Josh Ekroy, Ways to Build a Roadblock, (Nine Arches Press, 2014), 82pp, £8.99, ISBN 978-0-9927589-0-5
Reviewed by Neil Fulwood
[Originally published in LP9, June 2016]
Ways to Build a Roadblock is well titled. There’s hardly a poem in it that doesn’t demonstrate, with admirable craftsmanship and economy, how poetry can act as a focused and unflinching distillation of its subject and stop the reader in his or her tracks.
At the heart of Ekroy’s debut is a controlled but palpable fury at corrupt politics and pointless war-mongering. In ‘Lord Hutton Reports’, ‘The Trojan Enquiry’ and ‘Orange’, he calls out bullshit by aping the bland language of officialdom and plausible deniability. The first has a touch of knockabout humour, taking the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty as its starting point:
I am satisfied that this is not a case
in which the Crown could have had any knowledge
that a notoriously unstable egg would hurl itself
from the wall it was ill-advised enough to sit on.
‘The Trojan Enquiry’ ups the ante, leaching away some of the humour and replacing the broad whitewash of an official report with the mealy-mouthed question-hedging of a witness appearing before a board of enquiry:
Was there ever a threat of aggression from Troy?
All the pertinent intelligence said there was.
Whose responsibility was the Trojan Horse?
The decision was taken in full Cabinet.
‘Orange’ spoofs the semi-urgent attention-shifting speciousness of government press releases, pointing up their absurdity by casting oranges and lemons as antagonists in some kind of citric sectarianism:
Growers insist on a patrol-base
and lemon security is handled seriously
Downing St issued a black on white statement
which promises that our involvement
will soon be on the ground.
That Ekroy recognises no sacred cows is obvious from the opening poem, which compares the courtship rituals of the Empid fly with Blair visiting Bush at Crawford in 2003. Here’s a poet who not only identifies politics as a grubby business, but also isn’t afraid to get his own hands dirty; the “roadblock” as an act of resistance.
Even when he turns his attention to more rarefied subjects, an earthy and unpretentious aesthetic remains present. Classical music links ‘78rpm’, which ends with its titular slab of vinyl, scratched and unplayable, hurled over a patch of wasteland (“the Vienna Boys’ Choir was stung / into silence in the nettle patch”); ‘Musical Vienna – a Guided Tour’, where the tour in question is of the sewers; and ‘Shostakovich 5’, which manages to simultaneously exult in the power of music and generate the tension of a thriller in ten brilliantly cadenced lines:
Tears like pepper vodka flow for a shy man on the podium who wears his suit
as if to shrug it off and disappear
is a particularly effective turn of phrase, demonstrating Ekroy’s strong and confident technique. Elsewhere, he uses set forms – the pantoum, a scattering of sonnets, a specular poem – with an almost conversational ease. Accessibility is key to his work even at its darkest or most experimental, such as ‘The Restroom’, a textbook example of the via negativa, where fifteen broken and scattered lines avoid the subject of political torture, leaving the reader more unsettled than if it had been tackled head-on. He does exactly that, however, in the very next poem, ‘Medical Advances’, whose opening lines
Feet should be well above head,
bench four by seven,
cloth placed over eyes and brow.
In a controlled manner, water is applied …
leave you in no doubt of what’s happening, nor of the nationality of the perpetrators, nor the colour of the victim’s skin.
‘Roadblock’ doesn’t offer any comfort zones or safe havens. Poem after poem challenges, pushes, provokes. Ekroy is like a boxer, ducking and weaving, never still, coming at you from different directions and with wildly divergent subject matter, from sheep, owls and goldfinches to politics, warfare and paranoia, to memory, surrealism, and propaganda. If there’s anything missing from this astounding first collection, it’s probably because it isn’t terrifying or corrosive enough to merit inclusion.