Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

"The best new British and Irish poets 2016", Kelly Davio (ed) (Eyewear Publishing, 2016)

In this case "new" means "not yet under contract to publish their debut full-length collection". The poets have already been in some of the best magazines (e.g. Daisy Behagg has won the Bridport as well as being in Poetry Review, The Rialto, etc). Each of them is represented by a photo plus bio (taking up a page) and a poem. Erin Fornoff's bio is at least 6 times longer than her poem. An alternative approach (and some of the poets have already been involved with them) is for a book to show-case several poems by fewer poets, a format which avoids having over 50 pages of bios and photos. The editor in the introduction writes how, from personal experience in the US, the multiple-poet, single poem format can be useful to the poets.

The introduction singles a few poems out - "Loxodrome" for its form. It's numbered paragraphs, the first 3 beginning with "The journey from", the other 7 with "The journey reimagined with". There are poems with more familiar forms - "Easter Tuesday, 1941" is a sonnet. "Altamira" has stanzas with an aabbx rhyme scheme. "The Skip" has triplets of end-rhyme. "Thrown a loop" is line-palindromic (1st line = last line, etc).

According to the editor, "It's 11.26 in SE13" "explore[s] the various possibilities of the line in free verse". It has gaps in lines, stepped lines, a pair of lines with the same indentation, etc. Here's how it ends.

But when eventually I am rheumy & slow    & worse
than this place which somehow careens on
& our futuristic children ask what the city is,
snatching at my memories for some kind of quiddity,
I will have no other words but the clear
         & all of a sudden
                 'It's a good place to love'

Amongst the editor's "poems I didn't see coming" is "The Apiarist". It begins with "Your heart was like the bees", then there's a section about getting used to the stings rather than wearing protection. At the end the bees swarm away, leaving "my placebo syrup". The final line is "What I wouldn't give to be stung again" - nice, but not a surprise. I most liked "Ideal State" (Annabel Banks) and "Things That Make Us Fly" (Cato Pedder)

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

"The North (No.57, 2017)", Ann Sansom and Peter Sansom (eds)

190 pages, 22cm by 21cm, small print. 173 poems by 84 poets (Graham Mort, David Constantine, Susan Wicks, Peter Riley, etc). Lots to read.

There are articles about Shirley McClure, John Riley, poetry for children, Jack Spicer, favourite books chosen by 30 smith|doorstep poets, etc. The standard features are "Poets I Go Back To", "Blind Criticism", "Close Reading", "In Conversation" (Susan Wicks with Jackie Wills this time) and "Featured Title" (a Peter Riley book this time). Of the 14 reviewers, 6 have had pamphlets/books published by smith|doorstep. I noted a few things -

  • "In a way I feel that having kids is almost an equivalent of going to war, historically, for men, the way women have put their bodies at risk, their identities at risk, allowing their lives to change suddenly" - Susan Wicks (p.146)
  • "The bedside lamp's afterglow is all at once 'an aspirin ... dissolving in a glass of darkness' and I put the lamp back on, reach for Transtromer" - Mark Pajak, (p.97)
  • "If books are the flagships of the literary world, then pamphlets are our kayaks and coracles - sleek and nimble, they can navigate more easily the 'music of what happens', and part the waters for larger vessels that sail in their wake" - Theophilus Kwek, (p.178)
  • "A wheelie bin crosses the road without looking,/ lands flat on its face on the other side, spilling/ its knowledge" ('The Met Office Advises Caution', Rebecca Watts)
  • David Tait writes of Jennifer Copley's "The Living Daylights" - "I'm still amazed that pamphlet didn't win some big prizes"

Saturday, 13 May 2017

"His Bloody Project" by Graeme Macrae Burnet (Contraband, 2015)

The frontispiece says "Edited and introduced by Graeme Macrae Burnet". In the Preface we're told that while researching into his family tree, Burnet came across Roderick Macrae's memoir, written in 1869. At the time, we're told, people suspected that it might be a forgery - how could a rustic 17 year old have written it? We're told that the book contains police statements, post-mortem reports, psychiatric reports and newspaper articles. We're warned of contradictions. There's a map.

It all seems rather slow to me. So what if the narrators were unreliable? So what if it's based on documented events? The characters are largely caricatures, and the write-up of the trial (verbatim dialogues) is tedious. The passivity that a few characters expressed in the face of fate could have been exploited more. The one glimmer of hope for the novel was the twist introduced by Mr Thompson about the motive of the accused and the accused's subsequent deception.

Other reviews

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

"Jackself" by Jacob Polley (Picador, 2016)


The first poem, "The House the Jack Built" in Poetry (Chicago), charts the history of trees. It's time-sweeping and mythic. Here's an extract -

their ashes were buried in
with a scattering of grain
like stars              each small clay
heaven still hangs in the earth

   were overgrown,
steered clear of
   called dragon's ribs
      devil's cot          were nested among, rotted
down beside
   harboured foxglove

Gaps (they turn up throughout the book) seem to replace commas (though the comma after "overgrown" seems to perform the same function as the gap after "clear of"). The indents and stanza/line-breaks don't look worth the effort to me. There's variation in the collection though - after this plant-based first poem, the second poem "Every Creeping Thing" concerns animals and has AABBA stanzas, the B lines indented. The giant words DON'T//WAKE//HIM fill a 2-page spread (p.8-9). On p.38 that spread's alluded to - "WAKE UP/ Wren yells". Later,"Tithe" has very spaced out, normally sized words - 39 spread over 2 pages.


The book begins with a quote from G.M. Hopkins - "Soul, self; come, poor Jackself". Then "instead of a soul/ Jackself has a coal" (p.5). The coal imagery is continued later - "Jackself, if only you'd found that meteorite/ at the bottom of the coal hod" (p.14); "he needs a quest, thinks Jeremy Wren,/ who's been watching Jackself from the coals/ of the stove" (p.46), the latter quote suggesting that Jeremy might have been the spark to ignite Jack's too dark soul. In "The Lofts", there are further clues - "skeletons of past Selves ... Edwardself, Billself Wulfself". Then "back they go, the Selves/ Aself, Oxself and coracle-ribbed, ape-armed Selfself" and "Annself". Later, on p.30, "the locks of his head are picked/ and the distance he's kept from his different selves/ is all undone". When Jackself wants "to try to just be" he returns to the lofts. He licks his reflection in the way that "snakes eat their old skins,/ dogs their own sick" (p.37)

The book seems to be broadly chronological, Jack being school-age throughout. We see various aspects of Jack channeled through folkloric and idiomatic usages of "Jack". Jack and the Beanstalk is alluded to - "fie, foh and fum/ I smell your backwash in the coconut rum" (p.31) and perhaps again in "The Misery" when he goes to slay a monster (actually a rabbit). Perhaps Jackself is the less legendary component of Jack's character. The book doesn't end well for the self - it seems to disappear.

More poems

"Lessons" is the most prosaic of the poems so far until the end where it becomes a staircase of lines - "his mind a corner/ of beehives/ his fingers a box of matches/ his nose the afternoon rain/ his ears yesterday/ his eyes green eyes/ his tongue an earwig/ before it hatches". I don't know if the poem title "Applejack" is supposed to be anything to do with the US drink that's like Calvados. Towards the end the persona has a moment - "he returns/ nowhere to somewhere by/ standing there/ in sunlight, its flickering/ over him like     likelike/    he's been this way before". In "Peewit" he has a fit - "a breeze/ starts to ratch in the dust         the foxglove/ jangles             his legs/ break and he goes down, his eyes a white/ flutter in his head//    the boys circle him/ where he fits,/ grinding his teeth so hard they sing".

In "The Goose Shed" (which has dialogue and but for the line-breaks is Flash - good Flash) he meets Jeremy Wren. He's more explicitly poetic than Jack. I presume he's not a figment. Already there's mention of ghosts. They become friends, go fishing together, go out into the surrounding countryside to smoke and get drunk. We learn little about their parents, but we know that Jeremy's doesn't like him returning home smelling of smoke.

"Nightlines" goes mythic again - "all the streams of England run into/ Jackself's fretting ... their hooked lips/ mouthing into the waterworks and bloodstreams/ for all England". "It" uses end-rhyme with sporadic regularity. Later, "Jack O'Lantern" (one of my favourites) is in xAxA stanzas, the rhyming lines indented.

"Cheapjack" begins with "as an elephant has memory/ so Jeremy Wren has merchandise". The imagery's borrowed from marketing - "he offers Jackself the patter ... sell a man a second shadow ... Jackself lies awake,/ his commercial inhibitions coming undone"

In "Jack Frost" (it's cold) Jack is "wearing his homemade thousand-milk-bottle-top winter suit ... and the lametta wig he's kept all year in the Auto-Arctic Unit" ("lametta" is tinsel), slumped on a playground roundabout at 3am having imagined putting frost onto things. Then Jeremy Wren appears wearing "a mantel of tinsel and gauntlets and greaves of kitchen foil", also playing at being Jack Frost.

At the start of "Blackjack" (he's sad) "it's been raining for days". Jack imagines his bathwater carrying his mucky portrait away ("a skin on the water's surface, like engine oil"), the image being in the sewer "from the current on an old bedsheet". He recalls when he started to drink bathwater. He "squats/ to give his reflection in the first puddle/ on the gravel path/ a lick"

In "Pact", Jeremy Wren (who's previously shown signs of being troubled) commits suicide. Jeremy Wren haunts Jack, who sleeps rough for a few days in "The Misery". Even here, the poems aren't without humour - in "A Haunting" there's "don't talk to me about issues, Wren says, look at this old sheet I have to wear". Jack slips closer to madness. The final poem, "Jack O'Bedlam", is 15 AABBA stanzas.

Here's some of the imagery that's scattered through the collection -

  • "eight-legged/ and shrivelled like a dead/ star ... an old spider" (p.25)
  • "listen to those hollyhocks/ those lupins,/ Wren says I've watched the bees/ stealing in and out/ with their furry microphones/ to record the voices inside" (p.27)
  • "the gulls/ flash and snap, like washing on a line" (p.32)
  • "his black shoes are Frankenstein to walk in" (p.42)

Other reviews

  • Kate Kellaway (The poems need to be read in sequence and benefit from being read aloud. ... it is to Coleridge rather than to Hopkins or any nursery rhyme that Polley is most indebted.)
  • Martha Sprackland (she's one of the two "early readers" acknowledged in the book)
  • Joe Carrick-Varty (a collection of story poems, snippets of conversation, thinking and remembering ... On the page many of the poems look sprawled, lopsided, indented, with words set alone and not a full stop to be found. ... The poems take images in nature, or moments of a day, or the cycle of a wing beat and make us experience them like we are right there inside each one.)
  • Martyn Crucefix (Polley’s language is charged, improvisatory and colloquial. It is fluid and rhythmic (more modern, less ballad-like than some reviews have suggested). It has a crusted, superfluous quality to it that reminds me of Shakespeare, or what Hughes has described of Shakespeare’s excess, and Jackself is not thinned out by constant ironising, rather it’s thickened by a weight of language, history and imaginative hard work. It’s very impressive – but needs a few reads before it gives itself up. ... The book lights up differently with the appearance of Jeremy Wren, a more wise-cracking, cynical, entrepreneurial and ultimately more troubled young man than Jackself. ... Hard to end such a book and I confess I didn’t find the ballad-like ‘Jack O’Bedlam’ very satisfying, but perhaps I’m falling foul of the novel reader’s desire for narrative closure)

Saturday, 6 May 2017

"Unthology 8", Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones (eds) (Unthank Books, 2016)

The introduction by Ashley Stokes is an edited version of a talk given at the London Short Story Festival. It charts the history of selection procedures from Unthology 1 (30 subs) to Unthology 9 (170+ subs). They decided against advertizing themes for issues beforehand.

  • David Frankel - "Beneath the melting snow". About Edvard Munch (in an afterword the author writes "I have attempted to remain as true to the real events as possible"). 9 pages set in 1932, with backstory flashbacks, then 3 pages set in 1943, then a page set in 1944.
  • Rodge Glass - "Bye bye Ben Ali". The father of the nation flees.
  • Martin Monahan - "The toasted cheese sandwich of Babel". Fast-food meets The Standard Model.
  • Judy Darley - "The Sculptor". An ice-sculptor whose father's mind is going meets a boy who's a glass-blower
  • Dan Malakin - "I, Crasbo". A first-person robot butler.
  • Damon King - "Cuts". A fight in a prison cell, coldly observed.
  • Clare Fisher - "How to get back your guts". A 21 year-old girl who works at Tasty's Chicken hopes to find love.
  • Amanda Mason - "The best part of the day". Meg, having taken a summer job at a seaside to get over a break-up, gets a bit strange over a young man without ever talking to him.
  • AndrĂ© Van Loon - "The Little World". A young couple seem happy together just talking. Then through work she meets an entertaining author. He's insecure.
  • Laura Darling - "10,000 Tiny Pieces". The heroine seems to get over an obsession with jigsaws
  • Sarah Dobbs - "The imaginary wife". A seemingly happy relationship is unsettled by e-mail from one of their ex's.
  • Armel Dagorn - "Nora and Anthony". Life in a theatre.
  • Kit Caless - "Not drowning but saving". A support group for disaster workers who need to keep helping.
  • FC Malby - "Lines in the sand". Around a fire in Africa, a tour-group start talking about God.
  • Lara Williams - "As Understood by the women". On his wedding day a groom feels out of his depth.
  • Victoria Briggs - "A beautiful noise" - Set in Nice during a festival.

Other reviews

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

"Polishing October" by George Gomori (Shoestring, 2013)

An 89-page New and Selected with poems from London Magazine, The Rialto, TLS, etc, translated by Clive Wilmer and the Hungarian poet. I'm far from convinced by poems like "When ...", "Conversation in Jerusalem" or "Casanova in Wolfenbuttel", and "Portrait of a scientist" (about Hawking) seems trite to me. Surely there are poems with sections better than these below -

  • The blood-stained star of destiny
    Has set out on its path through space;
    There are no saving miracles -
    Nor can remorse now win you grace.
  • Let's not wait till the next earthquake:
    if nature won't do it, man is sure
    to do his utmost to create a country
    where life is no longer worth living.
  • Here's the start and finish of "46 Grantchester Road"

    With you twenty-four years
    in the same house in good cheer,
    in joy, sorrow, alarm
    Twenty-four years it has been
    in the house we leave today;
    twenty-four years, twenty-four;
    let's start counting anew

"Gloss on Nadezhda" sounds like prose. Maybe it's the translation.

"Would I sell me soul" (p.37) looks like a typo.

Other reviews

  • Robert Murray Davis (The strongest poems in the collection draw upon his memories of Hungary and his sense of exile ... These poems tend to be gray-tinged, offering only marginal hope while mourning and celebrating the past)

Saturday, 29 April 2017

"Measures of Expatriation" by Vahni Capildeo (Carcanet, 2016)

Sometimes poets give readers an easy start. Not so here - "She is away./ The feathers in my eye spoke outwards./ She is the accident that happens./ The sun bursts hazel on my shoulders./ She is the point of any sky". 124 pages, lots of prose, small font - I think I'm going to struggle. She's been in the Cambridge Literary Review, and PN Review, but not many other magazines - none I've been in.

No. I'll just skim the rest. It shouldn't have been eligible for a poetry prize, but there we go ...

I like "Laptop Blue screen Rationalization" ("I didn't rightclick on Timothy. I leftclicked on Timothy. I'm opening Timothy. I remember the summer that was Timothy, but I do not recall what's inside Timothy. How many keystrokes have been wasted on Timothy ..."). I don't like "(V) The poet transformed into space". Here are some extracts which for one reason or another caught my eye -

  • The 3 page piece starting on p.13 ends with "no join// no join// no join// and also // like // like // like" right-aligned.
  • "I have seen the eyes of a woman fill entirely with black (cornea and iris), not the eyeholes of a mask but the active blackness of a surge in the universe inimical to the development of life", p.17
  • "And at our conference,/ so many equivalents/ for gracias and Verfremdung,/ easy change amongst false friends." p.18
  • "This style of garment is out of fashion and no longer exported. Dubiously collectable, some turn up second-hand in England. Buying one and wearing it would show a real investment in ... something" p.26
  • "The loneliness of the body is utterly different from the loneliness of the mind" p.27
  • "talk about sleeping/ being happy/ i dream giraffes mostly/ having put one together/ from sand under seawater/ dappled by sunlight/ at paddling depth/ or having seen it rise up/ amiable/ companionable/ with a friendliness seldom measured by scientists/ a long-lashed/ essentially solitudinous yet/ occasionally-leaning giraffe" p.53
  • "Two friends almost bump into me. Who are they? The one I know better was a curled darling, palefaced like a dollmaker's temps perdu. The other I know less. Both so pleased to see me! Their faces bob, charge, glimmering up, losing themselves and returning: let's go for a drink! Night is ocean in a barrel " p.62 (centred prose)
  • "
    cheveluresprécieuses    ifiraisemyarms    whatrainsdown    
    foracanopy/circus    ifilowermylids    istarttoflower    
    " p.77
  • "Like you drop from the sky or what? spoken word. Sped arrow. To speak to those who do not read you. To flee from the space that remains clear inside the head so long as writing is the continuity" p.112
  • "Any love/ meant as equal/ is momentary/ momentarily unequal/ is equal/ if love/ reckons time/ knows not equals" p.122 (full stop after "momentary"? "reckons time knows not" means "thinks that 'time' doesn't know the meaning of 'equals'"?)

Other reviews

  • Sandeep Parmar (Formerly an OED lexicographer with an Oxford DPhil in Old Norse, Capildeo’s poetry is a space in which literary tradition and linguistic play square off against the lyrical guise of lived experience. ... A major poetic voice, Capildeo’s integrity and intelligence put her several steps ahead of publishers, academics and critics who might foolishly marginalise her work in Britain.)
  • Dave poems (it’s a long read and a dense one, and every word has clearly been agonised over. ... And yet the sum of its dense, allusive and syntactically outlandish linguistic performances is an extremely human book. ... The collection is full of such moments of rhetorical power, in which Capildeo demonstrates an excellent ear for rhythm, for the impassioned and genuine, something like an intellectual call to arms. More often than not, however, such moments are immediately deflated by the mundane or ridiculous, as the impulse to keep a sense of proportion does its work. ... Capildeo is extremely careful to never let the messiness of reality be erased for the sake of political cleanliness. As Amanda Merritt notes, that same messiness occasionally looks more like plain confusion, and there are certainly times in Measures of Expatriation where I found the poems’ rejection of conventional syntax or deep etymological punning a little too dense to follow. ... This is not an easy book by any reckoning; it is long and densely written, it often leaves the reader without footholds and deviates from recognisable tradition.)
  • Amanda Merritt (Comprised primarily of prose-poems, the book’s non-linear, associative narratives require the attention of poetry, yet float across the watery expanse of prose. ... This creates an alluring air of intimacy, however, ocasionally the prose weighs down the beauty of the image—‘a heart splintered into a rose of frost’—and, on occasion, the lyrical brilliance of Capildeo’s work is overshadowed by her blocks of prose. ... To assess this book properly, one must either have an authoritative grasp on the nature and aesthetic of prose-poetry, or a predilection for post-modern verse. Finding myself sympathetic to neither of these conditions, there is still much I can admire in Capildeo’s work. ... However, more often than not, context and deixis run about the page like watercolour. Interpreting these streams of thought can be, for a reader, a labour-intensive and disorienting procedure.)
  • Peter Riley (VAHNI CAPILDEO’S POEMS present a wide range of linguistic usages and scales of attention, sometimes all within the one poem, but generally begin with feet on the ground. ... CAPILDEO HAS SPOKEN in many ways of the dispersed nature of the poetry, the break-up of linear sense, including the idea of a “pointillist self, one grounded in complexity…” and of “the way the poet seems to move about… they don’t actually add up… it creates a sense of vibration rather than status, a sense almost of the physics of being, a musical being, one might say”. Also that “time mixing within a stanza, or a line, seems to me like a natural poetic procedure” (which she relates to the “happy and tense cross-rhythms” experienced in growing up in a non-Western multilingual household). Also “I see no problem, I take delight, within the space of the page, in crossing from mundane to heightened, elaborated, even opaque codes, registers, allusions.” and “without meaning to, I developed a poetics of reverberation and minor noise.” ... I think “Inhuman Triumphs” is one of Capildeo’s finest poetical creations (even if it does opt out of poetry at the end), not least because the extravagant virtuosity of her style is constantly bound to a lyrical condition. ... The prose is, as would be expected, more explicit than the poetry.)