isness and notness

Notness - Sonnets, Richard Berengarten (92pp, £9.95, Shearsman)
Dark Islands, Tom Chivers (60pp, £12, Test Centre)
Careful What You Wish For, Peter Sansom (63pp, £9.99, Carcanet)

Richard Berengarten's output remains prolific and this new collection of poetry comprises 100 sonnets which were composed between 1967 and 2013. 'Notness', as Berengarten points out in the Afterword, is an anagram of Sonnets and the play in these poems between 'isness' and 'notness', while suggesting a 'never-ending dance' also touches on the metaphysical aspect of Berengarten's work, suggested by the subtitle. A few of these poems are based on those by Serbian, Greek and Croatian writers, which hints at Berengarten's international perspective, and are split into a number of sections which give a general 'subject area'. While you could say his themes are of universal concern these poems are also very much those of an individual and there certainly appears to be an element of confessional purpose in these powerful pieces. Take the following poem, for example:

     I longed for fame

     I longed for fame. It would not be bestowed
     nor will - till dead - if then - of that I'm sure.
     But I'll walk on unswerving though obscure
     as any traveller on the shimmering road
     burning to ash behind us. Hopes that glowed
     like lamps before me hereby I abjure
     and all the lovely outlines whose allure
     by ways and waysides jarred me where they flowed.
     Away sweet jangling images! You blurred
     the coiled lines of the way I had no choice
     but track and follow to the brimming rim
     of now, in flood. Listen - a dull brown bird
     is pouring song out on spontaneous voice
     across the sky. What impulses fire him?
          (from 'A Discipline')

It's a familiar theme and Berengarten is highly attuned to the traditions whereby the emotional intensity of the writing is working against (and with) the formal device of the poem. You can certainly feel Shakespeare and Keats in this writing, in the lyrical beauty of the lines but there's also a more modern tendency within his work which allows for the continuation of tradition, something which I think is very important in Berengarten's work as a whole. It's possible, even, to interpret the 'argument' of the text as being between tradition and modernity - '…I had no choice / but track and follow to the brimming rim / of
now, in flood', as well as dealing with the paradox of consciousness and the desire for an intuitive beauty 'unsullied' by the power of thought. If it's difficult to broach such 'metaphysical' questions in a contemporary setting, Berengarten is certainly the man to do it, even if, as implied again in the Afterword, he does so not from a position of 'an expert in philosophy' but as a questing individual in search of meaning - 'Others more adept at quieting this buzzing mind will know a good deal more about this than I do.'

This is a cracking collection of poetry which gives an insight into Richard Berengarten's engagement with the sonnet form over a long period and if you've not come across his work before this is a good place to start. The cover typography is very stylish.

Tom Chivers' new collection - Dark Islands - has strong dystopian overtones, hinting at both the work of Iain Sinclair and J.G. Ballard and also tipping its cap towards the late Ken Smith in his magnificent (now vintage), London-based, on-the-run epic, Fox Running. This is both a celebration and a critique of the city, combining the buzz of digital culture with a dark foreboding and a sense of colonial history which is coming home to roost. History is ever-present as the text combines imaginative projections with passages of description and there's a witty edge to the writing which at times feels like a parody of hard-boiled detective fiction. There's a sense of speed and movement about the whole project which both excites and disturbs and also a questing desire for some sense of stability, even certainty, amid the transient noise and menace. Chivers' writing has a 'self-awareness' which plays with genres and storytelling in a very contemporary manner but rarely in a way which feels intrusive or awkward:

     On the fifth day we sailed our frozen island out
     into the shipping lanes. We counted all the evil things
     and cast them in an ice hole. They were only numbers.

     On the fourth day we opened high-yield savings accounts.
     The refugee camps were fast becoming commuter towns
     encircling the crater. Jets of steam were seen from the tor.

     On the day before the first day we fell into geometry
     like children. The sky was a chemical peel.
     We slept alone and restlessly through the shipping news.
          (from ' ii. The Event')

Historical figures merge with direct observation, often in amusing asides, as in - 'Boozy Boudicca has lost her brassiere / on bonus day in Cornhill' - from 'iv. The Bells'. The references are wide and multicultural, the writing busy and penetrating, combining thought-flow with observation and domestic detail. Every so often you come across a line of arresting lyricism, as in 'Poplar Gut', where we get this - '…vapour or cloud or both leaking / like a thread of silver mucus in the upturned basin of the sky.'

There's a wide erudition and a mass of information enclosed in these intermingling texts where narrative structures are interspersed with more fractured writing and where humour jostles with self-observation. Make of this what you will:

     The urban fox darts from beneath the Telford Homes boarding,
     pauses, then turns towards me in the middle of Old Castle Street,
     his yellow eyes glowing in the darkness like the eyes of Iain Sinclair.
          (from 1x. Ecosystem')

This is a collection to dip into, to go back to and to think about, though there are more immediate pleasures to be had and I suggest reading it through quickly as an initial strategy.
Dark Islands is presented as a pocket edition with the type reversed white out of black and it looks and feels splendid.

I haven't read much of Peter Sansom's work before and I felt a curious resistance before I actually approached these poems but I have to say that I warmed to them on a first reading even though the sort of poetry he writes is not the kind of poetry I most like. I was immediately struck by the poem 'Instead of Going to Work', which beautifully encapsulates those feeling of guilt and avoidance and the mood of 'anxious ennui' which can surround the process of 'bunking off' and make the stolen time a ruinous occasion. I don't say that I agree with the sentiment, or apparent moral underlying the poem but the evocation is perceptive and convincing, even down to the closing lines which effectively underwrite the whole text:

     I should be doing more with the day
     than the nothing I did instead of going to work.

This is the kind of 'closure' which I often find myself objecting to but it works here, in the context of this poem, and I find myself admiring its effectiveness.

In 'Claim to Fame' we are given the scenario of the protagonist (I'm assuming though I know I'm not supposed to, that this is an 'autobiographical' poem) playing tennis with Ken Dodd, an arresting idea, and once again it works because of the unexpected nature of the narrative - 'He was witty, I didn't expect that, / and the only person he sent up was himself.' The poem is written from the perspective of a teenager playing tennis with an older man (Ken Dodd) and then the scene is 'repeated' when both the players are older:

                                     And when we played again
     he wasn't a day older. Not a day. But you know
     how it goes. Five sets, then three,
     across the years, then a knock-up base-line
     to breakfast time. He said he didn't owe
     the Inland Revenue a penny
     because he lived by the sea.
          (from 'Claim to Fame')

I've just had the thought that if this poem is/was 'a fiction' in the sense that the supposed factual element of the narrative was an invention, would it be a lesser poem? I think not but it's an interesting question nonetheless.

'Nocturne/Reading Festival', includes some effective nostalgia which references 'Yes', 'The Magic Band' and Soft Machine' and works, I think, because of the manner in which Sampson integrates his own reflections into the generality of the event. It's an interesting point because so much writing 'in this vein' doesn't work because the reader gets terminal boredom a quarter of the way through the poem and either wants to nod off or to drastically rewrite or edit the text. As I said before this isn't my favourite kind of poetry but I did enjoy reading these poems because they mainly work well and have interesting stuff in them. The two longer poems - 'Diary of a Night in Matlock Bath' and 'Sofa', are more rambling and discursive but they still manage to retain the reader's interest throughout.

'Lava Lamp' hints at a more experimental form of verse (slightly e.e. cummings, so not exactly contemporary!) and 'On Ian Macmillan Avenue' comments on popular culture (perhaps an oblique reference to 'Abbey Road' in the opening lines - 'In PART ONE, a neighbour climbs in / the kitchen window with the Thatcher Years again.') with a passing reference to Martin Stannard as Lord Byron and 'Hinge and Brackett at the Town Hall.'

This isn't the sort of poetry which really gives me that 'pleasure rush' but it is authentic and effective and well worth reading if you're in the right mood. Good stuff.

    © Steve Spence 2015