Thursday, 25 August 2016

Helena Nelson, poet

Many casual observers of the U.K. poetry scene will have heard of Helena Nelson. They’ll know that she’s the editor of HappenStance Press. They might even know of her limericks and performance pieces. What’s unfortunately fading into the background is that she’s a significant, major-award-winning “serious” poet.

I’d been wanting to write the above paragraph for several years. Why didn’t I? Because I didn’t want my views to be coloured by my readers’ knowledge that she was the publisher of my pamphlets. Now that Eyewear Books are bringing out my first full collection next year, it’s time for Rogue Strands to celebrate Helena Nelson’s terrific verse.

Today’s post will concentrate on Nelson’s first full collection, Starlight on Water (The Rialto, 2003), which was a joint winner of the Aldeburgh Jerwood Prize. Let’s start with an extract from section IV of its pivotal sequence “From Interrogating the silence”:

“Your letters matter more than you will know.
You write; I keep them, one by one, as snug
as acorns in their shell. I go to them
if all else fails. When the north-east wind blows
and tugs at the curtains, when my heart has dug
a hole for itself, when nothing can stem
obliteration – no place else to go –
I open them...”

There’s no need to explain these lines, yet their clarity doesn’t impede their emotional impact. Quite the opposite is true. This isn’t so-called restraint. Only rare talents have so light a touch as to be capable of transmitting such depth and authenticity of feeling via apparently simple words. Nelson is keenly aware her challenge is not in expressing something that is true to her but in making it true for the reader.

And yet she’s also at ease in several different registers. Among the performance pieces and biting satire, there are sudden changes of gear like in the following extract from “When my daughter goes down in the dark”:

“…Her eyes deepen. She puts on pearls,
dresses herself in darkest blue.
Shadows soften her mouth and chin,
new frost sparkles beneath her skin."

Anorexia is never explicitly invoked, but its menace is all-pervading in this poem. Language becomes sensuously dangerous in Nelson’s hands. Yet again, another tone, yet again a coherent idiosyncratic eye holding her broad poetic vision together.

And there are more examples to come. The Philipott poems, for instance, deserve a post to themselves. The collection’s closing sequence, they dissect an entire society via a single couple’s relationship.

The shorter pieces, meanwhile, are simply exquisite. I’m delighted to have Nell’s permission to quote one of my favourites in full here:

Completing the outfit

I used to wish you’d put your hands just so
about my waist, spanning me here and here,
encircling me in love and trust, although
you never knew I cherished the idea.
A small thing. Doesn’t matter. Time is gone.
Your hands, so square and kind, don’t speak to me.
My waist has come to terms with life alone.
My breathing’s calm. My heart goes quietly.
I find these days I like to wear a belt.
I bear it like your touch around the core.
It keeps me safe. Quite recently I felt
I had to tighten it. I think it’s more
than reassurance in well-seasoned leather:
it may be all that’s holding me together.

This poem’s strength lies in its ability to undermine itself (and its narrator) throughout. The reader only realizes its perfection when reaching the end and immediately heading back to the start.

Helena Nelson’s poetry must be read. For that reason, I’m making a unique exception on Rogue Strands. You can find Starlight on Water’s product page at The Rialto here and at the HappenStance website here.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

For the sake of the ritual

I spend a lot of time in Chichester - my parents retired there, so it's still my bolthole from an Extremaduran summer that's pushing 42ºC this week - and the cathedral could end up seeming something of a backdrop to life, a spire that can be spotted when approaching the city from almost any angle. However, I can never bring myself just to walk past.

I have to go in to the cathedral every time and find An Arundel Tomb. Larkin's poem is hung in a frame alongside. By now, there's no need to look at the text, as its words fall through my lips of their own accord, but I still do, line by line, for the sake of the ritual. I take David, my son, whenever he's with me, and we read it together. He learns how poetry can make such a shiver-inducing lump come alive...

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Delicious adverbs, Mel Pryor's Small Nuclear Family

Received wisdom tends to indicate that poets should avoid adverbs whenever possible. This is patently absurd: we need every linguistic tool available. Of course, adverbs can provoke a calamitous fall, but they can also lift a poem when in the hands of an expert like Mel Pryor, as she demonstrates on several occasions in her first full collection, Small Nuclear Family (Eyewear Publishing, 2015).

One such example occurs in her poem “Hokusai”, which portrays a pocket of emotion, as in the following extract:

“Since he upped and left her and their son
for the printmaker in Tokyo,

I’ve noticed how she curves forward slightly
like a tall Japanese wave breaching

the moment between rise and fall…”

Mel Pryor takes her character and scene, and then homes in on a resonant detail, that afore-mentioned pocket of emotion. In this case, it’s the way her character curves forward slightly.  Implicit restraint, via the adverb, is placed in juxtaposition to the latent power of the wave.

Here is a further instance of Pryor’s deft use of adverbs, from “Your girlfriend’s red leather jacket”:

“…my elbow pushing out the hollow shaped by hers,
and under the top left pocket with her lipstick in
the beat of my heart fitting precisely the beat of hers.”

The use of precisely once again lends an extra charge to the verb, while the final line’s gorgeous cadence mirrors that of a heartbeat, music married to sense.

And now for a third example, this time from “Housework”:

“…How glorious, to be held like that,
his little paunch in the small of her back,

her hands pulling his hands against the rolls of her belly,
the warmth of his cheek pressing through her hair,

and below them laid out messily
in the drawer, the knives, forks and spoons.”

Pryor celebrates physical imperfection before underlining her point with messily, revelling  in the counterpoint of an unexpected partnership between verb and adverb. Via her skilled portrayal of this specific detail, the poem comes alive.

Mel Pryor’s Small Nuclear Family builds its emotional impact via an idiosyncratic, delightful blend of approaches that surprises the reader, poem after poem. I’ll be coming back to it for a long time to come.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Jamie Baxter

I've blogged previously about the fundamental role that top-notch poetry journals can play in drawing our attention to new names and keeping us up with more established writers' recent work. Perhaps one of the most consistent over-achievers in this respect is The Next Review, and its latest issue is no exception.

On finally finding time to sit down and read through it, five poems by Jamie Baxter leapt off the page. They were keenly observed, measured, restrained yet packed with emotional charge. I googled him, of course, and encountered further excellent examples of his verse at The Literateur (see link here).  Another poet to follow and another reminder of why I value my magazine subscriptions so much!

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Inspiring and depressing

Kate Clanchy's recent feature in The Guardian, titled The Very Quiet Foreign Girls poetry group, was both inspiring and depressing.

The inspiring aspect was the way Clanchy described how she used poetry to help her disadvantaged pupils, demonstrating once more just how powerful verse can be as a positive influence on traumatised children. The depressing aspect was her point of comparison with a very different group that she had taught some years before:

"I had judged the Foyle and run the course back in 2006, and seven years on, the Foyle young poets group I had taught were scything through Oxbridge, publishing poetry pamphlets with Faber, writing for the national press, and all the time networking frantically. By mixing together this group of exceptionally talented youngsters – many of them privileged but a few definitely not – that course had forcefully changed most of their lives. I wanted some of that for our students: not just the poetry, but the sense of entitlement, and, yes, the networking too."

I have absolutely nothing against the Foyle Young Poets scheme, quite the opposite in fact, while I understand and share Clanchy's well-meaning argument. My concern is with the portrayal of that first group's achievements, with the implicit definition of success and the conception of poetry as a career that revolves around "networking frantically". Verse is a vocation, never a career.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

The ache of possibility, Alan Buckley's The Long Haul

Alan Buckley’s new pamphlet, The Long Haul (HappenStance Press, 2016), sets out its stall from the title onwards.

The afore-mentioned title works on two levels. On the one hand, it’s the closing words to a delicious poem called “Stalactites”. On the other, it’s an implicit reference to Buckley’s poetic journey. Following a well-received pamphlet back in 2009, this is only his second publication. He represents the antithesis of a careerist bright young thing.

Hard-earned, slow-burning skill runs throughout The Long Haul. The pacing of lines is so measured and precise that the craft and ear involved go almost unnoticed. One specific example of Buckley’s deft pacing is his use of qualifiers, as in the following extract from “Loch Ness”:

“…Better, surely, to have
the doubt, the ache of possibility.”

Meanwhile, in another poem, titled “His Failure”, Buckley takes those qualifiers a step further into altered repetition:

“… I felt
Like a god. No – scrub the indefinite article –
like God. My hangover, though, was two days of hell…”

Only an extremely talented and experienced poet can pull off this device and make it necessary to the poem in hand. Moreover, Buckley qualifies his statements not to undermine them but to layer them and grant them depth.

Aesthetic texturing works hand in hand with pivotal thematic concerns. Buckley portrays the long-learnt absence of absolutes in language and life. The kid, the student, the young lover are all gone and are all still there in the older man. He dares to feel, again and again, as in “Flame”:

“…And lovers know too
how even a single
flame might raise
a scar that time can’t heal.

So come, stand next to me;
let’s flip this little box.
Strike softly away from the body.
See how it urges us.”

Of course, the key here is the sudden rush of “urges” after two weak syllables, cadence melded to meaning.

This is an unusual pamphlet by an unusual poet, one who quietly grafts and grafts away, before presenting us with sure-footed piece after sure-footed piece. A first full collection by Alan Buckley would be a book to behold. For the moment and for a fair old time to come, we’ll have to savour these nineteen chiselled poems. After all, he’s in it for The Long Haul.

Friday, 8 July 2016

The cat flap

As part of the website for his new proofreading and copy editing venture, Copy Cats, Richie McCaffery has launched a poetry-oriented blog, titled The Cat Flap, alongside the business side of things.

There are already several intriguing and thought-provoking posts on subjects such as the value or otherwise of poetry reviews (see here) and the possible reasons why certain poets are forgotten while others are fêted (see here). The Cat Flap is an extremely welcome addition to the poetry blogging scene and I'll be following its progress with relish!