Waiting for the Voice

Tiffany Atkinson, Kink and Particle (Seren), 64pp, £7.99; Tishani Doshi, Countries of the Body (Aark Arts), 64pp, £9.99; Roger Moulson, Waiting for the Night-Rowers (Enitharmon), 93pp, £7.95

First collections offer us a paradoxical reading experience. They are often the result of years of anticipation and elaboration, full of poems which hope to position the new author amongst those he or she sees as influences and contemporaries. Yet they are also the work of someone who is making and has yet to make discovery after discovery about their deep responses to technique and tradition. There are therefore few reading experiences which compare with finding a new author who genuinely has something new to say, and feeling that you are sharing in that narrative of discovery. Each of these three poets gives off something of that delight, in quite different ways.

Tiffany Atkinson is yet another fine poet to appear from Seren, a publisher whose stock continues to rise. Like Carcanet and Bloodaxe, they have effortlessly transcended the category of small regional press, and continue to challenge the hegemony of some metropolitan houses. Atkinson, like fellow Seren author Kathryn Gray, articulates the bruises and brusquenesses of contemporary urban life with a warm urbanity, achieving sophistication without brittleness, and illustrating that much of the most intelligent and accessible poetry of the last five years (one thinks of Polly Clark or Colette Bryce) is being written by young women.

This is primarily a poetry of sensibility, aiming, as she hints, ‘past salt, sweet, sour, bitter, for/umami, the elusive fifth sense.’ The calculation required for recipes recurs, sometimes apparently literally, as in ‘Zuppa di Ceci’, where the patience required to prepare a soup is contrasted with a partner’s lack  of commitment, leaving ‘a platter of reheated stars/and last night’s moon served cold.’ More usually, however, it’s seen in her characters’ attempts to analyse or create satisfying scenarios, either for themselves or for loved ones. So with the gift of a tape in ‘Queen of the Lead Guitar,’ it’s less the man’s choice of music and more the gesture of compilation that engages the speaker: ‘She/leans in, fires his cigarette,/ removes a hair of hers/that frets there.’ And in ‘Then Everything Was Axe,’ it’s the missing ingredient of the practical axe on a spontaneous outing that reveals an unexpected vulnerability in the relationship: ‘Forget//the quietly perspiring Semillon,/the raunchy steaks…’

The collection encompasses a broad sweep of experience, from dealing with children to dealing with parents and even ancestors. Relationships receive unsentimental, often quirkily short shrift, be they with men or rolling tobacco, and the first troublesome nags of ageing underscore many of these poems. Perhaps a central piece in terms of all these concerns is ‘Nine Miles Stationary,’ an account of a distended wait in traffic that unfolds through brilliant observation (‘A girl grits her heels on the hard shoulder/sporting an inexplicable ballgown’ is good, but the little boy forced to pee in public, ‘his face a clap of rage’ is even better). The revelation that the narrator is trying to get to a funeral is quietly and very effectively delivered: ‘Lilies, exhausted, on the passenger seat;/ their scent given up on a wreath of my own heat.’

The less resolved aspect of this book is the poet’s engagement with language, the titular kinks and particles of the demotic. The later poems often show an almost percussive use of vocabulary that can be marvellous and jarring in equal measure. In ‘Cockerel-Man and the Royal Donkey Duck,’ for instance, we have a not entirely convincing inebriation of both narrator and character, ‘Open/your smile my mouse, cried he, quite the rivergreen/ elvis at that angle, be my spiff…’  And yet when she picks up on a Catalan’s inadvertent mangling of English, ‘I would not mind to be in Whales,’ it’s possibly to read this too as part of that search for the elusive detail, be it of register or the emotions, which will yield up moment and milieu.

Tishani Doshi’s book has been the recipient of prizes both in the UK and India, and it’s easy to see why. The poems combine subtlety of tone and vivid scene painting with a strong underlying narrative. That narrative, of difficult personal growth set against a background of familial crises, is recounted in a voice simultaneously disturbed and delighted by circumstances apparently outwith its control. Perhaps the most potent image of this vulnerability is the infant in ‘The Affair,’ crawling at the feet of an arguing couple: ‘He knows nothing — little kernel of snail –/except to unfurl along his silver trail.’

The theme of adultery recurs throughout in both portraits and first person pieces, from ‘the old Kurdish woman’ on the Edgware Road looking for a former lover, having ‘lost the patterns, the touch/The smooth complexity of him,’ to the ambivalent speaker of ‘London’: ‘Waking beside a broad and empty face/I lie to him about what moves me.’ An arc of gradual release from repressed sexuality, through difficult intimacies to fraught, temporary resolutions, is set against the estrangements of new and unfamiliar landscapes. This gives Doshi’s writing an almost surreal urgency, as in the albino boy of ‘Open Hands’ who ‘holds me in his lanolin arms’:

So we must make meanings of things:

A carcass of a jackal in a baobob tree,

A man’s fingers pushing up the straps of your maroon dress,

A low wood-beamed room full of misgivings.

These difficult places are compared with an India that is conveyed with great vigour and keen detail, but which doesn’t offer solace: ‘I forgot how Madras loves noise’ she remarks, picking out precise detail (Scooters have ‘larynxes of lorries,’) and finding a synaesthetic twist, ‘even colour can never be quiet.’ Home also stirs up the second main theme of the book: madness. Two key poems, one about the suicide of an aunt, and the other about the apparent breakdown of the poet’s brother, give the central section an emotional intensity tempered by objective allusiveness – the aunt’s state of mind being compared to Camus’ at the point of death. The poem about her brother is preceded by two portraits of him as an adolescent and as a young man which end with moments of touching serenity, even communion.

The capacity to objectify and thus make difficult experience accessible to the reader is reflected most neatly in Doshi’s use of title: ‘On the Burning of an Unfamiliar Aunt,’ ‘The Day After the Death of My Imaginary Child.’ When the poetry is less successful, it is because this process of digesting subjectivity and re-presenting it seems incomplete, as in ‘Bamboo Man,’ where a promising and in every sense suggestive dream image seems never quite to escape from the subconscious: ‘This has gone on long enough, I say/I want my dream of the giant snow leopard back. Remember?’ More successful is the lyrical healing depicted in ‘Turning into Men Again’ in which the men silently seek solace of mothers and lovers until

Inside, in the shadows of pillars,

Fathers and grandfather are stepping down

From picture frames with secrets on their lips,

Calling the lost in from their voyages.

Roger Moulson’s Waiting for the Night-Rowers is one of the most mysterious books I read last year. By this I don’t mean that it is obscure, more that its central concern often seems to be the act of perception itself, an interrogation of the difficulty of truly seeing or expressing anything that gives some of these poems an unusual energy. Objects and phenomena appear as enigmas to be approached, evoked, but not necessarily unravelled. It is, I think, salutary to be reminded that the universe is mysterious rather than simply confusing. Certainly, it’s satisfying to find a poet who seems to have meditated on such matters for some time before finding a very individual mode of expression.

A good example of his method is the poem ‘A Glass of Water,’ which recalls the more successful aspects of the Hugh MacDiarmid poem ‘The Glass of Pure Water.’ Both poets attempt to see the almost invisible, but Moulson conveys the experience with a sort of calm rapture that allows other meanings to accumulate without homily or didacticism:

Amazed to find the thing it most desires

light strikes.

Glass rings around it.

The contents accept their shape

but do not own it

as if shape’s the need to be held.

Water does not concern itself

which one holds

and which is held.

This ability to hunt for essences is evident almost from the outset: ‘Turning Over’ depicts roots growing through clay as ‘the candelabra the green world/holds to the dead,’ an image which turns us over in order to see it, making the solid insubstantial, but without seeming fanciful. Such intensity might lead to a kind of imagistic clotting, and it is true that some pieces, the title poem for instance, need a degree of unpacking – it reads almost like a blend between Peter Redgrove and early W.S.Graham. But there is both tonal and referential variety, so that he is able to build a poem round plastic bags being stuck in trees (‘like good intentions worn so thin the good’s/a ghost of nothing’), or the satisfying absurdities of a bird book (‘There’s a king but no queenfisher/a night but not a dayingale’).

Rhythmically, these are often slow, meditative pieces (though there are a couple of fine sonnets that show quicker iambs), which means that the few longer poems need something extra to drive them on – the Beethoven poem, ‘To the Difficult Resolution,’ accomplishes this with much crashing and other intrusive effects on the part of its main character, but the long final poem, ‘Down Addington Steps’, although its capturing of late childhood/early adolescence is entirely convincing, seems to lack sufficient flow.

This book is most effective when it simply reflects back the strangeness of our lives, as in ‘Rowing Grandma’, where a game in which grandchildren treat their grandmother as a boat inadvertently reveals both her isolation and eventually her frailty. Humour and passion (or lust) combine particularly successfully in poems like ‘Rex Rendezvous’ where dance partners are more the focus than the dancing lessons: ‘Many had bosoms. A few had breasts/like sweets in twists of coloured paper/…we had to leave the floor bent double.’  At such moments we are both estranged from ourselves, and at our most human. In ‘Stepping Stones’ Moulson brings his recurrent water imagery and the trope of desire together in a poem about fording a river which encapsulates the way poetry can renew our engagement with our senses, and how a surprising new voice renews our engagement with poetry itself:

She was cold to touch

as if she’d danced so long her heat had cooled

to some extreme of need.

I was going to say she was all over me

but she would have been the same with anyone.

I heard her beating,

my ear to her dark breast.

I thought she said, Step carefully

but not too carefully.

Lean into me waist to waist.

(First published in Poetry London, Spring 07)

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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