Sunday, 31 May 2009

So Here We Are 21

The latest in poet and Tears In The Fence editor David Caddy's So Here We Are series is up at his blog here, and well worth reading. It's also available to listen to on MiPoradio by clicking here.


You'll know if you're a regular reader of Polyolbion that birding and cricket are two of my passions. On a trip to Guernsey recently, I managed to combine the two in rather bizarre circumstances, seeing the island's only Fan-tailed Warblers (or Zitting Cistocolas, as they're now more colourfully known) at Port Soif against the backdrop of a match between Japan and Suriname. Yes, Japan and Suriname. Apparently, it was part of the ICC World League Division 7. And no offence to those two countries, but the birds were considerably more enthralling than the cricket.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Recent listening

I've just been absolutely blown away by The Hazards Of Love, the latest album by US folk-rockers The Decemberists. It's a song cycle (that sounds SO much better than concept album) about...well, all the usual things that happen in folk songs, and the music ranges from sensitive, delicate finger-picking to unhinged heavy metal riffing. There's more than a hint of the Incredible String Band, Steeleye Span and my old darlings Fairport Convention too, and it's all utterly glorious.

I've also been enjoying The Liberty Of Norton Folgate, by Madness, which is far more than a nostalgic return to their early 80s heyday (not that I'd complain about that too much). With Mike Barson, always their best songwriter, on board, they go heavy on the Kinks' influence and create something genuinely contemporary. They've even talked about it being inspired by Ian Sinclair's books! A long way from Baggy Trousers. Or maybe not.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Tim Wells: Rougher Yet

I received Tim Wells' new book, Rougher Yet, in the post the other day, and a thing of beauty it is too, as is pretty much par for the course with Donut Press. I've had little time as yet to really get stuck into it, but when I have it's pretty much unputdownable (I can confirm that that is the correct spelling of a totally imaginary word).

I'll be posting a proper review of it on here as soon as I've digested it properly, but I'll say now that Wells is one of those poets who makes what he does look deceptively easy. There are a lot of poets around nowadays who are touted as plugging straight into the language and rhythms of urban (and particularly London) life, but few do it quite as well as him. He's also someone who makes the old "does performance poetry work on the page and vice versa" debate look pretty redundant.I'm looking forward to reading more this week, preferably with a cold beer in my hand, now that summer seems to have arrived in earnest.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Review: The Ambulance Box, by Andrew Philip

Salt, 2009, £12.99

Dotted throughout this memorable debut collection (in Salt’s now-familiar elegant hardback style) are a series of four very brief Hebridean Thumbnails.

The first reads simply (but very evocatively) “islands buried in the sky’s white sands”. And not only is it a good precursor of what is to follow, in terms of style, it’s also a good physical description of Andrew Philip’s poems. For ‘islands’, read ‘words’. For ‘sky’, read ‘page’.

Which is all a convoluted way of saying that Philip is a poet who writes just enough, and no more. Few of his poems appear dense, or try to pack too much in. Instead, they’re generally little archipelagos of words, a little bare and unadorned at first glance, but quickly giving up great riches of both sound and sense, and each with a subtly distinctive character.

Many of the best pieces concern Philip’s son, Aidan, who was born and died on the same day in 2005. There’s absolutely nothing inevitable about that, either – it’s all too easy to write honestly, but not terribly well, about such an emotionally devastating event.

But, to state the obvious (if you’ve read any of his poems), Philip does write very well. Here’s Lullaby, for example, in its entirety:

this is the arm that held you
this is the hand that cradled your cold feet

these are the ears that heard you
whimper and cough throughout your brush with light

this is the chest that warmed you
these are the eyes that caught your glimpse of life

this is the man you fathered -
his voided love, his writhen pride and grief

Now it’d be hard to be more emotionally honest than that, and yet at no time does it cross over into self-pity, or into asking the reader for sympathy. On the other hand, neither does it allow the very real tragedy to become a mere vehicle for the poetry – the shock of that line “this is the man you fathered” is a very quiet shock, and all the more effective for it.

Elsewhere, Scotland itself is a major concern, with Philip writing in Scots as well as English, but equally musically in both (The Meisure o a Nation was a particular favourite, with its surprising and sometimes funny juxtapositions). Sometimes, they cross over into each other, and you get memorable phrases such as “this caged / and blootered heart”.

Two of the poems from his HappenStance pamphlet Tonguefire (Man With A Dove On His Head and Tonguefire Night) appear here, and both, I think, demonstrate Philip’s very considerable poetic ambition. They’re genuinely mythological in their scope – that is, they conceal real truths within a fictional, perhaps even absurd, setting. That’s not an easy thing to do without looking ridiculous, or pompous, or both, which is probably why so few poets even try these days, but they’re right up there among the highlights here.

Finally, I hope I haven’t given the impression that, especially because of the subject matter, Philip’s poetry is unremittingly dark. Quite the opposite, in fact. He understands perfectly that loss and love are inextricably linked, and that neither can ever cancel out the other, and he conjures light seemingly from nowhere, from the debris and detritus of everyday life.

Nowhere is that better displayed than in In Praise Of Dust, a gorgeous love poem that (almost) closes the collection. It ends with:

On this of all days, let’s not forget
the facts:
from dust we are
to dust we are returning. In between

our substance is less certain:
a trick of chemistry
and perhaps the light

from the black lamp that burns beside our bed
falling on your
spirited breathing
muscle and skin.

That says more than I could ever hope to in a review. Go to Salt’s website, and buy this book and Rob Mackenzie’s now. You’ll be helping keep a very fine publisher afloat, but you’ll also be buying two of the collections (let alone debut collections) of the year.

EDIT: I've just noticed that the formatting has disappeared on that final extract. Apologies for that - I'm sure there's a way of getting it right, I just can't get it to happen just now!

Saturday, 23 May 2009

A Poet's Guide To Britain

I still haven't watched the Sylvia Plath programme on iPlayer, but I caught the repeat of this week's programme, about George Mackay Brown, on Thursday night, and enjoyed it. He's a poet I like a lot, although I've not read nearly enough of his work.

One thing I'd have liked to heard more about was how much his poetry owed to Old Norse. It's there in the compressed, pared-down nature of his writing, as they suggested, but his style also features, I think, his own version of kennings. Again, half an hour wasn't really enough to do the poet justice.

Friday, 22 May 2009

And some good news

Great to hear that HappenStance have been nominated in the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets - it's recognition of the tireless and incredibly valuable work that Helena Nelson has done over the past few years, both in publishing new poets and in boosting the profile of pamphlets generally through her magazine Sphinx. I'm proud and rather humbled to have been one of her poets, and her advice and editorial input have made a huge difference to me over several years. Fingers crossed that she wins, but whatever happens, it's a huge feather in the press's cap.

Just one book...

I've been away all week, and returned to the depressing news that Salt Publishing is going through a major financial crisis at the moment, sad when you consider what they've added to the UK (and international) poetry scene in recent years. You can read more about it here.

There is hope, though. They're still trading, for a start, so now's the time to support them (and other small presses, for that matter). Have a read of the message below from Salt supremo Chris Hamilton-Emery, and treat yourself to some summer reading. I've talked about a few Salt titles on here recently - Rob Mackenzie's The Opposite of Cabbage, Andrew Philip's The Ambulance Box, Shaindel Beers' A Brief History of Time, Sian Hughes' The Missing, and the Salt Companion To Lee Harwood - any one of them would be as good a place as any to start.


1. Please buy just one book, right now. We don't mind from where, you can buy it from us or from Amazon, your local shop or megastore, online or offline. If you buy just one book now, you'll help to save Salt. Timing is absolutely everything here. We need cash now to stay afloat. If you love literature, help keep it alive. All it takes is just one book sale. Go to our online store and help us keep going.

UK and International


2. Share this note on your Facebook and MySpace profile. Tell your friends. If we can spread the word about our cash crisis, we can hopefully find more sales and save our literary publishing. Remember it's just one book, that's all it takes to save us. Please do it now.

With my best wishes to everyone,

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Review: The Opposite Of Cabbage, by Rob A Mackenzie

Salt, 2009, £12.99

I fullly intended to review this collection alongside Andrew Philip's The Ambulance Box. After all, they were published on the same day in March, and both poets came to notice the same way, with fine chapbooks from HappenStance in 2005.

Both are Edinburgh-based, too, and they’ve read and worked through their collections together, but that’s not to say that the results are notable for their similarities. Instead, one of the most enjoyable aspects of reading them one after the other was seeing how they’d arrived at very different takes on some of the same subjects. So, to do them both justice, I thought I'd post them in fairly rapid succession - expect to see a review of Philip's book later in the week.

I’ve read and enjoyed Mackenzie's pamphlet, The Clown Of Natural Sorrow, several times, read with him, and stayed in fairly close touch, and yet this book managed to surprise me again and again.

Not that there’s anything flashy, any “look at me” posturing, about the way he springs those surprises. Early in the book, the wonderfully atmospheric The Listeners starts with:

The thrill of the fair is not in the glamorous machinery
and its spin, or in the clamour of infants longing
to be heard, but in the hour when music stops
and lights blink out, when a man threads a dark path
among greyer darknesses of once-bright carousels,
and becomes, with them, a bearer of absence,
night’s counterpart, impossible to bring to focus.

It could almost be a manifesto. Mackenzie handles the “glamorous machinery” of poetry very well, in a number of technically deft pieces, and many of these pieces are highly musical, but he’s never in thrall to formal constraints. And, while he generally maintains a quietly ironic distance, observing modern life with wit and intelligence, he doesn’t bury feeling too deep. Ashbery is an acknowledged influence here, but you’d struggle to level the same accusation ­– of being all about surface glitter – at Mackenzie as sometimes gets aimed at the great New York poet.

In a poem such as the excellent Glory Box, he juxtapositions the intensely personal with the clutter, confusion and absurdity of the everyday, undercutting any danger of sentimentality while, paradoxically, heightening the emotion conveyed. There’s a back story here, and a definite trajectory for the collection as a whole, but he hits a good balance between poems that thrive in each other’s company and a rattling good read that can be dipped into just about anywhere.

Subject-wise, he’s generally interested in threading that dark path mentioned earlier, in being a “bearer of absence”, in suggesting (but never making explicit) what lies just out of reach of the light. And, as the final phrase of the stanza above suggests, his surprises usually work by subtly disorientating the reader.

Scotland, not surprisingly, figures as a subject on a number of occasions, and perhaps because the poet has spent long periods abroad (in Italy and South Korea), his view of his own country is a complex, multi-faceted one. In Scotlands, he talks about:

…each fibre waiting for
the sudden drop, for a patch of earth in which to root itself.

That suggests the position he arrives at elsewhere, that the changing face of the UK following devolution offers opportunities to create all manner of new communities, owing nothing to flag-waving or nationalism.

But that word “community” is probably a key one, because Mackenzie, a church minister, never loses sight of the threads that connect us, even when, as suggested earlier, they lie somewhere in the shadows.

Which is where we came in, really, because what is poetry about if not making connections, preferably surprising ones?
The Opposite Of Cabbage is available from Salt, here, or through Rob Mackenzie's (highly recommended) blog, Surroundings.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Highs and lows

On Wednesday, the gravel pits and reservoirs of central England seemed to be swarming with Black Terns, with the odd Little Tern thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, commitments of a cricketing nature meant I couldn't get out to look for any of them (one consolation is that our ground is playing host to a Cuckoo this year).

Instead, I got up absurdly early yesterday morning, but was foiled again by mist and fog that made seeing anything difficult. So, on the way home from work yesterday, I tried again, first calling in at some of my regular sites, then working my way along the Trent Valley.

No luck at Trent Valley Pits, although there were huge numbers of Swallows skimming the water, and it was the same story at Aston Gravel Pits, where you have to stand on a concrete block just outside the main entrance, ignore the traffic whizzing past on the A50 just behind you, and crane your neck to see as much of the pits as you can.

Crane your neck. It's playing on my mind, you see. Because when I got to my final stop, Willington Gravel Pits, I met two birders walking down the lane. When I asked them if there was much about, one replied: "Nah, nothing much. We must have just missed the Cranes."

Missed the Cranes!!!!! What Cranes? Well, apparently two had been seen at around 5pm, but it was now 7.30 and they were seemingly long gone.

At this point, I was in two minds as to whether to go home. It had got incredibly dark, and there was a fine, misty rain falling. Cold, too. May isn't supposed to be like this. It's supposed to be all balmy evenings, sitting round with a cold beer, perhaps after watching a lot of obliging migrants dropping into your local site.

I carried on anyway. On the main reserve, there were masses of Black-headed Gulls, a few Common Terns, the usual mixture of ducks, and a sprinkling of Lapwings, Redshanks and Oystercatchers, all looking to settle down to roost for the night, and bickering over the best spots. A little flock of 10 Dunlin flew round and round, just above the water, jinking this way and that at high speed, and occasionally looking to land on one of the gravel spits. They'd come in, lower their legs in anticipation of landing, then pull out at the last moment in reaction to the agitation of the gulls. Finally, they found a quieter spot over near the Redshanks, and that was that.

I walked over to the Canal Pit, and just as I reached it, the clouds cleared slightly, the rain stopped, and the light improved significantly. You're forced to view the birds at a fair old distance, though, so it was quite a challenge picking out anything on the muddy shores, even if the hirundines were a bit more obvious over the actual water.

After about 10 minutes scanning, though, I was able to find three Black-tailed Godwits feeding enthusiastically in one little bay, and nearby was a Wood Sandpiper. Both good local ticks, especially as I've kept missing the occasional godwits that drop in from time to time.

These are one of my favourite waders - very elegant, despite the fact that their long legs and very long bill really ought to make them look a little absurd. The name, if my memory of the Readers Digest Book Of Birds (a much underrated volume) serves me correctly, comes from the Anglo-Saxon 'god wiht', meaning good thing. Meaning good thing on a plate with some veg and gravy, specifically. In fact, they were considered a delicacy until quite recently, and they're still hunted in France, despite the fact that the Western European population is under considerable pressure.

As I was getting back to the car, four Black-tailed Godwits were flying overhead, probably a different group altogether, with their white wing bars showing up well in the fading light.

Later, at home, I was having a read of The Salt Companion To Lee Harwood. One of the essays (I can't remember whose) was talking about Harwood's interest in nature, and quoted him talking about the pleasure he gets from being able to name plants, birds and so on. On the face of it, that sounds like the rage for order that is usually blamed for the British male's passion for spotting and/or collecting things. But in Harwood's poetry, what also comes through, I think, is a constant desire to reassure one's self that the world really is as various, to use Louis MacNeice's phrase, as we hope it is.

Anyway, much more on Harwood very soon. And coming this weekend, reviews of Andrew Philip's The Ambulance Box and Rob Mackenzie's The Opposite Of Cabbage.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

More Troy Town feedback

I’m much indebted to Caroline Gill over at Caroline At Coastcard for these very kind and perceptive remarks about Troy Town. It’s always nice to get positive feedback, to feel that your poems have hit the spot, so I was delighted to read it.

The Titanic Cafe revisited

Jane Holland has blogged at Raw Light about David Hart’s utterly splendid new book from Nine Arches Press, The Titanic Cafe closes its doors and hits the rocks or: Knife, fork and bulldozerultra modern retail outlet complex development scenario with flowers.

Her review says, far better than my meagre effort, just why this is a must-buy, but I’ll add one more thing. Having now got my hands on the actual book (I did the review from a preview copy), it’s a real thing of beauty, and even includes a pull-out map. I love maps, of any kind, so combining them with poetry is an absolutely surefire winner where I’m concerned.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

We Get The Future We Deserve: JG Ballard's inner landscapes

by Mark Howard Jones

We'd been told by the media - that fractured lens of intellectual failure and popular psychosis - that he had terminal cancer. It was only a matter of time, we'd been led to understand.

But when J G Ballard actually died and the media scrambled to gather biographical data on perhaps the most mysterious of British writers, I felt a shock that I was surely no longer supposed to feel in our peculiarly numbed times. But what had started in one man's mind had become the world I now lived in. I felt like a prophet had died.

He was a 'celebrity', so the media was comfortable with that. But it seemed puzzled by the apparent normality of his everyday existence, compared to the near-deranged quality of his best writing; his seemingly subtle yet actually seismic re-interpretation of the world that we live in, or that he saw we would soon be living in.

Then Hollywood rode to the rescue (doesn't it always?). Spielberg had made a film of one of his more 'normal' books - stitch that together with some salient biographical details and that would do to 'explain' the man. You could hear editors and illiterate imbeciles in newsrooms all over the country breathe a collective sigh of relief. Not realising that they were behaving in a way that Ballard predicted several decades earlier. The symbols had taken over from the substance, and they could refer to something easily accessible without getting their hands or their minds dirty.

My own introduction to the familiar yet paranoid world of the quietly-spoken Englishman came at the tender age of 9, or maybe 10. I was quite badly asthmatic and often kept home from school. In an effort to keep me amused, my mother would buy me science fiction paperbacks from the local Woolworths.

She had no interest in the contents herself and, as many of them were anthologies, the cover blurb spoke about them in a very general way. On the cover was usually an innocent-looking rocket ship or space station. But many of the anthologies contained stories by the 'New Wave' writers from both sides of the Atlantic, and were more to do with the mind that any mission to Mars.

In one such anthology I came across Ballard's short story 'The Terminal Beach'. On the surface it is about a man called Traven who has willingly exiled himself on a former nuclear test island following the death of his wife and son. The island is covered with abandoned concrete blockhouses, interspersed with the odd observation tower and the hulk of a wrecked bomber. There is the corpse of a dead Japanese soldier, and a fly that keeps him company. Two scientists are exploring an abandoned submarine pen at the other end of the island, hoping to find new forms of aquatic life created by the nuclear tests. Traven becomes lost, both mentally and physically, knowing he is waiting to die.

The story was unlike anything I had ever read before. To an ill, anxious child it both underlined that I was right to be anxious and, at the same time, informed me that there was a world where survival and status were not at the top of everyone's list of priorities. That other, more esoteric, concerns were a valid way to respond to the narrow demands of an invalid society.

The story haunted me for years and I kept going back to read it, poring over its Cold War symbolism and technological ghosts. Britain in the late 1970s and early 1980s was full of wreckage, both human and industrial, that echoed the images in Ballard's writing. I began to see his influence everywhere and recognised people who were unwittingly living lives that he'd transmitted the essential data about years ago. We were all wandering through a world that was increasingly 'Ballardian'.

Ruined psychology paralleled the rusting technology that surrounded it. A world where the 'Space Age' had failed to lift off, blowing up on the launch pad and causing millions of casualties.

Boys growing up in the late 60s or early 70s all wanted to be astronauts; but after reading Ballard, we all wanted to be psychonauts instead.

Standing in the ruined hotel lobby in the abandoned desert resort, waiting for the renegade psychiatrist and his crippled daughter, we suddenly realised in a flash of compacted, enigmatic symbols that there was so much inner space still left to explore. In fact, we'd hardly begun.

So we handed in our spacesuits and pointed our cars away from the de-populated hinterland of 'normality' that hid behind the everyday, hoping to die with the movie star of our choice in a head-on collision before we reached our uncertain destination.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Coming next...

I wanted to write something about JG Ballard following his recent death, but my old friend Mark Howard Jones has done a much better job, so I'll be posting his piece up here tomorrow. It's a fitting tribute to a writer who the media never quite seemed to know how to deal with.

Happy birthday!

Nine Arches Press celebrated its first year last night, and a very busy year it's been, what with books by Jane Holland, Liam Guilar, Tom Chivers and David Hart, and two issues of Under The Radar (a third is imminent), plus a number of readings. Oh, and books by Peter Carpenter and press founder Matt Nunn are on the way later in the year.

Anyway, the birthday party at the University of Warwick last night was excellent, with good music (Fan Tan Jack, as Jane Commane has reminded me), good cakes, and of course good poetry. There were readings by Jane Commane, Matt Nunn, Jane Holland, Sian Hughes, Simon Turner, George Ttoouli and myself, and plenty of chat. It would be unfair to pick out highlights, really, but a couple of George's poems (Ghost and another whose title escapes me just now) kept going round my head all the way home. I also bought a copy of Sian's book, The Missing, having enjoyed her reading and remembering several of her poems from magazines.

For the record, my 'set list' was:
At Home
Things Left In Hotel Rooms
The Memory Of Water
Worst Case Scenario

Oh, and many thanks to Matt for mentioning both Walkers Crisps and Englebert Humperdinck when introducing me! Chuck in Gary Lineker too and you'd have the Holy Trinity where us folk at the north end of the M69 are concerned.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

More reviews

Catching up on the blogosphere after a computerless few days, I came across this on Matthew Stewart's excellent Rogue Strands.

I'm much indebted to him for his very positive assessment, and I only hope I can live up to it! But, never one to let a plug like that go begging, I'll also take this opportunity to remind you that Troy Town is available here or direct from me (email me at the link on the right), and that I also have a very few copies of Making The Most Of The Light left (but going fast).

Missed again

I was away for most of the weekend, but got back in time to try to twitch the male Ring Ouzel that's been in a field off Charley Lane, near Bawdon Castle Farm. It was bitterly cold, more like February than May, and the wind was strong. I arrived just about at the same time as Dave Gray, and although we both gave the field in question a thorough grilling, we had no luck. Dave did find several Wheatears including a Greenland bird, and had heard Curlew calling nearby. It doesn't help, though, that the field contains several half-buried black plastic sacks, guaranteed to momentarily raise your hopes when you see them move in the wind at a certain angle.

I even went back this morning on the way to work, but again no sign of the Ouzel. There were at least two Curlew calling over towards Beacon Hill though, and a couple of the Wheatears were still around. But as if those black sacks weren't enough, two male Blackbirds occasionally appeared near the house at the top of the field to again raise hopes. I seem destined to keep missing Ring Ouzels this year, though.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Breaking news....

It's been one of the worst-kept secrets in the UK for the last week or so, but Carol Ann Duffy has just been named the new Poet Laureate, the first woman and indeed the first Scot to get the job.

Not sure if there's really any truth in the story about her being passed over last time, but I don't think there'll be too much quibbling with the choice this time around. She is one of the relatively few current poets to be both popular and critically well thought-of, so there's little chance of the decision to choose a woman being dismissed as tokenism.

I've got mixed feelings about her poetry, liking some of it a lot, and disliking some of it equally (on the whole I prefer her earlier collections), but I think she'll make an excellent public advocate of poetry, which it seems to me is the main justification for maintaining the role these days. Andrew Motion did that part of the job very well, and I think CAD will maintain that momentum.

Name change

Poetry Nottingham is to change its name to ASSENT, as a result of securing new funding from the University of Derby.

The move came after the magazine had its Arts Council grant cancelled in 2007, so the new money ensures the survival and development of one of the real stalwarts of the small mag scene.

Editor Adrian Buckner said that the new name would "combine nuances of openness and aspiration to excellence", but added "if you are interested in the clinching 'that's it!' moment of decision, I would point you to Elizabeth Bishop's poem Anaphora".

Anyway, as a long-time reader of the magazine, as well as someone who has appeared in it a number of times, I'm delighted to see that it's moving ahead under Adrian's leadership.