This is an anthology of poetry about
Coventry. Best get my scoffing out of the way in the first paragraph.
According to David Morley's introduction, 'The writers are either from the
city, or they have chosen to come to
Coventry to live, study and write.' (My italics) Such projects are usually
only of passable interest to any who live outside of the city in question.
Have you ever voluntarily purchased or even flicked through something called,
say, Luton Unbridled or Taunton Writes Back? Speaking as a reader, Place, for Place's sake,
has never really got my vote.
So I was pleased to discover that, although largely concerned with Coventry,
this collection is expansive and well selected. Its three chapters are
entitled 'I: Phoenix', 'II: New' and 'III: Writing'. Parts one and three
contain poetry as an 'act of community, either in the workplace or classroom'
and are all about the city. Part two contains larger selections from no less
than nineteen Coventry-based writers. Criticising an act of community feels
rather like sneering at a town carnival. Still, having grown up in Luton –
which is at least as moribund as Coventry (and had a really tacky carnival)–
I feel qualified to comment. Not least because this collection has much to
recommend it – some truly exceptional moments and several very strong
contributions, on which more later.
Phoenix New Writing is essentially an assertion of cultural relevance by a city perhaps
not associated with the literary cachet of a Bath or an Oxford. It's a
convincing assertion – establishing, beyond argument, that Coventry is home
to a thriving and talented writing community. I think almost any city you
care to mention is home to a talented and thriving writing community of one
sort or another; but it’s good that Coventry has one too. I'm all for that.
The first and third chapters include numerous works by children, complete
with E.J. Thribb (aged 17) parentheses after their names. Some of them are
very fine indeed, particularly Isaac Proudfoot (aged 8)'s confident and
accomplished use of the Pantoum in 'When I Became Ruler of Coventry'. The
repetition demanded by the form is used to haunting effect here, the poem
beginning and ending on the line 'Because it was ruined once, then twice.'
Indeed, formal structure is well represented in Phoenix New Writing – and the poems written to strict form tend to be
the strongest on show. The Pantoum makes another superlative appearance in
Karl Kahn's lyrical and melancholy cityscape, ‘Late-Night Trains Circa 1943’
which concludes: 'the city's rumpled in its greycloud clothes. / It swings
a battered suitcase as it goes.' A resonant and truthful portrait of city life,
haunted by a modulating refrain, including: 'it winds a rusting watchspring
as it goes'; and 'It wakes up in tattered party clothes. Like many of the
best works in Phoenix, this is a fine example of something beautiful emerging
from drudgery. An equally noteworthy mastery of metre can be found in Swithum
Cooper's excellent 'Two Foot From Snow', written in Terza Rima, and in his
Rondeau, 'Carnivalette' – 'We two-stepped to the three-step on our own...'
Certain subjects of local interest arise with inevitable frequency: Lady
Godiva, air-raids, the cathedral, graffiti, dogs... Vera Nkungu (aged 11)'s
'Haiku to the Legend of Lady Godiva' is excellent and complies strictly to
the haiku form:
Taxed, rained-on, mighty
sorry for themselves,
need a bit of flesh.
These days, as is recorded elsewhere, they may avail themselves of the
strip-joints – that is if they're not too drunk to be refused entry... I'm still not quite buying the old
'rising from the ashes' analogy. Indeed, many of the pieces on display are
more concerned with how wearisome everything is. Typical enough, this tercet
from Paul Rowland:
I watched our blue Ford
burn like a bonfire, in
the car park
of the services just off
Bummer. And Matt Nunn, poet in residence at Birmingham City Football Club,
makes an appearance with his vindaloo of buzzwords, underpinned by a vague
sense of urban sadness. If I could be poet in residence of anything, I think
it would be a French patisserie – or maybe a nice pub.
More convincing is Jonathan Edwards eloquent lamentation in 'This City is the
Equal of Any on This Earth':
Saturday nights, the lads who pee
like lager onto the
streets do not know where
they are, and the only
cars on the road make money
by transporting everyone
away from here.
Beautiful cities are beautiful after their own fashion; all unhappy cities
resemble one another. And on Saturday night everywhere sucks. However, as
Edwards concludes, 'This city's what is there when I am not. / Home.' Luke
Heeley's unusual and fascinating poems also capture what it is to live in one
of these giant run-down shopping centres most of us have to call home.
'Operation' begins with the discovery of 'a translucent white surgical glove
/ and an empty bottle of vodka' under a railway bridge – typical yet somehow
alarming city debris. By the last stanza:
I lie down on the
make myself comfortable.
advance with military precision
footsteps slip through my ears
cleanly as dental floss.
This left me feeling that as you can lie down on the pavement, it doesn't
really matter where you live. Heeley is at his best when he avoids
'flickering on the edge of oblivion' and instead focuses sharply:
I burnt some
pumping coins into a
The guts clanked
as it puked back the metal.
This urban sensibility is blended with some well-justified references to
Pascal and Frank O'Hara, making Heeley stand out as one of the most
interesting poets in the collection.
Much to my delight, Phoenix contains several prose-poems, the best being
Denitza Vlaeva's extended piece, 'Grassroots and Gravel'. Vlaeva urgently
delineates the life and death of a novelist whilst altogether avoiding
metafictional histrionics. The cold, philosophical turn brings to mind Samuel
Beckett's prose (itself always on the edge of poetry) sharing also a talent
for bursts of arresting description: 'His alarm will be ringing. He will go
back in. One strip of sunshine, as if stolen, on his carpet.'
The pregnant narrator of Anna Lea's powerfully understated '16' evokes a
I don't believe you will
find the money.
Your mum is calling you
And Home and Away is
starting in the background.
It works – because it is funny, desperate and recognisable, like a Raymond
Carver short story. Good writing somehow makes the familiar strange and
remarkable – Lea achieves this with alarming effect. 'I will put down
this brown phone / sweating like a horse in my fist. We leave her listening
static 'unfold and unfold and unfold.'
Phoenix New Writing is an eclectic and beautifully presented anthology. There is much
to be savoured here– and while it may not have me racing back to Coventry with
a camera and a diary, it certainly has me looking forward to the Heaventree
Press' next anthology.
Luke Kennard 2004