Martin Stannard has two reputations: as poet, and as literary critic. His reputation as literary critic is akin to that of Brian Sewell walking into an art gallery and frowning or Boadicea sharpening the knives on her chariot wheels. It’s a reputation – one might even say an infamy – that threatens to overshadow his work as a poet. I wonder how many reviewers, themselves previously on the receiving end of a bruisingly honest Stannard review, have gleefully rubbed their hands together at the prospect of a little quid pro quo on a receiving a copy of one of his books.
The benefit of not having a collection out myself is that Stannard hasn’t given me the lit crit equivalent of five rounds with Mohammed Ali, and I can therefore approach Poems for the Young at Heart without an agenda. It’s Stannard’s first collection in over half a decade and clocks in at a significant 130 pages – kudos to Leafe Press for releasing such a hefty and well-produced volume at an affordable price, particularly in a market where a tenner is the standard asking price for collections half this length.
Poems for the Young at Heart starts with ‘One Week in the Life’, an observational piece in which quirky little details are polished to reveal different and enigmatic facets as the week progresses. The setting is rural, the period ambiguous. Something unspoken and possible sinister is lurking just off-screen. I say “off-screen” because the cumulative effect is almost cinematic – reading ‘One Week in the Life’ is like watching some alternative version of Witness as if it had been directed by David Lynch from a script by Michael Haneke. It’s a compelling and weirdly unsettling introduction to the book.
Stannard then delivers a series of so-called “occasional poems”, although the fact that they occupy seventy pages suggests they’re not so occasional. But then again, rug-pulls, surreal humour and a gleeful monkeying-around with the reader’s expectations are his stock-in-trade. Take ‘3 Openings’, which I quote in full:
The tall man opened the door and
The tall handsome man opened his eyes and
The tall handsome ill-advised man opened the can of worms and
In one respect, it’s a one-trick pony: three unfinished scenarios, the pay-off left to the reader’s imagination. What makes it works is the accretion of detail; and that one touch of the unexpected – why does he open the door before he opens his eyes? – is what makes it memorable.
‘3 Openings’ is also worth quoting in full as an example of a short Stannard poem. Many of the pieces in Poems for the Young at Heart are long poems (written in long lines: Stannard is unafraid of the extended, tongue-twisting line) that give his imagination and his pyrotechnic approach to wordplay free range. Personally, I often approach a long poem with a sense of trepidation, wondering if it justifies its length. Certainly, there are enough contemporary poets who use the longer form purely to showboat. Stannard, however, goes big because that’s how his imagination works. As a general rule of thumb, the longer he spins out a poem, the more playful and deliciously offbeat the result. ‘How I Watch a Year Go By’ is a perfect example – and a genuine standout in a collection that doesn’t have a single duff entry: Stannard sets up a subject, a format and an effortless segue from one month to the next, only to happily break his own rules mid-way through as the poem becomes a dialogue between its ongoing composition and its creator. The effect is bold, ballsy and often laugh-out-loud funny.
Two sequences conclude the book. ‘Selections from Dramatic Works’ is a series of variations on a theme, the theme being the stupidity of the male when in thrall to his libido. Each of the twelve dialogues that comprise the sequence is prefaced by a bizarre set-dressing instruction. Again, it’s the combination of the outright surreal and the sense of things-not-quite-said that makes the piece memorable. The collection rounds off with ‘Chronicles’, a series of 23 poems developing from the same opening phrase and building into a demented character study. Imagine an Alan Bennett monologue on magic mushrooms delivered in a tone so dry you’d think it was typeset in sand; imagine that and you’re halfway there.
Poems for the Young at Heart is a full-throttle achievement, a blistering testament to the power of the imagination. Stannard’s voice is gloriously and emphatically his own. He’s out there, at the edge of the globe, trawling the section of the poetry map that’s been left blank apart from the warning “here be monsters”; these poems are his dispatches from the undiscovered.
Even by their own standards, 2015 has been a particularly strong year for Bloodaxe. Standouts include a definitive J.H. Prynne volume, a bilingual Hans Magnus Enzensberger edition, and stunning debuts by Rebecca Parry and Jane Clarke. Now, at the turn of the year, Bloodaxe gift us with yet another essential addition to the poetry lover’s bookshelves.
Kim Addonizio is already widely anthologised courtesy of her seminal, full-throttle poem ‘For Desire’, and she’s published half a dozen collections in America, along with several novels and works of critical non-fiction, yet this is the first time there’s been a UK edition of her work. It’s long past due; but well worth the wait.
Addonizio belongs to that school of American poets whose work is direct, almost conversational, and indelibly keyed in to personal experience. I’d be tempted to compare her to Raymond Carver or Fred Voss, only I can’t imagine either of those gentlemen rocking a pair of killer heels and the kind of red dress that wouldn’t be out of place in a Lana Del Rey song. “I want that red dress bad,” Addonizio writes in the rhetorically titled ‘What Do Women Want?’; “I want it to confirm / your worst fears about me / … I’ll wear it like bones, like skin, / it’ll be the goddamned / dress they bury me in.”
Wild Nights offers nearly 200 pages of compressed and provocative poems on love and loneliness, desire and bad decisions; poems that have known too many blurry sunsets and too many hungover sunrises and still go out looking for love in all the wrong places; poems that hang around neon-soaked bars with a broken heart and might well break yours by the end of the night.
But there’s more than just Bukowski-style barfly philosophy to be found in this collection. Addonizio is ferociously honest and has the talent and bravery to nail down painful subjects and thorny life lessons in precise but finely nuanced language. She can also be wildly (and inappropriately) funny. Take these lines from ‘Penis Blues’:
A penis has taken flight.
Probably gon’ fly all night.
There’s a flock of penises headed south.
Their cries recede over the distant car dealerships,
over the darkened pleather interiors
and the stoned janitor, slopping his mop
in a bucket of dirty water.
The imagery is low-brow and ludicrous but chucklesome for all that. Yet there’s an undertow of melancholy. Apposite, really, for a poet whose work returns inevitably to the rhythms and imagery of blues music, be it explicit homage to Robert Johnson (“Look down into the river, I can see you there / Looking down into the blue light of a woman’s hair / Saying to her Baby, dark gon’ catch me here”) or the poignant sequence ‘Suite pour les amours perdues’. But if her individual poems are three-minute odes to the human condition, Wild Nights as a cohesive whole is more akin to the immersive emotional experience of a Mahler symphony. One where the conductor rocks a pair of killer heels and flocks of penises wheel above the concert hall.
Tim Wells is hardly a new boy on the block in performance poetry, but his name is gradually getting mentioned more and he is regular London performer of his working class, street-influenced work. Tim has an ear for dialogue, much of his work is in recorded speech, his constituency is those left behind in Hackney, Dalston and Stepney by gentrification. He’s an angry poet – “what really bites the cupcake / is that even the little we have, / the bastards feel entitled to that too.” There’s a lot to do with drink, the dance floor and the odd sexist comment that makes my liberal nose wrinkle but Tim is a good observer. My favourite poem, “Bidaaye” describes him, “Eating curry with Hasina / when three Brick Lane girls walk in, / look at her then me, quizzically. // They question her; not in the usual Sylheti, but Bengali. / When Bengali comes out it’s time to worry – / it’s like getting a letter from the Council.” In his performance Sylheti, Yiddish and Romani slang are added to the mix for this is someone who knows the immigrant poor. His best title in the collection is “The Middle Class in the Launderette as Pandas in the Zoo” (“O the joy / of the what to do? / till the Turkish lady / sorts them change, / explains a service wash.” But behind the Hoxton wide-boy is a knowledge of poetry – of Thom Gunn, and of Larkin, not least as his father would draw a face on his morning boiled egg to look like Larkin before “he’d crack his spoon on Larkin’s skull”.
I bumped into Tim on a demonstration against the Jack the Ripper museum on Cable Street. It won’t be long before that abomination makes its way into his poems.
Ways to Build a Roadblock is well titled. There’s hardly a poem in it that doesn’t demonstrate, with admirable craftsmanship and economy, how poetry can act as a focused and unflinching distillation of its subject and stop the reader in their tracks. At the heart of Ekroy’s debut is a controlled but palpable fury at corrupt politics and pointless war-mongering. In ‘Lord Hutton Reports’, ‘The Trojan Enquiry’ and ‘Orange’, he calls out bullshit by aping the bland language of officialdom and plausible deniability. The former has a touch of knockabout humour, taking the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty as its starting point:
I am satisfied that this is not a case
in which the Crown could have had any knowledge
that a notoriously unstable egg would hurl itself
from the wall it was ill-advised enough to sit on.
‘The Trojan Enquiry’ ups the ante, leeching away some of the humour and replacing the broad whitewash of an official report with the mealy-mouthed question-hedging of a witness appearing before a board of enquiry, while ‘Orange’ spoofs the semi-urgent attention-shifting speciousness of government press releases, spoofing them into absurdity by casting oranges and lemons as antagonists in some kind of citric sectarianism:
Growers insist on a patrol-base
and lemon security is handled seriously.
Downing St issued a black on white statement
which promises that our involvement
will soon be on the ground.
That Ekroy recognises no sacred cows is obvious from the opening poem, which compares the courtship rituals of the Empid fly with Blair visiting Bush at Crawford in 2003. Here’s a poet who not only identifies politics as a grubby business but isn’t afraid to get his own hands dirty; the ‘roadblock’ as an act of resistance.
Even when he turns his attention to more rarefied subjects, an earthy and unpretentious aesthetic remains present. Classical music links ‘78rpm’, which ends with its titular slab of vinyl, scratched and unplayable, hurled over a patch of wasteland (“the Vienna Boys’ Choir was stung / into silence in the nettle patch”); ‘Musical Vienna – a Guided Tour’, where the tour in question is of the sewers; and ‘Shostakovich 5’, which manages to simultaneously exult in the power of music and generate the tension of a thriller in ten brilliantly cadenced lines.
Elsewhere, he uses set forms – the pantoum, a scattering of sonnets, a specular poem – with an almost conversational ease. Accessibility is key to his work even at its darkest or most experimental, such as in ‘The Restroom’, a textbook example of the via negativa where fifteen broken and scattered lines avoid the subject of political torture and leave the reader more unsettled than if Ekroy had tackled it head-on.
Ways to Build a Roadblock doesn’t offer any comfort zones or safe havens. Poem after poem challenges, pushes, provokes. Ekroy is like a boxer, ducking, weaving, never still, coming at you from different directions and with wildly divergent subject matter. Sheep, owls, goldfinches. Politics, warfare, paranoia. Memory, surrealism, propaganda. If there’s anything missing from this astounding first collection it’s probably because it isn’t terrifying or corrosive enough to merit inclusion.
Expanded from her 2008 Selected Poems, this comprehensive volume of Naomi Shihab Nye’s sharply intelligent and clearly expressed poetry includes a wealth of material from her 2011 collection Transfer as well as fifteen new poems.
Nye was born in Missouri but remains deeply connected to Palestine through her father, the journalist Aziz Shihab, to whom the volume is dedicated. His memory, his influence and his humanitarianism provide a constant thread. In the gently ironic ‘My Father and the Fig Tree’, she recalls how “In the evenings he sat by our beds / weaving folktales like vivid little scarves. / They always involved a fig tree” before ruminating on the various homes her father occupied, never quite getting around to planting said tree until “There, in the middle of Dallas, Texas, / a tree with the largest, fattest, / sweetest figs in the world”.
In ‘Blood’ and ‘Knowing’, a profound sense of Shihab’s moral and cultural identity comes to the fore, while the achingly poignant ‘For Aziz, Who Loved Jerusalem’ weaves history, religion and the specificity of loss into its tightly constructed lines: “Three religions buried inside a city’s walls. / Some kiss the walls. / Some walk beside them, emptied of belief. // My father dies with two languages / tucked inside his head. / Now we will never learn Arabic.”
Through these pieces, Nye demonstrates a remarkable kinship and sympathy for a ravaged land and its much oppressed people. Yet her work never declaims itself from a soap box. Hope, rather than hatred, is the currency of her art; this is most effectively articulated in the prose poem ‘Gate A-4’ in which the melting pot of a departure lounge is the scene for a coming together that transcends skin colour, language or background.
Having said that, Nye’s post-9/11 poetry is defined by, if not a combative stance, then certainly one of challenge against cultural and racial prejudice. In a socio-political, media-defined climate in which Arabs were cast as some kind of all-purpose enemy, Nye’s poetry provided a quiet but emphatic no, an act of resistance in the name of multi-culturalism. The opening lines of ‘Jerusalem’ spell it out clearly: “I am not interested in / who suffered the most. / I am interested in / people getting over it.” Nye re-establishes a truer picture of cultural characteristics in ‘The Sweet Arab, the Generous Arab’, while using satire to challenge American neo-liberal attitudes in ‘He Said EYE-RACK’ and ‘Letters My Prez is Not Sending’.
There is also moral outrage, at the sheer waste of children’s lives, in ‘For Mohammed Zeid of Gaza, Age 15’, in which she rounds on the mealy-mouthed terminology of news reports (“There is no stray bullet, sirs. / No bullet like a worried cat / crouching under a bush, / no half-hairless puppy bullet / dodging midnight streets … // So don’t gentle it, please”), and ‘Landmine Kills 10 Girls Collecting Firewood’ (“They hadn’t lived long enough / to figure out what was going on”), Nye eulogises the victim, mourns the loss and tries, in the face of the most awful tragedy, to focus on the good. This is what makes her work so immediate, affecting and important.
If anyone mentions writer’s block, I’d be minded to recommend Talking to the Dead by Gordon Hodgeon (Smokestack, £4.99), just to say, come on, get on with it… Because Gordon, once healthy, writes his poems one letter at a time. He cannot speak, he can only breathe with a ventilator. He writes his poems and communicates with the outside world by blinking at a computer screen. This really is writing at the furthest edge of human endurance. At least the wonderful historian Tony Judt, who was also incapable of moving, dictated his last essays, having memorised the text during the long nights. Gordon can only blink and his condition has deteriorated since his last, ironically-titled collection Still Life.
Inevitably, Gordon mines his condition for material. The fly that lands on his scalp appears more than once, the second time the poem being in the voice of the fly which ‘taste[s] your sweaty pores/harvest the flakes of skin’ feeling though that his ‘…days diminish, / the rusting leaves spell autumn, / the end of our dominion.’ But ‘We shall return, always, / the world requires us. / We shall assist you, save you, / we shall see you through.’
Perhaps equally inevitably, Gordon mines the past – he has time to think and remember, the time that is lost to us in our more hurried lives. There’s George, the author’s parental grandfather, remembered, and Fred, from the generation when ‘There was your weekly flutter on the Pools. / You sat by the wireless Saturday tea time / checking the results, a win, a draw, a loss… Your winnings fifteen quid over some thirty years. ‘ and then there’s Percy Stott , left behind when Gordon ‘…was the only one to scrape a pass’ in the ‘Mid-fifties, sons of Lancashire, Leigh Grammar’ with poor Percy the targets of schoolboy ‘bloodsport’.
Gordon can no longer speak, but his poems do.
Of all the writers taken from us in the last few years, it’s Iain Banks whose loss I feel most deeply. That loss was compounded on buying Poems, selected and edited by Ken MacLeod and including a sampling of his own work (as per Banks’s instruction). That was when it hit me: this was the last time I’d get to buy a new book by Iain Banks.
Allow me to contextualise: Banks was one of a very few authors whose new book I had to buy on the day of publication; if this dictated a trip out in inclement weather, an early skive from work or a utilities bill ignored for a couple of weeks, then so be it. My fervour extended to signed copies. When Banks’s publicity tour for The Steep Approach to Garbadale didn’t bring him anywhere near Nottingham, I had no annual leave remaining to cover a 600-mile round-trip to Plymouth and my car was off the road following an accident. Undaunted, I hired a car, booked a Travelodge and threw a two-day sickie.
Banks is remembered primarily as a novelist – a writer of both contemporary fiction and, as Iain M Banks, sci-fi. His poetry, as MacLeod acknowledges upfront in the introduction, has been limited to a single piece in a poetry magazine, two poems incorporated into his novel Use of Weapons, and a few lines of verse infusing The Crow Road and Song of Stone.
Poems, then, charts unexpected territory. Unexpected, but not unrecognisable. The best of the poems gathered here – ‘Extract Solenoid’, ‘Mediterranean’, ‘Exponential’, ‘Caucasian Spiritual’ – embody the expansive imagination and spiralling wordplay that characterise his highest achievements as a prose writer; the latter in particular could almost be a dry run for ‘Scratch’, the mind-bendingly experimental short story that closes his collection The State of the Art.
The 45 pages of MacLeod’s poetry accounts for less than a third of the book yet comprises much of its most effective work. MacLeod takes a more traditional approach and is often at his best when he keys into other voices: ‘After Burns: 11 September 2002’ homages both Burns and W.H. Auden in the service of an absolutely contemporary aesthetic, ‘Scots Poet, Not’ is redolent of W.N. Herbert’s loquacious wit, and ‘A Fertile Sea’ (dedicated to Banks) is a sinewy answer-back to T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’.
A comparison is worth making: MacLeod’s poetry spans thirty years, Banks’s less than a decade – from 1973 to 1981. It’s as if, for Banks, the form were a proving ground, an experimentation with language, and once he’d set off on the path that would lead to the publication of The Wasp Factory in 1984, it was prose all the way.
I did a stupidly sentimental thing on buying Poems: I posted a photograph of the cover on Facebook with the legend “the swansong”. But it isn’t. Banks’s novel The Quarry, published just after his death, was his true swansong. Poems falls halfway between juvenilia and a glimpse down a path not taken; what’s beyond doubt, though, is that it represents the first great firework blast of Banks’s brilliant and incessant creativity.
For many years I’d holiday in Suffolk, walking the salt marshes, risking all as the old seafarers’ paths changed with the tides and the storms, under big skies, flat seas and always with a consciousness that the sea was winning, most famously at Dunwich.
One day my then partner, dog and I came across Shingle Street, a hamlet facing the sea on one side or, as Blake Morrison says “A row of shacks in stone and wood, / The sea out front, the marsh out back, / Just one road in and one road out, With no road in and one road out, / With no way north except the spit, And now way south except on foot … A wrecking ground, that’s Shingle Street.” It’s a place where, for a moment you think you would like to live, but know you never will and never could. Like WG Sebald, I never saw a soul there – a position Blake reports then negates with reference to an article by the writer Tim Miller, who does live there.
Shingle Street opens with a “ballad” of the street, which leads on to other Suffolk poems. The collection then turns to a sequence, This Poem, whose star poem is Redacted, the report of a death of a soldier in Afghanistan. The collection concludes with a selection of individual poems, but most readers will return to the opening, elegiac sequence which gives the book its title.
A book judged by its cover, this one’s cute:
…..Byron on the phone. Judged by its pages
(A whopping three hundred and fifty), it’s a beaut –
…..The best epic narrative poem in ages,
Co-written by fifteen poets of good repute.
…..Their versifying excites, provokes, engages
As they resurrect Lord Byron’s anti-hero.
He’s not changed much. Morals still count for zero.
The neat conceit behind these ribald rhymes
…..Is a case of o tempora … wotsit? … mores:
The book reflects the hours and the times
…..As our anti-hero romps through fifteen stories
Set in the present day. These modern climes
…..Are taken in his stride as Don Juan forays
Between London, Amsterdam and Budapest
While a spell in prison puts him to the test.
Elsewhere, our mad bad lad is quite tech-savvy
…..(Via internet he lines up all his lays)
While another tale subverts his cocksure happy-
…..go-lucky bed-hopping escapades –
Through his interactions with another chap, he
…..Seems to be a Don who swings both ways.
But whichever conquest appears to him like Venus,
The book’s more than just One Man and His … Libido.
Satirical, artful: this book’s the cream – a
…..A cornucopia of style and wit,
Reinventing Juan as DJ, statesman, schemer,
…..Likeable rough diamond, total git.
Rendered in dodgily rhymed ottava rima,
…..Folks, you’ll have a lot of fun with it.
The cover price couldn’t be a fairer deal.
A quid per canto: lovely! It’s a steal.