The Romantic, the Fragile and the Complex
‘Self-Portrait with the Happiness’ by David Tait, ‘Beauty/Beauty’ by Rebecca Perry and ‘Otherwise’ by John Dennison
Review by Mike Barlow
Three first collections by young poets, each giving prominence to personal relationships, offer an opportunity to get a feel for the shape lyric poetry might be taking these days.
David Tait’s Self-Portrait with The Happiness opens with ‘Puppets’, a poem which, had I been browsing in a bookshop, would have made me buy it immediately. It employs metaphor to great effect and ends: ‘Love everywhere, and so much of it; so much you can hardly see the strings.’
Indeed, this could be said of the collection as a whole. His poems are all about love in one form or another, whether the recalled emotions of a particular place and time: ‘closest/ to whatever God we’ve made of our doubts’ or of separation and loss: ‘My mind was still focused on the bed / we’d shared without sharing and the shock / I’d felt at feeling more than I should’. And then there’s the immediate and erotic – the prominent business of hormones: ‘Then he went down on me // with such systematic intensity / that I came in moments’. But there’s more tenderness than abandon in this open-hearted book.
The title poem gives a flavour of the writing:
How quickly it comes up in us, the happiness:
hung like a chicken in a Chinatown window,
filling with thoughts like a wound clock.
Today, for instance, the happiness barged in
like a basket of fruit and we ate it until it was gone.
‘Self-Portrait with The Happiness’
Throughout, his choice of imagery is apt and original. Many of the moments he focuses on happen in very particular locations, his home town of Lancaster, The Lake District, Prague, Paris, and he has the knack of conjuring place and emotion together to bring both alive for the reader.
Essentially an optimistic book, he nonetheless doesn’t shy from the darkness:
like the man cycling
between railway tracks, who might never
have existed, who pedals with a swastika
stitched on his right arm, a Doberman flanking
his left hand side. This is how I am sometimes.
‘Self-Portrait with Corridor’
When he’s in elegaic mode, there can still be a robustness and uplift about it. In “Self-Portrait in Tears” the tears don’t come until
I was wiping down an innocent treadmill,
sweat was pouring through my open pores
and my heart was beating as fast as it had
in the time since you’d died and I’d lived.
There are poems of intimacy and wit, ‘Dust’, ‘End Credits’ – ‘the credits rolled and we tore off our clothes / and love spooled before us’ – and one or two not afraid to tackle big existential moments, like ‘Self-Portrait with the Sadness’ – ‘Either way, there’s something bigger than I can write.’ And the writing is fluent, authentic and sure of itself.
The title of Rebecca Perry’s Beauty/Beauty gives little away, and the contents, mostly poems about friendship, family, love, loss, pets and other creatures, have an enigmatic feel to them. On a first read through, as I tried to get my bearings in the book, I was struck by the poem ‘A Most Satisfactory Dreamlife’ with its epigraph from Ann Carson’s The Glass Essay. Although incorporating lines and phrases from Ann Carson, there is also a wider stylistic similarity, albeit without the gravitas of the older poet – the apparently dispassionate, almost laconic down-to-earth tone, creating a subjective charge.
Last week a woman was crying beside me on the bus;
I willed my body to generate heat for her.
This felt like a common reaction.
I tried to wear my own absence of heartbreak lightly.
This tone runs through much of the collection, as if the poet is standing back from her emotions in order to allow them to speak for themselves. However a lack of narrative focus in many of the poems could leave readers unsure where they are and risks disengaging them. The juxtaposition of statements and ideas can become almost cryptic at times, as in ‘The Execution of Lady Jane Grey’, a dialogue between the executioner X and Lady Jane J:
X: We who are left behind will pray for you.
J: I had hoped to see one final bird before the end.
X: There’s an edge to the air.
J: Despatch me quickly.
X: This is your life’s final transaction.
J: I have never taken pleasure in money.
A number of poems draw on other sources. ‘A prayer for the wild at heart kept in cages’ is apparently inspired by and quotes from Tenessee Williams:
And since we’re all sentenced to solitary confinement
inside our own skins,
and since physical beauty is transitory,
we should all learn to live with it.
Among more playful poems is ‘Phonograph’ with its weird near-narrative comprised of phrases taken, we’re told, from Pitman’s Short-hand Instructor.
From time to time she likes to play with typographical layout, such as varied gaps between words and lines spaced across the page, which for me was a distraction. In most cases I found myself trying to read despite this effect and wishing for a more conventional form, although in ‘Other Clouds’, an affecting piece about fatherly advice while driving, the jerky spaces reflect something of the intermittent nature of the event.
In the many poems about friendship and love there is often a sense of fragility and transience: ‘What’s the use of trying to be pretty and dreaming / of ridiculous dresses when love is just an apple / being eaten from the inside?’ And there’s even a downside to good fortune: ‘the writer feels verbose and embarrassed / by her overwhelmingly positive experience of life’.
Her writing about late adolescence/early adulthood may appeal to that same generation with an understated edgy message about imposed expectations, but a less accomplished and more immature voice gains prominence here. For example ‘A Woman’s Bones Are Purely Ornamental’ is an over-long recounting of the last year at school: ‘we have each been our worst ever kiss / to someone else’. And ‘The Year I was Born’, very much a workshop poem, lists events month by month but fails to reach beyond itself.
As a first collection Beauty/Beauty reveals an emerging voice with a distinctive feel about it. But it’s a mixed collection, and some of these poems probably won’t stand the test of time. Unfortunately the back cover blurb is over-the-top and would be hard for anyone to live up to, which is unfair to a young poet whose best is yet to come.
After the terse fragility of Rebecca Perry and the romanticism of David Tait, I had anticipated, from the Carcanet blurb for Otherwise, a wider perspective on love from John Dennison. However this is a complex read. The love referred to is a more all-encompassing state.
Love marked me; love shaped me;
and this mothering grammar holds
‘The Extra Mile’
While the ostensible subject matter is friends, family, journeys and home, the voice often celebratory, threading the collection as a whole is a sort of private metaphysics. The poet is a chaplain from New Zealand whose references and allusions may have greater meaning and impact on those who share his faith than they do for others. The language is worked and crafted, but can seem dense on first reading, with a tendency towards a colloquially mannered style. Two separate uses of the phrase ‘there’s the thing’ is at least one too many for one collection.
Several poems are dedicated to particular individuals, and quite a few address a ‘beloved’ – sometimes, to my ear, a self-conscious note of intimacy which risks excluding the reader. From time to time the actual reader is invoked, and yet it feels as if the poet’s primary audience is himself as he draws on internalised experience or recondite references.
There are many occasions when I had difficulty working out what was going on without the framework of some external knowledge. For instance the second poem in the collection relates to the intriguing image on the cover. Titled Crookes’ Radiometer it requires knowing what this instrument is (thank you Wikipedia) in order to find a way through the poem and appreciate some of the imagery.
Frequently the writing seems too wrought for the subject matter. A sequence of four poems about sitting on the loo yields:
And there’s grace:
not to be going out or coming in
but set in the threshold, your solar plexus rise
and fall in step with all who are undone.
‘There’s One Straight Out of the Box’
Often in these epiphanies and descriptions I wanted to be moved, but somehow the language got itself in the way. ‘The Immanent Frame’, about a passenger (child?) looking out of a misted-up car window, starts with intensely focused description then moves into more cryptic syntax.
she signs off, staring
and scraping on panes shuddering
with the diesel push of it all,
while all the while is carried
through, unsensing each
extra mile which goes
Those willing to read closely and do a bit of decoding will probably gain most from this collection. But that’s not to say there aren’t more immediate rewards, not least in the language itself. For instance ‘Soaked’, actually a cycling poem, starts with ‘The corbelled, shuttered town, / and the heart all cobble and kerb.’ and later on displays an example of the sort of striking and surpising imagery which can be found throughout the book with ‘and the larks / loosen their wee spigots / over the scoured fields’. Then, among the several sonnets we find Reed where:
…thoughts shaking and lame –
my doubtful fingers read the bole-cast braille
where some king of fools cut his name
There are often clever moments which point to a seriously playful element in the writing, such as the contextually apposite line ‘some things bear repeating’ in a touching villanelle. But, for all the pleasures to be found here, the overall effect is of a poet trying too hard at the expense of the reader.
BEAUTY/BEAUTY by Rebecca Perry, 87pp, £9.95, Bloodaxe Books Ltd, Eastburn, South Park, Hexham, Northumberland, NE46 1BS
OTHERWISE by John Dennison, 61pp, £9.99, Carcanet Press, Alliance House, Manchester, M2 7AQ