Thursday, 29 March 2007

Daljit Nagra's Debut Sensation!

George Ttoouli reviews Daljit Nagra's Look We Have Coming to Dover! (Faber and Faber, 2007) pp. 55, £8.99

I mistrust anything which comes with a media frenzy attached, so I was apprehensive about actually reading Daljit Nagra's first collection, Look We Have Coming to Dover! Stupid me for judging the book by its cover.

Pentagram are the professional designers behind Faber's poetry series. No images, large text, mostly bright colours, with subtle hint of relevance in the colour choices. Nagra's book is pink, with a saffron title and his name in lavender. I think - the pink is quite bright. And that's it.

It's a savvy approach to making sales: eye-catching, visible from the darkest recesses of the retail industry, all it takes is a flat facing on a bookshelf and you'll see it as you walk past on the other side of the street. That said, cap in hand to the retail industry means less interesting to me the poetry consumer, after a couple of minutes. I'm used to hunting for books I like, not being assaulted by them.

But this is Faber's, what, third new poet in ten years? So hip hip hooray, the independent publishing saviours of contemporary UK poetry are back with another offering! And what do we have here? Ethnic, proud, intelligent, multicultural, sarcastic, witty and everyone's favourite non-majority poster boy, finally in print. Three years of build up, a few prizes and pamphlets and positive reviews, finally culminating in 55 pages of verse. Well, more precisely, 51 pages, excluding blanks, title, glossary (!): pushing Faber's new poetry average up by 5.2 pages per year. All bow to Stephen Page's miracle cure for Faber's failing sales. The simple solutions are often the most commercial: kick out poetry.

But enough whining about the publishers and the way they've marketed the book. What I really want to whine about is the media. Unable to handle more than a handful of poets at any one time anyway, this becomes even more restrictive when it comes to 'ethnic' or, to give them the government's terminology, 'BME' poets. (Why give them names when an acronym can be usefully employed to deny people proper identification?) So Daljit is the Indian boy done good (i.e. white) du jour, stepping up to displace Monica Ali, begat by Zadie Smith, etc. I can't remember a poet getting as many column inches since 'Sylvia' the movie came out. And I can't remember a non-white poet get as many since.....

It's not a bad thing if it brings good writing into the public eye and then springboards readers into new areas of writing. But where are the articles about his influences, his contemporaries, the contexts of who he resists? What is it that drives him to kick against ethnic stereotyping? Does he have writers in mind who play up to type? There's my manifesto then.

Reading his poems, I thought first of Louis MacNeice - and the Midlands crop up here, though Nagra doesn't seem to have lived there himself. MacNeice is there in the jaunty, unique rhythms, the joyful play of language and political undercurrent that sometimes manifests in overt sarcasm.

In the opening poem, 'Darling & Me!': "I giddily / home for Pakeezah record". Is that line break there to help readers spot how he's used an adverb to do the verb's work? Jibing aside, the language use is fresh, cocky and highly entertaining. And then the wordplay stacks up to a strange twist:

We say we would never eat
in publicity like dat, if we did wife
advertisement may need
of solo punch in da smack.

The jaunty, engaging, ethnicised narrator, after endearing himself to me so well with his playful language and love for his new wife, casually throws in some unmediated misogyny. It's a simple trick, but one that created much more complexity of character than I was expecting from the opening style.

Character is a big part of this book. Nagra's done his reading (as expected of an English teacher) and goes through the whole gamut of Asian personae. There are newly weds, schoolchildren, old folks, Brit Asian, Asian Brits, Brit Asians in India, Sikhs, Muslims, men and women, boys and girls. The cast aspire to be white, black, Indian, married to non-whites, blacks, everything. Each voice presents a new argument, a looping back and responding to previous arguments, creating conflict and contradiction. Eventually, in a lovely little bit of silliness, one of the personae even has a go at the poet:

You teachers are like
dis Dalgit-Bulram mickeying
of me as Kabba... too shy to uze

his voice, he plot me
as 'funny', or a type, even vurse -
so hee is uzed in British antologies -
he hide in dis whitey 'fantum' English

(Kabba Questions the Ontology of Representation, the Catch 22 for 'Black' Writers...)

This is good fun, simple, studiable stuff. It seems to aspire to curriculum. It's not a bad thing considering the lack of enjoyable poetry (another target for the same poem) at teenage level. The collection does try a bit too hard to meet this audience at times - the poem titles alone scream 'read me I'm fun' (nine poem titles out of thirty-one end with an exclamation mark) and there's sometimes an easy engagement with intertextuality that leans on dead white middle class men (Arnold, Orwell, Marlowe, Shakespeare), with overt updating for a multicultural society.

But then there's the more subtle updating. In 'The Tree', he takes an axe to the tree his father grew and ends with, "only for ash I grew." It's a complete appropriation of ancestry, of any son-father relationship, of the cultural distance between immigrants and their children in a new culture. It's also reminiscent of Ezra Pound's 'love poem' for Walt Whitman - cutting him down with an axe to provide light for the new generations.

Other references, language-based, are all over the place too with Sugar Puffs, ladoo, KFC, Fanta and a smattering of south Asian words. The glossary at the end reminds once again that this book is being marketed at people who like to 'solve' their poems, rather than enjoy them, but again there's a nice touch when he alliterates the translations of the '5Ks' as "symbols of the Sikh religion: kirpan (blade), kara (bangle), kesh (barnet), kacha (boxers) and kunga (brush)".

Through all this play, this fun, a serious Nagra shows through from time to time. Poetry is also used for the traditional purpose of engaging with, celebrating, or mourning the personal. There's the odd love poem, or a strange but emotionally subtle poem for a new daughter. Some of these are coded in the new languages he has forged for himself. When I encountered it for the first time in Zephaniah I was surprised to find poetry could be so exciting, though you learn quickly that it's been done, and sometimes better, elsewhere. The serious poems seem to sit less well with the word and language play however, and this is often where Nagra becomes most measurable against his contemporaries.

One poem towards the end of the collection really made me sit up. 'My Father's Dream of Return' has echoes in other poems, but seems to be standing alone, opening on a major chord:

Booming the clouded mountains
hurtling around and downwards -
the bird-like, plane-like jet
descent of his car speckling
the slant of goats, fast-brake
at the ceremonial elephants

There's some MacNeice, but more Derek Walcott to my ear - not on par, but struggling for a type of poetry that rolls and narrates, captures history. Perhaps closer to David Dabydeen's softer reminiscences, even. It summed up for me what this collection was doing as whole.

It's a showcase. It's talent on display. There are many things happening here, but the poems don't quite tie together in one direction. The bright pink, the 'look at me!' feel to the design and the poems, they're all signs of a newcomer on the block muscling for space - both from an ethnic perspective and from the perspective of any new voice. What happens next will be the real excitement - there are so many directions here which he could refine towards. Let's hope there's a bit more flesh on the spine and a bit more faith from media and publisher alike in the poetry, instead of the celebrity.

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

National Poetry Competition Winners

Simon Turner surveys the carnage

This year's three winners of the National Poetry Competition are an interesting bunch, perhaps reflecting the fact that the judging panel was a little more idiosyncratic than normal (expect Jeremy Prynne, Attila the Stockbroker and Charles Kennedy next year...). So, what were they like? Mike Barlow, the winner, gave us 'The Third Wife', a well-executed though recognisable type of poem in a narrative style hovering between dramatic monologue and surreal exposition. Some excellent moments here - I liked the lines "No matter how I pumped, the organ of her heart played flat, / her painted smile as wooden as a figurehead’s" especially - and the overall effect was both funny and creepy, like the early moments in a David Lynch movie when you're not quite sure if you're meant to laugh or have a stroke. However, it's use of persona, and the rather stilted language - like it had been translated from Swedish - screamed 'workshop', at least to this reader. I don't want to come across as unrelentingly negative, though; there was a great deal to like here.

John Latham, placed second for his poem 'From Professor Nobu Kitagawa’s Notebooks On Effects of Lightning on the Human Body' (Tr. from the Japanese by N. Kitagawa), has produced a far more interesting beast, which troubles ideas of language, translation, the poem itself (perhaps explaining why it didn't win). It works with a kind of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E-lite conceit of a fake (and not quite 'correct' translation [see also Jonathan Safron Foer's Everything is Illuminated]), and the poem is full of fresh and imaginative linguistic shards as a result. In the first half of the poem, detailing a couple who are struck by lightning on the Horiko Coast, 'Dr Kitagawa' gives us this 'translation' of his own 'text':

Man felt no perverse effects,
seven heart-flowers uncorrupted in his hand,
though since he suffers rapture of tympanum -

which is lovely. There is much throughout the poem along these lines, which might get tiresome if the poem were to outstay its welcome (see also Everything is Illuminated) but which works because of its brevity. Of the three poems, I would most likely have given this one the top spot, but then I'm cussed and biased towards the extremes of language, so what do I know?

(One thing, though: is it just me, or is there a ghost of racism in using a fictional 'foreigner' to create interesting effects in the English language? How far removed are fake poetic translations (and I think they are prevalent enough to call them a form) from, say, Peter Sellers' infamous portrayal of a 'goodness-gracious-me' Indian stereotype in The Party? Certainly, the 'translation' form is not usually designed to produce comic effects, but isn't the mindset both impulses devolve from exactly the same? I wonder if there's a tradition of Japanese fake translations from the English? Just a thought...)

And finally, David Grubb, who came third with his poem 'Bud Fields and His World'. I feel like I'm going to have to live with this poem a little longer than the others to get a full handle on it; its intentions and effects are less easily pigeon-holed, its qualities much more a component of the overall package (sign of a good poem). The poem feels very American (this is aside from its subject matter, being as it is a tribute to James Agee, the author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a deeply poetic study of the rural poor in the Depression-era US), though I can't really clarify this with any degree of accuracy or authority, so you'll just have to take my word for it. In short, though, what I detect in American poetry generally (or rather, the American poetry which appeals to me most) is an openness of form and content (and, secondary to this, meaning: in much English poetry, the meaning is set almost from the get-go, which makes reading a poem akin to an experience of deja vu), a free-form approach to language where the energy of the poem is closely tied to what it says. All of these qualities are present in David Grubb's poem. Interesting. I'm going to endeavour to read more of his work, I think.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

George Ttoouli - Things that Glow in the Dark and the Light

There's a curious lineage in poetry which focuses on the use of language both as a means of looking for the charge in objects and as a way to invest objects with energy. The names for this charge are various. Aristoteli described the 'substance' and 'accidence' of objects; we might infer that the greater an object's substance (its non-material impact) the greater its energy. Hence transubstantiation: the shift of a object from the everyday into something with religious significance.

"But as air, melody, is what strikes me most of all in music and design in painting, so design, pattern or what I am in the habit of calling "inscape" is what I above all aim at in poetry" --Gerald Manley Hopkins, letter, 15 February 1879

Mostly, the quest to discover charge has been a religious search. Hopkins perhaps crystallised the phenomena best of all, referring to 'inscape' and 'instress' in ways that seem premonitive for concepts of intelligent design. Predecessors such as Wordsworth and fellow agnostic or atheistic Romantics struggled to find the correct vocabulary, having few terms beyond the religious set with which to approach inspiration, spirit, the parts of the world that gave sudden appeal to their imaginations and subconscious. Hymns to spirits, eternity and other, frankly, abstract approaches, are agnostic at best.

"The concept of inscape shares much with Wordsworth's "spots of time," Emerson's "moments," and Joyce's "epiphanies," showing it to be a characteristically Romantic and post-Romantic idea." --Glenn Everett, Ph. D., 'Hopkins on "Inscape" and "Instress"', The Victorian Web, 1988

In contrast, Joyce's 'epiphanies', CS Lewis's hunt for moments of 'joy', or any other number of descriptions of charged moments are overtly religious. The beauty of the natural world, or the power of language to inspire, move, or realign the bones (accidence) of both the object and the perceiver, has largely been taken as an excuse to get down on one's knees and give thanks.

"The Proper METHOD for studying poetry and good letters is the method of contemporary biologists, that is careful first-hand examination of the matter, and continual COMPARISON of one 'slide' or specimen with another"
--Ezra Pound, The ABC of Reading 1934

At some point, though, the secular door creaks open. Perhaps it is with Ezra Pound: his militant approach to charge as being meaning stacked on meaning seems to imply that an object's substance can be wholly interpreted through analysis. Pound's approach seems to be that the poet, in constructing a line of poetry, will stack only the meanings intended, without room for accidents (pardon the pun). Every division of the poem with the critic's scalpel reveals a new meaning, until no layers are left and the poem can be discarded, lifeless, with no trace of God between the scraps.

Pound's description of penning 'In a Station of the Metro' is one struggling to find the correct vocabulary - words like 'beautiful' and 'lovely' recur in his description. Eventually he settles on "a language in colour" - actually a description of synaesthesia, though he rubbishes it as a kindergarten nonsense. It shows the first glimmer of an acceptable secular vocabulary in which to couch an understanding of the energy language is capable of.

"I am not speaking of the common and natural capacity of perceiving objects in all their detail, but of the power of the metaphor to only retain their essence, and to bring them to such a state of purity that their metaphysical significance appears like a revelation." --Odysseas Elytis, Nobel Lecture, 8 December 1979

More recently still, Elytis' description of 'revelation' - the heightened knowledge that comes from experiencing charge - seems to tail off into religious experience once more. However, there is a more established doubt in this: the comparison is a simile. More importantly, the emphasis here is on a hierarchy of experience within the real: the common against the uncommon; a modernist concern, but one that does not necessarily demand a leap to the divine.

Or perhaps it is part of a counter reformation, an attempt to cling on to the past. Scientists struggling to hold onto their Christian beliefs in the face of basic contradictions between Biblical information and Darwinian theory, hold that the marvels of scientific discovery are indicators of a greater power, rather than a disproof of divinity. The turning to charge, energy, meaning, instead of literalness, is a succour.

"A numinous object is one in which matter, form and situation combine to 'haunt' or otherwise fascinate the imagination." --Peter Blegvad, 'On Numinosity', The Amateur, date unspecified

But more recently, I encountered the wonders of 'numinometer' - a measuring device for exactly this thing Robert Graves said there is no yardstick for. An example of imaginary media, the numinometer can actually determine the quality of a metaphor (although primarily it is used for objects); it can measure charge. The veil lifts. I started to think that this is an attempt to nail the coffin shut on the whole 'God is in the detail' mentality.

As Deborah Rose describes on visiting the Amateur office, "The Holy Grail is a classic example of a 'numinous object.' But the Grail's numinous charge is invested by collective faith, i.e. it's 'sacred.' The folks at Amateur, the lady in the lab coat presumably among them, tend to concentrate more on secular objects. Alfred Hitchcock's glass of milk, for instance, with the light he put in it to make it luminous. Did I tell you the folks at Amateur are weird?"

Far from weird, I would consider this the logical step. Having monitored the rise of the non-divine explanations of rainbows, people and planets through the twentieth century, the present-day analyst should take it for granted that further exploration and invention should provide alternatives to the long-dominant religious myths about the world. As in the God Detector song, from Blegvad's 'On Imaginary Media' play (a 'son et lumiere' multimedia staging), in which a cartoon Levi (of leviathan fame) enters a brothel on a quest for the divine and discovers none, but ends up enjoying the service despite. (Some religious types would probably complain that a brothel isn't the best place to look, but then again, Jesus scored pretty well with Mary Magdalene.)

A further leap is taken in Blegvad's play: in one case, a machine invented to allow users to experience Virtual Death, in much the same way as Virtual Reality works, seems to provide users with a chance to actually commune with God. One journalist who trials the device, is quoted in a visually presented newspaper article, as reaching the light at the end of the tunnel and finding incredible beauty. The visual scrolls down the article and I read, "I met Christ and God..." and so on, but the voice-over unnervingly demands that the rest of her speech be skipped. The presentation is one of tabloid-mania, unreliability; the journalist's character created as slightly odious, both for her initial scepticism of the imaginary device and for her ensuing religious awakening through it.

The aesthetics do not shy away from the divine, they explore ways to deny it's presence. It is an assertion: if we have the new vocabulary, the secular expressions, scientific or otherwise, then it should be used; bring in the new, in other words. There is a celebration of the substance made substantial, despite the caveat of it all being imaginary, invented, not yet real. The art of Amateur is one of invocation and also celebration of the secular; a celebration of life as we know it, not as we layer it.

The sequence then:
- The identification of charge/substance vs. accidence
- The attribution of charge/instress to the spiritual
- The attribution of charge/numinosity to the secular
And the logical progression from this? Undoubtedly: the use of numinosity to disprove divinity. In a hundred years or so, we will probably see artists questing for the one lump of coal in the diamond pile.

The excessive drive to charge everything, to make the everyday special, from a cup of coffee to a pile of raw meat, from nothing more than a splash of random colour to the most mundane civic building, to every scrap of language, shred of scribbles, be it painted by animals, written by monkeys, or spoken by dogs; the madness of the internet in giving everything voice, recording everything ever written; in saying that everything should be archived and given value, that all is equal: this will necessitate backlash and, in order to preserve the hierarchy of emotional reaction that has kept us so securely divided through millennia, artists will begin to celebrate the banal, the awful. This will be the only proof left that there was ever any quality to begin with.

Two Poems by Jane Commane

The Colours Captured


Half a mile out, the air clearing,
untroubled by the slabs of flats
pushing their heads to the sky,

the river cuts a basin
through a collage of allotments
thronging with thorn bush and bindweed,

incised by the railway bridge
that arcs above, separating
one side of Spon from the other.

The stealth of beams rupture the clouds
and in this moment,
there is something to be captured,

exposed in the film of water
that drags itself toward the viaduct.
Murk and dregs shimmer

as the sun hits and sparks
transforming dithering shades
of leaf above and pebble below.

The wavelength ripples
and scatters the ivy and ochre,
igniting blue in the water

as the river imitates the sky,
dredging up the memories
of the lost city shades.


From her garden to ours,
we grafted hydrangea cuttings
from the bush that flourished in the sun trap
beside the grey wood shed,

a year before they demolished
New Century Park,
erupting the terraced street,
splintering seven decades apart,

razing the gardens,
tangled with lush thickets
of brambles, lavender, turf,
into rubble, dust and earth.

The same hydrangeas
that we left by the grave
unsettled the dun colours
of cemetery soil and trodden grass

with their lacework of petal heads
blemished by the aluminium
of the acid soil, stained sapphire
by Mercian wellsprings gone astray.

True as Coventry blue -
the calico and silk fibres drinking
the dyes made pure and fast
in the Sherbourne’s waters.

Diffusing, the rarest of tones,
blue - a random ink blot,

a fluke that seeps through
the green pages of nature,

in the march of bluebell swathes
through wayside woodlands,
the cobalt dart at the throat
of the migrating swallow,

refractions of hydrangea hues,
the prisms of azure and steely blues,
the river resisting and shackling
a mirror of sky in the darkened ditch.

The Return of Oisin


Despite the warnings, you’ve returned.
Now the questions unravel and reel

and you wonder if you can trust imagination,
the palominos that surge through dreams and waking.

On the bridge of ransacked stone, you search
for the recognisable shift of streets, spires, smokestacks,

for the water mill turning a steady wheel,
for Spon Gate and the boundary keepers,

for the dyers, making the cloth true
in the clear river before it enters the city,

the wafting of blue skeins and the clouds
of dye spreading softly in the stream,

for the weaver’s draughty loom attics,
and their chapel, that now sighs in ruin,

for the pious, making their way towards penance
with the washing of feet at the leper hospital,

for the cold schoolrooms, the truants flooding
out of the gates for the Spon Wakes,

the ribbons, watches, bicycles, precision parts
overflowing from workshops and out the factory doors,

all vanished.

The echo silence ripples around the air,
turning and evading, the static of a detuned radio

disturbed only by the Saturday night clatter
of heels, nylon skirts stuttering against bare thighs,

the sound of a fist on a boarded window,
the hammering of coffin nails,

the sharp alarm of a dog’s bark ricocheting
into the wind that whips between parapets.

You have only been back an hour,
but age is inching a grasp upon you.

Crumbling bone, withering lip and eye socket,
contouring your face with a seam-work of lines.

The maps have rotted and turned senseless
in your hands, your imagination failed.

The Sherbourne is still flowing, forking four ways
and rejoining under the Spon Gate bridge,

but it moves as a defeated, soundless trickle
that ekes an existence but not a life,

conquered by the flood defences
and the exacting knife of the town planner.

The river cannot rise and wash the silt free
from its path, litter-bound and poisoned.

You’re trying to hold onto your thoughts
but they stream through your fingers.


The dead sleep shatters:
the call of the banshee?
Will the family line
end tonight?

A long, low lament
threading around alleyways
and curving off
the course of the river.

The rattle and hush
of a diesel engine idling
as she trawls the nowhere streets,
leaning out of the window,

rag - bone
rag and bone -

a caterwaul swelling loud
then falling soft.

Three generations
sit up front
in her truck,
mother, daughter,

The back is loaded
with old gas hobs,
copper pipes,
and one settee.


The only solution
is excavation.
To quarry down, away
from the vast grey city palette,
the cement hives
the blank expanse
of one-way windows.

Where is the city?
Where is the river?

Where can I go to find the handprint,
to fit my own hand into the shape
and connect again with the past?

Beneath the paving stones
there is a mythical river city,
subterranean canals, chancels, naves,

buried, like a casket of saint’s bones,
in a bombproof leaded tomb.

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Three Poems by Andrew Bailey

Cover Versions

i - after Basho

See! What is there between us
this fine spring day but this sparrow?
I clap; it is gone.

You frown. Noble gases, nitrogen,
oxygen - your miniaturised machine
can calculate the volume of between
us and the likely motion of its contents.

Schrödinger, I say, passim; you know as I do
one day these will leap from between us
as water from a glass.

ii - after Goethe

Hey there, heavensent,
you're camomile and valium;
double soothe the double blues,
I'm tired of being human.
What's the ouch for? What the mmm?
Come on, peace, come on,
hey, come in where the heart drums.

iii - after Mallarmé

Six, Six,

Six, Six,

Six, Six,

Send to Hotmail

Poems plan you, a period of you into two,
of elsewhere accepted. Feel if anything
within takes - it is not up to you, but
the correspondence of a simultaneous body.

Or sample Gists and Piths' editors. It won't
be original and will not please the DOT.
Currently the poem is free, unpublished,
no attachments; the read and accepted

are no longer open, are final. The editors
know it won't submit, as they won't submit,
to the DOT. The free poem advances its own
neo-homeric sequence, lets the decision

back within, will not let the DOT
say no. Hello. We're editors. Six please.


I know you. You dream of me
and do not yet recall it.

I don't care who you sleep beside,
if they're stuffed or breathing;

your thoughts have been jerking
in thick black tar with me,

there are fingerprints to prove it
in intimate, mirrorless places.

O gorgeous, I know how you think of me,
and when. Let's.

Thursday, 8 March 2007


Gists and Piths is open to submissions of original, unpublished poetry. Please send up to six of your poems to The Editors [1] gistsandpiths AT hotmail DOT co DOT uk included in the body of the email: no attachments, please, we won't read them, unless we already know and trust you, in which case, bring it on. Our tastes should be apparent from the blog, so if you're unsure as to whether your work fits in, have a thorough browse before submitting. No simultaneous submissions, please. If you want to send anything longer - a sequence, say, or a neo-Homeric epic - please let us know in advance, and send a sample of what you plan to submit. If your work has been accepted, the editors will get back to you within two weeks; if you have not heard back from us within that period, please take it as read that your work has not been accepted, and feel free to send it elsewhere.

Alternatively, you might want to send us a review or an article. Reviews should be between 500 and 1000 words in length: again, have a look around the blog to get sense of what kind of reviews we're liable to publish. If you want to send an article, meanwhile, give us a flavour beforehand (an abstract or a sample), and we'll let you know if we're interested in publishing the whole thing.


[1] George Ttoouli and Simon Turner, but calling ourselves The Editors makes us sound more impressive.

New Poetry Titles 2007

Shearsman's publishing schedule for 2007 can be viewed here. The Michael Haslam and Colin Simms collections are particularly exciting, but there's a lot to look forward to.

Carcanet's new and forthcoming poetry titles can be viewed through this page.

Look out too for Zoe Brigley's first collection The Secret from Bloodaxe, due in August 2007.

Forthcoming and new collections from Salt.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Live poetry event!

I've heard on the grapevine that the good people behind Matchbox magazine, based at the University of Warwick, are running a poetry event on Monday the 12th of March at the Lounge in Leamington Spa. It starts at 8pm and runs till midnight. Free entry.

The Disarming World of David Hart

Simon Turner reviews David Hart's Running Out (Five Seasons Press, 2006), pp. 272, £10.50

Though I've not lived there for some years now, I still think of myself as a 'Birmingham' writer, and I've spent a lot of time trying to work out precisely what Birmingham means in the grand scheme of things, and, from that, what it means to be a Birmingham writer. Is there such a thing as a Brummie aesthetic? If so, what does it look like?

If I had to find a common ground between various prominent Brummie or Brum-based writers of note (Johnathan Coe, Jim Crace and Roy Fisher being perhaps the most well known) it would be a shared formal restlessness - see, for example, Coe's biography of B S Johnson, or the plethora of different worlds and approaches deployed in Fisher's recent Bloodaxe collected poems - coupled to a particular brand of realism, a grounding in the physical facts of the world, even if that world is wholly imaginary, as it often is in the case of Crace.

David Hart is less well-known than the aforementioned Brummie trinity, but his productivity puts his Midlands compatriots in the shade. Running Out is Hart's most recent collection from Five Seasons Press and its size is a testament to his prodigious output. The sheer variety of material on display is something of an impediment to writing a coherent review, and as such this response will be extraordinarily partial, giving only the merest hint of what's actually contained in its pages.

Brummie chauvinism dictates that I turn to his Birmingham poems first, and my favourite of this little bundle is 'Spaghetti nature', where Hart's predilection for linguistic mutation and invention is at its most bizarre and focused:

"So much bright yellow, and the greens, the groans,
the reegs, the porslay, the brim, the wilt misted,
and the oot gross, and the votch, and the dack,
ond the dondiloons, all need dusting, and the brimbles."

Language is shifted and mutated throughout this poem, and as such, so is the landscape Hart describes, or rather enacts. For this seems to be another aspect of the Brummie aesthetic: change. The city has gone through quite a substantial overhaul in recent years (which Hart documents in 'The Bull Ring'), but it's always had a habit of shifting its boundaries and reinventing itself, according to the dictates of the age, and I see Hart's refusal to conform to one set of poetic ideas as a response, in some ways, to this. One of the problems of coming from the industrial Midlands is that you constantly have to jostle against perceptions: that Birmingham is ugly and unwelcoming, that the Brummie accent sounds 'stupid' (ignoring for now the fact that Chaucer would have spoken an idiolect very similar to modern Brummie, or that the anonymous Pearl poet very well might have hailed from the Midlands).

I could go on, but my basic point is that Brummies get some pretty bad press. For the Brum writer, these mis-perceptions are important, as it poses the question: how do you write about a city that people have already made up their mind about, and which, moreover, because of its relative youth, doesn't have the literary heritage of London or Edinburgh to fall back on when attempting to define its essential self? Hart's response to this question seems to be to ignore it altogether, or rather to define a notion of Brummieness which is without boundaries, without form. This formal, indeed philosophical openness seems, at least to this reviewer, a peculiarly American trait, and appropriately enough, a poem of Hart's which deals with the matter of form, entitled 'Book', includes a quote from Robert Duncan, one of the leading figures in both the Black Mountain group and the San Francisco renaissance. The poem itself revolves around the lovely conceit of finding a book in the Hay-on-Wye poetry bookshop in 1987 (then run by Alan Halsey, an astonishing language-centred poet and visual artist) which was previously owned by Roy Fisher (the connections keep multiplying). The book in question is 'The truth and life of myth', by Duncan, and Hart describes finding the following passage, which Fisher himself had marked when he owned the book:

"'Back of each poet's concept of the poem
is his concept of the meaning of form itself; and his
concept of form in turn where it is serious at all
arises from his concept of the nature of the universe,
its lifetime of form, or even, for some, its lifelessness
or formlessness'"

'Book' is a remarkable poem for a number of reasons, not least because of the ending, which is one of the loveliest pieces of writing in the collection, but also because of the seemingly casual way in which it enacts a poetics, a means of seeing the world (according to Duncan's argument) in the most casual and imperceptible way imaginable. The poem might stand as a kind of manifesto for Hart's approach to writing poetry, were it not so humble and quiet in its approach. It has no active design upon the reader, as such, but the reader comes away from the poem knowing precisely what Hart meant to say, nonetheless.

This review has perhaps already gone on a little too long, and as I noted before, I can barely even begin to give an impression of the scope of the collection. Taking a leaf out of Hart's book, which includes two list poems ('Ten Best Benches 2002' and 'Ten Best Doors 2003') I'll conclude with my own list: 'Ten-ish Best David Hart Poems 2007'. No doubt any prospective readers will have a different selection: it's that kind of book.

1. Then in the twentieth century
2. Hayden comes to lunch and sends a letter home
3. Spaghetti nature
4. When she asked
5. The gully hermits
6. Ten Best Benches 2002
7. Ten Best Doors 2003
8. Of the colours
9. Part of a day
10. Ah
10a. The jigsaw of history has an infinite number of pieces
10b. It's in my soul, this