Narrating from the Margins

Chrissy Williams
Flying Into The Bear
HappenStance £4.00

Fiona Moore
The Only Reason for Time
HappenStance £4.00

Tim Liardet
Madame Sasoo Goes Bathing
Shoestring £7.00

Shazea Quraishi
The Courtesans Reply
Flipped Eye £4.00

Ian Parks
The Cavafy Variations
Rack £5.00

Martin Figura
Arthur
Nasty Little Press £5.00

Kim Lasky
Petrol, Cyan, Electric
Smith/Doorstop £5.00

David Attwool
Surfacing
Smith/Doorstop £5.00

 

‘Possibility bursts’ twice in Flying Into The Bear – once in the form of bubbles against the skin of a young child’s father, and once ‘like a horse / full of light, accelerating / into a star’. These two poles indicate the range of Chrissy Williams’s writing in a pamphlet containing on the one hand tender evocations of friendship, family and marriage, and on the other, the expansive invention and non-linear logic of a video game. Some of her best work combines these tendencies, as when the poet encounters, in the British Museum, a six-year-old boy with a simple delight in historical kitsch:

He sings paper scarabs

He sings Parthenon bookmarks

He sings Centurion pyjamas…

In young Finlay’s gift-shop giddiness, Williams sees not the monetization of culture but a broader impulse to renewal which, in its sheer joy, counters Modernist solemnity pound for Pound:

We make things new to make them new.

This is what we do.

Indeed, Ezra himself pops up in ‘The Puppet’ as an ‘elderly lunatic’ chided by his grand-daughter, alternately ‘grim’ and wistful. This postmodern decentering of icons also informs ‘The Lost’, which collages translations of the first three lines of Dante’s Inferno to expand their sense of drift and disorientation: beyond one stable textual token, there is a bewildering array of ‘paths’ to go down. There is, however, a pleasure in pluralism, even if the absence of one univocal style means that Williams’s more experimental pieces sometimes seem to lack direction. This is not the case for ‘JON SPENCER BLUES EXPLOSION in the Spring’, which positively crackles with energy. Traditional tropes of incipient nature are reinvigorated by the eponymous band, whose soundtrack to the speaker’s road trip becomes, or triggers, an electric efflorescence.

Fiona Moore also engages with natural transience, but The Only Reason for Time speaks less of effervescence than of gradual adaptation. Marked by the abrupt death of a lover who is sometimes unbearably physically present (‘I live, you rot, and your jersey / holds me differently’), this debut nonetheless acknowledges that ‘Change may come while nothing seems to change’.

Flux is inescapable, however, from the reflection of a river ‘like the palm of a hand whose fortune kept changing’, to three poems addressing the moon, to a distant point, ‘the point of greatest change’ along a shoreline ‘where each accretion / becomes an erosion’. The vanishing land on which Moore’s figures stand is both an image of absolute mutability and, in its singularity, a locale outside of space and time which the couple can solely and wholly possess in memory. ‘On Dunwich Beach’ vividly channels reclamation from erosion – a series of insistent line-endings see the speaker ‘undressing for you… swimming for you’ before she finally emerges ‘numb, dripping salt, living for you’, spat up by a sea which refuses to absorb her into its ‘embrace’. Or perhaps the resistance is the speaker’s own; either way, this is poetry as a form of salvage.

As Moore writes in the title poem, ‘I will recover you from time’. To do so, she employs a figure that is self-declared as ‘ordinary’: ‘You went out / through it like a door and will come back in / before you left’, each enjambment conveying not just the involuted nature of this resurrection, but its conversational simplicity, its place within the normal life which furnished ‘the Aran jersey of our first kiss, folded / to two dimensions’. A grim pun brings us back to reality at the close of this apostrophe: the garment still exists, ‘undyed’.

In Tim Liardet’s Madame Sasoo Goes Bathing, the sea rarely evinces the restorative power which Moore accords it. Repeatedly, characters struggle to find an accommodation with nature, in a tropical island setting where ‘the strange machines of the vegetation’ co-exist with the water which ‘stands in place – a block of scum’. Not only is the natural world unresponsive, somehow choked, it is also the spawning ground for a sense of formless threat: for ‘a wide and evil mouth’ which is seen to ‘steer its head / down into the dark’ in the halting, half-rhymed ‘Giant Lilies’; and for the beast ‘Part wolf, part Sea-cow, part everything extinct’, which menaces the coast in ‘At Gris-Gris’. Like many monsters, Liardet’s beast is misunderstood, a ‘drowned angel’ capable of ‘dumb remonstrance’ whose ‘squeaky docility’ earns the creature’s death. There are shades of Caliban, Beowulf’s shadowy Grendel, even the externalized malevolence that haunts Lord of the Flies: ‘the beast was everywhere, all / around us’.

Liardet’s language is not always equal to the scale of his concepts, and the pamphlet’s exoticism can risk feeling tokenistic: a sequence on an inter-faith marriage features ‘shots / puncturing your Muslim probity’, and sometimes it’s hard not to wonder if the cultural ventriloquism at work here is more substantial than ‘a whiff of gaharu, a hint of jinko, / a trace of rose, jojoba, some cinnamon’. More effective are the moments where the speaker and his stepmother assemble together ‘the creaturely scraps of emotion’; as in ‘Step’, where a non-Muslim man about to handle a Qu’ran promises:

Yes, yes, before I open your book

I’ll wash my hands again and again

in wool-fat, tea-tree, camomile, bergamot and kelp…

Shazea Quraishi, in The Courtesans Reply, sensitively reconstructs an unfamiliar and vanished culture. Working from historical and literary sources, Quraishi never allows her research to speak louder than the human voices of her characters, a community of courtesans in Ancient India. Their individual feelings and desires emerge through lines which are simultaneously spare and sensuous:

Now I bathe while he watches,

eyes fireflies

on my skin.

This style – high on verbs and tactile detail, low on euphemistic metaphor – has a gift for drawing out particular moments of erotic encounter, such that each spotlit contact has the exposed and magnified frisson of the ankle-bracelets which sound, in ‘Messenger’, on a character who ‘walks, thinking of you… a hundred tiny, silver bells / trembling’. What surprises most is the easy sense of intimacy and domesticity. These are not as loveless contracts, but caring quasi-marriages; passion cohabits with tender relief:

Let me take your worries,

your secrets – those sharp

small stones you carry

with you always.

Quraishi’s women are initiators, if only verbally – ‘let my oiled limbs, my / perfumed skin / envelop you’ – but all too easily cast aside for newer pleasures, such as the servant girl in ‘Devadatta’ whose ‘heart-shaped face’ the speaker’s lover looks at during intercourse instead of her own familiar, dispensable body. In such a context, dreams of a more stable companionship are perhaps unsurprising: ‘Anangadatta’ evokes ‘the peaceful routine of household chores… Sewing a button on my husband’s shirt’, and ‘Carandasi’ closes on a gentle request to ‘kiss me like a husband’. In one poem, where the lover is a zoo-keeper, ‘the Chinkara leaps / the palace walls / and back again’. For all their compelling presence, Quraishi’s courtesans are not so free.

The Cavafy Variations, by Ian Parks, translate a less distant voice, which also speaks of the ancient world. Two filters are in operation and, as the Greek and Roman myths are seen through the Alexandrian poet Cavafy and again through Parks, some shared preoccupations are distilled. Of the ten poems featured in this pamphlet, most deal implicitly or explicitly with loss: parents losing children, believers losing faith, the loss of home (and yet, ‘The City’ ends, ‘You’ll take this city with you when you go’.) The Cavafy we encounter here is a writer who distrusts the false illusions broadcast by institutions of spiritual and temporal power. The title character of ‘The Watchman’ oversees a dynastic transition, signalled by a blaze of light which ends his shift for good: ‘The king is dead. Long live the king’. But the jaded collective voice narrating from the margins offers no royal-baby-style jubilation:

Don’t they think that we already know

that someone just as able and unique,

as wise and irreplaceable and brave

is there to step into the empty shoes?

In ‘Candles’, a brief, bright glow also signifies life and its passing, as the speaker contemplates the ‘line of burnt-out candles’ which reify ‘all our past days’; an image oddly reminiscent of church offerings in this largely godless world. ‘The First Step’ stands out slightly with its apparent faith in the power of poetry – mastering that power might be a slow, painstaking process, but it also leads Evmenis and Theocritus, the speakers in the poem, far above ‘the world of false appearances’ to the ‘city of the just’. It’s an unusually starry-eyed moment in a selection that testifies to the absence of transcendence with a corresponding lack of sentimentality.

It’s hard to imagine a more plain-spoken collection than Martin Figura’s Arthur. For the most part, though, Figura’s prosaic restraint seems suited to the subject matter: a potted biography of a boy growing to manhood through the outbreak of the Second World War. A poem entitled ‘Arthur’s Father Leaves For War’ is followed immediately by the line ‘Some never reach the little boats of Dunkirk’. Against this backdrop, the spare, uncoloured writing keys into a justifiable yearning for normality. Even the most dramatic moments of the war are conveyed in simple, declarative sentences with the clarity of a newsreel:

The High Street’s broken apart, the post office

and bus stop gone. He stands in the noise,

thinks how much all this matters, his throat

thick with brick dust…

That internal rhyme is the closest Figura comes to a linguistic flourish, and some of the earlier poems in Arthur are so stiff-upper-lip that they risk inducing a similar flatness of emotional response. At its best, however, this humming tension of repression is what allows for the pamphlet’s striking moments of emotional release. Arthur himself is a ‘locked box’, and even in the scene of romantic escape described in ‘Picnic’, seeks the security of ‘high burgeoning hedgerows’ which have him and his schoolteacher lover ‘safely hemmed in’.

Their dreams of escape, on a boat they plan to build together, are curtailed in ‘The School’, when uneasy, sing-song half-rhymes break the news of Charlotte’s death: ‘The space fills / with the blast and she’s in the air with all the glass’. In response we see Arthur rushing ‘raw’ into ‘the salt-lick / of the sea’, and later, mourning his loss not with words but a cello’s music, turning his beach-hut into ‘a furious box of sound, his fingers / numb’. In a sense, numbness is Arthur’s keynote, but the glimpses of grief it affords still carry an emotional impact.

‘Make of yourself a lens’, Kim Lasky writes in ‘Recipe for Ink’, a poem drawing on a notebook by the astronomer Caroline Herschel. Much of the work in Petrol, Cyan, Electric establishes a similar intimacy of perspective between the speaking voice and a figure from history; never more so than in ‘Newton Sees The Seventh Colour’, where the physicist’s mother, half-horrified, watches her ‘troubled’ son mechanistically reduce the rainbow to ‘simply mathematics’, and feels the need to ‘remind myself those eyes grew in me, innocent’.

Guilt is frequently associated with scientific progress in the first half of the pamphlet (the second deals largely with a parent’s memory loss, from which medical references are, by contrast, mostly absent). In ‘Animal Electricity’, a doctor carries out an experiment on an executed convict and wakes up at night to the sensation of ‘ghost torturers fingering / wires inside his head’ and in ‘Electrocuting Topsy’, a misbehaving elephant is ‘felled like a diseased tree’ in a vivid demonstration of the deadly capabilities of alternating current. This is the pamphlet’s stand-out poem, partly because it questions what’s at stake in this fascination for reanimation. There’s a suggestion that America is built upon such sacrifices – ‘Watch them walk her over the wasteland / of Luna Park in the making’ – and over the course of the poem, imperative verbs gather the charge of a compulsive ethical challenge which jolts the reader into the present: ‘Click to replay’.

YouTube appears by name in David Attwool’s ‘Surfacing’, a collection which frequently attempts to make sense of the proliferation of modern communications technology. ‘@’ revamps the tropes of courtship, replacing ‘the street where she lives’ with the ‘small nautilus’ in a lover’s email address, while ‘components pulse and thrill’ through a poem celebrating a visit to Apollinaire’s tomb:

She’s put a poem on his roof

But he can’t see it’s one of his

Stuck inside his granite cell

In a circuit-board necropolis…

Sometimes Attwool doesn’t quite go beyond paying lip service to the ‘interface god of messages’, but at his most insightful he marries this awe at our connectedness to the passage of the years, occupying the space in ‘the hiss of a gramophone / caught between tides, our parents’ time and ours’ (‘School Dance’)’, or in ‘Backing Dylan’, summoning up the runaway energy of ‘a language that took the train to Chicago / from southern farms, wordless, electric’.