Monday, 28 November 2011

Reviewing The Mermaid.

The Mermaid and The Sailors.

Askew means 'not in a straight or level position' or 'wrong, awry'. It's synonymous with 'skew' or 'skewed' meaning 'to turn aside' or 'swerve' or 'to squint'. Some name for a poet. For perhaps the requirement for being a poet, if there are any other than simply a mouth and a pen, it might be that need to 'squint' at the world, not follow the straight line, to turn things aside, upside down, and not be afraid of the results. Claire Askew, squints her eyes at experience - in curiosity in concentration - and takes her slant on the page with control and clarity. Allow me to squint with my short-sighted eyes at the poetry of Lady Askew:

'Fable of The Mermaid and The Drunks' is the title of a poem by Pablo Neruda. The title of Claire Askews début pamphlet: 'The Mermaid & The Sailors' is a re-imagining of that title. I'm not sure Askew is deliberately alluding to it or whether the connection is a happy accident, I happened to note. Either way both poems bare some mining, but before that, the poem features here in its entirety, go swim with it:

The Mermaid and the Sailors

I seem to draw them to me.
They come swirling towards me
like tugboats
in the dusk – every tread unsteady.
They set their course
across the bar-room floor.

Some have life stories they need
to share. One recalled a fatal night
in the Navy: falling off the back
of a warship headed for Shanghai.
He said he stood for three days
on a reef, and prayed – and afterwards,
he clung to me
like a drowning man.

Often they're older, and the more
drunk they get, the taller
their tales. I've been told
of ten-year sentences
in Brazilian jails – of smuggling
and supplying – and so many times,
of the hundreds of starry rivets
soldered by scarred hands
into Her Majesty's hulls.

They're hooked by my red hair,
swarming like fish
to a bright fly. Half-scared,
they slide over with a Scotch
and a story, maybe a sharp line
they thought up outside
in the streetlit cigarette haze.
They dive right in, as if through ice,
and they come up sparkling,
wheezing, waiting to be saved.

Nerudas poems features a 'mythical' and 'mute' mermaid who after emerging from a river goes into a bar bustling with drunken men, who relentlessly abuse her. On the other hand, Askew asserts a powerful Mermaid in the poem, unsullied by the flattery and exaggerated tales she is told of manhood and mariner adventure, by a host of desperate drunken sailors. Her Mermaid is not abused, this Mermaid seduces the sailors: she 'draws them to me,' one 'clung to me like a drowning man' or they are are 'hooked by my red hair'. Askew creates a kind of self-mythologising, Mermaid seductress - she is the protagonist that other men seek to charm. She is not helpless, like Nerudas Mermaid, to whom 'insults flowed' and 'obscenities drown' these sailors are 'blackening her with 'burnt corks' and 'cigarette stubs'. Askews Mermaid draws 'drunken and lost sailors' who are 'waiting to be saved'. She is the empowered woman, toying with eager men. It is a strong poem - it can lift a weight or two in the mind - youthful and exuberant in its defiance and playfulness. It was selected to appear in the Scottish Poetry Library's Anthology The Best Scottish Poems of 2009.

The Mermaid & The Sailors contains many notable poems, (out of a collection of 21) particularly 'Books' which is the opener; a simple, pro-pook prose-poem (it pairs nicely with 'Ode to my typewriter). Almost a love poem, describing the seductive and bewitching quality of books and reading. It's an adoration to the written word. Lines like: 'I like to bend them to my will' 'crack their skin til it's crazed and veined' 'pages coming out in chunks like teeth' – see? Clean lines that come through. Wholesome as a loaf, I feel. The book is fundamentally interested in human lives and human foibles. Not least, it features poems about the authors family, touching, insightful, for example, the character of her beloved, and strong-willed Grandmother ('I'm sorry I'm still in love with my grandmother') makes for a genuinely heart and artery warming poem, ending on this melancholic note (memorialising her cremation? or is she part of the fire in the sky of stars?):

'In love with my Grandmother
is a strange place to be, with a slew of soil
between us now, and only her smoke –
from that final, brilliant fire – in the sky overhead.

'The Mermaid and & The Sailors' is quality. It contains a villanelle 'Death at New Year' and whether you think it accomplished or not, it's good to read some form, all too often the tyranny of free verse dominates the pagescape this century. I'm prejudiced but we should share the prejudice of our experience. So I will. In this collection there is a Mermaid, one or two drunks, some toasty warm and touching poems dedicated to Grandmothers and Grandfathers. Poems dedicated to the old Northern Mining Community, in particular the greatly observed 'Moloch' were 'men up at dawn, crawl...into the lit up earth like colourful bugs' . Youthful poems themed on absent lovers, ideal suitors, and charming geeks of Star Trek adoration feature loud and clear too. It's a clear and composed book. Sculpted with due care and consideration. There is an ear for the uncommon or unexpected word too - 'skiffle' or 'gnarl of milk' or 'foolscap'. It'spromising. Not only promising. It delivers a strength of purpose in each poem. Never vague or meandering. Not verbose or over the top, but poised, aimed and fired.

Despite all this gushing praise, there are faults (as there should be) so let it be said that the worst thing about The Mermaid & The Sailors that it is too bloody short. Some of my particular favourites don't even feature. One or two or three poems don't have the strength that many others do ('The Ufologists/'My Daughter Speaking'/Fell/When the heart speaks...) . But, all in all, I'm prejudiced towards Claire because she's got calibre, style, and is wordswoman strength. She reads well too, if you get the chance to catch reading live, composed yet quietly seething. She is accomplished and will go on to greater pages.

Claire is a powerhouse of activity: strong, independent. She runs One Night Stanza blog, dedicated to independent writing and spotlight for creativity and creative procrastination. Also runs as poetic gift shop and micropress called Read This. She is a lecturer in literature and communication at Edinburgh's Telford College. Most recently she ran a Allen Ginsberg Birthday celebration, producing a pamphlet of poetry 'Starry Rhymes 85 years of Allen Ginsberg'. All in all, she's one of the lost encourager’s - a highly productive and extremely efficient in delivery. Worshipper her as a diety or read her with a cup of tea. Seek her out.

'The Mermaid & The Sailors' is published by Red Squirrel Press.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

What I'm Saying About Him: A Review.

What They Say About You – Eddie Gibbons: A Review.

Eddie Gibbons is a Liverpudlian living in Aberdeen. I've always liked the soft pudding like pud sound in pudlian and Gibbons is a Pudlian Poet and an accomplished one at that. He has the technical skill to weave his pen (or, press his keys) between form and formlessness with ease. He has all the inventiveness a quality wordsmith should – juggling word play, toying with double meaning, jiving with associations, balling with rhetoric, scattered with allusions; the books buzzes with trickery, mischief and comedy.

'What They Say About You is a large collection with over a 143 pages of poems (and notes at the end which actually 'elaborate/explain' what some of the poems are about), written in a humorous, swift and wry tone. Ranging in themes from football to Fathers, medical examinations to Buddha's girlfriend. He weaves these poems a lightness of touch and linguistic ingenuity. Gimmickry and pun's are here by the ton. An unashamed optimism dominates the entire tone of the book - it points towards the light - it finds a crack of light in the waiting room - not miserablism here, thank the light. There's an inventiveness, whimsy and joymongering in absurdities of language, that reminds a touch of Rough McGough, and contains a similar oddball humour and quackery as John Hegley.

Gibbons method is one of poetic gadgetry – using puns, revelling word play, breaking meanings – to tease out the possibilities of a poetic idea, in the poem 'Peridiotic Table' he uses word association and punning to reimagine the list of elements and their 'compound poetic properties' i.e. 'Hydrogin/Drunkeness' 'Arsenic/Bottom Pinching' 'Kraptone/Uselessness' 'Idioine/Stupidity' – daft and indulgent, so what, they show love of a childish outlook, a playful and harmless word gamer. Toying with the dictionary. His titles are the best examples of this pun game - 'Death Shall Have No Dim Onion' 'Youthemisms' 'Gin and Miltonic' 'The Uncertainty Principal' 'Relicatessen' 'Fanagrams'. The list goes on and on. Indeed, many of these poems would be fitting in a classroom to encourage children to enjoy language or read poetry. It certainly wouldn't send them off to sleep, for he doesn't weigh the poems down with heavy handed emotionalism or sentimentality or verbosity. At the core muscle of this collection there is a delight in words - of the music of words. Gibbons is as playful as a child playing scrabble in a sandpit (a learned child).

Here is a villanelle by Gibbons, it isn't included in the book, but it is a grand example of a quality form:

A Liverpool Villanelle

My city has no boundaries
It travels where its offspring roam
My thoughts now shape what once shaped me

Old clipper ships and slavery
Are storylines in dusty tomes
A city has no boundaries

Twin talismans of heraldry
Keep vigil on the Liver domes
My thoughts now shape what once shaped me

Black buildings grimed by industry
Where streets are streams of rusting chrome
My city has no boundaries

A boom-time town in ‘sixty three
As frothy as the Mersey foam
My thoughts now shape what once shaped me

Then shiny times, with poetry:
The Cavern’s worldwide metronome
My city has no boundaries

Now Thatcher's plague-years legacy
has left it like some ransacked Rome.
My thoughts now shape what once shaped me

My heart still beats, though distantly
For that far place I still call home
My city has no boundaries
My thoughts now shape what once shaped me

There are many note poems in this collection, whole series of short lined observations or puns or jokes and some of them verge on being a little too frivolous and might not even necessarily be needed in the collection. Perhaps a bit of trimming would have been good but it must have been hard to keep out some of the lighter conceits. That's the only criticism I'd make. If you want outright seriousness or tumultuous soul grinding go for 'Plath' 'Rimbaud' or 'John Donne' - Gibbons seriousness is dressed in jesters gear. He barrages the page with relentless (and effortlessly inventive) 'punishment' – of pundemic proportions, a cunning pundamentalist cutting the word to fit his purpose, he commands a fierce punder storm in the poetic tropic island of the page- as well as a whole host of intriguing and curious malapropisms, spoonerisms, allusions, I'm certain I missed a ton of them as yet to be weeded out with closer reading.

There are moments of melancholy and sadness which are again undercut by Gibbon's resilient humour and lightness, not least in the poem 'The Lung Laundrette' in which a visit to the hospital for an x-ray of the lungs bring's a call a week later from the Doctor, informing us that:

'I'll have to retake the test; that cloudy
area was an error due to insufficient radiation
and not, as first suspected, something sinister.

I cancel the headstone carver,
inform the Minister.'

Eddie Gibbons has a voice that is at once funny, pedestrian and engaging. This book is well worth reading with a pot of tea and a bag of heroin, I mean, biscuits. Eddie has a knowledge of the rules of poetry which allows him to break or toy with them when he wants too. Unlike so many poets these days, who don't care or dare, to learn the rules before destroying/reconstituting them. (I point my finger at thine self; in it hath lodged the doggerelist's skelf). 'What They Say About You' is a pick and mix of poems to gorge on, broad in theme, zipping between subjects, there's a smorgasbord of diversity here - a bee hive of sweet poems.

'What They Say About You' was published in 2011 by Leamington Books. If you would like to read more of the playful poety of Eddie Gibbon's you can read more on his blog 'The Republic of Ed'. You won't be disappointed. I particularly like 'Skywalker' which is as much as good poem as it is a visual (concrete) poem, deciated to the French tightrope walker, Philippe Petit, when he walked on a wire between the Twin Towers. Gibbons is full of flair, games and magic -Punderful! Edifying!

Friday, 25 March 2011

Rip Van Winkle: A Review.

Tomorrow, we will live here. Ryan Van Winkle.

'RIP VAN WINKLE, known to all as a harmless, drinking, shiftless lout, who never would work, but roamed about, always ready with jest and song-idling, tippling all day long.'

Ryan Van Winkle is certainly not the doppelgänger of Rip Van Winkle, but I'm sure he shares some of the personal qualities that this American fairy tale character has. If to be a Rip van Winkle, is to awake suddenly to profound changes in one's surroundings (Thank you, wiki), then Ryan awoke suddenly to a profound change in his personal literary surrounding - that is - he awoke to the publication of his first poetry collection. And so, the dormant literary allusion of his second name has become reality.

(Rip Van Winkle Statue)

Ryan Van Winkle arrived in Edinburgh in 1999, from USA, working in bars, cafés, and the Forest Café. He's came a long bloody way since that beginning. Jesus, I barely know him, but what I do know is he's a pro-active, tireless encourager and organiser, and fair poet

The Crashaw Prize is an international annual prize for a first collection of poetry. It is judged by members of Salt Publishing company. Ryan Van Winkle won the Salt Crashaw Prize for poetry in 2010. 'Tomorrow, we will live here' is the result of that win. Congratulations on that. Winkle is from Branford, Connecticut, and this collection pays homage to that heritage, with a mix of poems from domestic America, memories of private boyhood awakenings, older tangles of love lost, and a host of striving characters (a fat boy/a deviant pastors son/a murdered child/a knot of relationships that need unpicking).

The poems are plain spoken and full of quiet discontent. Throughout there are images and phrases that are unexpected and surprising: 'scrub himself birth pink' 'brother the deer' 'the muscled hills' 'the day is pink meat' 'the ocean is a lung' which always make me stop to reconsider with intrigue. And there are sharp and unusual images that arrive in almost every poem:

'I got a girl up in the attic

the summer I turned ten. Her shirt went damp

and we played a game where I'd strip and she'd slap

my calves with my dead grandma's cane.'

(From; Everybody always talking about Jesus.)

'it was best, what happened. I never

like those buildings: their shadows

froze everything. Mornings, walking

into their long trench coats, was like

walking into slabs of ice.'

(From; I Got Out When It All Went Down.)

In the first there is the unexpected image of childhood, verging on erotic, cruel play. In the second choice we have an image of the Trade Towers and 9/11. The images are strong, loaded with suggestion; the shadows of the trade towers are gangsters coats, the buildings themselves are cold slabs of ice. The poem of 9/11 does not reach for sentimentality or over-state its purpose, it reflects a distaste for the buildings, a spinal shiver directed at the entire event, while focusing on a certain 'Betty'. The unexpected imagery and plain spoken style reminded me slightly of Simic, in that they are minimalist depicted with sparse language, often say something using incongruous imagery. Winkle weaves small narratives throughout, most notably 'Cassella: The Pastor's Son' 'Everybody Always Talking About Jesus' and the five piece suite 'Unfinished Rooms' but it is best displayed, in my humble empirically unverifiable view, in the opening prose poem:

My 100-year-old ghost

sits up with me when the power cuts,

tells about the trout at Unkee’s Lake,
the wood house burned on the hill.

He says he was intimate
with every leaf of grass.

Wore one hat for Griswold,
another for his own field,

the possibilities of the century laid out;
an endless string of fishing pools.

But they never got ahead of my ghost -
he took them like cows, one at a time,

never lusted for the color of trout
in a pool a mile away.

He knew from the smoke in the sky
Mrs. Johnson was starting supper,

and, in March when the candles appeared,
he knew Bobby’s boy had died.

My ghost only ever had one bar
where the keeper didn’t water his drinks,

nor did he feel the need to hide his moth cap,
his potato clothes, or scrub himself birth pink.

My ghost tells me there was a time
you’d look out and not find a Dairy Queen.

You could sit on your porch a whole life
and never think about China.

Sometimes I see my ghost
bringing cut sunflowers to his wife

and it seems so simple.
Then, sometimes, it is dark

he’s just in from work and Griswold says
they ain’t going to raise his pay.

And even back then the power went out,
long nights when they had no kerosene.

And my ghost tries to sell me on simpler times:
the grass soft, endless

lampless nights,
pools of crickets singing.

I imagine the ghost to be a Whitmanesque romantic or Mark Twain creation, with calloused hands and tough spirit; it is a strong poem, it lifts you into its world of the ghosts nostalgia for a bygone community, told to the poet, much like a Grandfather might recount to his newphew, as they sit the front porch. I imagine frontier America, wagons rolling through the Appalachian mountains. The ghost is looking from the perspective of modern America, romanticising past America where the 'possibilities of the century [were] laid out' and 'a time you'd look out and not find a Dairy Queen' existed, or you'd 'never think of China'. I imagine dust bowl prairies, rural farmers in dungarees, hints of a Carson McCuller landscape, that entire lost romanntic America tarmacked over by hungry progress. I think it's one of the strongest poems in the collection.

It's a strong collection, it won't save the world, not that anyone claimed it would, but it might open a few doorways of conversation, exchange impressions the world made upon the poet. It has so many flavours: coming of age sweet, perverse sour, dark chocolate, mint fresh, scandalous meat, stale tobacco, wet paint, dust clouds, and graveyards. It must be said that there are some weak poems in here, but the sucessful poems keep the collection from collapsing into weightlessness. I get the impression from reading that some of the poems were written a long time ago, and you feel some still remain in that amateur setting, or have a certain sophomoric subject matter - parts of 'Unfinished Rooms' 'The Flood' 'The Day he went to war' (which is actually the most comical poem in the collection). Dare I sound like I know what I'm talking about, but there is a certain measured restraint in subject matter and plain speaking. I prefer chaos and psychiatric darkness, and a greater varied of subject matters, but it serves as a reassuring introduction to the developing voice of a Scottish-American poet.

'Tomorrow, we will live here' loosely suggests an optimism, a coming of age, of being comfortable in a a new place, inclusive even a new country. But feeling slightly mooncalf in my way, I thought the title would be quite fitting at the entrance to a graveyard, quite fitting, don't you think? But this book is far from dead.

Ryan Van Winkle is the reader-in-residence at The Scottish Poetry Library, and organiser of the meaty 'Golden Hour' at the renowned and, will-not-be-cut-down-and-shipped-off- as-lumber, Forest Café. He's hyper-active encourager in the Scottish community of writers poets artists, littering the streets of Edinburgh's fringes, and beyond. He's a moustachioed charmer. Aloof but not a loafer.

Buy his book, read or listen to more of his words here.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Precision Engineering: A Review.

This Is Not About What You Think. A Poetry Collection By, Jim Murdoch.

Murdoch is not a poet of excess. Murdoch does not mess about. Murdoch gets to the point, and then gets off the page. In some respects the poems are sterile, not in the sense of imagination, but of being thoroughly clean and free of destructive elements.

And why? Well, they don't need it. As Murdoch says 'Once written I understand myself a little more. I may still be carrying around the same baggage but it's packed a little more neatly.'

That's what I like about this collection – it's compactness, it's neatness. It contains one hundred and four page-poems that do not over-state, or obfuscate. (Obfuscate, is guilty of itself). Each has a simplicity. Each contains a small stone of wisdom. If it's true that 'the idiot talks, while the wise man remains silent' then, Murdoch is wise, for he is brief and insightful.

It is the brevity and succinctness in Murdoch’s poems that make them readable. You can mull over their domestic insights, their wise old mans tale observations; consume them snack size with a moments notice. As Shakespeare wrote'...brevity is the soul of wit...' so I shall shut up, and let the poems speak:

Advice to children V

People are rarely

what they say they are

and never what they think

they are.

Or would like to be.

The first lies we tell

are generally to


Reflections of Glass

Her mirrored face reflected grief

and - in the way that some mirrors do -

twisted it (it's a trick of the light).

And when I came to face her, I looked

and I saw nothing and I realised that,

for her, I was not there, as if I were


Tunnel of Love

Love is not a thing you fall into

but an experience you go through

like a long tunnel.

Sometimes I just like to sit

in the dark in ours and pretend

I don't see the light at the end.

For My Father

Dutifully I dial the number and ask for him.

He answers and

brick by brick we build a conversation.

Progressively the pauses

become more frequent

and intense.

Finally we replace our recievers,

each regretting not having said

what he had no words to say.

Somehow I love him

yet cannot reach him.

'This Is Not About What You Think' charts a life in seven sections, from childhood to adulthood, the life is not necessarily biographical, but it certianly lends from the life of the author. There is some light inside this collection, but there is a scrupulous meaness throughout too. A depression with life, with the hand that it was dealt. But, it is through hardship we learn our lessons, right?

Throughout this collection there is a bleakness hard to over look. Poems of quiet regret, of failed relationships, in particular a relationship with a father which shared not much friendship, intimacy, or love. There is a nihilistic quality in the content, which is hightened by the strict minimalism of the layout. In the content their is a philosophical awareness that life is short, relationships insufficient, meaning transient and contradictory, and emotional lives are burden, we all leave with much left unsaid, in an existence that is opened ended and unfinished.

Critically, I think it lacks fireworks, lacks experiment/danger/chaos, some of the poems feel incomplete, there is not much left to the imagination, ultimately we have a life revealed through surgically small prose poems. But, I like chaos, private turmoil, confessions, messy life, language paly and there is not enough of it in here for me. I much prefer reading Murdoch's essays, reviews, and Aggie and Shuggie skits. However, 'This Is Not About What You Think' is worth buying for its clear and simple insight, its common share in expressing the fear, dread, and anxiety, that mark every life.

Jim Murdoch is a poet, and novelist, from Glasgow. Read more from Murdoch, buy his poetry, buy his novels here: The Truth About Lies