christopher james

Poems and prattle

Tag: new poetry

In Bloom: The Chelsea Flower Show Massacre by Mark Fiddes

A punk energy and an impish sense of fun suffuses this fine new collection from Mark Fiddes. His preoccupations range from the state of the nation to the state of the nation’s pavements in (see The Existence of Dog for more on this). At its centre is the predicament of a revolutionary who finds himself in suburbia, sprayed with ‘Nespresso’ and ‘junk mail.’ He feels, like a Shakespearean fool, that it is his duty to subvert, to out hypocrisy, absurdity and social injustice, albeit with an oblique detachment and stylish intensity.

Chelsea

The title poem sets out the stall, a polite tirade at the money that is threatening the spirit of the Chelsea Flower Show. It begins with a great gag: ‘The butterflies get in for free/like the Queen, ex officio,’ the pay off skilfully executed with the line break. Anger is too strong a word for it, but he rallies against the Prada ha-ha’ in ‘a cash-scented glade.’ The images and brand names come one after another, like the butterflies themselves, creating a kaleidoscopic sense of colour (following Hugo William’s maxim that ‘poems should be full of things.’ The cumulative effect is dizzying – as rich and gaudy as the overpaid guests themselves. I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s a comic tour de force of considerable panache.

At fourteen poems, this pamphlet has a sonnet-like brevity, but is equally compressed with wit and wonder. The conceits are thrillingly apposite and refreshingly original; his wife attempts to stack ‘metallic capsules of coffee/which tumble like command modules.’ A commuter meanwhile darts ‘as a trout over stones smoothed/by decades to a favoured spot.’ There is a MacNeice like air of unreality to the everyday; as if familiarity has rendered it strange and absurd. A dog is ‘more photocopy than dog,’ resembling a ‘Braque cut-out on whipcord.’ At this flower show, high and low culture frequently collide, Fiddes mixing the mythic with the mundane; Orpheus and Rembrandt rub shoulders with George Clooney and Hello Kitty.

At its centre is a beautiful and affecting poem about a father, Sons of the Golden Section. The man is a painter working in ‘a kingdom of turpentine’ who possesses similar anti-establishment views, always ‘marching/against the latest Dunsinane.’ It is about perfection and imperfection and the poem itself has a painterly quality to it. The father is drawn as a magician, a creator, a mythic figure almost, but he has human frailties too, which are now only appreciated as the son grows older himself. He admires his technique as one craftsman to another:

‘He works paint with palette knives
as if colour like a growing thing,
needed pruning and deadheading’

It is a marvelous poem, filled with reflections, parallels, love and fear.

Equally powerful is Have We Won Yet?, an Afghanistan veteran’s hollow rumination on an ill conceived war. His own sense of bewilderment and disillusionment becomes a critique of his home country:

In the terrible clatter of cups and saucers
he hears the chipped symphony of England
officially at peace with everything except itself.

The poem is full of ironies; he notices that the flowers (is he also at guest at the Chelsea Flower Show Massacre?) are the same as the ones that grow in Kandahar; the crippled soldier remembers how he pressed a flower for his Gran ‘in a copy of Men’s Fitness.’

But this collection is never po-faced. Just when it threatens to take itself too seriously, it lapses into absurdity. Ruminations on war, religion and family are the tempered with the levity of This is Not A Scam or Solo Doloroso. The Pontiff and his entourage in A Page of Revelation are portrayed like a kind of holy Mafia ‘in a miracle of flash bulbs with ‘spiritual muscle on either side.’

Elsewhere the poetry is without politics or polemics: ‘From Siberia’ has a simple grace to it, a little reminiscent in tone and construction to John Burnside’s dark lyricism: ‘these geese trail/winter like needles pulling/thread through sailcloth.’

Ultimately, like the flower show itself, the pleasure is not to be found in a single piece, but in the effect of the whole on the eye (and in this case the ear too). He uses the flower show as a metaphor for England: ‘more Abstract Expressionist than picturesque.’ Its ‘reckless foliage’ is hidden beneath ‘a patchwork flag’

There is so much to enjoy in The Chelsea Flower Show Massacre that to quote from it excessively would be to do Fiddes an injustice. Purchase a copy of this intelligent, immaculately tended collection and you will find yourself in the company of a tour guide at once wickedly cynical, bleakly funny and always colourful.

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The Outsider – by Tom Weir

Tom Weir is an exciting new voice; candid and assured, with enough in the way of light and shadow to fully intrigue. The cover of his pamphlet, The Outsider, published by the ever-excellent Templar Poetry, is a statement of intent with its arresting image of a barnacled man staring out to sea. It has the ghostliness of an Anthony Gormley. If the figure is looking to foreign lands, then it is well chosen. Weir’s poems range from corners of English fields to hotel rooms in Hanoi and the psycho dramas that play out are as dramatic and finely judged as the language chosen to tell them.

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‘Monsoon’ is set in a cheap room at night, in the middle of a Biblical storm, a frightened partner barely reassured by the narrator, who confides: ‘I don’t tell you this isn’t normal, that it’s never been this bad before.’ Weir conjures the storm with it’s ‘shock of noise’ while the ‘lightening threatens to break the sky in two.’ It is highly evocative and with its apocalyptic images of women crying and ‘men up to their waists in water’ hint at worse things to come. The size and power of the storm is beautifully offset by the intimacy of the voice and fragile bond between the two people.

The title poem is an altogether smaller drama: an attempt to free a sheep caught on barbed wire, but again it is a couple that face this crisis and their reaction becomes a telling way to read the relationship. Weir has a great empathy for the natural world and his description of the sheep is both sensitive and visceral: ‘its muscles quivering /somewhere beneath all the wool.’ After it escapes, it leaves ‘clouds of its frantic breath/turning on the air.’

My favourite piece is ’The Light-Collector,’ perhaps because it is close in sensibility to my own work. It is a ‘bright idea’ poem in a literal sense, with its brilliant opening gambit:

I have been collecting pieces light for years,
like scrap metal, in case one day we run out

Weir maintains the conceit with great wit and invention, and the language glints and flashes as he ‘unpicks stars like stitches’ from the ’unpolluted dark.’

There is plenty of risk taking here, mainly in the trust he places in the reader with his intense narratives, charged with strong feeling and threatening landscapes. But it is Weir’s skilled narrative voice and lyrical gifts which makes this short collection so distinctive. ‘The Search’ is typical of beguiling qualities: a search through the snow for a loved one after an argument of unknown providence, while in the distance there is
‘…the light of a single car/that slides by, fastening the horizon like a zip.’

Surely a full collection cannot be far behind this one, and there is every chance that it will be a major statement.

The Violin Thief

The
thief,
who
stole,
one
winter
night,
the
Lipinski
Stradivarius,
holds it in his hands
like a sparrow’s coffin;
feels its small weight,
its girlish waist; thinks
how its shape
reminds him
of a nibbled almond,
or a cello miniaturized
by an old, bored magician.
He waits for the phone call
plucking the four strings
while someone plays
the Devil’s Trill
Sonata
in
the
next room.

The House in the Clouds

We woke to starlings at the window
pecking at the glass; a rainbow sprang
through one wall and out the other.
Clouds slipped through our bedroom,
and brushed against the sheets.
We let blue sky paint the doors
and left the leaves to carpet the floors;
that summer we nested in the air.

It was a house perched in branches,
as if flung there by a storm,
or borne on the shoulder of a giant.
Watchman of Suffolk, arrow to the stars
we spent days adrift in the mist,
the sun like a bail of hay in a field.
Come winter and our shadow
was like a giant’s against the snow.

Rain scudded against the roof; the wind
shook us like a die in the palm of a hand.
Each morning, we imagined the Witch
of the East, crushed beneath us:
the striped stockings, the ruby slippers.
It was the house that thought it was a bird.
We dreamt of the sea, the windmill our
a companion where X marked the spot.

House in the Clouds 2

The Discovery of Thin Air

A crate of sky, packed with light,
an equation flung into the air
they sent a dragonfly
sputtering above the ground.
A man in a bowler hat runs alongside,
the other rides a cushion of air
leaving the earth behind.
They are watched only by trees
dotted in the mist and the cloud,
drifting in effortless flight.

This is the birth of the modern
where, having tamed the land,
we learnt to harness the sky:
throw a bridle on the invisible,
and take off in a miracle
of spruce, hope and mathematics.
A low circle, a hard landing
and it’s all over, a Chinese kite
ditched in the grass, leaving
its mark on this field in winter,
while the bright half moon
gleams like the blade of a plough.

WrightFlyer1904Circling