Opportunity Knocks

Sarah Cave – Persistence Valley (Knives, Forks & Spoons Press, 2020)

Up on Mars, the Curiosity Rover is still trundling along. As I write this, it has just taken a series of selfies, updating its social media feed with pictures from the surface of Mars.

The Curiosity follows in the footprints, or rather the tyre-tracks, of the more primitive Rovers that came before it. Among these were Spirit, active from 2004 to 2010, and Opportunity, active from 2004 to 2018.

Where Curiosity’s viral moment came with its arrival on Mars and the live footage it broadcast back to Earth, Opportunity is famous for its (admittedly apocryphal) last words. Before finally signing off, the story goes, it sent a last message down to its creators on Earth: “my battery is low and it’s getting dark”.

The final journey of Opportunity is the subject of Sarah Cave’s new book-length poetry cycle Persistence Valley. It is a work of poignance, creativity, and visual ingenuity. Not science-fictional so much as science-poetical, it brings a weight of meaning to a subject that should, by rights, be sublime and yet is so often lost in the dry technicalities.

The space race is over. We don’t have the satisfaction of beating other countries to things. But quietly, in the background, our horizons are expanding. Our vision as the human race is opening to the universe.

This is not enough, it seems. It’s enough for a moment of quiet reflection, yes, but to really ruminate on, to build epic sagas, myth cycles and quests on, it somehow seems too thin, too small. The more contemporary sci-fi I read, the more saddened I become at its disinterest with actual science.

Persistence Valley poses a solution to this imaginative deficit. She doesn’t so much humanize the Opportunity Rover as textualise it. It is a character, Jim, but not as we know it.

The pages of Persistence Valley are all full-colour prints. We read the journey of the Rover through a green holographic viewport. Onto the viewport float words, fragmented in a way that recalls systems operations running, but is in fact the fractured surface of contemporary post-concrete poetry.

The presentation places the poetry in an ambiguous relationship to the reader. We suspect this to be a first-person narrative, read from a viewport as it is, and yet, if this is so, Opportunity is referring to itself in the third-person throughout. Instead, we realise, this is a computer running reports for itself. We are watching, outsiders, like ground control, not being addressed directly but receiving readouts.

As the poem progresses, Cave introduces us to the servo-arms that accompany Opportunity – Mario and Luigi – technically operated from afar and so not part of its core functioning. We also establish a relationship with Spirit, only for her to tragically power down and leave Opportunity wandering on alone.

Cave is not anthropomorphizing Opportunity so much as feeling human sentiments for her. We get no sense that Opportunity feels and thinks, but we are encouraged to think of it as a her, and to feel for her. Cave recognizes the poetry that humans can find in the inanimate. Objects don’t need minds to become characters. And we care about characters.

When the book comes to its inevitable conclusion, battery draining and darkness falling, the poignancy of Opportunity’s loss, its sacrifice, is deeply felt.

Persistence Valley is a book that blends science and the new post-concrete poetics in a truly meaningful way. KF&S Press have done a wonderful job with the presentation, the extra expense of colour printing makes this book feel particularly special.

I’d highly recommend taking the opportunity to get hold of this excellent book today.

– Joe Darlington

Wholly Mountains

Mark Goodwin – Rock as Gloss (Longbarrow Press, 2019)

Rocks. Humble rocks. Every philosopher should have one on their desk. In fact, when they tire of trying to prove the existence of their desks, I find that philosophers will often reach for the humble rock and think about that instead.

Johnson kicked one to disprove idealism. Descartes tried to imagine the inside of one. Nietzsche, despite his many recurring ailments, made a habit of climbing them.

Mark Goodwin’s new poetry collection, Rock as Gloss, goes one better than all of them. In a series of four cycles, or “Compasses”, he guides us through the precarious world of rock climbing.

Through his compact imagery we feel the mix of adrenaline and silence that carries the climber upwards. Descriptions are hard, palpable, and elegantly varied in such a way that the subject never dulls, it only grows deeper. The struggle of man against nature, slippery shoes against rock are driven home in the sacred signifiers: friction, rubber, grip.

Goodwin repeats the image of fingertips on rock with such love and duty that it becomes religious. The cycle of repetition contains infinite tiny variations, enough to reward his eternal return.

There are references that will please advocates of the sport. Menlove Edwards, climber of the pre-war era, is heralded as a hero. One character even becomes Menlove in his dying moments. Coleridge is here too. Another mountaineer-poet in whose handholds Goodwin climbs.

And yet in his poetry Goodwin is not so much Romantic as Metaphysical. The romance of the climb is described, primarily in short sections of prose, but the poetry itself is stripped of heroic or nature-based poesy. It is a poetry of engagement. Goodwin faces the rock with his fingertips, hanging on for dear life. His words struggle to really grasp this, really grip it.

Goodwin favours the narrow line. When he needs more elaboration he prefers to implement concrete poetry techniques, adding complexity onto the surface of the page in order to keep his images stark and bare. He knows a hundred synonyms for rocks and their parts. They are his kit, the Gore-Tex jacket of his poetry. He rarely slips down the scree of metaphor, preferring hard surfaces throughout.

You can feel the traces of struggle in this poetry. His search for the exact word is visible on the page, like a handhold on a cliff face. Goodwin is facing the thing itself, searching it, trying to name it. A terribly difficult thing to do.

One can understand the appeal of rock climbing in Goodwin’s work. As a keen rambler, I know the joy of a hill conquered. Yet, as Goodwin points out, where we ramblers go around things, climbers go straight up them. Their confrontation is more direct. They refuse to compromise with the rock.

But where do all these physical metaphysics lead? The turning point comes in Compass 3, where Goodwin tells the story, in prose, of a climber who encounters an old sheep on a mountainside. A funny image at first, made funnier by his recollection of a nanny goat who once head-butted him off a hill. But then, as a storm brews and he crawls back shivering to a shelter, the sheep suddenly seems mystical, like a divine vision.

Christopher Lichen, our Childe Harold-like protagonist, now reappears through poem after poem, experiencing more and more epiphanies until, finally, we see him falling down on his knees and running his fingertips over every single inch of the mountain. Doing so, he becomes the mountain itself. His body dissolves and he becomes a pagan God, a spirit of place.

And so we find that Goodwin has led us along a path to enlightenment all along. He follows the steps of Nietzsche, Rumi, the Buddha, Jesus and Moses, climbing the holy mountain to bring back godly wisdom. What started with the sensation of rock on fingertip, has grown into a transcendence of mind and matter through language.

As a reading experience, Goodwin’s poetry is a delight. It is made moreso by the book’s design.

Put out by Sheffield’s Longbarrow Press, Rock as Gloss comes to us with all the dignity of a real, authentic, timeless collection: proper hardback binding, a tasteful dust jacket, and typesetting for Goodwin’s concrete poems that makes their complex arrangements into works of art. I look forward to reading more from this publisher.

Mark Goodwin’s Rock as Gloss is a thing of rare beauty. A book that every reader of contemporary poetry should grab onto.

– Joe Darlington

Here it Comes

Alan Halsey and Kelvin Corcoran – Winterreisen (Knives, Forks and Spoons, 2019)

Last week a friend on Facebook was asking for definitions of the concept of ‘crisis’, for a piece of research.

She wanted the sociological roots, but I asked my go-to classicist and Deleuze translator – Robert Galeta – as I was suddenly interested to know the roots of the word crisis as well.

He said:

‘Crisis is from krinein, to separate, from two possible sanskrit roots meaning that.’

‘Occurs in Herodotus and the tragedians eg. a lost Sophocles play the judgement – krisis – of Paris. It is used about 150 years later by Hippocrates to mean a crisis or turning-point in a disease.’

Crisis as split is all over this book.

Crisis as split is coming out of a split personality. A 1-for-2 poetical bargain.

Would you strike a bargain with these two? Answer carefully now.

Halsey and Corcoran are two splitting into one. The weird, Hegelian, laughing gas logic of that could act as a key to this book.

They riff off each other, call-and-response style: …this is my mouth behind my mouth Corsey and/or Halcoran states.

But it isn’t some experimental indulgence. Halsey and Corcoran have form in yet another doubling way.

I can’t remember when or where I first read Halsey. But Corcoran I came across in Angel Exhaust. Number ten, I think.

I read the poem. It knocked me over.

These two are not messing around. Well, they kind of are, but… this kind of messing around isn’t messing around.

The strength of experienced poets can be seen in the fact that Halsey and Corcoran don’t need to raise a flag about the crisis.

Nothing is on their sleeve, not a button.

The crisis is in the structure of this book, the dates they use as sections do the work, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, now. Just using those numbers pins us all in like a moth in a case straight away.

They act as containers for words that are often so dangerously un-contained.

Up their sleeves be monsters.

Halsey and Corcoran do the only thing poets of genius – they really are – can do in the face of the new ‘geist’ and that is come on like some bad stand-up double act vomiting out ancient myths in the shape of contemporary news feeds:

‘Come on, get it all up now, you’ll feel a whole lot better.’

Morecambe and Wise start babbling and indulging in cannibalism. Ern eats Eric and becomes self-contemplating Zeus. It works as a joke and as a riddling course of education that could lead you to understand all sorts of arcana you might regret ever having put in your head.

You could take it as that, actually, look up all the references – lots of them I had to look up – and learn.

In fact you could live in this book. I am certainly going to live through the crisis in it.

Galeta has his own guidebook, Liddell and Scott. I started to see Halsey and Corcoran in some golfwear, sicking up a bit more of it all on the unfairway.

If this is a guide, then it is a kind of mad anti-guidebook to the chaotic swirl that is starting to pull us all off the floor.

All of us. If you don’t agree with me when I say that this work is completely in-geist then you haven’t been paying attention to what’s outside.

When you ingeist sometime you gotta just bring it all straight back up again.

Iain Duncan Smith becomes Guido Smith, becomes Guy Fawkes via the rightwing agent of chaos Paul Staines. Staines never appears, but does. Here be conjurors.

Similarly, as Ern eats Eric, one arm and head off, the other going in the bloody gob, Goya’s Saturn flashes up like a TV re-run. They don’t even have to mention it, there it is, and that’s the difference between really good poetry and a magical act.

This is a magical act.

It is also a musical act. Winterreise is of course a song-cycle by Schubert.

Its narrative slots right in, just through using its title. A wanderer, his love goes for someone else, he follows the river and finds the coal-burners, the crossroads, the cemetery, even death will not release him. The real wanderers are Halsey and Corcoran, drifting through war zones, a shattered London, to the moon and back.

Death will not release them.

Back in Winterreise a wrecked street musician appears, the ending is open. Later, Hendrix appears, on an ordinary bus. A warlock, make no mistake. Under all of that is all of the versions of all of those stories going back to Homer. Depth signification, sheer vertical parole.

But ‘winter’ signifies much more straightforwardly along the horizontal axis: I saw my first conker out of its shell today; here it comes.

‘Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer.’

And this book is just out.

Winter as winter 2019 and winter as end times.

This is not a King lamenting that he is loathed. It is the alchemical transmutation of the deep shit ordinary people have been cast into made gold.

The gold is the story fire made by the powder kegs of language they are all terrified of, those finks who are named here. Him, and that other one.

This is one of those rare books that makes you realise that your bestest most published poetry isn’t worth a single signifier inside the landscape of this work. You can’t trade it in for a comma.

You can’t even trade it in for one of their spaces.

You know that their spaces are different to ours, don’t you? They are not made by space bars. They can swallow you whole.

I tried to sneak my bestest most publishedest poetry in between ‘ceiling’ and ‘window’ at the bottom of page 33, but it just winked out of existence.

It seemed like a quiet moment, I thought I could get away with it.

There wasn’t even a tiny fart of posterity as it unbecame. Just gone.

It is vast.

One could get depressed. But these people are in the world doing the thing itself, so I don’t have to.

I get the book, I open it. It tells me about now and forever at the same time and it riddles how I might try to survive with mad practices. It makes me reach for resources I didn’t know I had, in books that I did.

But poets and their classical references. Sometimes, you know, it is ridiculous.

Around 2003 I worked on a new edition of a journal for someone. There had been a discussion about the name of it.

‘Classical’ names had been offered in the meeting at the university.

One working class academic scornfully objected.

‘Call it “Tossos”, Steve’, he said.

It was funny. I was just the layout boy. I said nothing. I laughed.

Poets sometimes drop in a thin classical reference, an ‘omphalos’ here, a poiein there.

You know when it’s a facile inclusion. You know it in your marrow. It makes you wince with embarrassment on someone else’s behalf.

But not here. Never here.

They trade these references like a game of crazy poker played with tarot, but they are standing in it as they do that, and they make you stand in it anew, in your existence in the world and the existence of all that human culture for three thousand years.

They are in it up to their crisping, singing eyebrows, because they smashed the pavement with each other’s hard skulls, but they didn’t find any sand under there. No no no.

None of that, not here, now’s not the time, it just isn’t…

They unleashed the word hoard under the concrete and it has ripped through them, and it will rip through you.

Halsey and Corcoran, in some parallel dimension, actually call it all ‘tossos’ and make the ancient world more serious, present and dangerous by doing so, rather than less.

But this doing isn’t phenomenological, it is epistemological. This is craft, they are monteurs. They are also witches, there is no difference.

Gove and Putin fry in this overheating pool. Hecate pulls them down. The cosmos begins to radiate new colours.

Universal and right now. Forever and today. Essential. You’re going to need this.

Just get it. It isn’t much money.

– Steve Hanson

Tapping on the Glass

Laura Scott – So Many Rooms (Carcanet, 2019)

There are moments in a poetry reader’s life when you wonder if what you are reading resembles in any way the readings other readers. Things that you are told are exceptional seem to hold little meaning for you. Meanwhile, things that truly astound you are met with puzzlement by others.

It’s easy to fall back on the platitude that “it’s all subjective”.

That’s why, when collections like Laura Scott’s So Many Rooms come along, we have cause to celebrate. For there can be no doubt at all that this is an exceptional piece of work.

Scott’s poem “If I Could Write Like Tolstoy” was the highlight of Michael Schmidt’s New Poetries VII. Here, it opens the collection, and is followed by a series of Tolstoy-inspired short pieces; each one capturing in miniature some facet of Tolstoy’s epic scale reflections.

Scott has the capacity to capture drama in a small number of words, neatly arranged. Her poetry, in this way, is the quintessence of poetry. Her clarity, concision and quiet ambiguity are yardsticks against which I find myself measuring other poets.

Highlights of the collection include “Mulberry Tree”, “Pigeon”, and “Espalier”; three minimal pieces that each use crystal clear description to open a moment to thought.

The longer poems – “The Thorn and the Grass”, “Cows”, and “Turner” especially – develop Scott’s clarity into more narrative modes. Admittedly, the word choices grow looser, but this gives the content more room to breathe, and also brings it closer to what we expect of sophisticated poetry.

This is Scott’s second pamphlet, after 2014’s What I Saw. It nevertheless has the feel of a debut collection. Its confidence and its consistency both suggest a poet who has arrived. She offers a comprehensive vision. We are watching a poet composing at the height of her powers.

Importantly, it is Scott’s style that differentiates her and defines her voice. Her themes are manifold and her subject matters move from the historical to the fantastic, from the folksy to the quotidian. Nature makes consistent appearances, but then this is poetry after all – and English poetry at that –so this should be no surprise. Her uses of nature are many. No simple pastorals, these.

Although Scott’s collection is short, 60 pages, it displays a tremendous range of poems. After reading it, you’ll feel like you’ve engaged with a major work. The shortness of her average poem’s length explains this in part. And yet, it is, in part, also her mastery of scale.

Scott manages, like Basho, to put big thoughts into small, very tidy boxes, then polish them off with a neat ribbon.

Kudos for this book seems to be rolling in already, so whether our recommendation here at the MRB counts for much I don’t know. Either way, if you like contemporary poetry, Laura Scott’s new collection is an absolute must-read. It’s not even September yet, but I suspect it might be my poetry book of the year.

– Joe Darlington

Canals Repeatedly

Jeremy Over – Fur Coats in Tahiti (Carcanet, 2019).

What is the function of poetry? Well, its uncertain. Like fine art, it’s partly defined by its lack of function. Yet, like song, its core functionlessness lends it a wide variety of partial functions.

Poetry is always serving a purpose, but it never serves only that purpose.

When it comes to the writing of Jeremy Over, fathoming the core purpose is a difficult, perhaps even impossible task. His latest collection, Fur Coats in Tahiti, could, if encountered in the wild, unprompted and without prior forewarning, present the reader with a poetry of total meaninglessness.

Over is a borrower of techniques and tricks from across a wide variety of opaque movements: Dada, Ou Li Po, Japanese conceptual art, Victorian nonsense. One is tempted to describe his work as the next step down this crooked literary path.

But to do so would be to miss out on some of the less immediate functions of Over’s poetry. I had the pleasure of seeing Over read during a triple book launch this month. Hearing Over’s poems read through Over’s own delivery, punctuated by his stories and explanations, reveal in the works a world of semi-magic, semi-humour, semi-musicality, and semi-tragedy, that all overlaps while never quite explaining away his enigmas.

“Kenneth Kock Uncorked”, for example, is the strangest poem in the collection: appearing as a series of “O”s strung out over pages. An in-person reading reveals these to be holes in a punchcard. Koch, a poet fond of exclaiming “O!”, has had his work processed by Over, each O punched through, and the resulting pattern is fed through a music box, creating an uncanny, yet magical soundscape.

The same semi-humour and semi-magic is found in “Eat Your Cherries Mary”. A Steve Reichian celebration of repetition, it makes reference to Dan Maskell, the BBC’s “voice of tennis”, whose inability to pronounce Eastern European surnames introduces humour into the poems repetitions.

You’d never know this by reading the page, although you may intuit it. Over’s poems are all funny, especially if read aloud, although you don’t quite know what you’re laughing at.

They also seem magical. Like magic words, or Latin mass: more powerful for all its uncertainty.

It is for this reason that I’d recommend reading Over’s poetry aloud. Perhaps even share the duties with a friend, so that at least one of you might be able to experience the purely aural poem, while the other reads the page. I feel as if Over works on both levels – read and heard – but that one can never fully substitute for the other.

There was indeed something in Over’s reading that suggested to me the hidden power of language that each poet, intentionally or not, is seeking to uncover and harness. It is the power of making something of the silence come through. Using words to dig up raw meaning, instead of merely covering it over with language.

How else do you explain a room being moved by pure syllables, or finding laughter in a music box?

On a few rare occasions, the full power of Over’s funny little mysteries communicates itself purely upon the page. The final section of “Red Sock in Yellow Box” is just such a moment:

One cannot put one’s foot into the same river twice.

One cannot even put the same foot in the same river twice.

It’s hard to explain why but one cannot. One has tried.

One can however fall in the same canal repeatedly

One can

One canal

One can easily

Just when you think that the function is cerebral, it is comic. But just as you’re certain it’s comic, it is linguistic. It is sound.

This is my first encounter with Jeremy Over’s work and I suspect that it won’t be the last. His poems are compulsively re-readable, and never fully explicable. They are always up for reconsideration. If you can hear him read, cancel everything else and go do so. But if not, I’d still recommend his new collection.

Perhaps new powers linger in there that are yet to be uncovered. They will be well worth discovering.

– Joe Darlington

The bard of two-for-ones

Colin Herd – click + collect (Boilerhouse Press)

Book of two halves, Click, and then Collect.

Click begins with the TV remote and the trigger, soldiers captured, shown on television, stripped to their underwear and soon to be dead.

Herd’s confidence is detectable in that he – or he appears to – write easily and relatively unencumbered by the dead weight of ancient verse. Pound’s ‘heave’ against pentameter is definitely over here. No sweat.

But he isn’t presenting a cod modernist piece either, that assumes it has to arrive fractured as though a typesetting accident has occured which looks like a Microsoft Word default.

It’s subtle. It’s dark and light at the same time. It’s everyday and slightly otherworldy at the same time. I applaud all those qualities.

Brilliant book, get it. Then you can find out what Collect is all about.

– Steve Hanson

Green Shoots

Seán Hewitt – Lantern (Offord Road Book, 2019)

I used to love metaphors, but now I’m happiest with a raw noun. Oak. Leaf. Bud. River. Natural stuff that just sits there. These words seem like enough in themselves, like runes. They capture solid living things and print them as symbols, ready for the mind. I can stare at the paper for hours and they stare back, magical: whole and complete.

But the subject of nature is so done at this point, it feels as if to notice a tree is to become instantly anachronistic. Perhaps this is true. There aren’t that many trees left, after all…

Which is why it was such a pleasant surprise when I discovered Seán Hewitt’s collection Lantern. Hewitt has done what, prior to reading his work, I would have doubted was possible, which is to bring new life to the pastoral form.

His poems are dense with foliage. If not explicitly being about trees – “Leaf”, “Oak Glossary”, “Dormancy” – his work engages with fauna – “Barn Owls in Suffolk” – and landscape – “Evening Poem”. In each, the beloved nouns are arranged with precision and elegance.

The originality of the collection lies in what Andrew McMillan describes as a “queering” of natural imagery. In part, this refers to the Ovidian transformations that enfold nature and language into each other, turning solid noun into solid noun through a more fluid stream of verbs.

Yet it also refers to sexual antics taking place in the woods. The woods as a common location for teenage countryside adventures. Nature as a backdrop for sex, with the pantheism of the Romantic poets creeping its way in on top:

                  As I looked up, the sky hidden under a rain

                  Of leaves, each tree stood over me

                  In perfect symmetry with his body.

The initial emergence of this sexuality did, I admit, take me by surprise. It served at first as an imposition but then, on rereading, I felt how it fit in to the verse. Hewitt has a masterful control of language and imagery, with all his poem’s edges being rounded; not exactly smooth, but well-carved.

It’s a thin collection, staple-bound, and one that would benefit from locational reading. I plan to take it away with me to the countryside on my next visit out there as I feel that even more could be found in these poems when read in situ.

Although perhaps, like Wordsworth, these poems are better understood as emotion recollected in tranquillity. Both the lure of the woods and the adventures of youthful sexuality are made beautiful by the writing. Perhaps they are frozen too, or pinned down like butterflies.

Either way, I would very much recommend Hewitt’s poetry for anyone interested in rural verses. It offers a new and exciting voice in an area that struggles with its own stasis. It’s a collection you’ll return to often, and find new things each time.

– Joe Darlington

Words in White

James Harpur – The White Silhouette (Carcanet, 2018)

In the beginning was the Word; presumably a totality, and indivisible. Somewhere along the way it grew plural, and there’s been trouble ever since.

To the poets we have left the job of guiding us back to the One Big Word, although they have only its shattered remnants, the plural mess of verbiage, to work with. These little wordy things that point at objects and ideas can, if properly arranged, also point us beyond the material. It’s the job of all poetry, but spiritual poetry in particular.

James Harpur’s new collection, The White Silhouette, is a triumph of spiritual word-wielding. It is a mix of shorter, stand-alone pieces and two longer thematically-grouped suites: one about iconoclasm, one responding to the Book of Kells. All of them feature a delicacy of expression suited to the description of sensations ineffable;

Each poem is a coloured flare

A distress signal, an outflowing

Of myself, a camouflaged prayer

Dispatched towards the Cloud of Unknowing

The reference to the classic work of Middle English mysticism is particularly suitable. Just as the author of the Cloud was deeply skeptical of the blabrying fleshly tonge and its ability to talk of God, so Harpur seems to doubt humanity’s capacity for expressing things divine.

His narrative poem in response to the Book of Kells is obsessed with interpretation. The speaker travels to the place of its writing, to museums and finally to the British Library, all in hope of a divine encounter. Instead he finds the “bifurcated Kells / exhibited like musty lung / beneath glass – for glazed eyes”. A thing lacking immediacy. An object he must seek out, even as it sits before him.

We see the monks who first illuminated the Kells; their “vision opened by prayer”, expressing God in “each circle, arc and interlace”. The monks seem capable of clearer vision, of a simpler, perhaps more direct relationship to language. “Imagination is nothing but the recollection of the holy,” we are told. The aphorism puncturing ambiguous imagery like a sharp shock.

The same can be said of place names. Monaco, its “apartment blocks surg[ing] seaward / in a permanent standing ovation,” is a solid place to which the speaker of the Kells cycle can return. The masterpiece that opens the collection, “The Journey East”, is a pilgrimage through such solid place names. The landscape transformed by metaphor as the towns within are fixed in place.

The rhythm of Harpur’s lines are so masterfully controlled, one is borne along on his voice; calm, careful, and always drifting. Within this voice are variations. The Kells poems are suitably ornate. The poems about iconoclasm are suitably austere. The whole is tied together by a grace and humility that invites the reader to contemplate the space between words. Holy or not, these are poems for the spirit.

– Joe Darlington

The dog-house of language

Gareth Twose – Psychodography (Leafe Press)

What’s the deal with language Gareth Twose asks in his new poetry collection from Leafe Press Psychodography. What can words do? What can’t they do? How is language changing? What are the forces effecting that change? Questions put by Twose to, not just the reader, but – as well – to an assortment of political leaders and pop-cultural figures and, with greatest frequency, the unnamed pet dog who accompanies Twose on his twisting and turning route through language across the pages of this new book.

Words are all we have to interpret and make sense of the world Twose understands, a physical world, in this case, of woods and fields that he and his four-legged companion freewheel through at often verging on the delirious speeds: who’s leading who here, though, the reader wonders – is owner leading dog or vice versa? And where, exactly, are we the reader being led in such haste? What will our eventual destination be and will we recognise ourselves when we get there?

Pace is key: the manner in which the book dashes by put me in mind of the small dog at the heart of things bounding off, following some mysterious scent or other. Frequently, as well, the text that I was reading – in as much as how words blur into other words, get tangled up so that they become semi, but not quite, incoherent, or else become new words altogether – seemed to me like some kind of objectification of thought: Twose’s language racing to keep up with, not just his dog, but, as well, the speed of his own mind. So faithful to the movement and rhythms of thought in the abstract do these pages seem that, at times, I’d find myself wondering if Twose had succeeded in achieving this affect by flipping the top of his head open to take an imprint upon the page of all that was going on inside rather than by the perhaps more traditional route of simply trying to transcribe his thoughts and ideas.

A head populated by, amongst others, Donald Trump – who repeatedly crops up in these pages – Theresa May and ‘angular merkleness’; each dancing/facing off to the strains of Nancy Sinatra and Siouxsie Soux tunes while the opening lines to old Boney M songs get misremembered by everyone present to become ‘by the rivers of Medlock’ continuing on to usher in a very funny and original Elizabeth Smart allusion.

Smart being not, though, by any means, the last of the literary references contained in Psychodography as, later, the opening to Part 4 with its ‘rriver shearned and malearned in front of you . . . yes there was a gurn in the riveroo, but a re-furn in another parallel flivver’ seemed to me to be something more than a mere nod to the Joyce of Finnegan’s Wake. Though, re-reading those lines I’m wondering now if perhaps Twose was maybe just pulled by his walking companion into the path of an out of control Deliveroo courier and decided to reference the incident in his poetry?

A poetry thrilled by the possibilities for growth and development that the online world and social media represents for language – reading, I couldn’t help but find myself imagining excitedly James Joyce’s Tweets and Facebook updates. Twose understands only too well how language must morph and change in order to survive, indeed, a case could quite easily be made that it’s Twose and his peers who are at the fore-front of taking language where it needs to go. Not for him any grey-faced concern with preserving language as it’s meant to be used or whatever.

Understood as well by Twose is just how fascinating are the possibilities of language to make and then remake the world. In these pages, as well, though, we see Twose wondering how the world must seem to a being without words: to his dog. What do we gain from language? What do we lose by our reliance on words? Towards the end of this collection we come to feel that Twose is slowly beginning to conceptualise for himself a new way of being in the world, a perhaps freer, more unconstrained way of existing. The journey into and around language that he and his companion have undertaken seems to have changed him somehow. How will we, as readers, be changed ourselves by the reading of this fantastic collection?

– Richard Barrett 

Should a stranger arrive

Various – Wretched Strangers (eds. J.T. Welsch and Agnes Lehoczky, Boiler House Press)

‘Should a stranger arrive, who speaks in a language sounding a bit like a whinnying mare, or a chirruping blackbird, or even a grinding saw that threatens to slice whatever comes near… Should a stranger arrive disturbing the dog and maybe also the rats and it’s winter – give him warm clothes. It could be that his feet are on fire underneath. Say he’s been riding a comet. Therefore don’t blame him if then your poor carpet complains. A refugee carries his home in his arms like an orphan for whom he perhaps needs no more than a grave…’

– Nelly Sachs, translated by Andrew Shanks

This poetry collection, published by UEAs Boiler House Press, is an outstanding contribution to the literature of our time. By ‘our time’ I mean the early millennial period of upheaval, middle eastern war and migration, and our current hideous swing towards populist rightwing demagogues. In Britain, the island has been very seriously torn down the middle by something with a comical name, ‘Brexit’.

One of the key debates following the EU referendum results centred on whether or not Brexit was the ‘revolt of the dispossessed’, a post-industrial rebellion against mainstream politics, bound up with whiteness and identity, racism and resentment, whether Brexit was a generational schism, or a rural revolt against urban cosmopolitanism viewed to operate with disproportionate powers to the small-scale, the regional and the local.

However, the way the referendum results map onto English-identifying citizens suggests that xenophobia was and is present. The spike in hate crimes after the results say it plain. Unfortunately, racism is part of this picture and some of that is definitely coming out of disenfranchised post-industrial places.

Yasmin Gunaratnam et al (2017) began a collaborative analysis of the ‘Go Home vans’ which – as Mark Rainey explains-  ‘were driven around six London boroughs carrying billboards that read, “In the UK Illegally? Go Home or Face Arrest.”‘ The text ‘was accompanied by an image of handcuffs.’

‘The moment of the Go Home van seemed to us to be a turning point in the climate of immigration debates – a ratcheting up of anti-migrant feeling to the point where it was possible for a government-sponsored advertisement to use the same hate speech rhetoric as far-right racists.’ (Gunaratnam et al 2017).

Rainey explains that tabloidesque phrases such as ‘Go Home’ are not just ‘located on government-sponsored billboards’ but ‘are part and parcel of a historic and ongoing racist discourse.’ Here there is ‘no clear separation between official discourse and everyday racism.’

Rainey’s own work with stateless migrants underscores any request for the full complexity of any situation to be at the surface. Rainey found in his own research that:

‘The destitute men I was spending time with in Manchester sometimes spoke out against benefits claimants who were seen as lazy and spending their money on drugs and alcohol, while also occasionally complaining about other refugees, who were seen as liars who falsified their claims and took the place of those who had been wrongfully rejected. The deserving and underserving distinction is seemingly all pervasive.’

For him, all of this ‘is the product of long-standing anti-immigrant rhetoric and a neoliberal economic and social frame that holds individuals responsible for poverty and inequality rather than institutions and structures.’ The best work in this volume, Wretched Strangers, speaks to that messy, unclear place, where the truth bends like light through a prism because the subject is caught in it, is unable to stand outside it.

In Wretched Strangers, Rachel Blu Dupleiss’s Draft 112: Verge is an extremely powerful polemic regarding – among many other things – the lack of meaningful communication in a world saturated by communication devices. Spivak’s subaltern other is here.

But there are the places in this book where it also becomes clear how poetry can cut to the chase in a way that prose or a research file cannot. It can bring you closer to the real, how it feels, its sweaty, compromised, bleak grey intensities, by making things feel less real. For Derrida – whom Spivak translated – language was the place where things could happen.

The greatest example of this is perhaps Ghazal Mosadeq’s ‘Time Is Of the Essence’, which really gets into the migrant soul – or psyche – the helicopter airlift in the living room, the sea in the living room, nothing is walled off from the experience of total uprooting, nobody and nothing is stable, even in the places where stability is temporarily offered.

James Byrne and Sandeep Parmar’s ‘Myth of the Savage Tribes, Myth of Civilised Nations’ really fuses the history of imperialism and racism with the up-to-date and the near: A visceral raging series of blocks of verse; Prince Phillip watching a native dance, torture, everyday racist commentary on television, Uncle Tom songs, they all build into an utterly damning image of the white western world over hundreds of years.

Fawzi Karim’s excerpt from the Empty Quarter shows the joys and the pains of the migrant city, and the migrant voice – a familiar place rendered unfamiliar to the reader. Khairani Barokka writes of ‘doctors inspecting our bodies as curios’ and ‘laws stamping ancient wisdom as buffoonery’, of ‘languages earmarked for oral extinction’ and ‘ships bearing rape marks on the stern…’

Barokka writes out:

‘bruised boys, labour that made your
sheeted beds, laid down your cobblestones…’

And then:

‘re-taxonomised and thefted ojects de vertue…’

Between these lines lie the sheer abrasive tensions between the collectors of ‘curios’ and their market values and the simultaneous denigration of ‘the primitive’. Don’t forget that one of the centres of Nazi power in Berlin was very close to the museum of ethnography. Not only did its existence not stop anything, but its bad epistemologies aided racism and then genocide. The great power of the work in this volume is often due to the conjunction of the history of imperialism – and its horrors – alongside contemporary migration. Barokka again:

‘incineration of communal safety; a quietude now
when the boats come in with their last-hour eyes
for whom this beacon continent disappears with
raging engulfment, above the waves that built it.’

However, Monika Genova shows the other side we must not forget and that is how hope is always tangled up with the messiness and sinister forces:

‘Beyond the fear and the exhaustion
my dream is right there, waiting…’

How the fragility of the human body is overcome by a robust tenacity:

‘There is really no other way to find out
How much weight my bones can carry
I only have this fragile human body
To make my mortal life extraordinary…’

Kapka Kassabova’s piece is extremely moving. The details shift the emotions somehow, an elastic band around a wad is all that is required to make the place come alive:

‘I pretended it was no big deal to see smugglers sealing deadly deals with the already-robbed of this world by robbing them further. The money came in bundles tied with elastic bands, in exchange for the promise of a lorry ride across the border…’

Ethel Maqueda’s piece ‘Mushrooms for my Mother’ is similarly potent. These two pieces are prose-poems and suggest that form as a very apt vehicle for this subject. But taken as a whole this book should act as a wake-up call for those still slumbering, that the rise of fascism is real and the dangers clear.

More recently, Les Back and Shamser Sinha have described how until recently ‘the question of the “Windrush Generation” was considered resolved.’ The people:

‘…who sailed from the Caribbean to Britain 70 years ago were not migrants. Rather, they were citizens returning to the Empire’s motherland. As the UK cut its ties with former colonies, they were made first into “immigrants”, and then “ethnic minorities”’

This scandal, they say, is ‘indicative of a long-term trend to stem postcolonial movement.’

The thing is, racism is everyday and the power that polices the ‘alien’ body has seeped into all layers of society:

‘Checks no longer only happen at Heathrow or Calais when we fumble for the passport in our bags. Rather, border control is being in-sourced. Landlords, doctors, health visitors, teachers, university lecturers and more are all being asked to pass on information, through monitoring student attendance or documenting home visits. Willingly or not, they are enlisted as affiliates of border control, which is is moving into the heart of our social and professional life.’

Poetry – so often dismissed as fluff in an ani-intellectual and utilitarian England – can get to this place where everyone is complicit, although only those considered ‘alien’ are implicit.

This book, then, is essential, because it gives a series of views from outside this emerging ‘natural, naturalised and not’ taxonomy. You already know it, you already feel it; how many times do you produce your passport now? When going for jobs it is often routine to copy the passports of all the interviewees. I have mine in my bag a lot these days, I never used to.

Here, Aodan McCardle makes good use of that world of filing and stamping. He employs the redaction in his contribution, the black line through an official document, and Stephen Mooney uses the official form answer box. These pieces sing of censorship and the reduction of a complex needful human being to the brute grids of officialdom they are forced down, just by including these ciphers. They have taken form literally as in ‘forms’.

There is beauty here, though, even if it is properly sublime. Luna Montenegro’s ‘Everything in the universe is moving in this (in)exact second’, a poem for several voices, using just that text, shows the bigger truth, that we live in a massive explosion and it isn’t going to stop for anyone. An essential book.

– Steve Hanson