The Plucking Shed, 2010. Cinnamon Press. Rise, 2012. Cinnamon Press.
To survive cancer, as this poet has done, and to write about the experience without fear or bitterness is remarkable, and yet life’s journey is not necessarily laden with gilded ornaments, rousing sex, and unforgettable adventure. No, it is most frequently a harrowing experience the older one gets. Gill McEvoy was born in 1944, when the buzz bombs from Germany were wreaking havoc and despair although it was well seen to be the last maniacal act of Britain’s greatest European antagonist of the twentieth century. As an adult, McEvoy endured a problematic marriage to a violently ill man, raised their children, saw her husband die and leave her with the domestic mess, as it were, to clean up. On top of that, she then became sick herself, but now – approaching seventy – she has come out on top of her troubles. Or so one gathers from these two collections of verse.
McEvoy’s poems, collected late in book form, are not only statements of fact to her readers but reminders to her (now grown) children that the poet endures not without effort. More than that, an intelligent good will marks both of these books, published within two years of each other. She makes art from the quotidian elements of her life, and we see that a British woman’s life is no different in essence than someone working hard in Salt Lake City or in Winnipeg, in Warsaw or down in Rio. From The Plucking Shed, here are the opening and closing stanzas of “Preparing Fish”:
I have lived inland all my life,
got no further than sticklebacks
glowering in jars,
never once ate trout.
Here in my new kitchen
this strange fish slips from my grip,
slithers and slaps against the sink.
It smells of foreign things.
When you walk in – starving, as you say –
you find me lining out the frail specks
of starlight on the drainer’s edge.
The recognition of effort in daily life, not slothfulness, even after the anxiety and physical pain of a bout with cancer, is what informs McEvoy’s poems. This is not a diction borne of dilettantism or overly cerebral mirages. Neither is it conscious of itself entirely, either. The poet can be blunt as well, as in these final lines from “Message to the Well-Meaning”: “So // the next person to come along and say, Think positive, and all that sort of crap / will get it right between the eyes. / For I’m a hard woman now; / I am diamond, carborundum, / and I wipe out fools.” Now, can you argue with that? I can’t, and I only remark that putting frustration into a succinct, “in-your-face” poem meant to be both serious and good-humored is what all poets and artists – those who create something from supposedly nothing – strive for constantly.
Rise is more concisely ordered in some ways than The Plucking Shed, but no less vivid and memorable in facing quandaries and uncertainties. For McEvoy, observing – for that is all one should do – natural life, not wrought with human structures but certainly so affected – is what makes her life bearable, or at least that’s the message throughout these poems, succinctly crafted, sculpted (as Sigrid Bergie might say), to fit recognition, understanding, and in the end our admiration. Here is the entirety of “Magpie”:
Outside my window
he’s a pure sun in an aura of black.
Brilliance pings from his feathers,
blinds me, shrinks my room
Later in this second collection, there is the “Nuala” sequence, about a small girl in her mother’s company who is learning the limits of what she can have and experience. McEvoy captures this frustration convincingly, as in the opening lines of “The Balloon Man” – the child doesn’t see danger, but her mother does:
She stops to look at the man
twisting balloons into animal shapes.
She tugs her mother’s arm:
What? Snaps her mother whose mind’s
on shopping and the fearful price
of children’s shoes . . . .
McEvoy also plumbs the vortex of a single woman living alone – more than just an empty nest “syndrome” but both a horror and a freedom, as if leaving her house and just walking in the woods for a spell, not being home, could alarm the neighbors. The sequences of “Almond Street” poems evoke this plurality of oneness very well, at least to this critic’s American sensibility.
In sum, then, both The Plucking Shed and Rise give ample testimony, if such could be said, of a significant poet – Gill McEvoy – living in non-London England, one who has married, raised children to adulthood, been widowed, survived cancer – at least for now – and has written masterfully about her life and those of others, characters in a novel or play of poetry – for that’s what good depictions are, essentially: how to describe this journey of life from childhood through adulthood and trying to keep death at bay, and writing delicious poems not always mellifluous or delicate, but facing difficulties head on. Would that we all had such courage!
A Poet’s Journey of Abandonment, Near-Death – and Recovery.
This is a second collection of poems by the Iowa-born poet who has lived in St. Paul the last three decades or so. Not just living, it must be emphasized, but surviving ordeals – the collapse of her marriage, her brain surgery to remove a tumor the “size of a baseball” and then learning basics all over again – speaking, walking, driving a motor vehicle, the fundamentals of resuming life as a functioning woman in her late fifties, but always with the filling reservoir of language and poems, her gratitude and astonishment to be still alive.
The central motif of this new collection is putatively “Odessa” – but not the city port at the Black Sea or the town in Texas. Instead, it refers to a small town about three hours west of Minneapolis near the South Dakota border. If one can gauge the chronology accurately, the poet’s visit took place before her medical crisis (actually the dominant theme here). Kirkpatrick’s gift is in her succinct language and bare yet full imagery. Here are central lines from the title poem:
I am always afraid of what might show up, suddenly.
What might hide.
At dusk I saw the start of low plateaus, plains
really, even when planted. Almost to the Dakota border
I was struck by the isolation and abiding loneliness
yet somehow thrilled. Alone. Hardly another car on the road
and in town, just a few teenagers
wearing high-school sweatshirts, walking and laughing, on the edge
of a world they don’t know.
Darkness started in as heaviness in the colors
of fields, a tractor, cornstalks, stone.
Kirkpatrick’s first book, Century’s Road, appeared in 2004 and was well received but not widely reviewed. She was over fifty, but at least had her first book published, and began looking at her life’s interstices for a second volume. Now a poetry teacher and professor, but not having arrived at poetry until her senior year at the University of Iowa, Kirkpatrick later went through divorce while her two children were not quite on their own. Still, the functions of termination had to be endured, recounted in a sequence titled “The Italo Poems” and borne without rancor in “The Attorney” – as these opening lines attest:
Your husband is leaving.
You have to choose.
You have to get an attorney.
Go downtown near the steeple and the derelict pigeons
where the bells alone cost millions.
Walk into corporate heights, crying,
state your name at the desk,
weep at a table longer than your dining room,
decide what to keep and give up.
Smart and tough
without love, the attorney
knows the law, knows the patterns . . .
How should one quantify bad luck, or what seems like it at the time? In this book, Kirkpatrick prefers to convert negativity into poems marking her journey’s byways – medical, physical, and emotional. She displays no interest in vengeance or score settling.
What came next, of course, was her brain tumor, recounted first in a thirteen-page sequence of synchronous yet restrained verse both mellifluous and stark. Indeed, “Brain Tumor” is a tumbling but focused recalling of her precipitous dance with mortality: “You stumble because your brain has been pressed / for so long, its tissue is damaged, its current volcanic. // Now you understand the numbed foot, / the jumps, floaters, and tingling. / Now you are seized and perpetually falling . . . .”
The remarkable aspects of this collection resound in the witnessing Kirkpatrick does of herself, those around her, her efforts in recovery, doing her therapy as prescribed, good days and bad, persistence a recurring theme. In an eight-sonnet array, “Time of the Flowers,” she records her observations and includes tiny phrases from contemporary writers (e. g., Carolyn Forché, Paul Gruchow, Laurie Scheck, Peter Sacks, Carol Bly, and others) at the bottom of the pages instead at the top near the title. This leads the reader to concentrate on the poem first, not so much a quote from someone else. Still, these sonnets also weave allusions to Greek mythology, Native American literature, and other voices preceding her lifetime. Her themes flow seamlessly, the images both independent but merging into each other, as in the second sonnet, “Survivor’s Guilt”:
How I’ve changed may not be apparent.
I limp. Read and write, make tea, boiling water
as I practiced in rehab. Sometimes, like fire,
a task overwhelms me. I cry for days, shriek
when the phone rings. Like a page pulled from flame,
I’m singed but intact: I don’t burn the house down.
Later, cleared to drive, I did outpatient rehab. Others
lost legs or clutched withered minds in their hands.
A man who can’t speak recognized me
and held up his finger, meaning “one year since
your surgery.” Mine. Sixteen since his. Guadalupe
wishes daily to be the one before. Nobody
is that. Like love, the neurons can cross fire.
You don’t get everything back.
No, perhaps not, but the poet still has her tools at the ready. This book, most of which was written after Patricia Kirkpatrick’s brain surgery, is testament to the gifts she has always had. Odessa has numerous and recurring themes, metaphors and allusions weaving in and out in surprising ways – the small town with a famous name she visited on the prairie, her personal losses, her desperate but successful efforts at keeping rational perspective when her life was in serious jeopardy, going beyond that to make poems, to reclaim her life and keep on. In so doing, Odessa is a gift to us all.
Odessa by Patricia Kirkpatrick is published by Milkweed Editions. Order your copy here.
The poems and short prose passages in this collection carry a charge, they’re alive with verbal electricity and a sense of the purpose defined by their authors in “Coda Prefix: Accelerated Urban Highs”, an introduction which both explains how the two poets came together to produce this first part of a projected two-volume “London Collaboration”, “poetry resulting directly from London as our creative experiental basis” and, at the same time, takes the form of a manifesto: “… if a poem doesn’t radically alter your sensory experience of the world and recreate it, then it’s of no interest, and if it doesn’t risk shooting holes in the corruptly-maintained system, it lacks dialect with subverting politics …”. The message is clear: “Chris McCabe and I have tried in “Whitehall Jackals” to break laws rather than observe them – isn’t that the best reason to write? – to disrupt convention and become in the process edgewalkers”.
Virtually all of the collection’s thirty-nine pieces have as their title either the name of a district, place or specific feature of London, each intended to bring to life not simply geographical locations, because not all potential readers will know London, but, more importantly, the continuity of links between the city’s ever-morphing present, its long past and the myriad individual ways in which that past may be viewed, a preoccupation which countless millions of the world’s city-dwellers must surely share. Hence, the term “edgewalkers” comes to define not only the cultural and political positions the authors perceive themselves as occupying, their anger and contempt for those whose intention, in their opinion, is to subvert or destroy what they hold dear, but also their passionate interest in and long-term dedication to a particular way of life.
In “Red Snapper, Cecil Court”, for example, Reed writes with relish about Red Snapper Books, the “low-lit, book-stacked basement … a cutting-edge counterculture bookshop”, “… run as banditry / for poets, outlaws, dealers, criminals, / tumble-in types like skewed Pete Doherty” until “The bailiffs squeezed us … and (we) lost it all”. In a lighter, more ironic vein, although with no less edge, McCabe’s “Elephant & Castle” develops similar views about the importance of learning, internalizing, the life of the city and suggests “something light to read on the commuter’s underpass: / A Beginner’s Guide to Property & Culture”. Tongue in cheek, but the point is well made: it is vital to care. In “City of London”, by contrast, he makes darker reference to and quotes from “The Burial of the Dead”, Part 1 of “The Waste Land”, in which T. S. Eliot describes London as an “Unreal City” and says of it very bluntly that, “Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, / A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.” An interesting connection given the rôle played in this collection by decay and loss, death and the passing of time.
As perceived agents of the destruction of a way of life, a culture and a value system the authors hold dear, property developers, money-men, the owners of international hotel chains, politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and, very particularly, Tony Blair, “the psychopathic jackal … his handgun grin / cold as forensics, czar to every war’s / genocide, the killer autocrat / smeared in depleted uranium, Gulf blood …”, come in for harsh treatment. In Blair’s case more than once, firstly in “Whitehall Endgame (depleted uranium mix)” quoted above and, later, very vitriolically indeed, in “The Right Hon Jackal Blair”: “The guilt lodged like a bullet in his brain / he can’t extract, a toxic leak / like slow-dose polonium. / His look’s impassive as an army truck / an explosive self-propelled howitzer.”
There are, however, limitations to this perception of change as threat. Reed identifies one such, nostalgia, in “Ham Yard W1”, when he concedes that, “You can’t recreate history; it’s a series of inaccessible space-times hijacked by imagination, but essentially wiped …”, although there remains a sense, nonetheless, in which he and McCabe seem to want to have their cultural cake and eat it too. Ham Yard, we’re told, began as “a lowlife pub called the Ham in existence there in 1739 … used by robbers and stick up highwaymen”. Thereafter and jumping a couple of centuries, it’s been made over many times, as a venue for skiffle, jazz and R & B, a centre for drug-taking ( “in pilled-up 1964, the site was also known as Pill Yard”) and a “derelict piss-drenched 0.75 acre Soho yard”, until in 2010 it was sold “for around £30M to build a luxury 100 room hotel, plus 50,000 square feet of housing on an indigenously proto-hipster landmark”.
That Reed and McCabe don’t like what’s happening, that they mourn the loss of what they define as the “real”, is obvious: in future the life of one particular corner of Soho and, by implication, other areas such as Docklands, will have nothing to do with London culture and people, but a lot to do with money; a venue that hosted great Sixties bands, “The Jagger phenomenon: 135lbs of skinny dance compression on a compacted 10ft stage”, will become a watering-hole for the moneyed and the monetisers, purpose-built to exclude London’s hoi polloi. But while it’s important to keep alive the memory of the city’s soul, Londoners such as Shakespeare, Blake, Wilde, Chatterton and Marlowe, “The tattooed boozed-up brawler on Hog Lane”, the past, as “Seven Dials” makes clear, was a country where they did things so differently that nobody in their right mind would want to go back: “If we died on the street, left to decay, / would rot be faster than a pizza box / or open jar of mayonnaise …? / We’re a mismatched global academy”, Reed says, “at this dysfunctional take-no-prisoners site.” Yes indeed, but if we all dance “Death Tango” in the end and “the moment turns on language that the street deletes”, “watcha gonna do / do baby blue”?
Order your copy of Whitehall Jackals by Chris McCabe & Jeremy Reed published by Nine Arches Press, here
©2013: Ken HeadRead More
Linda Black, who has already planted her feet firmly in the prose poem and experimental writing camp having previously delivered two books of prose poems (published by Shearsman) delivers a pamphlet designed to push the boundaries of both narrative and poetry. The Son of a Shoemaker is a collection of prose poems (or found prose poems) collaged from the 1940’s book of the same name by Constance Buel Burnett. Burnett’s book is a semi-fictional biography of the early life of Hans Christian Anderson – the book was aimed at school children.
You might expect that Black’s poems would follow some kind of narrative along similar lines to the original book but it doesn’t seem to. Without having a copy of the original text it is impossible to tell whether Black has jumped around within the text or taken phrases in the order they crop up in the book, but this doesn’t really matter. What matters is whether these poems stand up as poems and as a collection of poems, and I believe that they do. Black has chosen to focus on the relationships between Anderson and those around him as well as Anderson’s relationship with fairy tale and the written word. There are also echoes of Black’s own relationship with poetry within the text. This is an intriguing collection. Fantastical and domestic scenes jostle against each other in the same poems, and often in the same lines. The world that Black’s Anderson inhabits is a dark and confusing place inhabited by scary school mistresses and other odd characters. It is not a comfortable place to be – he seems at odds with the world around him, the people that populate it, his own body, and even his own sense of self and reality.
Black has an eye for a good phrase and the titles of the poems are great and at first glance might lead one to expect more of a linear or conventional narrative – e.g. He had led many lunatics to the Chief Director’s Office. Thank fully this is not usually the case and while the poems do allude in some way to their titles they do not always make sense in a conventional way. There are one or two exceptions – Before he could feel frightened for instance is much more straightforward than many of the other poems and follows a slightly more conventional narrative style. These poem are peopled with beautiful phrases and interesting syntax.
Phantasmagoria picked him a nosegay. Rang easily and
often his heart coiled against her braids: plunged him into
that world less and less actual.
(The Cord of ecstasy is a fragile one)
They often evoke a feeling, a sense of time and place rather than telling a story or spelling something out to the reader. Even at their most elusive there is something ethereal and beautiful about them. The phrases sing in a marvellous language of their own:
Great raw bone hands cut with magic. Fragile lace.
Paper-thin thighs. Mannersisms misfit and dilapidated.
gestures slipped and fell.
(His head swam from other causes than mere suffocation)
I did, however, find myself wondering if the idea behind the poems merited a whole pamphlet. Personally I would have been happy to see the strongest poems as a sequence in a larger collection. As a pamphlet I found them hard going and had to keep leaving them alone for a while and coming back to them. The text is broken up by Black’s pen and ink drawings – the drawings have a light fairy tale quality which while it suits the mood of the subject matter, for me didn’t quite live up to the cleverly playful but highly constructed nature of the poems – even though Black is clearly an accomplished artist. This was an interesting read – I shall be seeking out more of Black’s work.
Buy your copy of The Son of a Shoemaker by Linda Black (Hearing Eye) here
Dorothy Smith and others have contributed to our understanding of the standpoint, a theory which goes some distance in explaining why contemporary writers seem better at adopting a multiplicity of perspective in their work. Diaspora writers are especially interesting in part due to their unique access to various ‘outsider-within’ perspectives. Warsan Shire was born in the Somali Diaspora community in Kenya, moved to London as a young child, is comfortable in Italy, and has read her poetry around the world. Her writing is an open invitation into a multidimensional reality generous with its insights and observations. Her first collection is a clear statement of intent for a young writer who has assumed the burden of responsibility for communicating the traumatic aftermath of the Somali civil war and subsequent Diaspora with a particular focus on the impacts felt by women. Teaching my mother how to give birth is a modern treatment of the contradictions and conflicts of the Diaspora experience. The title, like much of Shire’s work, turns conventional wisdom on its head and forces us to reconsider received roles and notions.
Shire is a cartographer of the physical as body and place become metaphorical devices imbued with sense and meaning. In Conversations About Home, Shire’s powerful description of an obsolete passport being destroyed deploys extended metaphor to suggest the internalising of the process of identity crisis: “I tore up and ate my own / passport in an airport hotel. I’m bloated with language I can’t afford to / forget”. In the same poem: “They ask me how did you get here? Can’t they see it on my body? The / Libyan desert red with immigrant bodies, the Gulf of Aden bloated, the / city of Rome with no jacket”. The body, complete with scars and wounds, becomes the immigrants chronicle, a living and mobile Bayeux Tapestry, which carries the answers to the riddle of identity and on another level provides the history and justification for struggle.
In Grandfather’s Hands, Shire explores anatomy and geography as sexual and romantic metaphor with impressive effect:
Your grandfather’s hands were brown.
Your grandmother kissed each knuckle,
Circled an island into his palm
and told him which parts they would share
and which parts they would leave alone.
She wet a finger to draw where the ocean would be
on his wrist, kissed him there,
named oceans after herself.
… Your grandparents often found themselves
in dark rooms, mapping out
each other’s bodies,
claiming whole countries
with their mouths.
The notions of ownership and sensuality in the above poem offer an insight into the psychology of the stateless individual, where physical geography has become inaccessible, almost taboo, and therefore a fitting metaphor for desire. This idea is developed further in Things We Had Lost In The Summer, where desire, the sacrilegious and the physical collide to produce some wonderful imagery: “Amel’s hardened nipples push through / the paisley of her blouse, minarets calling men to worship.” Also, in Questions for Miriam: “You were a city / exiled from skin, your mouth a burning church”.
The central enquiry in this text is one of identity and occurs almost entirely at the level of subtext as Shire adopts a detached and impersonal voice and form. Often, we are confronted with characters who struggle to reconcile their religious, cultural, and sexual identity in an unstable and violent world. Shire aims to confront the conventional, epitomised in the final poem where the poet writes: “To my daughter I will say, / ‘when the men come, set yourself on fire’”. The traditional family unit is further scrutinised, with Shire writing: “I have my mother’s mouth and my father’s eyes; on my face they are still together”. This is a powerful expression of the failure of the old atomic structures to survive in the sexually and physically violent environment of civil war and the subsequent challenge of Western modernity in the Diaspora. In this instance, the body is formalised as a fortress against suffering.
Your Mother’s First Kiss, imagines a mother getting a bus in London and finding the driver is the man who raped her and fathered her daughter. The daughter clutches a bag of dates to her chest, which is symbolically interesting as dates are the traditional food for breaking fast and represents the end of solemnity and silence; the end of reverence and obligation. The poem’s climax, with the mother’s upsetting realisation of the resemblance between father and daughter, is particularly haunting with its echo effectively ringing throughout the collection. The caricatures of mother/daughter relationships throughout he collection expose the frictions and tensions magnified by the width of the cultural-generational gap. In Beauty where a mother bans her daughter from saying God’s name because: “Anything that leaves her mouth sounds like sex”, and in Things We Had Lost In The Summer (exert below), when an adolescent girl explores her sexuality, we are shown how the search for identity produces as effect an adversarial relationship between mother and daughter:
I open my legs like a well-oiled door,
daring her to look at me and give me
what I had not lost: a name.
The identity of mothers, and more generally women of the pre-Civil War generation, represents the old order of characterised by female oppression and weakness throughout the collection. They are nearly always the victims of sexual and violent abuse at the hands of men. Even when, in Fire, a wife exacts her revenge by incinerating her husband for his infidelities, she also kills herself in the process, giving us an all-or-nothing position which is hardly the picture of strength. The contrast could not be clearer with the younger women, such as Maymuun and Sofia, who are renegotiating (on their own terms) the cultural and sexual balance of power.
In Maymuun’s Mouth, we are told the story of a Somali refugee and her adjustments to life in the West, taking photos of her newly shaped hair by a bridge. The bridge token works on two levels, the incidental and the symbolic, which extends the metaphorical reach of the poem in understanding transformation, journey and identity in Diaspora experience. Birds offers an ironic treatment of the conflict between modern and traditional sexual norms in Somali society and also between the expected moral standards for women and the double-standards of men:
Sofia used pigeon blood on her wedding night.
next day, over the phone, she told me
how her husband smiled when he saw the sheets,
On first readings, the book is comprised of a series of traumatic episodes with sensational and shocking images. But it is wrong to regard this collection as a work of tragedy. It is not exclusively a book about hope either. What it does exceedingly well is provide a series of concentrated vignettes about change. It does not answer all the existential questions raised by Diaspora identity but it demands that we revise our preconceived notions about a part of the world that to most of us is all pirates, warlords and famine. My only addendum would be to encourage more of the same, only extended in scope to give us more. Our picture of Somali women has gained new dimensions through Shire’s honesty, but I fear that a simplistic reading of this collection does little to challenge the unfair stereotype of Somali men as exclusively brute and savage. Needless to say, this is a work of depth, vision and beauty that deserves to be read, enjoyed and discussed. I have no doubt that it will.
Order your copy of Warsan Shire’s teaching my mother how to give birth, published by Flipped Eye here
There are fifty-two complex, thought-provoking poems in this, Angela France’s fascinating third collection, all of them engaged with what are clearly deep, lastingly cental preoccupations and, despite her view in “Anagnorisis” that “My only surety is carbon and water, ashes; / language as sensation, / no words”, more than justifying the fulsome back-cover endorsements of Nigel McLoughlin, Deryn Rees-Jones and David Morley, who speak of the “integrity, thoughtfulness and care of her work”, its “uncanny command of language and image”, the sensitivity with which she perceives the world “as she searches for meaning in the ordinary” and its “gloriously sheared weight and shared music”.
Early in the collection, her relationship with a grandmother figure and thereby with older women generally, becomes the path via which she investigates, with great intensity, her premise that “Men don’t tend the fire; … They don’t make old bones” (“The Evolution Of Insomnia”), whereas, as she says in “Canzone: Cunning”, life gives women ever greater power and wisdom as they age: “You always knew what you were, old woman. / I grew knowing the wink of your cunning, / the cackle and knock of a comfortable woman / who had aged past appearances”. Women, it would seem, learn more with the passing of the years about themselves and survival than do men. It’s a recurrent point about staying-power, made again in “The Visit”, for example, where “an old man leans from a narrow bed and the colours of dying / are yellow and white. A sheet winds round him, rumples / to leave a scrawny leg exposed” and in “Counting The Cunning Ways”, a poem in which an unidentified male figure, a grandfather perhaps, preoccupied all his life with an armoury of superstitious nostrums designed to keep misfortune and death at bay, “so many ways to foretell death and disaster”, such as taking “a long way round / to avoid meeting a hearse head-on”, not taking “the ashes out after sundown” and refusing to “wear anything new to a funeral”, discovered at the end that death “came for him while he wasn’t looking.”
By way of contrast, France’s unremittingly scalpel-sharp analysis of her relationship with the world suggests profound, perhaps lifelong, insecurities. In “Getting Here From There”, for instance, she speaks of her need to “name where I tread / grass, rock, mud / to fix the ground beneath me” as if she doubts, not merely philosophically but physically, the reliability or permanence of the world’s surface, whilst in “Hide”, the poem which gives the collection its title, she writes about her need for concealment, disguise, hiding-places within which she can “wait out seasons for a day / when clouds bloom into stories … / watch swifts skirl overhead, oblivious / to my hungry eye”. “I have always craved secret places:” she says, “rooms within walls, smugglers’ tunnels, / the bookcase that glides sideways / for a knowing touch”. It’s a perception of herself that goes back, she tells us in “Spy”, to childhood, when she “moved among” other children “to learn their playground games / and language,” but felt that at least some of the boys were convinced that “she’s mad, she is, / talks to herself all day!”
There’s a great deal more to be said about this aspect of the poems, the extent to which thinking about one’s life is a task never completed, the struggle between feelings of belonging and alienation, the need to be oneself and yet not be alone, than can be said here. In “How To Make Paper Flowers”, for example, she speaks of learning to “Bury the memories of your grandmother” and of not thinking of “your grandfather’s chrysanthemums, cradled in newspaper / and tied to his bike’s handlebars / as he rattles home from the allotment / or the daisy-chain you hung / round your father’s neck.”. These are fine lines, simple, universal images of remembered loss, of deep affection. “Sam Browne” works similarly as she remembers her father using Brasso, pungent, once smelled never forgotten, “a metal tang in the throat”, to polish metal uniform buttons and in a single, very moving line captures the ache of the loss of a parent: “I breathe my dad as he straightens his cap over his eyes.”
The frequency of France’s use of the word “cunning” and words related to it suggests that it is a key to the collection. Its etymology, from the Old Norse “kunnandi”, “knowledge” and the Anglo-Saxon “cunnan”, “to know”, is many-layered. Associated with it is the word “canny”, knowingness, craftiness. Equally, it suggests wit and wisdom, learning and erudition, as well as skill in the occult, deceitfulness, evasiveness and selfish cleverness. The Canadian novelist Robertson Davies wrote a novel entitled “The Cunning Man” which is concerned, among other things, with shamanic and mystical power, whilst among the fallen angels in Book Two of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, there is no better term than “cunning” to describe Belial, whose words were “false and hollow” and who, “though his Tongue / Dropd Manna, could make the worse appear / The better reason” … /for his thoughts were low …”. As France uses it, “cunning” is a word rich in ambiguity, a double-edged sword sometimes, perhaps, but always an indicator of the degree of her engagement with the challenge, as “Other Tongues” makes clear, of coming as close as possible to the inexpressible heart of the matter: “When I say I’m alone, I’m lying. / My mother tongue sleeps under my skin, / bred in the bone, colouring my blood. / I speak from an echo chamber / where the walls pulse with whispers, / familiar cadences rising and falling / at my back. I speak from a limestone floor, / as familiar to my feet as are the bones / of the hill creaking between the roots / of great beeches. I speak with multitudes / in my throat, their round vowels / vibrating in my stomach, their pitch / and tone stiffening my spine.”
Order your copy of Hide by Angela France from www.ninearchespress.com
©2013: Ken Head www.kenhead.co.uk
Text and Text Messages
Inua Ellams is in demand. This collection provides ample evidence for why this is so. Candy Coated Unicorns and Converse All Stars is an energetic work, blurring the ever-diminishing distinction between page and performance poetry. First impressions suggest a city poet brimming with self-confidence, experimenting unreservedly with language and style, and holding the keys to the garrison of contemporary youth culture. The title itself is a testament to Ellams’ juxtapositional style, where pop references are merged with classic and experimental tropes. Particularly striking is the liberty at which Ellams indulges his impressive imaginative acrobatics to conjure up original descriptive landscapes.
Nevertheless, Ellams’ thematic interests are distinctively traditional, as is seen in the recurrent exploration of childhood (Of All the Boys of Plateau Private School, Leather Comets, Class Zero) and city life (Lilly and the Ladybird; Clubbing; Lovers, Liars, Conjurers and Thieves; GuerrillaGardenWritingPoem). In Twenty Five, past and present unite in a “Thai Food Gourmet on Horseferry Road”, as Ellams considers his parent’s marriage: “The couple have been paired for twenty-five years. They know the / square root of survival, how to float four children through tidal waves to / safe piers”. Ellams, like most of us in the twenty-something-and-‘urban’ pigeonhole, shows the marks of an adolescence spent absorbing Def Poetry shows, with echoes of the work of Saul Williams throughout the collection, although this influence is but one of many tributaries feeding Ellams’ broad stylistic repertoire. Portrait of Prometheus as a Basketball Player is a playful marriage of contemporary and classical imagery written with rigourous attention to detail: “Men will call him father, son or king / of the court. His stride will ripple oceans, feet whip-crack quick, his back will scar, / haunched over, a silent storm about him”. The playful juxtaposition of mythology and contemporary life make the reader consider whether we live in a world where such depth of symbolic meaning is possible from novel sources, or whether we will be forced to look behind us to find the appropriate resources to explain what we see and how we feel.
Ellams’ eulogy, Corinne Bailey Rae, is a high point of the collection, in particular the opening: “Maybe her voice isn’t sky-borne or drifting, / instead, a captured clasp of earth spirit, an orchid / of the valley or some kindred of hymns”. The toning down of experimentation and a certain economy of description extends the reach of Ellams’ overall style and suits this particular form. But Ellams does not have to be writing about music to be deliciously acoustic, generating music with strongly alliterative lines, sprung rhythms and the regular employment of assonance that show the influence of rhythmic innovators such as Gerard Manley Hopkins. In GuerrillaGardenWritingPoem, Ellams returns to his favoured cityscape to describe:
The mouth of the city is tongued with tar
its glands gutter saliva, teeth chatter in rail
clatter, throat echoes car horns and tyre’s
screech, forging new language: a brick city
smoke speak of stainless steel consonants
and suffocated vowels. These are trees and
shrubbery, the clustered flora battling all
hours, staccato staggered through streets.
Fragments of Bone is a laudable attempt at extending beyond familiar thematic territory to grapple with issues of religion, history and violence. The poem boasts the stand out line of the collection, where Ellams describes: “the sun solemnly bowed on the horizon – / thin as a prayer mat”. The use of the word ‘solemn’ seems to do justice to the unfeeling regularity of the sun. The imagery of the prayer mat draws us towards considering the sun as an object which has long itself been the focal point of worship. This connecting of the sun and more recent traditions of religiosity through the prayer mat is especially rich. The poem is weakened by failing to fully develop the potential motivational structure of people who commit violence in the name of religion. Instead we are presented with a series of images that fail to coalesce into a substantive understanding. A point about form, Ellams is stuck in the modern idiom of point and counterpoint rather than going beyond a dialogical structure within the poem to provide a deeper response to the problems of identity, religion and violence (‘you counter with airplanes …’ ‘you reject faith again …’ ‘Let me begin again …’). The rhetorical use of ‘I say’ ‘you say’ ‘they say’ at various points in the poem borders on the polemic, a feature totally absent from the much more poetic referencing of the personal impact of 9/11 in Class Zero.
Ellams’ strongest poem, Dear Tina, explores the contrast between traditional and modern romance. Ellams is at his best when he focusses his images, communicating the experience of modern life and the etiquettes of digital and contemporary relationships. It begins with a description of his grandmother fleeing home during the Biafra War:
how she screamed through drop zones and Morse codes
into jungle, dodging bullets, hiding and crying into rain,
that day I discovered my grandfather heard her wailing,
felt something enough to move him after her, in darkness,
through rain, how her eyes, found in the flickering bounce
of hurricane lamps, showed a place so pure, he sailed her
away to the embrace of Paris, the kiss of Rome …
… That day, I realised we live
in different worlds; friends pass too fast for minutes, wars
comes after X Factor, turtle dove romances exist in the past.
Ellams, as with other generation Y poets such as Max Wallis and Nina Bahadur, believe in the survival of romance by denying its extinction and accepting its more modern ‘anti-romantic’ incarnations. Ellams’ text message epitomises this belief and perhaps underlines his commitment to engaging the perennial through urban and contemporary ways: “if evr ur lst in ths urbn jngle, / I’ll fnd n brng u in frm rain”. In summary, Candy Coated Unicorns and Converse All Stars is a compelling statement of intent from a versatile
Buy your copy of Inua Ellams, Candy Coated Unicorns and Converse All Stars, Flap, Flipped Eye, £4, ISBN 978-1-905233-33-5 HERE
Samatar Elmi is a poet and philosophy postgrad student at the University of Bristol. He has had poems in Magma; the Cadaverine; Ink, Sweat and Tears; Myths of the Near Future; Ekphrasis.