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.

Sunday 30 December 2012

"School of Forgery" by Jon Stone (Salt, 2012)

In the UK I sense the emergence of a new wave of poets, fueled by supportive anthologies (by Salt, etc), Faber mentoring, and the expansion of creative writing courses. Jon Stone's in the thick of it both as writer and publisher. The poems come from several anthologies but not that many magazines. 3 of the poems were in his Scarecrows chapbook. As in Oli Hazzard's book, forms old and new abound. This isn't "New Formalist" poetry in the Dana Gioia mould. It's more like Hybrid/Elliptical, but with more mainstream overlap. I can't say I like all (or even most) of it, but the failures are more interesting than others I've seen recently. Here are some of the forms -

  • "And why ...." is in iambic pentameter using stanzas with an ababbcc rhyme scheme.
  • "Dojinshiworld" is 7 xaxa stanzas, 5 of which beginning with "We came to".
  • "The Mark" is in couplets, the endings being "emotion's/emotion", "absence/absence)", "hoodwink/something", "hiding/emotion", "something/emotion".
  • "Tongue" is terza rima.
  • "Father Popielusko" is 6 3-lined stanzas, rhyme scheme aaa
  • "Torn Page ..." is shaped prose.
  • Each line of "Mustard" end with an anagram of "mustard".
  • "Second-Hand Kite Feathers I" is 7 3-lined stanzas, rhyme-scheme "it/ee/it"
  • p.65 is a sonnet comprising lines from Tom Jones songs ("Barclay James Harvest's "Titles" remains memorably catchy in spite of its faintly irritating musical parlor trick of lyrics created entirely from Beatles song titles" -
  • "Second-Hand Kite Feathers" includes 10 stanzas of aabxb
  • "The Not-Who-They-Say-They-Are Sonnets" are loose sonnets. "Mimic Octopus" is a sonnet.
  • 7 poems are silhouettes of people filled in with words.

Old techniques are used for new purposes. When they're used for mainstream objectives, the forms can sometimes look forced and the content unconvincing, though even then there's enough imagery to sustain interest. For example, the "Mimic Octopus" is "almost water, half crossed the threshold/ into creature. Now a quoit, a spear,/ now black as the bunraku puppeteer", with "ocarina head" . Here's stanza 4 of "And why do you want to work for the Secret Service", showing more observation/imagery (though the final "dragons" is a surprise)

Then at a Czech zoo, watching otters stuff
their semi-feline mouths with crayfish - one
chewed in two, whose unmatched, undead half
weakly plays piano upside down,
its jelly oozing silver in the sun.
And somewhere in that jelly - vital organs.
And somewhere in my babble, talk of dragons.

This stanza's rather atypical in that it could be a description of an event. The first poem isn't a bad place to start if you want a more representative taster. Here's the first half

Near Extremes 1
Where I come from, it's the other way round:
we plunk cinder knucklebones into our soda,
stand hunched over momentary snowflakes,
willing our fags to catch cold, so we can
scorch our lips with frost-feathered plumes

The title could mean that the extremes are close together or that the narrator is close to one extreme then the other. The title's final digit indicates that this is the first of a sequence (the other poems scattered through the book). The lines could nearly belong to a sonnet. The first line introduces the idea of opposites which the second line continues, though I can't see how all those things could be "the other way round" from what's described in this stanza ("catch fire" rather than "catch cold", yes, but elsewhere, cold and hot ideas are just mixed up). "cinder knucklebones" sounds like a precise reference to something, otherwise I don't know what it means. The other stanza ends with "white hot Christmas", wordplay that doesn't make up for earlier parts.

The title poem has a narrative (a schoolboy trying to forge the writing of a cute teacher's husband). It ends with

Then to perfect his body, its itch and scrawl.
His lurch for the knur-and-spell of her knees.
His leer for her waist's gay lavolt

The schoolboy wants to imitate the husband's tendency to use arcane vocabulary when describing base emotions? Or was the poem in danger of being too straightforward?

Here's the start of "Far Dancing and .../ three Celan poems"

Mid-day Monday, undone, counting
foreign brutes.

out my almond

Meaning what? "Broken" and "undone" are both used in cryptic clues to announce anagrams, but I don't see anagrams here. Maybe it's that game where English words are found that sound like the foreign originals (one of the downsides of writing in many forms is that readers will look for patterns that might not there). "II. Harakiri" (2.5 pages of prose) could have worked as Flash, but in any case needs cutting.

I liked "The Mark", "Chimney Swifts", "The Procedure" but not "Jake Root", "Boy", "III. Hurricane Polymar", or "Second-Hand Kite Feathers II". For me, the book got worse as it went along, but I'm not a fan of mash-ups, sampling, variations on themes, etc and these dominate the second part of the book. The "Notes & Admissions" pages include a description of some procedures. E.g. for "What Robots Murmur Through Broken Sleep" it says

This is a sequence of 'motivist' poems, an eight-line form invented by Michael Egan which begins on an image and then undergoes various distractions before returning to a varation of the initial image. On top of that, each part is collaged from the dialogue of the corresponding character in Urasawa's Pluto, a retelling of "The Greatest Robot on Earth" storyline from Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy

I prefer that note to the resulting poem. Especially later in the book there's much that don't get and don't feel like re-reading, poems that read like experiments - interesting concepts worth trying, but ultimately something to learn from for future poems. The first few pages of the book are online at the publisher's site.

He frequently uses repetition - within and between poems. For example, successive stanzas of "Send in the Mink" begin "Send in the mink", "Send in the savage mink", "Send in the unsuitable mink", "Let this brave thought be minked out,/ minked up, minked to a stain". Allusions to "Send in the clowns"? "Send in the troopers"? On Repetition in Jon Stone's "School of Forgery" I've gone into more detail about this - mostly about features I've noticed but not understood.

Other reviews

  • Matt Whaigh (Nose Jobs and Jake Root ... are both absolutely packed with brilliant, brilliant writing. There is such a mastery of rhythm, pace, alliteration, imagery and audio joy in these two pieces ... For quite a large chunk of the book, he keeps his style actually quite tame ... there are occasions, too few in my opinion, when he simply lets rip.)
  • Parrish Lantern (Stone creates his verse from the flotsam and jetsam of culture, from scraps of film and other poetics, crafting his language into works that, at the surface, shine like some glitter ball)
  • Todd Swift (His poetry is entirely predicated on the artifice, puzzling, and pop culture ... It is brilliant, in ways that most UK books of poetry haven't been, ever, really. The density of clever wordplay in 'Mimic Octopus' is Muldoon/Paterson, but the tone is stranger ... But the sincerity of affectation, the aesthetic sentimentality, of these poems, is a new beast.  There is skill, craft, technique here, and off the shelf pop references, but also a step-change level of intricate game-playing.  For want of a better word, this really is dandyish.  It's European stuff.  Rich, thick, arty, revelling in the accessible opacity, the frostwork jouissance).

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