Thursday 26 November 2020

Time is speeding up

It seems to be a widely acknowledged fact that time has been speeding up over the last few years in current affairs and newsfeeds, especially in terms of how quickly one major story is replaced by another (often on puropose, so as to bury bad news quickly!).This effect has also been noticeable in the poetry world, meaning that every magazine issue, new collection or review has a shorter time in the sun.

However, the pandemic seems to have accelerated that process even more. Zoom launches pile up, one on top of another, while social media races ever more quickly onwards, spitting out promotional posts, mini-reviews and quotes as it goes. Attention spans appear to shrink on a daily basis; books sink without trace. 

In normal circumstances, a collection would still be very much alive six months after coming out. Right now, I've spotted several friends bemoaning the fact that their 2020 publications have already vanished from view.

In this context, it's important to pause, take a deep breath and keep subscribing to print-based journals with a greater time lag and thus a longer life, while also forcing ourselves to read more substantial texts online such as essays and blog reviews instead of scrolling through Twitter. Poets will thank us for doing so, while in purely selfish terms we won't miss out on stuff that would otherwise pass us by. Most of all, we might slow down and actually take the time to snaffle a poem properly, read it, re-read it and read it again...

Sunday 22 November 2020

For us all, Hilary Menos' Human Tissue

There’s a strong argument that the most universal literature is actually rooted in specifics rather than in the evocation of abstracts. According to this theory, universality is found in an individual set of circumstances that’s portrayed with such skill and empathy as to ramify far beyond the limits of its immediate context, moving its readers, no matter whether they themselves have undergone such an experience. Hilary Menos’ new pamphlet, Human Tissue (Smith-Doorstep, 2020) provides us with an excellent example of how to implement this idea.

As stated in the introduction by Hugo Williams (who has suffered from kidney disease himself), this pamphlet takes a family’s story as its point of departure. Menos’ son, who suffered from kidney failure, received a transplant, aged 17, of one of his mother’s kidneys. Two years later, the son had a rejection episode and the transplanted kidney had to be removed, thus meaning he had to go back on dialysis.

The aforementioned events are moving in themselves, of course, but would initially seem most of interest to other sufferers of kidney disease or to their family members. The poet’s skill lies in her ability to transcend those supposed limitations via implicit ruminations on faith, mortality, family and love, all anchored in this concrete narrative.

The nature of faith, for instance, is explored via the pagan figure of The Mud Man, a tree stump that lies at the bottom of the family’s garden and is invoked from the beginning of the pamphlet, as in these closing lines from the first poem:

…The Mud Man looks at me through struck flint eyes
and mirrors a requiem for you, for us all,
through broken slate teeth.

These words hint that more conventional religion has preceded The Mud Man in the narrator’s life, as invoked via the mention of a Christian-infused requiem, while also indicating to the reader that the forthcoming story isn’t just about the patient but about us all.

Love, expressed through familial relations, is consequently a pivotal theme throughout the book, as in the opening lines to Admission:

Lying on the hospital bed late at night
with the cannula in my arm starting to sting
and a bag shoving fluids into me at a rate
that tightens my wedding ring

I write a letter to you, at home with our son,
and bury it deep in my notebook
between special diets and test results and plans
where only you would look

just in case anything goes wrong…

This poem offers us a tremendous example of Hilary Menos’ gift for using physical, often everyday detail, layering it and accumulating its effect, so as to reach out towards a vision that reflects back on to its readers. It doesn’t just evoke the process of giving a kidney, but speaks to anyone who’s been alone, afraid, in hospital and missing their loved ones.  In other words, while we might not have gone through this specific experience, we are so moved by its poetic transformation that we are invited to ruminate on our own versions and visions of love.

Such a ravaging context, however, never leads Menos down the path of melodrama. Instead, it enables her to delve deeply into another of her concerns, one that runs through all her collections: the strained yet vital relationship between the human and natural worlds, If this theme was already present in the pamphlet’s first piece, it culminates in the closing lines to its final poem, Sloe Gin, as follows…

…Time matures the thing. At least, adds distance.
I sit at the kitchen table, trying to make sense

and pouring a shot of sweet liquor into a glass.
The filtered magenta, sharp and unctuous,

reminds me of sour plum, of undergrowth,
the scrub, the blackthorn and the hard path.

In this poem, perfectly cadenced metre is set against unsettling doubts, while the transformative quality of human hand is present via the liquor that has been created from fruit and undeniably changed. Nevertheless, it’s then undercut by the realisation that the darker side of nature can never be ignored and forms an inevitable part of our journey through life.

What’s more universal than the above thought?! And it’s achieved through the telling of everyday incidents! Hilary Menos’ pamphlet connects with readers, launching them into the poet’s life, then catapulting them into another fresh vision of their own world. This is the epitome of what poetry can grant us. Human Tissue is thoroughly recommended.

Tuesday 17 November 2020

A career (in poetry)...

This term always makes me wince when I see editors or poets invoking it. For me, it’s a misnomer and a contradiction in terms, even if placed in inverted commas. It hints at a structure, a ladder and an inner sanctum for poets to aim at, none of which actually exist, while also implicitly belittling anyone who doesn’t make their living from the genre, casting doubt on their commitment. However, more than anything, it seems to forget why we started writing poetry in the first place: vocation.

Thursday 12 November 2020

Review of Maria Taylor's Dressing for the Afterlife on Wild Court

As mentioned in my previous post, I've been working on an in-depth review of Maria Taylor's excellent second full collection, Dressing for the Afterlife (Nine Arches Press, 2020). It's now up at Wild Court (see here), and comparisons and contrasts with other reviews elsewhere of the same book make for interesting reading!

Monday 2 November 2020

Outdated and irrelevant battlelines

I was struck the other day by the following comment in Alan Baker's review of Maria Taylor's second full collection, Dressing for the Afterlife, on Litter magazine (see full post here):

In terms of the poetics used, there seem to be two forces operating; one is pushing the poetry to be the standard poetry of the British mainstream variety; that is, first-person anecdote and  subjective observation and comment; and another pushing it towards something much more interesting, which is unpredictable, language-driven and exciting. Happily, it's the second of these forces which wins out, although the tension between the two is a fascinating feature of the collection.

This stance felt like a blast from the past, a reminder of the ridiculous, artificial battlelines that seemed rife in U.K. poetry a few years ago. In fact, I suddenly realised that I hadn't read such an outdated distinction between poetics for a long time. 

Perhaps this is because excellent contemporary poets such as Taylor have overcome or ignored these anachronistic supposed opposites. They know full well that poetry isn't a battle in which one aesthetic wins out over another due to its inherent superiority and greater interest. 

Instead, they're aware that poets possess a whole gamut of resources that they can blend and juxtapose, both within individual poems and also across collections. I'll stop here though, as I'd better keep my powder dry for my own forthcoming review of Maria Taylor's book...