No 31 - Spring 2005
Ros Barber’s How Things Are on Thursday (Anvil £7.95), Anne Rouse’s The School of Night (Bloodaxe £7.95) and Mandy Coe’s The Weight of Cows Shoestring Press £7.95)
Ros Barber’s How Things Are on Thursday demonstrates how a poet can benefit from delaying the release of their debut collection, even if it isn’t always a delay caused by design. Barber has been on the poetry scene for some time, publishing widely in magazines and enjoying some success in various competitions.
In 2001 she was selected for Anvil New Poets 3 and was one of the more well-known writers showcased, so if the hiatus between Anvil publishing her then and picking up her debut now may seem puzzling, it is less the case on inspection of the two volumes in question. The poems in the initial anthology are accomplished. but at times use erotic fascination as their subject in a manner which strikes a distinctly false note, with lines straining to be interesting rather than simply interesting in themselves.
One of the first things I did upon picking up my copy of How Things Are on Thursday was to check whether any of these earlier poems featured on the Contents page. They don’t. Indeed, Barber seems to have dumped the sex schtick and paid attention to what was the finest poem in her Anvil New Poets selection (and very much present and correct in her debut), Well. Here, an exciting childhood friend has grown up to be a put-upon wife and mother.
This is the last stanza:
Potato-printed crabs and starfish cover your kitchen,
limpet the fridge. Your elastic daughters are threading
shells of iridescent plastic into necklaces, itching.
their eczema absently. Over the sink, a formal wedding
photograph parades you as you used to be. Leave him,
I want to say, as you flake your scalp and briefly scold
your desiccated children. Be wild, be fatal, be cold,
wash him away, I pray, under the hush of your breathing.
The suburban detail Barber accumulates is still being worked against by the directions the poem then takes, but the rather spurious identification of sexual goings-on as a defining contrast to the calm of suburbia (“The scent of sex / drifting across suburban gardens” as the Anvil-only Eve’s Hobby put it) has been jettisoned for more interesting alternatives. Well still has its flaws - “desiccated” is rather poetic overstatement for describing kids with eczema and undermines the far more genuine raising of tone that immediately follows - but Barber is clearly onto something in terms of her own aesthetic.
A freshly-minted lyric such as the ironically titled Liberation, featuring what appears to be a divorced single mother as the poem‘s protagonist, is a good example of how Barber has refined her poetry:
That was old-fashioned dying. This is new:
the late night bottle of budget red, alone.
Drunken keyboard chats with strangers who
haven’t the foggiest who they’re typing to.
At least she gets to pass out when she wants.
At least she gets to stay in her outside shoes.
There are two sequences which bookend the collection. Lafayette Super Eight is an affecting memoir of the writer’s early childhood in the United States that is all the better for allowing its themes to develop naturally, as opposed to the more mechanical conceits of Barber’s earlier work. The title sequence meanwhile, following the difficulties of a dysfunctional family, is grounded in the domestic experience exhibited elsewhere, but with the capacity to accommodate a more oblique form of lyric as well - such as the disturbing imagery that comprises Why Sleep is Dangerous. Indeed, the disturbing is something Barber does well, particularly in the period narrative I Filled the Bath with Coty L’Aimant where a nanny recounts with disquieting repetitions the scalding of the child in her care. While How Things Are on Thursday does stall in places, holding back on publishing her debut collection seems to have served Ros Barber well.
Anne Rouse’s The School of Night is her third volume and one of 2004’s finest collections - unfairly missing out on the prize nominations that should have come beckoning. The American Rouse is primarily known perhaps as a satirical writer, but The School of Night is a whole different ball game from her debut Sunset Grill or 1997’s Timing. On the evidence of this new collection, Rouse has honed her craft further to produce some lovely focussed lyrics with a wonderful development in her tone. Take the last stanza of Nocturne for example, with the impressive diction of its ending:
The tree in the alley dangles its claws
over the green, and ghostly blooms.
The sky, night-streaked and opaque,
turns outward to the ignorant distances.
There are few female poets who can appropriate the confident handling of grander registers that comes more naturally to some male poets (Kathleen Jamie is one name that immediately springs to mind) but, when she wants to, Anne Rouse is certainly among their number. A telegraph pole that falls in a storm is described, suddenly and unexpectedly, as “Clamped horizontal to the lorry bed, / Ajax borne off on the field of Troy”, the classical allusion both vivid and delivered without any of the fuss less confident writers would need to lever it into their work. Indeed many of Rouse’s subjects are mundane and gifted a moving dignity by her lyric eye, such as the eponymous Cement Mixer or the lost gloves of A Right Pair - “one ingesting the faint filth of shoes, tossed prone on the pavement; / its mate on a railing spike, skewed, saluting all comers”. A key lyric in this vein is Things:
The dumb things, the laggard shoes and keys,
in the aftermath as the hall light
strafes the bedroom floor
through an opening door.
Out of a glutted backpack, these sure things,
witness to the body and its derelictions:
T-shirts snug as bedtime prayer,
socks plotting out their even destinations.
The useful things, so unintelligent
compared to the body’s metropolitans -
the jazzy hormones and glib blood cells -
but faithful, so faithful.
To hand, foreswearing telephoned goodbyes,
meeting the skin unreservedly.
These things. It’s not through them
that negation moves, this chill.
The sureness of Rouse’s touch is a pleasure to read throughout and The School of Night is her most moving volume yet.
The lyrics in Mandy Coe’s The Weight of Cows seem to live or die by their endings, which is not a problem in fine pieces such as Vandals or the opening The Art of Dying, but which does let the collection down in some of her other work. For example, the poem Alien Abduction #3 opens well and is energised by a clever concept, but the ending disappoints:
But seeing the infinity of space
and that fragile curve of earth,
would I submit to awe?
Or would my eyes come to rest
on alien airlocks and stop-cocks,
hands itching to reach out and check.
A nice idea – and the internal rhyme of “alien airlocks and stop-cocks” is good – but the language of the closing line is simply too bald and has no cadence to it. As a reader, you are more likely to reach out and check the poem doesn’t continue on to the next page.
These occasionally flat endings to otherwise accomplished poems are fortunately quite rare, although Coe can also be a little too imprecise when giving her lyrics the closing stamp of a metaphor or simile. The abandoned town of Settlers ends with “Barn doors swung open, banging / like the heels of a sulky child” which would be a good image if barn doors didn’t swing sideways as opposed to a child kicking their heels up and down. If that sounds pedantic, it isn’t. Paying attention to the little details is surely one of the first and foremost joys and responsibilities of writing.
But Coe’s imagination is certainly vivid and this often illuminates The Weight of Cows. In Rites – involving the day a female circumcision takes place, as described by the victim’s little brother – and the startling title poem, Coe proves that moments of inspiration can easily compensate for the odd infelicity of style elsewhere. The ending of Ten Pin marries both elements quite happily:
The heartbeat pause of ball, offered up
as a votive gift, then the step, dip and swing.
Soft shoes whisper as bowlers skip back.
For everyone knows the tumbling darkness
conceals the edge of the world.
Written with genuine verve and a wide scope of subject-matter, The Weight of Cows is one of the best full-length collections published recently by the smaller presses.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The