Blog

Rachel Long – more than enchanting

Blurb-writers have much to answer for. On the back of Rachel Long’s collection My Darling from the Lions, there is first a mention that it has been shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, then a quote from Bernardine Evaristo (“An enchanting and heartwarming new voice in poetry”) and then the blurb begins: “Rachel Long’s much-anticipated debut collection of poems…announces the arrival of a thrilling new presence in poetry.”

We don’t need the cover – a black girl seen from the back, with her arms folded behind her – to know that we are in BAME territory. The Evaristo quote seems patronising – one established and high-profile black writer welcomes another onto the stage, but “enchanting” strikes the note of the clever schoolgirl being praised for singing in tune. Then the dread cliché of “much-anticipated debut collection”.

So this reader started off with slight foreboding. Was this going to be another case of Picador trying to be woke? I emptied my mind and turned to the beginning.

*

After two readings of this collection, I came to the conclusion that Bernardine Evaristo has not done Rachel Long the service one might think. Although there is slight unevenness in quality, most of the poems have far more substance than is implied by the words “enchanting and heartwarming”. I’m not sure I find much that is heartwarming about:

"We discuss kids. Maybe it's the wine,
or because my belly is beginning to push
against the bones of my dress. You say,
I don't think I'll identify with a brown son."

or:

"Before we go any further, we'll need a urine sample.
Glass of water, Madam? You'll be pleased to know
your parents have been fully vetted..."

That said, the poems that resonate most for me are the vignettes of a mixed-race family in south London. A white father comes to collect his daughter from school (“See him, how trim, he runs every day,/even Christmas Day, yeah, come to pick me up,/his real, brown daughter”) and the other children don’t believe it’s her father; her friend Danielle’s dad produces gold coins from his pocket as if by magic, to treat the children, who don’t pause to wonder where the money comes from; at the local evangelical church there is a whiff of child abuse (“…he had blown candles for hands,/with which he led me down an incensed corridor,//and I followed”). The poet has a great gift for capturing idiomatic speech: in Helena a night-club hostess describes to her spellbound friends how the club’s bouncer lured her back to his apartment and tried to rape her, in a way that has the other girls hysterical with laughter:

                                                             "....Helena laughs herself down
and off the sofa, blonde hair dragging across the black pleather.
  She saunters to the bathroom. Before slamming the door, shouts
over her shoulder, I promise I won't stay in it forever."

Helena struck me as one of the poems that showed Rachel Long at her best and weakest – or perhaps I should say most perplexing. Best in the sense that the language is deceptive: at the risk of reading too much into a title, the central character, with echoes of the Trojan War, is a female archetype who causes chaos at the same time as she becomes a victim. The combination of violence and humour gives an edge. The language conveys the scene perfectly (“Ali, mate, I’m not being funny, I’m tired. I wanna go home./He’s like, babe, I know, I hear you…”). But the form is strange, with alternate lines indented by two spaces. Line-breaks seem entirely arbitrary, so we are in a strange half-prose flow without stanza breaks, just a bit of white space on either side. I’m not sure I get the point of this, to the point where I found the form distracting from, rather than reinforcing, the content. It’s at moments like this that I would like to have a chat with the poet and understand her intention better.

Some of the shorter poems didn’t work for me. In Car Sweetness the speaker’s parents are in the front of a car:

"...Mum would lay her hand
over Dad's on the gearstick,
their wedding-rings glinting
like mouths not used to smiling."

I get the drift – a gesture of attachment in a life where emotion is rarely shown. But I’m not persuaded that the glint of a ring can be like a mouth not used to smiling. Again, the image becomes a distraction rather than a building-block.

Such reservations as I had in the course of a first reading were considerably reduced when I went through it again more methodically.  The vividness of the portraits carries the reader on, and I very much like the wide range of this poet’s lens – from the portrayal of children in a playhouse exploring each other’s private parts, or a schoolgirl stuffing a sandwich down her bra as more convincing than a sock, to Victoria Beckham talking about her handbag or the poet’s mother successfully defeating the magic of an aunt trying to transfer her cancer. There is a wide-ranging humanity and sense of humour that achieves, with deceptive skill, the life-enhancing effect that poetry can bring at its best.

*

In one of his essays Glyn Maxwell writes: “I had absolutely nothing to say till I was about thirty-four. I’d have been a disappointing messiah. But what I did for about twenty years from my mid-teens was play with words, so that by the time I had some things to say I had a pretty good idea how to.” 

I was surprised that Maxwell had nothing to say until he was thirty-four. By this time, surely, he would have fallen in love at least once, finished his education, started a career and experienced the world of work? The implication is that the young poet needs to spend twenty years learning the craft before they can tackle real content.

That said, much of the poetry world is comprised of men and women at or past middle age, whose preoccupations will not be the same as those of a younger generation. There are understandable tendencies either to belittle younger poets – they’ll mature into something interesting – or, conversely, to welcome them with hype like “thrilling new presence”. Both do the debut poet a disservice.

Rachel Long was born in 1988, so is close to the Maxwell threshold. But she has an impeccable poetic pedigree, having been awarded an Arvon mentorship in 2015 and been tutoring on the Barbican Young Poets scheme since that year, together with Jacob Sam-La Rose. She is the founder of Octavia, a poetry collective for Womxn of Colour. She has an attractive, outgoing personality and reads beautifully – which is a surprisingly rare gift among poets. You can watch an excellent interview of her by Kim Moore for the Forward Arts Foundation here. She strikes me as having a lot to say. At the same time, it is going to be interesting to see how she moves on from the material of her childhood into the swirling currents of adult life: I have every confidence that it will be with the same mixture of energy and humour that characterises this first collection.

Rachel Long’s “My Darling from the Lions” is published by Picador. The quote from Glyn Maxwell is taken from his essay “Form” which appears in “On Poetry”, published by Oberon Masters.

Lockdown pleasures – Evan Jones’ “Later Emperors”

Those of us living beyond an easy commute to the capital can sometimes feel like Romans banished to the outer wastes of the Empire – a simile appropriate enough in the present case. Attending launches of poetry publications becomes a major logistical exercise, involving the parking of dogs and finding a bed for the night.

Lockdown brought the benefit of launches via Zoom, which enabled me to discover the poetry of Evan Jones on the occasion of the launch of Later Emperors by Carcanet. Jones explained in the course of his reading that the book arises from his reading of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The world his book creates, in its four distinct sections, is reminiscient of Alice Oswald’s Memorial, in that it shines brief spotlights on a variety of historical figures who are otherwise little heard of. But in the place of Oswald’s heavily-imaged writing we have quiet understatement. And in the place of a continuous piece of writing we have brief stand-alone poems.

Towards the end of the book, Jones writes, in the voice of Plutarch:

I have always lived in the past, an insult
I once thought, where I sought the benefit
of going over what others would ignore...

Jones wears his learning lightly: the Plutarch poem, called Plutarch to his Wife is intertextual in that it arises from an actual letter written by Plutarch to his wife following the death of their daughter. You can find the text of the original, translated, via Google. But whereas the original is a staid admonition to be stoical in grief, Jones’ poem riffs on Plutarch’s situation travelling on official duties with his amanuensis, Petrus.

The people here are nice, what is more
they seem to recognise in me someone
who will welcome the hours stolen away
through their efforts, because I am trying,

trying to see through this.

Plutarch becomes a living, breathing figure. As do the others spoken of. In the first section, 23 brief poems cover 23 named people. The verse is simple, with few adjectives, giving a limpid effect, but nonetheless conveying the almost casual brutality of the age. Take Carus, Struck by Lightning AD 283:

Aged, feeble Carus during
the furious night called for his mother,
droned, reeled, balked, barked
at the tent poles and servants.
Feverish now, when young he was a tent
pole, a severe and simple man,
as Gibbon wrote, a soldier,
satisfied with stale bacon
and stone-hard peas. He passed.
We set the imperial pavilion
on fire, suggested it was lightning,
an act of god. Wrong,
I know, though not exactly wrong.

In the second and third sections of the book, Jones writes about Michael Psellos and Anna Komnene. Psellos was an eleventh century monk who became political adviser (in modern jargon, a SPAD) to the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos. Komnene was an eleventh/twelfth century Byzantine princess, renowned for her scholarship. Both sections are stylistically distinctive – in the Psellos part the poems follow a form which, Jones explained at the launch, was Byzantine in origin, with long lines split by a caesura, rather like Anglo-Saxon verse; while the Komnene poems are seven lines long, the fourth line split. Take On Being Understood:

But what was my art? I practised in childhood the measure
of the stars, hell-bent as they were on misleading the lot
of our lives. Like this: in the sign of Taurus, a bronze statue
of the Emperor Constantine
fell from its plinth, the wind
southwesterly. I knew what to do, then as now. Coming
back to earth, I raised my hand and lowered it sharply
as if first tearing through a spider's web, then through air.

These are quiet poems that manage, with remarkable and deceptive simplicity, to get under the skin. I am delighted that lockdown made me acquainted with them.

Later Emperors by Evan Jones is published by Carcanet

Very Clever, Mr Muldoon

One of my warmest poetic memories is the reading given by Paul Muldoon a few years ago at the Charleston Festival. The great man’s gentle voice and self-deprecating approach combined to make it a very special occasion. The hour-long session was over all too soon.

So I come to his poetry with a double bias, since not only do I keep this memory but also he comes trailing behind him the glories of Northern Irish poetry, in the form of the godlike trio Heaney, Mahon and Longley. Not that “trailing” is appropriate for someone who has blazed his own path and developed his own distinctive style.

The early Muldoon poems are in the shadow of Heaney, speaking of incidents in rural Ireland with oblique references to the Troubles. But he soon moved away from his home turf, both physically and in literary terms – first to England and the University of East Anglia, and then to Princeton, where he has taught on the creative writing programme since 1987.

Frolic and Detour is his thirteenth collection. His eminence can be seen from the fact that four of the poems in it were commissioned by bodies varying from the Grand Central Hotel in Belfast to the New York Times. It is not a book to be read in a hurry. Part of the reason for this is the way in which the poet darts round the world and backwards and forwards in time, in the space of a few lines. Take the first six couplets of Wave, written in memory of C.K. Williams:

I happened to be putzing around in the Gellert Spa in Budapest
while you did your very best

to hold on to the world-brim.
Saint Gellert taking a last look over the rim

of his nail-studded barrel. I was stretched in a thermal bath
even as Syrian refugees struggled to find a path

across the border at Zakay. Two of the many top-of-the-line
treatments on offer featured red wine
 
and chocolate. It was in Peru, Vermont,
in the late 80s I first heard you vaunt

Vallejo and Neruda. You were so tall I could no more reach you
for a farewell hug than scale the Heights of Machu Picchu.

Here we have references to one of Budapest’s most renowned hotels, the eleventh century martyrdom of Saint Gerard, Syrian refugees, Vermont, Vallejo and Neruda and Machu Picchu, combined with a series of playful rhymes bordering on music-hall. I have two difficulties with it – and they are difficulties rather than problems. One is that I feel I need to have Google on constant alert so that I understand the allusions. The second is that I don’t understand why he is including some of the references. In the present case I am not sure what the relevance of the Syrian refugees is, other than to point up a contrast to the poet reclining in the spa. The reference to Machu Picchu is, I suspect, merely a way of getting a wry smile by way of the rhyme with “reach you”.

A more serious objection arises with the reference to Saint Gellert in his nail-studded barrel. This may chime with the idea of the poet in a hot tub and with the related image of Williams taking a last look over the brim of the world, but this version of Saint Gellert’s martyrdom appears to be apocryphal.

Leaving quibbles of this kind aside, one cannot but be impressed by Muldoon’s mastery of form. 1916: The Eoghan Rua Variations consists of nine stanzas, each of fourteen lines – yes, reader, these could be described as sonnets, though they are only loosely so. The last four lines in each stanza are different translations of lines attributed to the Irish language poet referred to in the title, as set out in an epigraph. Each stanza follows a rhyme scheme of aabbcdcdcdefef, which is a reorganisation of the normal sonnet scheme, so that the sestina is in the middle. Not for nothing has one reviewer referred to Muldoon’s “linguistic bravura”.

This fondness for combining a strict-ish form with rambling content reaches its logical conclusion with the title poem Frolic and Detour, which consists of three sections, each with fifteen loosely-rhyming quatrains. The title operates on two levels: the speaker is depicted as driving on an errand for various household items – goat’s cheese, ibuprofen, a sander belt, pesticide – though apparently diverting from an intended route; and at the same time the places he passes encourage a stream-of-consciousness musing on topics ranging from the mystic Thomas Merton to Jimi Hendrix’ performance at Woodstock and the ancient Greek lyric poet Stesichorus.

It’s enjoyable stuff, even if one gets a bit tired of Googling. It would be logical to anticipate that a poet quite so flaunting of facts would be short on emotion. However, Muldoon is perfectly able to rise to this, as to any other, occasion. His best and his worst aspects are for me encapsulated in the poem With Eilmer of Malmesbury, written after news reaches Muldoon of the death – it appears, the suicide – of the sixteen-year-old Jack Eustis, son of friends. The poem begins movingly:

In Paddington a man allows his upright bass
to rest its head on his shoulder -
the awkward embrace
of a father and teenage son...

The speaker is travelling to Swindon by train and then on by cab to Malmesbury.

…I take the train
to Swindon, from there a cab to the Old Bell Hotel,
the oldest in England. Since the unusually large brain
of an Apache war chief will swell

even more when boiled, an army surgeon saws
through Mangas’s brain stem, tipping it into a vermeil
basin for further study.

“Mangas”, we know from another poem in the collection, is a reference to the Apache chief Mangas Coloradas. It is by no means clear what the reference is doing here.

We move on to the tale of Eilmer of Malmesbury, whose attempt at flight, by putting on wings and launching himself off a tower, ended in his breaking both legs and being lame for the rest of his life. This is contrasted with the sad fate of the sixteen-year-old:

My friends’ beloved son also fell hard
from a rafter
but stopped short
of the floor.

A few lines later:

We don’t know if Eilmer flew with the aid of leathers
or a contraption of linen and silk. The belt
worn by a Benedictine was made of leather

but a Franciscan’s  cincture was rope. The gaudy sleeve
I once put on is fraying by the hour.
At a distance of three thousand miles I grieve
with my friends.

This is moving, but the effect is then spoiled by :

…An E minor on a bass sours
even as it soars through the skull of Mangas Coloradas.  

(Note the implied wordplay of “soars” and “saws”.)

The minimalist maxim of “Less is more” comes to mind. As indeed does the comment I heard many years ago, in the course of an international legal conference that I attended. The chairman was a very brilliant French lawyer, who struck me as having an astonishing ability to link widely different aspects of almost any area of the law. When I remarked on this to one of the other French lawyers present he commented drily: Oui, mais c’est creux – yes, but it’s hollow. In other words, it was flashy but without substance.

That is not a charge I lay against Muldoon, who is capable of both the deep and the shallow. Nor would I wish him to lose his playfulness and sense of humour. But there are times when I would like him to rein himself in. Buy the book yourself and see what you think.

Paul Muldoon: Frolic and Detour. 2019 Faber and Faber.

The Quiet Tenderness of Mary Jean Chan

I have been struggling for some time to summarise my thoughts on Mary Jean Chan’s “Flèche”. The first time I read it I was impressed by the effortless experimentation with form, but – dare I confess? – found the underlying narratives of (a) coming out and (b) Chinese-person-encountering –Western-society a little too wellworn to give a real whiff of originality.

The second time I read it I realised I had been unfair (which just shows how poetry merits being read several times before one judges). The underlying narratives may have been treated before, but not often combined. And they have the common thread – not, as in some gay writers, a quest for a beloved or indeed the celebration of gay culture or difference – of the poet’s isolation.

Take the Chinese aspect first. Chan’s mother is presented as an ex-bourgeois, whose parents were victims of Mao’s cultural revolution and sentenced to hard labour. Chan herself was born and raised in Hong Kong. However, scarred by the experience of deprivation and hunger she experienced as a girl, the mother expects her daughter to follow a conventional path of marriage and child-bearing. The daughter is the sole focus of the mother’s attention – there is no mention of the father or of siblings. As such, the daughter is faced with a terrible inner conflict as she discovers her sexual orientation: how to be herself while at the same time retaining her mother’s love. Some of the most (there are many) moving poems in “Flèche” are those in which the mother meets her daughter’s Western female partner, and struggles to rise to the occasion.

Western civilisation is seen from the start as a refuge for the poet – “My desires dressed themselves in a hurry of English to avoid my mother’s gaze” and “Surreptitiously reading Shakespeare (the scene where Cesario woos Olivia”).  Indeed, refuges become a leitmotif of the collection – in a scattered sequence headed “Safe Space” a rectangle of centred text describes a place to which the speaker is able to escape, where she feels safe.

The Western lover is, variously, a source of wonder and surprise as well as of gentle conflict (“How have I hurt you? Such asking becomes routine”; “Why didn’t you warn me about cultural differences?”) and later reconciliations (“we laughed and left the sachets unopened”).

These themes of conflict and self-discovery come together in the fencing poems. The book is divided into three sections: Parry, Riposte and Corps-à-corps, which all refer to fencing moves, as does the book’s title. The punning “Flèche” is an aggressive extension in fencing, so brings together the ideas of self-assertion and underlying sensuality.  I personally found the division into sections somewhat artificial, though not bothersome.

I am conscious that I have given all this background without giving a feel of Chan’s use of language. It is deceptively simple. Unlike those poets who embark on dramatic images, Chan remains consistently gentle: “I learnt to withhold my body/the way a dog lifts its sore paw/in mid-air/touching nothing” and in the same poem “for too long I have had to do these things/as when a great wind/pushed a small boat out to sea/before it is ready”. There is a self-effacing modesty about her poetry, which contrasts remarkably with the importance of the themes and makes her treatment of them all the stronger.

Finally, a word about form. As one would expect from a lecturer in creative writing, there is considerable experimentation, from prose poems through couplets and quatrains to semi-concrete poems with justified text. Some of the more successful, for me, were the poems that appear like centred pillars of text with short unrhyming lines – not qite syllabic poetry but with abrupt line-ends characteristic of syllabic verse: “I cannot stand the/faces of beautiful/ women I feel a deep/need to protect…”.

My first reading left me slightly unmoved. It is a pleasure to confess my sin and repent. This is beautiful stuff.  

Parataxis and Beyond in Hannah Sullivan

Reading some of the more eyecatching poetry collections recently, I’ve been struck by the change of consciousness resulting from the internet age. Zapping, surfing, Googling: these have brought us a world of instant stimulus and variety, arguably combined with a lowering of our attention span.

I used to think that the result was a surge of parataxis – the use of phrases and clauses placed one after another independently, without being co-ordinated or subordinated with conjunctions. In the opening of Bleak House, Dickens uses parataxis when he describes some bad weather:

“Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better – splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas, in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foothold at street corners…” 

The jagged phrases and the absence of verbs crowd the concepts together, giving an effect of density and crowds.

Google teaches me that there is a difference between the rhetorical devices of parataxis and asyndeton. The latter is the intentional elimination of conjunctions between phrases, whether used within a sentence or independently.  Asyndeton can be seen as a subdivision of parataxis. Take this extract from the first of Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems:

“He thinks of going abroad as an attempt to live deliberately,
Imagining the well-stacked fires in iron-fenced Victorians,
The senior partner’s grace under pressure, his Emersonian
Turn of phrase, the summers spent sailing, the long reaches
Of sand loosely threaded with grass on Cape Cod beaches.”

The crowding of phrases after “Imagining” may be an example of asyndeton, but what is startling here in the flow of images is their variety. Dickens flicked from dogs to horses to foot passengers, but kept us in the same physical frame. Hannah Sullivan, on the other hand, starts with domestic fireplaces, then moves to the oldfashioned mannerisms of the senior partner, then to a period of time on a sailboat and finally the visual picture of sand on Cape Cod. Instead of portraying an external scene, Sullivan depicts the almost random movements of the mind. A lot of the resulting pleasure derives from the juxtaposition of contrasting images and shifts of perspective – from the portrait of the senior partner gracefully smiling to, finally, the broad sweep of the beaches combined with the detail of “sand loosely threaded with grass”.

It is precisely these contrasts and shifts that gives the poem its interest. A few lines above the ones quoted are the following:

“The senior partner calls from Newark, ‘Thanks, team,’ (his thin
Voice purrs, he is sipping something, ‘let’s make it a win-win,’
But in the morning, brushing his new teeth, looking out into the snow’s
Huge act of world-effacement, its lethargy, he knows:
Things are illiquid, freezing up. Light is abortive
On the greyscale Park. It’s time to short the fucking market.
In Chennai, meanwhile, a man is waiting for your analysis,
Eating his breakfast of microwaved dal and mini-idlis…”

This goes beyond rhetorical devices in that the sentence structure is conventional. But we move from hearing the senior partner’s call to the office to being inside his head as he brushes “his new teeth” – a nice touch, conveying the concept of financial success as well as pride in appearance – then to the man in India eating his breakfast.

The result is a rapid sequence of images and thoughts involving different people in radically different places, all in the space of a few lines. This time we’re not in a single person’s mind. Just like zapping, in that the zapper will flick through different channels, picking up snatches of different programmes, Hannah Sullivan flicks us across scenarios and continents as she conveys the restless activity and environment of her central character, addressed throughout as “you”.

One further point: the zapping succession of images is achieved within a sequence of loosely-rhyming couplets, each line a little longer than the classic pentameter.   

It’s clever, isn’t it? I may object that it’s too long a poem for its underlying content, but the virtuosity is undeniable. I challenge anyone to dislike a poem that ends with the following:

                                                “….and the sky over the Park
Whitens in a punched-out square, as one unlit cab follows
Another down Fifth and, through tears, you are laughing.”

Right brain, left brain

My time in the legal profession was valuable in numerous ways, but there is little doubt in my mind that the development of a fine analytical sense does not necessarily help when it comes to writing poetry. I used to think that this was simply a case  of the left side of the brain being dominant, as a result of constant use, and the right side suffering as a result. But while there’s some truth in this simple explanation, it doesn’t go far enough.

More