Hercules Editions, £10
The Emma Press, £5
Soon Every House Will Have One
The Old Madness
Faber New Poets 12
Faber New Poets 9
The pamphlet scene is perpetually shifting. This week I heard the very sad news that Donut have decided to stop publishing. But there is always a new editor willing to risk their time, money and sanity in order to publish the poems they love, and now it is Tamar Yoseloff’s turn, with the poet launching Hercules Editions. I’m excited by the prospect of Hannah Lowe’s Ormonde, about the forerunner to the Windrush, and in the meantime there is Sue Rose’s Heart Archives.
The USP of Hercules Editions seems to be combining poetry with art, and Heart Archives is a sonnet sequence inspired by Christian Boltanski’s Les Archives de Coeur, a vast collection of recorded heartbeats. Each poem, about Rose’s family, is also accompanied by an image ‘of something meaningful to Rose, taken with an iPhone, her own archival device’. The satisfyingly square shape of the book suits the sonnets, and the polaroid-like images are taped in individually. There is an introduction, image-key and afterword, and each book is signed and numbered. The pamphlets are undoubtedly covetable things. However, I did wonder at times whether the fourteen sonnets are quite worth the care lavished on them. The sonnet form, along with all the other baggage, seems to push Rose into some fairly obvious images and conclusions. Candles keep ‘some light alive, despite our fear’; the heart is ‘the size of a fist’, or ‘has a mind of its own’; a daughter always carries the ‘gift of love’; family members ‘will be my memorial’. There is an audience for this – the kind who will nod with recognition – but it is a book low on revelation. Still, there are also places where the poetry takes off. I loved the lines about cremation:
I will not care about the firing,
the mastery of materials, when I am grit
and grilled bone, a snow of particles
in a ceramic body, each pot
perched like a squat bird on the rungs
of a white ladder, a spreading estate.
At her best, Rose is a tender, touching poet, and Hercules Editions have more than done her work justice.
Another new arrival is The Emma Press, who already have a reputation for clever anthologies and illustrated pamphlets that make lovely gifts. The Emmores by Richard O’Brien isn’t quite a present I’d recommend for lovers though. From its name on, it’s hard to forget this book is ‘For Emma’ and not to feel curiously like you’re intruding on intimacy. (I don’t think, in this case, the drawings of Richard and his lover help.) It’s not that the poems are exposing, more that they are a little cosy; it can be uncomfortably like overhearing your friend having a loved-up conversation. O’Brien’s gush, though, is of a much higher standard than your mate’s would be: ‘Make every gate a kissing gate’ he declares:
and make a list of everything you’ve never done
so we can do it, then declare each place we do
a National Park.
O’Brien is smart with form, funny, and draws inspiration from some rich and intriguing sources: Sir John Mandeville, Bob Dylan, Ovid. This is a charming book; it’s just that its readers can’t help being aware that they’re not the charm’s intended target.
After a substantial break, it’s been very nice to see tall-lighthouse return to publishing pamphlets. Harry Man’s Lift takes us on a bumpy but enjoyable ride into outer space. The titles alone give a sense of the sort of fun Man is having in these pages: ‘The Last Words of a Lovesick Time Machine Pilot’, ‘The Only Woman to Have Walked on the Moon’ or ‘My Older Brother is a Self-Contained Binary Star System’. Mainly it works, with the sci-fi geekiness giving the poetry a particular, quirky aesthetic. I enjoyed ‘telesue’, which reboots the whole thinking-you-see-someone-in-a-crowd meme by coining a new word (‘n. one of hundreds of people who look like Sue from far away, but are in fact strangers’). ‘Lines Derived from Minecraft Player Queries’ is also playful and strangely sad:
Have you ever spawned like this,
clouds passing through your building
and a blocky dog that will not die
and your wheat disappearing?
Some things don’t work – Man is good at high-concept poems, but attempts at more mainstream lyricism can expose him on the level of the line. ‘Ultrasound’ begins:
The white artery of your spine
hovers beneath a butterfly’s ghost;
wings budding into flight
twice a second, heartbeat by heartbeat.
This is a clunky mishmash of mixed metaphor and sentimental cliché. (Orwell said that metaphor should ‘assist thought by evoking a visual image’ – I can’t imagine anyone’s thought being assisted by the suggestion a foetus’s spine is like a hovering artery underneath the ghost of a butterfly that doesn’t actually have wings yet, only buds of wings that – what, emerge? – twice a second.) Still, elsewhere it’s easy to enjoy a young poet sparking with energy and ideas.
The other pamphlets I’m reviewing – published by Smith/Doorstop, Faber and Pighog – are competition-winners, with pamphlet competitions becoming a big part of the scene in recent years, for better or worse (Mslexia, Templar and Iota also run them). I think for a lot of struggling poets they now seem the only way in, and hefty entry fees can be attached as a way for publishers to cover their costs (though Faber didn’t charge.) I do have concerns about a poetry publishing scene in which writers increasingly expect to pay rather than be paid, but looking at these pamphlets, running competitions certainly seems a way of assuring quality. The first Poetry Business Competition winner, Holly Hopkins, has produced an almost flawless pamphlet performance. Soon Every House Will Have One begins with a poem, ‘Offchurch’, whose subject promises little beyond the usual slush-pile epiphany – it’s about being in remote countryside and spotting an owl. And yet Hopkins’s voice is so fresh it virtually sizzles:
The wheat is ready for cropping, a full congregation
beside the roads through the fields from nowhere to dismantled nowhere,
a brick bridge over a thirsty ditch and the cedar holding up its green tray
are the only telltales that there was once a big house that went on fire
or was sold in part like a butchered cow and sometimes,
one evening in five, a car will crawl through to a corrugated farm.
The most ordinary things are made extraordinary throughout the book. A commission to write about starlings is surely a poisoned cup, but Hopkins makes the image new:
until the churning shoal was black
and hemmed within a living sack
that smashed itself across the dusk
but could not break the thread of trust…
Elsewhere, country churches ‘slip their moorings in the night’. A duck is told: ‘The banks grow lush with shame / as they stamp out the fire on your tail’. An anglepoise lamp waits ‘with cool bones, hot head and aching elbow’. There is also a brilliantly withering poem about people with children, ‘Explanation for those who don’t know love’, that had me laughing and wincing:
My daughter is five and very bright for her age,
this requires special consideration.
She is a delight and centres every conversation
like a fantastic table decoration.
If she breaks your possessions
it’s an interrogation of their meaning.
There isn’t a stale line in this pamphlet. Holly Hopkins is the genuine thing, and this is a ferociously impressive debut.
Ben Wilkinson’s For Real, also a winner in the Poetry Business Competition, has a title that reads like a statement of intent – although he plays with dreams and illusion, he is also a very plain-speaking poet, who keeps his language grounded in the everyday. Carol Ann Duffy, who judged the competition, is famous for doing the same, saying in an interview: ‘I’m not interested, as a poet, in words like ‘plash’ – Seamus Heaney words, interesting words’ – so it’s easy to see why Wilkinson’s poetry appeals to her, although personally I like linguistic excitement and find he can tread riskily close to dull. This is the kind of poetry where pigeons are ‘hell-bent’, people ‘swell’ with pride and a bark is worse than a bite, and many of the poems’ subjects have a slightly shop-worn feel: a poem about a stag; a poem about mistakenly thinking you see someone on a crowded street (see above); a poem in which depression is figured as a black dog.
Having said this, Wilkinson is surely aware that such plainness is a high-stakes game, which when he pulls it off can lead beyond truisms to lines that are moving in their truth. Some images are just right. The sun ‘skim-reads’ an arguing couple through their windows. In the dream-poem, ‘The Beach’, the speaker is led to ‘the taste of your cunt / as you come, and the whole scene / shakes and stalls’. I was very impressed with Wilkinson’s versions of Montale and Verlaine too – the act of translating seems to exert an interesting pressure on his work, that takes it into stranger places, where: ‘Death fills the fields with its single word / like the thwack of a kitchen knife’.
Kate White’s The Old Madness won the first Poetry School/Pighog pamphlet competition. Her poems are quiet and slow-burn, but very much deserve this recognition and repay reading. We can see this is a grown-up book full of complicated pleasures from the early poem ‘Happiness’ which begins:
The grass sweats
and prickles in the heat
like a rash. Your borrowed car
shines so hard it makes me squint.
I loved ‘Your Trouble With Keys’, which balances wit with something darker:
Unnerving, your tendency on arriving home,
distracted by my welcome, the cat
winkling herself out between your ankles
and the slight stick of the lock, to leave
the key street-side – its partner dangling –
like a jag-toothed knife in the door all night.
The verbs are very smart, that delicate ‘winkling’ followed by the more emotionally loaded ‘dangling’. My favourite poem, ‘The Foundlings’, summons a lost child from scraps of fabric: ‘linsey-woolsey in winter / sprig printed susy / or cherryderry /… small bird / weaving out of my sight’. There are some very good pieces of ekphrasis too – both ‘Nazi Suicide – Photograph by Lee Miller’ and ‘Schiele’s Sister’ are genuinely disturbing, the latter allowing ‘his grotesque’ to speak of abuse, despite the fact: ‘In this near-nude, / he is careful to sever my head, so you can’t prove it’s me’.
The Faber New Poets pamphlets are also – unsurprisingly, given the talent pool that must have submitted – very good indeed. Declan Ryan’s has a daffodil-coloured cover, and flicking through it I could immediately see lots of very intriguing things: poems about boxing and John Coltrane; strange tales of whale-filled rivers and donkeys hanging themselves. I stick by the rule Anne Sexton had over her desk: ‘WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T BE BORING’, and poets who are simply interesting, like good raconteurs, are rare and to be prized. Ryan seems to be an enthusiast, curious about the world, with his poems full of found things – some explicitly so, as in the poem collaged out of Alun Lewis’s words (‘I think of you all the bloody time. Do you mind?’), at other times, as when he declares before a charm in ‘The Range’: ‘I found this in a book in a city you never visited’, we are less sure. There is a playful blurring of the real and faked. Did John Coltrane really ‘cluck’ for ‘five straight days’? Did the painting ‘Girl in Bed’ ever exist? I don’t want to google the truth – the pleasure is in how the poet’s voice convinces. There is something of Michael Donaghy, even, in the confident clarity of some of Ryan’s opening lines: ‘I’m in my room, listening to your voice’ or ‘My mother kept that story near her, / to belittle my father’s village’.
Rachael Allen’s pamphlet has some of the same qualities. Like Ryan, she has a strangely suggestive clarity to her voice, and plays with found texts – she has used the website 4chan’s forum headings to inspire prose poems. ‘Random /b/’ begins:
Boxxy you are the home of the anonymous. I liked to read on you all my false news – it went across your head like The Financial District and how you glowed with it. I got Tippex and painted you as an angel on my childhood rucksack and wore you proudly to school – you’ve got the kind of fame of girls who killed other girls in childhood. I wonder if you’ve ever seen lampposts in LA?
Internet-inspired poetry is almost always the poetry of strange connections – here the lurches in thought make the voice sound increasingly disturbed. An almost gothic darkness seeps through these pages, and Allen is at her most interesting when she seems to undercut the Utopian vision of the web-connected world we are so often sold. ‘The Slim Man’ is an internet hoax gathering life, as children are said to have seen him in misty fields ‘leading a girl / in pale blue pinstripes / into the glowing pinstripe forest beyond’. In ‘Old Fears are Still Valid’ she asks: ‘What’s that light on the horizon, the one we always head to? / Bus station, flatlands, LED cloud, TEXACO’.
‘Kingdomland’ is remarkable, set in a dark village ‘slanted, full of tragedies with slate’ where ‘there’s a man who sells peacock feathers on the roundabout, / they scream all night from where they are plucked’. It’s a nightmare fairy tale through which glimpses of an awful reality intrude: ‘I am walking towards a level crossing, while someone I love is jogging into darkness’. It has a surface simplicity, but you can feel real horror shifting in the depths beneath. Allen’s is another pamphlet that suggests that, rather than a stepping stone to ‘full’ publication, this is where some of the very best poems are happening right now.
– Clare Pollard