Truth my arse.

Aquarium, Michael Conley (28pp, 4.50, Flarestack)
The Word Museum,
Richard Moorhead (32pp, 4.50, Flarestack)

Flarestack Poets is where (according to Flarestack Poets) poets are "forging their own linguistic connections with the root-ball of experience." Well, here comes a linguistic connection with the root-ball of experience in the shape of the first stanza of the title poem of Michael Conley's Aquarium - it also begins the pamphlet, so the poem must be considered by all those concerned as of some importance. And it's not every day we come face-to-face with anything as momentous as connecting with the root-ball of experience. I can't remember the last time I did it. So, sit tight, and hold on to your hat:

   A man in a blue coat walks into A&E
   and gets in line. The Tannoy is broken; a fractured buzz
   percolates. He lifts his shirt for the nurse
   and mouths My stomach has become an aquarium.

   She nods and hits the button.

Oh, I hope you don't feel let down. But you have to admit there are things to admire here. "Tannoy" does indeed require a capital T, since it's a brand name, and not a generic term, in the same way as "Hoover" is a brand name. (I know my Alan Partridge.) And I like the way the man's coat is blue. That really matters.

But there are some problems with the narrative. Don't we usually use the verb "to mouth" to mean moving the mouth as if speaking  words but without making any sound? If so, does the nurse have to lip read? If the poet is using "to mouth" instead of "to say" then he is just posturing. And does the man lift his shirt for the nurse while he is still in line? And what button does she hit? There is a definite article here, but I'm not sure what button is being referred to, because there's been no button mentioned up to that point. I hope it's not his belly button. But I assume that disappeared when the aquarium took over.

Oh. That's another problem. The stupid bit about his stomach having become an aquarium.

All these problems, and it's the first stanza of the first poem. The title poem.

In the next stanza, we are told that tinted glass "runs from collar to waist" - that's not his stomach, it's his torso. I think if you're going to be what you think is cleverly and whackily surreal the least you can do is be anatomically accurate - you know, like the real
Surrealists were. (Yeah, I know.) The doctor then "kneels and squints" - why does he have to kneel to look at the man's body? Is the doctor very tall? Or is the man very short? Or both? And why would he squint to look at an aquarium? I would have thought he'd need to do the exact opposite of squint, whatever that might be. 

You are probably wondering where this narrative goes next, but I honestly can't be bothered to tell you. I apologize for my can't-be-bothered-ness but I'm trying to keep this as brief as is decent. (But to be honest, ripping this stuff apart is quite enjoyable.)

Anyway, after that initial attempt at some ill-conceived Surrealism, most of the poems that follow stick to the safer world of sentimentality. I'm sure the poet would not agree, but that's why we're here, isn't it? To be objective and not sycophantic. There's a poem about a lover, there's a poem about schooldays, there's a poem about a grandmother, there's a poem about something or other that ends with the words "each one is an echo of my beckoning arms" (which sounds very sentimental to me)...  (How many more pages, Stannard? Oh, really? ) There's a poem about penguins that isn't really about penguins at all (it's kind of a "social commentary" poem hiding behind penguins; a very good place to hide) and thinks it's clever. There is a predictable smattering of anecdotal poems that go nowhere in particular. And the whole sorry experience ends almost inevitably with someone (a relative, presumably; it's usually a relative) sick and probably near death.

I gave up trying to find the real value of poetry like this a long time ago, mainly because there isn't really very much real value in it, and most of the value it has is for the benefit of the writer, not the reader. There are a few mildly unusual ideas, but unusual ideas do not make a poem; there's little understanding of form - line breaks and the like are fairly arbitrary, because people often think if it looks like a poem then it must be
a poem; there is no evidence of the poet having much of an "ear" for the sound of what he's committed to paper; and he'll probably win prizes all over the place, especially if there's a prize for rehashing what's been done many times before. On top of which, it's all so damn polite and sensitive it doesn't belong anywhere near me at all.

For some reason - a reason I couldn't at first put my finger on - I  found Richard Moorhead's The Word Museum terribly difficult to read. Having tried for several minutes to put that finger on why, I came to the conclusion one reason could be that the words somehow don't flow particularly well, which doesn't explain it at all, does it? I'll try again. A lot of the time, the poems bump along in a manner that resists the pleasure of reading. (Yes, that's a lot clearer.)

This is the first stanza of a sequence entitled "Envelopes", this particular section of the sequence being "Paper wallet":

   Glove within which dreams or bills dwell.
   Dove wings fold the paper shape of mystery,
   the slight plump give of gusset in the fingers,
   several pages thick.

Is it just me? Whatever this paper wallet is I can't see it. And I think I should be able to. And I really don't know what a paper wallet is - is it an envelope? If it is, call
it an envelope, for goodness sake. Perhaps I'm overstating something, but I have to make several attempts to get through any of the poems in this book; I simply can't get moving with them.

But now I know what the real
problem is. This is a poet who poses (and I choose my words carefully) behind willful obscurity. Objects, and what might be ideas, most of them mundane, lurk behind words which claim a greater significance than they actually have. Poems often begin, and you don't know where you are, or what you're looking at - and what you're looking at is actually quite important, as the entire collection is supposed to be the tour of a house (the museum of the title) that holds within it .... well, a family story, or something? I'm not exactly sure. I don't exactly care.

I should mention that the "tour of a museum" idea is given substance by an italicized prose "guide" prior to each poem. We are told where we are in the house as we wander through it. But the  prose of these little guiding paragraphs is pretty horrible sometimes. Describing a telephone, for example, we have "Its case is cracked, like it has been dropped or thrown." Like it has been dropped? Like? 
Good Heavens. What do they teach them in school these days? Whatever happened to elegance?

But as I was saying, I don't care what this museum is a museum of. But I should
care. The writer should make me care. Instead he frustrates me, because instead of being clear (and honest) he is being irritatingly poetic. It's the kind of poetic that is often deemed meaningful because it sounds meaningful. There's a poem (in the kitchen) called "Egg" and I really can't be bothered (oh, I can foresee Mr. Loydell sticking a "That bastard Stannard can't be bothered" title on top of this piece) to work out what it's about. I don't think it's about an egg. It begins:

   A pendant of unnatural birth.
   Your sag of gravity rests
   the way a droplet sits
   within the saucer of its hips.

and after passing through lines such as

   I'm given you to lift
   your stretch of stillness and split it
   with a knuckle snag or teaspoon blade;
   stab where there are no ribs.

it concludes after seven stanzas with:

   Only afterwards I see
   the painted shapes of daffodils,
   tumps of heather, a tombstone
   smells of baby head
   and the dry warmth
   of new born cow tongue.

I'm pretty sure this poem is not about an egg. And I'm also pretty sure it's supposed to be deep and meaningful but there is nothing in the language of this or any other poem in the collection that invites emotion, or any kind of engagement. Instead you're invited to admire the poet's turn of portentous phrase. I am unable to admire, I'm afraid. And there's loads of this kind of stuff. Here is the first bit of "Mussels":

   The sea is hard on you -
   the way it sighs at night. It swells
   around your shoals of black shells,
   drowns your choirs of silent owl hearts
   threads your towers of lupin spires,
   shapes that have the geometry of fate.

Oh please: "choirs of silent owl hearts"? And "shapes that have the geometry of fate"? What do those things even mean

Here, for final good measure, are the last lines in the book:

   My tongue has slowed.
   It cannot curve or even lend
   itself to truth.

Truth my arse. "Linguistic connections with the root-ball of experience" my arse.

     Martin Stannard, 2014