way process, discoursing with his readers and relying on their intelligence.
In such accomplished company, all of them speaking in bold and confident voices, Rachael M Nicholas’s Somewhere Near in the Dark needed to achieve something very special. Hers was the last of these pamphlets I read (this review is organized in said order) and before I was halfway through I was floundering between slack-jawed admiration and abject jealousy at how good she is.
If the defining characteristic of these pamphlets is the immediacy of their first offering, then Nicholas’s opening salvo is in no way lacking. ‘Undarling’ starts:
There you are,
wanting what you want –
More beer in your glass?
A slim breeze? I can’t promise,
An empty street? Anything, anything,
So you ask.
Sometimes you get what you’re after,
and sometimes I’m sorry, but no,
you should try again later.
Nicholas knows how human relationships work: the unspoken (almost subconscious) demarcations, agreements and neuroses. And she understands how these things are heightened, sometimes ridiculously, by the self-consciousness endemic to the social media age. ‘An arc, and etc.’ begins:
Trying to be a good thing
twice – once for practice,
then once again for the
Which is as elegant a skewering of the selfie generation as I can think of, “photograph” tellingly occupying its own line.
A filtering of her subject matter through fairy tale or horror genre tropes gives the work an additional frisson. The two-page ‘Hansel & Gretel’ grips from its stark, minimal opening stanza – “The road splits / like a tongue / in the distance.” – and builds as it threads all too recognizably adult concerns through the anticipated child-like imagery. A couple of pages later, ‘Holy terror, come and get her’ continues the chills, a 25-line treatment for a scary movie that could be half Guillermo del Toro, half Luis Bunuel:
It sometimes happens, and has happened
here, that the hero isn’t the hero at all:
The hero is a knife, a paperback, or a street
after the parade has passed through –
something decorous, something dangerous.
It would be too easy – and disrespectful to the remainder of the company – to describe Nicholas as the real find amongst these four writers; the next big thing. The evidence of these pamphlets convinces me that everyone here is ready to produce a full length collection.