Wednesday, November 25, 2009


I haven’t blogged for a few days, mainly because I’ve used blogging time to revise a few poems, one quite extensively. I may submit them to a magazine soon. There again, I may not. Poems take such a long period of time to write these days. Only a few years ago, I could rattle them off - several per week if I felt like it. While I know I still can write them on demand, it hardly seems worth inflicting such poems on the world anymore. Of the four I’ve been revising, three are as finished as they are going to be. I’m a word of two short with the fourth.

In any case, I thought I’d mention Masters, a chapbook published by Claire Askew’s Read This! Press, and featuring graduates from Edinburgh University’s MSc Creative Writing Poetry Class of 2009. Only twenty copies of this chapbook were made and they’ve almost certainly sold out months ago, but I’m always happy to break the connection between reviewing and commerce.

Eight poets are featured, each with two poems. None are wildly experimental. For that matter, none are written in traditional form either. They all fall within the broad free verse mainstream. There are hits and misses, often both from the same writer. Sometimes the words were good but the form seemed wrong, sometimes most of the words were good but a few words seemed out-of-place. However, generally, there’s evidence of skilled writing in this chapbook and I’m sure some of those poets will go on to publish strong collections.

Aiko Harman’s ‘Hart’ impressed me by the way she never quite resolved whether she was talking about a hart or a human:

Your mates rally behind you –
a red herd. You knock your heads
into one another on the way
back to Ladbrokes.

So, human really, but the well-observed hart qualities seem as literal and real as the human ones. The poem is split into three short sections, three windows into a life, and the form is integral in helping the poem transcend straight narrative. The final section, revealing a vulnerable love after the previous drinking exploits, is genuinely affecting and surprising.

Struan Robertson’s ‘Dissociation’ has a similar oddness about it. The theme is set by its opening line, “Now, nothing much reminds me of anything,” and the remainder of the poem illustrates the dissociation, in the narrator’s mind, of things we’d expect to connect, including the past to the present and the external world to the narrator – “Even my favourite mug seems stained/ with somebody else’s tea-rings.” The poem hints at a relationship (present or broken-up?), but doesn’t quite explain it. The tension between revelation and mystery is held to the end, and the reader is left to draw conclusions over the narrator’s state of mind, particularly the attractively warped final line:

And if I think of you today, it’s not
one of your long red hairs that reminds me,
nor is it your shampoo and conditioner,
although they must have got here somehow.

My favourite poem in the chapbook was the last poem, ‘The Ladder and the Fish (Lapdog. John Bellany)’ by Hayley Shields. The poem is a response to a painting but it works without sight of the painting. The first lines create an immediate impact:

rot rotting smell of flesh, of flesh
and hacked-off fish-head. blind-
folded by a sheep-head, caught and
wrapped and in fleece and matted wool and
nose-to-nose with the warm red slap
of wet flesh…

Terrific stuff, I think. The repetitions, the way ‘and’ comes at the end of a line twice, the piling on of phrases, the rhythms, the visceral description (I love the “red slap”) – the style here is crucial to the poem’s success. It’s chaotic, a little deranged, and when you look at the painting, you can see why the poem needs to be like this. However, the chaos is created by the well judged timing of the poet. The mask of formlessness is the result of form. It’s the most distinctive poem from this selection and I hope Hayley Shields explores this kind of path further.

I don’t have time to go through a poem from every poet, but I’d say that all eight had at least one decent poem in here. I know Claire’s work and had heard Dave Coates read at the GRV (so no surprise to see good stuff from them), but the work of those mentioned above and the others (Niki Andrikopolou, Aileen Ballantyne and Natalia Herrero) was new to me. I certainly look forward to seeing what they come up with in years to come.

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