(This first appeared in Under the Radar issue 10.)
Poems are discontent; poems fidget, as they are uncertain and dissatisfied with where they are or what they are up to or what they’d like to tell you about it. Any poem which professes certainty, or the ability to express itself clearly, is a liar. I think this is the most important thing to keep in mind, especially when reading new poets. (Older poets have their own forms of tiredness.) It is how poets deal with their familiar and their unfamiliar spaces that create poems which the reader can get involved in, and this is something I would like to explore.
I have four pamphlets from new writers, two from Crystal Clear Creators, a press apparently linked to De Montfort University, and two from Happenstance. Nell Nelson’s Happenstance has an established reputation for debut pamphlets, often but not exclusively of Scottish writers; Crystal Clear Creators have previously only published anthologies, and have only started a series of pamphlets in 2012. . It is a tiny slice of the UK’s growing pamphlet output, with a focus on the Midlands and Scotland, and all debut publications of new writers. These are exciting signs of life. All are the usual short collections, presented in the usual A5, and all four cost £4 each.
To start with Crystal Clear Creators, the pamphlets are attractive and well-produced, if a little inelegant. I have a gripe in that both include a preface before the first poem, which somehow feels intrusive and unnecessary, like bringing a parent on a first date. Even so, this is a minor gripe.
First is Gopagilla by Roy Marshall. The poems are middle-of-the-road in style and content, as short, thoughtful lyrics on family, memories, landscapes, etc. This is solid ground for Marshall and brings out some strong lines, such as in ‘Arm Wrestling with Nonno’:
I knew him in a wheelchair,
his demijohns of red turning
to vinegar under the stairs
as he sipped Orangina.
He has a good sense of what to include and exclude, and of how to bring in details needed to give a tale heft; he has the nose of a storyteller.
That said, the trouble with these narratives as a source for poetry is that nostalgia is a mood incompatible with the internally contradictory or the unresolved, which is limiting for poems. An example for this would be Marshall’s poem ‘In Passing’ (quoted in its entirety):
Through high window
he hears a choir of children,
their voices soaring;
recalls how sweet his own voice was,
how sweet he was, and cries
for all the sweetness lost.
There is nothing for the reader to do here, as the nostalgic mood is clear in its thoughts and has already decided how it feels. Likewise in Marshall’s poem ‘Telepathy’, recounting an old relationship, including its end. It closes with “your voice let slip/that you had left me, but I already knew”, with all the deadness of a faded scar. A poem should be conveying in the present tense, rather than presenting a finished experience. (It is something like the novelist’s principle of ‘Show not tell’.) It is a problem with Marshall’s poems: he is an able writer, but hampered by his facility to do well with tools that he already has.
When Marshall, on the other hands, writes about things in the present, rather than ruminating on the past, the poems are immediately more interesting. These are normally in his poems on landscapes, which seem to do their thinking in front of us. The poem ‘Arachnology’ is the best example of this, as it begins:
Everywhere, except for the Arctic and Antarctic
poles, their sacs spill streams of progeny.
The ‘except for the…’ clause in the sentence is unnecessary to the story, and would be excluded by a nostalgic voice, but here the speaker is working things out now, in front of our eyes.
In all, Gopagilla shows an able writer, and a poet affecting and sensitive enough that one can’t help but be taken along. It is impressive for a debut pamphlet, and we can only hope to expect to see more from Roy Marshall.
The second Crystal Clear Creators pamphlet is Lost Lands by Aly Stoneman. These poems mostly exploring nature, and the pamphlet includes illustrations of broad landscapes and solitary walkers who are made to look small by their surroundings. As Stoneman describes a beach as a “blank white page” (Mermaids), so her poems stretch like these landscapes, in often long lines that travel over their subjects.
Stoneman has, first of all, a good ear for sound (which is something every good poet should keep first). Take, for instance, these two central stanzas from ‘Matriline’:
The round blue suitcase raises dust
when my mother opens it; we shake out
white lace wedding dress. A young
girl’s dream turned sepia, cream
lace over lace that made her seem
a Spanish doll – black hair, white face –
her A-line sixties wedding dress.
The internal rhymes heighten the sensation of iambic lines that are in themselves almost obsessively rich, as with the missing article from “we shake out/white lace wedding dress”, with “wedding dress” repeated in full in the next sentence. Everything seems brighter and louder. Stoneman’s technique is very good, and all of her poems read well aloud.
The poems in Lost Lands (perhaps appropriately for the title) have a tendency to wander, as if unsettled and unsure of what they are saying. ‘Wyld’, for instance, is the pamphlet’s opening poem, and stretches over two pages without ever seeming to resolve itself into saying anything. It is structured along a walk and covers short episodes at different locations, which doesn’t help this. Poetry is a sculptural art, as it is based around repetition, in concepts as well as in sounds. Many of Stoneman’s poems don’t repeat themselves, and so are into a collection of disconnected images, like marble offcuts left on a bench, as if impatiently mistaking movement for curiosity. Contrarily, the poem ‘Mermaids’ works very well despite being wandering and unsteady, as, much like its speaker, the poem unexpectedly stumbles across the fantastic, but in general the pamphlet is a lot stronger when Stoneman repeats herself.
In ‘Waterline’, for instance, the poem turns continuously, almost drunkenly, on the image of birds on the sea, beginning:
but these birds life, twisting over and over with each wave,
hand-span above shore, sky-fish flicking over and under,
sun rolling around the winder horizon so
it catches my eyes, reflecting waterline wash of sky
and sand, edges melting, wind flicking grit and wet
hair-ends into my eyes, watching birds twisting under
The poem, as we work through it, starts to see a symbol appearing out of the murk in the birds “rolling over and over the ends of themselves” – note more of “over and over” – but doesn’t resolve too easily. Similarly, ‘Lost Lands’, which explores the myth of land swallowed by water, improves greatly in the second half when it stays on the “island of Ferdinadea” long enough for something to develop.
Aly Stoneman technical ability is impressive and powerful, and, much as with Roy Marshall, it is only a question of settling on how she engages with her subjects. As with Roy Marshall again, it would be interesting to see what she comes out with next.
Happenstance pamphlets are always beautiful, and these two are no exception. The single illustration on the cover and the coloured endpapers are a familiar but winning formula, with attractively typeset poems within.
The first pamphlet is Spinning Plates by Richie McCaffery. McCaffery’s style is marked mostly by its precision, as he has a knack for aiming very carefully. This condenses itself into some poems which are pinned on one comparison; an example of this is ‘Dedication’, quoted in full:
In an underground copy
of Lady Chatterley’s Lover
a shaky plum inscription:
‘To Renee, my sweet—
from France via the Dunkirk
holocaust, 2/8/40, Sid’
All that way in a kitbag,
through panzers and snipers
Bullets hitting the water
At first look, and rightly, the main event is the final sentence, thrilling in its estranged violence (in making bullets seem strange and beautiful), its sensory breadth (in conveying noise, motion and colour) and its economy (in doing all this in six words). But this obscures the fact that McCaffery’s precision is also at work in “shaky plum inscription”, with “shaky plum” conveying much of what the rest of the poem uses for its emotional weight, and preparing the ground for the end. ‘Spinning plates’, similarly, rests almost entirely on the image of pregnancy being “like spinning a bone-china plate/on the thinnest stick inside you”, but with everything elsewhere in the poem moving carefully to this end.
McCaffery’s other strength is being unafraid of being unclear. ‘Flotsam’, for instance, which describes (I think!) the washed-up corpse of a prostitute, ends on “The tide was turning, they needed the boat.”, without having mentioned who ‘they’ are, or what is happening with a boat. Similarly, in ‘Ivories’, a poem written for a baby’s first teeth, the poem leaves the image of rings on a tree for the sentence “The sun is a slow hydrogen bomb/detonating in the permafrosts of Alaska.”, and continues from there. McCaffery has the confidence to stick with the logic of the poem, without trying to resolve these into complete sense.
The risk of this approach is when things miss the mark. In his precision, McCaffery does stake a lot on a single dice throw. Unsurprisingly, since most writers suffer from the same, McCaffery writes badly about sex, for one thing: ‘Fairy pools’ includes “I held you like a decanter” and moves to “I was all kaleidoscopes and adrenalin”, which is messy and, as with most writing about sex, is more deliberately obfuscatory than anything. But, in general, the poems of Spinning Plates are sufficiently judicious and surround themselves with enough quiet to punch far above their weight.
With this in mind, Spinning Plates is an extraordinarily impressive pamphlet, especially from a young poet. It is well matched by the quietness of the pamphlet’s design, and is a collection to keep returning to.
The final pamphlet of this review, After the Creel Fleet by Niall Campbell, shares much in its confidence and its power to Spinning Plates. As with McCaffery, Campbell’s voice is remarkably assured, if not more so. Indeed, this confidence becomes part of his style, as the pamphlet is marked by the conviction that the reader will stay with his voice. This manifests itself in the tension of withholding, in back-steps that are something like anticipation. Take, for instance, the last sentence of ‘Exchange Street’, which describes “the town’s/palest girl”:
hung on to hear, perfected, from the window
as the sleet falls, that hush in her red wake.
The “hush” is withheld to the end of the sentence, as Campbell knows we are waiting and knows that his voice is in control. (This is confidence in his voice and in our attention comes close to a brag in ‘Interrupting Boccaccio’, as the speaker addresses, or interrupts, Boccaccio’s narrator quoted in an epigraph with: “Please, if you’ll let me, I know my own stories”. ) It’s the confidence which says, as in ‘Grez, near dusk’, “But stay. Wait with me.”, and which produces a tone of persuasiveness which seems somehow timeless and at the heart of all good poetry.
Campbell’s voice, if it falters, can occasionally sound precious. ‘Chancer’, for instance, ends on:
And I swear, by her,
that should we ever meet
I’ll prove my serious heart
by your broken teeth,
the blood on your red, red lips.
There is a limit to how much the reader can be interest in the speaker, as his confidence makes all things seem easy and referential back to the self. This is close to how, in After the Creel Fleet Campbell, I think, exceeds the quota of how often a poet can use the word ‘heart’ in one collection. His voice seems to derive its surety from it, from how near the blood is to the surface, and so it seems inevitable that it will slip towards using ‘heart’, but this is, as with Marshall above, too cosy and too resolved. ‘Heart’ is the logical destination of so much of Campbell’s style that he does much better to avoid getting there.
But this feels too much like criticising Campbell for being too good. In general, After the Creel Fleet is a debut that is quite spectacular, and I don’t think I can say enough to praise it. Niall Campbell’s poems are perhaps the most interesting discovery of these pamphlets, and we can only wait to see what he does next.