In Praise of the Poetry Sloth

poetry sloth

The sloth, that most beautiful and temptingly anthropomorphic of animals, has for too long been used unfairly as a metaphor for idleness (unfairly metaphormosed, perhaps – ho, ho). It’s time, in my view, to celebrate a creature which should represent not laziness, listlessness, and inertia but careful and, yes, slow – but fully alert and thoughtful – movement through the branched entanglements of modern life.
It is almost a truism that we should all slow down and bit in the face of early twenty-first century existence, whose pacemaker is no longer the movement of the sun or even the tick of the clock but the constant and frenzied whirl of social media, powered by ‘likes’, those ultra-addictive ‘bright dings of pseudo-pleasure’, as Justin Rosenstein, their Facebook inventor, called them. Of course, we all need to step back and recalibrate. But if there is one activity in life where we should really, really slow down, surely it is as readers. This goes for reading any text but I’m principally thinking about reading words, i.e. literary texts. On Twitter at the end of last year (and this is presumably not the first year this has happened but the first I’ve noticed) was the peculiar sight of people advertising to the world the number of books they had read that year (and the numbers tended to be unattainably high by most people’s standards 100, 150, 200…and higher), the subtext of course being: the higher the number, the more literary/intelligent/skilled etc. the reader. Frankly, I would have preferred to see someone bragging about having read only one book in a year, having spent a day on each page, considering it, weighing up its effect and the techniques and strategies used by the writer. I think I would have tapped the ‘like-heart’ on that tweet. That show-off would have won my respect as a Literature Sloth – because there are not enough of them around.
Marcel Proust began writing A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu in 1909 and it was, famously, still unfinished at his death thirteen years later in 1922. This massive tome is not only the masterpiece of 20th century literature, it is (more importantly today perhaps) the Anti-Tweet. I began reading it, by a coincidence that I’ve only just realized as I write this, exactly 100 years after Proust began writing it, in 2009. I’ve still not finished it in 2019 so I guess I have three years left if I want to complete it in less time than it took the great man to write it; but I must admit I don’t, particularly. I like my slow approach. I pick it up, read a few pages, put it down, think about it, read other things, forget about it for a bit, pick it up again two weeks later, read a few pages, put it down again, etc. Over the last ten years it has become an important part of my life, which I really don’t want to lose, and so I’m happy to keep plodding through it (I’m about a third of the way through The Prisoner, the fifth of its seven volumes) and if I happen to die before I finish, well, that’s okay. This is, I suppose, a humblebrag as I’m advertising the fact that I’m reading Proust, even if I’m doing so slowly. It’s also a little disingenuous because it’s not like I’ve got much choice, I’m a slow reader by nature – I’ve never been able to read quickly and never taken the time to learn (the speed-reading book by Tony Buzan that I got in my teens sits on my shelf now as it has for thirty years). But I use myself as an example of the Literature Sloth because I think I’m getting something from Proust that those who dash though him in, say, six months, miss. I’ve had time to get to know intimately Marcel, his family, his girlfriends, his social acquaintances etc. And I’ve had time to forget parts of the earlier books, books which I read nine or ten years ago during a part of my own life which was very different to my life now – so Remembrance of Marcel’s Things Past becomes indivisible from remembrance of my own life.
In some ways, prose asks for a quick reading, narrative whisking readers along the way it does, sucking them into its ever-present event-horizon; our eyes slipping easily along the slick rail of the written line. Long novels especially tempt us to rattle through them, skipping words and sentences – subordinating stasis (looking un-movingly at a single word or even letter) to the ever-unattainable light-speed flash of meaning-consumption, story arc, and the need for conclusion. From one side of the page to the other, over and over, the actual words disappear, and they are replaced with a different world, the world of narrative – or at least a world built through narrative. This is all no doubt fairly 1.01 Prose Theory stuff and I mention it only to contrast it with poetry, which tends towards the static rather than the dynamic, prioritising word-choice over the sentence flow, and exposing individual letters amongst words. Narrative is there sometimes of course but even then, when compared with prose, the number of words involved is so much lower (how much longer would even the Iliad have been if it had been written – all of it, without edits – in prose?) that the relative value of each individual word is much higher. To one degree or another, poetry tinkers on the periphery of stasis. It is not a chaotic city, but a complex jungle. And this is the realm of the Poetry Sloth, because any reader who rushes through a poem at prose-speed will see at best the distorting perspectives from a train rushing through the countryside, and at worst little more than a blur. The eye must slow down, so that the brain can engage poetically rather than prose-ishly.
To continue my sloth re-metaphormosis (because I’m enjoying it) the Poetry Sloth is a sub-species of the Literature Sloth, but even slower, even more careful, and even more discerning of every leaf of language it chews on. Literature as commerce – i.e. the industry – wants us all to be Poetry Dogs dashing around the forest floor sniffing madly and gobbling down whatever we find before moving on to the next morsel; and social media brings out the dog in all of us. But up in the trees I think everyone will find, if they look, the peaceful face of a Poetry Sloth considering in careful slow-motion every mouthful it chomps and gazing sagely at a single piece of tree.
Hurray for the Poetry Sloth!

The Idea of John Bercow at Key West (poem)


The Idea of John Bercow at Key West

(After Wallace Stevens)

Translated there from a blustering sea
Where the waves rise into anger and fall
Into panic, a tidal morass
Of lunged air and green-leather bladderwrack,
Where fear is the lady and hate is her song.
The dolphin, the leatherback, both are gone.
There from the sandbanks of oak-panelled noise,
A referendum’s unpleasant surprise,
To the sighs the unmetaphorical
Ocean denies, through me. There he goes.

Off he pops. And just above the tropics,
God-like-zilla, barnacled, he rises.
The man who wrestles order from ordure
Stands tall above this southern pin of light,
Presses his feet through the roofs of houses,
An Englishman doing what Englishmen do.
Squat. Not here. Sandcastles all along the beach.
Oh dear John. Or dare, John, or-dur, or DUH.
Squash. Squash. The sandcastles fall one by one
As an old-man/child lopes along a stretch.

It’s not you, John, but something in your skin.
I’m in here too, man. We’re both ghosts as our sun
Completes its epic fail, we walk conjoined
Between the rusty links of driftwood in
The darkness of this frankless, guilt-charged vale.
The very idea, sir. A very idea.
A very sky. A very song. A sea.
Key West is translated into Hong Kong.

The makers are changing, look north, look south,
Where the body’s physiognomies
Refuse to stay tied down, our heavenly bodies,
Political; see what the satellite
Strains to see through clouds of diffusing light,
The DNA, twisting, theoretical,
Of history dividing, subdividing
Those points X and Y into eternity.

I’ve not said what I meant to say.
There is no he or she or sea but hate and fear.

Oh! Pale John Bercow, tell me, if you know,
Is every moment such a bow in time
Where all the tight material of now
Loops into past and future crimes
And contains the means to let them go?

The Zero-Sum Game That Isn’t

A strange and sad essay was published in the American online journal Utne Reader this summer by the poet Bob Hicock (The Promise of American Poetry). Strange, sad and actually quite annoying.
In the essay, Hicock, a successful white male poet with nine collections behind him, waxes mournful at the apparent tailing-off of his career in recent years (a phenomenon he aligns with the growing number of non-white-male poets getting published and scooping up awards) while at the same time cogitating on the necessity of old white guys like him being sacrificed at the altar of multiculturalism. It’s a thoughtful essay, don’t get me wrong, and genuinely felt; but there is rather too much of the Noble Captain Oates about it. A sense of the “It is a far, far better thing I do”…
The poet has already taken something of a roasting on Twitter, and Timothy Yu has responded comprehensively in The New Republic (The Case of the “Disappearing” Poet) so I don’t want to blog about the essay just to pile in, but Hicock’s response to a perceived taking-over of a cultural space that he has become used to occupying by some ‘other’ group is worth pausing over; especially as the issues relate equally to the UK poetry scene.
The problem, if it is a problem, is not that more people of colour are writing poetry but that more people in general are writing poetry, it’s a more popular genre than ever before. But as Yu points out, the audience for poetry is growing too and this is borne out in poetry book sales, competitions, festivals etc. There is evidence that this growing world of poetry is more diverse than many older poets are used to, but the world is more diverse than they are used to so why would poetry not reflect this? To an extent one can understand the reactionary right-wing pushing back against this change in demographics (they would not be right-wing reactionaries if they did not react this way), but heartfelt expressions of personal loss from the liberal, progressive side are almost more difficult to stomach.
The best metaphor I can think of is of a spoilt child who has been told he has to share his toy. 
It brings to mind the recent complaint from a male British writer about a poem by Kim Moore, which I blogged about here. He complained that her ‘objectification’ of men represented a school of thought which ultimately wanted to eradicate men from existence entirely. This is the child’ s tantrum. Hicock’s reaction, the plea for understanding of what is framed as a quite reasonable sadness, equates to the child’s glum sulk, or perhaps their quivering-lipped acquiescence.
These are men who are culturally privileged – and have been for their whole lives – and they see that privilege being taken from them. The reader would be forgiven for feeling that a more dignified response would be simple silence. But let’s face it, in the literary world we all want to say something because if we’re not saying anything, we’re nothing – literally.
Part of this might be that every poet secretly thinks and hopes they will be the one to be remembered by generations to come, theirs is the poetry that will last forever and enter the Canon (whatever that is). To this extent, poetry is (to contradict a phrase I keep reading) a Zero-Sum game. Only a tiny fraction of all the poetry published in the last fifty years will remain in print and on undergraduate reading lists in another fifty. Even most Poet Laureate work is likely to be forgotten other than by a tiny number of academics (who reads Alfred Austin or Robert Bridges these days?) especially as it is no longer a life position. So the more poets there are out there, the lower the chance that any one will be one of those few who stay in print. And as other younger poets become popular and the realisation sets in that ‘actually perhaps I was just another poet’ there is bound to be some sense of loss.
The question is whether Hicock would have felt the same intensity of loss if the younger poets he saw coming through and displacing him were white. Possibly he would; but what is interesting is that he links his perceived loss of status not with younger poets per se but specifically with those poets of colour who are among the new generation. This is where a residual racism lurks, behind the conscious mind, a place where progressives are as defenseless as reactionaries until they notice and self-correct.
But, in my view, the culprit here is not only the racisms hidden in patriarchy, it is also an increase in poetry being thought of as a form of entertainment, the success of which is measured in book sales, festival invitations, public readings, competition wins etc. (intelligent, consciousness-altering entertainment maybe, but entertainment nonetheless) This is a winner-loser mentality which, again, is a Zero-Sum game. If you win, I don’t. If publisher X publishes 25 poetry books each year, then the other 500 poets who have submitted collections lose out. 
But these are not the only criteria for successful poetry, or even the best. What about that one poem which said exactly what you wanted it to say, even if no one else ever read it? What about the poem on your website about which a single person wrote to you and said ‘thank you, that helped me out at a difficult time’? What about that one piece of positive feedback from a person whose poetry opinion means more to you than anyone else’s? What about the poem you wrote or read which changed the way you look at the world or helped you understand another perspective on an issue? These amateur, small scale measures of success will never hit The Bookseller’s statistics but they are surely the most meaningful measures in this shared cultural space we call Poetry?
Amateur painters the world over don’t expect to see their work hanging in national galleries so why should every poet expect to be published or to win a competition? Beyond the warm glow of validation, what does that kind of success mean? Of course it sometimes means money to those who need it, but poetry is not yet the go-to genre for those who prioritise wealth over art…poetry and careerism is perhaps best left for another blog.
As an unpublished poet, I will not take this point further or I’ll end up sounding bitter (of course I’m still sending poems and manuscripts off to publishers! I crave validation as much as the next person).
But here’s a thought to take away: Poetry is not a Zero-Sum game, but the Poetry Industry is. Perhaps if poets like Bob Hicock thought more about the former and less about the latter, they would not feel so upset, and be less likely unwittingly to reveal those hidden racisms which would be better off analysed in their poetry than blindly bumped into in a public essay.

The Silence of Sound (review: Deaf Republic)


Deaf Republic (Faber & Faber)

by Ilya Kaminsky

It almost seems from the plethora of online and mainstream media reviews, and the extensive Big Gun quotations on the front and back dustcovers of Deaf Republic, that there are very few people left who have not heaped praise on Ilya Kaminsky’s second full collection. So, is another review really necessary? A book can be over-reviewed after all. A great deal has been written, much of it is very insightful, and Kaminsky’s book is as good as his yay-sayers claim; but even after all the clamour and commentary, I feel there are a few things which have, surprisingly, been left out of the conversation so far.
The first is that for all its originality and power, Deaf Republic is not the only recent book to have looked through the prism of poetry at the cruelty and oppression that comes with the arrival of an authoritarian, militaristic regime. The rather under-reviewed The Illegal Age by Ellen Hinsey provides a different, less narrative-driven, and in some ways more devastatingly intimate evocation, which puts totalitarianism itself under the microscope, breaking down the lyric almost entirely, rather than commandeering it as Kaminsky does. Both approaches work, and together they could be seen as key political/poetical texts of our time; but they should be read in tandem, and why Hinsey’s work has not attracted more attention mystifies me (although her social media invisibility as compared to Kaminsky’s enthusiastic embrace of Twitter could be one explanation, and his startlingly charismatic public readings could be another).
Secondly, the name that leapt into my mind as I read Deaf Republic, but which appeared in none of the reviews I have read is that of Bertolt Brecht, whose non-Aristotelian drama surely provides the framework within which Deaf Republic’s aesthetic develops. The work fits a Brechtian reading in several ways. The action pushes forward in ‘scenes’ with the narrative drive of theatre and it includes two acts and a dramatis personae, and yet each scene is a discrete poem which also stands effectively on its own, resisting the flow of traditional drama as Brecht’s drama does. The opening line of Act One, “Our country is the stage”, is both Shakespearean and Brechtian, as is the play-within-a-play technique hinted at by the puppet theatre and the frequent puppet-related references to characters – in both cases the reality of history and society subordinate any ideas of ‘entertainment’. Both the use of a fake Ukrainian town and the bookending of the narrative with a prologue and epilogue are strategies that work to alienate the reader, distancing them from the emotion inevitable in the contemporary America of the final poem, which juxtaposes a cop shooting a man through his open car window with the President’s wife clipping her toenails. Is this not something close to the Verfremdungseffekt? The lack of back story (who actually are Alfonso and Sonya?) and resolution (what becomes of Anushka?) also serve to create a distant and universal “folk-drama that feels archetypal” as Andrew Motion’s front-of-book blurb has it. And, without wishing to (further) labour the point, the lyricism of the poetry, or certain heightened moments of it, could also be seen as analogous to Brechtian songs, not used so much to entertain as to underline, to jolt and to ‘teach’. It would only take a small leap to imagine these lines from the end of Act One being sung to the music of Kurt Weil:

“Such is the story made of stubbornness and a little air –
a story signed by those who danced wordless before God.
Who whirled and leapt. Giving voice to consonants that rise
with no protection but each other’s ears.
We are on our bellies in this quiet, Lord.”

But these lines invoke and address God, which Kaminsky does frequently, and which suggests, along with some wonderfully light-touch eroticism, a passion at work here which goes beyond the Brechtian/Marxist passion for social change. The tragic lovers and even Alfonso’s incongruously Hispanic name suggest that perhaps someone like Federico Garcia Lorca may be another influential poet-dramatist. And there will be others as well, unknown to me, but to be clear: none of this detracts from the originality of a tone which is, in the end, Kaminskian.
Third, there has been a lot written about the what of Deaf Republic and a fair amount about the why, but relatively little about the how, not on the level of how specific language attains its effect, anyway. Raymond Antrobus has written rightly in The Telegraph about how the varyingly-lengthed lines buzz along the white of the page like the course of a bullet or a piece of spit, but most commentators have focused on his overall lyricism, the breadth of his imagination and his metaphors rather than the technical effects of Kaminsky’s language choices. Reviews are generally not long enough to have space for such specifics, but this is my blog, I have as long as I want, and I feel compelled to make an observation:
The short, simple (i.e. single-clause) sentences linked with punctuation rather than conjunctions (which are rare so that when they do occur the reader sits up – “On earth / a man cannot flip a finger at the sky / because each man is already / a finger flipped at the sky” – combine with generally uncontracted verbs and negatives (see above ‘cannot’ rather than ‘can’t’, for example) to maintain a rhythm and register that can be read, certainly by western European and American readers, as Slavic, peasant-like (perhaps the simple structures encourage us to feel it has been translated from a more vernacular original?) and therefore redolent of Peter-and-the-Wolf-style folk tales (as per Motion’s comment). This in turn combines with frequent moments which utilize a dated register to punctuate particular, vivid imagery:

“Observe this moment
– how it convulses –
The body of a boy lies on the asphalt like a paperclip.
The body of a boy lies on the asphalt
like the body of a boy.”

The words “observe” and “how” (these lines can be read simultaneously as “look at the way this moment convulses” and “look at this moment, oh how it convulses!”) prepare the ground for this remarkable simile and its subsequent negation by raising the lines to a tone which gestures towards heightened nineteenth-century styles of literary expression (“Such is the story…” is another example). This style is consistent with the ‘universal parable’ nature of the story’s landscape, but one of Kaminsky’s great skills is to combine this use of language with references and word-choices that jolt us back out of the folk-world-feel into something that appears much closer and more real (“My people, you were really something fucking fine / on the morning of the first arrests”; “a helicopter eyeballs my wife”; “So much sunlight – / a t-shirt falls off a clothesline…”). In this way, Vasenka and its inhabitants become real/unreal, modern/historic, distant/up-close, and achieve an unusually plain and affecting power.
Finally, reviews have noted glowingly Kaminsky’s extraordinary use of deafness/Deafness and silence as a means of evoking resistance and, as Dzifa Benson puts it in Poetry Review as “a will to power”. Benson’s use of the Nietzschean term is particularly interesting and although I’m not sure it’s quite right (even if power is taken to mean growth and self-overcoming), some further thought about what Kaminsky does with deafness/Deafness in Deaf Republic might be worthwhile because it is so central to the cumulative effect and originality of the book, and perhaps even to this poet’s particular claim to genius. Actually, Kaminsky does not ‘use’ deafness at all, he transforms it. And I think there are three levels to this transformation: 1) into a metaphor (deafness to authority as a form of resistance); 2) into an ability (to see past the ‘invention’ of silence); and 3) ultimately into a productive rather than receptive phenomenon. The first is complex and fascinating but already dealt with in existing reviews. The second is revelatory for hearing people as it turns a previously fixed notion into a relative one: just as those bodies with built-in air-vibration-reading machines create the idea of sound, so they must invent its opposite, or inversion, i.e. silence. To bodies which do not possess air-vibration-reading-machines there is no such thing as sound and therefore no such thing as silence. They are, then, able to perceive a world without the sound/silence duality, one where sight-signal and touch-signal are unfettered by such distractions and distortions as this duality can conjure. In Kaminsky, then, sound becomes silence before they both evaporate, leaving an altogether new landscape, a landscape represented at the end of the book where the final poem before the epilogue, unlisted in the contents page, consists entirely of sign-illustrations. The third level of transformation is part of the first two and yet more radical than both, the sum being greater than the parts as it were: by exploiting its metaphorical potential and energizing it positively as an ability as opposed to a disability, Kaminsky proposes deafness as a mechanism for output rather than a barrier to input. This, ultimately, is the central proposition from which much of the book’s power flows. The creative force of deafness issues forth from the story, its characters, and its aesthetic just as the globule of phlegm issues forth from Petya the deaf boy towards the sergeant in ‘Gunshot’. This is, as far as I know, a genuine departure from the way that deafness has been represented before, it is both empowering for the Deaf and awareness-altering for the Hearing. I might, therefore, tweak Benson’s “will to power” and suggest “will to empowerment”.

There is no doubt that Deaf Republic, along with The illegal Age, are the two recent collections which most effectively and intelligently provide the kind of insights into our increasingly charged political age that poetry is uniquely suited to offer.

You can buy Deaf Republic from Faber and Faber here.

You can buy The Illegal Age from Arc here.

The I that can be we (review: Skin Can Hold)


skin can hold2

Vahni Capildeo, Skin Can Hold (Carcanet)

Of all the contemporary poets writing in the UK today, Vahni Capildeo is the one who, with seven books and five pamphlets behind them, most gives the impression that they are only just getting started. Capildeo’s intelligence, learning, wit, anger, skill and insight appear to be, on the evidence so far, limitless; and it is a brave person who would hazard a guess as to what they will come up with next. Of course, it is not actually any of the above qualities that make Capildeo’s work stand out (they are adjectives that could be applied to any number of active poets), but it is the way those qualities are used – the purposes to which they are put.

When Geoffrey Hill died, Rowan Williams elegised him in the Guardian with these words: “He speaks from deep inside his language. The reader sees the ripple on the surface, puzzling, even apparently arbitrary; but not the fathoms-down movement on the seabed. To read with understanding, you have to join him down there, which is an arduous journey and often frustrating, but generates a sense of challenge and vital unsettlement.”

Capildeo’s poetry is not easy, and I would suggest that, as with Hill, their work provokes in the reader a “sense of challenge and vital unsettlement”, but Capildeo does not require us to dive to the dark seabed of language in search of understanding, as Williams had Hill doing, rather they bring it up into the joyful, harsh, sometimes blinding sunlight on the surface. Puzzling, maybe, but hardly arduous.

In some ways Skin Can Hold moves thematically away from the previous two Carcanet collections, Measures of Expatriation and Venus as a Bear, in as much as the constant questioning, testing, stretching and redefining of the ‘lyrical I’ largely shifts in focus from some of the strategies that have served the poet so well in the past (for example, using geographical dislocation as a metaphor for distancing inner from outer / mental from physical worlds, and some of the more Ovidian forms of metamorphosis to be found in, particularly, Venus as a Bear). Capildeo is clearly continuing their project of breaking down the I, but in this collection, we find more twisting together and opening-up of pre-existing texts (see the Muriel Spark sequence for the former and the Martin Carter section for the latter), as well as direct engagement with fellow contemporary poets (Mark Ford and Zaffar Kunial) and an ‘inviting-in’ of the reader (or audience) with several poems that include stage directions (e.g. ‘Four Ablutions’) or prose explanations as to the purpose of the poem (i.e. the syntax-ified Carter poem ‘I am No Soldier’).

The overall result is a feeling that this is a collection which Capildeo is holding out to the world, offering – as a teacher may offer to a student – a utensil that will help them participate and therefore understand: ‘Look’ they seem to say, ‘now it’s your turn!’ Perhaps it is increasing confidence that leads Capildeo to offer up their work this way, but I get the impression that this is the way things were always heading. The Carcanet volumes (the only Capildeo collections I am familiar with) all seem to be developing towards something which involves sharing a new way of looking through poetry (or looking, through poetry). We may not need to follow Capildeo to her ocean depths, but she would like us to take part in her language, to join her in the water so to speak – and perhaps the understanding is in the taking part. There is, however, no sense that this is the arriving at a destination, or the culmination of a previously incomplete sequence of work.

I think the continual development of forms and ideas, call it experimentation, is central to Capildeo’s work because it represents the poet’s vision of a fundamental ‘unfinishedness’ inherent in the human condition. (This is distinct from ‘incomplete’, as it is perfectly possible in Capildeo to be both complete and unfinished simultaneously). We see this directly in poems like ‘from The End of the Poem’, which is both complete in itself and an extract from another poem (and which contains the ultimate ‘unfinishable’ image, that “infinite tonguetwister” the self-devouring ouroboros), and we see it also in ‘Fragment of a Lost Epic from the Losing Side’ – which is in the most overtly political, final section of the book – in which both a city and an individual perch for eternity on the verge of destruction. Both these poems define themselves as just the visible element of a larger and more complex whole – complete in that they present as entire ‘units’ but unfinished in that what lies behind the visible remains impossibly always-to-be-arrived-at.

Language here is inseparable from the physical individual, and Capildeo makes chromosomal references several times, most overtly in the second section of ‘from The End of the Poem’: “The poem is Trinidadian, / is double x chromosomed, is one hundred and fifty cm, / is creatively crushing on a dead Scottish man / and imagines itself in medieval Italian / and is none of I, Lord have mercy, it is not what I am.” So, the reader would clearly be unwise to identify poem and poet as synonymous and yet the poet appears to run through the poem at an almost genetic level (I’ve written about linguistic DNA before, and find myself on an unfinished learning journey myself here too, as this link will show). But for Capildeo, individual identity, like gender and like race (which are of course inseparable from self) is fluid, creative, unfinished and ultimately not actually individual at all: Martin Carter’s I is described as “extensive, inclusive” and containing a sense of “the I that can be we” and this is also true of Capildeo’s own I (and all of ours) – this is both political (“I am this poem like a sacrifice” wrote Carter in ‘I am No Soldier’, whose poems Capildeo wishes to be “with and inside” through syntax poetry) and personal (“Do not SHE me” the poet puts it bluntly in ‘Shame’) In contrast with ‘she’ / ‘her’ the personal pronouns ‘they’ / ‘them’ are plural, inclusive and as such reflect the communality of a self-definition which seems to wrest the notion of ‘containing multitudes’ away from Whitman. Capildeo does not make any claims on ‘largeness’ but expands the I to celebrate all the unfinished, unfixed, and fluid plurality that the Skin Can Hold.

More than with any poet, I am aware of a ‘review’ format being inadequate to cover the myriad delights that Capildeo presents to the reader – and further aware that there will no doubt be many more delights I have missed because of my own lack of reading. My unfamiliarity with the work of Muriel Spark, for example, stunts my appreciation of one of the two central sections in the collection, ‘Sparks’, a knitting-together of various Spark stories with elements of Shakespeare, Webster, Marinetti and Two Knotty Boys (Google them if you need to. I did!) among others, but this does not prevent me from seeing the creativity of different ages being intertwined and thereby metamorphosed into something new and by extension, again, unfinished. And it also inspires me to seek out and read the work of Muriel Spark – which is not such a bad outcome – and then to return to these texts more fully-informed, perhaps to write a second review. So it may be that this review is itself unfinished.

I love Capildeo for their wit and rage, which often comes in one and the same expression (“Fuck that shit. Now that’s a poem”) but more than that for the complexities of life that they refuse to gloss over glibly, or ignore, as many do. This is poetry which is interested in looking for the truth with the only tool we have to do so, language. In other words, for me this is real – stop, slow down, read, think – poetry. And I make no apology for linking it as I did above to dead white male poet Geoffrey Hill in this regard.

I have had reason recently to quarrel somewhat bitterly on Facebook with a relative who is of the ‘science-tells-us-men-are-men-and-women-are-women-and-trans-women-are-men-who-pose-a-threat-to-actual-women’ school. I feel I argued the case-against successfully (although my relative would disagree) but how I wish I could find a way of having us sit with each other and for us to read Vahni Capildeo together, and to talk about the non-binary complexities of life and how art can help us see these complexities which science is only beginning to reveal in some cases, and to think about the multitudinous nature of selfhood and how language reflects that. I don’t think my relative would take the time required to do this though – they are filled at the moment with too much blind anger, panic and fear, those most contemporary of abstract nouns. But it seems to me that it is language as a defence against just those nouns which Capildeo holds out to us so generously in this collection.

Skin Can Hold is published by Carcanet, and is available here.

Elisabeth Sennitt Clough: an informal interview


I recently met up with Elisabeth Sennitt Clough at The Cambridge Blue on Gwydir Street for a chat before her CB1 reading around the corner at The Blue Moon on Norfolk Street. She read alongside the unique and wonderful John Lyons, who I will make the subject of a separate post.
Liz has been a friend since we completed our online MAs at Manchester Metropolitan University together. She has over the last few years won and come highly placed in several competitions, been published in countless magazines and been named a Poetry Society Recommendation for the most recent of her two full collections At or Below Sea Level.
It was an informal sort of interview and I didn’t want to risk creating a stilted atmosphere by recording what we were saying. We agreed that we would just chat and I would pass my write-up by her before I published it on the blog, to give her the chance to correct anything I had misremembered. So, that’s what we did.

I was keen to know how she thought MMU had helped get her started on what has been a relatively meteoric rise. Her response was interesting because it was not what I had expected: as online students she felt we had missed out on an important part of ‘being there’ and experiencing the face-to-face dialogues that are part of a physical university presence. We had, I think, all enjoyed and got a lot out of our ‘virtual classroom’ workshops, but it may well be that online students of creative courses miss something ‘organic’ that comes from seeing peoples expressions, and reading their bodily reactions (a subtle smile here, an involuntary grimace there!). Anyway, perhaps as a result of this perceived limitation of the online aspect of the course Liz threw herself into taking advantage of modules that allowed her to travel to Manchester, entered the university competitions (such the Rosamond Prize, which she won for a piece called ‘Samson’ in 2016 in collaboration with BBC Young Composer of the Year Grace Mason) and supplemented her university writing by travelling to poetry residentials and workshops up and down the country.
Overall, we agreed, Liz had grasped, far more than I have even now, the importance of poetry as collaboration. For me, even working on our MMU workshops felt a little like ‘cheating’, and I still fight advice to an unreasonable degree, but by embracing the community of experienced and skilful poets, she has been able to learn from them, build on their advice and shape her (I use the word although I dislike it) ‘craft’. Liz still takes advantage of mentor schemes, which she says allow for far more dialogue and nuanced discussion than the editing process involves, and she made a point of mentioning and praising her present mentor Rebecca Goss (Her Birth, Girl – both Carcanet) in this respect.
Anyone who has read Liz’s work knows the importance the Fens plays in her poetry and I mentioned to her that she sometimes seems to almost get inside the land itself (particularly in some of the poems from At or Below Sea Level) and I felt that in one particular poem in her pamphlet Glass, ‘Fallen’ – a traumatic evocation of a sexual assault – the speaker almost appears pressed into the earth by her abuser, and I wondered if for her the flatness of the Fens and the positioning of her ‘poet’s-eye’ so close to the ground represents the oppression, the physical pressing down of women under the weight of patriarchy. She took it further and replied that the Fens are an ‘abused’ landscape, almost literally beaten into submission over hundreds of years of drainage. So, yes, they are the perfect landscape to symbolise female subjugation.
I think of Liz as a ‘poet who uses nature’ rather than a Nature Poet (as I would call someone like  Alice Oswald, another writer who keeps her eye very close to the ground) because her use of her immediate surroundings seems to emphasise the symbolic / atmospheric over the mythic / organic; and so her Fenland narratives and characters (including her ‘I’) are steeped in their surroundings’ history and shape in the present just as individuals are surrounded by their symbolic selves (man v Man; woman v Woman etc.).
Liz’s work shows a fascination with unusual, interesting and foreign words, but not, so far as I have noticed, Fenland dialect words; and so it was interesting to notice her use later in the evening, during her reading, of the word ‘dyke’ to mean ‘ditch’. I noted that my grandfather in the North East used to use the word to mean ‘hedge’ which I believe is a more northern and Scottish use of the word, but this prompted me to ask Liz if she had thought about using more dialect words in her work – as these often seem to me to form a bridge between language, history and landscape. She had been made more aware, she said, of the power that dialect words have on a poem after reading Liz Berry’s Black Country, and it is true that the Fenland of East Anglia, like the west Midlands, is very rich in dialect potential. But Liz has spent years away from the local dialect, living in Cambridge, the Netherlands and the US, and so she does not feel linked to the local language in a way that has allowed its use to feel natural in her poems so far. Having said that, she acknowledges it may be a rich seam of inspiration and so does not rule out using dialect words in poems in the future. I’d be fascinated to see what the results would look/sound like.
I asked Liz what direction her new work was taking and particularly whether she felt she had ‘written out’ the traumas in her past which have informed some of her previous work. To a certain extent, she said, she had, and for that reason her most recent work (for her forthcoming collection The Cold Store), while retaining the Fens as a central theme, casts its net wider and looks at more global, environmental issues. The work she read later in the evening, which is destined for the new book but still going through the process of being honed, certainly bore this out. And if you have read Liz’s previous work, the pamphlet Glass, through her first collection Sightings to her recent At or Below Sea Level you will have seen her themes broadening, her risks (and their pay-offs) increasing, and her thematic reach being stretched ever-further, and so this movement towards a more overtly political eco-poetry will seem both a natural and an exciting progression.
By way of finishing off, I include here a poem from At or Below Sea Level, ‘The Fens as Post-Apocalyptic Region’ (previously published in The Lighthouse Literary Review) as it is a lovely example of how Liz pulls the Fenland landscape’s history into the present and works it for its symbolic value.
Whatever she does next, poems like this show that Liz is likely to remain worth watching…

The Fens as Post-Apocalyptic Region

By the beginning of the 20th Century,
only one acre of true Fenland remained.

The Apocalypse arrived five centuries ago
as fire in the belly of a Dutch engineer.
Now elderly ladies wear The Apocalypse
between their brows, as they pursue
the earliest Early River plums on Ely Market.
Traces of the apocalypse can be detected
in the arsenic-green signage of the two
Poundlands in Wisbech town centre.
Teenagers carry snakes of The Apocalypse
in their eyes, as they loiter between
fog and shadow in Whittlesea bus shelters.
A doctor’s surgery in Boston prescribes
apocalyptic pills instead of HRT.
Cash machines in Fenland banks spit
apocalyptic saliva instead of notes.
Local playgroups nurture toddlers
with apocalyptic tantrums. In Earith,
bakers bake apocalyptic loaves
and in Haddenham, butchers string strings
of plump apocalyptic sausages together.
And, all the while, the Fen Blow blows
apocalyptic dust over its people.
The Apocalypse has come, a Fenland pastor tells us.
We know, say the Fen people and fill their cans
of petrol to fuel the apocalyptic flames.

You can read my analysis of Liz’s poem ‘Pages You Lose to the River’, here.

You can buy Glass from Paper Swans Press, here, Sightings from Pindrop Press, here, and At or Below Sea Level from Paper Swans Press, at the Poetry Book Society here.


A Prayer For My Daughter (poem)


A Prayer For My Daughter

After Yeats

That you will read this when I’m gone
And not be sad or tied to anyone
(Unless self-tied) including me,
Who as, I hope, a happy memory
Will have some form of life inside
Your head, not as a father or a guide
But as a simple loving friend
Until you die, and then content to end;
That you will not regret your life
As lover, mother, single-parent, wife,
Whatever you should choose to be
In your relations with contemporaries;
That you will say I learned from my mistakes;
That you will be delivered from the fakes
And perverts you will no doubt meet
In every city, down every street;
That you will sieve the dust of words
And filter out the sly, absurd,
Wicked, false and downright bland;
That you will think about and understand
A thing before you call it A
Or B, before you yield or disobey;
That beneath the sky of your last night
On Earth, free from hatred, pain and spite,
You will breathe in peaceful air.
That’s my prayer.

For Ellie