Kathryn Gray, Flowers; Chris Kinsey, Muddy Fox; Martha Sprackland, Glass as Broken Glass; Rory Waterman, Brexit Day on the Balmoral Estate, (Rack Press, £5.00).
Kathryn Gray’s pamphlet Flowers references films from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, to Roger Donaldson’s Cocktail. It also has poems about Bill Hicks and The Killers’ Brandon Flowers, who gives the pamphlet its title. This is poetry as a kind of fandom. But Gray is too cute a writer for that fandom to be simply starry-eyed. Or maybe she’s too British not to ironize these figures at most turns. Part of that irony is Gray’s direct address to the figures she writes about, so ‘O Brandon, my brown-eyed boy, I will not answer/ critics who say you’re a triumph of style over substance’ (‘Testament’). And it is possible that this subject matter demands that kind of address, that Gray’s mode of writing is slightly conditioned by focusing on celebrity. But that focus enables the construction of a most enjoyable group of poems; as in ‘A Bandana’ which references The Deer Hunter and begins, ‘I’ll say, like some, you wore it for the wound/ – Sweet tourniquet of youth!’
Chris Kinsey’s Muddy Fox is a more descriptive kind of writing. That descriptive nature is indicated in the title, and Kinsey’s impulse is to observe and meditate on those observations. In ‘Rough Sleeper’, for example, the sleeper ‘curls into the darkness of summer trees.’ This hints at the sumptuousness of some of Kinsey’s writing. And also the romanticism of Kinsey’s approach. Later in that same poem, the sleeper ‘sleeps through bees droning/ ten thousand moon-pale bell flowers.’ Kinsey’s romanticism moves easily between the rough sleeper, injured angels and a day off. There is a danger with this ease of movement that the surface of the poems becomes too similar, and the subject matter is subsumed beneath that surface. However, Kinsey’s technique and her confidence with words means that the poems have a warmth and generosity towards their various subjects, which particularises them and makes them individual.
Martha Sprackland is already a formidable technician. The sonnet is moved through quatrains and and a kind of terza rima, and there is deft and adept free verse. The result is a calm, taut surface to the poems which belies the heightened, sometimes gothic nature of the subject matter. In ‘Fever’, the narrator of the poem lies next to a lover of whom the narrator comments, ‘I have seen the extreme weather; / the powerful forces under your control,/ all that terrible dynamism you keep in hold until you sleep.’ And this sense of witnessing the controlled, but powerful forces in the world permeates a lot of Sprackland’s writing. In the short sonnet sequence, ‘Hunterian Triptych’, the poem unveils’ the piano lids left off to show the working underneath/ […]/ the marinated palm// flat neatly, peeled to show the bone in brine –’ and then we get a literal sleight of hand, as the next line reveals, ‘the strange compared assembly of your hand in mine.’ Sprackland is particularly skilled at showing this disquiet in the midst of precise description.
Rory Waterman’s first complete collection, Tonight the Summer’s Over was much lauded, seen as ‘the best first collection for the past couple of years’ and was a PBS recommendation. The splendidly titled Brexit Day on the Balmoral Estate is a fine widening out of subject matter for Waterman. These are loosely ‘travel’ poems and travel around Europe from Sarajevo, to Albania, to the aforementioned Balmoral. Like a lot of travel writing – and travel poetry, in particular – the poems are journeys around the self as much as they are around the landscape. Thus, the first part of ‘Sarajevo Roses’ recounts a failed love affair around the narrator’s thirteen birthday, ending as the narrator watches the girl he lost with another boy, ‘and Bosnia took up the television,/ as though to mock my suffering as well.’ That linking of the personal and the other is taken up in the second part ‘when souvenir casings for sale/ to people like us… that we catch ourselves thinking/ crass, or (un)necessary – found a quoin,/ a cupola, a father shivering at a standpipe,/ a door-jamb, an old woman buying cigarettes.’ There’s a fine balance here between the slightly superficial reactions of ‘crass and (un)necessary’ and that fine description of the real suffering. Waterman is a poet with deep empathies and, like Sprackland, an achieved technique.