(First appeared in Issue 13 of Under the Radar.)
To The Lighthouse: Harry Man’s Lift; John Barron’s The Nail Forge; Mark Russell’s Pursued by Well-being
The debut pamphlet, like the three here from tall-lighthouse, is a new challenge for the poet and the editor. Single poems, that may have had success in magazines or received praise in workshops, can be buried or elevated within the movement of the pamphlet as a narrative; poems of different ages, styles and heritages jostle against each other, calling to old friends and undermining new rivals. Poems can be read with or against each other, making obvious the permeability of their borders. Putting poems in an order changes them.
In Lift Harry Man ranges over space and time travel, social media and technology, in a collection of lively and good humoured poems that starts with one of its best, ‘The Last Words of a Lovesick Time Machine Pilot’, which begins:
And would you ever know if I had
snatched the keys from under the mat,
and unlocked the nucleus of our parents’ old Astra
with its quarks of petrol and spent Silk Cut packs
and taken my younger self for a spin
past the shutters lit blue from within –
the freezer light of Kennedy’s fishmonger’s
not Frankenstein’s lab after all – sorry,
and told you, Donny, this one’s important:
do what you were going to do and ask Susie Whitlow
on a date – yes, like last Wednesday when you tried
at Latchmere slides, feeling doubly sick from the height
and your nerves on the diving board ladder[…]
The poem, as with most in the pamphlet, feels well-honed and ready with nothing wasted. A debt to spoken word performance is clear, as the poem, at once warm and bittersweet, is fast moving, often trochaic. It rolls in one long sentence through tight, irregular sound patterns, such as “tried…slides” or the tumble of Ds from the third stanza. Like putting the lead single at the start of an album, ‘The Last Words…’ starts the pamphlet well, showing Man very much at his best, but it also casts a long shadow over the poems that follow, not just setting the bar high but deciding that they’re all to compete in the high jump.
The stronger poems in ‘The Last Words…’s wake, such as ‘My Older Brother Is a Self-Contained Binary Star System,’ follow a similar pattern and style, filled with sharp observations like sheep “with the expression of someone who thinks/they can hear the telephone” or “[d]arkness so thick/you could scoop it,/like shoe polish”. A couple of the poems that venture the farthest from this model, such as the fragments of police speech in ‘In/different voices’ or the history of life on earth told as notifications from social media in ‘Earth’ (e.g. “Vertebrate Animals suggested adding Primitive Fish to your list of friends”), feel like workshop experiments, more interesting in concept than execution.
Very occasionally I briefly lose where the poems are going; for instance, ‘Lost Ordinance, Sussex, 1943’, around its middle point, includes the lines:
is a sea where contingent silence is broken by blue and red
timid shadow fish, smelling like, sounding like, pretending to be
The connection between fish and foxes defeats me completely, even as “smelling…sounding…pretending” insists on it. These brief moments of wildness, of obscure comparisons, are strange only in that they are given some emphasis when they appear. I also think it’s a tendency inherent to the technological/scientific subject matter, to which Man isn’t immune: “quarks of petrol” in the first poem, for instance, doesn’t mean anything. It feels a little like this is perhaps the product of a clash in Man’s imagination, as if brief glimmers from a very different sort of poem are showing through into the relatively plain-speaking style the pamphlet has installed as dominant. However, it’s a minor distraction, and the most promising poem of the pamphlet, ‘Nightingale is’, combines some of this wildness with his greatest density of clever rhythms:
In practice this nightingale’s words swerve, herded into home video
air-stuffled foreground wall sound, the wind that wears at altitude
the aural cavities of avian hearing in the peace from the birch
where wash is a verb of weather front heard while circling
the circuit of hand-me-down hunting grounds[…]
It’s a tremendous poem that barrels along, using sound rather than concept to draw itself together, uniting dissimilar dictions with similarities of sound, bringing together the strands that elsewhere Man tests out separately.
The Nail Forge is a remarkable pamphlet most of all for its consistency; Barron’s poetry is indeed much like a tall lighthouse, sweeping over all his subjects from the same height, turning the same flat circle over everything, sometimes illuminating what he covers and sometimes shining heedlessly overhead. This happens across the pamphlet and within single poems. The best poems, such as ‘Man of the Mounds’, are beguiling, careful and rich:
Thoughts like waves turn back into the ocean.
Each carries its freight of birth and death –
This one – one hundred million year old coccoliths
and their consequence – his bone cold grave,
a chalky mound, fit home for clover
and the carder bee that, come summer, sips there.
It’s compact and neat, its weighty themes balanced by the rapidity of its development, where there is no time for ponderousness: just as soon as are we startled by all the deaths that make chalk, we are given the clover and the bee, the endless cycle of seasons. The poem moves “like waves.”
At its worst, this same pitch can be prim, prone to archaism and thesaurus poetry, such as, in ‘For A Boy Born Deaf’, the mention of cattle’s “grassy mastication.” The particularly uneven ‘Grandmother’ includes:
The renters will come in,
the new pension plan,
bringing with them
their tin cans and cat shit,
their chunka chunka music,
their video games and weed.
Where now the prayer flags,
the pear tree’s incipient blossom,
parallelogram of light
on the white-washed wall
behind the columns of Irish yew
this golden afternoon?
Ignoring the suspicion of snootiness, it’s at least unnecessary to be twee. (What’s “chunka chunka music”?) The worst culprit in the pamphlet, ‘Needles’, includes the memorable:
Later she asks about my stools.
Are they dark, are they soft or hard?
I lie back, give myself up to her skill.
She searches with a needle to find the gate
in wrist or chest that opens healing.
It’s not quite the subject matter itself that’s risible but the obliviousness with which Barron’s monotone approaches it. With only small movements away from this tone, such as with ‘At Meadowhall Station My Mother Rests in the Awakened Heart’, it then becomes hard to draw out the parts of the pamphlet that are clever and unexpected from those that are grating, as the best line are as much a product of Barron’s style as the worst. Poems that would seem unusual alone in an anthology become a little dreary in series. The Nail Forge struggles mostly against itself.
The poems in Pursued by Well-being are mostly driven by absurdity and non-sequiturs, a sort of silliness, such as in ‘The Headaches Are Back’, which begins:
They are like that couple we used to know
when we lived near Great Yarmouth,
the ones who borrowed the steam stripper
and wore those matching blue berets.
In these poems, Russell mostly makes use of the way in which the reader will surrender to a poem’s movement, as, in his best poems, he runs full-speed while asking the reader to trust where he is going. Accordingly, many of the poems include characters like “Kevin” in ‘The Gas Hearted Student’ who, at the end of the poem, grabs the speaker’s hand and “pulls [them] through the fire door/out onto the street and [they] disappear like traffic”. The humour in the non-sequiturs in these poems, in their rapid movement, is the joy in how reading is being led.
Pursued by Well-being intersperses these absurd, often somewhat riotous, poems with quieter, more ruminative pieces, such as ‘Addis Ababa’:
The sky at night
a black sheet
with a string
of bright bullet holes
through which an eye
In many ways, it is easier for a poem to be successful with liveliness and humour than with sober reflection. Whilst these poems offer some variety, they aren’t always entirely convincing. Even so, it’s clear that Russell is an able poet, with a good sense of the drama of the individual poem and the motion of the speaking voice. It’s an impressive selection of poems.
After each reading, the pamphlet is increasingly dominated by ‘Gymnast’, which relates the joyful, strange, and mostly sexual escapades of its speaker and a gymnast. It then ends with the speaker watching her being raped by her father. The implication is that her exhibitionism, which the speaker seems to enjoy at the start of the poem, is instead the product of abuse, and the observer, the speaker in the poem and by association the reader, is implicated. Just as the poems elsewhere require the reader to surrender and be led, the reader, like the speaker (who is always being asked if they would “like to watch”), is led to the poem’s ugly conclusion, where this surrender becomes outrage and helplessness.
A poem about sexual violence certainly should be startling, but it casts a pall over the other poems in the pamphlet that frequently return to sex. It is as this poem, the fourth poem in and very far from being the best of the group, introduces a weight that the rest of the pamphlet can’t carry, an impossible, unbearable wound that the other poems are unable to even acknowledge. The slightly odd ‘Disinhibition in Aisle 32’, for instance, which ends with “your father” dropping his trousers and saying “oh god, not another year of wanking”, becomes jarring, as the puerile flippancy seems somewhat galling in context. As ‘Gymnast’ sees youthful sexual discovery collapse into the nightmarish circuits of moral violence, it’s hard, then, not to see all other depictions of sex to be captured by this descent, to be implicated in the same logic. It’s difficult to be shown and then asked to forget. I suppose really it’s another question of how poems are ordered; it’s not whether poets should or shouldn’t write about terribly painful subjects, only whether they can afford to do so partially.