Writing and Rewriting Place

Falling into Place, Jane Routh (123pp, 8.99, Smith Doorstop)
Maps & Legends, Jo Bell and Jane Commane (169pp, 10.99, Nine Arches Press)

With three poetry collections published by Smith Doorstop, the prose medium of Falling into Place is a departure for Jane Routh. Described on the front cover as 'A Celebration of Wildlife, Work and Weather in the Uplands of North West England', Falling into Place is a sensitive engagement with Lancashire's Forest of Bowland. The majority of the text is structured as a nature journal over the year with Routh's striking black and white photographs that create visual pauses.

Despite the genre, Jane Routh remains a poet. The writing is playful; take for example 'a quirk of woodland'. Figurative language and a keen sense of sound develop this. In 'May', Routh writes of the 'Horse chestnuts out-classing everything for a couple of days before sinking back into their heavy green.' A few lines further, Routh describes how her car 'changes colour [...] covered by an even dusting of pale yellow talcum - birch pollen.' Routh embraces the human world within the natural world and this honesty challenges the often idealistic character of the genre.

However, Routh's ability to identify her surroundings creates an expectation that is occasionally unfulfilled in certain passages. At one point, Routh describes the woodland floor where  'There are rare things too, tiny insignificant green things that excite botanists. Wood spiders, stuff I don't know about.' This lack of knowledge is unhelpful. This continues in 'June' when Routh claims that in making their nests, bluetits fly in '400 loads of moss and twig' and supply their 'young with their 10500 larvae' before going on to say 'I can't remember where I read these figures, but they're unforgettable.'  This hesitancy makes it difficult to fully accept August Kleinzahler's comparison of Routh's writing with that of Gilbert White.

Yet the social context arising from her engagement with her environment creates two strong final sections entitled 'Trace' and 'Fireside'. Routh's research on James Taylor (referenced in the first census for the land) prompts interesting reflections on his experience of the same land.  Such introduces themes of mining and enclosure and, with regard to the latter, deepens Kleinzahler's association of Routh with John Clare. As Routh conceives of a character from the future called 'young Martin', this time-travelling quality of
Falling into Place becomes thought-provoking.

Maps & Legends: Poems to Find Your Way By provides an urban contrast to Routh's Falling into Place. Furthermore, the twenty-four poets in this anthology challenge one definite idea of place: many of the poems are stimulating journeys into uncertainty. Edited by Jo Bell and Jane Commane, Maps & Legends celebrate five years of Nine Arches Press by creating a 'tasting menu' of their well-known and emerging poets.

Although placed half way through the anthology, Matt Merritt's 'Warning Against Using These Poems As a Map' introduces many of the productive tensions that engage these poets.

   No scale is provided.
   You are being left
   To guess the exact distance

   Between what's said
   And what was...
   You are your own key.
   Assign the appropriate value

   To each symbol

The body becomes the 'key' in Peter Carpenter's 'Gift'. After a line by Mandelstahm, Carpenter presents

   A body. My very own possession
   to hold up a finger, thus,
   and say I touch the sky.

Carpenter's phenomenological lyric is graceful in its slight rhymes ('father' 'eczema' 'terrors') and finds the body as the centre of location; an anchor; a 'comforter' despite its own mysterious 'crop circles of eczema' and 'crisis of thinning hair'. It is exciting, then, to find Carpenter's sense of mystery radically extended by Phil Brown's earlier 'Diptych'.

   6. A town hid in for a weekend (10)
   7. Paper I scour for horoscopes (5)
   9. A meal blackened in an oven (5)
   11. The girl living on the floor above (4)

By adopting the structure of crossword clues, the reader is simultaneously invited and excluded from following these coded co-ordinates. Unlike Carpenter's piece, it becomes difficult to inhabit the 'I' of Brown's poem and to 'Assign the appropriate value' and yet the process remains playful rather than frustrating.

The experimental is certainly present in this anthology, but so too are participations with form as illustrated by Roz Goddard's 'The Sopranos Sonnets'. 'Christopher' presents an eerie interaction between acts of writing and killing:

   Every day the same:
   Stumbling in the alleys looking for a gift
   Out of there, lost again in a dark city.

With regard to the latter line, Goddard's language can feel weak and this cannot be excused by the form. Except for the volta and conclusive rhyming couplet, Goddard is deploying the sonnet sparingly. However, Goddard's confident use of image is wonderfully distracting as in the following:

   Like the bodies were stories in long grass -
   That first unbelievable paragraph.

Goddard's use of the Sopranos television series for a series of sonnets is provocative and the use of cultural reference is taken to an extreme in Maria Taylor's amusing 'Larkin'. As Philip Larkin is mentioned 27 times in seven stanzas, Larkin is not simply a literary milestone but redesigns the speaker's landscape: 'birds are tweeting
Larkin! Larkin! Larkin!' and leads to the confession 'I think I'm going Larkin.'

As Taylor's poem plays with Larkin's name to the point where it looses all meaning, so Chris McCabe's 'City of London' fascinates with its perspective on the ever evolving city.

   The men in luminous direct us upwards
   - Blackfriars Station, Major New Development -
   towards the City of Analogue

Akin to Roy Fisher's 'A Furnace', McCabe revels in the physical and textual strata of London. With pub names, street names and street signs erupting throughout the poem, the signifier and the signified threaten to dislocate:
   A half-moon behind The Monument. A Vauxhall stops
   And a man in uniform gets out at THE FINE LINE

McCabe creates a disorientating effect that dramatises the dynamic of London itself. The subtitle of this anthology, '
Poems to Find Your Way' should not be read as if it belonged to the Bloodaxe anthologies Staying Alive or Being Alive. Rather, it should be welcomed as a paradox in which the process of finding always creates further intrigue.

         Isabel Galleymore 2014