IN YOUR OWN WORDS: Poetry, academia and media madness collide in three very different pamphlets
Pick Me Up by Anna Kiernan and Harriet Lee-Merrion (Atlantic Press Books, 2014), £9.00 ISBN 978-0957154926.
Trench Feet by Nicholas Murray (Rack Press, 2014), £5.00 ISBN 978-0992765453
Dylanation by Phil Knight (Green Arrow Press, 2014) £5.00 ISBN 978-0957503366
Reviewed by Rosie Breese
The great benefit of the pamphlet form is that it offers a dedicated space for intense focus on often-overlooked areas. With this, one of the most enjoyable things about reviewing pamphlets is the sheer variety of intriguing voices that can be encountered, each on their own terms, without the jostling for attention that seems almost inherent in the anthology. Here, a poet’s quieter moments can sit comfortably alongside their explosive showstoppers: there is room for development of the themes that fascinate the writer, and space for these undercurrents to resonate.
Autumn 2014 brought three very different pamphlets, each with its own undercurrent, its own world to speak from. The first of these, Nicholas Murray’s Trench Feet, thrusts the reader behind the scenes of the frenzied media-courting of world-weary academic Jeremy Button who is, with a note of panic, ‘confronting the question: and what about Me?’ Bounding along in perfectly paced quatrains, this neat narrative follows Jeremy’s progress through the creation of a TV series on the poets of World War I, illuminated by the odd stand-out line with a shining sting in the tail:
..the Laureate stands to deliver the view
that the poets were victims, their generals malign.
Yet ‘Englishness’ glistens in every last line.
Just outside Arras, where Rosenberg lies
Jerry’s adjusting his brightest of ties
that flames like the stubble when harvest is done.
The romance of sacrifice seems to have clouded everybody’s judgement in this wryly drawn caricature of the sentiment-fest that is Remembrance Day at its worst. ‘Englishness’ takes over (itself a comment on the absence of the rest of the British population from Remembrance commemorations?). We’re so busy looking, misty-eyed, at the brightness of this idea, with its jumbled associations of dank trenches and blazing poppy fields, that we’ve forgotten what it means in the present day. Actual soldiers are, appropriately enough, completely absent from the story, replaced by a jumbled assortment of WWI clichés: ‘greatcoats and duckboards, ponies and rats, / poppies and skeletons, mud and tin hats’.
Ok, so rhyming quatrains aren’t exactly the in thing right now, and arguably, this poem which caricatures modernity so entertainingly hasn’t succeeded in doing so in any kind of ‘modern’ way. Perhaps, like Jeremy Button, whose own love affair comes back to bite him on the arse, the author himself is being hampered by history. But it’s difficult to think of this pamphlet as being ‘hampered’. Innovative in style it may not be, but it certainly makes for an original and entertaining read in its own right.
Also academically inspired, albeit in a completely different way, is Pick me up from Atlantic Press. The result of a collaboration between illustrator Harriet Lee-Merrion and poet Anna Kiernan, Pick me up draws on a fascinating array of sources, from the life stories of 18th-century artists to academic articles on motive processing (whatever that might be) to dodgy maps and the Victorian classic The Secret Language of Flowers. Lee-Merrion’s gorgeously understated line drawings, in which bodies are juxtaposed with and almost obscured by maps, diagrams and flowers, have an anatomical feel; a kind of clinical elegance which offsets the ever-shifting attention of Kiernan’s poems.
The poems themselves have a sort of hummingbird quality to them: Kiernan’s intense focus draws on personal narrative and family relationships, the lives of historical others, James Joyce, tyre impressions in mud, childbirth, and buildings insurance. The language itself is indeed ‘intriguing’, as Owen Sheers’ single-word jacket note suggests. There is the sense of being in contact with the tips of many icebergs. Easiest to connect with are the poems that show a little more of the iceberg, such as ‘The beaten track’, a meditative bike ride which builds to an elegantly complex tumble:
I am catapulted forward,
the map lost, the spokes caught
in memory turned inside out,
where the lost space of reversals
As evidenced by this corker, Kiernan is great at last lines. ‘Bloomsday is a cod’, in which she candidly narrates the story of her son Leo’s birth, also packs a punch at the end:
Here comes everything, I thought,
Here comes everything.
In places, though, her shifts in focus trip the reader up. In ‘The robot nursemaid domain’ it could be argued that the juxtaposition of references to obscure artist Nicholson with snippets from the above-mentioned article on motive processing doesn’t give us much to ‘go on’; there is the sense that the poem is speaking from far within its own world. And in ‘Epitaph for the unrequited’, references to Shakespeare’s Ophelia muscle in on something that doesn’t seem to have asked for it:
An archive of lost looks,
a database of bones.
This place is as organic
as Ophelia’s floral rant …
That said, where its own language shines through, this is a gorgeously meditative collection that carries moments of surprise, explosions even, that are delightful despite the occasional sense of being a little shut out. Kiernan’s magpie instinct turns up some diamonds, and hers is certainly an interesting voice to listen out for.
Finally, but by no means least, Phil Knight’s helpfully titled collection Dylanation – A Collection of Poetry (Green Arrow) takes the Dylan Thomas centenary and the accompanying programme of tenuously linked events (roundly condemned by John Goodby in the Autumn 2014 issue of Poetry Wales) as a jumping-off point for an exploration of the Wales he knows: place, voice, ‘cracked castle crap pit’ and all. Knight’s exploration of these themes is varied: poems range from ‘Hillside’, a Fern Hill-esque reminiscence which carries some truly dazzling moments:
The sky was full of blazing
jump jet tail lights
flying along the belt of
Orion the hunter
and the beams of the cop choppers
were brighter than all
…to ‘Wales Celebrates Dylan Thomas With’, an inventory of Dylan celebrations, some with names so fanciful they must have been made up (or probably, depressingly, not), and the ambitious ‘Elegy’, which draws on Dylan’s own titles to create a fascinating, if disorientating, piece which seems to hint at numerous untold narratives:
A tale winter’s
paper deaths and stick entrances
in her head lying down
to park the hunchback in the
unluckily death for a
asylum in the love.
These flights of experimentation seem a little at odds with the rollicking spoken-word feel of other poems within the collection where syntax is occasionally sacrificed to the demands of the rhyme scheme:
Here are the forgotten people
Troublemakers, addicts, just out of jail
In a block higher than any church steeple
To Urban Planning let us all hail
But it seems ungenerous to pick at the way individual lines scan when the overall message is so important. Knight is clearly a poet of passion and purpose: you won’t find fancy binding, illustrations or, in all likelihood, a PBS endorsement here. What you will find is voice, first and foremost – refreshing honesty and lack of pretension, which, lets face it, many of us poets could learn from. This is a genuine and thought-provoking portrait of a world the poet knows intimately and can speak from in a way that lets the reader understand, and understanding is important. As Cathy Park Hong points out, ‘the disenfranchised need such bourgeois niceties like voice to alter conditions forged in history’, and that is exactly the argument that needs to be made for writing like this. As mentioned at the beginning of this review, pamphlet publishing creates opportunities for lesser-known writers to get their work out there, and for readers to hear from worlds they may never encounter. And the effort of listening and learning is always worth it.
Rosie Breese‘s poems have appeared in Poetry Review, 3:AM Magazine, Shearsman and Poems in Which. In 2014, she was nominated for a Saboteur award for her work as a reviewer of poetry pamphlets and anthologies.