Book review: Focused Brevity

Anna Selby, Field Notes, Hazel Press, £10, ISBN 9781838081607
Ella Duffy, Rootstalk, Hazel Press, £10, ISBN 9781838081621
Matthew Hollis, Leaves, Hazel Press, £10, ISBN 9781838081614
Simone Atangana Bekono, how the first sparks became visible, tr. David Colmer, The Emma Press, £6.50, ISBN 9781912915552
Katherine Lockton, Paper Doll, Flipped Eye, £4, ISBN 9781905233601
Jo Young, Firing Pins, Ink, Sweat & Tears/Café Writers, £7.50, ISBN 9780992725334
Gail McConnell, Fothermather, Ink, Sweat & Tears/Café Writers, £7.50, ISBN 9780992725341
John Glenday, The Firth, Mariscat, £6, ISBN 9781916060968
Dzifa Benson on the unique propositions of eight pamphlets

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Pamphlets are often thought of as nothing more than a new poet’s calling card, yet the focused brevity of a good pamphlet can distil a poet’s concerns so precisely that it can be more deeply affecting than a full-length collection. Consider the award-winning Warsan Shire, whose reputation as an uncommon poet of belonging and displacement has been built on the strength of just three coruscating pamphlets (collaborations with Beyoncé notwithstanding), belying the notion that the full-length collection is king. It’s gratifying to see that many more established as well as emerging poets are beginning to take advantage of the format’s unique proposition, with these eight pamphlets as evidence.

Pamphlets don’t come more covetable and elegant in design than a trio from the freshly minted Hazel Press, specialising in ecological poetry. Anna Selby’s Field Notes reports from the extremes of ecological enquiry with several poems written in waterproof notebooks while studying marine life underwater in the Atlantic Ocean. These poems shimmer and undulate, pulsing with a languorous earthiness that plugs directly into the pamphlet’s epigraph, by Joan Didion: “what it is like to be a woman, the irreconcilable difference of it – that sense of living one’s deepest life underwater, that dark involvement with blood and birth and death”.

These intimate poems of transformation delight with their attention to the nuances of meaning and sound, tracking the persistence of life even in the most inhospitable of places. They brim with sensual imagery that collapses hierarchical boundaries between humankind and the rest of nature. Many of the poems, especially the ones in the section titled ‘Notes from the Water’, made me wonder about the juncture between the scientific rigour of gathering empirical data and the licence that is necessary to tip it into the realm of poetry. It’s not surprising to read that these specific poems were transcribed verbatim. While they have some poetic traction, their list-like form prevents them from shifting into the transcendence that characterises the rest of the book. This is far from the case for the standout poem of the collection, the astonishingly effective ‘What Happens to a Heart’.

If Selby approaches ecological concerns from a place of love, in contrast her label-mate and former Foyle Young Poet of the Year Ella Duffy has said that her poems explore the sinister side of nature. Rootstalk is a spare, phantasmagoric long poem that tracks Epipogium aphyllum, the ghost orchid, what the poet calls a “decade-wintered flower”. This recently discovered rare orchid spends most of its life underground and flowers just once every ten years, briefly surfacing then retreating back into the darkness of the earth. Places where the plant grows are kept secret, adding to its magical allure which, in turn, informs the dreamlike world of the pamphlet.

Voiced by a chorus of five women reimagined from history and mythology – mother and daughter Demeter and Persephone, lovers Mae and Esther, and a young girl, Cora, the pamphlet has a dramatic quality that I can imagine being performed as theatre. This dramatic tilt is a canny device. It enables the different voice registers to quickly and smoothly shimmer in and out of focus, somewhat like an impressionist painting. This fragmentary, otherworldly effect perfectly suits the overarching conceit of the poem in which all the characters search for literal and metaphorical items – patience, water, redemption, mushrooms, a song, the orchid itself – while Demeter is, of course, searching for Persephone in the underworld domain of the orchid. Duffy might be a relatively new poet but she writes with the kind of verve and intelligence that heralds an exciting poetic future.

Seven years in the making, Matthew Hollis’s long poem Leaves explores loss and catharsis in the form of a conversation between a father and daughter during a walk through autumn woods. Loosely based on Eastern ideas of the elements wood, fire, earth, metal and water, it isn’t too fanciful to call this poem a song of seasonal degeneration and rejuvenation on account of its use of subtle musical effects; the poet is highly attuned to the nuance of sound. It isn’t surprising then to learn that Hollis is also a guitarist who is interested in the confluence between poetry and music. The poem’s songlike quality lends it an incantatory rhythm that quietly but insistently interrogates the ecological future of the planet and laments the carelessness with which it is treated. Obviously, the daughter represents future generations here and, appropriately, makes the kind of declarations and asks the stumping questions that children are wont to do of older “worn mind[s]”, which leads the speaker to question his notion of time:

Soon you will tell me you can touch your own shadow,
that you’re angry at the sea because the waves won’t listen;
you’ll wonder why the moon doesn’t bump into the earth,
and say you see gravity falling.
     Daddy, it’s boiling dark out there. I will
     always be here for you if you don’t need me.

The grief embedded in that last couplet is a theme worn lightly throughout, even as the overarching tone tends towards hope. This is the kind of poem that makes a reader wish Hollis could be a little more prolific.

Poet and novelist Simone Atangana Bekono’s award-winning debut pamphlet, how the first sparks became visible, translated here by David Colmer, was first published in the Netherlands as hoe de eerste vonken zichtbaar waren. It largely eschews punctuation, which lends Bekono’s epistolary exploration of race, gender and sexuality a dislocating, confessional, stream-of-consciousness that recalls Bhanu Kapil’s T.S. Eliot Prize-winning How To Wash a Heart. It suits these very direct poems that trouble the intersection between corporeality and identity and are somewhat reminiscent of the aforementioned Warsan Shire’s poetic diction. This notion of intersectionality is never more problematic than in the poet’s acute awareness of having a black female body while living in a country like the Netherlands in which the speaker of the poems declares “I am the white Western male’s thought experiment”. It’s difficult to assert an identity when systemic oppression in society erases your existence to the near invisibility of a silhouette:

I was born in a forest

I was born and someone trained a light on me
on the birthing cloth behind me, my silhouette appeared

My silhouette opened her mouth and said
‘I exist because your body exists
Cronos devouring his children
as bloodthirsty as Goya painted him
a body become unrecognisable
greedy and chaotic
not rooted in the earth’
this was all I had to go on

Bekono writes with a ferocious verve and visceral urgency, the realm of the body sprawling in long lines as the poetry pours onto the page. I can’t wait to see where she turns next.

Occupying similar but less satisfyingly wild terrain in their interrogation of identity in crises, the poems of Anglo-Bolivian poet Katherine Lockton in Paper Doll are much more distilled in their form and content – a kind of lean-meat-on-bones poetry – than Bekono’s rangy lines. The way these poems sit so neatly on the page belies the seismic, emotional commotion they attempt to corral into see-through language. Lockton’s survival of a fall from a building aged four and, later, a traumatising sexual assault give this collection its narrative traction. The poems don’t always succeed in their intention. Perhaps this is precisely because the chaotic, messy experiences behind it – failure, grief, loss, unrequited love, sexual assault – mean the poems require a more untrammelled approach in execution on the page. The urge to rigidly control one’s environment, even one’s poetry-making environment, following trauma is understandable. One considers the fragility inherent in the book’s title and the reaction of the mother in the sequence poem ‘The Rape Scene’: “Your mother says it isn’t rape / because he is younger than you. Did you rape him?” But tightly controlled emotions do not make for affecting poetry. In combination with unnecessarily repeating the same tropes across several poems, an on-the-nose-diction and frequent over-explication in the last lines of poems, it’s a shame that this “landmark for the UK’s Latinx community” isn’t more sure of itself.

A duo of pamphlets from the winners of the Ink Sweat & Tears/Café Writers Pamphlet Commission Competition – Jo Young’s Firing Pins and Gail McConnell’s Fothermather – push into the seldom charted poetic territories of servicewomen and queer parenthood. When we think of war poetry we still tend to default to the work of First World War poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon on frontline combat, but more recently, poetry collections like Kevin Powers’ Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting (2014) have foregrounded the dislocation of struggling to slot back into civilian society in the aftermath of combat. Even so, most war poetry is told from the point of view of men, and Young’s poetry in Firing Pins subverts stereotypical gender roles and military language to remind the reader that women have been far from passive observers of conflict. As such, while I read the pamphlet, I was aware of an underlying question: what can this also say about our conceptions of masculinity?

This pamphlet is emphatically situated in the realm of womanhood, reflecting the collision of duties, wants and natural inclinations. Young, who has served in the British Army for over two decades and has seen active, sometimes frightening, duty in Afghanistan, highlights this in the introduction: “The soldier is someone who falls in and out of love, gives birth, battles her body, argues with old school friends, falls ill and gets well again, finds a joy in soldiering and matches it with despair of battlefields, feels homesick and has very mixed views about authority figures and geo-politics. Nevertheless, she soldiers.” Appropriating the language of sighting through a rifle in response to army regulations on cosmetics, Young leans right into the conflict inherent in wanting to be seen in the multivalency of her femininity in the first poem, ‘L’Oréal Paris Infallible Gel Crayon Eyeliner in Browny Crush’:

I want those layers leaden,
galenic, Coptic magic full of ritual
and embalming kajal – I want to beam
all their through rifle sights.
I want it helmet-hidden.

As much as it reveals about a female soldier’s mentality, the pamphlet is also complicated by what it doesn’t address or what I suspect Young is careful to avoid – culpability, victimhood and a philosophy about the necessity of war. It would be fascinating to see how Young might address these by drawing from a richer, bolder canvas in a full-length collection.

To say that McConnell’s Fothermather is about queer parenthood is to over-simplify its intentions and execution. The neologism – “a nonsense word that tells the truth” – of the title alerts the reader to the fact that this pamphlet is also an exercise in subverting what the poet calls “audible linguistic colonization” through the struggle to forge her identity regarding her son, “Finn, the brilliantist”, of whom she is a non-biological parent. Through a series of epiphanies resulting from Finn’s gestation and birth rendered into concretism via the metaphor of a seahorse, what started out as a comparatively straightforward ambition to interrogate gender-non-conforming parenthood, is refracted into a more layered and often gnomic contemplation of how things come to be named, how language cleaves into meaning, “how forms are improvised and adapted in creaturely communication”.

That overarching seahorse imagery isn’t quite as outlandish as it might first seem. It’s a relatively easy leap of the imagination to see how an ultrasound image of a foetus could resemble a seahorse, but a seahorse is also emblematic of non-conforming parenting – it’s the male seahorse who gestates the eggs. A seahorse’s morphology, according to the poet, is made up of the “head of a horse”, “belly of a kangaroo” and the “tail of a monkey” – the identity of a parent can be several things, fluid, not fixed:

I am neither     the female Seahorse who lays the eggs,
       nor      the male Seahorse who carries them.

I am               not quite either and a little of both.

Those spaces between words, an example of the concretism and erasure that distinguishes this pamphlet, perform the disorientation and struggle of redefining identity on the page. They are wielded with skill to blow open convention in the title poem, an innovative villanelle that unpacks the neologism. With the news that Penned in the Margins has acquired McConnell’s full-length debut collection, there is plenty more to hear from McConnell in the not too distant future.

In interview, John Glenday has called the poems in The Firth, his first publication since The Golden Mean (2015), “worked memories”. What does this mean exactly? An attempt to hazard a guess leads to the words ‘working memory’, loosely defined as the information someone must remember long enough to use it. That definition certainly holds poetic appeal but doesn’t seem to pin down Glenday’s notion precisely. While not understanding the term doesn’t interfere with a reader’s enjoyment of the compressed lyricism of these spare, tautly intimate poems, one suspects that knowing what the poet means would facilitate a deeper reading. In the absence of further elucidation, I define “worked memories” as the process of capturing something as nebulous and abstract as a memory and attaching it, via language, to something in the material world. This is what happens in the sequence poem ‘nine coastal birds’ and five separate poems called ‘wild flower’, which seem to root the characteristics of Scottish people in their country’s wild flowers, such as the thistle.

Another sequence poem, ‘metamorphoses’, takes that movement from intangibility to tangibility and layers it with Greek mythology, itself a concept that borders on abstraction, but in Glenday’s skilled hands demonstrates why mythology is a useful tool for making sense of twenty-first-century concerns which are themselves also eternal. An example of this is the first section of the sequence in which the speaker compares his mother to Leda. It is often repeated that Glenday excels at writing from quietly observed places and this pamphlet makes it evident why. This isn’t bells and whistles poetry but it is nevertheless deeply affecting in its muted but precisely controlled assurance.

Dzifa Benson is a poet and dramatist who writes about poetry for various publications. This article was first published in The Poetry Review, 111:1, spring 2021. © The Poetry Review and the author.