‘Natural Histories’ by Emily Hasler

-Reviewed by Charles Whalley

Emily Hasler’s Natural Histories is ‘No. 9’ in the rather special Salt Modern Voices pamphlet series. (You can read the first five poems, including ‘Lubbock’s Box’ and ‘Maldives’, here.) Whilst the subject matter of much of the pamphlet is familiar ground – poets like birds – which, I confess, made the ‘Contents’ page disheartening on first approach, the eighteen tightly formed poems within show the work of a subtle and talented writer, and are striking above all for their art. Hasler’s technical abilities, in the simple process of putting together a poem, are beyond many of her peers.

Natural Histories is full of memorable lines and phrases. For example, from ‘Familiar Things’, when talking of a road in the rain: “The tarmac looks like wet paint on a child’s picture.” Or from ‘The Safe Harbour’, when Bonnie Prince Charlie is awoken: “For a moment he is forgotten / and then he finds his feet, where he had / neglected to take them off, in his haste.” Besides their sound and imagery, much of this memorable quality comes from Hasler’s unerring and  judicious word choice, such as in ‘Belle Isle’, when flying finches are described as “flippant between sky and foliage”. In being applied to the darting flight of small birds, ‘flippant’ is pushed towards its original, obsolete sense of ‘nimble’ – the OED appropriately gives its first usage as “It is a bird of the flippantst wing” – which suggests the almost onomatopoeic joy of ‘flip’, whilst retaining its modern colouring. The phrase “miscellaneous cells” from ‘The Safe Harbour’, which describes the detritus in a well-used bed, is another example of cunning word choice, as to see “cell” buried inside “miscellaneous” is to become aware of the letters to be shed around it. The more one reads these poems, the more of these clever little touches one finds.

Hasler is also sufficiently attuned to the subtlety of sentence structure to exploit it to say more than one thing at once. In ‘Lubbock’s Box’, for instance, the speaker says of the “bird specimens”: “There’s / not enough space for them all, / in a cabinet, in Kent.” Adding “in Kent” to the end of the sentence opens up the meaning, as it gives two potential readings: (1) ‘There’s not enough space for them all in a cabinet which happens to be in Kent’; (2) ‘There’s not enough space for them all in a cabinet, and there’s not even enough space for them all in Kent’. The first reading is to see the two clauses in series, as the second is to see them in parallel. The ambiguity causes the meaning to sit somewhere between these two extremes, and condenses a lot of ideas. This sort of artful efficiency finds its peak in what, for me, is the best poem of the pamphlet, ‘Maldives’:

‘It was there you first had Bacardi,

and now it takes you back.

That first sip is the sun on your face.

The last is your foot in the road; unsteady.

 

The rains brought the toads.

They must have always been there,

but now they made your path

a creaking, slippery bone-mash.

 

Big Kev hated that, his weight being

an inglorious, crunching death to toads.

One day he painted each amphibian

white, so they showed in the dark.

 

A kindness. Unable to bear, like the little

glinting bodies, the knowledge drawn from

the sole of the shoe, foot, and its

connected parts’ cumulative pressure.

 

The lacquer, or something in it, killed them.

They littered the street like crumpled tissues.

No crunch. As though their clockwork

had wound down, they stayed stopped.’

 

It is not enough for a poem to display scattered cleverness, as some of the weaker poems of Natural Histories rely on. ‘Maldives’ is threaded together as part of a single structure, with the climax in the fourth stanza. The simplicity of the poem lures the reader into the ambiguities of these four lines, unexpectedly opening up various interpretations (and giving a glimpse of submerged mass). Is it the painting of the frogs that is a “kindness”? Is it the kindness that is “[u]nable to bear”? Who is unable to bear this kindness? Is it the speaker, meaning that it is irresistibly affecting, because the act is both unexpectedly tender and child-like for someone called “Big Kev”, but also strangely tragic, as it involves the death of all the frogs? The next clause, “like the little / glinting bodies”, suggests the surreal and vulnerable sight of the white frogs. Is the kindness unable to bear for the frogs, because the paint kills them? “Unable to bear” also suggests being crushed, as the stanza works the phrases’ literal or metaphorical ambivalence, so is the “kindness” referring to frogs being trod on, or at least, since painting also results in the frogs’ death, is the painting being equated with being trod on? What is “the knowledge drawn from / the sole of the shoe”? Is that what is unable to bear, and for whom? When one treads on something that one very strongly doesn’t want to crush, one tries quickly and awkwardly to take the weight onto the other foot, and so, like the “unsteady” drinker, the leg which held the “connected parts’ cumulative pressure” is suddenly unable to bear one’s body (like staggering after treading on an upturned plug); is the knowledge (if it is knowledge of having trodden on a frog), then, literally unable to bear for the speaker? and so the ambiguities in this stanza continue, involving all of the poem’s threads to form its emotional nexus.

Hopefully (although it has possibly been rather dull for some readers for me to get here) it should be clear that Hasler is a remarkably skilful and incisive poet, able to produce vibrant and powerful poems out of deceptively simple parts, which is an achievement only made possible by her attention to subtle, finely-crafted detail. It is an impressive debut pamphlet and an introduction to a very gifted poet.

Emily Hasler has been featured on Michelle McGrane’s Peony Moon. There are five poems by Emily, including ‘The Paragliders’ from natural histories, on the Days of Roses blog. The poem ‘Wet Season’ for which she came second in the Edwin Morgan Poetry Competition in 2009 can be read here. & here, finally, is a video of her reading two poems about herbs.

Unthology #2

-Reviewed by Elinor Walpole-

Unthank Books’ second Unthology opens with the note from the editors: ‘We are sure that all of these stories deliver on the surprise factor, engender in us real thought, and enable us to look at the world with different eyes and our balance readjusted’. The collection is formed from a broad sweep of styles, subjects, and lengths with the only unifying motif being, apparently, ‘surprise’.

It is surprising however that Unthology 2’s first short story, ‘Stuck’ by Sarah Evans, seems so normal: a tale about a man who becomes disengaged from the reality of his impending nuptials while at a stag do in Prague. Psychological distance from his bride-to-be and what she means to him (as well as physical distance, the title ‘Stuck’ referring to his being trapped in a foreign country, among other things) is expressed through our narrator’s self-consciousness, an awkwardness that allows us to sympathise and even find reasonable his growing resentment of his fiancée. The story is easily accessible in a melancholy way, casting his marriage as a product of his stumbling through life from one happenstance to another rather than the romanticised result of fate. And if you follow my logic about stumbling there’s a bit of an ironic twist (ahem) at the end…

Unthank Books' Unthology #2, reviewed for Sabotage by Elinor Walpole

From being firmly reminded of the dependably uncertain nature of relationships we are transposed to ‘Differences in Lifts’ by Lander Hawes, a punchy follow-up that investigates what might happen if human nature’s inclination toward self-preservation should be warped into the institutionalised refusal to take responsibility for anyone else, and what happens when someone rebels against the code. Hawes’s vision is a humorous read with the disturbing edge that it’s fairly credible that some of his imagined societal regulators could easily be the next logical step for some of the systems already in place. Take for example an incident our narrator witnesses between a gang of youths and the police ‘it was clear that they’d strayed into a higher credit zone than they could afford, or that they’d stayed too long in a luxury credit zone and their accounts had depleted to zero’. In her ‘127 Permutations’, Stephanie Reid deals with the complexities of relationships by strategically disrupting the harmony of a shared household, occupied by characters A – G, whose acts remain nameless as Reid cleverly strips out character detail to build a skeleton tale peppered with wry insights.

The stand-out story for me in this collection however is ‘The Swan King’ by Ashley Stokes, a longer contribution than most in this book and one that gently turns, delicately playing with assumptions about the narrator and the story that unfolds, capturing a period of time where our protagonist is ‘Living through an interlude, an anomaly’ to throw him into (albeit) hazy relief against the background events. I confess I had to read this story twice to really feel I had a grasp on it, the first time to take pleasure in the mystery, and on reading it again to appreciate the subtle way the reader is challenged to accept or dismiss stereotypes in order to get to the heart of the tale. This theme of people not being quite what they seem is picked up again with a less sinister overtone in ‘Nine Hundred and Ninety Something’: ostensibly a bawdy traveller’s anecdote about a brush with a band of gypsies or ‘Romanies’ as the narrator calls them, loathe to offend the reader, conjuring up a story replete with almost David Foster Wallace-like asides and snappy cultural observances and reflections.

Many of the stories share the theme of alienation in some form or other, and seem set in places where human beings find it hard to connect and express themselves appropriately. We veer from dealing with addiction and alcoholism with a comic touch in ‘Gottle o’ Geer’ where the protagonist reveals quite frankly about his drinking ‘I do it because it makes me who I’m meant to be’ to an insight into the minds of the bereaved in ‘Hang Up’ by Shanta Everington, where a lonely woman who visualises herself as a child unwittingly converses with a bereaved father working as a telephone counsellor. ‘Hang Up’ follows a conversation that is unravelling through the counsellor’s distraction and inability to deal with his own issues, and we are left with the uncomfortable thought that the results of his ineptitude could be terrible given the context. ‘Gottle o’ Geer’ is more brutally in your face, creating a caricatured cast of misfits who’ve been flung together haphazardly to rehabilitate while our protagonist decides to make his own use of the ‘therapy’. ‘The Poets of Radial City’ by Paul A Green again deals with appropriate expression – but this time for the identity of a City that proudly declares itself to have an ‘ongoing pulse of literary invention’ while it investigates its own artists on suspicion of verse as a tool for radical sedition. It also presents one of the most interesting uses of the short story form in this collection, breaking the story into chunks of action that run parallel to the Bureau’s close analysis of poems for their potentially dangerous content.

Unthology 2 does, I believe, what it has set out to do; there are such a variety of short stories in the mix that perhaps may not surprise incredibly in all instances but will amuse, disturb and give pause for thought. Not all of the 13 stories on offer are equal in quality, with those that go more down the meanderingly descriptive path or those with a self-consciously abrupt style leaving me a little cold. However the majority made a more substantial use of the form to challenge snap judgements and play with preconceived ideas. With such a variety of styles, voices and visions of what it is to be human, I believe that this makes up a very decent and edgy selection of ‘resonant tales for anxious times’.

‘Starry Rhymes: 85 Years of Allen Ginsberg’ (edited by Claire Askew and Stephen Welsh)

-Reviewed by Chris Emslie

Best to begin honestly: I came very late to the Allen Ginsberg party. On my first look-through of Starry Rhymes, a collection of responses and reactions to his intimidating body of work, my exposure to Ginsberg was limited to the compulsory rushed reading ofHowl in the first year of my undergrad. Arming myself with a Selected Poems, I set myself to write a review I felt horrendously underqualified for.

Editor Claire Askew is careful to point out in her introduction that “not one of the pieces here needs to be read in tandem with the poem that inspired it […] to make sense”. This I will not dispute: the thirty-three poems in the Starry Rhymes chapbook rest secure as coherent pieces, indebted to but not dependent on their spur-poems. However, it is certainly easier to grapple with this collection if we keep the man himself fresh in the mind. What Ginsberg conjures is a fevered rush of enthusiasm – most strongly evinced by the breakneck holler of his most famous piece, the aforementioned Howl. There is a dirty-fingered energy to Ginsberg’s work that any replying poem must acknowledge, if not attempt itself.

It is interesting, then, to see how the Starry Rhymes poets answer back to Ginsberg’s famed exclamation. In the opening poem, Marion McCready takes a magnifying glass to Ginsberg’s early ‘The Bricklayer’s Lunch Hour’, distilling his narrative to a few closely-observed moments. The psychic space of the poem is beautifully handled as McCready addresses the “cellar nature” of a brick wall “tempting [a] kitten” and the unexpected softness of the titular bricklayer: “He strokes the kitten / the way he strokes his chin”. This poem is in essence a slowing-down of Ginsberg, the effect of which is a more surprising opening than the most raucous yelp of “starving hysterical naked[ness]”. The clarity which gives McCready’s poem its distinction stumbles a little over the final image (“an unlikely new-found womb”), but the strength of others (the bricklayer “voiding the cradle of bones” in his lap) keeps the piece afloat.

While this chapbook is intended as an homage to Ginsberg – a celebration of “the 85th anniversary of the great man’s birth” – its strongest poems are those which recall their starting points from a distance. Clever relocation aside, Kevin MacNeil’s ‘Allen Ginsberg! I’m with you in Scotland’ falls a little flat, not because of its borrowed refrain but because it tries too hard for synthesis. MacNeil’s attempt to reappropriate the “Rockland” of ‘Howl Part III’ seems to grow from a desire to critique “Scotland / where the madness is banal and institutionalised”. Mirroring Ginsberg’s structure allows MacNeil to adapt the poet’s relationship with America into a reiteration of the old Scotland-England dialectic:

“I’m with you in Scotland

where we hug and tongue and caress England

under the bedsheets the England that

snores all night and won’t let us sleep”

Here MacNeil uses Howl as a template for what Frances Leviston has called the “spiky insularity” of Scots writing, and the poem ultimately comes off as more agenda than tribute.

This is offset, however, by the playfulness we find elsewhere in Starry Rhymes. Ryan Van Winkle is wonderfully self-deprecating in his response to ‘America’, asking himself “Ryan, // Why are your poems not bombs? // In your poems men get nowhere in cars, speak like graduates.” Francis Wasser’s ‘Planet Earth, I’ve Taken This Very Literally’ adheres to Ginsberg’s structure but applies a wicked sense of humour that relieves any influence anxiety. Wasser addresses the planet like it’s a personal oracle, or a teacher who’s grown used to a pupil’s impertinence:

“Planet Earth please make popular culture unpopular.

Planet Earth which god made men?

He’ll never do it again.

Planet Earth what is meta for?

Planet Earth what is metaphor?

Planet Earth we could learn a lot from that.”

This poem stands out because it has no apparent ultimatum. It responds to its inspiration without taking itself (or indeed Allen Ginsberg) too seriously. Similarly, Suzannah Evans replies to Ginsberg’s ‘Personals Ad’ with a light-hearted charm which her poem affords to pets and inanimate objects: “Me: The Yorkshire terrier at number 15. / Take me away from this place. / Throw me a frisbee.” Karen Head, meanwhile, addresses Ginsberg himself with obvious affection, arguably the entire point of the project:

“and, ultimately, I’ll read some line

you wrote years before my birth

and I will feel the reproach

meant for those you knew

would be inclined to listen.

Nevertheless, you are always welcome here.

Try not to step on the cats.”

Starry Rhymes is a loving testament to the work of an undeniably important poet. This shows in the care with which the chapbook has been conceived and collated. Its most powerful moments do not, however, rest in the flattery of imitation. I have met several young writers and readers for whom the Beats – and  consequently, Ginsberg – are the beginning and end of great American literature. Fortunately this does not seem to be the overwhelming ethos of this collection. Co-editor Stephen Welsh contributes a cut-up facsimile that is a compelling retrospective on Ginsberg and his contemporaries, if a little inelegant in this context. For the context is one of mixed and palpable talent. Undaunted by the not-small task of responding to a giant of modern American poetry, this assembly of thirty-three voices reflects (or possibly refracts) Ginsberg at his most feverish, human and heartbreaking. It is Michael Conley who best summarises how the poet himself might reply to a birthday gift like this: “I am grateful / you have kept me alive. / I am. Listen to me.

‘Anatomically Incorrect Sketches of Marine Animals’ by Sarah Dawson

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

Since this is a review of a chapbook designed for the Kindle, in the interests of full disclosure I should mention that I have never owned one. Nor do I plan to, no matter how shiny the various companies make their e-readers. (To be fair, I do read on my iPhone, but mainly stuff on McSweeney’s Small Chair app that has been specially formatted for it.) I probably own enough books to start my own library lending service, and though my bookshelves at home and at university are groaning under the weight, I would not have it any other way. This is less a case of my hating the digital revolution, and more a case of my remaining largely indifferent to this aspect of it.

 

Frankly, the experience of reading Sarah Dawson’s chapbook, Anatomically Incorrect Sketches of Marine Animals, has not changed my mind about e-books. This, however, has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the poetry or its presentation, both of which are excellent. On her blog Poetry After Ink, Dawson states that her goal was to self-publish a group of poems she was proud of. As for choosing the Kindle format? In her own words, ‘I kept reading that formatting poetry for Kindle was close to impossible, and I wanted to prove it wasn’t.’ I read the chapbook on both the Kindle for iPhone and for PC apps, and I have to say that whatever Dawson did in terms of formatting (details in this blog entry), it works perfectly, e.g. line breaks are preserved when resizing the text.

 

Turning to the poetry, there will always be those who remain sceptical about the quality of self-published work. This is not the place to rehash the debate, apart from registering my assent to Dawson’s comment that ‘[t]he ideas that digital formats cheapen poetry, and that all self published writers are terrible are self perpetuating’. Far from being terrible, Dawson’s poems are lyrical observations, shot through with imagery that is tactile and visceral. The opening poem, ‘Barceloneta, May 2010’, is short enough to quote in full:

You were mining breaststroke – the universal

sign for swimming. Found the beach, whilst I was

 

watching silken laundry sea that lapped the

pillars. Beneath, fish were sewn from thousands

 

of silk scraps – seams that faced out, unhemmed

loose threads, labels, that you ached to cut

 

they brushed each other; coats they ached to shrug off

 

There is a patterning of sounds in this poem, an ebb and flow to the manner in which they appear, go away, reemerge in new configurations. The image of the ‘silken laundry sea’ introduced in the second couplet regulates the rest of the poem’s sounds. The fish become transformed into ‘silk scraps’, as if they have merged with the sea at an essential level. Yet when the poem performs its own merging by pulling in the ‘m’ sound from the first couplet, a curious moment of linguistic play occurs. Pronouncing a word like ‘unhemmed’ presses the lips together, but the meaning points to something coming undone. Cleverly, ‘seam’ is also linguistically janiform, since it can mean both a junction and a fissure. The tension between these two impulses, to join and to separate, is caught up again by the last line, where ‘brushed’ echoes ‘breaststroke’ in the first, even as the fish are still trapped in ‘coats they ached to shrug off’. It is inconceivable not to acknowledge such patterned economy of language as deserving admiration.

 

Another example of Dawson’s craftsmanship occurs in ‘Lug worms, rag worms’. On her blog, Dawson mentions that this poem began life as a pantoum, which she subsequently edited down. The version that appears in the chapbook has been pared down further, and while no longer recognisable as a pantoum per se, still does something interesting in the way bits of the repeated lines seemingly ‘burrow’ into each other, like ‘worms’ moving through the ‘sand’ of the poem. As the poem comes to a graceful finish, ‘Plucked from / our burrows, now exposed, our frayed threads / antagonize each other’, the compass of its central metaphor expands to connect worms and people in the same predicament, the threat of being ‘exposed’, of being made vulnerable. Where a lesser poet might have worked in a pun on ‘bristle’ and linked it with ‘antagonize’, Dawson’s use of the unrepeated ‘exposed’ stands out as a moment of subtlety.

 

Earlier, I stated my lack of interest in e-books. (At least when it comes to buying my own reading material. I read plenty of digital stuff for reviews!) To reiterate, this has never been a value judgement, but purely a question of personal preference. Perhaps then, the highest compliment I can pay Dawson’s chapbook in closing is to say that had it been published as a physical chapbook, I would have happily bought it, which is what I normally do anyway when I read something I like online that is also sold in hard copy. As it stands though, in the case of Dawson’s chapbook e-reader converts certainly have one up on people like me, and I am glad to admit it.

‘Another Use of Canvas’ by Angus Sinclair

-Reviewed by Rosie Breese

Angus Sinclair is a modern-day Renaissance man. Not content with being a gifted poet and photo-artist, he is also known in certain circles as professional wrestler Johnny Snott. And it’s the world of professional wrestling which is the focus of his first major publication, Another Use of Canvas, the first in Gatehouse’s new pamphlet series.

Wrestling, as Sinclair himself points out, is concerned with telling “physical folk tales” – the audience comes to see the villain vanquished and the hero triumphant. The poems in this collection inhabit the gaps between everyday life and the fantastical world of professional wrestling. Hence, we get glimpses into interim spaces such as the practice ring or the dressing-room where “You slowly become your neon-clash leopard-print costume”.

‘Narcissus’ is a meditation taking place during one of these pauses, namely the wrestler’s ride home, his costume bundled on the back seat: “Narcissus checks the rear-view mirror / where the leather face seems to droop, / to pine.” This poem, exuding the chilling, clarifying air of a night drive, draws together many of the themes that arise throughout the collection. The leather face in the mirror is the reflection he is in love with; without it he is empty; a “mannequin” once more. This unmasking represents the scenes of metamorphosis that come up again and again as the wrestlers switch between identities.

Another thread woven into ‘Narcissus’ and many others is the idea of self-definition – the trying, testing and out-and-out pummelling of the borders between the physical self and other people, ring ropes, the surface of the canvas: “every night in some delicious rumble / in every clatter of every bodyslam / a little life rattles out..” Here, Narcissus is a being whose life is defined by wrestling, his body battered at the edges, its life leaking out “like change”.

Sinclair’s language is characterised throughout this collection by a muscular physicality. This is present in measured, constrained poems such as the carefully wrought pantoum ‘Muscle Memory’, which describes the punishing process of training: “rope burn across your back again and again / faster and faster, hit the corner-buckle”.  Then there is the breathless, live-action intensity of ‘The Saint versus Lord Nelson’, in which the words seem to tumble over one another like the wrestlers themselves: “..The Saint side-steps, little matador working / Nelson’s weight against him, all that power / sent crashing to the corner. The Saint strikes..”

It may be said that these particular lines, which seem in some instances to have been cut brutally early, have lost something in terms of their individual coherence: “..This slight-of-hand artist works / the ring so the referee only sees what Nelson / wants him to see (discreetly strangles The Saint..” but for me, this chaotic sequence seems to be perfectly in keeping with the ringside atmosphere. These are the flashes of action that make little sense on their own, but in sequence are the artistry of the match.

This artistry is particularly evident in the skilfully realised final lines that these poems tumble towards – in this case, a powerful, double-edged summary of the wrestler’s position in the scheme of things: “The glorious un-unionised fighters, without the power to strike”.

The poems are arranged in such a way as to guide the reader through early obsessions (‘Saturday’) to practice sessions, to matches, to the lonely aftermath of a wrestling career (‘Meeting Lord Nelson’). It is this ability to place the reader right in with the sweaty, roaring crowds that is a key strength of Sinclair’s work. Adept at switching identities himself, he is skilled at drawing the reader into the world of the avid wrestling fan retreating from the injustices of the real world into fantasy: “..you got a real hiding. Eyes closed, / the audience in the Winter Gardens / cried out at each crack of the strap.”

Another stand-out poem that places the reader right inside the wrestler’s headspace is the poignant and beautiful ‘Looking Up at the Lights’, in which the wrestler, injured and helpless, sees spectators as “soft peripheral shapes”; “visual murmurs” and compares the wrestling arena to an operating theatre. These in-between spaces, these moments of strange calm, are where this collection truly shines. Like the body of Narcissus transformed into coins, the riches of this strange, exciting world spill out of each pause like treasure.

Another Use of Canvas is available from www.gatehousepress.com and has recently been shortlisted for an East Anglian Book Award. The winners will be announced on November 3rd 2011.