Mixed Methods

Bride of the Wind
, Barry Tebb (Sixties Press)
A New Geography of Romanticism, Tim Allen (The Red Ceilings Press)
A Chance of Love, James Turner (Oversteps Books)
On Liberty, Repressed, Tom Jenks (Knives Forks and Spoons)

The title poem of Bride of the Wind is inspired by the painting by Oskar Kokoshka and says much about the way in which Barry Tebb marries an irrepressible enthusiasm and curiosity about art with an emotional intensity and richness of experience. I've read many of these poems before but revisiting them is a pleasure, from the elegy to James Simmons - 'You bared your soul in a most unfashionable way' - to his hilarious commentary on the poetry scene, 'A Call to Arms', which combines a wonderfully knockabout robustness which hints at Monty Python with some very funny rhymes and an almost Spike Milligan celerity of thought which surprises at every turn:

     Andrew Crozier was leading a counter-attack
     With Caddy and Hinton neck and neck
     And Silkin was quietly garrotting
     While he kept on smiling.

     Price Turner was so happy at the slaughter
     He hanged himself in a corner
     And Hughes brought the Great White Boar
     To wallow in all the gore

     While I rode a centaur
     Charles Tomlinson had sent for.

Tebb combines an approach which you could call sentimental with a tough,
working-class self-confidence that comes from a genuine desire for knowledge and delight, allied to a scatological wit and fearless response to the absurdities of power and pretension. He isn't afraid to 'speak his mind' as they say. He gives nostalgia a new and attractive twist with 'Give Me Yesterday', where there are 'Gas lamps and rainbow sherbet, / Ink in bottles, fountain pens / Soot and steam engines, Meccano / And Beano, prefabs and larders,' ... assertive and unapologetic.

The final section 'Uncollected Poems' provides a rich mix of erudition, high-intensity recollection and more irrepressible moments than would grace whole volumes by poets of a more sedate temperament. Tebb is volatile and fun, but always authentic and wide-ranging in his interests and enthusiasms. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this collection, especially encountering his more recent material for the first time and I got through it quickly and greedily. Take this extract from 'Delius', the last poem, which mixes celebration with yearning and an unrepentant openness to experience, which is refreshing and splendid:

     Do you still swirl like a top
     Or have you, too, passed into the beyond of the earth
     Where the heard songs are
     Only the mad dead's mirth and not the libidinous lyre
     Of uplift to the summer zeniths?

Terrific stuff.

Tim Allen's new collection, beautifully presented in this pocket-size edition, continues his exploration of the here and now and the then and there with linguistically puzzling jests which fizz and fizzle in your mouth and explode in your brain. Take this line, for example, from page 26. - 'Liberate the future with rootless spontaneity - please'. There are forty-nine untitled poems in this mini-explosion, each comprising a set of three quatrains and each line being discrete, as far as I can tell, though every so often there appears to be the hint of a 'follow-through'. Which isn't to say that the 'disconnections' are unconnected as I'm sure that on another re-read I'll find that resonance abounds. The cover art, a collaboration between Tim and long-time 'visual partner' Terry Hackman, presents the Jack of Hearts with what looks like a photo-fit image of Adam Ant (and other) and either a Byron look-alike (with other) or what could be a Renaissance painter with very curly locks, I'm not at all sure. In any case the image/title is predictably surreal and I do mean that in a complimentary way.


     City centre is one immense pavement cafˇ
     Bus on a bridge breaks down the neutral distance
     Night nurse prejudice and hibernation
     Writer returns later to check the fermentation

     It's true the apples smelt of fish
     Blame was flying around with a life of its own
     No one was left though no one was seen leave
     Nibbling nimble feathered equilibrium

     I prefer my waiters to my waitresses
     The day lends you test papers and crisp perspectives
     Gentle lumps can drive you to distraction
     Teachers locked up in the school with the children

The tendency, as with a lot of 'this kind' of writing, is to read the material through quickly - my preferred tactic, anyway - to get a feel for the rhythms and the textures though the abruptness of the short sentences can make this a risky business as you keep having to stop and think. You are forced here to view the writing 'as writing' in the sense that any attempt at reading a narrative - as appears possible, for example, in the first two lines of the first stanza above - is frustrated by a complete shift, such as line three in stanza one above, where your mind is initially blocked by the abstract impossibility of the premise and then shoots off in a series of directions implied within the text. Wordplay is an important aspect of Tim's modus operandi and I think the celerity of his apparent thought processes - though probably deeply worked on! - owes something to Tom Raworth's methodology, which in turn owes a lot to Spike Milligan!

There's loads of stuff about politics and philosophy and art and literature and zombies and bingo halls and animals here - you just have to dip in and go with the flow, admire the intense bursts of concentration, give up and carry on when you get stuck, as you invariably will, and keep going until you reach the end. Quite frequently you will be 'stopped in your tracks' by a wonderful line, which is one of the real pleasures of reading Tim Allen's poetry - 'And today, bike, you will drip with sincerity'.

James' Turner's second poetry collection - A Chance of Love - is composed of sonnets written during the past two decades. Although it's clear that Turner is very aware of the possibilities of the form these poems all feel and look very modern without being particularly experimental, though he does occasionally tip his cap in this direction both in terms of 'form' and 'content'. The poems are split into three sections: Part 1: Work; Part 2: To be Vulnerable, and Part 3: To be Nothing.

I like the way that Turner manages to combine the conceptual with the world of feeling in his work, not something that everyone succeeds in doing, and also the way in which his formal devices - he's very good with rhyme and the use of repetition, for example - are integrated into the flow of the poems so they appear natural and unstructured. There is a great deal of artifice in these wise and canny poems but you certainly don't pick that up on an initial reading:

     This Fog

     It's like there was this fog, you see, or rather,
     don't see, don't even see the fog, and yet
     out of it words come. Feed some back and if
     you're lucky it responds with further words.
     Fog? It's too thick for fog! It's porridge rather,
     familiar sludge. It's everywhere and yet
     nowhere. It soothes and hurts. It flows, but if
     pushed it will tense, which deafens it to words.
     When you're morose it's all there is, no hint
     of light, just liquid mud, the viscous pull of it,
     and no way in and no way out. But when
     a distant source transmits, it picks up int-
     ermittent signals. Fizz! You're happy then.
     A radio full of mud, your head's full of it.

This could be a poem
about the processes of composition or it could be about the experience of depression or even the 'therapeutic' nature of creativity as a way of dealing with bad feelings, yet it works in its own terms - as a poem - and Turner achieves this without highlighting the artifice of the poem, despite its being a sonnet. This is aided by the colloquial yet 'inner-dialogue' element of the writing which is accomplished. Very clever.

In '
Pavlov Sonnet 4', we get these opening lines - 'In days gone by they told us everlasting hell / would punish those who died as unrepentant sinners - ' and the poem concludes with 'I.P. Pavlov didn't invent conditioning'. Science is a subject which appears quite often in Turner's work, both in terms of an appreciation of its discoveries and methodologies (and discoverers) but more consistently perhaps in a dystopian thematic whereby Science  (and Western rational thought in general?) is seen to be found wanting.

                                            That clever German
     Marx was a prime example. Nietzsche,
     though, was a rarer kind of teacher
     who could acknowledge, even respect it,
     the hectored half, that hard-whipped horse -
     could hear its shrieks and weep. (Of course
     he went on whipping till he'd wrecked it).

          (from 'Split')

The argument here is that we need 'dreamers' as well as 'schemers', scientists as well as artists and Turner's prefacing of each of the sections of this collection with a saying from J. Krishnamurti gives some indication of his 'philosophical' position.

His musings on the nature of consciousness and perhaps also on the mixed-blessing of 'consciousness-of-consciousness', come to the fore in 'Consider this Cat', where the agonised protagonist, lost in turbulence amid a welter of comparisons and a desire to be 'other' than that which he is, is presented with a somewhat bald yet comforting and humorous final statement:

     This unambitious cat is just a cat
     yet lives in undivided consciousness.
     He's got the thing we're after, there's no doubt,
     yet we who have the brains can't work it out.

          (from 'Consider this Cat')

Yet his somewhat 'tongue in cheek' blast against 'the postmodernists' - 'Refuse to be entranced / by the rough granite of the deeply felt.' (from 'Blessed be the Postmodernists') is slightly at odds with his own thoughts about 'the creative process' in 'Birth of A Poet', where we get this - 'Cut up the page. Shuffle the pieces. Stick / them back together. Like this, see? I saw'. Which suggests that all writing is primarily a game with language and deep feeling isn't exclusive to 'the traditionalists'. This is a big subject and there isn't space or time to explore it properly here. Suffice to say, I'm sure that James Turner is aware of the paradox and his writing often explores difficult areas of the human psyche while utilising many of the playful elements available through language. Incidentally, I love the play on seesaw ('see? I saw') in the above and there are many such examples in this excellent collection from this serious yet entertaining poet. James is a great live reader of his work as well, so don't miss him if you get the opportunity.
With regard to the cover design, I like dandelions and the image is perfect, though I still remain unsure about the use of italics for the text as part of the house style - it all looks a bit 'Patience Strong' to me.

Peter Finch is still a key contemporary figure in terms of the re-working of existing materials in a manner which combines critique with a ludic energy, and his influence remains important, I think. There have been a number of recent works where iconic writers/artists from the past have been reinterpreted in a modern context - Phil Terry on Dante and Peter Hughes on Petrarch, for example. Tom Jenks is a younger writer whose mix of plunder and quick-witted celerity of movement is establishing what could almost be described as a 'genre' - his work is so prolific and constantly 'on the move'. In his latest collection from Knives, Forks and Spoons, he adopts a minimalist approach to the 'classic critical work', On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill. By utilising a series of Oulipian procedures and with the aid of a computer programme, Jenks provides a 'commentary' on both Mill and on current notions of austerity with a much-condensed 'version' of Mill, which is playful, challenging, oblique and anarchic.

His mixed methods, which combine chance with organisation, throw up a whole raft of possibilities and provide an entertaining read which you can then go back and think about if you so wish. It's some time since I've looked at Mill and I'm not sure I'm over-tempted to go back to the original but this chunky yet minimalist tome was a pleasure to skip through. There are 268 pieces in this collection, one poem per page, and the cumulative effect of reading them through at speed creates a host of impressions which are both comic and forming the basis of a critique of Mill's strictures. There is plenty of contemporary resonance here and although it's impossible to give any real idea of the strength of this work by individual quotations, I do like the epigrammatic nature of some of these texts:






                                              ( page 69)

If you've not come across Jenks before this is as good a place to start as any - he's rapidly become a firm favourite of mine.

       © Steve Spence 2015