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Heart of Anthracite by Campbell McGrath
Ready-Made Bouquet by Dean Young
Both by Stride publications, 11 Sylvan Road, Exeter, Devon EX4 6 EW
When ‘the boss’ sends me two publications produced with the aid of The Arts Council and published by his own publishing company I have a dilemma; being a rebel I want to exercise my personal form of anarchy and tear into them critically and with malicious relish (Just to show that I am really ‘the boss’) or to ponder upon the wisdom of biting the hand that feeds, as it were. I decided to compromise; praise the cover and attack the content, and so I picked up these two slim volumes and examined them as objects to be held, balanced, touched, gazed at abstractedly. They are of a peculiar size; being about 10% wider and 25% shorter than the standard book-size (Don’t ask me to get technical that’s as much as I can manage), but this makes them absolutely ideal for slipping in the pocket or balancing in the hand. They are glossy, both covers are designed around beautiful paintings which make them aesthetically delightful, I found myself stroking them, holding them even when I wasn’t reading them… inside they are simply constructed; no lengthy blurbs extolling the talents of the poets, no boring biography detailing all the poet’s past success in minute detail. Both books give an instant surge of delight; but then they should at £8.50 for around a hundred pages in each.
And before I go to content; hark back to the Gawain poet, all that wonderful alliteration, recall Chaucer with his delightfully structured rhythms, leap forward to the political verse of Shelly and the lyricism of Claire and Wordsworth and hold in mind the poetry (yes I said ‘poetry’) of Tolstoy and Joyce and then tell me what poetry is? Don’t even think of the linguistically innovative poetry of such as Robert Sheppard or the Dada(ist) poetry of George Melly but go on, take a chance, tell me what poetry actually is? Tell me where poetry is going? Or maybe give up all definitions and just concentrate on words that please and are set out in a pleasing manner. I did the latter and turned to the opening pages of Heart of Anthracite (with my evil heart, you’ll recall, intent on malice) and discovered: Prose! What the hell sort of a con is this? (I wondered) My attack on this should be a doddle!
The first few poems are mere descriptions of journeys and places; sort of road-words set out, as I said, as prose. But what prose! Prose that makes most poetry seem like doggerel. As in ‘Langdon, North Dakota’ when McGrath is describing a farmstead being auctioned and notes that the people gathered to bid are ‘self conscious, caught somewhere between a wake and a square dance.’ The phrase doesn’t moralise or lecture, it simply captures perfectly that mixture of delight and guilt in bidding to undercut, to get something perceived as ‘a bargain’, and it captures too the loss (by someone) that has forced the sale. And mull over observations like this one in ‘Capitalist Poem #23’; ‘On Signal Hill the oil wells move relentlessly like Tinkertoy wrenches… desperate machines saying nothing, nothing, nothing.’ Yes indeed; ‘nothing, nothing, nothing.’ What more do you need to say about the relentless mechanical menace of oil-fed Capitalism? And so I found myself reading this prose out loud and then I discovered that the poet is conning us; it isn’t mere prose, it is great poetry in disguise! Disguised so well in fact that I was almost disappointed when, with subtle gradations, the prose gradually ascends into what we would recognise as slightly more formal poetry, as in ‘Jimmy Buffett’:
Southwest Florida is beautiful and terrifying, the part of America most like the frontier to me,
Bulldozers idling at the gates of Eden
As nautilus-patterned retirement communities are riven from the swamplands, par 5s carved from sandy tomato fields, marinas hewn from the marl and reedbeds, the shallow bays and estuarine inlets of the Mangrove Coast.
Neither God nor man has finished with this place.
You could of course formalise this line structure even more but I guess that McGrath is saying; ‘Why the hell should I?’ And indeed; I concur, why the hell should he? Remember the Gawain poet? Chaucer? Claire? The lineage that has gone before? And this is an end-product; think, think, think! Yes! That’s why I love this guy; he makes me think, makes me think about what exactly poetry is and about the frailty of all of us. I can even forgive him for constantly referring to Native Americans as ‘Indians’, I mean he is after all, under the delusion, that he is an American.
And so to Dean Young’s Ready-Made Bouquet and more disappointment as yet again I was forced to relinquish my desire to dissect, ravish and adversely criticise. These poems, much more structured than Campbell’s but no less insightful, stimulate the imagination with vivid, almost surrealist imagery, ‘The Periodicity of Clouds’ opens with:
You can’t go round the world
in a troika but you can in a submarine
meaning the submerged is powerful
in endless circling.
And later informs:
In the story
of every river there’s a twist
where it vanishes underground.
it’s gone then it all comes back, flashing
its Jurassic tail, its extraterrestrial wings,
I like it. I like its anarchistic use of metaphor, I like its initially amorphous seeming structure which turns out to be tight form ladled up with tongue-in-cheek humour which reminds me in places of the black comic plays of Beckett, as in ‘Two Heads Arguing’:
Where are we going in this split life?
A walk down a road where the asphalt crumbles
into sand which crumbles into crumbles into.
Sometimes I want to jam my head into the mechanism.
Sometimes, like a dead priest,
I want to wash my face with mud
Or what about this coolly observed, yet again mischievous, observation in ‘Yellow Sports Car’:
Currently, an empty circle has appeared
where months ago a snowman collapsed.
It’s infrastructure – too sad to continue.
Yet there is much to learn from a dissolving
humanoid form. All flesh is made of tears for instance
and a portion of grit.
Delightful! Yes? Oh come on you have to agree that it’s a million times better than Carol Ann Duffer’s incestuous doggerel. This is a guy who enjoys words, who loves ideas, who writes original poetry that people might actually want to pay to read.
So thank you Stride. Thank you Boss. Thank you oh great and hallowed Arts Council of England. Thank you artists, cover designers and typesetters and thank you the person who was bold enough to go for the oddly satisfying ‘shape’ of these two books. But most of all thank you Messer’s McGrath and Young for forcing me to be a nice guy with only enthusiastic words to submit to ‘the boss’ that praise your unique talents.
© copyright Alan Corkish 2005
NOTHING BUT LOVE poems by Mike James
A review for Stride 2005