A The Poetry Review review

So complete is the lacuna created by the pandemic that, when it comes to the microcosm of poetry, entire books were swallowed up by it like Keaton’s famous shot in The General of the titular train steaming off the blown-up bridge. ‘Are you sure you want to use a, uh, real train, Mr Keaton?’ ‘Sure, it’ll look real-er that way.’

(This is my ever-so subtle way of saying, ‘Dear Reader, my book was that wreck – though I associate it more with the Tay Bridge Disaster, but am trying to keep it light.’)

Even less important, except to folk missing out on the small bump of publicity thus provided, is me forgetting to share, as was once my wont, a review a few months after it has come out. In this case it’s from The Poetry Review all the way back in the winter of 2019, so I should’ve posted it after the Spring issue, ie around March/April 2020…

There’s something joyous in staring back in this way through the difficult atmospheric conditions of events, and the especially small stour of contemporaneity. Look, directly under the still-descending train – isn’t that the Angel of History, trying to row a boat while facing the wrong way round? Is that river even tidal?

But all the awards have already been awarded, new stars are being selected for the night sky quarterly – in some cases, subsequent books have appeared by these very authors – yet here they are, these three books, just as fascinating, just as re-readable…

*

Miriam Gamble, What Planet, Bloodaxe, £9.95 ISBN 9781780734840; Kei Miller, in nearby bushes, Carcanet, £9.99 ISBN 9781784108458; Helen Tookey, City of Departures, Carcanet, £9.99 ISBN 9781784107598

These three collections concern themselves in their contrasting, yet equally innovative, ways with the tensions between our imaginative apprehension of place and the often-resistant realities of places themselves. 

In Kei Miller’s case, perceptions of Jamaica play out wittily through dialect and toponym, and are set against violent circumstances, explored with a profound awareness of their cultural and historic causes. 

For Helen Tookey, place becomes a series of intense encounters with the territories of European artists, in which their settings or personalities – and the poet’s – mingle or erode. 

Miriam Gamble’s poetry contrasts themes of home and visitation with an unsettling control of tone and imagery, locating meaning in sudden symbolic gestures of freedom, or perspectival shifts.

– One such occurs in the last line of ‘Kitten’, where uncertain demarcations of memory (“In what you remember as the dark but/can’t have been given it was summer”) contrast with a glimpse of the speaker as if seen by the kitten in its carry box: “Your face against the grid, blunt as a shark”.

Inanimate objects are granted their own near-autonomy, sometimes putting the characters in these poems in their place. In “Girl with Book and Rubber Band”, the girl has attached a book “to a string of rubber bands” and treats it like a yoyo, “sending out and reeling [it] in … on a rubber leash” causing traffic to come to a standstill and her witnesses to decide that, “we like the cut of her jib more than anything”.

Self-reflexiveness creeps in as the girl and her friend achieve a joyous liberation, “Their shoes…nowhere to be seen.” – This could be read as referring to this book, in which several poems are produced in “collaborative conversation” with another poet, focussing on the 2014 Scottish ‘IndyRef’.

Such elasticity extends to the syntactic flow of these poems, as in the anaphoric incantation of ‘In the annum’, which settles itself in a time ‘before’: “In the annum of the water bomb…of the girl’s shoe with/a key in the heel…In the annum that preceded/American Beauty…”

However, these apparent innocences are set against a sense of impending threat summed up in the first poem’s intimate dread of “a provisional touching your father’s hair” (‘The Landing Window Is Unspeakable’), and embodied in the later elegies for the poet’s mother.

The mating dance of the bird of paradise or Parotia seems to embody Gamble’s sense of the unchancy nature of liberty as something both compulsive and absurd: “Say/that the brown bird looking on gives audience/only in the sense that Commodus gives audience”.

The echo of ‘parody’ here points equally to parable or satire: no sooner is the bird seen as a “defrocked cleric” than its mate is being directed as though in a strange farce: “Under the light of a supermoon/let the watcher make haste to the village hall” (Parotia Displaying in a Forest Clearing’).

These elements come together in the sestina, ‘Betty Staff’s’, in which a grandmother presides over a dancehall despite impending social changes and the spectre of domestic abuse:

more than once he will knock her to the floor, and free of breath.

But to the jewel-clad notion of the post-war 1950s,

Betty will play the mother octopus – Lengthen your neck. Die nacht ist wunderbar –

Kei Miller’s poetry is constantly locating itself while dislocating the reader’s sense of a stable ground from which to consider it. Its setting, Jamaica, is sure enough, but as the cartographer of his previous collection found, Jamaica is itself a place of ‘immappancy’ in which our sense of place is reconsidered and renewed.

That critique continues here – ‘here’ being both island and page – in the transitions of what he calls the understory, where epical matters such as arms and the language in which we speak of them shift meanings:

Here that cannot be held

by the small arms of language.

Here that cannot be held

By the small arms of English.

Here that cannot be held by the English.

(‘Here Where Blossoms the Night’)

The very flora and fauna – those perpetually ‘nearby’ bushes, an escaped herd of reindeer, “without snow”(‘Here Where Run the Wild Deer’) – and an underlying geological instability, all contribute to this perpetual revision of how we believe ourselves to be somewhere, glimpsing through this ‘the quiet that is not quiet/this peace that is not peace’ (‘Hush’).

In the central section, ‘Sometimes I Consider the Names of Places’, the etymologies of naming and the strategies of recycling names create doubled places and erase existing ones, “as if this world was not enough”.

This imposition of naming pushes Miller’s attention towards the unnamed in ‘So What Will We Call the Thing Between Places’:

Like hiking up a mountain – that thing between one village and the next, between the long sit downs, the stretch between the stretch? What do you call it – that interruption of miles that might smell of Eucalyptus, that limbo of land…

Desire, transgressions, and imaginative possibilities all cluster in such ambivalent zones which, in the book’s titular final section, contain murder. Here page and the body of the murdered woman seem to double each other, as newspaper accounts are repeatedly sifted for implicit text, picked out in bold, while an extraordinary posthumous narrative depicts the murder victim:

Already the worms are rising, pulling towards you, towards the thing you once considered you: the body. You had a heart; it stopped. Then things began to happen. (III)

This “useless energy of ghosts” ((XI.I) is redirected with great tenderness into an vision of the tension between our deep need for security and the violent insecurity of our needs, and how this plays out across gender, history, and race. The book ends with the reiteration of a prayer: “Wake up in another book. On a kinder page.”(XIV)

Helen Tookey’s book similarly presents itself as being written into a landscape, often European, sometimes Northern, and this landscape too is edited by memory and imagination. Spaces can not only change, but be erased:

When we reached the sea-front I was at a loss. The front as I had known it – the busy road with its hotels and coloured lights, the children’s boating lake with its due and yellow paddle-boats – was no longer there.

(’Front’)

Rational explanations are off-set by hints of the unheimlich: ‘But it hasn’t been like that for a very long time, they said. Not since before’. Wrecks go missing, time pops itself out of joint, the scale of things seems wrong, as in one of several poems about the painter Leonora Carrington:

You were the smallest, but now you’ve grown bigger

so you pick them up between thumb and forefinger

– mother, father, brother, brother –

and fix them all in the painting, whistling

Hotels, seemingly empty; civic spaces where rhododendrons conspire with the signage; landscapes with artists fading into them: the book combines poems and prose poems in a compelling zone of stark atmospheres and richly observed interiors, “As though the ordinary business of being a hotel were the discourse, which has suddenly been abandoned, the notional hotel turning instead to address us.” (‘Hotel Apostrophe’)

These spaces become the set for found voices – the letters of Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann in ‘What Can We Still Do’ echoing the voice of Vivienne Eliot in The Waste Land. In the remarkable essayistic final section, ‘Skizzen/Sketches’, the roles of the artists and writers is considered not, as might be imagined, in terms of their cultural authority, but rather as genii locorum.

Anita Rees for instance is described as merging with the island in North Frisia where she commits suicide: “She abstracted herself, eroded herself, erased herself, walked further and further into the island until she didn’t come out.”

Paradoxically, these erasures become types of transfiguration, ecstasies which affirm our at-homeness even as we depart. This is enacted in poem after poem – the girl “who chooses not to speak” but to make origami birds, the absent Louise imagined “pulling a sled across miles of snow, skirting the pinewoods”. Finally, in ‘Quend-Plage-les-Pins’, place is stripped of every human attribute, “the pines/can stay, and the dunes, with their strange/tenacious grass…” leaving only our ability to imagine it: “It wouldn’t need/a name. It wouldn’t need us.”

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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