London Grip Poetry Review – Katy Evans-Bush



Poetry review – JOE HILL MAKES HIS WAY INTO THE CASTLE: Thomas Ovans gets to grips with an idiosyncratic new collection by Katy Evans-Bush and finds it a rewarding experience

Joe Hill Makes His Way into The Castle
Katy Evans-Bush
CB Editions
OSBN 978-1-909585-57-7

This is a fascinating and unusual book and its scene-setting foreword should on no account be skipped. The author, by her own admission, was ‘in a bad state’ by the end of the 2021 lockdown and ‘needed help’. She found that help by returning to the poetry of Kenneth Patchen – probably not a name widely known in the UK but a poet whom Evans-Bush ‘read voraciously’ during her teenage years in the USA. By taking scissors to a broken and redundant copy of Patchen’s collected poems she generated a boxful of lines, phrases and pieces of titles which would serve as poetic prompts. Four or five of these prompts would  be laid out on the desk as stepping stones on which Evans-Bush could stand and move as she constructed each new poem.

In order to acknowledge their method of composition all the poems in the book are entitled “From lines by Kenneth Patchen” and are numbered from #1 to #51. For the most part, the ‘stepping stones’ are not indicated (although there is a scrupulously complete list at the back of the book specifying which of Patchen’s poems have contributed to each item in the present volume). This uniformity of titling does not imply any lack of variety in form, however, and the book includes unrhymed sonnets, ballad-like rhyming schemes and prose poems.

The first poem gives an immediate indication of the tone and energy that run through the collection. The opening verse of #1 begins

Ah, you puritan, you political, zealot, you religious zealot
with your credo, your mindfulness, your anthology, you zealot
of cocktails, of running, of telling people what to think,
with your secret art-redefining event in a disused water-processing
plant on the outskirts of a town no one really lives in. Well –
no one you know. & you’re such a lifeless, clever little
phony, you wouldn’t really call that living.

In this stream of consciousness delivery, addressed to ‘you’, is the poet upbraiding herself? Or the reader? Or is she inviting the reader to join her in a critique of some third party – maybe some ‘liberal elite’? Whatever the answer – and there needn’t be a unique one – the language crackles and fizzes. And it isn’t too po-faced to include jokes like ‘my little phony’ (which depends on readers remembering adverts for children’s toys from their younger days).

The pace and ferocity of the first poem is not maintained relentlessly throughout and poem #2 is more measured and uses the first person to make a kind of personal statement. It is however hardly less imaginative in its vision

I don’t know how the rest of you feel, these days
when the sky is pink and the trees are yellow
& the animals, all the animals, are blue.  All I know
is that the birds, these great birds have seen us through
so far …

The poem ends on a possible note of purposeful optimism ‘I say we must be green. Let it be showtime again.’ But #3 soon undercuts it. ‘Yesterday they tried… to untell the untrue fairy story, but they only / made it more so.’ And this kind of pendulum movement between despair and hope persists – with increasing amplitude – throughout the book, ranging from

If only we could see it. Little meteors
how mighty we are & how we could be perfect.


                                  Where do we find
a single scrap of evidence
that ‘goodness’ conquers anything at all?

Such mood swings are all too human of course and readers may share them in varying degrees.   But it can’t be denied that they make some of the poems uncomfortable or puzzling to read

For the most part, the poems seem to occupy a kind of abstract space with few specific references to real place or time. Even the titular Joe Hill makes rather few walk-on appearances – although a prefatory note informs us of his historic role as a union organiser and makes clear why he should be a presiding spirit for a collection which is so exercised about injustice and exploitation. Very occasionally a poem seems to touch the particulars of the poet’s real-life situation. Thus #11 speaks of regret at having ‘asked your landlord / to replace the ancient heaters in your flat / the day before the studio flat next door / is let for £60 a month more than you’re paying.’ Tenants do well to avoid ‘the danger of appearing to be demanding, / the danger of appearing. Appearing cold.’ It is something of a surprise therefore when #42 explicitly introduces the familiar contemporary names of Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson, referring to the fines imposed on those who attended parties in Downing Street during lockdown

The first PM & Chancellor
to break the law in office:
when we’re all in it together,
is this how you tell who the toff is?

Sunak is also lampooned over an ill-judged newspaper photo purporting to show him to be affected just like everyone else by fuel price rises

You know a crook is what you are
when grinning at the filling station
filling someone else’s car
evading your taxes in front of the nation.

There are just two poems in which Evans-Bush departs from her use of Patchen’s poem-fragments as compositional ‘stepping-stones’. #10 is largely made up of comments found on social media which arguing against public protests in the cause of Black Lives Matter (including such powerful reasoning as ‘It unacceptable and an insult to the memory / of George Floyd’ – to which Evans-Bush makes an apt rejoinder). The other departure is in #29 is more gentle and is framed as a letter to ‘Dear Mr Patchen’ and declares

I’m handing you a tin can, Ken. Punctured
with a length of knotted string. I’m holding it out
across the decades …
                … I hold a can of my own.
                                      Come on, Mister –
help a girl out of a jam.   I’m using your poems,
if you don’t mind, like a phone.  Hold the string taut.
You’re doing the talking.  I’m taking notes.
The eventual relationship however is more complicated than that!

A narrative thread is not something that one normally expects from a poetry collection; but this one is so shape-shifting and eclectic that it is perhaps harder than usual to discern patterns and themes developing and recurring across the book. Evans-Bush herself acknowledges that – in keeping with events in the world – the poems did grow darker as the project progressed. It is some consolation that she can also report ‘the darker I wrote the better I felt.’ Perhaps readers will have a corresponding sense of being energised and positively motivated by these powerful, challenging and surprising poems. They certainly leave us with such memorable sound-bites as: ‘the corn really is as high as a dictator’s eye’ (#3); ‘luckily we can predict what our machine-guns will do’ (#14}; ‘The Grand Palace of Versailles: / what a microcosm of trickle down!’ These (and many others) serve as enjoyable aides-memoires from a book that needs to be experienced rather than analysed.