-Reviewed by Rosie Breese


This bold and beautiful anthology from Test Centre is refreshing in every possible way. For one thing, although the list of poets on the back reads like a roll-call of the achingly cool and arty, this is absolutely not another collection grouped arbitrarily around demographics (‘hot young things of poetry today’, etc).  Rather, this anthology is organised thematically around the question of poem as object – where does a poem begin and end; what can we really define as extratextual? Spanning Europe and the US and incorporating a variety of lives, styles and voices, the writers gathered here are focused on being writers, each with their own take on this theme.

As editor Harry Burke puts it, this anthology investigates ‘the discrete borders of the poem’, and celebrates ‘the ways in which the poems within act as springboards to other lives, languages and politics’. These forays into other worlds range from frank confessional pieces to poems that engage openly with the ‘uncreative’ techniques championed by the likes of Goldsmith and Perloff, and pieces that blur the two. Here, the reflective nature of poetry is brought to the fore, in terms of reflection on the self, the self in context, and reflection of and on the contexts in which we ourselves are placed.

The editor’s own poems appear to be at the more intimate, personal end of the scale: sparse, unpunctuated Tao Lin streams of consciousness, albeit with their own distinct accent and the odd glorious, shining line:

and you
one of those crying whilst you’re dancing girls
and London like a sim card in the rain

Translated by Jacob Steinberg, Luna Miguel’s poems offer an altogether different flavour of confessional. A sequence of prose blocks make oblique reference to a bleakness; a terrifying vulnerability:

I wanted a child and gave birth to a cat. I wanted a cat and got a choked-up cow’s heart. I wanted a heart and the city filled up with Christmas lights the colour of liver.

The life glimpsed here is the freezing tip of an iceberg. The rest hulks below the surface of consciousness, brilliant and frightening.

Gabby Bess brings an altogether different kind of openness – unapologetic interior/exterior explorations in which the borders of the self are brought into sharp focus in the context of the male gaze:

In the summer
I can look sexual
& hungry; the men can tell
that I am after something
My mother warns me of the city
because it is my own fault
Ass sweating through
thin cotton underwear

An aside – where have all the full stops gone? They seem to be vanishing from poems as they vanish from Twitterfeeds. Is this a tacit comment on the borders of the utterance itself Nothing ends It is just replaced Interrupted

To continue: the more consciously ‘assembled’ poems include the surreal rolling-news prose mashup ‘Interlude. Shard (14th March 2012)’ by Timothy Thornton. Here, a cast of characters which will be familiar to any British net-surfing office-dweller (I speak as one of those) reel through a bizarre narrative, a sort of collective dream, splashed with enough bodily fluids for it to pass as an epilogue to Burroughs’ The Soft Machine:

The policeman’s carapace had come cleanly off in two pieces, but […] Johann Hari–slash–Dappy from N-Dubz noticed the first had somehow been replaced, the pink flesh underneath immediately hardening into a tough, blackening shell. […] The dream ended with Curfew helping me mop up two inches of cum and piss from the top deck with a sodden loofah.

There’s no passing by the ‘uncreative’ strand present in this anthology without mentioning Sophie Collins’ heart-stopping centos. Put together through a process involving the Poetry Foundation website’s search function, these short, intense pieces have a vitality and beauty that is all their own, which is as much down to Collins’ unwavering skill as a selector and editor of text as it is to the ‘chance’ gathering of the poems she borrows from.


I remember the neck curls (damp and limp as tendrils),
symbols, and secret names
before I knew there were men
or improvised concoctions with tequila

ridiculous and lovely,
I weigh you now against the good you’ve done

Questions are raised about the position of the subject in all this – who is the ‘I’ here? The reader, the writers, everybody, nobody? The issue of subject positioning is also raised by the appropriation of internet-speak in Bunny Rogers’ work. Abbreviation, lack of punctuation, the assembly and sequencing of figures and ideas from popular culture – all collapse the distance between the reader and the writer, both in terms of the consumer reframing the items they have consumed and in terms of the shared cultural context in which the addresser and addressee operate. The informal language also serves to close this gap:

At the end of the movie little claire danes looks toward
mario batali to cope w dysfunction of family life climax
This resonates much like maggie gyllenhaal in sherry baby
singing to dinner table of dead ppl

The fact that this anthology embraces (without fetishizing) the linguistic possibilities opened up by the internet is implicit in the choice of poets who work online in one way or another, such as Rachael Allen, Crispin Best, Jayinee Basu and Sam Riviere (whose online collection Kim Kardashian’s Marriage is analysed brilliantly by Charles Whalley here). With this element of ‘crowdsourcing’ in poetry, whether referring to shared text, cultural context or linguistic tics, it feels like the voice of the speaker could be anyone’s –  a kind of collective lens through which we might all see, all speak. A two-way screen.  What we have is a shared language of signs, or, as the editor says, ‘a careful and important negotiation with what has gone before; a reworking rather than a rupture’.

This is indeed what’s happening here – a continuous, shifting reworking of selves, of text, of poetry, in relation to the contexts in which we find ourselves.  With this in mind, it would have been interesting to have had more from each poet on the relationship between text and context, i.e. their take on the poem as discrete object (or not). That said, leaving this open to the reader’s conjecture opens up endless possibilities for interaction with the poems themselves.

There is so much more to say. It may well be the sign of a brilliant anthology that so much reaction and debate is possible around the plethora of exciting work presented here. As a reviewer, it’s always great to run out of space because it demonstrates just how much life there is in a book. It’s hard to imagine this anthology ever feeling old. An extremely important collection of work, and a piece of art in itself.

One thought on “I LOVE ROSES WHEN THEY’RE PAST THEIR BEST ed. by Harry Burke

  1. Great review – I am ambiguous about some areas covered here, but, hey, that’s my problem. It is great to see such a Useful publication. And even better to see it covered so well in the review!

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