Raven, Alan Wall (26pp, £6.50, Shearsman
Rain Down Can, Kit Fryatt (34pp, £6.50,
Small History, Seren Adams (34pp, £6.50,
After so many years of concentrating on
full-length collections, Tony Frazer of Shearsman Books last year launched a
new series of pamphlets, Shearsman Chapbooks. Their production is well up to
the imprint's high standards, clean, uncluttered and durable, the covers
wearing much more of a livery than Shearsman has been wont to use. The range
of authors is deliberately wide - from those still in the early stages of
their careers but meriting a readership in advance of their first bigger
collection, to more established names with self-contained sequences around
the 20-25 poems mark.
Turning to the better-known names first, one can only salute Alan Wall's
chutzpah in launching straight into Hughesspeak in his first poem in the
Raven was astounded when
Now where, he wondered,
did the snake learn that?
Are there summer schools
these days down there?
Distance learning for
even those descended from
an unendowed urethra?
(from 'Raven and Serpent')
A careless reading might see this blend of the mythic and the
anthropomorphic, centred on a corvid with just a little more cachet, as the
vain strivings of another poet to become visible in the shadows cast by the
church of Crow, via the songs of a Mytholmroyd
tribute band or strenuous attempts of a Corvid Liberation Front to reclaim
the treetops for other poets.
But linger with the poems awhile, and you will see, as well as all the things
the poems are not (alternative
cosmology, anti-Genesis, vision of apocalyse, red-clawed combat with God and
self ), all the things that they have to offer - poise, control, mordancy.
This raven is a rather European figure, urbane and well-travelled, grounded
continental history (often dire enough) and geography (Ravenna, Ravensbruck),
a habitue not of Trickster narratives but of emblem books and their precise
equivalences, integral to the scenery and the ecosystem with a weakness for
Never once doubted that
the world was round
while your flat-footed
took care they didn't
look over the edge of things
The world designed to fit
exactly in each eyeball
ours or yours.
Something we ponder
There's some very good writing here; persist through the first impressions
and you'll be well-rewarded.
There's certainly a tremendous verve in
Kit Fryatt's Rain down can, with a mix of
slant narratives and an emotional load that references old ballads and lyrics
such as Western wynd. Her appreciation of that
magical segue in Planxty's first album, from Raggle taggle gypsy o to Tabhair dom do lamh, takes me
back to my own years in the soft rain of Cork. Fryatt is playful, with
word-games, variations in line and length and dynamic outbreaks of rhyme
giving the poems a kind of performance feel - but they also have a very
strong page presence, their complexity in fact demanding movement through
them at the pace and with the instant rewind of the eye. The reader is never
allowed to get too settled, too comfortable - some fresh piece of invention,
some unforeseen swerve, takes us into uneasy places.
you are not so Sweet to
as aince ye wer
but then, how could you
There's been time
for sugar & elastic
to go out the gum.
Call up that pooch
& watch the
pucker, bugle, gnash.
Bimbo and me lit out
for a lightshow
in this Teutonic grot.
My garter's tight
as a tourniquet
but not as this vice
my head's pinned in
wrist & ankle buckle
tongue guard, and begin.
(from 'Crude black strap')
Finally, the prose poem. The line that's
not for turning till the margin looms. So difficult to tread that fine line -
on the one hand, there's the tendency to the monotone, the monochrome, the lack
of spirit, the leaching-out of vitality, the tight-lipped strain that comes
from cutting out too much; on the other, the word or phrase (or two) extra
that affects the set-up, that slackens the rigging and lags the forward
motion, the temptation to lapse into self-indulgence and fine writing,
loading cargos of the precious till the good ship Poetic Prose settles low in
the water. Without benefit of the paradoxical freedoms and spaces of metre,
without the concealment and revelation and reinforcement of meaning that the
line endings of free verse can play with, the writer of prose poems may well
believe that her/his medium is the most demanding test of poetical
sensitivity, of linguistic antennae, that there is.
Seren Adams enters this part of the forest with a certain engaging
insouciance. Her lines, mainly in prose poem form but sometimes shrinking to
a more slender verse, are controlled, pared but driven on by an obvious
engagement with place and the lives lived there. Not a forest, exactly, at
least not recently, but the Somerset Coalfield, approached not through the
mis-guidings of the psychogeographer but via excavation and clean
all that remains, since trees grew over the valley. Small traces
can be found
beneath the new growth still: a piece of rock uprooted from
an enduring metal post, a slip of disuses track running nowhere,
space where a building once stood, the scattered birches.
landscape remembers every language, each dialect to have filled its
History is what it speaks, its mother tongue. It speaks to you, if
through the quiet and stillness, soft spoken. You can look and
miss it all,
live within it and not know.
Adams finds and re-establishes the connections you would expect - the
millennia of vanishings and transmutations, the waxing and waning of lives
and settlements that depended on the coal, the losses and changes of our own
lives, the metaphors for working the seams of language. She escapes most of
the pitfalls of the prose poem already raised, though occasionally the
listings purged of grammatical connectors leave the clauses stacked like
planes waiting to land. And on the whole the collection is accomplished and
sometimes moving, a work of promise, though these initial engagements with
the big themes of landscape seem more in the nature of skirmishes, bringing
on this occasion nothing really unexpected or particularly penetrating,
rather affecting none the less. A name to watch.
Alasdair Paterson 2013