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.

Wednesday 3 December 2014

"Ways to build a roadblock" by Josh Ekroy (Nine Arches Press, 2014)

People sometimes talk about daring and risk when discussing poetry. The consequences of public confession may be embarrassing, but there seems to me little daring in being experimental - the resulting lack of sales is common enough in the poetry world anyway, and experimentalists are usually pretty tough-skinned when faced with accusations of elitism or pretension. Ekroy's gamble is of a different nature. He writes about war though he's no war veteran. He writes satire which can be far from subtle. He's written for Punch and has had poems in Magma, Stand, The Rialto, etc., so even if you don't agree with the content, his writing can't be easily dismissed.

He seems to realise that political poetry needn't model itself on Adrian Mitchell, nor need it be aimed at the masses. A common technique of his is to splice 2 topics or registers - old Greek characters in modern war, a "Naming of Parts" blend of language and subject matter. Starkest is "The Trojan Enquiry"

Whose responsibility was the Trojan Horse?

The decision was taken in full Cabinet

Weren't your plans compromised by Cassandra's outburst?

The change in our strategy was proportionate

I can imagine people becoming immured to this ploy which appears again in "Achilles in Helmand" ("The thump of Agamemnon's drum/ was a dodgy Chinook blade ... My shield's a reinforced Land Rover,/ sand in the carburettor,/ graffiti on the nearside door") though I've seen far worse examples of the sub-genre. I can easily imagine critics disliking "Lord Hutton reports", though it would be a hit at many readings. In the mode of the David Kelly report (indeed, it might as well have been prose), it reviews the Humpty Dumpty case. "Hephaestus" is more problematic ("But where would Hermes be without/ his winged helmet and sandals,/ his Airborne Early Warning System?"). "Sheep and Poetry" continues the binary trend beyond the political domain, as does "First Woodpecker" which begins "His father pours it for him" (alluding to cider) then later "Red cap, black cheek,/ green wings, dagger beak build a nest/ in his mind" about the bird.

Forms are used. "Guided Tour" is a sestina that would surely have been shorter were it not for the form - perhaps the tour was repetitive. "The Colour of Memory" is a line-unit palindrome. "Shostakovich 5" is in rhyming couplets. The lines of "Rafah" zigzag. "Summer cell" is in loose abab stanzas. "Flight" is in a prose format - one paragraph that is longer than a page. "Vote Horse" is the loosely rhymed sonnet, one of several sonnets.

Language is put under scrutiny. In "Shades" there's unexplained jargon - "Your grandad may pony that person. A shade must sneck up dosh, bacca and choff"; in "The Agony" "we have retreated from the view/ that abductional was not renditional" and "The agony of looking into that/ will be forceful, but unconfirmed/ wedding kills are not who we are". "Recruitment" takes further liberties - "the slide of the elbow off the table of although,/ the meanwhile stitching in the uniform,/ the set of black swerves on the tarmac of whether or not".

Another theme is of the observer, both formal and informal, the observer usually passive, their view mediated by a guide or restricted viewpoint and/or language. In "Tourist bus halt" for example the conscience of tourists is pricked - "The egrets/ that settle with grace on the cattle are already/ January on your calendar".

Does the gamble play off? There are hits and misses (and I was surprised how many poems I found difficult on a first reading), but in the end he comes out on top. I like "R&R" but not "The Restroom" or "Waiting for the Americans". "Goldfinches" is interesting, though its structure is a shade workshoppy/fashionable. "Uncurling the Human" is perhaps my favourite - "Make sure all your movements/ are as gentle as ferns ... Keep rocking it./ Speak cushions to it. You can warble,/ if you wish, as bullfinches do/ when they sense no danger ... never/ hold by one leg: the downpour of blood/ scorches the brain causing it to writhe/ and creak like a gate".

Other reviews

  • David Clarke (Dr. Fulminare) (All in all, then, Ways to Build a Roadblock is a striking debut, which offers a witty and devastating critique of a corrupt and disastrous foreign policy by turning the language of its instigators and facilitators against their own purposes)
  • Carl Griffin (Wales Arts Review) (This collection is lightened by war in other forms, such as a trip on the tube (‘R&R’) ... While poems from young whippersnappers show creativity and ambition, they often lack maturity, not necessarily in how the poets think, but how they write. And both these books suggest it is sometimes better to wait to release your first collection.)
  • Thomas Ovans (London Grip) (It is easy to pick out some splendidly bravura passages in Josh Ekroy’s debut collection ... Ways to Build a Roadblock is undoubtedly a strong and highly original first collection)
  • Charlie Baylis (Stride) (I can think of nothing polite to say about Josh Ekkroy's book)
  • David Foster-Morgan

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