Michael Bartholomew-Biggs reviews
At the Races by Michael McCarthy(Smith/Doorstop, 2009)
The Road to Murreigh by Paul McLoughlin (Shoestring, 2010).
Poetry can arise from a wish to capture the essence of a “somewhere else” which possesses some magical significance for us. Such poetry may be a time-travelogue of a trip back to childhood or a feet-upon-the ground exploration of a place where our DNA may have originated. In his collection At the Races, Michael McCarthy takes us on a journey through both space and time, beginning in County Cork in the 1940s where he escorts us along winding lanes and into the homes, schoolrooms and fields that helped to shape his childhood. In The Road to Murreigh, Paul McLoughlin writes about the trips he made to neighbouring County Kerry as an adult, visiting relatives in the Dingle Peninsula. The poems describe his discovery of both the landscape and his family and explore the half-understood connection he feels with the place his mother came from.
While McCarthy has an insider’s view, McLoughlin – who was born in West London – writes about Ireland as a stranger who needs directions and can be surprised by what he encounters. He wants to find out how far back where you come from goes; but he is well aware that what’s revisited is changed, / even when you weren’t there at the time. It turns out that even landscape can be questionable: on a beach used as a location for the movie Ryan’s Daughter there are jet-black boulders … some of them fibre-glass added by / the film crew and not retrieved.
Such wry observation is a feature of McLoughlin’s poetry; but it is always delivered with honesty and a genuine affection for a country and a people to whom, it seems, he feels he both does and doesn’t belong. He takes us on leisurely journeys down twisting, poorly-signed roads and into family gatherings where we learn who said what – and why it matters. A particular tour de force is his account of an afternoon in a pub with flamboyant local characters where topics of conversation range from Good Friday to Kurt Vonnegut. The rich comedic vein in this poem is tenderly mixed with awareness of his mother’s Alzheimer’s: it’s unlikely she’ll remember any of this / – it’s why we’re here, her last trip home.
McLoughlin has a sharp ear for the rhythms and phrasing of speech: we hear of the children who haven’t a step in their leg; the uncle who is the most contrary man ever to put shoes on his two feet; and the many people who were looking well and they’re all dead. He cleverly catches the gentle rhetorical force of repetition. Sometimes he uses it to draw us in to a particular moment: Mostly it rains, but now, just now, the Atlantic’s / so calm; and sometimes it conveys well-meaning anxiety at a patient’s bedside: They give him / something for the pain, they think it’s pain, / he’s very agitated. A boarding-house guest approaches his host and wonders does he have an iron. / He does, he says, of course, then wonders / if he does and where the thing might be.
As well as a good ear for dialogue McLoughlin, has a keen eye for landscape. A disused convent is now a page of windows stuck / on a hill, an advent calendar of its own / demise; and on the rocks below Clogher Head breakers crash against volcanic cliff, / like a strop brought down / to teach a boy his manners. But it is not only word pictures we are given: this fine and rewarding book also includes the author’s own illustrations, which use deceptively simple long and jagged but unbroken ink lines to capture the roads, rock, hills and houses of the Dingle peninsula. At the Races begins in rural Ireland but extends into wider territory.
McCarthy’s opening poems recreate his journey to school, telling us what he ate for lunch, what he wore, what he learned and how he went home. We learn about minor misdeeds like smoking (The excitement was / knowing I wouldn’t be found out) and the occasional fight, after which I felt very sorry / for the loser, very glad it wasn’t myself. Childhood innocence is subtly undercut by Ireland’s troubled history, taken almost for granted. Next to his family’s come-lately radio he remembers framed, a list of names: West Cork’s Heroic Dead; and he admits that, in an essay, I reinvented my father … that he shot forty Black and Tans in one night. ‘Good man yourself’ says the priest, on hearing about it.
McCarthy is himself a priest and he writes about his Yorkshire parish. He is now an observer of children rather than being a child himself – but he clearly sympathises and empathises with the character in the school Nativity play who has left his Myrrh in the car and with the boy on the doorstep who tells him ‘We’re not Catholics…. We used to be but now we’re not. Mum says she’s not in.’ / ‘That’s fine,’ I say. ‘Tell her I’m not here.’
McCarthy’s skill with stories and good punch lines should not cause us to miss his subtler poetic skills. He is a sharp observer: a fountain has water rounded to a perfect globe / of blown glass; a bee wears yellow / striped prison garb. His poems go deeper than anecdotal reminiscence – he offers a vivid paraphrase of the opening to St John’s gospel and a wonderfully ambiguous account of the Transfiguration (all I saw was greenery, a few bushy outcrops, / that could have been mistaken for eyebrows.) In several poems he plays with illusions and reflections, telling us that I read maps backwards and using the curved metal surface of a teapot to inspire a concave variation on Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”. “Arriving Back” is a futuristic speculation (with echoes of a sixties tune called 2525 by Zager & Evans) which precedes a section about chains of memories that begin with small events like a missed turning or the splitting of a shoe.
The final part of the book deals vividly with the dream-like experiences accompanying severe illness (I see myself coming towards me). But McCarthy reassures us that near-death moments may be less distressing than … say unrequited love / or missing a train. And even in his hospital bed, he remains sensitive to someone else’s unexpected plight – in this case, a prisoner going to the operating theatre handcuffed to a guard. The poems in this warm-hearted collection sometimes may seem deceptively simple (like McLoughlin’s drawings); but they skilfully illuminate small and complex experiences we all recognize but are seldom able to pin down.
Poems of reminiscence about a “special” time or place might, on the face of it, risk being of interest only to the writer. (I have also written poetry about my tenuous but genuine claims to Irishness, and have sometimes wondered what prompts me to share it.) If we write about a fondly-remembered childhood, we might simply be trying to make a private Eden real to ourselves again – perhaps as a way to explain or criticize our later circumstances. Or are we consciously hoping to evoke a thrill of recognition when the scenery, sound and smell of our story briefly merge with a reader’s own recollections? And if we write about our ancestry and background, is it part of an attempt to thank (or blame) them for what they have bequeathed to us? Or might we be seeking to use the, possibly chequered, histories of our forebears in order to make ourselves seem more interesting?
These brief meandering thoughts lead to the not-very-startling conclusion that poetry of recollection needs to be crafted skilfully and sensitively with a purpose in mind. A faithful recall of things which are quite particular to the poet’s own story must be balanced by broader observations likely to be not too far removed from other people’s experience. History has ensured that many English-speaking readers do have at least some slim Irish connection; and the Irish way of tilting the English language is frequently attractive to English ears. McLoughlin and McCarthy, therefore, both have a sizeable potential audience and their inventive and beguiling poetry deserves to be widely read and enjoyed.
Work & Food by Peter Daniels (Mulfran Press, 2010)
Mr Luczinski Makes a Move by Peter Daniels (Happenstance, 2011)
Peter Daniels’s two most recent pamphlets come close on the heels of some important competition successes – the Arvon prize in 2008 and both the TLS and the Ver Poetry prize in 2010. A full collection surely cannot be far away; but in the meantime these two small books give an excellent selection of this poet’s work.
Work & Food contains only ten poems but also features some delightful illustrations by Moira Coupe. From the very first poem “Endeavours” we can recognize a distinctive voice and a way of seeing things askew: The stripy shirt today. It chooses my mood. I suit it. Daniels is skilful at telling us about our own lives – the routines of getting up and making our way about the world. He causes us to look afresh at things we take for granted; hence the morning train becomes our derailable transport. The next poem “Assessment” is in a similar vein and takes a wry look at the world of work and management-speak. “Annual Leave” also seems at first to be office-related – but then it whisks us away to an unexpected and perplexing place: That lady up at the castle window calming her nerves / with a tossed lettuce – soon she’ll parachute off / with the raggle taggle, for good. Readers may be left wondering where they’ve got to or how they got here when starting from the consideration of an unused holiday allowance! Having unsettled us a little, Daniels then reassures us with “Regulars”, a totally unthreatening evocation of the simple shared pleasure of dining out with a companion; but the respite is temporary and “Downhill” takes us back into a less readily recognized world with a quasi-mediaeval feel, where hostelries have names like The Stalled Ox or The Rapscallion. The pamphlet continues in this way, mixing the almost familiar with the disquietingly strange: what is important, however, is that the poems usually remain pleasing to the eye and ear, even when they perplex the mind.
Mr Luczinski Makes a Move is a more substantial, 28 page chapbook. Its opening poem, “Policeman, Stoke Newington”, shows Daniels at his most quirkily observant. The constable in question is drawing money from a cash machine, to be stowed / in the safest pocket on the street. “The Pump” – one of the author’s prize-winning poems – also starts with perceptive observation of a redundant artefact but moves cleverly into thinking of the kitchen girl who used to crank it / and crank it till the steely water came up at last, and at last / she could find time to become somebody’s grandmother. Daniels knows how to make good use of a repeated phrase: here he employs it to draw us in more closely to a physical experience; elsewhere it is a device with which to raise a smile. In “Windfalls”, Daniels performs a double-shuffle trick that he seems quite fond of: the poem starts with something tangible and quickly slides into the intangible (Past the equinox / the calendar gets thinner) and then shifts a second time into historical romance territory where the serfs are scuttling round the skirts of the castle, / there’s rumbling and smoke. (Is it the same castle that appeared in “Annual leave”?) There seems to be a threatening undertone here that is picked up and reinforced in “At the forest pool” where the pool says This is your last chance. / You don’t remember the other chances. This could be sinister stuff for readers who may be reflecting on past mistakes and future opportunities.
Many of the poems signal to us from just beyond the edges of our understanding – out there / where there is / whatever there is. In some cases an interpretation still eludes me, but it is clear that not all the signals are warnings; for instance, in “Threshold” there is a sense of optimism: What happened was: the first one over the threshold / put the light on, and the world lit up… Fortunately, Daniels is prepared to escort us entertainingly back into everyday life from time to time in order to relieve whatever anxiety he may have generated. It must be said, however, that “everyday life” for him is rather London-flavoured and I wonder whether the observation that the Queen could reach me on the 73 would carry as much pleasing resonance for a Liverpudlian, say, as it does for an Islington resident. And would there be, in Cheltenham, an instant recognition of encounters with the character portrayed in “Stand-up compulsive” – we’re stuck on the bus with him, longing for oblivion? Buses – presumably London ones – even find their way into the closing, rather Zen-like poem “Incarnation”.
A particular pleasure in Mr Luczinski Makes a Move is an affectionate tribute to the late Ted Burford
… my theory is you’ve gone
to Leeds. Fax us your poem from there,
Ted. Or was that it – the supposed
wrong number, ordering chickens
In its light-hearted way, this poem illustrates why Daniels’ poetry deserves the rather paradoxical description “accessible but sometimes difficult”. He can look at ordinary matters with an original and inventive eye to make us smile with recognition of something we had almost noticed. Yet his themes often go far beyond the ordinary; and then his measured, distinctive voice and careful attention to syntax always ensure the reader has firm ground to stand on. Even if his subject-matter seems designed to make us puzzled or uneasy, the poetry is so well-crafted that we can still enjoy his rhythms, his skilful word choices, his subversion of cliché and the occasional short sentence he can place as neatly as a well timed pay-off line.
Wounded Angels by Murray Bodo (Blissfool Books, 2010),
Things to Say by John Lucas (Five Leaves, 2010)
Whistle by Martin Figura (Arrowhead 2010)
Murray Bodo’s latest collection takes its title from the Hugo Simberg painting “The Wounded Angel”. This picture (reproduced on the book’s cover) shows two boys carrying a stretcher on which sits an angel with bandaged head and damaged wings. Bodo calls his book Wounded Angels, using the plural probably because he wants to explore the everyday hurts all his readers have experienced – and probably inflicted. It is also fitting that children appear in the picture, because Bodo uses part of the book to reflect on his own childhood.
Murray Bodo is a Franciscan priest and also a professor of English in Cincinnati. His poetry may not have been very well known in the UK before Blissfool Books launched Wounded Angels but in fact he has many publications in the USA including a best-selling book on St Francis. His Christian faith clearly informs his poetry; but it is important to say that the poems do not insist on the reader sharing his faith. He writes with compassion, humour and humanity about everyday life and experience.
The complexity of Bodo’s tender poetry is shown in the first Wounded Angel poem. She is
blindfolded so she can’t see
what happened to her, so we
can’t see her eyes illumine …
how we’re the very ones who
as we cart her home to show
what someone else did to her.
Hurt and honesty are recurring themes: several poems deal sensitively with a two-edged relationship with guns inherited from his father. In “Gun cleaning” he writes: This beautiful object / unmans me. Once it made me a man,/ you said. “Dad’s rifle” ends with the lines When I was seven you taught me care/ of guns that would take care of me. Bodo does not let a gun take care of him: yet – like many of us – he may be at times uncomfortably aware that his peaceable existence could be said to be secured by weapons in other people’s hands.
Bodo is an accomplished poetic craftsman, using free, unrhymed verse alongside stricter forms such as ghazal or rhymed couplet. He even makes poetry about the mechanics of poem-making – even down to the letters of the alphabet. On the way to his father’s funeral he considers a photo of himself and his parents outside their grey family home
the picture that can
never be anything but three with its
“e’s” like the “e” in “grey” and the “e” in me
turned in upon itself but not whole
like an “o”, say …
or the moon still tracking me
… behind the train.
In “Words that fly” he begins with a question that R.S. Thomas might have asked: Do words take us further / than we could go without them? That Bodo’s words can and do take us far is demonstrated by the relatively long quotes in this review: his perceptive insights are often sustained over several elegant lines.
One place where the book takes us is inner city Cincinnati. In “Sunday with Julian”, Bodo finds evidence on the streets that (in the words of St Julian of Norwich) we are clothed, wrapped, in the goodness of God. The poem starts in church but then moves outside to mundane encounters: a young couple in a burger joint; two prostitutes who ask him for a light (is there a code here I’m not aware of? he muses); and a teenage wife eating ice cream. In glimpsing good in the undramatic he is not being sentimental. Bodo’s poetry most certainly does not come out of a detached, restricted or idealised world view. He has no illusions about some of his near neighbours (The bathless stench/ you leave on my car seat); and the last section of the book deals with tough political issues – particularly lamenting the human cost of the Iraq war (No one notices their masked/ pain, their wooden pace, since he/ came home, a metal box …).
No one who heard him read during his visit to London in autumn 2010 would imagine Bodo to be “soft and fluffy”. His steady belief in The Incarnation leads him to follow St Francis and seek both to carry love and to look for love in ordinary life. Even a firmly non-religious reader might wonder whether the poems are brushing against something deep and worthwhile. Or, to be more colloquial, he might borrow the words of one of the prostitutes in “Sunday with Julian” and say Okay, I like/ the jerk anyway.
* * *
John Lucas would probably describe himself as a religious sceptic. The title of his collection Things to Say comes from an R.S. Thomas poem: And I would have / things to say to this God/ at the Judgement… His voice is that of an honourable man who looks for justice and fairness and is indignant when he does not find it. He does not expect to look to God for any consolation or explanation: and yet he seems not entirely to disagree with some of Bodo’s sentiments. Love, like art, can happen anywhere he tells us in his opening poem, reflecting on a train journey through the grimness of the Black Country. Another rather striking intersection with Bodo’s book occurs in the poem “Callings” which is set near the Franciscan shrine at San Damiano. Lucas is duly sceptical of some of what he sees (etiolated, creepy statues); but is persuaded not to be too sweepingly dismissive of all that St Francis, along with his grounded congregation of birds, has come to stand for. After all, he observes, no good can come of not loving [the creaturely earth]. And the poem ends with a kind of echo of St Julian: Love calls us to the things of this world./ It does too.
It would be wrong to overstate parallels between Lucas and Bodo. But since they are about the same age, it is not surprising that Things to Say, like Wounded Angels, also opens with poems of childhood reminiscence. (The collection is, in fact, published as a companion to Next Year Will Be Better, a prose memoir by John Lucas about England in the 1950s.)
Although Lucas and Bodo share some similar memories, they handle the poetry of recollection in quite different ways. Lucas makes more use of traditional forms and rhyme schemes. He manages to do this in a way that does not feel old-fashioned. Where Bodo’s memories are rural, those of Lucas are largely urban and give a quite broad picture of the England he grew up in, mentioning political, sporting and cultural events. (Indeed I was glad to have Next Year Will Be Better at hand; I might otherwise have been puzzled by some of the literary references which Lucas, as a Professor of English, can readily deploy.)
Lucas devotes the middle section of his book to war poems. In a poem about a solitary woman bereaved by war he cleverly adapts a line from Larkin: If all that survives of us is love/ what will survive of those who lack for it? He also offers an unusual take on The Few:
… after we’ve seen off Hitler,
what’s to become of them, these heirs
to wooded acres? What song
could blend my buffed Black Country
with their expansive drawl ..?
Particularly moving is “June 1942” which tells how the poet’s mother sat at her dressing table to make up her face during an air raid. Of course she doesn’t think that what she’s done // might shield her children… But she is
… making the case
for all who offer nothing against violence
but instinct of a pure, unsaving grace.
(“Grace” is another word Bodo might have used …)
The final section of the book includes some rather more knockabout pieces by “Thorn Gruin”, who is an alter ego of Lucas. This is good fun, but lends a slight unevenness to the collection. Even the excellent and mainly serious first and second sections contain a few weaker pieces – birthday greetings for friends and a found poem consisting of the (admittedly eyebrow-raising) names of British residents in war-time Cairo.
Being only a little younger than Bodo and Lucas, I found the 1940s and 50s poems quite accessible. I too encountered schoolmasters like “Cheesy” in the poem “Mission accomplished”; my children’s generation would expect such a teacher to be dismissed and prosecuted! Similarly, today’s football fans would hardly believe that the ball might go
back to the far end, blurry fast,
and yowls tell us what we can’t hope to see
in unlit 40s mist.
I hope however that Things to Say is not overlooked by readers under, say, fifty years old. These fine, well-crafted poems are a pleasure to read. What’s more, they reflect a time when courtesy, honesty and patience seemed more overtly valued than they are now (at least in certain areas – and Thorn Gruin might wish me to mention financial industries at this point).
* * *
Martin Figura was born in 1956 and hence is the youngest of the three poets considered here. Nevertheless, in his new collection Whistle he has chosen to write entirely about his boyhood. This is understandable because Figura has a terrible story to tell – worse than tales of sadistic schoolteachers or post-war austerity. This review will not reveal the central, shocking incident (although it is clearly stated on the book’s back cover); it is enough to say that by the time he is nine years old, Figura’s mother is dead and his father is in hospital. He is taken in by relatives, sent to boarding school and then abandoned to children’s homes and foster-carers. Figura deals with this harrowing story much as Bodo might have done: seeking to be honest about what really happened but also trying to be understanding about the complexities that lay behind the harms he had to endure. Indeed, the book’s first poem is like a declaration of intent, ending with the line Let this be mercy, and I a good son.
Figura is a photographer as well as a poet so it is not surprising that many of the poems resemble snapshots. Events are described rather than analysed: comment is implicit and subtle, resting mainly on careful choice of words to frame and illuminate a moment. Most of the poems are quite short. This seems to increase the impact of the occasional longer ones such as the extracts from his mother’s letters, incidents from a visit to his father’s home in Poland and portraits of his companions in a children’s home.
The early years of childhood are portrayed with affection. In “How to Steal” Figura realises I can be trusted on my own for a few minutes and so he raids the larder to make and gobble a ketchup sandwich before his mother returns. His final word of advice to himself is Don’t blink when she takes her hankie/ and wipes the sauce from the corner of your mouth. His father, building a fireplace, tapped in each careful stone/ to the satisfaction of the spirit level. Before a music lesson, the piano attempted/ to conceal itself/ behind the standard lamp. Then, after losing a fountain pen, he realises, with terrible but unconscious prophecy
if one or both of your parents
were to die in a terrible accident, then
the small matter of homework would be forgotten.
Finally, when a tragedy does occur,
The whole thing turns upside down
… Cups and saucers
spin away – disappear
into the infinite Artex swirl.
As he is driven away to stay with an aunt and uncle, a boy on a bicycle behind the car pedals like mad to stay with us, but we stretch away,/ leaving him stranded.
The story continues to unfold in episodic fashion. Figura’s discomfort at living with his uncle is captured in the prize-winning poem “Morning Room”: The family sits round the table/ ready for the meal which is me. Later, in “Strange Boy”, we see him through the impersonal but not unkindly eyes of schoolmasters:
We know he steals but are letting it go for now
He pulls a face when he concentrates
The other boys have noticed this
He has invented an elaborate past
Later still, after being briefly reunited with his father, he takes a girl friend round to meet him. After a meal
[Dad] fetches the camera,
from the drawer in the wardrobe,
poses us on the sofa
in case we never come back.
All in all, this is a remarkable book: moving yet very controlled by virtue of its economy of language and its spare, tight verse structures. It is probably a book to read at one sitting, following the pull of the narrative thread. Afterwards there will be episodes that demand to be revisited.
All three books raise the interesting question of how to handle poetry which responds to facts or events unlikely to be known to most readers. As mentioned earlier, Figura presents the key elements of his story on the back cover of the book. He does not, however, give a detailed timeline for his travels and trials; hence there are some poems which introduce people whose place in the story I was not quite clear about. I did not feel this to be much of a shortcoming.
Bodo and Lucas both need to give a context for some of their poems. Bodo prefers to use notes at the back of the book – although I wish these had explained the real-life inspiration (if any) for “Aristotle in Africa”. Lucas likes footnotes at the end of a poem and “The Scents of an Ending” is a good example of the benefit of getting background information after a first reading. Tackling the poem without knowing who the characters are produces a haunting rather desolate effect which remains even when more facts are revealed. Having the characters’ identities and history from the beginning could have been a distraction.
It can be argued that the poems themselves should present their own background and that notes should be limited to things like translation of foreign or technical words. There may sometimes be a case for this: but it also presents a challenge. It is possible to write poetically about reactions to events that may in themselves be quite mundane; but to use part of a poem to narrate the actual events can be an open invitation to be prosey! There are probably no hard-and-fast rules: but the authors of these three strongly recommended books do, on the whole, find appropriate ways of providing the reader with the “inside knowledge” needed to appreciate their excellent poetry.
Emergency Verse , edited by Alan Morrison, (Caparison, 2011)
Emergency Verse describes itself as a collection of “Poetry in Defence of the Welfare State”. In fact it includes about 100 pages of prose comment and analysis as a sort of bonus on top of its 250 pages of poems. Credit for assembling this considerable volume belongs largely to Alan Morrison who has persuaded 112 poets to contribute to a tangy mix of angry, funny, bitter, reflective and sometimes instructive poems. At this point I must declare an interest and admit that I am one of the 112. This should not, I believe, disqualify me from expressing a view of the totality of the enterprise to which I have contributed.
In spite of the book’s subtitle, much of it reads more like attack than defence. Some pretty jagged shrapnel is sent flying towards the agenda and the personnel of the current Con-Lib coalition government – particularly its Old Etonian element. A good knockabout example is Alan Dent’s “All You Need is Gove”:
We’ll have a free school, a free school a free school
We’ll have a free school, a free school and keep the riff-raff out
We’ll build it in the suburbs, the suburbs, the suburbs
We’ll build it in the suburbs away from all the chavs.
Andy Croft’s “Not So” uses a quieter, more resigned voice to issue its challenge to the not-so-new establishment:
Of course you win. The powerful always do.
You are the offside goal, the final straw.
With a shooting party of 112, the gunfire can sometimes be a little indiscriminate and threats to the welfare state are not the only target. This diversity probably helps to make the book more entertaining: for instance, Michael Rosen considers the lure of market forces and contributes a verse nightmare about an enterprise calling itself Just-So Justice. Faced with a not-guilty plea
Just-so says, ‘Prove it. You’ve got five minutes.’
No Just-so case lasts more than an hour.
Great justice. Great value.
No harm in all this aggressive stuff, of course, so long as it keeps at least half an eye on truth. In between throwing missiles, however, it is worth pausing to reflect how we got into the state we are in. In spite of the existence of protesting voices like those in these pages, how have we reached a situation where almost all electable politicians collude in a view that a crisis caused largely by the financial industry should be remedied by penalising the public sector and the poor? One suspects that there has been a crucial lack of engagement with issues of (dis)honesty, and (in)justice during – at least – the last decade. I sense in Niall McDevitt’s haunting poem “George Orwell is Following Me” something of this gap between what is talked about and what is actually followed through:
he’s slumped at my table with a bargain bitter
heavily disguised as a member of the underclass.
For me, the most persuasive parts of the book are the poems which display some of the compassion which has always underpinned the welfare state at its best. It is that compassion which the public sector’s dismantlers can easily be accused of lacking and which has to be kept firmly in view. Such poems include Mick Moss’s “Illness You Can’t See”
you cannot see my illness
it is difficult to quantify
measure and assess,
John O’Donoghue’s “London Sundays”
Once you’ve come this far, soup’s
All that’s keeping you from
Freezing off the booze,
N S Thompson’s “Rehabilitation”
Back home, down on their knees, they scrub and scrub …
But it will never do
and Tamar Yoseloff’s “The New Loss”
… something which occurs
in two dimensions, somewhere distant, to someone else
until it occurs to you.
These poems give an insight into what the abused phrase “all in it together” ought to mean. Hence they are as important and effective as the more scathingly satirical offerings. Indeed they probably count for more than straight invective like Brenda Tichborne’s “A Curse from an Infant to a Politician” (with its unsubtle last line You piece of shit) or Sebastian Barker’s “Dickhead” or Paul Francis’s “Wanker”.
It is the more extreme offerings that make me want to raise the question: who and what is Emergency Verse for? It has been a rewarding venture to be part of; and at the launch in the Poetry Library on January 5th it was clear that the book has been fuelled by much passion and a sense of solidarity. Given an opportunity – thanks to Alan Morrison’s initiative and enterprise – the contributing writers clearly wanted to make sure their beliefs, hopes, frustrations and fears could be heard. The alternative of doing and saying nothing to challenge government plans did not seem acceptable or honourable. And indeed it is a proper response to raise your voice when you perceive injustice and error. Now that Emergency Verse exists (both in hard copy and in an on-line version) it lays down some kind of historical marker that not everybody swallowed the coalition version of events. More importantly, in the present it can be a great source book for the politically active to draw upon; its best pieces will be an encouragement to the troops of the left in difficult times and should provide useful quotes for future articles and speeches. But, of itself, it may not frighten too many horses on the right wing of the cavalry.
The lively launch reading was, predictably, an occasion for preaching to the converted. But one wonders how the book will ever reach the unconverted? Review copies have, of course, gone to all sections of the press and may generate some small reaction and debate; but one can hardly imagine scales falling from the eyes of (say) the Daily Telegraph’s book critic, prompting an impassioned plea for more public spending. The size, weight and scope of Emergency Verse – while both impressive and worthy – must make it intimidating to the uncommitted. If poets are to live up to their cliché status of “unacknowledged legislators” then they may do better to sprinkle their messages widely but not too thick. Let them keep on slipping their rhetoric onto pages and into readings where the uncommitted and already prejudiced may come upon them unawares and hence be vulnerable.