Amneoir, Abstractions, Atkins

Things Come On An Amneoir, Joseph Harrington (Wesleyan University Press)
Spectral Emphatic, Anna Mckerrow (£7.00, The Knives and Forks and Spoons Press)
The Logic of the Stairwell and Other Images, Marc Atkins (Shearsman)

Joseph Harrington's new book Things Come On, An Amneoir, is one of the most unusual and experimental books I have read in recent times. 'Amneoir', his own word, combines, 'memoir' and 'amnesia', creating a word which articulates the two major themes of this book. It is a blend of poetry; verbatim quotations taken from interviews, personal diary entries, images, tables, and memoir, interwoven together to make an interesting and challenging read. Harrington connects, through two chapters based on Nixon's resignation and the subsequent investigation, his own mother's tragic death from breast cancer and the Watergate scandal involving the then president Richard Nixon. However it too often felt like the reader would need a doctorate in twentieth century American politics with a specialism in Watergate to really understand the text. Harrington offers the reader several pages of reference notes, but these could have been more helpful and I found myself having to look up certain names and references on the internet. Having challenging subject matter is always a positive in a book but when that content becomes inaccessible because of a need for specialised knowledge, it puts readers off, as well as limiting the books readership. This is not to say writers should dumb down but there is a balance to be struck between challenging the reader and being accessible which Harrington doesn't quite achieve, especially with a British readership. Where his new book does become accessible and intensely touching however is during the passages accounting his mothers death:

     Nobody will ever write a book, probably about my mother,
     Well I guess all of you would say this about your mother:
     My mother was a saint.'
          [From 'Resignation']

Watergate and his mother are always on an even keel, one never overbears the other. The private and public pains are experienced at the same time, they are equitable, one is not worse than the other. His poetry within the book connects the prose interviews together adding a less analytical approach to the narrative of memory and the nature of remembering. Harrington's poetry is at its best when contrasting the everyday activities of life like getting milk with the high drama of Watergate and the high emotion of his mother's death such as this quotation:

     In the myriad kalpas of gigabytyes of worlds: and later I have to go get some milk.
          [From 'Investigation']

He uses contemporary language to great effect, with humour and good understanding of poetic technique. However, I would have liked to have seen more poetry in this book because it is obvious Harrington has a deep interest in language. The poetry in this collection is successful and rewarding however it sometimes gets lost within the other parts of the book; the poetry was not allowed to shine through. His poetry is simple but stark and understated especially at the end of the book, seen in this quotation which has a hint of L.P Hartley's famous quotation about it:

     my mother lives under the ground
     So I am drawn to that country
          [From 'Resignation'

Harrington's book is not a poetry collection, and doesn't attempt to be, it wouldn't succeed if it did. As an exercise in experimenting with structure, analysing memory and the relationship between the private and the pubic it works well. The average reader will not always understand or know the intricate references to Watergate but the emotional tragedy of his mothers' death born out through Harrington's subtle mix of genres and language will connect with all readers.

Anna Mckerrow's second poetry collection is entitled Spectral Emphatic promises so much in its premise and yet delivers very little. The title poem of this collection contains everything which I find frustrating about the collection, the expectation of narrative which is only ever partly fulfilled, the clichˇd imagery and a purposeful obscurity in its language. Mckerrow's language is too often over the top unfortunately, using religious and spiritual images which are not concrete enough to really allow her voice to come through. Therefore the reader gets lost in the abstractions and fails to understand what she is actually trying to say. This quotation from the title poem Spectral Emphatic portrays this:

     They roost among its evangelical exhortations for spiritual revolution.

Good poetry is based upon subtlety, precision of language and showing the reader, rather than telling the reader everything, essentially trusting the reader. 'Spectral Emphatic' fails on all three points. The poetry is often didactic, clichˇd and her obvious love of language could be used so much better, if concrete images were used. After saying all this, Mckerrow's best poem in this collection comes right at the end of the book, 'A Bibliomantic poem', because it makes an attempt to do all these things, with one of the better lines being:

     Without truly understanding her own, motives, the writer
      photocopied page 8 of every book on the tree-shelf bookshelf
     in her study.

Although I usually have an aversion to meta-poetry, poetry about writing poetry, unless it is done especially well with flair (I still have my reservations) but this poem is adequate in its attempt to tackle the subject. She approaches it well, using definite language, in an almost prose poem style to end up with a poem that is funny and insightful. However this poem is far from perfect, McKerrow slips into abstractions, using adverbs like 'yearning' to try and sound more poetic when a more concrete word would be better. Unfortunately after reading this collection several times I couldn't find much I liked about it. It lacks the clarity and precision of language which is necessary to create good poetry.

Marc Atkins new collection of prose poems is entitled The Logic of the Stairwell and Other Images, and for me it was the most rewarding read of all three books. It is obvious from his visually detailed prose poetry that Atkins was an artist and photographer prior to being a poet and this is not a bad perspective to be coming from when writing poetry. His long flowing sentences take the reader into a different world, filled with detail and unusual metaphors. When Atkins is at his best he is direct and concrete, he occasionally gets lost in over the top language but these are infrequent and hidden by his skill to show the reader a new perspective on old themes like relationships. Atkins experiments with the form and structure of his prose poems, shortening the sentence structure with one poem consisting of only two words. 'The Shorts' section at the end of the book is an enjoyable section of poems. They are short sometimes only one sentence, with clarity of imagery. His use of repetition supports the content of the poetry unlike other poets where form is forced upon the content. 'The Damned' however is my favourite section of the book because of the highly visual atheistic used through the piece, such as this quotation:

     I saw the two photographed a year ago. Set upright on a
     mantelpiece leaning against an enabled cigarette box alongside
     several others.

The certainty of these images and the detail of such items on a mantelpiece really appealed to me. The thick detail of Atkins language lends his writing to prose poetry, often with asides of short sentences, to add whimsy and ever more detail to the worlds he creates. His poetry shows rather than tells and the language is simple and bared down to the bone, in his best poems. However like all these collections it is not a completely effective in its entirety. Atkins sometimes gets stuck using phraseology and images that confuse and obscure the reader. Overall this is the best collection of poetry of all three books but it leaves the reader wanting more. I will definitely wait for his future collections with great anticipation.

All three books have their positive aspects and their own niche readership I would think. In my opinion, only Atkins prose poetry allowed me to engage with language and his poetic voice successfully. All have elements of the absurd tradition about them, but they all have a distinct voice. One thing comes out of reading these three collections for me as a writer of poetry as well as an avid reader; poetry is at its best when it's accessible, direct and different.

        © Sam Murphy 2011