Where to next?

The Victor Poems,
Anthony Caleshu  (99pp, Shearsman)
Lighting the Fire, John Daniel  (50pp, £8.00, Oversteps)
Zygote Poems, Richard Thomas (50pp, £5.00, Cultured Llama)

I liked Anthony Caleshu's last poetry collection - Of Whales ... - which had an epic echo of Melville hovering around the text in ghostly fashion and there's an epic and otherworldly aspect to his latest creation, TheVictor Poems, which I like even more. It's a quest, an odyssey, set in the Arctic, featuring the ubiquitous Victor who is also 'never there', in the sense that he's a memory of the various friends, the 'we' of an apparent expedition which is the launch-pad for Caleshu's exploration of storytelling and of language and of a strange hinting at 'the spiritual' while remaining firmly of the secular and of the 'here and now'. The writing is exquisite, often comic, and Caleshu has a way of making rhyme, which he uses sparingly and often within the framework of the sentence, respectable again. Not that there's anything remotely respectable about this book, it's a humdinger of a read which takes you along at a galloping pace and you simply have to admire the verve and energy of the writing while also being aware of its more underlying and serious intent. It has something of the majestic, elegiac Western about it - I'm thinking of Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid here - relocated geographically and largely devoid of guns and violence, a celebration of life with sadness at its heart, which is redeemed by its exuberant language. In fact, it's a long poem and its subject is language, a language which retains the hope of narrative and of embracing 'the big subject'.

37. The nightlife is the right life for us

     This town has been waiting for us.

     We enter it under bunting and a parade.
     Rumour has reached us - has reached-out
to us.

     We're served the customary meat soup of winter even
     though it's summer.

     The Arctic chill that burns our feet and lightens our
     heads is gone.

     Our credit cards have been cancelled and our checks
     won't clear.

     Your money's no good here, someone says.

     We're bought a beer, and a beer, and another beer.

     We're jumping like reindeer on the dance floor, when we
     hear we can't dance for shhh -

     We take off our pants.

     Time to go, says E, who ushers us off stage with the
     promise of a shower and a shave.

                   E, don't get us wrong, in your lime-colored wool
                   and water colored eyes, you're the best surprise
                   going, but the love we bear -
                  A long, song-like sleep, she says.

     Our hotel is a small but grand affair, with a view of the
     city and the sky.

     There's a mix of the hip and the corporate and we don't
     just stand out because we stink.

     We register as Searching-for-Victor, inc.

     It's the anonymity we like best when we lock the door
     and fall asleep on the floor.

     A grey sky is soon a dark-blue sky is soon a white, cloud-
     filled sky that's pink.

     A light so bright even at night breaks through the glass.

     In the morning, we wake to E. outside our window fixing
     our window.

This is a poetry book to read through in a sitting then dip in and enjoy re-reading in extract to savour the individual lines, the resonance and the rhythms and the textures of its language. It's a big book with a lightness of touch which hints at the numinous while embracing the material reality of the world. It's a terrific book which I think you should read.

There's an interesting double meaning in the title of John Daniel's latest collection which implies both a concern with the domestic and with a more outward-bound sense of adventure and enthusiastic exploration of the world.

Both kinds of poem are included in this book and many embrace both meanings in a single title as Daniel clearly finds stimulation and drama in the most domestic of settings - 'Clearing up the Patio', for example, where ' it was the end of everything. / I threw a garden gnome at the wall.' Or in the title poem, where in the act of making the fire - a task which Daniel clearly enjoys - he imagines the sticks in terms of the Kon-Tiki expedition, where a repetitive daily chore becomes part of a wider world, filled with colour and possibility.

In 'Hammer' he recalls his father's advice to him as a child when he couldn't make the nails go in straight - Talk to them he'd say / then they'll do what you ask. It's a neatly succinct poem which pulls at the heartstrings in a way which makes me slightly suspicious but Daniel does it so well and is so clearly 'at home' in his own poetry that I go with the flow and let him take me just about anywhere he wants. This may be opposite an attractive woman on a train who is reading 50 shades of grey(!), where the details of her lunch are intriguingly juxtaposed with the shooting down of a Zeppelin, or in America, talking to his ex-wife, where the recollections turn to fishing:

     We may snag a sunfish or two
     but not the monsters lurking deep down -
     walleye pike, big mouth,
     huge muskellenge.
          (from 'Zeppelin')

Daniel's poems are always filled with interest, often have surprising endings and manage to mix a mild experimental approach with what is basically traditional in terms of technique and subject. His imagination retains a youthful element which is full of wonder and is often the cause of great hilarity. He's also a competent practitioner of the 'genre' poem, such as 'punctuation', where we get this:

     the full stops
     the worst of the lot

     he knows he gives point to the universe
     i think i prefer those mediaevel texts

     where they drew hogs in the margin
     and let the reader get on with it

In this sense Daniel is very much an artisan, a sort of 'jobbing poet', using his skills and talents to document what he sees around him. There are always surprises, as in the following piece, which is both succinct yet strange, humorous and slightly unnerving:


     I bought ten toothbrushes

     for 99p in a plastic container,
     standing upright, pale guardsmen.

     Now all I need is a skull
     with shining white teeth
     for my brush with death.

There's a wider range of subject matter here than I've probably indicated so far and Daniel is also capable of the occasional tour de force, as in the dreadfully, appropriately titled 'Chinese Kidneys', which deals with the use of criminals' kidneys for transplant and sale. There's a Swiftian quality to this poem which really packs a punch but its directness and straightforward narrative followed by the reversal in the second stanza is spellbinding in all the 'wrong' ways:

                                               the American saying,
     Ok bud, it's yours
, as he picks up the dinner knife
     carves out the kidney, soft and round as an egg
     and falls over the table
     as if he'd been the one executed.
          (from 'Chinese Kidneys')

Richard Thomas' second collection, Zygote Poems, is by some way a moving-on from his debut, The Strangest Thankyou. It's a book about becoming a parent and Thomas uses the highly unusual means of phonetic language to get inside the confusion, exhilaration and sheer exhaustion that comes with the experience. It's a collection of poems where the innovatory use of language is matched by the intensity of the range of emotions expressed and it's a very moving book which combines humour with awkwardness and a sense of pride with an expression of strong paternal instincts. As with John Daniels' poetry Thomas' work can tug at the heartstrings and if that's an awful clichˇ I can only say that this writing is as convincing and convinced as it gets. Being in a roomful of people listening to Thomas read these poems is quite a place to be.

Zygote Poems explores the development of the foetus in the womb -'the wisening lungs secrete surfactant, / and winter melon weirdly warmer,' - from 'Zygote Poem'; through birth - 'and so she came, our baby, bathed softly in blood.'; to the complexities of travelling by bus with a young child - 'up through Crownhill like a snowplough (red bus City Bus, white bus / Nicer Bus)'; to those domestic moments which nonetheless capture that mix of pride and a need to provide which surface again and again throughout this collection:

     What Made a Meal was Love

     In the*corner shop I worked the list:
     eggs, cream, pudding, pepper, and
     tentatively so, it's such
     accurate selection
     which would bode that night's
     meal reward-
     and the post-

As someone who has regular experience of working for the Royal Mail at Christmas I was both charmed and slightly alarmed at the inclusion of 'MDEC', where strange and not-so-strange place names are used both for their sound effect and for the way in which they can trigger off memories and thought processes, both in the reader and the writer, though not obviously the same memories! It's also a villanelle and Thomas does mix traditional poetic forms with less obviously structured poetry.

The short poem 'Karma' has a slightly Blakean quality that rants against rogue landlords - 'those bog-horned brats' while retaining an upbeat lyrical optimism of the heart, while 'Coffee' relates to the practice - a common one now I'd have thought - of using the coffee house as a place to write poetry:

             ... it is not just the coffee
     that I came for, but to get away from
     the shrill silence of being solitary
     and dud in daydreams.

Thomas is also a great performer of his poetry and some of these pieces lend themselves to a live reading, partly due to the degree of repetition in individual poems and partly - if you're aware of the phonetic interpretation on the page - to the relation between sound and written text:

     Pea Soup    Pig Soup
     Charity-Goose-Dancehall Soup
     Reindeer Hoof and Coriander Soup
     Empty Pocket and Bus Soup
     Corn and Encyclopaedia Soup
     Butterbean and Clementine
     Liver and Pancake
     Squid and See-Saw
     Milk and Marrow
     Sphinx and Muffler
     Goat and Glove-Box
     Lighthouse    Cheese   Lion
     Buffalo Broth   Crumb Soup
     Cream of Candle-Curtain
          (from 'A Closeness of Pulses')

As well as being entertaining, this piece hits a raw nerve in terms of its frenetic energy and its exploration of an obsessive motivation based on an intense desire to do the right thing while being deprived of sleep and in a state of near exhaustion. 'Surtralleene', a poem suggested by the name of the drug used to medicate the effects of anxiety - spelled phonetically here - takes this off-balance state of mind to its height and concludes with a final stanza in praise of the medication:
     it'z juhst thuh ryte,
     it'z juhst thuh ryte,
     it'z juhst thuh ryte tihpul.

This is book fuelled by love and it examines the intense experience of fatherhood in a manner which is both exploratory and entertaining. It's a serious achievement and  I'm wondering where Thomas is going to go next.

     © Steve Spence.2016