Wednesday 6 June 2007

Holland & Co.

Simon Turner reviews Boudicca & Co by Jane Holland (Salt Publishing), £9.99, ISBN 1-844712-89-3

What is most striking about this collection upon first delving into it is the sheer range of material on display. We have a number of poems detailing domestic everyday life; strong evocations of landscape; Anglo-Saxon translations; echoes of medieval songs; and, most impressively of all (but we can come on to that later) we have the long sequence to which this collection owes part of its name, an imaginative excursion into the life and career of the Queen of the Iceni. This range may well have something to do with the collection's vintage: nearly ten years in the making, the poems in this collection represent a great leap forward from Holland's enjoyable debut, The Brief History of a Disreputable Woman.

If the collection is 'about' anything in particular, it is 'about' notions of Britishness, and notions of womanhood. I'll start with womanhood, as it is the less controversial, and less problematic, of the two central themes. Specifically, Holland seems concerned with opening up, and dismantling, traditional notions of femininity. From the book cover (reminiscent, at least to my eye, of the famous jacket photo for Germaine Greer's feminist classic The Female Eunuch) through to the Boudicca poems, Boudicca & Co. is packed to the brim with unconventional representations of women, not all of them positive - the 'Dragon Woman' in the poem of the same name is a particularly unsettling presence - but all of them transcending the preconceived boundaries of what it means to be a woman. Early on in the collection, this attempt to go beyond the patrolled borders of 'correct' female behaviour is enacted in 'Hot Days in the Eighties', where the speaker - employing a familiar syntactic trick of talking about herself in the second person (it's all 'you you you') - remembers how

You chopped your locks in the back
of the car one day, dyke-short.
Kept dental dams in the glove box,
grew the hair under your arms
to a mousy fuzz. Purchased
a map of the highways, went native.

The car - as any reader of Kerouac or fan of the Boss's seemingly endless series of songs about the open road could tell you - is a good old fashioned symbol of masculine freedom and self-reliance, and Holland's re-appropriation of it here is charged with significance. I was reminded a little of Lavinia Greenlaw's own tales of Thatcher-era delinquency in Minsk, but Holland's take on similar material seems to have a lot more punch and muscle.

Arguably the most remarkable component of Holland's poetry, however, is actually stylistic rather than thematic, for she is among a very small number of female poets (Alice Oswald being another) for whom Ted Hughes is a vital influence upon their poetry. Oswald, of course, has written about her love of Hughes' work elsewhere ; in the case of Holland, I'm just extrapolating what I see in the work - in short, it's guesswork. That said, if we take a poem of Holland's like 'The Song of the Hare' ('She sang the song of the hare / and the hanged man hung // as the god in the tree / put forth branches of sorrow // and the lark climbed high / in an ecstasy of cloud'), replace the word 'hare' with 'crow', throw in a little more blood and guts and atomic annhilation, and presto! We have a Ted Hughes poem circa-1974.

Okay, granted that's a parody of Hughes, and wilfully unfair to Holland's poem (which is beautiful), but the bigger point I'm making is that for a woman writer - especially - the presence of even a ghost of a Hughes influence is, I would argue, a pretty big deal, considering that for most of the 80s and 90s, Hughes was a byword in some circles for poetic / political conservatism and spousal abuse. If the rehabilitation (or, more correctly, rediscovery) of Hughes began with the publication of Birthday Letters in 1998, then it has arguably reached something of an apotheosis in the ardent championing he now recieves from writers like Oswald. The Hughes influence on Holland's work is perhaps quieter than it is in Oswald's poetry - Holland, for example, has not inherited Hughes' occasional tendency towards adopting a strident rhetoric of cumulative imagery and over-abundant sonic effects - and is perhaps most noticeable at the level of the telling image, of the perfect phrase. Take, for example, these lines from 'West Kennett Long Barrow':

Rain condenses its euphoric mass
to a single blessing

filtering through
the intestinal silence of rock.

Though compelling in their own terms, there is a distinct ghost of earlier Hughes poems like 'Pibroch' here, and much of the collection is shot through not only with Hughes' gift for image and phrase, but also with his concerns with landscape, and with landscape's relationship with a sense of identity, both personal and collective.

Such identity - in Holland as in Hughes - is most often bound up with a sense of the ancient forces underlying the recent (and implicitly inauthentic) accretions of national boundaries and political institutions. 'Elementals', the sequence of which 'West Kennett Long Barrow' forms a part, re-imagines components of the ancient landscape of the British Isles (going futher afield in 'Almost Iceland') in terms steeped in myth and folklore, bringing the land to life with a startling admixture of personification and physical descriptions, even enactments, of its components. Writing of an isolated house in the middle of a wind-swept landscape in 'Almost Iceland', Holland writes:

Its single chimney grinned up at the sky
like a maniac.

For miles around, whole islands lay down
and withered. Stones

stunted themselves in its shadow.
And always the wind

hammering for the house
to be absent.

Elsewhere, the capacity for the landscape to signify notions of belonging and identity is rendered explicit in poems such as 'Warwickshire' ('England // my beleaguered sunken island') and 'Benediction', where Holland describes what can only be described as a visionary experience brought on by the landscape itself:

[...] something
vast and intricate
charging the space in my head
with moths dancing - dust in the beam
and the smudge of a spire
glimpsed above sycamores -
the spirit of the tribe.

This emphasis upon landscape as a marker of belonging is potentially liberating when set against the political (and implicitly exclusionary) abstractions of nationhood or 'cultural identity': anyone can belong to a landscape; it is simply a question of being there, of living on it, and in it. Conversely, however, Boudicca & Co.'s employment of ancient (British and Anglo-Saxon) history, mythology and literature as a guiding principle in its representations of place might equally be read as problematic: a reader of a liberal cast of mind, for example, might well balk at the use of the word 'tribe' (which recurs more than once in the collection), with its connotations of the narrative of national 'belonging' associated with, and propagated by, the far right.

Of course, I do not wish to suggest that Holland's poetry is in any way right wing or regressive in its national politics, and Boudicca & Co., in totality, cannot be easily co-opted by the racist rhetoric of the far right in the way in which, say, Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy can. What is apparent, though, is that words such as 'tribe' are loaded with significance, and cannot be used lightly, particularly when the paratextual material for the collection frames Holland's poetry within the ongoing contemporary debate on the meaning and value of 'Britishness'. Holland succeeds in her articulation of 'Britishness', I would argue, because of her willingness to challenge and critque the founding myths and narratives upon which the political idea of Britain is based, and not simply fall back upon the meaningless pieties and generalisations (all too easily capable of spilling over into the jingoistic racial nationalism of the BNP), which most often characterise the political classes' attempts to tackle the very same subject.

This effort to engage with British mythology and history from all angles - positive and negative - is most persuasively articulated in 'Boudicca', the sequence of poems dealing with the legendary Queen of the Iceni which concludes this collection. Where a lesser poet may have simply recapitulated the old myth of Boudicca as a heroic warrior queen routing the invading armies of Romans, and in the process cementing a romantic notion of Britain as a unified coalition of disparate tribes, Holland is brave enough to show the horror and violence enacted by both sides of the conflict. Certainly, the Romans are not portrayed as exemplars of civilised behaviour, but neither is Boudicca an entirely innocent player in the theatre of war:

Once, I slipped on a brain
in the road: decapitated owner
half-lying, half-sitting
against the ruins of her house.

I couldn't help laughing;
she looked so comical,
feet dragged in the dirt,
spare head grinning.

('Headless Woman')

Equally, and futher complicating the portrayal of Boudicca presented in the sequence, Holland is not afraid to show us a tender side to the warrior queen, as in the beautiful poem 'Boudicca's Son':

[...] I had a son once.
For three days.

The pale bluebell of his eyes
closed after sunset

and his whining breath
rattled into silence.

The sequence is littered with anachronistic references (hand-grenades and rifle butts play a part in the skirmishes with the Romans), which lends a further depth to the poems, and rescues 'Boudicca' from being simply an effort to flesh out a myth, pointing us towards more contemporary paralells (I don't need to point out the resonances of a poetic narrative detailing a violent response to an invading imperial army whose methods have a tendency to contravene the basic tenets of human rights legislation, so I won't).

In the process of dismantling the Boudicca myth, then, Holland has opened up new avenues for the possiblity of an engaged and visceral war poetry written by non-combatants, which evades the pitfalls of much protest poetry - we need only compare Holland's work with the anti-war 'poetry' of Harold Pinter to gain some indication of how rich and rewarding her response to modern conflict is - by shifting methods towards the imaginative and narrative elements of poetry, rather than the rhetorical and political. In this sense, the 'Boudicca' sequence has a great deal in common with David Harsent's Legion, which represents a similar attempt by a non-combatant poet to engage intelligently with the realities of war. This is, frankly, an outstanding collection, and Holland, as a result, can now count herself amongst the front rank of contemporary British poets.

Sunday 3 June 2007

i-Pods and Jellyfish

Simon Turner reviews Generation Txt (Penned in the Margins, 2006), 75 pp. £6.99 ISBN 978-0-9553846-1-5

Tom Chivers, who edited this anthology of six young poets, opens his introduction to the selection in combative mode with a quote from Kate Clanchy that is almost parodically idiotic: "I started writing when I was 28. I don't think people really write anything worth reading before that." Mr Chivers is clearly more forgiving than I am - he is Darth Vader to my Emperor Palpatine - as he doesn't make the obvious comment ("Yes, Kate, and some people don't write poetry worth reading even after they're 28"), letting a list of young prodigies - including Keats, Shakespeare, Wilfred Owen, Chatterton and Plath - do the talking for him.

The basis of Chivers' polemic is simple, but undeniable: that the establishment, although making some notional nods to new writers every few years or so, goes out of its way for the most part to ignore work written by younger writers. And when it does make tokenistic efforts to promote 'new' writing (witness the PoSoc New Gen poets promotional bumph from all those years back) it spectacularly misreads what 'new' actually means. Young writers do flourish, but it's on the fringes of the poetry 'scene': in the poetry slam and open mic circuits, or amongst little presses or internet operations, like Penned in the Margins, strangely enough. As such, this collections isn't doing anything monstrously ground-breaking, but what is interesting is its all-purpose quality, and the multimedia brouhaha which goes with it: not only do we have the anthology itself (more on the contents in a moment), we have the nationwide tour, a MySpace page, and an official website too. It's certainly far more real - and far more effective - as a means of conveying the work to the public than the media-saturated razzle dazzle of the approved Faber and Bloodaxe types who dominated the New and Next Gen lists; and what's more, it gives us both page and performance poetries, closing the gap between the two, which can only be a good thing.

What's most impressive, though, is the genuine (formal) diversity on display here. Joe Dunthorne, who opens the anthology, gives us sestinas and villanelles; Inua Ellams gives us great rolling hymns of poems designed for the open space of the theatre; James Wilkes has his postcards and vertical poems; Abigail Oborne has her square sonnets and fractured herky-jerky prose poems. So, what of the work itself? Dunthorne's a nice opener, with a strong line in knotty language and rhythmic solidity:

Rubens milks filth from the bib-heavy maid's basket
of fruit. No ambiguity here as the hand of a cad
with a ya-know-ya-would smirk parts the labia
of a clit-stoned fig. I'm thinking Viz.

('Rubens' paintings at the National Gallery')

Lovely, mouth-filling stuff; the reference to Viz really makes the passage, I feel. Though this quote strangely points to both Dunthorne's strengths and his weaknesses simultaneously; and whilst he's assured when employing this highly wrought idiom, his work seems more fulfilling when he tones it down a little, as in the likable poem that closes his selection, 'Taking a Photo of Workmen in Chapelfields Gardens', or the strange surrealist narrative of 'I Made a Grown Woman Cry Last Night'. One of his poems contains jellyfish, which is always a gold star in my book.

Inua Ellams' material would, I suspect, work best in performance, as on the page some of its rhetorical flourishes and alliterative effects didn't quite achieve lift off for this reader. That said, there's a lot of power and passion in these poems, and the best of his selection - 'Epic', 'Lizards and Lollypop Sticks' - achieves a cumulative force reminiscent of Ginsberg circa-'Sunflower Sutra', or the performance poetry of Saul Williams.

Arguably, Laura Forman is a more consistent poet than either Dunthorne or Ellams, but seems to take fewer risks than either. As such, though there isn't anything particularly wrong with what she's attempting, and there were some lovely moments here - the use of estate-agent speak to talk about death in 'For Sale', or the arresting opening line of 'Attention' ('You let me abseil down your forehead') - I can't honestly claim that her work particularly engaged me. I've seen material like this in any number of mainstream collections, and the more interesting material here (the aforementioned 'For Sale', for example) had the quality of workshop exercises. Forman clearly has a talent for well-wrought images - 'The sky was up early today, / Scrubbing away last night's stars / With summer soap and an old, thin cloud / For a healthy blue glow' - but I would have liked a more formal daring to go with it.

In the case of Emma McGordan, I'd like to dwell on the good (the concision of 'Punks & Patchouli', the telegraphic violence of 'Sonnet to the Soviet'), rather than the bad ('Sexy Anne's Plan', ''The System'). McGordon's only really just starting out, so her work might improve, but her work at the moment is rather undeveloped, lapsing into cliche on a regular basis, and some lines - see, for example, 'Sexy Anne would take / The circus stand / So to speak to every man / And tell them of / The Sexy Anne Plan' - are strikingly clunky.

Abigail Oborne, on the other hand, is the real deal, and if some of the poems here seem a little too eager to please, this is for the most part top-notch work. 'Suffering', in particular, is alert to how language is used and abused in everyday life, and focuses on our attempts (and failures) to talk eloquently about violence and trauma, with facts and figures from the newspapers jostling with inelegant attempts to give voice to personal tragedies:

when the tsunami
two hundred thousand people
my wife's mother

eight day's later we heard that she'd died
getting the chicken
her father dropped down dead

Oborne's blurb cites Frank O'Hara as an influence, and his 'I go here, I do this' mode of writing is inherited in 'The World' and 'Sunday Ten to Three', the second of which is one of the best things in this anthology; whilst O'Hara's New York fellow-traveller, Ted Berrigan, is a ghostly presence in Oborne's not-quite sonnets ('when I say I love you / it sounds like the flip / of a cheque book'). A-grade, and another gold star.

Jellyfish recur in James Wilkes' poems, which of course automatically puts me in a good mood, as does Wilkes' shape-shifting attitude to form. Arguably the most exciting of the poets on display here, this brief selection gives us postcard poems, permutational poems, vertical poems, collage and ecological satire. Which is a fairly good showing for a small handful of pages. Wilkes' thing seems to be the use of the page as an extra dimension in the construction of meaning; form is an element of content, and vice versa. The vertical poem, for instance ('Score for a Nocturne'), compels the reader to either read from left to right, or from top to bottom. The first method yields this first line: 'the hissing electric loops'; the second this alternative: 'the night cantata of patched mirrors passing city cinematic lighthouse swept past'. One poem contains at least two possibilities of alternative readings; there are most likely as many potential poems here as there are potential readers. 'Postcard from Rochester' similarly shatters the notion of linear reading, allowing for vertical reading, horizontal reading, circular reading, any which way. It would be very interesting to see how this work is performed on stage, as it seems dependent to a great extent upon the extra dimension of the page for its effects, but that's altogether another matter. All told, this is excellent stuff.

So, then, a mixed bag, but that's always the way with anthologies. I do, however, think that this anthology for the most part points to rude health amongst the youngsters on the poetry scene (though some of them are the same age as me, so I don't know where that leaves me...), and offers alternatives to the tedium of the current crop of mainstream not-so-bright stars. Young poets should get their hands on it, if only to give them a sense of the world beyond Picador hegemony. But the people who should really be reading - like Clanchy, perhaps - will no doubt be dismissing it out of hand before they've even scanned the cover.

Saturday 2 June 2007

Babylon Burning: Poems in Aid of the Red Cross

Here is yet another nice thing by that very nice man, Todd Swift. His Oxfam Great Britain Residency led to that very nice project, Life Lines which features an astounding 69 poets. But I've said 'nice' too many times and I don't want you to think I'm being disingenuous.

Babylon Burning, from nthposition (which Todd edits), is subtitled '9/11 five years on' and has a cartoon on the cover of the Towers as underground offices embedded in the rock strata beneath Ground Zero. I don't know how I feel about all that. But the book is a nice project, as the proceeds go to the Red Cross. And it contains loads of poets, including:

Ros Barber, Charles Bernstein, Tom Chivers, Elaine Feinstein, Peter Finch, [the wonderfully named] Wednesday Kennedy, Sonnet L'Abbé, David Morley, Ruth Padel, Myra Schneider, Penelope Shuttle, John Siddique, Todd Swift [mais oui! he's done it for free, it's only fair] John Tranter and many many more [a limp ending, but there are loads of poets in there, yes loads.]

And all this, for free as a PDF download, from nthposition. The catch? "If you enjoy these poems, please make a donation to the Red Cross." That's not too much to ask, is it?

I haven't reviewed the collection here, but if someone wants to send one in, please do.

Selections from Life of Conway by Andrew Bailey

(These are all visual poems: please click on the image if you'd like to view the poem seperately; and if you want to restart them at any time, just refresh the page. Enjoy!)

Cheshire Cat: The Fantastic Combinations of John Conway's New Solitaire Game "Life"

Cheshire Cat: Cheshire Cat

Beehive: Arrival of the Bee Box