Caught up in the movement

Tattered by Magnets, Tim Allen (Knives, Forks and Spoons)
Elsewhere or Thereabouts, Alasdair Paterson (Shearsman Books)
Northern Soul, Ron Silliman (Shearsman Books)

Tim Allen's Tattered by Magnets is a splendid-looking volume, large-format with plenty of white space and clean, crisp typography. As with much of Tim's writing (he's been very prolific of late, always was, in fact!), this is process-generated work in the sense that there are twelve sections, each section having twelve poems and each poem comprising twelve lines. Each poem is made up of three four-line stanzas. Most lines have between two and four phrases but this varies, sometimes there is only one. Line breaks are replaced by irregular spacing within the lines though there are of course actual line endings with limited use of enjambment. This is the current framing device. If this all sounds a little too formalised (positively Oulipian, in fact) then I can only say that as a device for containing 'controlled madness' it's a process that works very well.

Norman Jope said to me recently while briefly discussing this collection, which he'd just 'dipped into', that Tim's phrases reminded him of Samuel Beckett's - high praise indeed. The content of Tim's poetry is multifarious: there's an embattled, political element which sometimes bristles, is often sardonic and quite militant, as well as being in favour of human values which most of us, hopefully, would be in favour of. Then there's the wit and wordplay, which has become ever more sophisticated - often in a laugh-out-loud sense, too - and ever more integrated into the overall text, even where, as is often the case, the material jars and 'rubs itself up the wrong way'. Quite how he manages to achieve this 'paradoxical truth' is still eluding me in its entirety but I'm getting there, I think. There are moments where the humour comes from a play on grammatical rules, or rather, a breaking down of language to suggest possible points of origin, or perhaps not:

   lubricated hatch           vaporous reverb    spotlight

   face shipped in    frag  ment(gesticule - unit of gesticulation)

   unusual bubble activity    all systems   crouching    grotto

   bubbling grotto     toes re            fracted                   vestibule
       (from 'The Months the Magnets' 1.5)

Like a lot of work in this vein - I'm thinking particularly, in an English context, of Tom Jenks, at the moment - it's quite useful to try and read the poems through quite quickly in order to get a generalised feel for the whole. You can then go back and concentrate on the actual lines - some of these quite astoundingly brilliant ('poets are weird people so avant-garde poets are very weird people/goes without saying') and discover connections and disconnections to your heart's content. This is certainly poetry that can be 'dipped into' but it's always worth taking a section at a time, reading through fast, then more slowly and if this kind of work is to your liking it can be a very enjoyable process:

   beach umbra               umbrella each             shop dummy storm front

   indentured whimsy                  coffin dope idyllic kitsch cycle

   jettisoned squeal aura       soft rock     robot gone            feral

   however stiff            rip it from its       knees to ship's     bell
        (from 'the Labours the Lonely' 10.8)

There's certainly an obsessive intensity to this work which I suspect is reflected in Allen's production rate and if you're even remotely interested in what's going on in the current 'British avant-garde' then I suggest you get hold of a copy of
Tattered by Magnets. Another cracker from Knives, Forks and Spoons.

Alasdair Paterson's new collection covers material which relates to the classical world ('Homerics' and 'In Arcadia') while also being very modern and dealing with popular culture, film, music and the state of Russia. His engagement with Homer feels somewhere between Alice Oswald's recent intervention (Memorial) and the late Christopher Logue's more overt anti-war materials. In 'Age of Glossaries', for example, we get these paragraphs:

wine-dark: contentious epithet for the sea, conjuring up an
   unlikely overlap of colour ranges, though a glorious sunset or
   volcanic ash in the atmosphere (see
Atlantis) may indeed tint
   the marine landscape with red or purple. This locution seems
   to have nothing at all to do with battle stains (see also

   Olympians: soon enough, though, gods lose interest in compet-
   itive puppeteering, in the butcher's bill and the hecatombs of
   offerings, and head off for the feasts and adventures elsewhere.
   Probably they think their own time of reckoning will never
   come. It will come.

Which combines a dour scepticism with a cataloguer's eye for detail and an exploratory approach to both etymology and to possible origins. Paterson is as interested in oral history as he is in the nature of storytelling and in the pleasures of language itself:

   Before all that, a man took his wound and crawled to the
   riverbank and died there. Friends, stained by the skirmish,
   found him .They wept and tried to wash him but were glad that,
   for today, they were still alive. They sang, solemnly enough. The
   water was cool and clear. They drank. Tentatively, they found the
   first words for him.
        (from 'Age of Bards' III)

His poems are always filled with wit, whether charming or humorously devastating as in this aphorism from the final part of 'Homerics' - 'Keep your friends close / but your scapegoats closer'.

The tone of 'The Liverpudliad', prefaced by a line from Adrian Henri ('Liverpool I love your horny-handed tons of soil'.) is mainly more light-hearted, combining a number of puns and references to Beatles songs with a celebration of an emerging popular culture:

   then it was our moment
   the young ones who were
   loosening the sky with diamonds
   to a burglar sound of broken
   glass till there was light
   we'd been forbidden
          (from 'the grapes')

The last poem in this section, which prefaces 'Famous Russian Poet' by way of its title - 'red square' - manages to combine references to
michelle, revolution and
back in the ussr in a few lines while also including the amusing 'mistranslation' -
   did I get it right
   aly did you say
   happiness is a warm
   to be polite vagina
        (from 'red square')
If the tone in 'Famous Russian Poet' is darker - and it is - the section also includes the astonishing poem 'Edge' which I'll quote in its entirety:

   So love let go
   its hold and fell forever:
   a surge of cold,
   like the dead I'd leant above.

   And these days
   I'm drawn to anything
   like steps cut in a rock face,
   parapets and ledges
   and the ground
   beyond the guard rail,

   all the windswept edges,
   all the jagged endings
   of where we think we live.

The first two lines have an echo of Leonard Cohen via Cavafy, I think, yet the mix of the abstract and the vertiginous imagery is both shocking and strangely lyrical. The last three lines could almost be cliche yet they are so resonant and powerful that they utterly work. This is a very clever poem and also one which appears heartfelt, quite an achievement. Whether it's a metaphor for a general political predicament is harder to tell but it's certainly an arresting piece.

I get the feeling that Paterson is a seasoned traveller as 'Magic Abroad' has the feel of a not entirely unkind satire on tourism (from West to East) which combines imagination and empathy with experience, while 'Lenin Street' suggests the harsh aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union and the ambivalent feeling this provoked in its citizens:

   In our old Siberia, at least we knew
   how to deal with snow. Whose fault it was
   when things went wrong. What to do about that.

'In Arcadia', the final section, prefaced by quotations from Sidney and Shakespeare,
comprises a suite of poems around the themes of literary pastoral, dreams, shepherds,  princesses and seafaring adventures. In this sense we are back in 'Homer's world' with the added ingredient of the 'golden age'. There is melancholy and there is song and there is a sense of 'variations on a theme', both in terms of the poems' subject matter and in their short-line circular rhythms. These are neat lyric poems which combine the new with the traditional and which make an orderly ending to this impressive and largely disorderly collection of poems:

   so closed my eyes
   so woke again to
   a port with
   its sea names
   with its
   name for me
   a welcome home
   and salt tears

   answered only

   I was in
     (from 'In Arcadia')

I love the kind of writing which features in Ron Silliman's Northern Soul - the title suggested by Silliman's various visits to Lancashire as participant in the Bury Text Festivals. This is a full on, take-it-all-in, energy-fuelled composition, which flits between countries and is wonderfully unafraid of juxtaposing the immediate intake of observation and information, with more measured thinking and thought-processing. It's impossible, I find, not to be 'taken in' with the celerity of the shifts, the speed of the transmissions and the sheer breathtaking nature of the project with its intake of materials and strange collaging method which combines humour with weirdness and an over-abundance of sheer 'stuff' which nevertheless holds together in a satisfying and yes, dare I say it, entertaining fashion.

Take this extract from early on in the book:

   Of course there's a story
   The only tile
there above the stove
   chickpea puree
   beside the perfect trout
   sprouts roasted
   alongside apples
   in maple cider
   so the first taste is sweet
   Cranes in the brain
   in the rain
           in the pond
   beyond which
   a train
   silhouettes the horizon
   which, when it whistles,
   sends these long birds aloft
        (p 21)

This is a poetry which has a political aspect, for sure, in its formal structure and via occasional snippets of content which suggest a leftward leaning viewpoint but it's also great fun to read, with its short-line yet expansive narrative threads, where everything commingles, the domestic, the political, the act of travel and movement, its breathtaking flourish feeling both speeded-up and at times slowed-down. There are plenty of entertaining puns and traditional poetic techniques - as located in the above section - yet the body of the text creates cohesion amid an array of multifarious imagery and recording. So there is time to pause and to think, to consider, even when you're mainly caught up in the constant onward-flow, which to this reader's eye feels very optimistic and modern, not without a critical edge but mostly caught up in the moment which is experienced in a benign and pleasurable play of light: 'Warm air / blasts through the vents / Is that a / true constituent?' Wonderful stuff. I want more!

     © Steve Spence 2014