28 November, 2011Issue 17.4LiteraturePoetry

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British Verses

Aime Williams

Best British PoetryRoddy Lumsden (ed.)
The Best British Poetry 2011
Salt Publishing, 2011
176 Pages
ISBN 978-1907773044


The Best British Poetry 2011, edited by Roddy Lumsden, is an anthology of meticulous compilation: after a year spent foraging in the various British literary magazines, Lumsden has gathered 70 poems—representing 70 poets. In a format openly indebted to The Best American Poetry series, each poet has in turn commented on their poem’s inception. Fundamental to the nature of this collection is the method of the editor; this is not an anthology of the most celebrated contemporary poets. Rather than being selected by virtue of reputation, each poet wins their place in this book by having a single good poem published in a magazine this year. As such, some of the names are obscure, but every poem repays forensic reading. Refreshingly, there is little holding this anthology together thematically; although a couple of themes are more common than others. The modernist suspicion about the possibility of meaningful communication is worried over a lot—and it’s interesting to see that it remains a contemporary concern. However, what’s most striking is the diversity of style that a relatively small anthology manages to contain.

One of its earlier offerings, Mike Bannister’s “Satin Moth”, provides us with a metaphor of the collection’s variety. Its preoccupation is with the different properties of things:

Defiant Lymantriide, you advertise,
against the protocols of subterfuge,
flaring, pristine, rebellious in the night;
stealing in to our dream on soundless wings
to taste the obscure chemistries we share
with poplars, or the willow leaf.

As we read, precise classification (and with it, notions of order and hierarchy) evaporates into “the obscure chemistries we share”; the empirical solidity of that “Lymantriide” dissolves into an oneiric being. “Subterfuge”, too, gets at this quiet transmutation—all the more clearly when the word’s Latin roots are recalled (subterfugere: escape secretly). The subterfuge is self-reflexive: in its entirety, the line “against the protocols of subterfuge” suggests a dismissal of such subterfuge. Yet we come to a turning point as the moth is found “stealing in to our dream”. Read retrospectively, then, our understanding of the subterfuge line is altered: it must have been the “protocols” of subterfuge done away with, not the subterfuge itself. The rules are disregarded: though this, too, is contradicted by a slyly conducted pentametric line, which slowly disintegrates approaching the final stanza.

This is in part a poem about noticing; a poem about what Bannister describes as “considering the metaphoric / significance of ordinary things”—yet there remains something of the loss of things, too. It’s a subtle effect, initiated in the first instance by that comma stopping the first line, making an intransitive of a transitive verb—we can only wait for a subject that never comes. It’s an elsewhereness that, moth-like, flutters down into the final line (“stillness for the ghost of stillness”), leaving the poetic voice both settled and trailing behind some indefinable thing-in-itself.

Giles Goodland’s “Waves” gets at a similar elsewhereness, but this time moves it away from the level of thought to hint at the inadequacy of words themselves as they hover in an intersubjective realm. As in W.S. Graham, thwarted attempts to gather them are figured in the repetitive rhythms of the tide:

The sea is a misunderstanding
we have to go through in order to make sense,
like the word for the loss of a word.
It leaves a sense of having left,
through which silence leaks.

These lines skillfully encompass a difficult reflexivity that embraces, rather than rejects, boundaries. The uncertain and dislocated “it” momentarily offers a hope that we can gesture toward that lost word, but this begins to be unravelled by the vagueness of “a sense”. “Silence” is positioned strongly, here; absoluteness overpowers the nebulosity of the preceding lines—we have lost hope. Subtle repetitions across stanzas maintain the delicate rhythmic balance of returning tides. It’s the uncommon way this poem deals with a commonplace anxiety (“you live in a house made of thought”) that makes it such a good piece of writing. The panic is sunk in the obliquity of the closing lines, which, with striking imagistic force, return us to those familiar themes of silence, incommunicability, helplessness:

Lip-read the sea rolling in pain. See
such children it sucks like a sweet.

The pebbles are frantic under them.

Emily Berry is also preoccupied with the points at which language falters—but her gothic “Arlene” demonstrates so in a very different way. The narrator becomes obsessed with the name, repeating it as a mantra until we no longer seem to understand what it means, or whether it comforts or not. But where Berry particularly succeeds is in positioning her voice on the tonal knife-edge between hysteria and relief:

Thank you, Arlene. Thanks for this opportunity. Thanks
for this shaft of light lying like a plank across the floor.
Thanks for the visceral scrape of the freezer trays,
and for a picture of a lady with no clothes on. Most of all,
thank you, Arlene, for giving us things we did not have before…

This suggestion of a supernaturally induced Stockholm syndrome moves into a less obvious verbal Stockholm syndrome. In a poem where the prison is uncertainty, the stability of the single stable word is quietly interrogated. “Arlene” is offered as the word to describe unknowns both resembling “God”, and later, “the devil”:

… We didn’t know if we were talking to God,
or Arlene, or someone else. She was behind us like a devil.
The devil had her hand on my back and she stroked our hair
and she was sweet Arlene…

And so it goes on, with attractive energy, juxtaposing certainty with uncertainty—moving swiftly from safety to danger and then back again. The alternative of a world devoid of Arlene appears as a kind of existential solitude.

“Delicacy”, by Catherine Ormell, uses a similar repetition. It’s refreshing to see an identical technique used by two very different poets to achieve two very different effects. The difference lies in Ormell’s use of “plum” as not quite a euphemism, but at least as a distraction. Obsession here is more a willful preoccupation, rather than terrifying uncertainty, as in Berry’s poem. Ormell begins:

The chateau would have been beautiful though melancholy
if the birdscarer had not gone off from five a.m.
with the dreadful crack of a gun, every nineteen minutes
and fourteen seconds, in the name of plums.

Tellingly, that lost “beautiful” Eden of the chateau is beautiful only along with “melancholy”. The prelapsarian tranquility might be ruined, but it never sounded all that good to begin with. Ormell manages to retain gravitas until the last, and the controlled bathos—building through the polite “dreadful” of the gun; the precision of the time; the hinted indignation at the reason for this disturbance of “melancholy”. These things all point toward the tendency of the troubled mind to fixate upon an irrelevant fact or object in order to function—in order, as suggested by the opening, perhaps, to get out of bed in the morning. The poem could be read as a description of middle-class neurosis: the “chateau”, the hunting, the “delicacy”. The last of these is figured both as the literal plum (although, amusingly, they’re plentiful) and that purpose of the plum: namely distraction from more meaningful things (“I’m sure I can feel my cardiac plum darken”). It’s subtler version of what Edward Lear does: the juxtaposing of inexplicable horror with extreme politeness.

This same strange, repetitive word substitution technique is taken up by Amy De’Ath, who knowingly extrapolates it beyond the bounds of emotional sense:

Who cares about the psychosocial fabrications of a lusty brick?
What if it’s wrong?
What if I want to lie, compete, ease my conscience on a salty brick?

Rest my hot cheek pearling beads of salt onto the
perverse orange brick of perverse consolation with
radical implications for all girls and boys who dare to be
churlish, who forget the brick and blossom of my body
and remember to speak through the irony of
windbreakers broken by the wind and tossed to sea in
the bedroom where no one has sex.

The flippant forward motion of these lines is attractive, but they perhaps don’t live up to their own swagger. They’re lines that comment self-reflexively on their own “perverse” nature. In asserting their “radical implications for all girls and boys who dare to be / churlish”, they summon the voice Burt attributes to poets of the elliptical school: one that “speaks the poem and reflects the poet”. In this sense, De’Ath is conventional: we move from the hubris of the opening voice to a series of distorted scenes in a manner common to the conventions of what critic Stephen Burt has dubbed “elliptical” poetry. Even so, this is primarily an American style of writing, and interesting to see in a young, British poet—albeit one who’s spent time studying in the United States.

What seems uncertain is whether the recurrent surrealist use of “brick” quite does what De’Ath wants it to. It supports a self-conscious claim to radicalism that the poem doesn’t successfully pull off—not here. Still, there are some nice moments: the “irony of / windbreakers broken by the wind and tossed to sea” violently rewrites Heaney’s more tepid image of seed-cutters kneeling “behind a windbreak wind is breaking through”. There are also good things elsewhere:

Arriving at the beach in the context of a coveting
style of life, in the scrubby bench I found again
my teeth

There’s a deliberate awkwardness to these lines, though it’s difficult not to hear in them a flat-toned Prufrock, wandering about in his new “context”, “coveting”. And if you notice that, then you also think of Eliot when you encounter:

In the comfort of the taking, to the extent the dead
men. However they died to me. However they sold
their wares on the doorstep on red tiles I saw them

I have so far mentioned just a few of the poems in this collection, and I should do more to point out its stylistic breadth. That’s quickest done by leaping from De’Ath to W.N. Herbert, with his “Errant” (or an extract from it). Within the context of this anthology, Herbert seems deeply unfashionable. He rhymes in a way that is rare here—and fashion (or lack of it) is an idea he plays about in the early lines:

A daoist vegetarian, too hip
to compromise the future with his vote;
a dope who, vindicated by the trip,
still couldn’t tell the ocean from the boat,
got off his floating world, grew backwards to
the family as art, then failed to follow through.

Plodding perfect rhymes offset the sentiment with conformity, with the obvious disappointed rhyme made at the obvious moment. Anxiety is the thing shared with the other poems by other poets, but this anxiety is not a trendy one about the abyss or the failure of language. Rather, this is an anxiety produced by a cancer scare—even the anxiety is refreshingly old-fashioned. The “brain” is first an “anxious loch”, “through which an ageing doctor wasn’t sure / but thought she saw a tumour like a trout” and later an extinguishing force: “the cat’s eyes / that should have lit its single track all scratched / out by anxiety”. Place names recur, we travel about the various roads, we wake up in hospital and move into dreamscapes:

I saw the frightening place I’d visited
back in the Haugh, though like the country of the dead

was never there at all, instead it was
a Helicon, that habitation next
to clarity, awake to lack of cause
and simple as cold water’s lens, its flex
of sunlight in cupped palms. Placed outside text,
you watch that scorpion beside your foot
and see it has no goals, is unperplexed
and ready as a sickness. There’s no route
that leads to anywhere but here; no shame,
no game: the Silk Road and the Low Road are the same.

The line breaks carefully shift the meaning of the end words onto another “foot”—”next” moves from a temporal “next” to a spatial “next to”; “flex” slides to “flecks”; “shame” is made a mockery of in a parodic boys’ toilet chant—before the shrugging indifference of that extra closing rhyme. It’s a slipperiness that fits that impossible “sunlight in cupped palms” or the dual roads. “Foot”, too, is both the metrical foot and the human foot stepped out of the world of the poem. Whichever foot we choose to remain with, the scorpion—that danger with “lack of cause”—is unavoidable.

Mark Burnhope takes on this despair problem with a parodic side-swipe in his “Twelve Steps Towards a Better Despair”, with its sashaying lines:

Make sure you have shouldered the world for a man who tried
dying — sorry, died trying—to climb a cliff summit,
or summat like it, to find a stronger sunlight

A charming feigned imprecision—the herculean charm of the despairing—lapses momentarily to reveal a hidden intensity of sentiment. One is reminded of Thomas Mann’s observation that ironists are drawn from the sentimental.

It’s difficult not to become addicted to flipping between the poems and the poets, reading and re-reading, switching between your own understanding and the poet’s. The two often merge into a palimpsestic conclusion. Sometimes those back-page notes are a poet’s reading of their poem, but often they’re just a note on how the poem came to be. It’s difficult to say whether this really added anything to the reading experience, but it’s an interesting quirk in an interesting anthology, comprising a more eclectic collection of poems than any short review could adequately capture. Burnhope writes of an iceberg that “it will stand / for solid material to marvel at”— and this review can only touch the tip.

Aime Williams is reading for an MA in English Literature at University College London.