Douglas Thornton, Woodland Poems

Douglas Thornton, Woodland Poems, (Lulu.com, 2014), 81pp, £5.10. ISBN 1505238471

Reviewed by Kyle Cooper

[Originally published in LP9, June 2016]

Navigation has never been my strong point. I like having a map, a path and a clear day on which to follow both. Woods pose a challenge for me – tracks meander, double back on themselves and disappear down warrens. The experience of being lost, of wandering, can be pleasant. The dappled light forms new effects, and one can come out of the woods seeing things in a different way.

This collection poses a similar problem for me. In it, Douglas Thornton examines Native American myths and folktales, retelling some and inventing others. He creates a colourful world, tactile and mystical. Characters travel through dense forest, using the materials of this world to construct it – Tamosemis, a squaw, uses berries and roots in a ritual to remember her dead husband. The prophet Wapiniwiktha weaves spells using the carcass of a deer. I admire Thornton’s prowess in this – the materiality of the woodland creates the rituals that inhabit the poetry as much as within the poems. Thornton roots the world of the poetry securely within the woodland; the metaphors and similes do not borrow from the environment out of the woods. For instance, Wapiniwiktha’s ritual summons the spirit of a boy which speaks “as silent as the fallen leaves”.

The effect of this is to draw the reader more completely into the world of the poetry. You begin to wander through the poems, deeper and deeper into the text. The language has the same effect. Thornton adopts a register which twists and turns, sentences meandering through the poem with scattered syntax. Personally, I found this a touch hard to penetrate, but perseverance bears fruit. I found myself drawn deeper into Woodland Poems by the language, immersed in the lore of Thornton’s world.

Thornton imagines a pantheon of characters, from the prophet Wapiniwiktha to the squabbling brothers Joskeka and Tawiscare, who struggle to clear foliage from a stream so that it will dry out, a stream that they sate their thirst from in order to carry out this task. Amongst these are sown retellings of stories of real people, such as Scoouwa, a white man who is raised amongst Native Americans, searching for his own identity.

These characters deal with love, war and man’s position in the world. While they vary in topic, they all focus on a central theme; on how “the hearts of men rest / Far from where they sleep” and “Fall to a moment of dissolution”. This is introduced in the first poem, ‘Anectahi’s Chant’, which ends with the tantalising question “What will I become?” This “moment of dissolution” is considered throughout the poems, in which identities appear to be in a continual state of flux. Wapiniwiktha considers that even the “most tangible objects…both the hardest matter, the hardest hearts” are mutable; this later leads to a kind of metamorphosis in which Wapiniwiktha observes the movements of an eagle to such an extent that he feels himself to be one with the bird. Later in the collection, the “captive” Scoouwa, in a retelling of a true story of a white man raised amongst Native Americans, undergoes the mental struggle of finding his identity. He thinks to leave his Native American brother to die, but at the end of the poem returns to feed him.

Perhaps this poem reveals something about Thornton’s mind when writing it; Scoouwa initially says “I am not an Indian, nor am I / A man to wait upon a faith too high / When a better life may be lived”, but eventually he relents, and concludes “I’m no Indian, but I’ll not let die / The man who told me faith was nearby”.  It is possible that Thornton is accepting the cultural differences between himself and his subject matter, and attempting to reconcile those by saying that what he has gained from his studies of Native American culture is greater than the problems that such a study may entail – the “faith” which Scoouwa thinks of is a great enough prize that Thornton is willing to overlook the problems of cultural appropriation of which he might be culpable.

The poetics of this collection are also worthy of praise. Thornton writes with technique and flair, with a tight metre and a well-managed rhyme scheme. Particularly of note is ‘The Indian Ballad of Gitch Naigow’, a fluent and clever sestina which deals with an aging father’s feelings of being a burden to his young daughter. However, I would note that while the technique is strong, it may be somewhat overused – leading, in part, to the density of the language. However, if you persevere with the poems, then this does not become a problem.

This collection is dense and occasionally tangled, but contains a rich cache – the folklore is intricately crafted and relayed, the poems are well-constructed and the fruit that you may discover make the search worthwhile. If you are willing to lose yourself in the poems and wander awhile through this woodland world, the paths that reveal themselves are worth exploring.

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Vivien Jones, Short of Breath

Vivien Jones, Short of Breath, (Cultured Llama, 2014), £8.00, 84pp, ISBN 978-0-9926485-5-8

Reviewed by Phoebe Walker

 

[Originally published in LP9, June 2016]

A forensic eye is at work in this collection, Vivien Jones’ second, an acuity that penetrates through the various meditative, idiomatic and nostalgic tones of these poems. Jones’ knack for detail results in poetry with great sensory appeal, from the images of silver salmon boiling in shallow water, of chocolate eaten “slow as ivy”, to the sensation of an elm sucking sap “up my barley sugar ribs”, fingertips “speckled/ with black oak splinters/ sore in skin softened/ by tallow”. Although the poems are grouped into titled sections, there is a sense of disparateness about the collection, as though these poems are curios housed in the same cabinet, rather than a body of holistic work. I think this is reflected in the length of the collection too; at a meaty 84 pages, the reader feels the time that has gone into this writing; the varied seasons and cycles of the poetry it contains.

The peregrinations of these poems take us from Cornwall to Malta via Glasgow, Greenwich, with a few excursions to the remoter reaches of cosmic space, or mythical landscapes where a naiad, “white, wet, naked […] slides/ in and out of vision”. I like the generosity of this vision. Jones leaps from one register to another fairly frequently; some poems are first-person, told with the quasi-clarity of a journal entry, peppered, as you expect, with small voltas:

I’m cooking scones,
twelve minutes in a hot oven.
time enough to hang out the washing,
or wash the dishes, or feed the cat
or phone my son to say hello

[…]

the scones will change from raw dough
to lightweight delight – and me?

or:

My hands make brackets

around this warming mug.
through the rising vapour
I look at the café crowd
and wonder, which
has just left a lover

Elsewhere, Jones’ language is denser, more distant but also more nimble, as when she declares the aim “to understand / the fleam and the rake, the kerf debris/ of the saw”, or imagines how:

sea trout wreathe silver coils,
the greyback salmon persist

Until grey November, spent
of life, dying on grey stones,

gargoyles with undershot jaws.

I like Jones’ writing best in the latter vein, at once raw and stylish, and the section entitled ‘Wood and the Making Process’ is my favourite in the collection. Jones writes trees well (that is a compliment, I promise), capturing their intricacy and solidity with flair, leaves “splayed like/ horrified hands”, a branch snapping “with gunshot bedlam”.

With a few exceptions, all these poems, in the confidence and rightness of their rhythms and phrasing, breathe a quiet assurance that you don’t notice unless it’s missing. ’88 – Two Fat Ladies – a Saga’ is one of the few poems that really misfires, as the bathetic ballad of Jane and Janine,/ 88 – two fat ladies” and their hair salon feels slightly clumsy and strained, possibly because it attempts to incorporate to much dialogue, which I think leaves it unbalanced and a little too blatant. True, it is placed in a section titled ‘Literal’, preceded by the ‘Graffiti Tales’ of Murphy and Shanks, seeking sex in bus shelters, and Bella, “Queen of the Prozzies”, (“I like chips, beans, pie and cheese/ and I am Fat as FUCK”), but ‘Graffti Tales’’s exhilarating (and unexpected) crackle serves to make ‘88’ feel like even more of a damp squib. These kind of frustrations, however, are few and far between.

Broadly, although it’s a wandering, wide-armed collection, these are poems with admirable and individual grit.

Josh Ekroy, Ways to Build a Roadblock

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.

Edinburgh Round-Up, 2015

Edinburgh Festival 2015 Round-Up                        

Sean Wai Keung 

[Originally published in LP8, March 2016]

The Edinburgh Fringe is internationally renowned for being home to some of the most cutting edge artists working in almost all forms – from dance to visual art to theatre to spoken word. Of course, cutting edge does not necessarily mean ‘good’. From the most mainstream of the mainstream right down to the most experimental collaborations imaginable, the Fringe is the place to both try out new things and to entertain audiences with old material. Naturally, reviewers are the heart of all of this (OK, maybe not the heart – but a kidney or two at least), and as such I spent my Fringe seeing as much spoken word and poetry as was humanly possible. Unfortunately I still wasn’t able to see it all, and apologies to all the artists and shows I simply couldn’t get to, but what I did see renewed my faith in the possibilities of spoken word as a form.

My first venue is the Banshee Labyrinth, something of a home to many spoken word artists throughout the Fringe. Consisting of three to four event rooms, a cinema, a sizable drinking area and a well-stocked bar, the dark, dingy pub seems a rather fitting place for poets to gather. Tina Sederholm’s The Good Delusion starts the afternoon off well. While mostly biographical, Sederholm focuses her life story around ideas of balance – the balance between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘public’ and ‘private’, ‘reality’ and ‘expectation’. She manages to show off her skills as a performer by engaging with the audience, and to discuss her ideas without any form of preaching, all while maintaining an engaging narrative. While not the most original of topics, her personal perspective is definitely fresh enough to make it seem new – after all, who else could realistically discuss the disappointment of meeting a real life princess as opposed to an imagined one?

Next is Harry Baker and The Sunshine Kid. Baker is by now well-renowned for his performative energy and pun-heavy poetry, and The Sunshine Kid is no exception. The show serves as a great introduction to anyone unfamiliar with his back catalogue of performances and he works the crowd well in the moments between fan favourites such as Paper People and The Scientist and the Bumblebee. Precisely because of this, those who are already familiar with his work may leave disappointed at the lack of new material or any real linear thread between each poem, but the fact remains that Baker is a master at what he does, and what he does will light up even the dingiest of rooms.

The George Next Door venue is almost the exact opposite of the Banshee. Consisting of a series of connected rooms (all of which are in various states of decay and/or construction), it’s the complete stereotypical Fringe venue, with horrible acoustics and fourth/fifth-hand sound systems to boot. Which also makes it a great place to see Liam McCormick’s Govanhell, a show all about the Govanhill district of Glasgow and McCormick’s relationship to it. As someone who had never heard of Govanhill before, it’s a testament to McCormick’s poetry that by the end I feel a real connection to the place despite not ever being there. McCormick’s performance style is shouty, fast-paced and vitriolic, yet he manages to balance this with calm moments of narrative, humour and statistics, showing a real skill in terms of creating a spoken word ‘show’ as opposed to simply a longer spoken word ‘set’. Govanhell is a real triumph for those who enjoy seeing the dark places of the world lit up, briefly.

California Scheming by Clare Ferguson-Walker is in the same venue but also wildly different. Focusing around the expectations/reality of an artsy trip to California as seen through the eyes of the Wales based poet, Ferguson-Walker masterfully weaves humour through what could have been a serious, pretentious subject. Poets writing/performing about their travels is often done badly, but Ferguson-Walker uses her travelling as a method of exploration into the similarities and differences between Wales and California, especially in terms of their individual perspectives on art and the place of the ‘artist’ in society. At times her relentless rhymes and rhythms run dangerously close to becoming stale, but it is at these moments that she breaks away and either addresses her audience directly or drops a funny aside, keeping everyone in the room entertained. Truly wonderful.

Much further out from the city than most of the other venues, Clerks Bar claims to be the ‘home of spoken word’ for the Fringe. It’s a much classier bar in terms of decor, with some of the most comfortable chairs imaginable, but still suffers from a bad background noise problem. This is unfortunately a real issue with Dreamscape Wanderer by Mike Galsworthy, who asks his audience to close their eyes for his entire show, before beginning a meditative, surreal story based in the land of dreams and accompanied by a backing track of complimentary sounds. As a Fringe spoken word show, it’s a brave and interesting experiment, and I imagine that in a quieter setting it would work much better. Galsworthy’s rhythm, use of voice and the aforementioned soundscape work incredibly well as a poetic force and create an atmospheric narrative somewhere between spoken word, storytelling and guided meditation – when not interrupted by the shouts and noise from the bar upstairs. Despite this, I leave Dreamscape Wanderer looking forward to seeing it again in a different setting, but still having enjoyed my time away from the real world, if only for a little while.

Also at Clerks I have the pleasure of seeing Is This Poetry? – a collaborative show by Andrew Blair and Ross McCleary. Is This Poetry? still suffers from the bar noise but not to the same extent, especially for the shouting bundle of energy which is Ross McCleary. McCleary goes from standing still and shaking on stage to crawling over tables to standing on chairs at the back of the audience, all while shouting much of his poetry, and all while the much more laidback Andrew Blair simply stands in a corner looking slightly confused and lost, delivering his own brand of dry, magical poetry. Their interactions with each other are just as good as their individual pieces, which all lie under the umbrella of asking what exactly poetry, especially Edinburgh poetry, is and/or isn’t. They make fun of poets, poetry, spoken word, slams, artists, the Scottish, the English and themselves, to the point where the answer to the titular question no longer matters – as long as the asking is fun (which it really is). Is This Poetry? is definitely one of the highlights of the Fringe.

Another highlight is In Case We Disappear by Toronto-based Vanessa Smythe at Moriarty’s. Smythe is one of those rare performers who can get away with being sincere, witty, powerful and moving all at the same time. She focuses on the abilities and inabilities of communication – the true and false connections made during life, utilising all the possibilities of spoken word as a form to convey these discussions. She goes from singing to speaking to silence and beyond, and everything she does bristles with meaning, partly through her actions and expressions, partly through her words and rhythms. Her poems range from narrative to one half of a conversation to heartfelt messages to loved ones, all while using simple language to convey honest, real emotion. In Case We Disappear is one of those shows which I will smile about for years to come.

For every incredibly personal show, there is an incredibly political show. Politics has always played a role in spoken word, and one of the most overt examples of this is Money is as Innocent as the Gun by Geoff Winde. Winde tackles the subject of finance well, intertwining narrative, agenda and pure language to explore the absurdity of money in a playful, calm manner. This is done most successfully during the segments of pure language, where repeated words and semantic shifts blur into a whirlwind of confusion for both artist and audience. However, about halfway through, Winde seems to run out of things to really ‘say’, and it feels like he’s repeating his message again and again, only in slightly different ways. Structurally, his beginning and ending are masterful in their subtle introduction and conclusion, but somewhere during the middle I became lost in his unclear message – money causes problems, yes, but what does that mean we should do?

On the other hand, Hannah Chutzpah’s Asking Nicely is much less subtle in terms of political exploration, but also much easier to follow thematically. Chutzpah tackles the big topics of permission, responsibility and societal roles (gender, sexuality, class, age) with great enthusiasm, utilising images to create a very low-tech poetry power-point which works well with her natural warm charisma. While not necessarily doing or saying anything ground-breaking or new, Asking Nicely still feels very necessary in terms of modern political topics, but still contains enough personality to carry weight as a single unified show. Chutzpah’s poetry can sometimes fall into very similar repeated rhythms, but she manages to add enough humour and wit to her content that her delivery avoids becoming stale.

All in all, the 2015 Fringe was a huge success for the spoken word scene. It showcased a wide variety of styles and themes from all over the world, in all different kinds of venues. As well as the individual shows, Banshee Labyrinth hosted a nightly Hammer & Tongue event, as well as special one-off Say Owt Slam and the always-worth-seeing Anti-Slam, where great poets do purposefully bad poems in the name of pure fun. The Scottish Storytelling Centre housed the Loud Poets, showcasing some of the most talented spoken word artists imaginable, and Chiquito featured Poets Against Humanity – where, amongst other poems, Gatwick by Craig Raine was improved considerably through the replacing certain phrases with others taken from the game ‘Cards Against Humanity’. Nights like these were not only fun and relaxed, but also provided a welcome break for poets and poetry fans from every walk of life against the madness of the Fringe. If anyone still believes that writers have to work in isolation, or that poetry and spoken word is a dying or dead form, I dare them to experience the Edinburgh Festival and not have their minds changed.

Three Pamphlets from Lapwing Press

“Make It Last”: an elegiac sequence by Davide Trame (Lapwing, Belfast, 2013), ISBN 978-1-909252-24-0
Flash Words by Paul Tobin (Lapwing, Belfast, 2014), ISBN 978-1-909252-78-3
Pictures From a Postponed Exhibition by David Walsh and Michael Bartholomew-Biggs (Lapwing, Belfast, 2015) ISBN 978-1-909252-84-4

Reviewed by Gram Joel Davies

[Originally published in LP8, March 2016]

Lapwing make minimal, hand-bound booklets with a retro feel. Here are three I chanced on.

Davide Trame’s “Make It Last”: an elegiac sequence is heartbreaking but not maudlin. Page-long poems which layer sequentially in a way narrative may not, stirring one another into something more nebulous than linear.

Trame’s subject is loss. There can be little question he writes through his own disembodied eyes, orbiting himself in the aftermath of a lifelong love. Each poem is its own small story; each, at its core, a lament on the dissolution of companionship. Scene by scene, alongside harbours or on the tops of mountains, through endless plains and over the bridges of Venice, past everyday cottages that seem impossibly solid, after calamity, one lingering presence is returned to, via detail, again and again. Early in the book, Trame tells us,

All is coincidence because nothing is,
like you who are everywhere and nowhere.

 (‘With You Without You (i)’)

Places are remembered keenly in Trame’s neat diction, which is neither shy of poetics nor fanciful.

I am on the bank of the canal waiting for the boat
to appear around the bend, there
where the air stares at the lagoon
in lilac-stillness and ripple-strewing.
On the skyline of ships, cranes and factories
the cormorant is passing, slender neck
and black wings like blades quickly cutting.

(‘With You Without You (ix)’)

The addressee of all his narration is the same “you” for whom he mourns. Sweetest of all are his direct recollections.

Your gaze when you were looking out
of the train window standing by the door

your eyes mirroring the sandbars’ veins,
the ripples on the water, the sky skin

in your eyes I sensed vast acceptance,
a hello to anything that could turn up and go.

(‘With You Without You (vi)’)

Trame’s prose turns seamlessly, at intervals, to his timeless partner, confusing the mode of inner dialogue with that of conversation, speaking out his ego’s need to come to terms with its individuality once more.

I was wrong about no more anxiety, maybe it’s that
“life must go on”, so anxiety flows and longing expands

I talk to you in your expanding, in your relentless
spreading I’m enduring, in and beyond the heart,
with the wish of following you and simply falling apart.

(‘With You Without You (vii)’)

“Make it last” is a delicate book, not dainty but crafted with a surgeon’s precision, cleansing through what feels like infinite iterations of a love remembered. Although it comes again at its theme from every angle and scope, turning loss over and over in a pulsing hand, it does not feel static. Trame is not wallowing here. Beyond the principle sequence is a series of individually titled poems that have a sense of remembrance made at greater distance and, finally, the feeling of having ebbed into a quiet place of reflection not shattered anymore. By his exquisite filtering of detail, Trame models that prolonged, bewildering act of beginning again.

Ever present, the figure of the one “everywhere and nowhere” who suffuses mind and landscape alike but, over its long course, a settling occurs like dust finding equilibrium.

You are not here.
You are not.
You are.

 (‘Daily Chores in Your Absence’)

 

I closed the book peacefully. One day, I will reopen it, when I also have need to begin again.

Paul Tobin’s Flash Words is titled with misnomer. His writing is solid, precise, observant. Not glitzy. But, perhaps, what we have here resembles the world taken in in-a-flash, the camera shot.

I have been fortunate enough to hear Paul Tobin read aloud on a number of occasions, and his throwaway delivery belies pointedness in his writing. The book opens, coincidentally, with a pair of elegies, piercing snaps compared to Trame’s winding lament.

I stole that second
captured her forever
just before she tells me,
not to take her picture 

(‘Poem for Christine’)

Flash Words is a miscellany of characters, from old-time professors to Amundsen in the Antarctic, the friend on a bridge to Gagarin in free-fall. Tobin creates compounds from unlikely materials, stirring counter-culture-cool with hard science, political critique with folklore.  There is something a little zany beneath his sober testimony.

Often, an apocalyptic edge lines Tobin’s work, and he appears to speak to humanity in a manner poets are not supposed to: begging of us, “What have we done?” All his poetry, however, feels embedded, personal.

Now we hug the earth, bankrupt and dreamless.
We have wasted your chance.

  (‘The Tears of Yuri Gagarin’)

Overshadowing these poems is a feeling that history is already over, the future gone. Tobin speaks with understated humour, comparing our aftermath to a hangover.

You do not taste the first glass, so you pour another
we will all regret it in the morning…

(‘The Case for Fracking’)

At his best, Tobin is able to animate relationships with a Spartan turn of phrase. Although Flash Words is a long book (upwards of 80 titles), flickering through years and across cultures like documentary montage, his poems do not prevaricate. There feels to be a fondness in them as well.

I am asked to
look at a dead man’s brewing paraphernalia.
I make my own beer, so this qualifies me
to sift through another’s boxes and tubes.

(‘As I Am Here, Now’)

It is almost like a time-machine, stepping into Paul Tobin’s poetry with its mixture of nostalgia and steampunk-esque reveries, through titles such as “John Wyndham’s Blues” and “Harold Wilson in Widnes.” At times, a scene takes on a sharp focus both painful and lovely at once, and from within his wryness and humanity something elemental looms.

Big, blood moon,
A scouring tidal surge that pulls muscles,
And sets the shark to follow
The lodestone in its head.

(‘Moon Poem’)

Tobin’s poetry merges grit and fantasy ceaselessly (“thin cranes… Martian war machines… anodyne housing”), and simultaneously warms his characters as he wows us with a backdrop of far-out facts (“Florence is a stupid name… she swaps it for Spike… rain runs down her face… hydrogen bonds pulse”). Binding it all together is an arc of history, become myth.

This time, she tells me, there will be no snake

I am scared of her vision, her clarity

for this world seems huge, far more complex
even than the sea which gave us form.

(‘The Water Becomes Air in Our Lungs’)

I share his wonder and unease.

Pictures From a Postponed Exhibition is a creation-myth chant with a difference. David Walsh is a visual artist whose paintings appear alongside Michael Bartholomew-Biggs’ accompaniment of poems. Images with a primary, dreamtime air that couple well with the origin-tale of this poetic sequence. A sequence which, unlike Trame’s, builds very much on a narrative form.

Framed first as a walk into a gallery, we are immediately asked to “extract a narrative” and are led presently into a story-song from “before there was a word for garden”. Voices From The Walls” comprises the main body of poems, which are titled only by their opening lines.

Like most visual-poetic collaborations, the text is no literal response to the artwork but riffs on its suggestive tone. Walsh’s slender figures on landscapes of red earth become actors who emerge like infants into a world of indigo silhouettes, bluffs and forests. First, through self-reflection and language, then upward through invention and discovery, then at last toward temptation and a fall from union.

Bartholomew-Biggs takes the collective voice of this emergent people. His poetry is gently rhythmic, sometimes a little clipped in syntax, as though mimicking some proto-language. What has, in its underlying structure, many of the characteristics of an archetypal tale of evolution or descent from paradise is, in its specifics, a perceptive re-imagining.

It must have been by pulling springy branches
down around us, thick with foliage
as well as fruit, we first discovered

how to hide, and hiding had a place
in teaching us to tamper and pretend.

(‘There were at first no words for artefacts’)

Bartholomew-Biggs uses a kind of allusion to the literal image which could sound like a contrivance in some other poetry, but woven into his primordial sequence it maintains the awkward newness appropriate to his strange tribe. He touches on subtle concepts like our uniquely human theory of mind, and obliquely evokes the key milestones in our maturity, such as weaponry and the taming of fire.

The cradled ache began
to pulse and stretch the skin of darkness
to a dome where we could watch
ourselves.

  (‘By striking stone like this on stone’)

Taken as a whole, Pictures From a Postponed Exhibition is artsy but not prim, a literary set with larval, bubbling innards. The poems mesh with the simple aesthetic of the paintings, their desert brushstrokes, into a depiction both of primal innocence and its loss.

And we were sleek,
replete enough to be at ease
with gratifying one another.

(‘Our coupling beneath the leaves’)

Lapwing host unusual voices, a little out of synch with fashions and times. In their own manner, each of these books examines origins, catastrophe and ebbing away, in terms of the intensely personal, the historic and the mythic, by turns.

Two Collections by Jenna Plewes

Two Collections by Jenna Plewes
Salt (Indigo Dreams, 2013), £7.99, 65pp, ISBN 978-1-909357-12-9
Gifts (CreateSpace, 2014), £5.00, 38pp, ISBN 978-1-4953944-0-9
 

Reviewed by Phoebe Walker

[Originally published in LP8, March 2016]

These two collections by Worcestershire based poet Jenna Plewes are, for the most part, unchallenging. When reviewing, I often find myself coming back to the question of what the active reader is looking for in a poem, or a book of poems – for myself, most of the time, I want words images and idea that I can butt my head against, worry and gnaw at. At other times, and for other people, I know that poetry may be a go-to for comfort reading; a refuge in something euphonious, calming and undemanding. Plewes’ poetry falls into the latter camp, and no hint of condescension should attach itself to that designation.

Although these collections are blandly presented (something of the Google stock-image suggests itself about the covers – though you can hardly blame a penurious small press), the contents provide just that small refuge – sanctuary is probably appropriate for what Plewes is trying to achieve – that can be, in certain moments, what is most needed. Salt’s blurb describes its poems as “deceptively simple”; I don’t think the deceit is very great, but their simplicity is clear and winning, and can certainly be celebrated. The criticism here is that the poems themselves, in both collections, struggle to stand out individually, but slip past the reader too easily, succouring but afterwards indistinguishable.

Salt, as you might guess, is an extended meditation on the sea and life beside it. Plewes is good on capturing the moods of the water, the way that “muscles ripple under the skin of the sea” and “[w]aves suck and surge/ […] tongue the gaps between broken teeth”. If there’s nothing very startling about her imagery throughout the collection, it at least never feels stale or overwrought, but instead conveys the poet’s depth of intimacy with her subject, one that has resolved itself into a quiet, equivocal respect that neither blusters nor blandishes. The sea’s salt oozes into the life that surrounds it, its “mist turns bracken to rust” and “far inland gobbets of foam/ catch on the bushes”. I like this evocation of pervasion, bespeaking the deep, personal spell cast by certain places and affinities, which worm their way almost into the bloodstream. For example, far from the shore,

[…] in a hospital ward
a bright wren of a woman
in the end bed
gazes over a sea of bedcovers
to the horizon.

Salt bites deep. At points, the poet undergoes a quasi-metamorphosis into sea itself. “wrapped in a liquid skin/ lulled by the suck and surge”, while ‘Scoured Sand’ likens the poet’s mind to the movements of tides:

Low tide is best
a glorious emptiness
washed clean of words
scoured of clogged idea

[…]

the calm shores
of my mind

If the boundaries between mind and sea are a little more tangible elsewhere, it takes little to blur the two, the water’s moods and movements echoing the slow human dances of joy, fear and grief from poem to poem, and beautifully imagined in the image of ‘Albatross’:

A solitary gull quarters the oceans
snagged with dreams.

Gifts maintains the calm tones of Salt, though perhaps loses a little of its sense of ambivalence. Described as a “spiritual” collection, these are a slim group of devotional Christian poems. I can imagine them brightening acts of worship, private or public, but there is little here to stir or shock. Poems told from the perspective of Mary and Joseph (“married his girl/ pregnant, and not by him”) provide a little stylistic variety, but they are scarcely original and, to me, unexciting, lacking the luminosity and fire I associate with the best examples of devotional poetry. I found the most memorable phrase in Gifts in ‘The Pieta by Michaelangelo’, where

Unseen, beyond all pain
the pulse of God is gathering itself
to burst the crust of death
and set us free

That ‘bursting of crust’ is a fine, redolent image, but the final line seems to dilute it (I wish it had been left to resound alone) and that is the case with other poems here – there is a patness to them that, to me, becomes a little insipid – for all that this is a later collection, it feels less sophisticated than Salt, and is perhaps not meant to be read in the same key. These are clearly deeply-felt and personal sentiments, which could, perversely, explain why there is just a slight hint of strain, not present in Salt, in communicating these sentiments in writing. Regardless, Plewes proves herself in these collections to be a poet of quiet power, astutely sensitive to a welter of temporal and spiritual moods.

David Tait, Self-Portrait with Happiness

David Tait, Self-Portrait with Happiness, (smith / doorstop, 2014), £9.95, 54pp, ISBN 978-1-902382-01-2

Reviewed by David Clarke

[Originally published in LP8, March 2016]

Judging by the poetry events I have attended recently, it is a brave man who mentions happiness in the title of his poetry collection. On one evening a month ago, for example, I listened to three poets read work about addiction, child abuse, bereavement, self-harm and depression. Not that these subjects do not need addressing, but I do wonder if we have reached a point where misery has become a marketing strategy, at least to the extent that poetry gets more attention when talking about these sorts of subjects than when it describes a nice walk on a lovely sunny day.

David Tait’s collection (which was nominated for the Aldeburgh Prize for Best First Collection in 2014) is, however, not just about being happy. In fact, it often addresses the threats to happiness’ fragile existence; there are poems here which discuss the end of love, the death of loved ones, and the challenges of long-distance relationships. Nevertheless, the happiness of the title does remain the book’s central concern, in that the ‘I’ of the poems is primarily interested in what makes happiness happen, as well as what endangers it, and is also concerned with recording those moments when happiness seems to have been achieved. This is done with convincing directness and (by no means artless) simplicity.

The tone of the collection as a whole is autobiographical, but not in the sense of giving us a life story of the poet. Instead, the poems speak from a position recognisably similar to that of the author’s, that is to say of a young gay writer who has spent time living abroad. The treatment of gay life is matter-of-fact in tone; it is just another aspect of the poet’s existence, rather than the vehicle for any politicised critique of the society he inhabits. So, for instance, there is little mention of homophobia, and a poem discussing unfaithfulness (‘North York Moor’) does not make any particular issue of the fact that the protagonists are men – this could be any furtive couple.

The poems are generally small narratives, little episodes describing a moment shared with friends or lover in a particular landscape, which open out tentatively into an awareness of broader concerns. The language Tait employs is restrained. His clear and economical description frequently holds back from simile and metaphor, and if he does employ an adjective here and there, there is nothing obviously showy about his choice of words. Take, for example, the effectively imagined ‘The Night my Grandfather Died’, which describes not the death of the grandfather, but rather a sexual encounter with an older man:

It was cold, with a full moon

and nowhere I wanted to be.
I walked the two miles

along the canal, jumped the stile
into his field, patted the flank

of his brown horse. I remember
it all so clearly: the whipped cream

melting on the cocoa,  the first cracked
lip on my cheek, his breath –

how it rustled through him
as he lifted my t-shirt; and the moon

how it gleamed in the curtains, his hair –
his neck rippling like an accordion.

It is noteworthy here that the early stanzas of the poem are concerned with describing the actions which lead to the final scene in unadorned terms. Despite a steady rhythm, there is nothing obviously ‘poetic’ in the way of sonic effects, mobilisation of imagery, etc. When Tait does employ an adjective, it is a mere ‘brown’ to describe the lover’s horse. Only in the final two stanzas do we have an accumulation of imagery which transforms reality with almost surreal observation (the neck ‘like an accordion’). This is a common strategy in Tait’s poems, and can also be seen in, for example, ‘Of Arrival’. Here, following an understated description of the landscape of the south Pennines, the lover presents the ‘I’ of the poem with ‘a sycamore leaf, like a bill’ in the last line. In a way, that ‘like a bill’ seems to come out of nowhere, yet it sets up an echo throughout the rest of the poem; Tait makes us wait for this image, but it throws the rest of the short narrative into relief, signalling some underlying tension or threat of impermanence (perhaps in the sense of ‘we’ll pay for this later’).

There is no doubt that this is skilful work by a poet with a fine sense of judgement, a poet who knows when to keep his powder dry, choosing his moments to surprise the reader well. Satisfying as the collection is in this respect, however, I did wonder on re-reading whether the sense of control might be a little too perfect, whether the poet might be too concerned (as Don Paterson once put it) to ‘shove […] poems into tins / marked either ah! […] or hmm…’. Only in ‘On Being Trapped Inside a Puddle’, a variation on the kind of mirror poem popularised by Julia Copus, does Tait allow formal experiment to lead him to a poem which is both labyrinthine and mysterious.

Tait’s work speaks to the mainstream of the contemporary British lyric poetry, with its low-key language and its epiphanic impetus. He clearly also follows the trend for writing poems in two-line stanzas (nearly 40% of the poems in this collection), a formal conceit which Happenstance publisher Helena Nelson has often noted. His work does represent some of the best of this kind of writing currently being produced, but also leaves me wondering what he might be capable of in a more adventurous second collection.

Chimène Suleyman, Outside Looking On

Chimène Suleyman, Outside Looking On, (Influx Press, 2014), £8.99, 53pp, ISBN 978-0-9927655-5-2

Reviewed by Zozi

[Originally published in LP8, March 2016]

Canary Wharf, glittering in the background of London: powerful, spookily disconnected, an icon of wealth and power in a city where many are struggling to get through the day. “This part of London they promised to us when they were creating it,” as Chimène Suleyman puts it. The wharf lurks in the background of every poem in her debut collection, which explores a series of small moments unfolding within its radius.

London poet, journalist and essayist Suleyman, who grew up in the shadow of Canary Wharf, writes easily and unselfconsciously; her writing also has a craft that shows a precise eye for moments and small details. As the title reflects, this is poetry that peeks out through bus windows, looks down from balconies, stares at the sky between the rooftops, and reflects the multiple angles from which London’s residents see their surroundings. “Do not look up at the view,” Suleyman writes; “you will only lose your appetite.” This is poetry that takes a magnifying glass to the details of a large mosaic.

Suleyman filters larger themes of boredom, heartbreak and loneliness through a series of small, glass-bright images: “the crane outside the window licks its lips… swings big dig,” “the back of a shoe / sinking in soft ground”.

In particular, the black lentils breaking “through windows to tell us they were here, / stomachs bulging at belts so we would know,” is a pin-sharp image that has resonances beyond itself. In Suleyman’s vision, even the smallest fragments of the city are vibrant, desperate to live and to announce their presence.

She touches on greater displacements. The outstanding poem ‘Dear Boss from “Smollensky’s”’ evokes the ghost of the narrator’s Turkish grandmother, a storyteller who “would rather stand still than be made to walk behind any man”; the ghost of her scent follows the narrator through the streets, following her home until it is (in the poet’s intimate phrasing) stirred into tea. The poem evokes a lost world and a tender grief, and reminds us there is no time limit to feelings of displacement and loss; that these feelings resonate through generations. “It was her land they were busy fighting for, and no one noticed the old thinning headscarves in her cupboard, cared for, or wanted.”

Some of the brightest images are anarchic and joyous, like the couple glimpsed dancing in the street, the lentils, and the gorgeous poem ‘Mevlevi’: “her veil reaching / into brickwork, these flattened shoulders / commanded the streets”. But I particularly adored ‘Pancakes in Bartlett Park’, a lovely energetic ode to anger.

In ‘Pancakes’, a woman leaning from a balcony throws flour and eggs at a man we assume is her ex-boyfriend; a crowd below applauds. And the reader is caught in an unexpected moment, thrown into the joyous energy of London nights – when the unexpected happens, emotions bubble to the surface, and lost people find themselves again. The words “Fuck you” are repeated like a magic spell: “Rubbing eggs, / hair, assault clouded by flour. Fuck you. / White rain… middle finger to the sky.”

But my own favourite in the collection (‘Cultivating’) is a quieter poem which carries emotional weight, and has resonances beyond itself. It is a quiet affirmation for people who feel lost, displaced, used, or thrown to one side, and it is ultimately hopeful. The brilliant metaphor of urban foxes – wild, unafraid, walking “lost when others were asleep” – is one that stayed with me for a long time after reading.

Suleyman’s work is subtle, ever prescient, and cognizant of the kind of contradictions that spring up in a city where skyscrapers rub shoulders with council estates. A handful of the poems are small glimpses of other lives, zooming in on the seemingly irrelevant details that tell us everything: we meet Brian the government official, Brian the relationship counsellor, and Bendigo the sniffer dog. These poems are frustrating only because the glimpses we get are so tiny, reminding us how little we know about most of the people who share this giant city. As Suleyman puts it, “Aren’t we all lost and missing?”

This is a very welcome collection from an extremely skilful voice. I hope to read much more from Suleyman in the future.

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric, (2014; Penguin, 2015), 166pp, £9.99. ISBN 9780141981772.

Reviewed by Paul McMenemy

[Originally published in LP8, March 2016]

This is how The Guardian reported the announcement of last year’s Forward Prize shortlist:

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, an exploration of everyday racism through lyric essays, scraps of film script and photography, might look far more like prose than the traditional definition of poetry, but the innovative work from the acclaimed American writer has made it onto the shortlist for one of the UK’s top poetry prizes, the Forward.[1]

This is the first paragraph of the article, which – to reiterate – was the newspaper’s only coverage of the shortlist announcement.

Well, okay, we know that the mainstream press doesn’t do poetry very well – the article goes on to note that Citizen “eschews the likes of iambic pentameter and rhyme” – so perhaps we can let the peculiarity of that opening statement go. But then, in paragraph 7 (of nine initial paragraphs solely dedicated to Citizen – the four other shortlistees get two short paragraphs between them), we get this statement by poet and Forward judge Carrie Etter:

People who insist that poetry is only poetry if it’s in lines are missing out. As Citizen is in prose, I anticipate some readers’ definition of poetry will exclude it, and so some may object to its inclusion on the list. So be it.

I’ll be honest, at the time I was only half paying attention – I hadn’t read Citizen or any of Rankine’s previous work – so I was a bit perplexed. We’ve had prose poetry in English for hundreds of years – even to someone who apparently thinks iambic pentameter and other terms they vaguely remember from A-level English are commonplace in modern poetry, this should not entirely be news. But for a poet to feel the need to justify the work’s shortlisting, obviously something else was going on. It was only after I read Citizen that I realised what.

Since then, an awful lot has been written about Citizen and all sorts of interesting comments have slithered into the light from people who might be expected to know better.[2] All I really want to say about this here is: if there is a question in your mind over whether this is poetry or not, I think I can help you out. Citizen is poetry because the person who wrote it says so. I believe this is the only useful definition of poetry and it is a definition I will defend at length, if necessary. But not here, for reasons which will become clear.

“Lyric essay” is a good term, as Citizen subtly develops an argument over seven sections. The first gropes towards a statement of the problem:

[…] a friend once told you there exists the medical term—John Henryism—for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure.

So now we will talk about the prose, because it is the main tool through which these various sections are differentiated. Much of the prose is not prose-poetry prose; some of it is not even the sort of prose called poetic by novel-reviewers short of anything else to say (the literary equivalent of a film critic remarking upon cinematography). But before we go any further, I am going to quote another part of Citizen – the opening paragraph – because the previous quote, and some I will use further on in talking about the argument of Citizen, might reinforce an impression I suspect many people who have not read the book might have of it. That it is dry, academic… prosey.

When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows. Usually you are nestled under blankets and the house is empty. Sometimes the moon is missing and beyond the windows the low, gray ceiling seems approachable. Its dark light dims in degrees depending on the density of clouds and you fall back into that which gets reconstructed as metaphor.

A poem is written as it is written because it could not be written any other way. Rankine uses the dry, academic tone – when she does – for a reason. But she also uses it more seldom than it first appears. That first paragraph – quite poet-y enough for most tastes, I should think – leads into a reminiscence of a white girl asking to copy Rankine’s work at school:

You never really speak except for the time she makes her request and later when she tells you you smell good and have features more like a white person. You assume she is thanking you for letting her cheat and feels better cheating from an almost white person.

The prose runs from lyrical to intimate to academic, but retains an internal consistency, just as anyone’s inner monologue might. We do not talk – even to ourselves – all in one register.

After setting up its hypothesis, Citizen’s second section provides a case study, using a discursion on the uses of anger in art as a jumping off point to discuss the career of Serena Williams, taking an uncharacteristic and apparently disproportionate outburst on court (“Oh my God, she’s gone crazy, you say to no one.”) and contextualising it within a narrative of continually attempted erasure and othering.

Perhaps this is how racism feels no matter the context—randomly the rules everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you, and to call this out by calling out “I swear to God!” is to be called insane, crass, crazy. Bad sportsmanship.

The third section continues the record of microaggressions begun in Section I but changes the emphasis somewhat – erasure is only one part of the intent:

Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present. Your alertness, your openness, and your desire to engage actually demand your presence, your looking up, your talking back, and, as insane as it is, saying please.

Section IV details the physical and psychological effect of this constant stress:

To live through the days sometimes you moan like deer. Sometimes you sigh. The world says stop that. Another sigh. Another stop that. Moaning elicits laughter, sighing upsets.

Section V – also introspective in tone – looks at emerging from this depression to address the world:

Occasionally it is interesting to think about the outburst if you would just cry out—

To know what you’ll sound like is worth noting—

The penultimate section – the most immediate of the book – acts on this intent, engaging with more obvious examples of racism from recent history through a series of scripts for video art collaborations with John Lucas (the whole work is interspersed with images, which vary from being genuinely integral to the text, to merely illustrative, to superfluous), beginning with a grimly appropriate variation on erasure poetry in which quotes taken from people in New Orleans during news coverage of Hurricane Katrina present a collage of neglect in which the disaster is only an unusually visible moment.

He said, I don’t know what the water wanted. It wanted to show you no one would come.

He said, I don’t know what the water wanted. As if then and now were not the same moment.

He said, I don’t know what the water wanted.

There follow responses to various instances of racially motivated violence and injustice including a passage titled Stop-and-Frisk:

And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.

The final substantial part of this section tells the story of Rankine, with an uncomfortable echo of Rosa Parks, taking a free seat on a train beside a black man, the seat first being refused by a standing white woman. This might seem out of place compared to the infamous events detailed in the preceding parts of the section, and especially compared to what comes directly after – a list of names of murdered black Americans – but the relevance becomes clearer in the section’s closing epigram:

because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying

The prejudice which leads the woman to reject the train seat is of the same kind that leads to police shootings. This is the pivotal moment of Citizen – the mostly unintentional, often unconscious microaggressions detailed in the earlier sections are shown to be different only in scale to the incidents more widely recognized as injustices by mainstream (white) society which make up most of Section VI.

The only reason that big, visible wounds like Katrina or Ferguson or the 2011 riots occur is because the everyday papercuts detailed throughout Citizen pass without comment. The concluding section makes this clear:

Who shouted, you? You

shouted you, you the murmur in the air, you sometimes sounding like you, you sometimes saying you,

go nowhere,

be no one but you first—

Nobody notices, only you’ve known,

you’re not sick, not crazy,

not angry, not sad—

It’s just this, you’re injured.

This realisation has been discomfiting for some readers, and the way Citizen is written has added to their discomfort. Nearly all of Citizen is written in the second person, which here plays two main roles. On the one hand it performs its own traditional role, suggesting the reader is being directly addressed, implying an intimacy between writer and reader but also emphasising like a prodding finger each casual cruelty detailed in the text. More interestingly – and this is its main function here – it performs its modern function of standing in for the third person pronoun “one”. But there is a difference between “you” in this context and “one”: “you” feels far more inclusive – it assumes commonality of experience in a way in which “one” does not. It is the “you” of observational comedy and the casual anecdote: “You know when you…”

And this is the thing which I think has made some readers suspicious of – even hostile towards – Citizen. Because they are not the “you” being addressed, either directly or implicitly: the make-up of print poetry consumers in the US and UK being what it is, statistically you – the reader – are not “you”. These things have not happened to you – you may sympathise, you may empathise, you may write overlong reviews in obscure literary periodicals, but you cannot experience this thing directly.

Someone in the audience asks the man promoting his new book on humor what makes something funny. His answer is what you expect—context. After a pause he adds that if someone said something, like about someone, and you were with your friends you would probably laugh, but if they said it out in public where black people could hear what was said, you might not, probably would not. Only then do you realize you are among “the others out in public” and not among “friends.”

Through this device Rankine manages to give the white reader a little taste of being one of “the others” while making it clear that they will never fully understand what this means. I am not at all suggesting this was her primary motive in using the second person; it is, though, an intended side-effect.

I suspect some readers have felt this effect and recoiled – they are not used to experiencing an implied universality which does not apply to them – and this is responsible for quite a lot of the “is this poetry?” talk that has been floating about. The most awful thing about this is that it is exactly the sort of delegitimising act that turns up time and again in Citizen, and the people doing it are just as ignorant of the effects of their actions.

So, to return to where we started: is this poetry? I am not going to answer that, because, as I have said, the author has already done so, and needs nobody else’s imprimatur.

I will, though, posit – as a thought experiment – a scenario in which a white man publishes a book in a similar form and ask you to tell me whether we would still be having this conversation. I would also like to wish you all the best for this year, the 125th anniversary of the death of Arthur Rimbaud.

 

[1] Alison Flood, ‘Citizen: Claudia Rankine’s anti-racist lyric essays up for Forward poetry award’, The Guardian, Monday 8th June 2015 (via thegusrdian.com, accessed 10/02/16).

[2][2] E.g. the incident reported in Adam Fitzgerald, ‘”That’s not poetry; it’s sociology!” – in defence of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen’, The Guardian, Friday 23rd October 2015 (via theguardian.com, accessed 10/02/16), or the anecdote I recently heard of a poet doubting its status due to its lack of “magic”. Perhaps the poet in question would have preferred The Hobbit – some parts of that even rhyme.

Claire Trévien, The Shipwrecked House, Rich Mix/Canada Water Culture Space, London

Claire Trévien, The Shipwrecked House, Rich Mix, Shoreditch, 21st September; Canada Water Culture Space, 13th November, £10/8

Reviewed by Lizzy Palmer and Paul McMenemy

[Originally published in LP6/7, Jan/Feb 2015]

We saw this show at different venues about a month apart. The venues were fairly similar, small theatre spaces with tiered seating and a floor-level stage. On both occasions there were around thirty to forty people in the audience. As far as we can work out there were no obvious differences between the performances, with one possible exception which we’ll come to later.

PM: To start with the staging – there was an awful lot of stuff on the stage, which was set up originally to look like the inside of an old house strewn with furniture, boxes and suitcases covered with dustsheets; there were also various bits and pieces hanging from the ceiling from ropes and strings. In some parts, when Trévien was moving between the various props the whole thing reminded me of an oversized Fisher Price Activity Centre, with things being pushed, pulled, swung all over the place.

EP: It was an intriguing way to begin the performance. I felt drawn in quite quickly to the setting through Trévien’s moving through and interaction with the objects on the set, with the sense of nostalgia and rediscovered memory building strongly.

PM: All this stuff on the stage quickly told the audience that this was going to be a performance and not a reading. There is the possibility that the stage was somewhat cluttered, but everything on stage was used in the performance.

EP: The set was well-utilised throughout the piece, but I think after the initial setting of the atmosphere I found the amount of movement became distracting. Then again, it was supposed to be a performance, rather than a straight-up poetry reading! I had not read Trévien’s poetry before seeing the show, so I had no expectations regarding the transformation of the poetry into such a performance.

PM: In fact, it actually takes a little time before we get to the first spoken words of the performance, and even then, they initially come from what sounds like an old Linguaphone tape, which asks a number of standard language learning questions (How old are you? Do you have any brothers or sisters? etc.) to which Trévien replies. I thought this was a nice way of, on the one hand, bringing variety to the staging, and on the other, setting up some very basic back information without things feeling too forced. Of course, as this initial exchange is mostly in French, it ensures that things aren’t too straight-forward.

EP: From the beginning things felt quite ambiguous. I imagine this was deliberate, tying in with the themes of memory and nostalgia (and reminding us of their potential unreliability), and though the hints of dread and the unsettled did not emerge until later on, the feeling of not being quite comfortable in this new environment happened quite quickly for me.

PM: You’re right, the whole thing was rather disorienting, between the cluttered set, Trévien’s constant movement around the stage, the sound design and the language itself. There was an interesting point fairly early on in the piece where the soundtrack is used very effectively, I think – Trévien has been reminiscing about her grandmother’s house, at first in a fairly innocent, rose-tinted sort of a way, but slowly, sinister music begins to undercut this. For a few lines this seems jarring – the language remains sunny, although the performance seems less sure, doubt creeping into Trévien’s voice, and I started to worry that the stagecraft was doing all the work – but then the similes start to go awry, subtly, and the feeling of unease comes to the front.

EP: Yes, this moment served as something of a meeting of the disparate elements, and provided the beginnings of an answer for the odd sense of unease that had been creeping in. I think this held together well as the tension ramped up – the music became louder and more dramatic, and Trévien began to speak more urgently, eventually shouting her lines over the soundtrack – however, I found that, after a while, there was perhaps too much going on, and I struggled to hear the words over the stormy sounds – as the show was based explicitly on Trevien’s poetry, I thought it wasn’t ideal that a lot of the language was missed.

PM: Well, this brings us to the question of who exactly the work is for. As you say, in the ‘storm’ sections some of the words were drowned out, possibly intentionally. For those attending based on Trévien’s reputation as a poet, this might seem rather odd. In fact, although odd excerpts of the collection the show is based on do appear – with poems or parts of poems for the most part seamlessly elided into the narrative, this was very much a show rather than a recital. So, then, was it intended to reach a wider audience – a theatre audience rather than a ‘poetry audience’? If so, I’m not sure how well it succeeded – I can only go on the few people I spoke to before and after, but I suspect most of the audience had, if you like, poetry expectations.

EP: I suppose it depends on Trévien’s intentions regarding who she wished to reach, and one would assume that by extending her work into other forms she might be attempting to expand her audience. Perhaps my standpoint, in coming to see the show in order to write a review for a poetry magazine, meant that I was expecting too much from the poetry context. My viewpoint is perhaps even biased in terms of what I would expect a show based on poetic work to be!

I think I would have benefited from reading Trévien’s collection prior to viewing her show, and I would maybe have acquired more of an understanding of exactly what was being communicated through the language.

On this point, I found I was often lost during sequences due to my not being able to grasp the meaning of a lot of the passages. The imagery was at times beautiful (“her voice sinks like a coin to the ocean floor” and “my mother twists her ring like a weathervane” stand out) but got lost for me among the more surreal and seemingly nonsensical parts. Perhaps this was intentional in terms of the themes of chaos and the misremembered, but I was disappointed at not being given the chance to really get ‘stuck in’ to the language after having being drawn in so well by the initial setting up of the show’s backdrop.

I think the overall problem I had was that, considering the fact that the show was based on the concepts of memory, childhood and nostalgia, and that these themes are based on the personal and subjective, I didn’t feel drawn in quite enough – in other words, I didn’t feel that the audience was made to care enough. A person’s experience and memory is, of course, an exclusive thing (whether or not what we saw in the show was based on autobiographical truth is another matter), but I have to wonder how far we ought to be made to care and invest if we are coming along to view a performance set deliberately around these themes.

PM: I found myself more invested in the performance than I think you did, and I found the themes extremely interesting – as you say, there was a lot about memory and its inherent tricksiness – at the point I mentioned earlier we get the feeling that something bad happened in the house, but it’s not made clear what, or whether it was a real or imagined thing, or if the dreadful thing is simply the fact of no longer being a child, and looking back on the time that’s passed with a certain horror. Perhaps the horrific thing is a loss of belonging – Trévien is a Breton poet writing in English, living in England – her cultural identity is one of the things adrift in this performance. Nationality and nostalgia come together in the third main theme, myth.

So there were lots of evocative moments, and the whole thing, I think, was supposed to have a somewhat dreamlike quality where action consists of discrete moments rather than a through-composed plot. One instance of this was the use of perfume in some performances: I believe this was used in the performance you saw, but I don’t think it was – at least I didn’t notice it – in mine. Scent is of course a shortcut to memory and the emotions.

Similarly, you said you were not “drawn in”, and there seemed to be an intentional resistance to this in the script. We agreed earlier that this was a performance, not a recital, but it is also very clearly a performance as opposed to a story: we are rarely allowed to forget the artificiality of what is going on – at one point Trévien moves to the side of the stage to comment on the action – on herself, or her character. This is something that I really enjoyed about the performance, but if we go back to this issue of intended audience it raises another question. Audiences expecting a more traditional spoken word show will be distracted by the elements of theatre, but theatre audiences would have a hard time with the lack of a linear – or really, any – narrative.

I think this means the show is rather a unique thing and should certainly be seen for oneself, however I do agree that these elements do mean it is only an intermittently immersive experience. I suppose it depends, ultimately, on what you are looking for: if you want a stimulating experience unlike anything else you are likely to see on a stage anytime soon, with interesting themes explored via beautifully inventive language and arresting stagecraft, then I would recommend this. If you are looking for any one thing in particular – to hear poetry, to see a play, to be carried along by a narrative and identifiable characters, then possibly this is not for you.