Truth my arse.
Aquarium, Michael Conley (28pp, £4.50, Flarestack)
The Word Museum,
Richard Moorhead (32pp, £4.50, Flarestack)
Poets is where (according to Flarestack Poets) poets are "forging their
own linguistic connections with the root-ball of experience." Well, here
comes a linguistic connection with the root-ball of experience in the shape
of the first stanza of the title poem of Michael Conley's Aquarium - it also begins the pamphlet, so
the poem must be considered by all those concerned as of some importance. And
it's not every day we come face-to-face with anything as momentous as
connecting with the root-ball of experience. I can't remember the last time I did it. So, sit tight, and hold
on to your hat:
A man in a blue coat walks
and gets in line. The
Tannoy is broken; a fractured buzz
percolates. He lifts his
shirt for the nurse
and mouths My stomach
has become an aquarium.
She nods and hits the
Oh, I hope you don't feel let down. But you have to admit there are things to
admire here. "Tannoy" does indeed require a capital T, since it's a
brand name, and not a generic term, in the same way as "Hoover" is
a brand name. (I know my Alan Partridge.) And I like the way the man's coat
is blue. That really matters.
But there are some problems with the narrative. Don't we usually use the verb
"to mouth" to mean moving the mouth as if speaking words but without making any sound?
If so, does the nurse have to lip read? If the poet is using "to
mouth" instead of "to say" then he is just posturing. And does
the man lift his shirt for the nurse while he is still in line? And what
button does she hit? There is a definite article here, but I'm not sure what
button is being referred to, because there's been no button mentioned up to
that point. I hope it's not his belly button. But I assume that disappeared
when the aquarium took over.
Oh. That's another problem. The stupid bit about his stomach having become an
All these problems, and it's the first stanza of the first poem. The title
In the next stanza, we are told that tinted glass "runs from collar to
waist" - that's not his stomach, it's his torso. I think if you're going
to be what you think is cleverly and whackily surreal the least you can do is
be anatomically accurate - you know, like the real Surrealists were. (Yeah, I know.)
The doctor then "kneels and squints" - why does he have to kneel to
look at the man's body? Is the doctor very tall? Or is the man very short? Or
both? And why would he squint to look at an aquarium? I would have thought he'd need to do the
exact opposite of squint, whatever that might be.
You are probably wondering where this narrative goes next, but I honestly
can't be bothered to tell you. I apologize for my can't-be-bothered-ness but
I'm trying to keep this as brief as is decent. (But to be honest, ripping
this stuff apart is quite enjoyable.)
Anyway, after that initial attempt at some ill-conceived Surrealism, most of
the poems that follow stick to the safer world of sentimentality. I'm sure
the poet would not agree, but that's why we're here, isn't it? To be
objective and not sycophantic. There's a poem about a lover, there's a poem
about schooldays, there's a poem about a grandmother, there's a poem about
something or other that ends with the words "each one is an echo of my
beckoning arms" (which sounds very sentimental to me)... (How many more pages, Stannard? Oh,
really? ) There's a poem about penguins that isn't really about penguins at
all (it's kind of a "social commentary" poem hiding behind
penguins; a very good place to hide) and thinks it's clever. There is a
predictable smattering of anecdotal poems that go nowhere in particular. And
the whole sorry experience ends almost inevitably with someone (a relative,
presumably; it's usually a relative) sick and probably near death.
I gave up trying to find the real value of poetry like this a long time ago,
mainly because there isn't really very much real value in it, and most of the
value it has is for the benefit of the writer, not the reader. There are a
few mildly unusual ideas, but unusual ideas do not make a poem; there's
little understanding of form - line breaks and the like are fairly arbitrary,
because people often think if it looks like a poem then it must be a poem; there is no evidence of
the poet having much of an "ear" for the sound of what he's
committed to paper; and he'll probably win prizes all over the place,
especially if there's a prize for rehashing what's been done many times before.
On top of which, it's all so damn polite and sensitive it doesn't belong
anywhere near me at all.
reason - a reason I couldn't at first put my finger on - I found Richard Moorhead's The Word
difficult to read. Having tried for several minutes to put that finger on why, I came to the conclusion one
reason could be that the words somehow don't flow particularly well, which doesn't
explain it at all, does it? I'll try again. A lot of the time, the poems bump
along in a manner that resists the pleasure of reading. (Yes, that's a lot
This is the first stanza of a sequence entitled "Envelopes", this
particular section of the sequence being "Paper wallet":
Glove within which dreams
or bills dwell.
Dove wings fold the paper
shape of mystery,
the slight plump give of
gusset in the fingers,
several pages thick.
Is it just me? Whatever this paper wallet is I can't see it. And I think I
should be able to. And I really don't know what a paper wallet is - is it an
envelope? If it is, call it an envelope, for goodness sake. Perhaps I'm overstating something,
but I have to make several attempts to get through any of the poems in this
book; I simply can't get moving with them.
But now I know what the real problem is. This is a poet who poses (and I choose my words
carefully) behind willful obscurity. Objects, and what might be ideas, most
of them mundane, lurk behind words which claim a greater significance than
they actually have. Poems often begin, and you don't know where you are, or
what you're looking at - and what you're looking at is actually quite
important, as the entire collection is supposed to be the tour of a house
(the museum of the title) that holds within it .... well, a family story, or
something? I'm not exactly sure. I don't exactly care.
I should mention that the "tour of a museum" idea is given
substance by an italicized prose "guide" prior to each poem. We are
told where we are in the house as we wander through it. But the prose of these little guiding
paragraphs is pretty horrible sometimes. Describing a telephone, for example,
we have "Its case is cracked, like it has been dropped or thrown." Like
it has been dropped? Like?
Heavens. What do they teach them in school these days? Whatever happened to
But as I was saying, I don't care what this museum is a museum of. But I should care. The writer should make me care. Instead he frustrates
me, because instead of being clear (and honest) he is being irritatingly
poetic. It's the kind of poetic that is often deemed meaningful because it sounds meaningful. There's a poem (in
the kitchen) called "Egg" and I really can't be bothered (oh, I can
foresee Mr. Loydell sticking a "That bastard Stannard can't be
bothered" title on top of this piece) to work out what it's about. I
don't think it's about an egg. It begins:
A pendant of unnatural
Your sag of gravity rests
the way a droplet sits
within the saucer of its
and after passing through lines such as
I'm given you to lift
your stretch of stillness
and split it
with a knuckle snag or
stab where there are no
it concludes after seven stanzas with:
Only afterwards I see
the painted shapes of
tumps of heather, a tombstone
smells of baby head
and the dry warmth
of new born cow tongue.
I'm pretty sure this poem is not about an egg. And I'm also pretty sure it's
supposed to be deep and meaningful but there is nothing in the language of
this or any other poem in the collection that invites emotion, or any kind of
engagement. Instead you're invited to admire the poet's turn of portentous
phrase. I am unable to admire, I'm afraid. And there's loads of this kind of
stuff. Here is the first bit of "Mussels":
The sea is hard on you -
the way it sighs at
night. It swells
around your shoals of
drowns your choirs of
silent owl hearts
threads your towers of
shapes that have the
geometry of fate.
Oh please: "choirs of silent owl hearts"? And "shapes that
have the geometry of fate"? What do those things even mean?
Here, for final good measure, are the last lines in the book:
My tongue has slowed.
It cannot curve or even
itself to truth.
Truth my arse. "Linguistic connections with the root-ball of
experience" my arse.