Josephine Corcoran, What Are You After? (Nine Arches Press, 2018, £9.99)
Richard Gwyn, Stowaway (Seren, 2018, £9.99)
Kate Potts, Feral (Bloodaxe, 2018, £9.95)
The title of Josephine Corcoran’s excellent debut collection, What Are You After?, offers an interesting way of thinking about the three books under review. Corcoran, Richard Gwyn and Kate Potts are writers with completely different conceptions of what a poem is, and of what a collection of poems is. How much pleasure readers get from the work of each writer is entirely dependent on what readers expect from poems, on what they are after.
Corcoran’s poems are accessible, witty, moving, memorable, class conscious. ‘Working Class Poem’ comes from the same stable as Kim Moore poems such as ‘My People.’ A prose poem, it celebrates the diversity of folk who might be considered working class, debunking myths and straitjackets of identity:
This poem has no formal qualifications. This
poem has a PhD. This poem was top of the
class. This poem was a teenage parent. This
poem is childless. Little is expected of this
poem. This poem is framed on its parents’
living room wall.
‘Stephen Lawrence isn’t on the national curriculum,’ another poem concerned with social justice, is enormously powerful. Tapping into the wider treatment of motherhood which runs through this collection, the poem begins with a direct address to the speaker’s son or daughter:
I tuck you in
with long ago and far away,
pull the blanket of it wasn’t us, it wasn’t here
around your heart
From there, the poem is a masterclass in restraint, all of the emotion being in the reading rather than the writing, the focus on concrete details and the similarly structured, staccato concluding sentences generating an enormous impact:
I teach you this: He spelled it with a ‘PH’
not a ‘V’. In 1993
he was eighteen.
He wanted to be an architect.
He was waiting for a bus.
Another significant strength of Corcoran’s writing is her titles; they are among the best titles for poems I have seen since the death of Thomas Lux: ‘The domestic life of young film lovers,’ ‘Our son the assassin,’ ‘Winter in the town of three smells,’ ‘Psychologies of Economy Ham.’ Any questions which remain for the reader about the book are resolved by its superb final poem, ‘Love in the time of hospital visits.’ A beautiful hymn to a 24-year marriage, the poem takes the unconventional and highly effective approach of celebrating the relationship by cataloguing all of the time spent together in hospitals, tracking everything from the removal of an appendix to the time when the couple saw embryos ‘swimming past us on a screen; / one of them seemed to wave / as if to say she’d be our daughter soon. // (She kept her word).’ The poem is, throughout, a good idea for a poem, but its ending nudges it towards greatness. Corcoran writes accessibly throughout this collection of the difficulties and joys of a real, lived life, and this ending is exemplary of this collection’s strengths:
Even without your appendix
or your real knees; your shoulder, groin,
Achilles tendon, face, all re-arranged;
your ears re-attached; your prostate
you’re someone I can rely on
to bring me gladness,
sometimes in a disposable cup.
If Corcoran’s writing is warm and memorable, full of personality, Richard Gwyn’s Stowaway is something else. I was a big fan of his last collection, the witty and accessible prose poems of Sad Giraffe Café. Like any real writer, Gwyn has always followed his own path, and a new move by him is an exciting thing. Stowaway is a sequence of poems describing a number of journeys taken by, as the book states, ‘a kind of anti-Ulysses… around the eastern Mediterranean.’ Gwyn chooses often here to write in the third person, and this immediately establishes a distance between the reader and the material. It is no coincidence that the most
compelling of the book’s opening poems features a switch into the first person. ‘The Names’ replicates the people-watching of travel, the energy of other people, very effectively:
I meet them in transit, in cheerless bars or
on canal walkways, in overgrown cemeteries.
Twitchy, sweating males; women following a
from a fictional culture.
Picking up on strengths from Sad Giraffe Café, it is often the case that the prose poems in this collection are among the strongest; they seem well-suited to replicating the one thing-after-anotherness of travel. As ‘The Days’ puts it in its opening sentence, ‘The days are beginning to fold into one another, a slow-motion wing-beat on repeat.’ At other times, Gwyn arranges his material to look more like poems. His grasp of the poetic line is always secure, but it isn’t necessarily always clear what he has gained by the shift from prose. ‘Incident in Rhodes’ creates some effective narrative tension, as the hero meets ‘a couple of young Swedes’ out drinking, who ‘call him over; they laugh and proffer ouzo, / not knowing what a terrible mistake they / are about to make.’ From there, the hero itemises
the horrors he has endured: the loss
of friends in battle, cholera-stricken towns,
Armenian heads impaled on poles, long
under a barrage of artillery from Kemal’s
the arduous retreat in hostile Anatolia,
his desertion and final descent through
pine forests to the Aegean coast…
In his book The Poem, Don Paterson makes the case that poetry is language which is excited about itself: ‘language that is not excited about itself is metrically and musically different from language that is.’ Line and stanza break are key ways of generating excitement and energy for a poem and, in the lines above, it isn’t really clear what the breaks are doing in the direction of excitement. Moreover, the formality of the language of Stowaway throws away the demotic energy of language which can also be useful for generating excitement, and one would be hard pushed to identify ways in which the poems draw on the musical potential of language. Simply put, the resolutely calm and formal voice of the poems makes it difficult to envisage the writer leaping from his chair at the moment of composition and yelling ‘Waaah! That’s it exactly.’ If the poems are not doing this for the writer, there’s not much chance that they’ll do it for the reader. Stowaway is an ambitious, utterly distinctive step in an important writing career, but whether it is the best step for Gwyn to be taking after Sad Giraffe Café is less clear.
Excitement is one thing that is definitely not missing from Kate Potts’s Feral. The language here dazzles, astonishes; the poems are alive. I would say that the poet is incapable of writing a predictable sentence, but it feels more true to say that she is incapable of writing a predictable word. One is reminded of the workshop task where students are asked to underline anything interesting or exciting in a page of automatic writing: if one attempted such a thing with Feral, one would be highlighting every single line. ‘Thirtythree,’ a meditation on reaching the age stated in the title, is among the most exciting openings to a collection I have read in a long time:
Now all the boys I’ve loved are married off,
They bide in milky, clean-hewn terraces, in
replicated seaside towns.
They wear matched socks. They wash. They
see their own fathers’ chins
and petulance – the kindnesses and tics –
and coarse in them, and this is comfort. They
their round-faced wives in lusty, baritone,
The success of poems like those in Feral can be judged in part by the balance of the number of ‘Wow!’ moments with the number of ‘What on earth?’ moments; Potts is highly skilled at balancing the reader’s occasional initial bafflement with a linguistic beauty which makes us want to keep re-reading to understand.
While one occasionally feels that one is being met at the door to these poems by a mean-looking bouncer who needs you to pass an IQ test, one also knows immediately that there’s an astonishing party going on inside. At the heart of Feral are extracts from ‘The Blown Definitions,’ a multi-voiced poetry radio play set in 2068. These give us everything from fragments of narrative to translations from the work of an imagined poet; the sequence is a rich and ambitious one. I was especially taken with the way in which, in the first section, a radio presenter’s relaying of a narrative about an enigmatic poet jumps suddenly to the voices of the characters in the story she tells. There’s a management of time here which recalls Under Milk Wood, as does the content of the characters’ gossip about the poet:
GIL’S FATHER (BOY 1):
At night, he sleeps in a big tin bath.
He makes weird tisanes and potions at night:
fish-blood and witching herbs. If you get too
close, he’ll turn you into a –
GIL’S FATHER (BOY 1):
He eats cat food out of a tin! I saw him.
Given Bloodaxe’s innovations in providing audio and video content with their books, I wondered if providing a link to a performance of the radio play extracts may further enrich people’s enjoyment of the collection.
Excitement at the level of language in the collection is matched by innovation at the level of form. A running sequence of poems, ‘A General Dictionary of Magic’ features poems as dictionary definitions. ‘Footnotes to a Long-distance Telephone Call’ is, as the title suggests, a poem-asfootnotes. When Potts moves in more traditional directions though, the effects are beautiful. ‘Wayfarer’ is a fabulous ghazal:
Though I’m a dog-eared page, and tired, and
the day stank, I’ll sing your lullaby.
I’ll lift up the croak and rattle of my voice to
bring your lullaby.
All in all, these poems are a towering linguistic achievement. To read Feral for a while is to find it bamboozling and beautiful, to want to read it for longer. Once that’s done, the only response is to consider it a masterpiece, and to feel that everyone who cares about language should read it. It’s certainly a book for me. Whether or not it will be the book for you, reader, depends, to return to Corcoran, who deserves the last word here, entirely on what you’re after.