No 61 - Autumn 2008
Rites of Passage
Kate Bingham introduces three debut collections
Sunday at the Skin Launderette
Me and the Dead
The Sinking Road
A first collection is a kind of initiation ritual. Compare the covers of any published this year and you’ll see. Between the two-fold patronage of publisher’s blurb and advance review, novices grit their unavoidably self-conscious teeth and try to look like poets. The ritual may be full of contradictions and obscurity but there’s no getting round it, no chance to skip ahead to volumes two or three. And would anyone take it if there were? For one book only, new poets have a literary genre all to themselves – one that comes complete with shortlists and prizes for those with most promise. Kathryn Simmonds is up for one of these prizes and, with so much of her work lifting off from the daily grind of apprentice-poet life, she might very well win. Sunday at the Skin Launderette is a model first collection: full of wit and whimsy, intimate conversational formality and conceptual cleverness, not to mention jokes at its own expense.
As by convention debuts must, it begins with a manifesto. ‘The World Won’t Miss You for a While’ is a defence of daydreaming, an invitation to idle – and, by implication, imagine – that loosens itself down the page in a gently macabre direction before coming, with skewed logic, to no kind of an ending at all. The poet’s daydream bubble bursts on the image of a tongue in a box. The reader comes to find Simmonds was right. The world hasn’t missed them – and the poem, which carries the added weight of being an extended metaphor for the processes of reading and writing, hasn’t changed a thing.
There’s a lot of not being missed in these poems. ‘At 8.53 pm my Television Breaks’ mocks our sometimes desperate dependence on the box; ‘Dictation’, ‘Awake in the Far Away’ and ‘Stationery’ are riffs on boredom in the workplace, while ‘Five Solutions’ and ‘What Not to Do with Your Day’ find pathos in the cheerfully chatty tone of self-help literature. Simmonds seems to be of the school that shares Auden’s view that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ and taken together these poems comprise a downbeat celebration of powerlessness (a subject close to the heart of many contemporary unacknowledged legislators).
The master of powerlessness, of course, is Jesus Christ and, in ‘Transfiguration’, Simmonds gives him a makeover: ‘Let’s call you Dave. Let’s get you out of sandals’. The tone is PR smooth and ironically self-knowing, satirical in its evocation of the dependencies of modern life – Boots, Waterstones, DVDs, alcopops and Prêt tuna sandwiches – but full of sympathy too for the spiritually needy, rowed across the Serpentine at sunset in their expensive shoes: ‘balanced, backlit, / stained glass angels on the water’s quivering lip’.
Spiritual need is a big theme for Simmonds. Her villanelle ‘Talking to Yourself’ expands from the ironic conceptual joke at its heart to a state of mind in which prayer is possible, even though ‘there’s no one there’. ‘Almonds’ is the story of two miracles: one prayed for but not delivered, one arising spontaneously in expectation of a smile. And in ‘The Dead are Dead’ the poet confesses her own irrationality in what is perhaps the central question of the book:
are dead, of course, so why is it I leave a taperecorder
running in the dark to wake and play
Simmonds has a talent for finding spiritual nourishment in the least expected places: the skin-launderette of the title, the fantastically unpretentious ‘The Road to Persia’ restaurant, a fridge ‘lit like a tabernacle’. Sometimes, though, the effect is muddying. Why should the romantic reading fantasy, ‘Learning to Spell’, end with a close-up on Miss Ferris’s crucifix? Why does the ‘I’ have to pray at the end of ‘Agoraphobic in Love’? The almost casual inclusion of religious language and imagery here feels artificially clinching.
Elsewhere, in the wonderful ‘Charity Shop’ and ‘Women Dancing’ for instance, Simmonds evokes an atmosphere of emptiness and longing in which hope is found within the world of the poem itself.
They are dancing
to songs from years ago,
songs about refusing to give up...
see that one in red,
flying herself like a flag.
And Auden was wrong: poetry that can do that can make all sorts of things happen.
The move from Kathryn Simmonds’s ‘The Dead are Dead’ to the title poem of Katy Evans-Bush’s Me and the Dead is a move from questions to certainty. It’s not the best poem in the collection, but is characteristic of this writer’s headlong companionable style: full of confident confidences, personal but somehow rarely intimate. Evans-Bush is someone I’d like to go walking with, a natural raconteur who sweeps you up in the details of her life, never stopping to ask am I boring you? Energetic, wide-ranging and relentlessly thoughtful, her poems don’t look back over their shoulder to check you’re still there.
‘The Bog of Despair’ is a case in point, a forty line diary-entry style account of an afternoon in Hampstead – lunch, window-shopping, a walk on the Heath – that moves out of the slightness of its trivial observations, ‘The Heath was lovely that day’, into an open-armed celebration of human complexity:
every bench we came to
was engraved in memory of someone
loved and regretted...
We read them, and flinched, and laughed.
Most of the poems in the collection take a similar journey. A successful Evans-Bush poem has the momentum of a multi-plot novel; events become images become thoughts become thoughts about events and so on until the poem has outgrown its biographical particularity. ‘The Metropolitan Opera’, ‘Here’, ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’, ‘Bonfire Nights’, and ‘This is Happening’ all work this way. In ‘The Giraffe that Wasn’t There (and the Giraffe that Was)’, the poet is told about a childhood April Fool that ‘cast a long shadow/ on tricks everywhere’– so long that only the poet gets to see the ‘real’ giraffe (itself a trick of the light) at the end: ‘Unnoticed in its green world, / it watches you drive away till you’ve rounded the bend’.
The ease with which Evans-Bush moves from thing to thought and back again gives many of her poems a fluid, dream-like quality in which fantasies become reality (‘To My Next Lover’) and dreamers wake to dream again (‘Life: a Dream’). There are so many layers of mirror- and dream-work in ‘Two Egotists in a Hotel’ that you have to conclude she intends us to not understand. With no literal sense of what’s going on, the reader is forced to navigate by tone and touch:
[The mirror] has no surface, only a depth
which is in fact behind it, and its internal space is outside it, oh
An effect is being generated here, and we know it. What rescues the poem, just, from its playful riskiness are the poet’s own self-mocking asides and the interruptions of the outside world, the ‘unseen ripping noise / of car wheels on wet tarmac’. The title’s promises are lost in pseudo-philosophical verbiage. All that’s left are our jokes and our senses, and that’s the point.
There are a lot of jokes in this collection; a sense of the poet having fun charms away any irritation her readers might superficially feel presented with so many pages of biography. When Evans-Bush sets out on more formally ambitious projects, however, her wit and intellectual playfulness seem to lose their edge. There is much to admire in ‘Dissection of a Split Second’, but not the gag at the end. Those didja’s and ’e’s and ’ad’s in the cockney monologue ‘East Ten after Catullus X’ feel somehow patronizing and misjudged. And ‘The Only Reader’, in manifesto position as the collection’s first poem, is too self-consciously a mission statement to offer more than a glimpse of the humour, energy and human warmth that are to come.
Evans-Bush’s and Simmonds’s collections, though very different, have London in common. Both poets mention Tate Modern and going to the dogs at Walthamstow. Buses and mobile phones, pub and nightclub brawls, city rain and street crime feature in each book. The Sinking Road by Paul Batchelor contains none of this. Reviewing his pamphlet To Photograph a Snow Crystal in this magazine in 2007, I said it had a distinctly northern feel – northern weather, northern dialects and place names, a terse and tender northern mentality. From The Sinking Road it’s clear that Batchelor is still very much a poet who feels in the cold.
Eight of the poems from the pamphlet are here, including the beautiful self-pitying sequence ‘Tristia’, versions of Ovid’s poems from exile, and Batchelor’s icily amusing ‘The Permafrost: an A–Z’, a prose poem written, according to the notes, ‘while under the influence of the Magazine album Secondhand Daylight’.
There are a lot of footnotes in this book. Batchelor judges nearly half of his poems in need of explanation or dedication, and trains the reader to flick to the back for answers with his very first poem, a riddle, ‘According to Culpeper’. This may risk lazy reading. It might offend the more knowledgeable, or even lead to disappointment. (I had to look up ‘The Anatomy Lesson’ elsewhere for myself.) Either way, you can’t escape the feeling that Batchelor is impressively at ease with the literature of many cultures. The back cover blurb says so too.
If there is just a wisp of pretentiousness about this, the poems themselves keep their feet on the ground. Though not always formal, there is a consistency of control behind the apparent simplicity of their language. Nowhere is this sense of discipline stronger than in the collection’s final section ‘Suibne Changed’, a sequence of versions of the ninth-century Irish poem-myth of King Sweeney, changed into a bird for insulting the future St Ronan. In spite of the footnotes and helpful titles, the shape of the original myth is rather vague, but ‘Suibne in the Trees’ is a beautifully pared down portrait of the human mind in madness. The final poem in the series ends with Suibne defiant:
May God forgive me.
I was & am ever
for endless flight.
With Blodeuwedd, Pygmalion’s statue and, in ‘Butterwell’, a vampire who slowly transforms back into the poet’s father, shape-shifting is a recurring theme in the collection. Even the poet, in the love story sequence ‘The Anatomy Lesson’, gets transformed – into Aris Kindt, the hanged thief whose corpse Rembrandt painted being dissected by Dr Tulp. It’s not just bodies that change. In a collection as full of versions, monologues and reported speech as this, Batchelor himself shifts voice and perspective so many times you might begin to wonder who the real poet is.
Simmonds and Evans-Bush each have a version of the family photograph poem, in which the poet finds him or herself in the bodies and faces in the picture. ‘To Photograph a Kingfisher’ is Batchelor’s take on the genre, but the closest we get to him is ‘a lock of red hair’. ‘Butterwell’ sets off as a routine ‘going to pick dad up from work’ childhood recollection but quickly mutates into a festival of horror:
who plants a kiss on mam’s cheek & leaves a bruise.
And my brother & I nodding our pumpkin heads
and grinning our pumpkin grins.
In ‘Tree Climbing’, at last, we find him – and the heart of this shifting, restless collection – ‘head over heels’, insisting on a change of view (‘from that new perspective see/ how the world hangs’) and refusing to ‘come down when they call’.
Kate Bingham’s collection Quicksand Beach (Seren Books) was shortlisted for the 2006 Forward Prize.
- 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