Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Searching for Closure - a Re-Review by Nathan Thompson

Stretch of Closures by Claire Crowther, Shearsman Books, 2007

What follows is sort of narcissistic, not in the sense that it assumes that anybody takes any notice of poetry reviews, but that it implies that anyone might have taken notice of one that I wrote over a year ago now. I hope this is forgivable under the circumstances: basically I want to hold up my hands and admit I was at least a little bit wrong.

One of the advantages of the internet is its permanence and its accessibility. One of the disadvantages of the internet is its permanence and its accessibility. For example, over on Stride magazine I wrote a brief review of Claire Crowther’s Stretch of Closures which, whilst by no means damning, could have been perceived to be an example of faint praise par excellence. I know this because a couple of readers have told me so. The review is also pretty badly written and shows obvious signs of hurry. People haven’t mentioned that, maybe because they’re too nice. But it’s there for good, or until the internet implodes. And I don’t like that review, or even agree with it (Martian? – I must have been having some sort of ‘moment’). So I’m grateful to the team at G+P for allowing me the, pretty definitely self-indulgent, chance to set the record straight. And I hope this doesn’t just read like the attempts of a once-near-Catholic to partially cure his guilty insomnia.

Since writing the earlier review I’ve spent a great deal of time with Claire Crowther’s work (it’s clear from re-reading that review that I can hardly have skimmed it (strange, as I clearly had read the other two books discussed there) – I’ve learned my lesson now), and the more time I spend with it the more intriguing it becomes. The poems are, on one level, masterpieces of clarity, in the sense that they are invariably carefully and precisely written. But in Stretch of Closures, however clear the mode of expression, that which is expressed remains just of reach, giving the reader his or her own space in which to reflect and contribute:

The wind pulls the hair of young pines.
Above their heads, dinosaur footprints.
[from ‘Piave’]

The grace, and calm sense of collusion with the obtuse in this poem, is reminiscent of John Ashbery at his best. And yet there’s never the sense of anything arch or knowing in Claire Crowther’s writing that such curious juxtapositions as the above often carry with them. Here the imagery seems an excursion into the subconscious better to understand the conscious; an extension of the unreachable dream-world of the past into the present; and an examination of personal fossils and experiences that in retrospect take on the aspect of things unknown. And, to extend this idea, bringing one thing into proximity with another seems to be one of the themes in this collection. Compassion and understanding are to the fore and language is used generously and lyrically to create the give and take between reader, written, and writer that is, to me anyway, essential to poetic communication:

The sea rolled itself into a sweat
down our faces as if the tide
had suddenly thought of us as inlets

[from ‘City of Turns’]

And I like too the forays into the informal, such as the humour in the repetition at the beginning of ‘Moods’:

Once I had a motorway of hair,
long, black, stood up to stresses well.
You trafficked it, your fingers heavy, light.
I closed it once or twice against the terrors
you get with hair.

There’s a hint of New York-style familiarity and ‘making strange’ here that gels well with the slightly dangerous-sounding narrative voice (on the subject of ‘voice’, the earlier review had a really insulting and patronising tone, don’t you think? – if I were Claire Crowther it would have made me spit). And there are overtones of menace, or at least fear, throughout this book; a sense of ‘looking for gravity’ (to quote from ‘Stairborne’) in both senses. But thankfully the narrative voice avoids the temptation to recede into tight-eyed Plath-style steeliness, despite a degree of crossover in its subject matter – for instance in ‘Motorway Bridges’, which covers genocide, women killed by their partners, and overtones of the occult.

The prose poems have a different diction on the whole, and sail deliciously close to ‘purple prose’ in their rhythms and piles of imagery without ever yawing over into quasi-19th-Century French extravagance:

My shoes are pocked with mud. Roller skates flicker ball bearings like dynamos in my hand. Do I see more than my mind which is sure that fledglings cry almost soundlessly from a nest, that a marble lies hidden, glass budded in a scald of nettles inside the paling?

[from ‘Abscond’]

What can you say to that but: fuck, yeah!? There’s a daring and panache to the prose poems in this book that you don’t normally find in English prose poetry (Luke Kennard’s and Annie Clarkson’s work being the obvious exceptions) and it’s exciting to live with a writer on the edge of technique like this.

So why are the views in this review so different? I guess, although at the time I didn’t realise it, I wasn’t ready to be reviewing a book simultaneously so raw and so technically proficient: maybe I couldn’t get my head around the possibility of marrying the two – I think I was still reading Lee Harwood without finding irony, and Philip Larkin finding only irony.

And also, I don’t think I read it very thoroughly. It’s easy when you start out reviewing to adopt a kind of all-encompassing ‘knowing’ tone and use it to blast through your own ignorance. I think this was the first book I found that totally eluded that kind of one-style-fits-all approach, which, and I should have realised it at the time, probably means it’s a pretty interesting book and one I should have left someone else to review.
Anyway, I’ve now owned three copies of this book, having given the previous two to friends in pubs when talking excitedly to non-contemporary-poetry types about the fact that there is lots of exciting work out there by new British writers if you only know where to look for it. And this book is a very good place to start looking. I hope there’s much more to come from Claire Crowther. She’s one of the most exciting writers around right now, and as first collections go this one’s a blinder. It’s a shame it has taken me so long to say it. So buy three copies and give two to your friends, that’s my advice.
Nathan Thompson grew up in Cornwall and studied at the University of Exeter, where he later lectured part-time in musicology. After brief stints in Cardiff and Herefordshire he now lives in Jersey. Examples of his work can be found online at Great Works, Gists and Piths, Shadowtrain and Stride magazine. His first collection, the arboretum towards the beginning, is just out, published by Shearsman.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Gregory Award Winners (4) - Emily Berry

The Yellow Hammer State

After we saw the bird man, I was gone.
They prised the big Coke from my hand
and all took sips at once; it made them laugh like crazy.
I had different types of ice cream in my mouth,
I can’t remember which but one had chunks in.
Part of the cone I was holding had been crushed by my thumb.
I knew if I moved or spoke a war would start
and I’d be held to blame so I said nothing.
If we’d lain down and all stayed quiet
it might have been okay, but I still had the big hand
on my other hand so I was always pointing at something
and that gave the game away.

Part of the problem was all the tiny yellow hammers
behind my face were tapping at my brain
and I didn’t want to nod or shake my head
in case they slipped. They had such tiny heads.
And the impact zone kept spreading
and there were pools of yellow over everything.
And they got into my mouth from inside out
and mixed up with the ice cream and dribbled down my chin,
and the others made a fuss and ran away.
I think they were afraid the bird man would snatch them up
and put the yellow hammers in them;
then they’d have to stay with me, and be the same as me,
in this knocked-out woke-up-nowhere place,
this yellow hammer state.

Emily Berry's poetry has been published in various magazines including The Rialto, Poetry London, Poetry Wales and Magma. Her pamphlet is due out from Tall Lighthouse in November.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Gregory Award Winners (3) - James Midgley

Actaeon the Prodigal


So there is talk of him returning,
a voice wrung from dawn’s dishtowel.
Talk of him returning – which is itself a return,
phantasmal housemaids
clawing at shattered blinds and men
in shirtsleeves with knuckles of coal in their eyes
remapping their pockets
with some memory of a misplaced pipe.
I do not deny I look forward to it,
maybe a horse-drawn cart that stops and steams
and the curtains eased apart
with all our garden gates.
In preparation we must tug ourselves away from crowds
like ragged bodies from water, our lungs sparked with salt
and breakable as glass.

I look beneath café tables for his rolling head.
All day long a dog has circled outside, tied to a metre;
should I put my arm inside his mouth
and introduce a chain of arguments?
Already there is talk and more than talk,
conch-calls among skyscrapers
as televisions cease to function
and there is only this cold static in our ears,
the noise of caterpillars slowly swelling.
Nerves on edge. Bone and nerves resetting.


We have met the signs in our dreams –
the climbing-frames overclimbed by ivies,
our palms rubbed raw
to resemble blood-dusted moons.
And we have died a hundred times or more
between the beartrap mouths of pets.
Look they have little human faces.

We have seen the signs, picked our disguises –
ratcloak, flowerface, armours of wood –
mistaken the pickled egg
for a reckless human foetus
softly gleaming in the larder light.
Pity our infinite returns to childhood
you who are returning with us.


Actaeon into the fold, an umbral spear,
his head is so heavy, his empathy compulsory,
calves like ripe mangoes,
thighs strapped in bindweed.
Beckons from alleyways wielding a syrinx pipe.
It is difficult to forget that laughter:
a pool of bells, ever-clinking glasses
and this tinnitus.
Everywhere helicopters are crashing:
Chinook in a gyre one poet suggests.
Actaeon posing naked or skinless,
pointing to himself with a stick in anatomy lessons,
dissertating on the humours.
His antlers are optional, as are the wounds.
He runs through the woods disrupting foxhunts.

I was there when the streets wore through to dirt,
when Actaeon sat under the moon’s spotlight and sang –
red-in-the-face moon
trying to remember his shape again.
Here is a fanfare for resurrections.
Actaeon, you tousle-brained monster,
what is it you sing?
But the human ear is poorly suited.


James Midgley was born in Windsor in 1986 and now alternates between Henley and Norwich. A few months ago he completed his undergraduate degree at the UEA, where he will be studying for an MA in creative writing from the end of 2008.

His work has recently appeared in publications such as Agenda, Magma, The Pedestal, The Rialto, Stand, Under the Radar, and The Warwick Review. This year he received an Eric Gregory Award. He edits the poetry journal Mimesis.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Gregory Award Winners (2) - Heather Phillipson

Mr Lonelyhearts and the Spendthrift Shopper

Everything is yet to come
on Morrissons’ in-store notice board –
jobs, used sofas, missing dogs.
I only crossed the street to get some ice-cream
and here are other people and wants
and anticipation. And the queues at the tills
are long! If I gave up my expectations
I might find all the morning has to offer

on index cards. If I dared
what I don’t dare I’d post up my desires –
in biro, in quadruplicate, like George,
53. He wants a nice lady. I want to slip
inside the sound of teaspoons on porcelain,
take my toast with Muscavado sugar, stop
trying to replace my first love’s voice. Perhaps
it’s handwriting and hope and ruled paper
with smudges that make things happen

and my shopping is superfluous. I could give up
all my goods before the exit. I could leave
without a punnet of raspberries
and only its scent. I could take what’s there –
chances, telephone numbers – and find
that’s how it happens, the future.


Heather Phillipson is a visual artist and regularly exhibits her work both nationally and internationally. Her poems have been published widely and she won an Eric Gregory Award in 2008. She is currently Artist in Residence at London College of Fashion.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Gregory Award Winners (1) - Adam O'Riordan

The Moth

landed between paper tiger and paperweight
on the open dictionary, just short of papillon.
A natural under the spotlight
which must have drawn it from the night's
hot lung towards its sixty watts of promise.
Perfect, the disciplined pulse of its wings:
two coffee-stained teeth and all the grace

of your grandmother in her wedding dress.
Which you will know from the message I left.
But I didn't mention the tipulidae, the chironomidae,
that I'd had to kill the lights and I'm sitting
on a bed too small to contain your absence,
listening to something the size of a small bird
ricocheing off the walls, clicking like a stuck tape.

Originally published in The Ladder.

The Lakes

Now the sky has emptied
only a crow's call could map its vastness

or descending, open up the landscape:
the thistle-stitched guesswork of a hedgerow,

the feral earth, long-grass, leaf-mulch,
an earthworm musing through the thick dirt,

and the abominations of buried bones.
At this hour the sun lowers its cadaver,

a sinner to the pyre, sets its fire
spilling grain out across the water.


In the moments between evensong and sleep,
you will remember how the scent lifted from her
as, blanched in a bed sheet, she left the room

with the kind of trail two parallel mirrors suggest
on any object caught between them and eternity
or the red whip of tail-lights on an empty street.

Or the vast harvest of rye, cut down, trucked
into town to ferment in huge steel vats,
condensed to a shot in a fat glass beaker.


Adam O'Riordan was born in Manchester in 1982. He read English at Oxford University and later won a scholarship to study under Andrew Motion at the University of London where he was awarded the inaugural Peters, Fraser and Dunlop poetry prize. In 2006 he received an Arts Council England writer's award. His pamphlet Queen of the Cotton Cities (where these poems orignally appeared) was published by Tall Lighthouse in 2007. He co-edited Michael Donaghy's Selected Prose, which Picador will publish in 2009. He is currently Poet-in-Residence at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere. You can see a video of him reading at the Ledbury Poetry Festival here.