Michèle Roberts, Swimming Through A Painting By Bonnard, Róisín Tierney, Mock-Orange, Kate Quigley, If You Love Something, Christopher Reid, Not Funny Any More, A.C.Bevan, Field Trips In The Anthropocene Rack Press, £5.00, Michèle Roberts, Fifteen Beads, Andrew McCulloch, The Lincolnshire Rising, The Melos Press, £5.00, Nicholas Murray, The Yellow Wheelbarrow, The Melos Press, £10.00
As always, there are interesting contrasts running through this latest batch of pamphlets from the closely interwoven stables of the Rack and Melos presses. And at this ‘interesting’ time, those contrasts seem move vivid. On the one hand, you have the hard-hitting and always very well-constructed satires of Christopher Reid and Rack’s editor, Nicholas Murray. On the other hand, you have the painterly, and that sometimes literally, work of Michèle Roberts, Róisín Tierney and Kate Quigley. In the middle, you have writing which situates itself in time, either the contemporary world of A.C. Bevan’s Field Trips in the Anthropocene, or the historical as in Andrew McCulloch’s The Lincolnshire Rising.
The paintings of Pierre Bonnard have not been uncontroversial either in his own time or in ours. His attitude to figure and figuration was sometimes woozily subordinated to his extraordinary ability as a colourist. There is no such ambivalence in Michèle Roberts’ ‘The solitary swimmer’, in which the narrator swims through ‘the radiance’ of Bonnard’s compositions. However, Roberts is ready to concede that Bonnard’s depiction of his wife, Marthe, nude, is ‘flat & still.’, even if she is ‘pearl-fleshed / in her opened oyster shell.’ There is a nice ambivalence in the location of the poem, here, which starts in ‘the hushed basement spa,’ in which the narrator swims through the Bonnard. Roberts’ attraction to Bonnard fits with the painterly nature of Roberts’ poems, and she, too, is an unabashed colourist. In ‘Fifteen Beads’, the sequence which makes up the whole of the eponymous pamphlet from Melos, Roberts gives us often warmly exact depictions of the flowers,
Blossoms flare then fall.
in the evening sun trumpeting
yellow as courgette flowers
bold and brassy as nasturtiums.
In this context, and with this precision, Fifteen Beads evokes and memorializes a set of always involving epiphanies.
In Róisín Tierney’s Mock-Orange shows that the natural world can impinge to deceive and betray. In the title poem, a crab-spider lies among the fallen blossom of the mock-orange, perfectly imitating it. So, when the narrator picks it up ‘among the other petals,’ she is ‘made aware by its tiny bite, its fulsome needling venom.’ This venom, in turn, makes the narrator, ‘think of you then, in hospital, in Dublin, / drinking your necessary poison.’ Who this other might be, may or may not be important. But Tierney’s procedure in this collection is reflect on how the presence of others may deepen our own response. In ‘Winter Dybbuk’, a bat which falls from the eave of a roof, is warmed and then released. The bat reminds the poet of other winged creatures which have fallen from grace; but also ‘of our impossible mythologies: / blood-thirsty lover, ghost eater, / fallen angel, demon, god-in-exile.’
The animals in Kate Quigley’s debut pamphlet, If You Love Something, offer striking lessons for their human ‘interlocutors’. The title of the text is taken from the poem, ‘If or Some Lessons Learned from a Small Dog. The poem opens with the following verse, ‘If you love something, / put it in your mouth – take it by the ear / between your needle teeth,’ which is repeated through the poem. The small dog’s physical engagement with the world, its need to understand, to ‘love’ takes a fully physical form. Thus, Quigley writes, ‘whatever truth you have in you, / whatever rises from the hot knot of desire at the bas of your oesophagus – …// This is all you have, / all that lies fermenting in your small cage of a body.’ The use of ‘you’ deliberately opens out the implications to the small dog, the reader and the writer, too.
There’s something quietly triumphant about the way Quigley’s pithy style works all this material. Quigley is simply very good at using the small dog as an exemplar, without either reducing the dog to some kind of anthropomorphised cypher, or being patronizing to the nature of the dog’s animality. It’s a dog, all right, and a beautifully realized dog, too, but the actuality of the dogginess is something that shows humans where they do actually fit into the moral order which they pretend to control.
The moral lessons of Kate Quigley’s small dog ought to be learned by the humans in A.C. Bevan’s finely realized Field Trips in the Anthropocene. That is not to say that Bevan doesn’t show the need for those lessons; his pamphlet is a strident lament for those lessons not learned. In ‘Beached’, Bevan depicts bathing in the now shrinking Dead Sea, ‘irrigation, / drought & saline evaporation have / left a tidemark // & a fat man floating on / his back in a puddle, / big toe in the / plughole.’ And we shouldn’t search for answers in technology either. ‘The Algorithm’ ‘Beats you at chess or checkers / whilst finding you a mate.’ Here, whatever constitutes a human is suborned to the machine, and whatever the needs and wants that make up that deeper human are ultimately crushed, ‘Your safe-word is the wake-word / to your always-on smart hub, / Alexa, ask the Bible App / if now there is a God…?. If all this seems pessimistic, Bevan’s whip-lash irony brings a leavening humour to it all.
To say that, in this company, Andrew McCulloch is a much more traditionally lyric poet is not to remotely lessen the impact of his lovely lyrics. He is also poetry of more traditional forms: sonnets and rhymed quatrains. There is a quiet observational quality to much of McCulloch’s poetry in this pamphlet. The natural world in McCulloch’s poetry reminds the human of their mortality. In ‘Late Spring’, a long winter means ‘the earth turns in its sleep but will not wake,’ and at the end of the poem, the narrator wonders whether spring will come at all, ‘How could it come again to lift me free / From dreams in which you say I didn’t die?’ If there is a Georgian quality to much of McCulloch’s writing, that quality does not deny that under a rather ‘English’ melancholy, McCulloch has a substantial attachment to the land and its people. McCulloch recounts ‘The Lincolnshire Rising’, the title poem, the sonnet form contains a narrative which deftly shows the deep disruption caused by that rising, against Cromwell’s puritans. In McCulloch’s account, this rising was an attempt at preserving an older way of living, much in the way that John Clare wished to preserve a deeper, more natural countryside.
Christopher Reid’s Not Funny Any More features ‘The Great Turnip’ and no prizes for guessing who that turnip might be. The current world climate has drawn out the satirist in Christopher Reid, rather better know as a ‘Martian’; an appellation that I’m sure he would rather discard. The satirist in Reid manifests itself in this pamphlet as one possessed of considerable formal variety. There are neatly rhymed quatrains, of varying forms, as well as closely cropped rhyming couplets. This formal adroitness is allied with a pitch-perfect irony that nails The Great Turnip in all of his vices, and also in all of his voices.
It’s difficult to quote from Reid’s pamphlet as almost every line is eminently quotable. This is from the final section:
The Great Turnip is planning to punish the press,
who have caused him such distress.
They are all wicked, all liars,
all godless and unpatriotic Turnip-deniers.
Bad people. Sad people. Both.
They need to be cut out like a malignant growth.
It must be done for the nation’s health,
and by stealth.
Nicholas Murray has also shown himself to be a fine satirist, as his poem A Dog’s Brexit, showed so well. The Yellow Wheelbarrow is a full-length collection of work and includes work from previous pamphlets as well as new work. Murray the satirist is represented here with such poems as ‘We Must Avoid Cliché’, which, as you might imagine, does not avoid cliché, particularly where the ‘poe-biz’ is concerned.
This long-awaited first collection.
Long-touted on Twitter by its friends,
its enemies not yet found, still to stir
from their long sleep of indifference.
What is present even in these lines whose purpose is, perhaps, ‘political’ with a small ‘p’, is the quiet rhythmic pulse with underpins all Murray’s poems.
That assured rhythmic control is often allied with a closely observational sense in Murray’s writing. And the final effect of this combination is a warm lyrical quality to these texts. The poem, ‘Venus’ depicts the painting of a nude by Cranach the Elder in the painter’s studio, in the dead of winter, ‘where ice made dragons // on the window-pane / and lust froze up before the twist / of water left the opened tap.’ Murray’s deft imagination creates the strikingly visual image of the ice making ‘dragons’ on the window. Then he yokes the freezing of lust with the unfrozen water in the tap; and does so, in part, with that nice half-rhyme of ‘lust’ and ‘twist’.
Perhaps Murray’s satire is a natural development of that other ability his poetry has, an ability to look at a scene and depict it with real emotional precision. In that way, Murray’s lyrics share the laser like focus of his satire. The emotional precision of Murray’s poems drive the quiet narrative that leads the poems. And in that precision there is a feeling of what might be right entwined with what might be possible, as in the poem ‘Island’, which is here quoted in full:
Brendan’s monks have lit a fire
where gutted fish brown on whittled sticks,
and God is thanked for the air of a small island.
There is no hint of what’s to come:
the slide of embers, the tilt and scatter
when the whale lifts itself from seeming sleep.
By Ian Pople