Home is where the hurt is

Blood Party
, Merle Bachman (99pp, Shearsman Books)
Approximately in the Key of C
, Tony Curtis (67pp, Arc Publications)
The Victor Poems
, Anthony Caleshu (99pp, Shearsman Books)

Reading Merle Bachman's book length autobiographical sequence is like visiting a relative you haven't seen in a while, who you're only distantly related to anyway, and finding yourself sitting through several boxes of slides projected onto the living room wall, some of them not entirely in focus, and none of them in sequence. Bafflement is your immediate response, then something or someone you recognise leaps out at you; or there's quirky sense of juxtaposition to three or four slides and suddenly what is intensely personal to one specific individual is tinged with the universality of human experience.

Blood Party
is a mosaic of memories, journeys and popular culture. Bachman incorporates her references to film and music with precision. Take the teenage girl who

   ... nests upstairs in her room with its poster of Zefferilli's Romeo and Juliet,
   this place where she's always reading, while her younger brother's out
   or otherwise invisible             no -
   she's invisible.

   The way she likes it.
        [from 'Saturday Night']

Or the horrible intimation, in 'A Night Out at the Club', of domestic violence as just another facet of a complicated relationship:

   ... high heels shed on carpet

   hand over mouth stifled sobs

   This could be Lana Turner playing to whichever man was nasty to her next
   except Lana was a piece of work

   let's run through it again: take!

Bachman uses terse and urgent language. Poems begin in media res
, and you get the sense, turning the page, that you'll hear the smash of crockery or a slurred imprecation at any moment; that the poem isn't quite done with its subject, no matter that it's tersely dismissed the reader. The negative space of the page comes to hold more and more of the drama. The narrative constantly shifts. The pieces never settle. There is no pat resolution or big revelation that ties everything together. This is, instead, an incisive and non-judgemental dissection of dysfunctional family life in the 50s when closed doors stayed closed and what went on behind them wasn't spoken of.

The domestic-themed poems in Tony Curtis's Approximately in the Key of C have less to do with the brittle drama of Blood Party than with the infusion of social history and sense of place. In 'Gunnie McCracken', the eponymous narrator hails from 'the make-do hardiness / of the Shetland Islands', a landscape Curtis evokes in vertiginous fashion:

   Did you ever do a handstand at the edge
   of a cliff to look at the world upside down?
   The sea looks like the sky,
   and the sky looks like the sea
   only there are no boats in the sky ...

Using Gunnie's faux
naēve voice, Curtis teases out a narrative of family history, close-knit relationships, the villagers' connection to their hardscrabble island and its wildlife, and the thrilling lure of high places:

   Only this morning, a neighbour said to me, 'Gunnie,
   step away from the cliff's edge, the wind might take you.'
   He could see the bird in me: the feathers in my hair,
   my white arms ready to unfold, to stretch out and fly.

Curtis's own voice comes to the fore in 'The Headland at Skerries, April 8th', where he filters a similar landscape through his rumination on 'the Russian poets, / how very cold they were for so very long'. He specifically references Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva, weighty namechecks in a collection that also contains nods to Emily Dickinson ('Bless'), Seamus Heaney ('The Fallen Oak') and Elizabeth Bishop ('Two Poems'). Elsewhere, Curtis records his responses to other artworks - canvases, sculpture, music - with the professional appreciation of one craftsman for the work of another. This approach could have resulted in a rarefied, rather 'cool' collection, but his emphasis on the personal results in small domestic details that give his poems their warmth:

   Old dog, old car, old stories, old friends,
   and the fence needs mending yet again.

   Old jacket, old cap, old shoes, old road,
   and the door needs painting yet again.
        [from 'Snow-Capped']

   In a piano stool that sits
   by the back door
   I keep, not Schubert's music,
   but a pair of old boots
   only good enough now for gardening.
        [from 'The Old Painter's Journey']

Approximately in the Key of C
is a superbly realised collection, softly-spoken in its aesthetic but authoritative in its intelligence and maturity.

In Anthony Caleshu's The Victor Poems, home is identikit suburbia, a soulless and characterless place:

   Home is where the - home is where the - home is where
the stereo played, over and over, our considerable


   In the colors of our condiments, we squeezed our night's
   dreams from the lazy arms of chairs.
        [from 'Home']

   We made dinner while our wives paid the bills.

   They took out the trash while we bathed the kids.

   On Tuesday-night TV, we ogled together a pretty girl
   slaying vampires.
        [from 'Let us tell you about our wives']

The first person plural narration reinforces a sense of conformism; a lack of defining characteristics amongst a group of neighbours and colleagues. Victor - the mercurial via negativa
of the sequence - is the odd man out amongst their number; his disappearance is presented as something entirely in character:

   You've always been one of us even though you were
   never one of us.

   The last time we saw you ... when was the last time we
   saw you?

   We'd all gone skiing in Canada, but you'd gone to Cancún
   - the postcard read

                                               See you soon
        [from 'Round after round']

It's not Cancún to which Victor's friends find themselves journeying in search of him, but the frozen wastes of the Arctic. Although the sequence would work just as well if it were the jungles of Borneo, the deserts of Egypt or the heights of Machu Piccu. Their quest is, of course, a journey into the interior. Isolation strips away the moribund. All baggage is dumped. Their old lives are deconstructed in a series of aphorisms that have the feel, at times, of mantra or catechism. And in case you're wondering: yes, Caleshu does
craft a 99-page sequence from aphorisms. And yes, it works a hell of a lot better than it has any right to. Truth be told, The Victor Poems doesn't just work - it soars. Caleshu's writing is confident and controlled: he knows exactly when to emphasise via repetition, and when to employ word play and internal rhyme; when to be enigmatic, and when to reveal.

To call it a standout would be a disservice to Bachman and Curtis's achievements. In fact, The Victor Poems
arguably gains from being read alongside Blood Party and Approximately in the Key of C. Bachman, Curtis and Caleshu work from different material, and at different tempi, however the connections between home, travel, human relationships and the transience of things criss-cross throughout each collection, and - on a larger scale - between them.

       © Neil Fulwood 2015