Saturday, 20 September 2014

Precise leaps of imagination, Joshua Mehigan's Accepting the Disaster

Having enjoyed Joshua Mehigan's first collection, The Optimist, which was published in 2004, I was looking forward to getting my hands on his second book, Accepting the Disaster (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). It didn't disappoint.

Mehigan is a brave poet in several ways. There's great pressure from peers, editors, academia and social media to keep yourself in the spotlight once a first book has been well received, so it takes courage to hold back on bringing out a follow-up. In this case, Mehigan's patience in waiting a whole decade has brought handsome rewards, as Accepting the Disaster is packed with honed verse.

Secondly, Mehigan is unafraid of dragging traditional form into a present-day context and cadence. When doing so, his craft succeeds in making the afore-mentioned form pass unnoticed. Metre and rhyme come into play, yet they are never intrusive. One such example is "Down in the Valley", a murder story in nine lines that's reminiscent of a Carver narrative due to its deadpan, laconic delivery. It dodges explicit gore so as to ramp up horrific imagination:

"...Nature is just. There's nothing left to fear.
The worst thing that can happen happened here."

Just as in The Optimist, there are again glances towards Philip Larkin through a contemporary American lens. "The Professor", for instance, reminds this reader of "A Study of Reading Habits" when it states:

"...These days I never read, but no one does,
and, anyhow, I proved how smart I was.
Everything I know is from a book."

I wouldn't want these references to other writers to give the mistaken impression that Mehigan's work is in some way derivative. In fact, the reverse is true. What's more, this second book demonstrates that he has found his idiom. The everyday, as expressed via taut turns of phrase, is woven with delicately controlled, precise leaps of imagination, as in the opening two stanzas of "The Smokestack":

"The town had a smokestack.
It had a church spire.
The church was prettier,
but the smokestack was higher.

It was a lone ruined column,
a single snuffed taper,
a field gun fired at heaven,
a tube making vapor..."

Regarding his subject matter, meanwhile, Mehigan deals with mental illness head-on in sections of Accepting the Disaster, rather than implicitly invoking it, as was more often the case in The Optimist. Nevertheless, confession is never the aim. Instead, powerful stories are compressed and distilled into verse.

Accepting the Disaster is a fine collection in its own right. However, when viewed alongside The Optimist, it marks the definitive emergence of Joshua Mehigan as a major voice not just in American verse but in English-language poetry as a whole. I thoroughly recommend it.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Anthony Wilson's Lifesaving Poems are to become a book

I've previously mentioned my admiration for Anthony Wilson's Lifesaving Poems - a series of blog posts in which he selects and discusses poems that have deeply affected him during his struggle with life-threatening illness - and so I was delighted to read the news that Bloodaxe are to publish them in book form.

Far too many thematic anthologies lack a personal thread running through them, a narrative that drives them forward. Lifesaving Poems will provide these qualities in spades. What's more, Wilson's deft touch in his commentaries won't just illuminate verse for non-poetry-reading people who have bought the book on a wave of emotion. It will also capture long-term readers for the genre.  I look forward to getting hold of a copy myself.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Free chocolate!

That's simultaneously a terrific offer and a call for the stuff to be liberated from its maker!

In other words, HappenStance Press are launching their new anthology, titled Blame Montezuma, in a cocoa-fuelled splurge that entails giving away chocolate fish with the first 25 orders to be received for the book via their website (see link here). You'll even be able to try the chocolate in situ if you manage to make it along to the launch at Free Verse 2014: The Poetry Book Fair in London (at the Conway Hall) on 6th September.

I very much recommend this second option, as there are also numerous other events going on as part of the fair, while the HappenStance slot will include an additional launch alongside the chocolate: D.A. Prince will be reading from Common Ground, her second full collection, which is packed with excellent poems that creep up and then never leave you.

As for Blame Montezuma itself, it's a lovely book, and not just in terms of the cover:



There's a wide variety of poetic takes on chocolate inside. I'm delighted to have a piece included among offerings from the likes of Hilary Menos, Alison Brackenbury, Stephen Payne, Clare Best, Roy Marshall, etc, etc.

I think a few Christmas-gift quandaries might just have been resolved...

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The concave mirrors of dreams, Ben Wilkinson's For Real

For Real (Smith/Doorstep, 2014) is Ben Wilkinson's second pamphlet. As such, it's useful to view it in the light of his first one, The Sparks, which was published by tall lighthouse in 2008. The Sparks was an excellent chapbook. I reviewed it very positively on Rogue Strands at the time, but Wlkinson's made further strides since then. Six years ago, the blurb on the back cover mentioned "neat and clever poems", which they were. However, they were also slightly guarded, dancing round an inner core that never quite dared to reveal itself. The verse in For Real, meanwhile, is braver and hugely authentic.

One such example is "Hound", a poem that surges with the passion that's required to fight cyclical depression:

"its come-and-go presence,
air of self-satisfied deception,
just as the future bursts in on
the present, its big I am, and that
sulking hound goes to ground again."

This is poetry that bares its heart, not for the sake of confession or self-gratification, but for transforming qualities that are capable of moving its reader.

And what about that title? Well, it works in criss-crossing ways. Of course, Wilkinson uses concrete settings and events as a point of departure, but the everyday is then bounced off the concave mirrors of dreams and nightmares. They are invoked in four poems, implicitly wondering just what is For Real and inviting us to ask that very same question.

What's more, dreams enable Wilkinson to make leaps. He jumps back and forth between realities until the poems reach their final effect, as in "The River Don". Physical and emotional floodwaters lap around the poem's words in both sleep and waking hours until...

"...the house
sat safe and sound - floors dry, photo frames still
something else edging closer, the way water will."

Reading back through this review, I realise I might have given the mistaken impression that For Real is tough going. Well, it's far from that. In fact, sorrow and struggle are laced with passion and optimism, as is perfectly illustrated by its gorgeous closing lines. I'll end with them too...

"Let's say it was. Let's say all we felt
stood there, all we've held off. Let's walk
through that door, love, and never look back."

Oh, and just to add that you can purchase a copy of For Real by following the link here.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Beautiful!

Last month's launch of Ambit 217 was a lovely evening: lots of wine and terrific poetry in a welcoming atmosphere. I can only agree with Katy Evans-Bush when she stated on the night that it was "the most physically beautiful thing I've ever been in". Just to underline what she means, here's an image of the cover:


What's more, the contents are on a par with the exceptional production values. You can get hold of a copy here.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Villalejo on display

Here are two photos of Villalejo on display at the National Library of Scotland. Many thanks to Kate Hendry for sending them through!


Thursday, 24 July 2014

A chronicle of survival, Jeremy Page's Closing Time

In Closing Time, his recent full collection from Pindrop Press, Jeremy Page shows us how to survive terrible emotional suffering with our humanity intact. This is not confessional poetry. It's a book that charts self-reconciliation, stirring empathy on every page.

Page's verse is understated yet highly charged. One such example is "Another Elephant". This poem engages with the reader via the use of reportage and the layering of narrative detail, as is demonstrated by its opening stanza:

"In winter, when the trees are bare,
I can stand here at my window
with that wooden Ganesh on the sill,
and look back to the old house
where it all goes on as it always did
except that I'm not there -
not sweeping the garden path
nor making another pot of tea,
not reading Peace at Last at bedtime
nor cleaning out the rodents' cage..."

An accumulation of specifics is what draws us in and involves us. This enables Page to step up a gear in the second stanza, where he's not afraid to tackle big abstract nouns:

"...And everything that brought me here -
the words, the silences, the pain,
the changing of so many locks -
is the other elephant in the room."

Closing Time is a precise book. It showcases a linguist's knowledge of how to use words to create a ripple. Moreover, the collection is meticulously constructed. The juxtaposition of certain poems has implicit ramifications that are significant. For instance, a hypothetical disappearance/possible suicide note titled "To Whom It May Concern" precedes "Shaving My Father", which is a celebration of love in all its transience:

"...Tomorrow he may not know
who I am or who I was,
but today he does, and is grateful
for the care I take
as I soap his face
with the badger hair brush..."

In other words, Page is questioning the effect of one poem by allowing us to compare and contrast it with the opposite page. He' helping the reader to undergo a similar process to himself, fighting back from the brink via love.

In this collection, the poet reconciles memory with the present, the past with the future. He interlocks and interweaves departures and arrivals, so it's also apt (and no accident) that he should bring the book to an end with the following lines:

"...and I see time future
contained in time past, and understand at last
why home is where we start from."

Closing Time might illustrate great pain, but it's packed with life and is written by a poet who never falls back on facile devices to move us. I feel privileged to have had the chance to review it.