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Geoff Sawers Reviews 4 Collections

Four Collections

Stephen Emmerson – Comfortable Knives (Newton-le-Willows: Knives, Forks and Spoons Press 2014. Paperback, 40pp. £6)
Mike Wallace-Hadrill – Ketamine Boxing With Fun Boy (Brighton: Barque Press 2011. Paperback, 24pp. £5)
Amy De’Ath – Lower Parallel (Brighton: Barque Press 2014. Paperback, 28pp. £6)
Robert Peake – The Knowledge (Rugby: Nine Arches Press, 2015. Paperback, 84pp. £9.99)

Reviewed by Geoff Sawers

Stanley Cavell wrote, in a quite different context, “If philosophy is esoteric, that is not because a few men guard its knowledge, but because most men guard themselves against it.” Each of these books appears esoteric in some way at first; each requires the reader to reorient him or herself in order to read it aright and pull the heart out of it, and each rewards quite differently. There is an over-used and slightly boring trope in poetry book blurbs that a work will show us the miraculous in the mundane. Beckett could show us the mundane in the miraculous. Perhaps it is better at times to learn to see things as they really are, and a work that uproots both reader and author from their settled perspectives has at least the potential to do that.
Comfortable Knives arrives as an assault on your instinct to comprehend; in disturbed, battered syntax and with abrupt shifts of voice and register. The lines do not ‘enjambe,’ so much as wrench themselves away from their predecessors.
Several rosaries I fear. Cleft
into the detoxification units &
thrift to much to bare. They
poppers eye and deceive with
mettle toot […]
is one example. It’s sinewy and tough, but also annoying. Another poem (none have titles) closes:
Head off. Smoke the drunk
bees. We flow the raw nest, such great
shame they shadow, that fallen static
is done
This is richer; unsettling, and probably meant to be. But with its thick, toiling lines and hints of paranoia, the language can look a little joyless next to Ketamine Boxing. This is far more free-form, or perhaps it’s just that it lets the content determine the form, rather than cramming everything into the same-shaped 13-line blocks. In fact it bounces along in a kind of sparky, nonsensical gush:
How to turn the bird wild
how to harvest sky
night pink of his retina scan
                        would tap opiate insurgency
to collapse lovingly featherbrained
at your feet, sky laughing
tripped up on potassium surfeit…
     (from ‘Basujakku Waxwing’)
There’s no discernible meaning here, just a bonkers, ecstatic surge. Another fragment:
                        say that many say that insurgents took
advantage oh henry oh shit
                        escort lava
unripened, veto a la carte
sleep now forever on the take:
                        fucking impeach yr
inner child…
     (from ‘119 Koala’)
How could anybody criticise that? You just surf on it.
Speaking of content defining form, Lower Parallel’s landscape form is perfect for its declamatory, Whitmanesque long lines. The rhythms here are chopped and obfuscatory; it’s not really metaphysical but deeply earthed in the body, specifically the female body. The ‘Lower Parallel’ is a mother lode:
What prosody like blown-up flower and dripping box, coming up on an open
state and running dog, going out on starry starry axial breaks,
clear breaks onto a ravine of translucent history, now a sensitive cult a purity lunch
in the green zone, never a side of me you seen, never a side of me…
The writing is lush with envy, desire, yearning – maybe a yearning for solitude and connection – but also with scattergun imagery, and a huge and varied vocabulary. Oddly, the book then ends with a short set of cramped lyric pieces. They barely relate to the body of the book; the rhythms have finally fragmented altogether:
want get out away from me if
I cannot give you I am
everything awry there is nothing
wrong with you there is
wrong in you.
It’s good to think of
terror, artificially insane
     (from ‘Tore Off’)
It is the oddest ending, almost a subversion of the rest of the book. Yet it sends you back to the beginning, the opening line: “I must admit I am an attention whore”.
The Knowledge begins with a series of American landscapes, treading lightly into some very dark corners, moves through meditations on Death and Capital, and ends with a sequence on London. I liked these final poems least, I hope not just because I don’t like London. There seemed to be trivialities there that simply did not deserve their place. Are we interested in references to restaurants?
     Robert Peake is an exceptionally assured poet, he uses rhythm superbly, but is he hampered by his craft? He can dip deep at times into the subconscious and pull out the imagery of a Peter Redgrove:
The bees make a mask, rippling like sauce,
covering the beekeeper’s eyelids. He shaves
them off with a credit card…
     (from ‘The Argument’)
‘The Hills’ is a palindromic poem: it’s astonishing that it works so well.  And ‘Last Gasp’ is just terrifying. It plays with scale as it dreams about death:
The chambers of our secrecy are vast.
While sleeping in his hole, our tyrant dreamt
of the high, gilded ceilings of his ballrooms…
This one poem soars above some of its’ fellows. Poetry is not about averages; it’s more like the High Jump, where your best one counts. And the book does not completely fall apart at the end. Two late poems, both figured around rain, distill a hard-edged melancholy with rare clarity. But this book needed editing. If it had been 20 pages shorter, it would have been an icon.
22 May 2015