Pam Thompson reviews a clutch of prize-winning pamphlets from Smith/Doorstop
The Infinite Knot Josephine Abbott ISBN 978-1-910367-81-0
Broken Cities Katy Evans-Bush ISBN 978-1-910367-79-7
Guppy Primer Ruth McIlroy ISBN 978-1-910367-80-3
Angels on Horseback Lesley Saunders ISBN 978-1-910367-78-0
smith|doorstop all £5.00
These four pamphlets were winners of the Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition 2016/7, judged by Mimi Khalvati and Ian Duhig. The production values of smith|doorstop are high: in their vivid dust-jackets these pamphlets are like sumptuous fruits and each presents poems which are, at various turns, startling, witty, disturbing and moving.
It is hard to believe that Josephine Abbott is not more widely published. The Infinite Knot comes eleven years after her first collection. Mimi Khalvati comments that Abbott reaches out “for a deeper understanding of the world she lives in. A world which she celebrates lyrically and forensically.” The Endless Knot is a symbol in Buddhism that connects all things in space and time; it represents birth, death and renewal. Abbott has modelled her pamphlet on the principles of this symbol. In the Contents, the poems are given titles; but in the text, roman numerals which better aid the pairing principle Abbott establishes. They are mainly free-verse sonnets (or near-sonnets) in couplets or tercets. The voice is first-person, conversational; the ‘you’ being addressed, a partner. Abbott celebrates the wonder of existence yet there is also a sense of impermanence and imminent loss.
There are twenty-one poems. Fittingly, as in an infinite knot, the second set of ten poems doubles back numerically and the preoccupations of each poem recur in some way in the one with which it is paired. Rich and diverse, these preoccupations include chemistry and alchemy, “So after all I’m a set of chemicals / in my own alembic, cucurbit, retort, / being heated and stilled.” [iii. ‘A Sure Chemistry’] The speaker dwells on the unpredictability of such an experiment, only “hoping / to turn any little part of me to gold.” Its counterpart sees the speaker pondering the “chemical formula for fire”, which is as complex as the two of them, “flames … / in a never-that-simple formula for fire.” The collection begins and ends with rain. In the opening poem, the speaker contrasts the rain that falls on her with its equivalent on other planets, “on Luhman 16B / it’s pouring down drops of iron / from metal clouds.” The rain that “prickles” her skin “awake” is not destructive in this way, yet even so, the last line is ambivalent, “It’s not that cruel to bury someone in it”; the words “cruel” and “bury” being so close together as to suggest that it is a kind of obliteration nevertheless. In the final poem ‘The Rain Ghosts’, the rain ghosts arrive “pattering the glass” with a message of their origins as the smallest particles of everything animate and inanimate, “dissolved and rearranged by rain”, and so representing continuity and renewal, not annihilation. There are all kinds of transformations here, chemical, physical and those informed by myth, as in [viii], when the speaker envisages she and her partner being turned into trees “I’ll have noticed the roughening of // my skin … You will be starting to come into leaf …” Between the two sets of ten poems there is a transition poem [xi] where a couple find solace and direction in watching birds take off into flight, “… they fell together, synchronised, / sure of never falling, and took us with them.” In the middle of so much flux, it is a poem that steadies. Time and the elements; swans and mirrors, and, oh, so much more.
There is nothing safe and predictable about the poems in Broken Cities, Katy Evans-Bush’s fourth collection. Her poems often begin with the relatively mundane – e.g. milk bottles, graves of pets, a flat’s detritus – but then spiral in unforeseen directions. In ‘Wise Guys Lounge’ the speaker returns to a flat, long empty and untended, its “sedimentary / post-apocalyptic stillness”, a place “where time has warped” and where sinister invasions have taken place; where neighbours peer in and laugh and “No-one talks to you but they say your name”. Flies, uninvited encroachers, are nevertheless, horribly knowing, “they lounge around the fridge / like wise guys”. The third word of the poem’s title resonates as both noun and verb. Who lived here? What kind of property? It is a terrible antithesis of what we might think of as ‘home’. Similarly, in the setting of ‘The Milk God’, milk bottles, left out of the fridge, begin to spawn bacteria. There is humour in exaggeration, the largest bottle described as “grandaddy, the sun / of all milk bottles” whose “acolytes are a growing band”, who know their place with “contents / white, cream, yellow” that can’t compete with his “hardened orb / of golden orange”. Reference to a matter-of-fact call from “Anne at Social Services”, and a clipped final rhyming couplet slaps us as we realise the poem’s actual premise. The small film (as I see it) of ‘The Broken City’ begins with a voiceover, an unknown ‘narrator’ addresses “Their bony weight on your lap …” then recites the names of cats “Kitty, Kitty, Kitty, ‘Kittitu – / the spellings more bizarre in recent years”, and with mock formality poses a question and answers it:
Where lie their bones? Why, out beside the shed Behind the raised bed.
The ‘camera’ pans a room and zooms in on an elderly person (I think, the poet’s father) “aloft / on your electric barque as on a dais” – who is oblivious to the “ghostly presences” of former pets, “Trapped in the broken city in your desert / of buckled synapses and zapped neurones.” Metaphors of weather, “the drought and then the sandstorm” evoke brilliantly the effect of devastating illness. The body is a “broken city” within a literal broken city (any city, in these days of austerity) that does not care properly for its aged. Without giving a spoiler, it is enough to say that again there is a ‘twist’ in the final lines. ‘The Great Illness’ and ‘Snowing’, about the poet’s father’s passing are heartbreaking. ‘Wise Guys’ show up again in ‘Croonerisms’, a sequence about American crooners (of the fifties and sixties) and their circle. Clerihews, at beginning and end of the poem, clinch their essence: money, seduction, corruption:
Sinatra and Davies Jr – croony and croonier – did it their way with expensive predilections and good connections.
All these are “a form of nostalgia”— each repetition of the word “nostalgia” further debases its value and with it the tropes of ‘croonerism’ which signal self-preservation and self-interest. The use of faux-humorous clerihews, rhyming couplets and emphatic repetition reinforce the poem’s sting. Evans-Bush is a native of New York but long-time resident in London. She casts back into the past of both cities; of London, its martyrdoms, its losses to fire [‘Field of Fire’], its grandeur even, and is a presiding voice, as guide and narrator, to the past, and to a contemporary city that doesn’t match up, “the last tube’s gone, / and a slight, sickly smell of kebabs and tar lingers.” There is a lot more of interest in this exhilarating pamphlet.
Ruth McIlroy’s debut pamphlet, Guppy Primer, adopts a range of registers and its musicality is derived from chants and songs, sources yielding the language of information, classification and instruction – the ‘primer’, in fact, as in the title poem where we are told that: “Beautiful Guppies don’t just happen. / The secret is sweat, and attention to detail.” Her subsequent instructions are humorous and not without applicability to human life, and unsuitable matches, “Be sure to throw away the bad males … // Learn to watch out for unscrupulous dealers / Who sell fancy males with common females.” I ncantations [I], [II] and [III] from the Scottish Gaelic read as cryptic narratives and fragments of wisdom: “Third is the lawn of aesthetic, / The third is great dirty sea. / She herself is the best instrument to carry it.” [III] ‘Gaps’ is set to the tune of The Streets of Laredo – a sad cowboy song. It was helpful to Google it to better appreciate the poem’s rhythm. I presume that this was one of the “scraps of old song-lines and sayings” the speaker recalled on the night she “crept out to star-gaze” and, in doing so, filled-in the “gaps” in her mind that arose from contemplation of stars and the lighthouse’s “circling beam” . Musashi’s Book of Five Rings is an ancient text on martial arts. ‘Stance’, the first of two poems which draw on this text, could be a ‘found’ poem where extracts of the source text are rearranged: “Adopt a stance with head erect. / Neither hanging down, nor looking up, nor twisted.” The second poem, ‘The Way of Strategy’, has a first person narrative which could be Murashaki’s ‘found’ wisdom, the poet’s, or, as I suspect, a combination of both: “ I came to the way of strategy when I was fifty. // Since then I have lived without following any particular Way.” As with Evans-Bush, it is impossible to predict what will be the shape and voice of each subsequent poem. Ian Duhig writes that McIlroy “turns her themes and motifs through fresh language, narratives and scenarios.” This may involve riffs on a single word as in ‘Settle’ which is in fact about a poem about how we live, the pull between stillness and restlessness: of a horseman, “why does the man go forward / why does he not settle?” The interspersion of “ah duende” summons Lorca and dark passions and why, even though settling might be good advice, hints at its impossibility. The jaunty rhythm and rhymes of ‘The Judas Song’ bely-and ironically enhance, a dark message about betrayal: “Here’s to traitors; let’s hear it for turncoats, / doing their stuff while the principled burn.” Ruth McIlvoy’s prime mode is not the lyric but there are examples of it, and, again, as with Evans-Bush, it doubles as elegy for a father. In ‘Old Man with Cane and Panama’ the poet recalls how he watched her in the sea at Coney Island:
Stay: don’t stay, dear father; hold me longer in your enigmatic gaze, mild, unbending in the Southern Brooklyn haze.
Guppy Primer is instructive in showing us how not to play safe with language and voice, to invigorating effect.
Lesley Saunders is the author of several books of poetry and is also a translator. I have noticed her name in magazines and among competition winners for years. Collaboration with other artists is firm part of her practice and several of the poems in Angels on Horseback arose from collaboration with installation artist Susan Adams. I looked up Adams’s work and it is macabre and beautiful. These ekphrastic poems gain an extra dimension when read side by side with the art but they are powerful enough to work without it. The term ‘domestic theatre’ relates to both the art and to Saunders’ poems: fabrics and food feature widely, and the scenarios presented are frequently horrific where women are murdered and abused by others, or carry out self-harm, such as starvation. Mimi Khalvati comments that the poems “explore violence, not through rhetoric but through defamiliarising tropes of disturbing beauty and pleasure.” Childhood is a site of violence and pain in ‘The Children’s Children’. A girl or young woman remembers her mother brushing her hair – no gentle act – “Gripping her chin / between long strong fingers Mother would drag at the roots …” and childhood toys “loll around / in the cots where they’ve been thrown, crocked, blind in one eye, nursing their love bites …”, waiting for “Young guardians” to tyrranize further “with their tongs.” Biting, devouring, appetite, or lack of, all feature significantly, and do so consistently in the thirteen prose poems that comprise ‘Twelve Little Murders and a Bird Feeder’. These are vignettes of women’s masochism, sadism and self-harm. “I could eat you says mother to daughter” at the end of [i.] ‘Eating People’ seems a benign enough expression of love on its own but there follow exaggerated literal descriptions of people eating each other, “… we start at the extremities, going faster, greedier, till we reach the heart of / the matter …”, which becomes and extended metaphor for how mothers project their own “hunger” onto their daughter. ‘Ana’ is a term referring to the deliberate promotion of anorexia. In the poem of that name [iii], the extreme behaviour is starvation, “… count the number of bites you take, the / number of times you chew.” In ‘[iv)] Onychophagia’ nail-biting is pathologised, “associated with guilt and shame”. Here, and in other places, Saunders weaves folk or fairy tales with contemporary women’s behaviours: “Snorri Stuurlson says the Naglfar is a ship made from untrimmed finger- and toe-nails of the dead …” These poems are astute re-makings of tales which carried their own sting and warning. Women undergo these behaviours and practices for men as a result of social and sexual conditioning. In ‘In Praise of Footbinding’, young girl’s genitalia are “sculpted” to please their husbands; the setting and procedures are described in deliberately evasive terms,“ The night is soft and dark as plums … / This cut is called Opening Lotus Bud— / it will please the husband. // This, Undiscovered Pearl …” The parallel with “the unsteady feet of their great-grandmothers” is to another so-called erotic practice [for the pleasure of men] which maims and distorts. Today a ‘designer vagina’ can be purchased for similar purposes. A woman “beats the drum of abandonment”, but only in death. [The Shy Woman’] There is something uplifting in the solidarity of the final couplet of this poem.
Alone and stripped, her sister is waiting there in the flesh, In the flowerless underworld, with lapis lazuli.
These four pamphlets, from four very distinctive poets, are all worthy winners of this important competition.