No 34 - Spring 2006
Stranded in Sub-Atomica by Tim Turnbull (Donut Press £10), Chasing the Hoopoe by John Weston (Peterloo £7.95) and Gothic Tales by Pat Earnshaw (Gorse Press £4.50)
Stranded in Sub-Atomica takes its name from a 1960s edition of a Marvel ‘Fantastic Four’ comic. The title poem cleverly traces a man’s descent into “paranoia and madness” through the contents of his repossessed flat. Items including multiple bags of rubbish and inventories of enemies’ misdeeds are removed from the home over nine stanzas until the appearance of the comic-strip quartet: “In Sub-Atomica, the princess struggled in the clutches of the arch-fiend / Doctor Doom / and Johnny Storm – the Human Torch – threw himself into the fray against / the villain’s goons, / hurling balls of fire. He must reverse the evil Doctor’s shrinking-ray / or be marooned / forever. Somewhere outside Brighton, dawn’s first light was filtering / into an empty room.” The words “marooned forever” are prescient, linking the man’s fantasy and reality. It is a strong piece in a collection full of potential title contenders, although the one that stands out above all, Not the Whitsun Weddings, would have been a controversial choice. Turnbull’s remake of Larkin’s poem follows a train of stag and hen parties the length of the country in the wake of the Potters Bar rail disaster. The final depiction of the dissolute stags is a brilliant nod to Larkin’s seminal image: “they staggered off, an utter bloody shower”.
References to visual art abound: “the Chapmanbrothers-Hirst-Ofili-Lucas-Emin Axis [will] have a hissy fit” comments the speaker of Revolutionary Art, referring to the “hirsute enthusiasts” who infamously blew up the Buddha statues at Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Brueghel is mentioned in We encounter something exotic but not on VHS where the speaker ridicules a group of naturists then goes on to explain himself, revealing a potent mixture of defiance and self loathing: “In Brueghel paintings we hang hairy arses / out of windows, shit, then (coprophiles all) / inspect the stools for texture and for stink”. It is not clear whether the sanctity of the body is being argued for or the right to laugh at naturists, but the end of the piece is sublime with a neat play on the words “just” and “well”: “We are gristle / and muscle and bone. We just are and, well, / we’ll rot soon enough; but be assured, / clothed or unclothed, ours will inherit the earth.”
Turnbull has a fine ear for dialogue. Getting in Touch with our Feminine Sides contains a glorious exchange:
I brace myself and say:
Here, kid. What’s thu want?
I think I might have got me girlfriend pregnant.
There. I did it.
He changes down a gear, furrows his brow,
sucks once on his rolly and then speaks:
It’s nowt clever, lad. Rats do it every six weeks.
It’s a great response, but it’s Turnbull’s skill and command of form that make this piece so successful throughout. However Circus of the Self is outshone by its comic ending where three preceding stanzas form too obvious a preamble to a closing list of Jerry Springer-esque programme titles: “At my daughter’s wedding I took it up the arse / on the lawn. Momma stole mah man. My brothers / stole mah man. I am married to an horse.”
Many pieces portray a masculine realm: The Golden Boys, reminiscent of Hugo Williams’ Bachelors, examines lost boyhood from the perspective of a disappointed middle age; Shoot satirises the seduction technique of a young ‘buck’; The Stockman’s Calendar: Four Northern Æclogues portrays a pastoral idyll then segues into a shocking contemporary image:
…I lie on my side and watch the Doctor Martens swagger off
and when I move come rushing back.
Hormones and the rising of the sap are all that I can think
provoked this unprovoked attack.
The reader-spectator is unaware at first of what they are looking at. This is extraordinary writing. Throughout Stranded In Sub-Atomica Turnbull uses traditional form to handle contemporary subject matter. The apparent ease of his voice is underpinned by craft and subtlety.
John Weston’s Taking Down the Cards, from his debut collection Chasing the Hoopoe, is a perfect list poem:
And here’s the Reverend Dr Robert Walker again
skating on Duddingston Loch, heading straight for
the 1434 adoration of the kings
by way of bitterns and the RSPB.
Christmas card scenes are deftly juxtaposed with the narrator providing just the right amount of guidance: the careful placing of “again” suggests either the repetition of an old favourite or, more likely, the passing of time marked by the title’s annual ritual. Later in the piece, the greetings cards become playing cards: “Till next year, I play them as they fall”. The poem’s form and theme mesh beautifully. The wistful tone of Taking Down the Cards suffuses the book’s first section which comprises pieces addressed to friends and family: “Do you recall” the speaker reminisces in one poem and “My God, I remember!” in another. A fine ear for dialogue is evident in the haunting To Alaska and Back which tells of a loved one’s breakdown: “’Please bear, please bear…’ you intoned trembling, / and fragmenting before my eyes.” Last Rites reports an altercation with a hospital car parking attendant: “’You can’t leave yours there, you know.’ ‘I do know,’ / I answered ‘but your mother only dies once.’” The final stanza neatly returns to dialogue when the son’s howl of grief prompts a neighbour to enquire “if a cup of tea might help”. Elsewhere this strong piece would have benefited from editing:
Her insistent ‘Goodbye’ at my whispered goodnight
before snatching sleep in an adjacent room
I realised only afterwards had meant what it said,
for with the dawn she sighed deeply, and stopped.
The first line of this is necessary, even the second and third, but the fourth is redundant and reduces the impact of the account that follows of the son removing his mother’s rings. The occasional tendency to overwrite is also evident in Above Normal where, after describing the lengthy wait for a cancer test result, the speaker concludes with an already implied sense of his mortality.
There are three more sections in this diverse collection: ‘Out of Doors’ features sequences on birds and on the Galapagos Islands. In the joyous Scillies in April the Latin name of the hoopoe of the collection’s title is turned into an exuberant exclamation following a rare sighting: “O upopa epops! O song!” Weston uses biological and geological terms, proper names and foreign borrowings throughout Chasing the Hoopoe. A reader is unlikely to understand every word, but as Katrina Porteous writes in her introduction to her long poem The Wund an’ the Wetter which uses the dialect of North Northumberland fishermen: “A poet draws on the expressive dimension of language – its music and rhythms. This aspect communicates at least as much as the literal meaning…it is not necessary to understand every word in order to feel what the poet means”. A reader may enjoy the language for its own sake as Weston evidently does in the second part of ‘A Galapagos Sequence’, Las Encantadas:
Topa Inka, summon your necromancer
who flies through the air – launch the king’s balsas,
find the Islands of Fire, whose tuff and clinker
give no quarter.
In addition to an unusual lexis, Chasing the Hoopoe draws on a wide variety of source material: particularly in the book’s third and fourth sections, which includes reactions to paintings, a Larkin poem and the diaries of the artist Keith Vaughan. The poems stand up without prior knowledge, although the title of Daisy Chain Reaction and the piece itself is enhanced by a knowledge of the artistic treatise to which it responds. The collection closes with ‘Cycle of Cathay’ which includes a sequence of translations of the poems of Mao Tse-tung. Elsewhere there is a fine version of Catullus. For me, the find in the second half of the book was Elizabeth’s Version, a moving account of the life of Elizabeth de St Michel, the wife of Samuel Pepys. John Weston is a rummager: subsequent readings of this impressive collection will yield fresh and delightful findings.
Although I was spoilt by the first two collections, I struggled with Gothic Tales. Pat Earnshaw’s slim collection features an otherworldy cast of maggots, cats and owls. There are twenty-four poems many with portentous titles including Zone of Totality, Darken our Lightness and I’m here, wasn’t I? Red Planet contains some powerful images including “no cloud inhabits the sun’s entry. It leans / out of an orange sky to tie black blocks of shadow / under the scattered rocks.” However, such writing is often obfuscated by pompous narrative interventions and the use of abstractions. Other pieces are derivative: Plath’s influence is obvious in Nirvana: “Snow-sheep / in stained fleeces / look to their white futures” and in Obsidian where “The sea is opening like the widening pupil / of a Cyclops’ eye”. Elsewhere in this poem there is a clunking opening rhyme – “Your mind moves in prosaic grooves” – with “moves” repeated at the end of the stanza. I enjoyed Green Grove where an old man’s mouth is a “hung doorway to a hall / of bare jaws” but, having enjoyed Earnshaw’s work in magazines, I found this selection disappointing.
- 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