Mathew Mead, Walking Out of the World
A. B. Jackson, Fire Station

Julian Turner, Crossing the Outskirts

Joe Winter, Guest and Host

Donald Ward, Adonis Blue

(all Anvil Press £7.95)



Mathew Mead's Walking Out of the World is something of a curate's egg. It plays with a range of poetic forms (villanelle to triolet) but to very little effect except to demonstrate a quirky versatility of style ('An Unrhymed Villanelle', 'A double Villanelle', and 'A Badly Bloated Villanelle'). Most of the poems are derivative and slight (as far as poetic significance is concerned) and seem to exist merely to show off Mead's sense of the playful. The poems where this is most obvious are those comprising the sequence 'Eleven Little Poems'. Most of these are so frivolous they go beyond anything that could be thought of as 'nonsense verse'. For example:

     Teeth to which other teeth were fixed
     Teeth on which other teeth were hung
     Are drawn and gone and leave unmixed
     A total triumph to the tongue
          ('In the Mouth')

And:

     A spectre is haunting Germany –
     The spectre of Germany.
          ('From the German')

Neither can these lines be thought of as insightful or witty in a gnomic or epigrammatic sense; and they are insufficiently self-conscious to be considered postmodern. There is also an anachronism (which I doubt is ironic) in some of phrasing of the more serious poems that is redolent of Georgian poetry:

     Playing beyond that mortal shade
          ('Grown–ups')

     Men like beasts but born of woman,
     False to all but flesh and blood,
     We shall face the day with doom on –
     Beast like man like manlike god
          ('With a
Styptic Pencil')


     For men with early deaths to die
     Crossing four hundred yards of mud.
     Exploding on a tracered sky
     A lot of God went west for good.
           ('At the Turn')

Other poems have phrases reminiscent of Eliot ('I'll lie and hear the old refrain / Of empty buses going by' – 'Villanelle of the Unslept Night') and Coleridge/Blake ('Who in their man-made
fibres dare' – from 'The First Cold Mornings'), but not all the poems are derivative or merely technical feats. Poems such as 'After the Break', although formally conservative and conventional in tone and register does facilitate hermeneutic possibilities:

     The time left hers
     and all again in order;
     we wait as we must wait –
     the unborn
     to be born,
     the undead
     still to die

As does the following from 'You in Your Small Corner':

     noise and news from far and now
     sounds unheard and sounds uncanned
     breast-beat like a broken vow
     base-note like a lost command

And poems such as 'The Drill', 'The Space Where I stood', and 'One: Set Up' each achieve something of this affect. But the overall content of this volume is uneven.

The blurb on the back cover of Fire Station
by A.B. Jackson reads: 'Without being obscure, these poems are harsh, inventive, compassionate, disturbing'. Yet to derive any satisfying pleasure from this collection one would have to be familiar with the philosophical and artistic references that litter this volume. There are references to the painters Henri Rousseau, Paul Gauguin, Petrus Christus and Rembrandt; the philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and David Hume; the poets Roberto Juarroz and Charles Baudelaire; the scientists Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon; the entertainers Harry Lauder and Bela Lugosi; and those unclassifiable such as Phineas Gage (the most famous patient to have survived severe damage to the brain), the psychiatrist R.D. Lang and the twelfth century Northumberland monk St Aelred of Rievaulx. The poems are academic in the sense that they are knowing and nonchalant in tone. They leave nothing for the reader to respond to poetically. In 'David Hume Considers the Moon' the whole point of the poem (framed as the thoughts of Hume) is to reveal that Hume did not think miracles possible. The poem concludes:

     Clouds will burst with rain, not pairs or plums.
     Miracles make a mincemeat of reason.

     To get to this we have six stanzas of lines such as:

     Compare the two: a goose feather, a town.
     Breezes blow. Imagine the town
airborne.
     The chance of such unearthly violation

     is next to nothing

These may, or may not, be examples Hume used in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
but they have little poetic resonance in the way Jackson has utilized them in this stanza. This is further evidenced in the following lines from 'Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh':

     The night air carried nothing but the city;
     The sky, a slate grey-blue beyond routine
     bankruptcy, the government of loss.
     Blackbird, rattling its thicket, had no
     ear for trumpets. Spring intuited itself.
 
This being said 'The Sleeping Gypsy', which refers to the painting of the same name by Henri Rousseau, is sufficiently connotative and therefore poetic:

     My best dream came
     And found me as I slept
     It came
     on four legs with a heavy head
     Its ribcage rose and
     fell it came so
     soft it broke my heart and held me
     small within its eye

These lines, although mimetic when read in conjunction with a viewing of the painting, when read independently of such a viewing do have a connotative force that few of Jackson's other poems in this collection achieve.


Julian Turner's Crossing the Outskirts is an intelligent collection covering a wide range of subjects ('from the interpenetrating identities of these islands to the fugitive colours of actual love' – Ian Duhig) and skilfully managing the fine balance between the general and the particular. 'Glider Pilot' begins in the standard British mainstream descriptive/defamilarization/empirical mode ('the tarmac licked / its long tongue out' to describe the runway) but then diverts to a more poetic register with:

     Love sometimes rooted, though, above the mess
     where thirsts were slaked and loneliness expressed
     in drunken blazes. The tortured will confess
    
with lips apart beside a pale breast.

And 'The Start of Something New' manages to produce some effective imagery 'her eyes like pike below / the lake-ice of morphine' and:

     And now over the hedges, their white floss
     of smiling blossoms, a figure
     with my mother's hair
     beginning her waiting game.

However, 'The Magnificent History of English' is too mimetic and rather mundane in subject matter:

     Together, we have trawled through the photo albums
     and found Ida – the great aunt I remember
     fluttering in her chair beside the fire
     in Hitchin, frail, her hands afraid like birds.

But 'White Herd' is more suggestive and poetic with its alliteration and rhyme unobtrusive yet essential so as to evoke an almost Blakean cadence:

     As Lilith walks the wilderness in storms,
     or flame-tongues wrap around a schooner's mast
     to tell the sailors that the worst has passed
     when fury rolls the sea to mammoth forms,
     they graze the city's rim, their souls revealed

Overall, the collection is good despite, at times, blurring the line between poetry and short story vignette.


Joe Winter's Guest and Host
according to the back cover blurb 'records the experience of being welcomed into the household of a foreign country' and does so well. But again, we have a curate's egg of a collection. Many of the poems deal with the quotidian and leave one feeling exhausted by exposure to the mundane:

    
Uncle Kanai is outside again.
    
He's slung his shoes off – great wooden boats
     That sail the sea-road. When he visits Father
     He hails us, marching up the path …
     Then soon heaves to, a hero in a chair.

And again in 'Highway 34':

     Sometimes when I walk where trees were tall
     I am in a prisoner-of-war camp debating poetry
     with Colonel-General Loblein. Hostilities were over
     and I was in charge of the German Officers' 'hostel'
     outside Jessore. As part of my duties
     I re-interpreted the Geneva Convention on canteen rights.

The majority of the volume comprises two long poems. The first a sonnet-sequence ('Guest and Host') named after the collections title, and the other a poem on the 2001 earthquake in Kutch ('Earthquake at Kutch'). 'Guest and Host' is predominantly lyrical in register:

     India I have begun to know your stories
     as something closer than chaotic dream,
     a world more present. To pictured furies, glories,
     a little more is breathed in […]

'Earthquake at Kutch', however, is less so:


     Shadows of trees, branch-shadows, shadows of leaves
     stray in the dust. Only the trees are standing.
     Slight shapes chequer a quiet space of ground.


All in all this is a good collection if somewhat limited in scope and subject matter.

Donald Ward's collection Adonis Blue
is firmly grounded in visual description. Nevertheless, the descriptions are so interestingly rendered that the resultant loss of poetic potential becomes irrelevant as you watch how cleverly Ward uses defamilarization on the 'objects of the real'. In 'East Side', the poet is at a railway station waiting for his train. The lights above him are 'Yolks of battery eggs'; and trains that pass 'suck' the rail like snails. Eventually his train arrives and he ponders on the monotony of the commuter's life:

     But the same journey for fifteen years
     is worse than illness

This is essentially the poems theme. Yet it has taken nearly thirteen lines of visual comparison to convey it. Similarly in 'Cyclist on the Main Road' we see Ward's descriptive powers at work in the way he defamiliarizes cyclists and the sound their bicycle tyres make on the road:

     Each of these drivers is human
     yet they sound like the sea.

Both defamilarization and inferred simile achieve the affect of comparing the noise of the tyres to the noise  of the sea. Having established this, Ward then hones in on the metaphorical properties of the cycles' tyres:

     I lean on air, the heat of their tyres
     cremate as they pass.

Both the heat produced by the tyres and their literal contents comprising 'air' are harnessed by Ward to create an even more precise visual description. When Ward is not describing things, he writes discursively in a philosophical tenor with few images:

     Suffering brings penetration to the mind
     Already able to explore distinctions
     And achieve fine grains of hope
     And even to more passive souls
     Suffering brings a presence
          ('Suffering')

The best poem in this collection is 'Adonis Blue' which is very short but compensates by being evocative:

     More blue than the bluest sky
     You do not see the grass
     from which they rise—
     all, all, is blue

     hanging like heaven just above your head
     a swarm of angels in the morning sun
     brighter than day
     before the day begins

Although seemingly grounded in a rendering of the objects ostensibly described (presumably trees) we have instead a subversion of this process. This results in a slight disassociation of meaning away from the 'described' referents and in favour of more plural meanings. This is the essence of poetic language yet it appears infrequently in Ward's collection. This is not to say that he is a bad writer. He definitely knows how to turn a phrase and his poems are sincere and well considered.


         © Jeffrey Side 2005