Dan Wyke's poetry is accomplished and very readable, the
sort of writing that makes you crave more of it. He has a way with unexpected
and arresting similes which make you pause for thought and interrupt the flow
yet you carry on refreshed and somehow more conversant with the 'half
glimpsed and half understood' than you were before:
third-, maybe fourth-hand black
fisherman's jacket, so stiff and thick
that when put
down stands of its own accord
like a cobra
charmed by its posture, a wigwam,
worn by the invisible Man. More
its backbone seam has kept me from
its hidden pocket held my heart
in place when
tugged towards the sleeve.
You could argue that there's an agenda here, a hint of a platonic shadow
world perhaps, a spiritual significance but it seems to me that the
'argument', if there is one, is more of a humanist plea, a calling out from a
deep sense of isolation to a place where self-acceptance is both warming and,
hopefully, leads to conviviality. Other than this, of course, it's simply a
poem about a much-loved coat!
Wyke finds unusual ways of saying things we can all relate to without in any
way diminishing the individuality of the actual experience. Many of the poems
in this collection are to do with bereavement, sadness and loss yet he is
exceptionally gifted with an ability to both 'tug the heartstrings' and thus
create a community of empathy with his readers while also making it new. He
does this without in the least resorting to sentimentality, an astonishing
achievement. Take this short poem for example:
moment when, mid-breath,
face replaces her own;
a mask behind
there is no
and as her
wing its way to heaven -
ceasing to suffer -
how easily we
leave her bed,
outside as it is
released from prison;
In 'The Final Scene' he describes the ending of a relationship with a precise
and chilling evocation:
unfolds a duvet
their flaking fluids,
goodnight from her doorway.
Fully-clothed, I lie on the futon,
the light under her door
to her murmuring coyly on the phone.
This is not, existentially, a place you want to be, but Wyke's
expressionistic description is succinct and effective in its materiality and
that last long line is coolly emphatic!
There's a pervasive Buddhist atmosphere around these poems and empathy is a
key term. Wyke is almost at his best when writing about animals:
one trotted slowly behind
drew level, then reared
head and bowed down softly
to touch the
other's neck, entwining
horses when they wake.
Or take this extract from 'Cat': 'slick purring engine/powered with more than
mechanical ease,/ until something that shall remain a secret/tells it to
There's a sense of playfulness in this writing, an expansive and generous
giving which celebrates mystery and what we don't understand but not in any
'new-age' empty-headed manner. Wyke's work combines a generosity of 'spirit'
with a linguistic adventurousness and an enquiring mind yet he is striving,
it seems to me, to be at ease with the world and in his own skin, delving
into a wealth of experience which is both dark yet common to us all and also
In 'Fleadh' we are given a series of impressions of musicians playing in
tandem and soloing. From Whistler we
entranced, like snakes by a charmer,
to watch his
thick-fingered hands typing
toyshop stick a calligraphy of notes
loops in the air, leading us by the ear,
the other players.
which contrasts with the 'stampeding hooves' of the bodhran and the harpist who is 'playing rain
with her fingers'. Evocative, precise and energetic.
I still find a lot of what I'm going to generalise as being 'mainstream'
poetry to be so closed in on itself, straining after that containing and
underlining ending which has to be the last word and reeks of control. Wyke's
work, though of the mainstream, isn't remotely like this and it's a pleasure
to read even in its darker moments. Highly recommended.
D M Thomas has a way with comparisons which both seem to
encapsulate and to throw up disturbing images. Take the poem 'Images' from
the first section of this collection, entitled 'Travelling with a
London for a Congress,
Kensington Square lodgings
pulled on his
flat cap and hurried out
icecold brain, one sight
piercing Tartar eyes:
fish-and-chips he relished.
On the Kolyma
Soviet journal Nature,
They hacked out the
old fish from the ice,
thawed it and
I'm not sure whether you can strictly describe a salamander as being a fish
but you get the picture. The parallel is both arresting and grimly comic,
dealing with the big subjects of the 20th century while making its
political point neatly - some would say too neatly - and incorporating
domestic details, which combine the epic with the mundane. I've no idea
whether Lenin actually loved fish and chips but I'm willing to give D M
Thomas the benefit of the doubt. There's a lot going on in this poem
nonetheless and its techniques are expanded in 'A Jewish Tryptich', which
takes disturbing vignettes from the holocaust and describes the horror in a
somewhat detached manner:
Then he shot them all
with the one
shot. 'Please, we're sisters,'
begged; 'let us die together.'
nodded, happy to blend
screamed when she
into the fire,
but you can't
Incident at Auschwitz')
Thomas, best known as the novelist who wrote The White Hotel, is fond of combining the dark materials of 20th
century horror with an erotic dimension which is often filtered through
Freudian dreamscapes, sometimes working in taboo areas beloved of the
surrealists. In 'Learning to Translate' he recalls or invents an early sexual
awakening which is troubled and confused and mixes desire with disgust and
displays the deep abyss between the child/adolescent and the adult world:
hardly have been angrier
Germans he'd bombed.
I must have
done something terrible.
(from 'Learning to Translate').
In fact one of his major concerns seems to be around the issue of sexual
taboo and its relation to violence and to warfare and the way in which
violence is often seen to be less of a problem than sexuality. This is deep
water and while I don't think Thomas always negotiates it successfully he
does at least make the effort, which is more than can be said for many.
There are some less heavily laden poems here, I'm glad to say, including a
memoir of Thomas's late friend
Peter Redgrove ('Easter Reading') even where this piece is filtered through
an anxiety dream. Some of the less dark erotic material almost has a
Betjeman-esque quality, as in 'Suspender Belts' though there is also a
melancholy, death-awareness aspect to this poem, redeemed in an almost desperate
manner by a
claim on the more permanent nature of love, though this itself feels ironic
and not entirely convincing.
'Dover beach is located in europe' is a poem apparently based on a student's
critique of Arnold's poem which Thomas discovered on a website. It's slightly
difficult to determine the tone of this piece as at one level Thomas is
clearly exhibiting the not entirely unreasonable response of a disaffected
lecturer (which he once was, I believe) on coming across the howlers and
errors of an uninterested or uninformed student. But the piece also has an
irrepressibly comic aspect which I feel allows a degree of ambiguity into the
Arnolds is by
now an old vet,
personally thru the hellish haze
of omaha n
all, to when he begged a doll stay true,
seemed true in the whole world.
means a lot to me,
I may write
more bout it so y'all should get
back over to read more ltr days.
(from 'Dover beach is located in europe')
Howard Jacobson would have nightmares but there's more to this than meets the
eye. Thomas is an interesting poet. His style and opinions and
pre-occupations don't always appeal to me but there's something going on here
and it's useful to be reminded that he's still putting out work of this
quality. There is a range of poetry in this stimulating collection, including
a near sonnet written from the viewpoint of Fanny Brawne and other high
literary pieces, which refer to Shakespeare's sonnets, for example, as well
as material which has less lofty origins. Well worth dipping into.
Mike Barlow is a visual artist as well as being a poet and
the cover art of Charmed Lives - 'The Logician's Sense of Herself' - is a
colourful construction which references some of the key themes and names of
classic modernist art. The poems in this collection have a wide range but a
common factor appears to be that the characters and personas are mainly 'up
against it', surviving and even sometimes flourishing against the odds. For
example, Uncle Harold who 'died at 86, cheating at crib', used to peel off
his shirt to reveal his tattoo of the Bayeux Tapestry, an eccentric chauffeur
who obviously failed to 'tick any of the boxes' and was clearly the better
for it (from 'Masterpiece').
In 'The Gift of Words' Barlow throws light on the rarely explored subject of
from his mouth,
mid-conversation, a propos
of nothing but themselves,
from a black logic.
This is both 'in-your face' and humorous yet provocative and thoughtful in
the sense that the poem questions the way which our labels - our WORDS, in
fact - determine the way in which we are judged and in fact make judgements
on others. There's a definite sense of the subversive in these poems, a kind
of alternative worldview 'from below' although Barlow is rarely as caustic or
irrepressibly scatological as Ian Duhig, for example, who works a similar
I loved the brevity and playful darkness of 'Heads' where we get:
a stake. Traitor's gate.
English betrayal. The barge
Queen. None escapes.
which combines myth and archaeology with an Alice-in-Wonderland sense of the
bizarre, a dream turned nightmare which is suggestive of a sophisticated but
If I have a criticism to make it's that occasionally the endings of these
poems feel a little too well formed, too predictable in the sense of rounding
off the subject and having the final word, which of course they don't. I'm
being picky though as I mainly enjoyed reading Barlow's work which is well
constructed and often challenging and provocative.
Alec Newman at The Knives, Forks and Spoons Press appears
industrious and prolific in the sheer quantity of new writing he is
publishing. The quality of this varies though it has to be said on the
evidence of this book that the production values have gone through the roof.
I've not come across Dylan Harris before - he appears to live in France - but
this chunky tome with landscape layout includes both images (mainly
photographs, distorted and tampered with in many cases) and text. There are 4
longish poems, each other page being complemented by an image. Again, the
writing varies in quality, some of it is rather good and some I'm not so sure
about and it all has a 'beat-like' feel, grasping the immediate and
transitory and running with the ball. Each poem is printed in a different
colour - blue, red, grey and orange - and I have to say that while I quite
liked the combination of light grey (on white paper!) in an aesthetic sense,
it was damned hard to read and surely this defeats the object unless you're
deliberately setting out to alienate the reader, in which case I'd say
success is assured.
Harris writes in English but drifts in and out of passages of French and
German, which is also slightly irritating if your French is as bad as mine
but you can go with the flow as the writing even at its worst isn't difficult
to engage with. I was (again) slightly irritated by some of the more obvious
rhymey stuff on the grey text pages, which added somewhat to the irritation!
I enjoyed a lot of the images for what they were, although quite how they
relate to the text seems unclear and possibly isn't important. There was a
'double-image' shot of a tram, deliberately printed the wrong way round,
which I was very taken with and some of the 'wave' imagery and glass
reflected material, while a bit old hat perhaps, was nevertheless visually
appealing. I'm not sure exactly what the image on page 70 is but its textural
qualities and its colour combinations are stunning and I actually liked the
idea of being unable to be certain of its origin:
in a pub of
two newly women
one fires her
and her hair
says she's trying too hard
that leave so
much caress undressed
raw her own self-portrait
glance was mercantile
i was about
to buy a drink
yet the smile
scent of shocked basil
on a humid
This reminds me a little of the young Lloyd Robson in its concern with
recording the moment and its demotic immediacy although Harris's work
possibly has less 'attitude'. This is writing which shows promise though I
think there is a way to go. It may be that this mix of artwork and poetry
will become a more common feature and I guess this isn't necessarily a bad
thing, though there may be a problem of lack of focus. I enjoyed this debut
collection as a mild refresher and look forward to seeing more of Harris's
work in the future.
© Steve Spence