Tying the weasels down

weasel

As the back-cover blurb tells us, Did You Put The Weasels Out? (Eyewear) by Niall Bourke is inspired in part by an eighth-century Irish epic (The Tain) and in part by a nineteenth-century Russian romantic verse novel (Eugene Onegin); but it also contains roughly equal measures of James Joyce, Flann O’Brien and Spike Milligan. What results from this mix of influences is something rather more than the sum of its parts, and it would be a mistake to write it off as a piece of showy experimentation: this is not romanticism, not modernism, not surrealism or absurdism – not just, anyway – it’s also a contemplation of the modern condition: western spiritual malaise, economic disparity, loss of identity. But like any such contemplation worth its salt, it does not take itself too seriously.
The text invites you to draw comparisons between the silly/funny/mundane story of Mark Setanta’s imagined row with his fiancée Jen, his sloping off from work early to spend the afternoon walking and drinking, and his return home later that night, with the The Tain episode of the Ulster Cycle of myths in which uber-hero Cú Chulainn defends Ulster against Medb and Ailill’s cattle-raiding forces of Connacht. It’s therefore tempting to try and read Did You Put The Weasels Out? in the same way you might approach Ulysses, trying to find mythic equivalence in every character, episode and action; and it is true that both Mark and Jen at different times might be read as Cú Chulainns (Setanta is the Irish hero’s childhood name) and other characters may or may not have their direct equivalents (Mike/Medb? Isy/the Morrigan? Masefield/Fer Diad?) but in general we look in vain for heroic parallels in this tale of modern paranoia (all Mark’s worries are in his mind) and alienation (Mark is an ‘exiled’ Irishman in London) – and this is part of the whole “perverse” point, I think.
Like Flann O’Brien, Bourke makes extensive and eccentric use of footnotes throughout – often the footnotes themselves have footnotes – and he impressively/doggedly sticks to rhyming through most of these (as well as in the contents and acknowledgements!). There is no denying that (as in O’Brien) this interrupts the flow of the narrative to begin with, but as you proceed you become attuned to the style and it adds layers of richness and depth to the poems rather than detracting from them. Bourke takes layering to a whole different level in two poems which are given lives of their own by thinking/speaking verse in cartoon bubbles (again bringing O’Brien to mind in At Swim-Two-Birds where internal characters are given unexpected life in relation to their author, but here it is the Pushkin sonnets themselves which appear to be coming to life, as post-modern an idea as anything I’ve ever read).
Just as Irish mythology gives great significance to the relationship between event and landscape (“landscape as a mnemonic map” as Ciaran Carson calls it in the introduction to his translation of The Tain), Mark (as much a Leopold Bloom as a Cú Chulainn) walks through and observes different parts of London, and while doing so he imbues them with similar significance: the shapes of the City skyscrapers viewed from Hampstead Heath inspire the radical shape of the ‘graph-poem’ (my term for what is as far as I know unique in its form) called ‘Economic Development’, a briefly digressing mini-critique of laissez-faire capitalism; and the winding River Thames itself becomes a metaphor for tamed and emasculated modern life (in ‘River Retirement Blues’).
Mark Setanta’s story is free from the insane violence of the Ulster Cycle until the very end (in the last of the three ‘remscéala’ named after The Tain’s prologues but which Bourke, in typically contrary style, uses as appendices) when Cú Chulainn’s famous ‘battle frenzy’ or ‘warp-spasm’ is replicated by Mark losing his temper hilariously with the ‘serve-yourself’ scanning machine at his local supermarket (I will now never be able to hear these machines say “unexpected item in the bagging area” without smiling!) and subsequently being beaten to death by his fellow shoppers. This episode, like the other ‘remscéala’ are to be read, like a couple of other incidents in the story I think, as things which didn’t happen but could have in another, more directly analogical world perhaps.
Quite apart from the mythological allusions, the Milliganesque absurdity and fun with language (e.g. sausages/assuages) and the use of the Onegin Stanza to carry the narrative on at a good clip (footnotes notwithstanding) both add to the reader’s enjoyment and suggest further layers of meaning (there is possibly something Onegin-like in Mark’s self-absorption and his misinterpretation of Jen’s door-slamming for example, but perhaps we could go too far with this line of thought?).
There are also moving individual poems in here which stand up well on their own, outside of the main sonnet-flow, and which serve to turn Mark into a more fully-rounded character than he would otherwise have been (‘My Father The Forest’ and ‘My Love Is The Weeds’ are my favourite of these) and which also contribute, I would suggest, to the feeling in general that there is some equivalence intended not only between Mark and various fictional characters but also with the poet himself.
As to what the Weasels of the title signify – they appear (along with various types of hats) several times throughout the novel, mentioned by different characters in different situations – they appear to be symbolic of playfulness, memory, gnawing fears, paranoias, and imagination itself (and possibly all – or none! – of these). I can’t pretend that I know what they are intended to signify ultimately, but it is perfectly possible that they have some mythological significance I’m unaware of or that they are intended simply to mean whatever I want them to mean. The biggest compliment I can pay this book is that it makes me want to go back in and look for more. Perhaps on a subsequent reading I will finally be able to tie the weasels down to my satisfaction.

It seems easy to dismiss allusive and formally structured (though experimental) poetry as elitist or ‘show-offy’, but I would offer this intriguing, beguiling book as evidence against that charge. I hadn’t read either The Tain or Eugene Onegin before beginning Did You Put The Weasels Out? but it soon became clear that I would get more out of it if I did. So I picked up the e-books very easily and quickly, read them, enjoyed them and then read and enjoyed this book. We should thank poetry for introducing us to more poetry, I think. But more than that, this “Perverse Novel in Verse” made me want to go off and try writing some Pushkin sonnets and some ‘graph-poetry’ (if that’s what we’re going to call it!) not because I thought I could do a better job than Niall Bourke (I tried, I can’t), but because he clearly had such a good time doing it!

Did You Put The Weasels Out? is published by Eyewear and can be bought here.

Sick Rose

sick rose

The rose in my garden is in a state,
I think it’s dying.
It’s partly my fault, I guess, and partly
the plant’s position
in the wall’s shadow just behind the gate.

It looks like a rose with malnutrition,
spindly and wilting.
Some of the flowers have turned sort of black.
Green, pink and white-ish
aphids, an axis or a coalition,

subject the rose to constant attack;
and it’s giving up –
even though I’ve tried to help it survive
with water and spray,
the rose’s resolve is starting to crack.

But I was out there in the rain today
thinking my dark thoughts,
when I noticed a new unfurling bud
poking its head through
a gnarled peduncle, smiling, in its way;

and I watched it closely. Though I could see
insects and disease
ranged around its fragile, virgin petals,
sucking the life out
of the older flowers, it seemed to me

this bud had been given a moment’s grace.
It wasn’t sickly.
Its skin was entirely without blemish.
It had the calm glow,
beneath the gloom, of a sleeping child’s face.

But I know what my neighbour gardeners’ll say
about my sick rose.
‘Pull her out’, they’ll say – and be right. What kind
of garden is this
to bring a rose into anyway?

Love You Uncomfortable

bj nt 2

A good poem is a window you need to learn how to look through, and in learning how to look you may begin to discover something new about the world behind it. This is something that occurred to me several times while reading Jericho Brown’s The New Testament (Picador). Race, Nation, Sexuality and Religion are at the very centre of this collection and when writer and reviewer share none of these things it would be remiss to ignore the fact; but we don’t pick up books to have our own experience of life reflected back at us (at least not all of us, not all the time), and it is a mark of the strength of this collection for me (white, heterosexual etc. as I am) that it doesn’t say the things I might have expected it to. What it does say is said in a way that forced me to look through these difficult windows carefully, not once or twice but three or four times to try and make out what is happening in the world they open onto.

It’s a world in which allegory and confession twist and intertwine at times in such a way that Brown could perhaps have been accused of a sort of Dylanesque self-mythologising were it not for the fact that he is entirely open about his project: “That story I told about suffering/Was a lie” the speaker of ‘Paradise’ tells us, in a voice which may or may not be Brown’s; and “I left Nelson Demery III for Jericho Brown, a name I earned in prison” says the speaker of ‘Hustle’ – this time surely Brown – referring to the fact that he changed his name, and in doing so turned his ‘real’ self into part of the symbolic layering and fusing that run through the collection. I have not found from the internet whether Brown himself has spent time in prison, but that word itself has a wider meaning here too, and the blurring of the real and allegorical is entirely in keeping with the way the poems build their meaning. There are times, in fact, when Brown seems to have expected his readers’ confusion, and he heads off criticism pre-emptively (parts II and IV of ‘The Interrogation’ do this with particular insight) forcing the reader to re-examine their own prejudices and expectations (“We thought your brother was dead…/He is” – ‘II. CROSS-EXAMINATION’; “And this preoccupation with color,/Was that before or after you lost yourself?” – ‘IV. REDIRECT’).

Poems like ‘The Interrogation’ seem to imply a white audience/interrogator, and although I may be mistakenly reading that into the text, if I’m right it goes to illustrate one of the many ways this collection tries to understand and deal with an isolation caused by being caught within dichotomies (black/white, gay/straight, masculine/feminine, religious/secular, real/symbolic). In this case, the speaker is aware of being caught between a black audience and a white one in a sort of check-mate: “Will black men still love me/If white ones stop wanting me//dead?” (III. STREET DIRECTIONS).

This feeling of being trapped is most fully and touchingly evoked in the magnificent penultimate poem of the collection, ‘Heart Condition’, simultaneously a love song, a howl of pain, and the knitting together of nation, family and history through phone lines and flight paths: “He holds down one coast./I wander the other like any African American, Africa/With its condition and America with its condition/And black folk born in this nation content to carry/half of each.” Here Brown places American between African and Africa, the one identity surrounded by, defined by, the other; while at the same time the long-distance-lovers’ on opposite coasts also encompass the nation itself within their metaphysical ‘domain’. Identity trapped by nation, nation defined by race, sexuality perhaps transcending both. The complexities of identity are further cut across in the line “What’s my name, whose is it, while we/make love?”, where labels, definitions, are rendered meaningless by the physical act of love; but the urge to question and describe returns almost immediately afterwards: “My lover leaves me with words I wish/To write.”. As with all my favourite poems, this one does not present its meanings to you on a plate, and at the end there is a surprise: “Greetings Earthlings./My name is Slow and Stumbling. I come from planet/Trouble.”. This statement, fewer than twenty lines from the end of the book, comes right out of left-field; alienation here is taken to its logical, comic (in both senses) extreme, and the child-like, almost retro, fifties-sci-fi connotations of its tone takes a massive gamble that pays off because it feels a little intentionally awkward and builds to the poem’s final, stunning claim, which could serve as a mission statement for Brown’s whole project: “I am here to love you uncomfortable.”. And here the ‘I’ is as multitudinous as Whitman’s but it is also specifically the ‘I’ of a gay, black artist attempting to represent America honestly; and in the same way the ‘you’ is all of us as readers but it is particularly the country of Brown’s birth, which needs (the suggestion is, I think) to face some uncomfortable truths about itself and its own identity.

There are many other poems which could be singled out to illustrate the originality and power of The New Testament, but the one which does so most clearly, I think, is ‘Found: Messiah’, a ‘found’ poem which versifies a blog post from a right-wing website which is still – at time of writing – up and available to see. The original writer is ‘celebrating’ the shooting of a Shreveport man by the two men he had been robbing (the final lines “one less goblin is one/Less goblin is one less” could hardly be more dehumanising or sinister). This being the town where Brown grew up and the dead man’s surname being Demery the blog post is frighteningly well-chosen, and the fact that his first name is Messiah wraps this single violent death, one amongst thousands upon thousands, in all the symbolic and religious meaning that many of the other characters in the book have (the brother, the mother, the father, Angel, Jericho himself). Here, the real and the allegorical meet most completely, and visiting the website we as readers of any colour or sexuality take a glimpse, a brief one in my case, at what it must feel like to be hated, deeply and irrevocably hated, because of what you are and who you are. Jericho Brown leads you to the very edge of a world you know you do not want to inhabit, but for the first time, you can see.

I am, of course, describing my own experience of learning how to look through the windows of Brown’s poems on to the complex world of contemporary America. It’s a world I thought I knew better than I now feel I do after having read The New Testament; and that, at the risk of ruining my review with a cheap pun, is testament to the importance of this collection.

The New Testament is available in the UK from Picador, here, and in the US from Copper Canyon Press, here.

don’t get too close

Sexy_Mouth

AK Blakemore’s new collection Fondue (O.R.B.) is a profound and awesome (in both its modern and older senses) study in alienation. It is the simultaneous pulling-to and pushing-away of the reader by a poet in complete control of her message. The imagery draws us in to an almost intimate degree but the language with which it does so holds us at arm’s length with self-referentiality (“This is a poem about my mouth” – ‘Fondue’, “this is a subtle visual reference…” – ‘storyboard for a conceptual horror movie’) and even doles out the odd nip if we start feeling too comfortable (“there is no intellectual pleasure” announces the speaker in ‘Lilith’: I’ll show you want I want to show you, lines like this seems to be saying, but if you think you know me, think again). There is also a fairly derisive bite in the combination of the insect-y imagery of locusts, scorpions, moths, cockroaches and Kafkaesque ‘Gregor’ (all linked to men and maleness) and the “rag doll”s, “spasming doll”s, and “fuckdoll”s which disturbingly and simultaneously evoke girlhood, rape and the dead. Here we find femaleness in reaction to a man-made/male-staring world, resolutely speaking in its own voice, refusing to be defined by the male gaze, although still erotically drawn to the “boy” (never “man” when portrayed sexually – men tend to be more sinister beings such as the Devilish one at the end of ‘mephedrone’ “who carried a metal-tipped cane” recalling Robert De Niro in Angel Heart).

In these poems, Blakemore is radical in the way that Jeanette Winterson was radical in Sexing The Cherry and The Passion – she pushes away accepted (and expected) norms of language and imagery to create her own sense-world. She does not follow the rules because she has rules of her own. There is elegant and subtle rhyming and part rhyming throughout, but always deployed on her own terms at unpredictable points in the poems (“smooth leg and / gold-plated astrological anklet // as we smoked out the skylight / she said” – ‘mephedrone’). If patterns are to be found they are more imagistic and thematic, repetitions of motifs (insects, dolls, various parts of the mouth, dead foxes, drugs, S&M references) much in the way repeated ideas can be discerned in the abstract art of Jackson Pollock or Cy Twombly – the latter being name-checked in ‘storyboard for a conceptual horror movie’ where his Achilles Mourning the Death of Patroclus becomes part of a metaphor within a metaphor within a metaphor, another distancing technique that pushes the reader away while pulling them in with a surprising (again, mouth-related) image: “the elderly dowager / holds a red rose to her mouth.”

The “I”, diminished to “i” as though hiding amongst all the other letters and words, is central to this collection, featuring in all but a handful of the poems. It is tempting to assume that this is an authorial ‘self’ and therefore AK Blakemore’s own voice we are hearing, realistically, believably drawn as it is (young, experimental, forthright, intelligent); but I think that at the centre of these poems what we actually find is a carefully crafted construct: we should not be looking for anything confessional here, I feel, Blakemore is made of stronger, sterner literary stuff. The “i” of Fondue is a tool the poet is using to force the reader into confronting the message she is sending. And what is the message? What surprise is at the centre of all the other surprises this collection almost reluctantly holds before us? This: “Yet though she cannot tell you why, / She can love, and she can die.” The curiously, brilliantly anachronistic epigraph from Richard Crashaw contains Fondue’s central, radical, statement: women (this is a book about women, not a woman – and it goes without saying it’s not about men) are vulnerable to love as they are to death, but that modal ‘can’ (not she loves, and she dies) indicates self-determination, the exercising of an ability – within that vulnerability there is power. That her epigraph is written by a man is an intentional irony which reflects the speaker’s simultaneous need/desire for/fear of/disgust with/detached interest in men.

So, for me, these surreal, dreamlike, spasmodic poems are explorations of the speaker’s power-within-vulnerability, and in exploring these (as far as I know unchartered) waters, Blakemore is in the process of creating a genuinely new artistic world. And it’s an enjoyable place to follow her, whether we are laughing at her unexpected enjambments (“i’m sure time would pass more quickly if i could commit / to a regular pattern of aggressive masturbation.” – ‘The Book of the Dead’) or recognising her irritations (“i was frustrated by / the way he received fellatio” – ‘lovers’ – this last being a lovely example of the way Blakemore gets to the nub of a relationship in just a few words: the speaker looking up at her boyfriend for approval, needing a reaction; he with his arms raised, possibly behind his head as though contentedly sleeping while his girlfriend ‘services’ him).

This is a collection that must be read again and again with many notes taken. As I look back over my own notes, the one that stands out, written underneath two separate poems but something I felt numerous times throughout the collection, reads “Don’t get too close!”

Blakemore’s work being as entirely different to that of contemporaries such as Sophie Collins and Vahni Capildeo as they are to each other, it is only slightly depressing to realise that posterity is likely to bunch these vital, exciting and genuinely important, new(ish)ly-emerging female writers together as the “#MeToo Generation Poets” or some such media-friendly label. They deserve better; but I guess it is at least a given that posterity will not be able to avoid recognising that this generation of women writers changed and revitalised British poetry as much as anyone in the last thirty years.

Fondue is available from Offord Road Books, here.

 

An Elegy to the English Music Hall

1867_NationalStandardTheatre

This is a quietly-spoken collection which feels as though it could have playing behind it as you read the fading sound of an audience’s laughter or the floating echo of their dying applause. With Troupers (smith|doorstop), Keith Hutson has written a lovely, reserved but confident, and also witty, pamphlet of poems which pay tribute to a world which can now be fairly said no longer to exist. The collection could itself be labelled in memoriam (as are the majority of the poems in it): the English Music Hall Tradition 1803 – 2016. The first date is the birth of Harris ‘Wonder Horse’ Fitzpatrick, “born to play the front end” of a pantomime horse, and the second the death of Tony Warren, the creator of Coronation Street (for which Hutson has written in the past) and, while not a music hall performer himself, a symbol of the working-class culture that the music hall came out of and helped shape.

Many of the poems in this collection are synopses of and brief meditations on the lives of characters (such as Sid Field and Ronnie Ronalde) who are already forgotten by all but those who, like Hutson, choose to keep them alive because of the by-gone era they represent. The poet writes, in a voice I take to be his own, at the end of the first poem, ‘Revival’, “…it’s only right/to raise another smile, to bring them back”; but if that were all the poems did they would probably run the risk of being rather weepy, treacly affairs. Actually, the strength of this collection is that it does not simply memorialise or lament, and neither does it turn hagiography; rather it uses the characters as sketched examples of human foibles, strengths, prides, and conceits. So, although the tone remains elegiac throughout, there is never a sense of easy wistful nostalgia or inverted snobbery.

The elegies are interspersed with and leavened by poems which are not dedicated to an individual but to a type, like the ‘Straight Man’ or to a caricature like Geoffrey in ‘Hostess Trolley’ or to a place – perhaps the spirit within a place – like ‘Glasgow Empire’ and ‘Civic Theatre’. These poems are often the funniest; sometimes in such an obvious way as to be reminiscent of slapstick comedy (“Essential to the town’s supply of ham” – ‘Civic Theatre’), sometimes appropriately farcical (“where he went, it went” – ‘Hostess Trolley) and sometimes much subtler (“Be subliminal lit by a bank of lights” – ‘Straight Man’). And it is worth noting that there is a more structural comedy at work throughout the collection, which comes through in line breaks, as in “A Funny Thing Happened…”: “Triumphs? Frankie Howerd Meets the Bee Gees/wasn’t one.”, and in the use of the repetitive villanelle structure of “Civic Theatre” to extend and emphasise the main joke – in these examples and others Hutson shows his great skill for comic timing.

But the comedy is more than offset by tragedy, and while the pamphlet as a whole focuses on the death of a very English culture, the individual poems themselves are often preoccupied with the actual deaths of the characters who represent that culture. Whether by suicide or natural causes, the demise of these performers is generally dealt with in abrupt, perfunctory terms: “he…blew his brains out in a Glasgow park” (‘Tiddly Om Pom Pom’), “and then she died, demented, // utterly alone – unmourned / by impresarios and sisterhoods alike” (‘Hylda’). The effect of this rather cold, almost unfeeling representation of death is to emphasise the tragedy over the actuality, in other words it fronts the poetic ‘shock’ effect and reduces the potentially soupy note of ‘loss’ that can ruin elegies. The individual deaths become less significant than the loss to English culture of the music hall tradition.

The first person is most often used to create characters, as an actor might put on a costume; but in a few poems (‘The Call of the Wild’, ‘Brass Band’, and ‘Lament’) it appears to be a genuine authorial voice that we are hearing as the poet recalls listening to Percy Edwards’s animal impressions, his love of brass band music and the theme tune to Radio Two’s ‘Sing Something Simple’. It is in these poems that Hutson gets most perilously close to becoming misty-eyed, but in a pamphlet of thirty-six poems they are a small minority and their effect on the collection as a whole is to soften the hard tone mentioned above; what remains is a thoughtful, entertaining, and sometimes moving little collection which may well send you to Google to find out more about the characters of a music hall culture which spanned the 19th and 20th centuries; but which now, in the age of the internet and 24-hour entertainment, seems long gone.

You can buy Troupers from smith|doorstop, here.

The NHS

NHS70-National-Logo

The NHS

It’s not a machine,
this great grass ball of warrens

rolling through the nation’s head.

People are machines, yes
companies, yes, departments, yes –

silvery-skinned and sleek
and flawless, virgin from the Vac Pac

then dusty with rust,

jammed and leaking battery acid,
shrinking to a stain on a bed –

but the grass ball of warrens is rolling
and unlikely, vulnerable

to this tilting terrain,

the game of maze and balance
we hold in history’s hands.

We Sentence Things

 

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The Greek myths are never far from Vahni Capildeo’s collection Venus as a Bear (Carcanet). Although only directly mentioned once or twice, they sit behind the poems just out of sight, particularly the Ovid myths, because as the title suggests, this is a book of metamorphoses. Objects, animals, places and people become ‘other’ through language; but the ‘other’ they become is both entirely unexpected and not always easy to see.
More than in any collection I’ve read, this is one whose language is a tool for transformation, a means by which things are revealed in unhooking them from their traditional physical or metaphorical descriptions: we are shown things clearly and newly because Capildeo’s language works to bring them out of themselves. For example, we might find the complex shapes and light effects of eighteenth century cut glass in thirteen lines of Chomskyanly unlikely sentences, or the human body dissected in nine poems which border on concrete poetry and yet are not complete representations – there is a piece of a hip here, a suggested belly-button there, a clavicle perhaps?
There are certainly demands made of the reader who wants to find the clarity on offer. We should not expect meanings to be dangled in front of us for the picking; rather, and in the spirit of the book, meaning here is for the unpicking, the taking-apart, the un-piecing – and this is where the metamorphoses takes place because it is in the un-piecing of one thing that an accompanying piecing-together of another happens. We might need a dictionary or an encyclopaedia now and then, but what results is something new, and also something that was in the original all along, unseen.
The body is central to this collection, or rather bodies, because it is bodies’ proximity to one another and the flux between them that concerns Capildeo. Language is, as I say, a tool for transformation, but it is also the ‘matter’ or ‘material’ through which the flux occurs both between the bodies represented in the poems and between the poet and the reader (as is our nature: “we sentence things” says the speaker in “Moss, For Maya”, transforming an existing verb and verbing an existing noun). Throughout the collection, this exchange and interchange is reflected in part-rhymes (“impose/roses/clothes”), rhythmic echoes (“confusable with barnacles”) and almost-anagrams (“my enteared heart/my enearthed heart”). The words’ play with each other, their transfer of symbol, their passing-across of meaning and connotation creates a surreal and sometimes abstract imagery that could inspire multiple understandings, and which require not only imagination but also a willingness to engage from the reader.
Capildeo makes engagement easier for us in one way, and that is through the humour that is present throughout the collection. This is most often a low-key humour that suggests the tender bond between human and animal (“aesthetic chest-sitter”, “oink-oink-kiss”, “funny fuzzy     valuable wedges”), it sometimes comes through neologisms (“petcitement”), sometimes through punning (“my gods have changed their storey”) and occasionally in anger (“A great bull is shitting on my street. Let him have quiet enjoyment”).
The poet’s journey through Iceland, Britain and the Caribbean, where these poems were written, is another aspect of the movement, transfer, migration of meaning across and though bodies: land is a physical body, countries are political bodies perhaps, and the sea is a body of water.
Readers will have their own favourite poems of course, the ones which ‘work’ best for them (and the ones they ‘work’ best for) – my own is “Seastairway”, which is an evocation of rolling, tempestuous northern seas, whose relentlessness is expressed with the constant repetition of “sea” in various existing and invented compound nouns, and whose turbulence comes through in the indenting of lines and stanzas and the positioning of lines next to one another, as though inviting two voices so that their senses overlap the way waves overlap and overlay one another. But the poem is simultaneously a portrait (though I’m not sure that’s the right word) of the poet’s emotions, caught in a relationship with which she must “put up and shut up” i.e. put up with and shut up about. The corruption of the clichéd idiom denotes perhaps a clichéd or over-common situation, but also hints at a sense of threat and/or violence from the other half of the relationship (I assume male, but I may be wrong. ‘Put up or shut up’ is a phrase I associate with John Major, which brings in a masculine and political dimension that may or may not be intended). The speaker finds safety finally in the “seaport” of herself – or perhaps a lover: “I found/me, lady, right at your side”. The wanderer has arrived on land, a new body. She has either found someone new or become something new; whichever may be the case, there is, as throughout the collection, metamorphosis. Even the source of inspiration, the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Wanderer” slips into and out of another one, “The Seafarer”, while the chosen epigraph, “ofer waþema gebind”, can be translated (according to the online versions I found) in at least two different ways: “over the frozen waves” or “over the binding of the waves”. Is the speaker frozen, or bound? Or both, as they are related, but with very different connotations? The poem’s meaning is not fixed but what is to be found here will greatly reward the reader who spends time with it.

The book is bursting with ideas, every line bringing something new to puzzle, excite, amuse and delight. Even the titles themselves often look like mini-poems (“They (May Forget (Their Names (If Let Out)))”, “Leaves/Feuillles/Falls”). And this brings me back to the title of the collection, which is as multi-layered as everything else in the book, Venus as a Bear being inspired by both a visit to the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich and, it seems, the song “Venus as a Boy” by Bjork. “He believes in a beauty” sang Bjork about her aphrodisiacal/Keatsian muse: “For they believed in duty” echoes the speaker here, about the mysteriously fanatical and well-spoken “cabin boys”. And as I look at the title, I find the final two letters of the two nouns are an anagram of URSA…so the language, as ever, is moulding and melding with the subject. Am I getting carried away, or is Capildeo, already in the title, “sentencing” Venus and Bjork’s Boy to ‘Beariness’ and all that goes with it? And I cannot resist finishing with one further question (because they keep on coming!): is Capildeo’s Venus a hairy goddess or a bald bear? This is not flippant. We know the speaker of at least one of the poems states amusingly “I choose to sing to the hairless”, which to me makes it seem unlikely that the feminine hairlessness of Venus would be transmogrified into beary-hairiness. So, what do we make of a bear divested of its fur? And where does The Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” come into it, if at all? I’ll leave that one with you. Suffice to say that this is poetry to make you re-examine the way you read poetry, and there is little in poetry more exciting than that.