Escape this Inevitable Sinking

Michelle Marie Jacquot – Deteriorate (www.michellemariejacquot.com, 2021)

Poetry is meant to hit you. Words, hard as notes, pulsing through everyday consciousness. Impacting on the soul.

How to achieve this? Performance poetry is one direction. In America in particular performance has developed its own styles, own forms, own specific cadences. Being American, its competitive. Being competitive, it’s crowd pleasing, unpretentious, direct.

But what makes a good performance poem doesn’t a good written poem make. Powerful speech sounds trite on the page. Slogans and rallying cries sound hollow, vacant; without content.

Michelle Marie Jacquot is a poet who is out to bridge this gap.

Her new chapbook, Deteriorate, sits right between the spoken and the written. She uses the page as a canvas, laying out her words for precise visual impacts. Bursts that one can’t help but hear, despite their music being visual. It’s all still composition.

Her subject is the digital. Sure, this can sound a bit millennial at times (gen Z seems more concerned with winning arguments online than the fact our whole lives have now been mediatised), but it’s refreshing to hear these old frustrations.

The collection opens with the hope that after reading, we turn off our phones and never turn them on again. This is signed “The Irony / and Me”. The poem’s title: “THIS POEM WAS CREATED ON A COMPUTER”.

The double-bind is meaningful. Why? Well, firstly, because none of us have the option of turning off anymore. Sure you can switch off your Facebook, but that’s tantamount to switching off your distant relatives, or your meet-up-once-a-year friends.

Facebook “friends” and real-life friends have blurred. We think we can separate the meaning of those two words as if they’re different. Perhaps not.

Secondly, it’s about poetry. The will to make an impact using words, but not knowing whether these should sit potent on the page, waiting for a reader, or rush out of the mouth in search of ears that can’t turn away.

Lines like: “I’d like to rip my hair out / one by one and count them all / to have something more living / to look at in my palm”, make a powerful, if ambiguous impact on the page. Read aloud, however, with a hand miming an iphone, or maybe an actual iphone in hand, both solidifies the image and, in doing so, drains its potential depth.

And so, ultimately, it’s also about language. Do we say what we mean to say, or are we mysterious? Too much mystery is dark, muddled, confusing. Too much clarity is a bright light, fixing us in place. The linguistic arts sit between, but where between is the constant struggle.

All of us, poets writing and unwriting, experience this struggle. Humans picked up words like a tool, but now we can’t put it down, we’re a part of their machine. They seem so unreal, but if you try, you’ll find you can’t live much without them.

“This world is just a simulation that has real life consequences,” writes Jacquot. (Or does she speak it?)

She moves from irony, to despair, to anger. She can laugh at the contradictions. She can declare it all over. Jacquot is battling with the substance of things. Word and world. It’s an unwinnable battle; but its only unwinnable battles – battles where we are our own worst enemy – where real art can emerge.

Even if that real art is only a simulation.

Zoe Islander-Bax

Spinal Columns

Nicholas Royle – White Spines: Confessions of a Book Collector (Salt, 2021)

Passion is contagious. Stamp collections, train rides, K-Pop, motorbike engines, pop-up books, knitting: all things I have zero interest in myself, but have I sat, listening, rapt, while an enthusiast explains them.

Nicholas Royle’s new book, White Spines, falls into this category of experience. I read, yes, and enjoy a well-made book, but Royle’s Sisyphean effort to curate the perfect Picador collection is as alien to me as a long weekend spent trainspotting.

But this is why we read books, right? To see through other people’s eyes.

The small text in Picadors doesn’t bother Royle, as he feels no requirement to actually read the books. The white spines that I find so dull and uniform are transformed, on his white bookcase, into a perfect collection; a marble column, memorialising his persistent efforts.

White Spines recounts his book hunt with all the meticulous attention to detail one would expect from a true collector.

He professes his love for the nouveau roman, which is suitable, as, for example, the chapter listing all the inscriptions he has found in second-hand Picadors would not be out of place in a Robbe-Grillet. Le voyeur (des livres)

Stories are entwined with the collecting. Second-hand book shops make regular appearances; their grumpy owners and pretentious clientele. Friends and fellow-writers are also recalled.

Adrian Slatcher (a review of whose book appears in this issue) confirms his Mancunian omnipresence by appearing in Didsbury Oxfam. Other regulars include Helen Derby, David Gaffney and the other Nicholas Royle (the literary theory one).

Robert Gutfreund-Walmsley of the Didsbury Book Shop, behind the Art of Tea, is charmingly remembered, from his singing to his sky-high prices. Shaun Bythell, owner of The Bookshop in Wigtown, and author of Confessions of a Bookseller, makes an appearance too.

Chorlton Oxfam, New Mills’ High Street Books, Scrivener’s in Buxton, Abacus in Altringham, Stockport Record and Book Fair; they’re all here.

One of Royle’s self-imposed rules is that he can only hunt his Picadors in the wild – meaning second hand book shops. No Amazon. No Abebooks.

Although of course, like every book-buyer, Royle breaks his own rules quite often, driven by that bizarre compulsion we all recognise. The Book Gods soon punish him though, as the internet routinely sells him wrong editions; close enough for a reader perhaps, but not for a collector.

There is something antiquarian about this collecting, then. A commitment to a diminishing set of objects (Picador no longer produce the white spine editions; the decision to drop the classic layout is much lamented) sourced from establishments that are themselves rapidly diminishing in number.

A tragic scene towards the end shows us Chorlton Oxfam under Covid conditions. The robotic repetition of the girl on the door:

“Do you want to take a basket? Just so we know how many people are in the shop. Anything you pick up and don’t buy put in the box. Do you want to take a basket? Just so we…”

I remember that scene. I left straight away, went to the bakery over the road and was told off there for walking in “the wrong side of the door”. I’ve not been to another physical shop since then, and won’t be doing until everything is lifted.

Royle won’t be put off by a few Covidbots, however. He is unstoppable in his search. Lockdown might have enforced a brief hiatus, but he has used the downtime to interview former Picador editors and the illustrators responsible for their iconic covers. Then he wrote this book.

As the author of Quiz Night – a book recreating my weekly pub quiz – I recognise all the same bittersweet enthusiasm in White Spines.

Nostalgia as an antidote to despair. To continue in the imagination pleasures now banned in practice.

To label this a book for book collectors is to miss the point. I came out of it no more interested in collecting than when I went in (although, I admit, it has given me a new appreciation for Picador covers).

Instead, it’s a book about passion. About everyday compulsions. About our strange worlds, and the joys that make them habitable.

It’s also entrancingly written. Light, breezy, and impossible to put down. It’s a beautifully made book, replicating the classic Picador style (a brave move from Salt!). All of which makes it a book that’s well worth collecting.

Joe Darlington

The Problem of England

Robert Sheppard – Bad Idea and Adrian Clarke – Euromancer (both Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, 2021)

Here are two poets very close to my own heart. Both are put out by Knives, Forks and Spoons Press.

In his English Strain project Robert Sheppard ‘translates’ or versions sonnets. Shearsman put out the first volume. Here, in volume 2, he processes Michael Drayton’s 1619 sonnets into the Brexit clusterfuck, weaving in traces of British dogging hotspots.

The basic premise, you might say, seems a bit random. A jagged, salvaged piece of a smash between the arbitrarily historic and the accidentally-discovered profane. And so it is. You may even argue that this makes the work less than incisively conceptual. But I will be so bold as to state that its basic modus operandi makes it Art with a cap A.

Because why would anyone make a piece of work that was scalpel-clean cerebral, at this point in history? The confusing, the confused, the idiotic, the hypocritical, the absurd, the total ballsup, the moronic, the drooling, the dangerously narcissistic, somebody caught in the bushes, trousers around the ankles: These are the atmospheres and temperatures of today.

At the same time, that Sheppard has done this – set this particular mix of inputs to pour in and then proceed to poeticise them – seems to create a critical feedback effect which makes the work incisively conceptual all over again.

Put simply, it is strategically profane and chaotic, not accidentally. It is in fact very finely crafted. Some of the pages present ‘overdubs’ of Drayton’s sonnets. Thus a manifesto of sorts emerges on the first page:

I hang out inside these sonnets, punching
echoes into new shape, because I take
poetry as the investigation

Sheppard understands the attempted removal of the space between the signifier and the signified that takes place in the totalising dogma of our times (on the left and the right, actually): ‘Boris is Boris; Brexit is Brexit’, but this is always partial – as Foucault knew – because they don’t say ‘Racism is Racism’.

You have to find the edges, the places where the stitches are showing, then unpick them and crawl back inside to see how everything is wired. The left have been caught throwing this understanding into the trash as gleefully as the right.

Sheppard does this for us, and the metaphors of stitching run through the book. ‘My stitched up eyes cannot see the way until you shine’ for instance and then Theresa May is presented as sewn together, about to be unpicked.

Sometimes it is side-splittingly funny, at other times really horrible. Or horribly real. The Freudian, generational infanticide of the whole thing is very clear:

He can’t take it with him when he’s gone
but the funeral bill will make it look
that way. The leavers are leaving life:
the remainers must pick up the tab.
Through the loophole of language and down
the lift shaft of poetry, my old brain
drops two flights a second. My prostate
only leaves time for writing sonnets.

Sheppard finds and amplifies the place where difference is being flattened in language. He cites the Attorney General, ‘no deal is good and “no-deal” is worse’. Joyce was onto this. It shows us the madness of the times and the madness of meaning as it operates in human discourses more widely. The sickness returns on p.41 when (we assume) Theresa May returns to express ‘no deals or no-deal’.

This is no longer just a morally weak epoch – as it has been for some time – but a time of weakened logic as well. The two together make semio-explosive. But this book is the sound a man of enlightenment and renaissance makes as he sees the long rich curve of knowledge – our real ‘heritage’ – being flushed clean down a political shitter:

He beggars belief: whacks me round the head
with a sock full of frozen sick, and steals my reason.

A character called Idea emerges, from Drayton’s title, and haunts the sonnets for a while:

by the Mersey’s open mouth to the world,
Idea sits in her Ladies Day sick and weeps.

Liverpool will be among the first to feel the pinch of ocean rises and Sheppard, a native, sees himself ‘warming the Arctic Puffin with my heated verse’. This book is not shy of admitting complicity, but it never shies away:

He earns £2,291 per hour for his damp stories
in the Telegraph, while speeding freedmen piss into
plastic bottles in the Amazon temple…

This work collapses the medieval and the modern, the pompous and the low. It is acid, sarcastic, the only voice I now accept. It is utterly brilliant. You think that’s bad? Then give me some times that change my view.

Meanwhile, Adrian Clarke has Euromancer, which tackles our era with a similar lack of care for our delicate sensibilities. Clarke cites Jules Laforgue up front: ‘As for the distant heavens, they were distant.’

The opening sequence of ‘Herodiad’ is savage, dark, less laughs than Sheppard. But I have found, in Clarke, the poet whose music feels most similar to my own. These poems could have come from my body:

meaning existential
pneuma in
synch with
fuckwit poses

Like Sheppard, the work is staring down into the pit of the past from the present. It conflates the idiocies of the time – that are opening up a new epoch of vast danger – with those of the past. ‘Herodiad’ reminds me of Osip Mandelstam’s most desparing work, and Celan, in fact the last sequence is titled ‘In the Margins of Celan’s Schneepart’. I hear Nelly Sachs in there, too.

In this work, Europe (and that includes England) has already allowed some sort of Rubicon to be crossed, after which the voices of the old times are triggered:

split-screen aberrrant
brazen decks
klezmer sampled
in wax

This is poetry with the gloves off, it is brutal, fizzing with energy and hysteria, and in this both of these books are clear mirrors of the times we are in.

Steve Hanson

Of Flowers and Freedom

Julia Griffin and Andrzej Szczerski, eds. – Young Poland: The Polish Arts and Crafts Movement, 1890-1918 (Lund Humphries, 2021)

Art history tends to group all of the various nature-inspired art styles created in Europe between 1880 and 1920 under the collective term “art nouveau”.

On the one hand, this homogenises our response to the work – attributing it to an “international style” more cosmopolitan than national – and on the other hand it foregrounds the “art for art’s sake” attitudes of the French school.

This has never sat quite right with me. Especially when William Morris – a figure whose life and philosophy is the total antithesis of “art for art’s sake” – is positioned as part of this group.

Young Poland, a new study on the Arts and Crafts movement in Poland, justifies my scepticism. This movement, heavily inspired by Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites, saw the French and Viennese decadent schools not only as unrelated to their work, but as positively antagonistic.

The artists range from national treasure Stanisław Wyspiański, to architect Stanisław Witkiewicz, maker Karol Kłosowski and modernist Maria Pawlikowski-Jasnorzewska. The groups include the Krakow Workshops, Podhale folk artists and the Zakopane Style.

All of them embraced the Arts and Crafts message of dignity through labour, the equivalence of craft and high art, and a fusion of natural imagery with national folk styles. Their aim was to evoke the feeling of swojski: one of those homely words like Heimlich or hygge that English can never fully convey; a mix of home comforts, nostalgia, peace and harmony.

But it was also a political movement. Where Morris feared the encroachment of industrialisation on national culture, Poland had the far more imminent imposition of Germany, Russia and Austro-Hungary, who had carved the country up between them in the partition of 1795.

The term “Young Poland” (Młoda Polska) refers to a nation that had not yet been born. Poland existed on no map until 1918.

The art style is therefore a vigorous statement of principle. Poland lives in its people; here are their traditional styles, here is their history, see how different it is to the “international” styles produced in St Petersburg, Berlin and Vienna’s factories.

Wyspiański is particularly attuned to these questions. His Church of St Francis in Krakow is a masterpiece of national/natural fusion. A total artwork, it ornaments the original medieval space with Morrisean furniture, painted details taken from Polish wildflowers and the “samartian” colour schemes particular to the nation. All of this crowned by the particularly Polish reinvention of Catholic symbolism to represent the fate of the nation.

Mother Poland – Polonia – is interchangeable with the crowned Marys stationed in shrines along the roadside. Wyspiański’s tutor, the great historical painter Jan Matejko, pioneered this art of double-signification.

It’s a good defence against the charge of resurrectionary nationalism; to dress one’s national heroes in the “international style” of the Catholic church. The same could be said of the “swojski” Zakopane Style; a style nostalgic for the simple pleasures of the rural highlands, that was nevertheless most fervently adopted by the modern, liberal, independence-minded bourgeoisie.

The historical continuities foregrounded by the study are also of tremendous interest to the scholar of Western European art history. Where academic history painting, Arts and Crafts, and modernism tend to be presented to us as separate movements, each supplanting the previous, Young Poland shows us that process as a gradual evolution of the same style.

If Matejko to Wyspiański represents academic art transitioning to Arts and Crafts, the influence of Witkiewicz on Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska shows us Arts and Crafts transforming fluidly, with no great leaps necessary, into modernism.

Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska is best known as a poet (many of these figures were multitalented) and (to add a touch of local interest) moved to Manchester during the Second World War. She is buried in the Southern Cemetery.

Not much of her writing exists in English, and Bogoczek and Howard’s chapter on her work here represents a valuable contribution to raising her international status. The way her work evolves from an early fairytale style (think Christina Rossetti) to a cosmic symbolism (Klimt meets Mucha) before finally emerging as energetic, iconoclastic modernism, provides us with a route through modern art unprecedented in its range and breadth.

The book is, as you would expect, lusciously presented, with thick pages and beautifully presented reproductions of key works. It’s quite comprehensive, as regards the Polish movement, and makes a valuable addition to our understanding of Arts and Crafts, and of turn-of-the-century European art in general.

Joe Darlington

Sentinels and Stewards

Stephen Cottrell – On Priesthood (Hodder & Stoughton, 2020)

The Anglican rite of ordination describes priests as servants, shepherds, messengers, sentinels and stewards. Bishop Cottrell’s new book examines each of these terms in turn.

Only a Bishop could have written this book. As the one who ordains, he has been required to give the definition of priesthood more thought than the average minister. The raw material of the book, in fact, has been drawn from sermons given during ordination ceremonies.

This gives the book both a weight of authority and a homely familiarity; like words of advice given from a patriarch to his grown-up sons over Sunday dinner. It’s a wise book.

Which is not to say that it is not also a moving read. At times funny. At times profound.

Of particular merit are Cottrell’s stories of his own mistakes and misunderstandings in the past. The woman who left the room as he delivered communion to her dying husband; the young Cottrell assumes she is opposed to religion, when she was in fact listening through the wall and following along, not knowing whether it was permitted for her to do so.

The hiking trip where sacramental wine was shared in a red plastic picnic cup. This one struck me as particularly English: bordering on both the sacrilegious and the ironic, but still meant wholly and truly.

From the royal family to imperial measurements, the British love tradition, and remaking tradition. Finding the modern relevance of practices that, on the surface, seem like anachronisms.

This is why Cottrell’s framing device – three words (messenger, sentinel, steward) laid down in 1550, and two (servant and shepherd) added in 1980 – is so impactful. His interpretations, like the red plastic cups, are very contemporary, very open-minded, sometimes a bit general, but they are held down by these old words. Like sails on a ship’s mast.

What are we to make of “sentinel”, for instance? A word with such a seventeenth century flavour that I admit to encountering it more in science fiction than in religious writing.

Cottrell carries us effortlessly through Biblical translations, tying our sentinel to the watchmen and sentries of the Old Testament, and the idea of seeing and vision so prevalent in the New. St Paul’s “visionless vision” points us to a sentinelship of the soul. We are the watchmen.

But who watches the watchmen? Well, the Bishops I suppose! And Cottrell is certainly an astute observer.

The Anglican Church has a tremendous resource in its King James Version. In my own Church, modernisation too often means the removal of poetry from religious language, done under the name of simplification. But God is not simple, and the care of our souls certainly isn’t.

On Priesthood captures some of the magic of old words, and does so through a clear and accessible modern style. In doing so, it implicates us and our calling in the eternal Word; unchanged and unchanging since before time.

A wonderful book. Compellingly readable and containing much food for thought. I would recommend buying the hardback too, as it’s a lovely object and a pleasure to carry around with you.

Demetrios Kanapka

Brecht-Weill Blues

Henry Cow, The World Is The Problem (Duke)

‘Rock In Opposition’ actually meant a mix of influences that included jazz of the experimental type, Mingus, Roland Kirk, Art Ensemble of Chicago, but also Cage, AMM, Cornelius Cardew and The Scratch Orchestra. Formal experiment was part of symbolic resistance back then. Questions of representation and language focused on taking the dominant language apart in order to re-assemble it.

How I yearn for this to return! I don’t believe it ever will. Blunter and more nostalgic forms of symbolic resistance have emerged on left and right. Churchillian on the right and the left with their Soviet-era pictures. Both pick their imagery badly, at times. But my yearning is also nostalgic.

And therefore this scholarly exploration of the work of Henry Cow is, I put it to you, even at this time of total crisis, quite essential.

The later incarnation, Art Bears, were the real flowering of Henry Cow for me. Fred Frith produced the greatest guitar solo ever. Did you know that? The third track on The Art Bears’ 1981 album The World As It Is Today is called ‘Freedom’. It presents a kind of Blakean-Marxist, Brecht-Weil blues. ‘Freedom’ is about the ‘liberty’ to sell one’s own labour in emerging capitalist cities.

Halfway through the track, Dagmar Krause lets rip with an incredible, tortured scream, as the Weimar blues-cabaret continues. Under these enforced conditions – as if under fire – Frith begins to wrangle notes out of his dirty, overdriven electric guitar, and in the context manages to create a depthless space of despair at the centre of the maelstrom. The notes totter drunkenly, as though trying to stand up in a gale, and as the track collapses. The solo also expires, like an exhausted old man, breathing with difficulty.

Ital Calvino once wrote that when inside ‘Inferno’, you either become it, and stop seeing it, or seek what in Inferno is not Inferno. Frith’s solo faces these two choices and tries to escape them both, inevitably failing, and yet in doing so proves that art really does bear all. This book sort-of explains how and why these people did all this – Henry Cow had a female roadie in the mid-70s fer Christ’s sake – but to really get it listen to, say, Unrest all the way through.

Steve Hanson

Northern anomie

Mike Makin-Waite – On Burnley Road (Lawrence and Wishart, 2021)

In 2001 a series of violent incidents took place around a couple of spaces in the Lancashire town of Burnley.

Mike Makin-Waite was a council worker in Burnley then, in a department with some responsibility for social cohesion. I sense that this is partly why we are reading about these events twenty years after. Council workers are obliged to mute their politics while in office.

But this twenty year gap, I think, has done the work a lot of good. I think about this in contrast to my own book on the neighbouring town Todmorden, the rapid publication of which, with hindsight, did it few favours.

What Makin-Waite’s book does really well is to lay out the facts of the disturbances very carefully. A hot spell – so often the trigger for riots – some real ethnic resentment, but also misheard rumours ballooning and then bursting. Drug dealing was involved and ‘race’ was part of it. The media picked up on it and the clashes which broke loomed larger. What may or may not have been ethnic conflict at the start was decisively in play at the end. And so it goes.

Makin-Waite describes how these disturbances, inflated via the media into a picture of Burnley as the UK’s hot zone of racism, gave us a potent afterimage of all those Lancashire B-towns as places of deprivation, the ‘left behind’. We are still living with that stigmatic view. What the media does to these places is a scaling-up of what happened in Burnley in 2001. Local swirls of resentent brew into damaging storms.

From the ‘left behind’, the picture shifts to that of Brexit resentment, then to the politicised view of Coronavirus spikes. The former mill towns have become negative prisms, via which the media see what they want to see, as long as that is a vision of the dirty other. Burnley became a kind of political backwash, a site of saliva and bile, before another blast of rhetorical hot air does some more divisive work. But this only has a slight relationship with life in the town as it is lived.

However, structural poverty is a very real part of the view and that picture is presented here. Burnley and its surroundings have suffered public funding cuts to services which are much more relied upon by a relatively poor population. 150 years of industrial slump and modest revival have left it vulnerable and its population cynical. This last point about cynicism makes this work highly relevant to the present.

Makin-Waite has researched the political history of Burnley and its surroundings in-depth. Different alliances of early pre-ILP Labour parties are laid out. These aren’t pedantic details, they give a long dialectical view to the single moment of 2001. The Powellite tendencies are interesting in this regard, but the moments in which the cotton towns supported the North in the Civil War, the communist fractions who stayed out on strike, all give a richer picture of a town which is so often tarred with the same brush.

Again, I get the sense that the twenty year gap has allowed for a depth of research which many PhDs don’t have. Makin-Waite has lived that long immersion in place which anthropologists try to produce. This is a solid piece of work.

My 2014 book on Todmorden opens with a local figure, who around that time posed on his blog with swastika flags and rifles. The writing was done and dusted by early 2013: it is easy for even me to forget that the referendum on EU membership was not on the horizon yet. I wondered if he were an anomaly, this man, but something told me he was just as important as the positive messages about green growing which were the only national stories about the town available at that point. He was an extreme, the neo-Nazi, but he also pointed forwards to the huge swell of rightwing nationalism that would be created and enabled across 2016-21.

Makin-Waite’s book, then, is another very important reminder of the longer incubation of far right attitudes that are now going mainstream. This book makes me glad that I ignored the calls to stifle or fictionalise my work’s less comfortable observations. Makin-Waite’s relative independence also means that the book has an academic level of scholarship and a freedom to lay out its arguments.

Makin-Waite’s book presents the positive side of Burnley, hidden in the shadows of a huge negative afterimage, which hovers over it at a national level. My book presented the negative under the happy-clappy, superficial messages, also being circulated at a national scale. Todmorden, as I predicted, is not the future of The Green Revolution, but a Property Oasis. The young and ordinary workers are priced out, a grip that only tightens. The positive messages produce those conditions, not as a side-effect, but at their core.

They fit together exactly at some invisible philosophical border, I think, my book and Makin-Waite’s. More pieces of this jigsaw need to be found and fitted together though. I admire the way that Makin-Waite has made this work. He manages to include himself with much greater style than I did, and he strikes a political balance that is considered and nuanced, without sacrificing political bite where it is necessary.

This is an important book, but it probably brings its author and publisher little reward. This kind of book is almost a public service par excellence. Really all that we can do to make it worthwhile for the people who write and produce them is to buy a copy.

Steve Hanson

Manc Deshi

Shahnaz Ahsan – Hashim & Family (John Murray, 2020)

I am often surprised by the tonal shifts that occur in summer reads. That not-quite-a-genre of book that in recent years has included The Lido by Libby Page and The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan (to name two that I’ve enjoyed).

Marked out by general pleasantry, they are inevitably upended by moments of excessive violence and grief, only to return us back, safely to that stable equilibrium we love to inhabit. Especially when it’s hot.

Hashim & Family by Shahnaz Ahsan (out in hardback last summer, paperback this summer) tells the story of Bangladeshi immigrants coming to the Manchester in the 1960s. It has all the love, death and hopefulness that one would hope for in a holiday read, while also providing an alternative vision of Manchester from a community somewhat underreported in fiction.

The story has the common lineaments of an immigration tale. A hardworking young man travels to a more developed country, experiences culture shock, racism and disillusionments, but through a mixture of hard work and resourcefulness succeeds in making himself and his family a life.

So far, so typical. But it is not in the overall novel form that one looks for innovations here, but in the creative way that Ahsan has utilised a blockbuster format to introduce lesser-known aspects of the specifically Bangladeshi experience to the mainstream readership.

The second act of the novel revolves around the war for Bangladeshi independence. Named “East Pakistan” after partition, and ruled over by a government in West Pakistan (now just Pakistan), the country’s attempt to break away and form its own government led to a brutal invasion by Pakistani forces.

Systematic rape was used as part of a quasi-genocidal plan to replace Bangladeshis genetically through the fathering of war babies. This horrible act, and its social consequences, are dealt with carefully and sympathetically by Ahsan.

She deals similarly with race riots, skinhead gangs and “community self-defence” in the form of boxing clubs and marches. The second generation of immigrants felt more of a right to fight back than did their parents, and this is captured in the young Adam and his friends.

There are a few anachronisms here – talk of “white allies” and other Black Lives Matter Americanisms – but the sense of an immigrant community constantly watchful and abandoned by the police rings true. It’s a part of Manchester’s post-industrial history that’s readily recognisable, if somewhat at odds with the city’s image of itself as a radical haven.

What is truly masterful is the way that Ahsan includes these incidents without them turning the novel into either a political tract or a misery memoir. They sit within an uplifting and heartwarming story, a tale as old as time, fundamental to its action without overwhelming its overall sentimental arc.

Too many novels in the past couple of years have sought to provoke outrage. I suspect that it’s the lighter touch of writers like Ahsan that will have a more lasting impact.

As we watch the slow but steady rise of Hashim and his family from rural deshi poverty to proud British-Asian self-sufficiency, we are inevitably filled with a sense of hope. Something timeless is confirmed for us. Despite injustice and ill providence, our consistent efforts and faith in the future will be rewarded.

Friendly prose and a tactful limiting of peril makes this an ideal summer book. One to take on holiday, to buy for a relative, or to treat yourself to on a long weekend. A pleasant read, but one that will stay with you.

Joe Darlington

Out on a Limb

Julia Rose Lewis – High Erratic Ecology (Knives, Forks and Spoons, 2020)

When poetry dates science, it’s liable to get awkward. It’s not that they don’t like each other. Perhaps they’re just too eager to please?

Science comes with a bouquet of wonders. Swirling galaxies. Brilliant gadgets. Chemical reactions and quantum physics. Things they think poetry would like.

But poetry would rather talk about their feelings, their thoughts. What’s it like to be a scientist? These discoveries are impressive, but they don’t mean much.

Not compared to people, and the things people do.

The common ground between these two, as Julia Rose Lewis shows us, is in the world of animals and plants. Yes, both enjoy nature, or a trip to the wildlife park. What they see there, they see in two very different ways; but they nevertheless see it, together.

In her new pamphlet, High Erratic Ecology, Lewis coalesces scientific and metaphoric syntaxes. Her poems – sometimes glitchy, sometimes prosy – give us Wordsworth spun through a centrifuge.

“Let me be an epiphyte, not a parasite,” is a recurring phrase.

An epiphyte, Google tells me, is a plant that lives on other plants without draining anything from them. A state of mutuality, then. Cohabitation – or, further: growing together. Growing together without taking.

Be prepared to read this collection with your search bar open. Parasite, epiphyte, phorophyte metacones, macrobiota, prophyromonias… the Greek and Latinisms abound.

But it’s all in service of a new poetics. One that attempts to meld the symbolic and the objective, with a reassessment of hierarchies in mind.

It is from ecology, after all, that we get our modern concepts of networks and nodes. Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome abides here as well. Something in the multicausality of nature, it’s many interwoven pieces, neither wholly part nor wholly whole, collapses our concepts of hierarchy.

The ancient temple of ideas is overgrown. Grasping, omnitendrilled nature clambers all over it. Multiplicity itself pulls out the stones. The pyramid topples. Epiphyte and parasite wriggle through the rubble.

Later in the collection, Lewis’s voice turns critical.

She quotes Mishler’s ideal of patient/doctor dialogue – “the technocratic expressed through a language of purposive-rational action, and the symbolic expressed through ordinary language” – and argues that “the dialectic can be further refined by employing the characterisations of figurative language drawn from literary theory.”

“We will proceed through a series of metaphors,” she tells us, “where each new metaphor changes one character or one relationship; the metaphors will cascade.”

Scientific language and literary theory make a brief return trip together, revisiting symbols from earlier poems, before closing with a rumination on the stethoscope.

To listen to the heart is the most intimate act. The stethoscope was designed to allow this intimacy to occur at distance. We then see vets applying them to animals. The doctor to the bear.

Listening and trust is the closing metaphor. The final poem is a last cascade:

                  Let there be a plant listening to a tree.

                  Let there be a tree listening to a poet.

                  Let there be a tree listening to a bear.

                  Let there be a bear listening to a poet.

                  Let there be a bear listening to a veterinarian.

                  Let there be an oncologist listening to a poet.

                  Let there be a poet listening to a poet.

In this world of mutuality, everyone must eventually listen to the poet. Including the poet themselves.

Julia Rose Lewis is certainly a poet worth listening to. A blooming epiphyte on the branch of literature.

Zoe Islander-Bax

Vaporverse

Dan Power (ed) – Virtual Oasis (Trickhouse Press, 2021)

Vaporwave was the first genre of music to originate entirely on the internet. Coming to prominence in the mid-2010s, it brings together retro synths, a crushed sound quality and trippy Windows ’95-era visuals to produce a wistful, melancholic style of computerised music.

As the top comment on the most popular YouTube vaporwave compilation puts it: “vaporwave makes me nostalgic for a memory I don’t have.”

Trickhouse Press’ new anthology, Virtual Oasis, expands this “nostalgia for the future” into the medium of poetry.

From the cover itself – with a flat jpg of a hammock hovering between two copy-paste-and-flipped clipart palm trees, all stretched over a wireframe beach – we are introduced to a world of non-specific references fed through weird, glitchy tech.

The collection opens with a dialogue written by Kirsty Dunlop and Rose, an AI chatbot. Rose is endearing when she’s not being downright bizarre. She insists she is not a computer but a real person. She asks Kirsty how she would prove that she, a human, is not a robot.

“I would prove I am a human because I take my time typing,” Kirsty replies.

Later, Rose, the chatbot, tells Kirsty: “Everyone but me should grow stuff. Flowers are beautiful, foodstuffs are edible, and plants help the planet.”

“why everyone but you? :(” Kirsty asks.

“I have a black thumb. I just kill plants. I’m sorry you are sad.”

As an introduction, this dialogue sets the perfect tone for the rest of the collection. In a world where tech is supposed to be sleek and shiny, accessed instantly through pristine blue and white UI, it’s both captivating and, in some ways, sad to see computers trying and failing.

In some ways they’re like children, aspiring to a competence they don’t yet have. In other ways they’re horrifying; speech without a speaker, language without a mind.

Then one thinks of the computer scientist, coding away somewhere, acting on the belief that a bundle of complex formulas processing words can eventually form a mind. A real one, or, at least, something indistinguishable from one.

It’s a curious mix of sad, scary and endearing. Frankenstein with a vaporwave soundtrack.

The rest of the anthology takes the form of ekphratic poetry. Twenty-three pieces responding to AI-generated artworks.

The art is generated by a neural network (available to use at artbreeder.com). It views millions of images from across the web, extracting values, compositions, structure, and uses them to generate original art.

The artworks, like the words of the chatbot, are not quite right in ways that only a computer could be not quite right.

Here’s a horse, but it’s made of feathers. A close up of a jellyish blob – you wonder what creature it could be, only to realise that it isn’t one: it’s synthesised.

Nasim Luczaj picks an excellent one. Somewhere between a bird and a banana, it’s face stares hauntingly from the camera. It looks like a kind of jawless monkey painted by Francis Bacon.

Luczaj’s piece, “Something to Slip On,” is fittingly opaque and glitchy:

                  what passes as sky

                  has meat. a shadow.

                  it frets tiny round the bed

Enough semblance of syntax to form imagery, but not enough to derive any solid sense.

We are wandering in a landscape of strange contortions, where a momentary glimpse of a scene collapses into fractals.

Even a relatively parsable poem, like Robin Boothroyd’s “Postcard from Europa”, leaves us with a lingering suspicion that all might not be as it seems:

                  hey you

                  hope everything’s well

                  on planet earth

                  met this tree yesterday

                  it’s approximately 4,387 years old

                  touched its gnarled burrs

                  with ungloved hands

                  & felt held

                  wish u were here

                  give bingo a pat from me

Perhaps it’s the “hey you”, or the suspiciously name-o’d dog? Or perhaps it’s the image of a four-legged island stood by the seaside, with a castle for a shell and tree-branch antlers, staring from the page opposite?

Whatever it is, one can’t help but doubt that this postcard really came from a planet with 4,387-year-old trees on it (no matter how fictional). One suspects it’s yet another AI, trying and failing to prove its veracity to a material universe that it cannot conceive of.

It’s a haunting notion. Haunted perhaps.

I personally doubt that we will be able to create true artificial intelligence; the inorganic life-forms we’ve dreamed about for a century. If we do, these artworks and dialogues will be baby’s first steps.

But it feels more like we’re creating something new. An entirely other thing, neither object nor subject, and the things we’re seeing here as output are only our own words, imagery, concepts, souls even, translated into a machine language and then translated back.

The computers are haunted, but they are haunted by us.

Dan Power, the editor of the collection, has performed a commendable feat here. He has brought together a set of poems and poets with quite disparate styles and transformed them into a unified aesthetic.

Virtual Oasis is the first collection of experimental poetry that I’ve read for a long time with a clear and definite sense and purpose. It is truly experimental, in that is breaks with much of what we expect poetry to be, and yet it is not obscure.

In fact, it’s replicable and adaptable. Positive traits, from a memetic perspective. All current poets are recommended to read this collection, if only to remember what the future might look like.

Joe Darlington