Out of this world and back again: Review by Richie McCaffery
‘The Way the Crocodile Taught Me’ by Katrina Naomi, ‘Spacecraft’ by John Mcculloch and ‘Chan’ by Hannah Lowe
Review by Richie McCaffery
All three of these collections happen to be the follow-up books to widely critically lauded first collections, which puts them all also in a dangerous territory. Will each poet cement the reputation they gained with the first book, develop their voice in new ways or perhaps produce something that is secondary to that first collection?
On first reading, I was most drawn towards Katrina Naomi’s style. It feels to me the most accessible here – there is a condensed lyrical intensity to these poems and they are unafraid to make big dramatic disclosures to the reader. The problem step-father looms oppressively over the collection – we’re reminded on multiple occasions of his weight (‘17 stones’) and how he beat the speaker’s mother. The whole book reads in an elegiac light – an elegy for the speaker’s mother foremost, but also the speaker’s nan – and there’s an element of truth and reconciliation to the poems – that an anger has given way to a forgiveness of sorts:
… I can’t talk to you,
knowing he’s also there, listening,
All these years, his 17 stone
pressing down on you, crushing
the soil between you.
… I forgive you,
as I always have. I forgive you
for marrying him.
(from ‘Letter to my Mother’)
Though it’s less noticeable than in Lowe’s collection, there’s a clear narrative arc to these poems and the way they’re ordered. We begin with a few poems that hint at something foreboding, but are largely domestic vignettes of a sort of early happiness. For instance, in ‘2 Edinburgh Walk’ the young speaker is given the promise of a swing but we’re also made aware of the ‘jilted art’ (wonderful phrase!) of previous tenants in the form of burn marks from an iron on the kitchen floor. In ‘Memory, (Margate 1969)’ we’re given the most fleeting glimpse of nostalgia, but it’s also undercut with the threat of death. The speaker’s real father is taking a picture at the seaside and the family are posing, on the cusp of things about to fall apart:
Finally I understand we are to smile
I stretch the muscles of my cheeks they touch the fur
I don’t know if my sister smiles she is so far below me
He jokes about stepping back I know I would die
I stay where I am take my sister’s small mitten in mine.
After that, things do fall apart, the father leaves and in come a succession of inept and often cruel step-fathers ending with the ‘17 stone’ tyrant. We hear how the speaker, after her father left, had to grow ‘a battery of hearts’ and that:
… the barbs of the heart that loved my father jut
as if from a pike’s lower lip,
a child’s heart
no larger than a grenade.
(from ‘The Romantic’)
Thereafter the speaker seeks solace and understanding in her nan and this gives rise to a long sequence of memories and elegies for her. However, even this is not simply wistful recollection – the poems unflinchingly chart her own decline in often searing and upsetting ways. And it’s here we are given the briefest hint that the speaker’s mother is dying of cancer. Thereafter, in the later sections the poems seem to lose focus somewhat and I don’t mean this as a criticism – the poet seems dramatically displaced and at a loss, looking around at the world for some sort of meaning. It’s easy to see how this fragmentation could happen, in harrowing poems like ‘The Bicycle’ where we are only given snippets of contexts but enough traumatic information to understand that a rape has taken place and the victim must pick themselves up and try to get back home on a bike they are too shaken and injured to ride. In ‘The History Teacher’ we learn of a butcher working as a history teacher who must censor the bloody parts from history for the sake of his class. This makes us as, readers of this frank and revealing collection, feel privileged. The book comes back to the theme of forgiveness in the long closing poem ‘Mantra’ where the speaker undertakes a spiritual odyssey, although the speaker’s belief in the hereafter is clearly absent.
Having spoken about Naomi’s accessibility, John McCullough’s Spacecraft perhaps makes more linguistic and intellectual demands upon the reader. The story at the emotive core of the book – essentially an elegy for a partner dead of an AIDS-related illness – is every bit as upsetting as Naomi’s, but McCulloch buries it more. In the first sequence we are given a very clever and bravura demonstration of the poet’s bag of tricks – it’s like a firework display. We get to see McCulloch’s interest in reviving archaic words, his love of verbal esoterica – for instance, do you know what ‘flother’ means, or ‘nullibiety’? There is even a poem celebrating the exclamation mark:
Here I am – a hot fountain in the garden
of language; the scratch of the vanquished,
those undone by the world, staring back,
astonished, at the hand that shaped me.
My fear upon reading these very clever and crafted poems was that the whole collection would be like this. A very admirable feat, very edifying, but perhaps not all that moving in the end. However, I think the key lies in the poem ‘1001 Nights’ which recounts a rather sexually fractious taxi ride with ‘Syed’ in a setting which seems Northern African. This, for me, instantly brings to mind Edwin Morgan’s most ambitious long poem The New Divan based loosely on North African story-telling and poetry where the reader is not always being forced by the writer into one fixed interpretation. Within Morgan’s poem is a coded disclosure of his own experiences during WW2 and his first homosexual experiences. I do not mention this to make some superficial comparison of two gay poets, but that I feel McCullough is up to the same thing here. Beneath all of the verbally exuberant and experimental poems there are, as the collection moves on, more candid glimpses of grief beneath these poetic brilliances. Take, for instance, ‘Glitter’ where the speaker saves leaves from a cherry tree by his lover’s grave:
I forget about the leaves.
They turn to autumn in my bag.
At Pride, the security guard holds
one up and laughs. What are you
planning on doing with this?
I don’t know, I say. I really don’t.
This is the speaker who had up until this point been flaunting their dazzling vocabulary, yet they cannot answer this simple question and that for me represents the emotive heart of the collection, where all of the aesthetic artifice has been stripped away. This poem is not alone too, and while I can’t here capture a sense of McCullough’s imaginative range and ambition, I believe the book boils down to poems like ‘Glitter’ above.
Hannah Lowe’s Chan comes with two pages of notes at the end of the book and, for once, these are no mere self-indulgence. You really need them to explain who some of the people are in these poems. I say ‘people’ because ‘characters’ would suggest someone fictitious. As Helena Nelson mentions in the blurb on the back cover – these poems stand out because they are about real people. The poems above are about real people too, but this book is much more consistently and strongly narrative and takes great pains to get details right through research. The story is fascinating and makes it feel like a powerful, urgent and necessary collection. ‘Chan’ was the nickname of Lowe’s father who boasted the legendary saxophone player Joe Harriott as his first cousin. While the first section plays tribute to Harriott’s virtuosic and pioneering style and life, it is done not merely to glorify him but also to depict the great difficulties of the immigrant experience in England in the 1950s through to the 1970s where ‘Joe and my father were shadows / on English streets’ (‘If You Believe: Ribs’). In ‘Ethnology’ we get a sense of what Joe Harriott had to go through to get his music out there:
(in Skye, the pier at dusk,
that shivering mongrel, jumping
through the freezing water
every time we threw an empty can),
so Joe kept playing – the shabby pubs
in seaside towns and working men’s clubs
where he slumped and had to sit to play.
Out of Harriott’s more illustriously tragic story, comes the more hidden story of the poet’s father and from that we are exposed to a polyphony of displaced, exilic and diasporic voices, from those on ships such as the Ormonde, sailing over to England from Jamaica in the 1940s/1950s to those left behind, who are revisited years later. While this exodus takes place, we begin to see the poet’s own ancestral, spiritual and existential quest take place. Lowe interrogates and tackles head on questions of heritage, race, prejudice and belonging and this is done particularly successfully in the final section of the book where we are presented with antiphonic poems (a form invented by Lowe called a ‘Borderliner’) – where we hear one older, historical monologue collide with a contemporary one, thus allowing great lacunas to be brought together on the page. Sometimes the lines merge into each other and make sense together, sometimes they don’t, for they can be read separately and together. These poems are, for me, the star lots of this collection. For instance, in ‘Mitchell/Mingus’ typically white cultural tastes (Joni Mitchell) mingle with the jazz of Harriott and Charles Mingus. The many journeys culminate with ‘High Yellow’ where the speaker has travelled to Jamaica to find the surviving members of her father’s family. There are no big reunions or easy answers to be had, the speaker must learn to come to terms with the remarkable but painful heritage they have and are about to bestow on their own child to be:
Errol drives me to Treasure Beach It’s an old story – the terrible storm
swerving the bleak country roads the ship going down, half the sailors
I think about what you will be, your mix drowned, half swimming the
White, black, Chinese and your father’s slate waves, spat hard on shore
Scottish-Englishness. We cross the Black River Smashed crates, bodies
where they shipped cane sugar and molasses choking on the dark sand
upstream, past a sign One man stands: What is this place? …