Matters of Form
Ellen Cranitch on pamphlets, chapbooks and smaller collections from independent presses
Claire Crowther, Mollicle, Nine Arches
Ross Sutherland, Twelve Nudes, Penned in the Margins
Alasdair Paterson, Brumaire and Later, Flarestack Poets
Paul McLoughlin, The Road to Murreigh, Shoestring
Fiona Sze-Lorrain, Water the Moon, Marick Press
Anthony Cronin, The Fall, New Island
In the best poetry it’s impossible to separate form from content. A number of poets in these six recent collections actively explore the tension between the two in a bold and experimental way. Claire Crowther’s latest, Mollicle (daughter – a diminutive of ‘moll’) cuts through thematic territory which includes women, the natural landscape and the homogeneity of European nation states. Along the way we get a sparkling reworking of ‘The Jabberwocky’ and the very funny use of the word ‘Cassocks’ in a sentence to itself. The work is characterized by keen intelligence, muscular syntax and wit.
‘Birthday’ is a visceral blast of a poem – reading it feels like standing in front of a fan on full power with streamers flying in your face. A single-sentence, quasi-sonnet with fifteen under-punctuated lines, it pivots on a characteristic Crowther image of mirrored glass; its achievement is the way in which it communicates a manic intensity of motion, of being shoved hither and thither by what’s conventionally regarded as a fixed chronological landmark. Equally arresting, but, for me, somewhat less successful overall is the last poem in the pamphlet ‘A Wanderer in End Erring Wood’ with its singing title reminiscent of those of Jen Hadfield. Shadows of Robert Frost fall across this piece with its references to birches and paths but the emphasis here is squarely on one woman’s survival through being of use and through routine actions. We see this in the striking image and reflexive wordplay of the poem’s last lines where the speaker exhorts the reader to find her, the lost Wanderer, or at least:
external organ, full of function
and my marks on snowy bark,
finally at ease with repetition –
find them, find them.
Poetry should feel that it needed to be written and the imperative of Crowther’s work derives from the urgency of the poet’s concern to press form into an absolutely germane relationship with content; however the formal challenge here is to find a form which will express the metaphorical forest without feeling, of itself, too unrelievingly dense.
Ross Sutherland’s Twelve Nudes opens with ‘Three Minor Complaints’. Not only do these prose poems flirt ingeniously with the ghost of the sonnet form – with their opening gambits, elaborately delivered conceits and emphatic turns – they also play on the Middle English etymology of ‘complaint’, a ‘complaynt’ being an expression of lamentation, later also carrying the sense of an allegation. Each piece starts with a confession which is then surreally undercut in a longer section, which opens ‘This is unfortunate as…’ The second complaint is my favourite. Here, the speaker asserts just how much he hates the phrase ‘at the end of the day’. This is then developed with hallucinatory humour into the ‘unfortunate’ scenario where the speaker is revealed to be a hostage whose captors, wearing Dracula masks, know only this phrase of English; therefore the hostage must work out which command they are giving each time they employ it.
The ingenuity, pace and spiraling development of each piece is akin to improvised comedy, where speed of thought is at such a premium. You could easily imagine these being done as stand-up. By the time you come to the third, the sort of keen anticipation that accompanies the recognition of a repeated joke’s established rhythms and format has seriously kicked in. Pithy similes are a hallmark of Sutherland’s work, for example, ‘a blood clot finally entered his brain like a sheriff entering a disreputable saloon’ (‘Three Minor Complaints’) and his ideas often take aphoristic shape –
Our fear of public speaking began in childhood when public speakers burst into our living rooms and murdered our families.
– or revel in surreal juxtapositions:
You wake to find the nurse
reattaching the ends of your sentences
But, unsurprisingly, given the degree of overlap between comic and poetic genres, Sutherland’s writing is also able to unearth the tragedy of everyday life as in this poignantly absurd description of a hospital:
The waiting room is a storeroom for fused animatronics.
Slanted uncles deep inside yellow chairs
dispense tiny moans into cups.
You take a seat beneath a diagram of a vagina
and pick up a book on how to write comedy,
written by a guy who used to be the voice
of Dennis the Menace back in the nineties.
Clever and destabilizing, this poetry’s voice is abrupt, sometimes rueful. Bracingly unreliable, it fires its statements out with a fluency that persuades you of the mad logic of its universe. On several occasions, it made me laugh out loud.
Alasdair Paterson’s poetry is interested in designation. The title of both pamphlet and poems stand in the kind of relationship to the work that sets you thinking about Saussurean semiotics. ‘Brumaire’ refers to an act of re-signifying – the French revolution’s re-naming of the months of the year; ‘Brumaire’ is the second, the month of mist. Poems in the pamphlet’s first half, generally focused on violent events of the period, each bear a title from a fruit or vegetable, for example, ‘Apple’, ‘Celery’, ‘Pear’. Sometimes a poem and title spark off one another as in ‘Madder’ – a red herb which summons the bloody bath water in which Marat was killed, but more often the schematic titling conceit tends to deaden what energy might arise had the poem below been allowed to breathe.
Moreover, the poetry’s subject matter raises the question of how best to write about revolution and war. Having recently finished War and Peace and recalling Simon Schama’s Citizens, I’m struck by how viscerally those prose accounts communicate violence. Poetry’s perennial sense of responsibility – to be authentic to experience – is particularly acute in war poems, which will often alight on forms that facilitate eyewitness terms. To this end, poets have often innovated forms – think of Brian Turner in Here, Bullet creating a poem which moves like a camera panning, David Harsent in Legion evoking violence with disquieting intimacy via a free verse that exquisitely negotiates its white space. By contrast, there’s something rather cool about Paterson’s initial sequence.
However, the second section, ‘Later’, evoking all revolutions after, is better. Here, the titles have looser connotations and are accordingly more sinister, suggestive of surveillance worlds, for example, that of the Stasi state. ‘Bookmark’ is especially powerful. Its context is a prisoner close to execution who has been permitted a book, seen in itself as a dangerous object. Subverting the idea of our relationship with a book, that we take things from it – emotions, landscapes, ideas – it ends with this haunting image:
Instead, when you open
these books, the last of you
flows into them like a charge.
Paul McLoughlin’s Road to Murreigh is a picaresque journey to the small town in the west of Ireland where the poet’s mother was born. It features three engaging central characters, his mother, now elderly, who has Alzheimer’s, James, her older brother and the poet himself. The sequence, a lyrical and humane encounter with people and place, sets out to probe the contradictions of memory and family history. This is poetry which never doubts that its primary role is to honour its subjects. The town of Murreigh is the London-born McLoughlin’s pre-eminent imaginative landscape and he brings an affectionate curiosity to its anomalies and inhabitants.
The strength of the writing lies in a musical phrasing which consummately focuses the poems’ chief concerns. McLoughlin’s register is both lyrical and idiomatic; the natural convolution of Irish English is aptly harnessed to express paradox:
There are simple truths…
that’s what’s revisited is changed,
even when you weren’t there at the time
and all you know is by report;
Here, the first line’s emphatic present tense suggests, intriguingly a causal relationship between the act of going back and the fact of change. Alert, like Paul Muldoon, to the idiomatic grain of the language, McLoughlin incorporates his vernacular turns of phrase into the poetic line in a quieter fashion:
you notice most,
…how far back where you come from goes.
McLoughlin is stronger on phrasing than on form and some poems can feel rather arbitrary in their layout:
For the umpteenth time you ask
contrary James how many
sugars has he in his teas. The smile
he shakes his head with’s meant for me.
(‘Mother in Murreigh’)
That last sentence, and therefore maybe the whole gently humorous poem, feels very much as if it’s innately iambic pentameter.
Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s elegiac poetry displays that preternatural sensitivity to words typical of the multi-linguist. Sifting through the several cultures that have formed her – English, French and Chinese – Water the Moon’s limpid diction expresses emotion with restrained simplicity. Inevitably, she is drawn to pursue matters of identity and belonging – sometimes with a quizzical humour: ‘Today I still have no idea // how to eat porridge with chopsticks’ (‘Breakfast, Rue Sainte-Anne’), other times with a flash of pain: ‘Why is the edge always bleeding?’ (‘We’ll Always Have Her’). Traces of ancient Chinese culture – the symbolic meanings of moon, calligraphy, ‘ideograms of dashed bamboo and mandarin / ducks’ (‘My Grandmother Waters The Moon’) – feature throughout the book. However, the collection is largely a testament to the rarer notion that you can choose to bestow your identity upon a landscape. It is Paris which ultimately emerges as Sze-Lorrain’s spiritual home.
The writing is characterized by deliberation and an airy delicacy. Some poems feel less urgent than others but even the block poems breathe. Sze-Lorrain is alert to form and whilst the tercet stanzas of ‘L’Assiette des Trois Amis’ aren’t wholly successful, the unrhymed villanelle ‘Along Ludlow Street’ with its sonic reversal of the plosives ‘k’ and ‘p’ in the words ‘Cupid’ and ‘Peking’, lingers.
The most memorable feature of Anthony Cronin’s collection The Fall is the bathetic voice. This poet, writing in his eighties, covers history, life and death. Samuel Beckett has been described as being ‘angry with God for not existing’ and something of the same attitude is evident in Cronin’s work which, in poems like ‘On the Death of an Auschwitz Survivor’ both takes God on and tells Him where to get off.
The danger of this particular cast of voice is that lines can veer towards the prosaic and essential musicality can be compromised. However the work is notable for its tenderness about human relationships. It asserts that ordinary life, our common humanity, is the most important stay against death and the passage of time. The enduring power of Ireland as symbolic place – not mythical, but real, urban, everyday – put me in mind of Nick Laird’s opening poem, ‘Conversation’, in On Purpose where an abruptly luminous image rises from chaos, violence and detritus:
Here. Where afternoon rain pools in the fields
and windows in the houses facing west turn gold.
In ‘Birthday Thoughts’, in a stanza suddenly set apart, Cronin gives us a similar epiphanic moment:
I live in Ranelagh
I watch the clouds break
That this may be all there is to say is not to deny the power of saying it, and indeed the latter infuses the former until assertion itself, like song, becomes the most important factor in our struggle against mortality. It is invigorating to read from a poet at this stage of life that joy is still very much part of living and cannot be eclipsed by suffering. As he puts it in ‘A Man’:
Nevertheless he receives it
Humbly, but as of right,
This chance windfall of a happiness.
And to return to matters of form, one of the more striking poems in the book is the one from which its takes its title. ‘The Fall’, a subversive hymn of praise to the disgraced Adam and Eve, consists of four quatrains, rhyming on alternate lines, in the common measure of the ballad. It has an inner tension, born of form and content’s dynamic cross-examination, as it salutes the first couple for choosing to quit the Garden in order to embrace only uncertainty and one another.