Andy Brown (editor), The Allotment: new lyric poets
£10.00 / pbk / ISBN 190502407X / Stride Books
Published October 2006
Reviewed by Laura Steele
Andy Brown's introduction sets this anthology up as a manifesto, albeit one which protests, "This is not a manifesto; neither theirs, nor mine." He says, one reason why "I distrust the notional polarity of 'innovation' and 'tradition', is that the opposition, like many binary oppositions, is based upon false premises." Brown's neat suggestion is that we leave those premises and go out to The Allotment. The two labels Brown figures as contesting a civil case – mainstream vs avant-garde – are enlisted in support of a "hybrid" between the two where, for Brown, real innovation lies: in sincerity and "the gaps between the world as we experience it and experience as we describe it".
There are 20 "new lyric" poets chosen, presented in alphabetical order. The work here is mostly characterised by a de-energising effect as you try to be interested in ideas and forms of speech you have read over and over. The poem by Abi Curtis which gives the anthology its title is in fact a more patronising version of Les Murray's 'Broad Bean Sermon' –
– though doubtless not as patronising as the tone of this review. Curtis' second poem, 'A Power Cut', is written in the genre of poems in which a shared physical event – i.e. loading a roof-rack, making dinner, fitting a door – suddenly becomes metaphorically rich with telling details on the state of a relationship between two people. The poem ends
But look close
along your sun-dried arm,
your nails bedded with wet earth,
the flaked handle of a trowel or fork
twisting in the mulch and worms.
Find, among each sift and turn;
walk-less husks of millipedes
and unforgiving knots of weed:
this is where you'll learn.
'Abode' is about a home, and this one follows the template of "tellingly extended surreal meditation" – see Amanda Dalton's 'Torch Song' about carrying a torch for someone ("She stuffed it in her briefcase not to scare the crowds") or Katherine Pierpont's 'This Dead Relationship' ("I carry a dead relationship around everywhere with me. / It's my hobby.") Curtis begins:
Shall we talk? I asked, and reached across,
mistaking your hand for the honey pot.
Avik Chanda writes a poetry which sends out spiritual signals. It verges on the aching picturesque but mostly pulls up short of that. In 'Memory-Triptych' the car windscreen on a frosty day affords a look "beyond the void". 'Malevich' finds the painter, in first person, speaking in short lines about a disillusion, presumably post-Supreme Art:
I have a home that breathes
into its blue garden, asking leave.
This is Malevich voiced as a pastiche of Eliot. Curious and I was amused by it:
And how shall I
make virtues of dead blocks
purpled distances lined with blue
the colour of loss?
Rose Flint's poems are prayers concocted somewhere between Pauline Stainer, Ted Hughes and Peter Redgrove – saints, birds, hares, wheatfields, Raven and someone who is "Vixen". A rural landscape is over-coded with myths from different sources; the biosphere disappears into association very quickly: "Ravens are one-eyed Odin's seers, Memory and Thought / and Raven is the Trickster."
Praised be the absence of shape over
there shall be no texture
there shall be no form
Iain Galbraith's work is tastefully restrained in its lyrical feeling: bands of shadow, "As if against indifference their firmer hue / Arose behind the river mouth" or this whole poem:
It's in this: "The way" this kind of poetry suggests a person who deeply feels, "As if" (sigh) in stark Romance they must shore their thoughts. Often, in this tone, the poet mentions the present which is a sort of transferable melancholy crystal: "These pages filled now turning to my left / I stare across the room and out a window" ('The Wait'). These remarks also apply to George Messo (more on him later) who also has a poem here about looking out of a room ('The Beautiful Apartments').
Passing the Steading
If tups and fank are all but ghosts
the void they haunt is living earth:
The way damp worsted rubbed on stone
or shapes we work dissolve in rain.
Luke Kennard begins with a variation on "domestic experience turns hyper metaphorical": film genre stylization imbues itself with thought, though Kennard's 'Film Noir' is a rather diluted work compared to, say, Redell Olsen's 'Corrupted By Showgirls'. It does end on a flourish that the Singing Detective might note wryly:
'The Tree' is a poem about a tree defending the poet in court – the poet wrote about the tree without really caring for it. A poem tedious as it is twee:
When we finally broke down her door we found
A white curtain flapping in the open window –
As if waving goodbye.
'Glass' finds the poet compressing the "day's affairs" into epigrams. The second stanza:
The tree delivered a moving closing statement about time and wisdom – and the colour of rust and the light breeze in the corner of a pasture.
I like the line about "used to scratch your arms" and the un-shattered calm of the final two lines. Who is being resolutely told what their most horrible thoughts are, though? The dictatorial stance of the speaker lends a tenderly unpleasant atmosphere which suggests imminent breakage anyway. Kennard follows this with two more twee poems (one which begins with a pig falling out of the sky; the other is called 'Blue Dog') and one, 'Egalitarianism', which is a dull poem of the list genre. Then there is 'It is not static' which manages to be both twee and a sort of dull list poem (a long sentence which returns to the words 'It is not static' at the beginning of each line):
I'm staring at an unlit candle,
Thinking of a lit candle –
Which is no way to light a candle,
But a fine way of saving it.
You used to scratch your arms, but now
Nothing is wrong, my dearest one:
your most horrible thoughts are just
the broken glass in an unbroken glass.
Sarah Law's poems are gaudy performances; I enjoyed them more than Tim Allen ("I can't stand it" – Terrible Work) but then there were only 11 poems to read and not a whole book. At their best ('Evolutionary') they hint at a Maya Derenesque filmic world:
It is not static and of this you are certain, in spite of the Victorian clown, howling,
'IT IS NOT STATIC!' sarcastically and honking his nose horn;
It is not static – even though there is no greater power than the power of ridicule;
It is not static and lies are often easier to believe; was it not Beloc who said of the lie:
'It is not static, but profoundly comfortable?' Perhaps not. [. . .]
Aoife Mannix's poems are banal, though articulately so. 'How To Be Happy' is a long list of self-help advice of different kinds – beginning "Eat ice cream, swallow sunshine, cartwheel naked across the moon", where the twist is the final line "and never take advice." Another poem, 'What We Used To Listen To', muses "Funny how music collapses time and space." 'Prophet' begins:
[...]But I'm polluted
into becoming young again, the blue pool
swirls through slits of time and punishes us.
I wish I'd said. I wish I'd said the word.
Thus a combustion, and the slur of tears.
Marbles roll out of my unpacked bag [...]
These are performance poems; perhaps Mannix's delivery brings out unmissable nuance.
The man with the birds in his eyes went walking
and he drank the sky till the sea was a desert.
Sophie Mayer dramatises angst in 'Fauré's Requiem': "Damn eternal bliss. / I want it now." This quip is the high-point of her contribution: Mayer's line-breaks are nearly always strikingly clumsy, rendering the poetry inert and stilted:
The result is that the reader tends to simply over-ride the break and read the poems as pallid prose; 'Blue Love' is the exception to this. There is also a poem called 'Self-Portrait as αthene' which begins
We began a little north, in blue Holland, and
travelled south fleeting
over frozen canals. It's a fairy tale (one worth the
telling); a legend we subscribe to like a watchman's fire.
Kenneth Koch might render vainly preposterous Grecian musing with charm; Mayer doesn't. George Messo's 'The Beautiful Apartments' is an impressionistic lyric stilted by the same kind of disastrous line-break choices as Mayer:
I see myself as sculpture some
days, lost as marble
on a hillside.
As a room, this stanza is a ruin, which is possibly an artful intention. His 'Entrances' presents a worst-case scenario for the possible reader of this anthology:
You wonder who
at this late hour
stirs in rooms
Add dull epiphanies after "imagined selves", however, as Messo continues:
Bored, as you are, with constant re-description
no longer swayed by frightful sounds –
named inner lives, imagined selves
– you opt to leave the afternoon
and step, one naked foot, into the Choruh river.
Unmistakably, always, quite. Messo can, however, also write poems like this –
Unmistakably it is light
fading or else failing always
into which you will emerge –
the wish to be there, suddenly real,
puts everything in its place.
– which deftly modulates through and manages to be a poem-blossom-circuit.
The cherry tree
and its body-buds
and it buds
the cherry pleasure.
The pleasure tree
buds and quotes
After two shorter poems, most of Jonathan Morley's space is given over to a longer work called 'The Winter of the Modern Media': the blunt chants and repetitious cries of the press (mostly relating here to immigration) are reproduced in blank verse interspersed with prose letters.
The bludgeon irony in this presentation makes Peter Reading's work look subtle. In one way it's nice to see a Reading derivative as it affirms the power of the original.
I'm no racist, I hate Germans,
no, it's these people who are driving
us into voting BNP
Jane Routh's poetry is best when it inhabits the observed land and seascape. 'Mealista' manages to be a charming poem about a road that runs on into the sea. Routh pitches her observation to come across as "unplugged" where other poets may horribly amplify their descriptions:
This from a poem about finding a piece of coral on the beach, "Let's say the Atlantic Conveyor swept it here". Potentially this is another sermon-poem but the relaxed tone manages to avoid the anecdotal didactic.
but on this dark-floored beach, feet slide off grey cobbles
that knock as if the world beneath were hollow.
There are eight other poets but they fall into the patterns already covered. The anthology ends with four poems by Scott Thurston which introduce some form of non-generic thought into the tail-end of the book. These poems might even seem to fit Brown's manifesto of "the gaps between the world as we experience it and experience as we describe it":
A Bowl of Fruit
Und wars fűr diese schon zu viel, das Aufgehn?
– Rilke, 'Die Rosenschale'
What comes of making something so
From the violence of an unpassed course –
a bowl of fruit.
Held heavy in blunt planes
a bunch of clustered objects in the mind.
A steady inwardness draws them in
pushes their clumsy order out
into the cosmos.
too far from space
is space itself.