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Alan Morrison on
James Fountain

Glaciation and other poems
(Poetry Monthly Press, 2010)
Fire and Ice


Fountain, in his Glaciation sequence, demonstrates a modernist-tinged lyrical style which is possibly influenced by his extensive readings of the very protean work of Joseph MacLeod, that versatile Scottish Modernist poet whose prolific and varied oeuvre is beginning to be given the critical attention it has long but obscurely deserved. And this posthumous reassessment is no small thanks to Fountain himself who is author of the first PhD thesis on the poetry of MacLeod, and who also recently wrote a comprehensive article on same poet and his work, which was published as an extensive spread in the Times Literary Supplement some months back. Glaciation is an intriguing sequence of lyrical abstracts, not without its moments of memorable tropes:


...the mind reaches

A momentary peace, a fossilization of emotion,

While you in the far flung twinkling of Sirius appear.



Claustrophobic stones, hemmed in together



a school of yellow mantra following its headmistress



But Fountain’s Modernist tendencies are more in his leaning to abstraction, and leitmotifs that are alternately marine, meteorological and cosmic (mostly macro-), than in his actual prosody, which is more formalist (employing sestinas and sonnets, and capitalised lines), and, tonally, plaintive and lyric-based – even, slightly jarringly (though in an interesting sense), with a Romantic inflection to it:


As the fever pitch screams rhapsodies in my head.




To come in from the dull day to see your spectre standing there.


(‘Sestina for a Broken Lover’)


This Modernist-Romantic sensibility is a pleasant enough quirk of Fountain’s, and these days, quite unusual (Philip Ruthen is one of the few other poets that spring to mind who employs sparring Modernist and Romantic tendencies in a cut-glass lyrical precision); though diction such as ‘beauteous’ and ‘yearning’ can seem a little anachronistically Romantic at times, and, again, a curious oddity in what feels like poetry primarily drawn from the more acrylic tonality of Modernism.

Fountain’s is a simple but distinctive lyricism:


To the blade before me

jagging into my fingers gently.


To the stained glass sky

whose panes break and fall about me.


(‘To The Stained Glass Sky’)


‘Western Monday’ is a strong diversion away from the more abstracted introspection of ‘Glaciation’, into a realm of sharply descriptive aphorismic witness:


...and the week creaks

Forwards, while the couple taste the bile

Of loveless post-coital cigarettes, and tested

Like this, their beliefs and hopes

Are likewise pressured.


Such tropes demonstrate a maturity of insight and individuality of expression that, in spite – even partly because – of a sometimes slight 'unfinished' quality, immediately mark Fountain out as a young emerging poet of subtle confidence. His poetry has a kind of figurative grittiness that is complemented by a conspicuous philosophical – even apocalyptic – absorption. Fountain is basically a serious-minded poet, which is another quality which separates him from the currently fashionable, flippant sophistry of his many of his contemporaries.

Fountain is a stylistically sceptical voice, scholastically fired, allying his work to a pseudo-Modernist tradition that is only chronologically older than – but otherwise just as forward-looking as – the more frenetic but also more facile, irony-signposted schools of today’s self-anointed avant-garde, and is thus unlikely to scoop the customary ‘young poet’ awards, since Fountain isn’t tailoring his sense of ‘newness’ to that anticipated by his immediate forebears (who, invariably, are the very granters of said awards); but also because, inevitably imperfect as any poetry is by someone trying to cultivate an individual voice rather than melting in with the uniformity of the contemporaneous 'schools', Fountain’s work is actually pretty good, and at its best, as in the excerpt above, occasionally exceptional. But this is his first collection, a 36 page chapbook, and it’s early days yet for this 30 year old Hartlepool poet who is still developing his craft.


But Glaciation is certainly a highly promising debut. What many of these poems have is a sense of spontaneity, which sorely lacks from much contemporary ‘academy’ verse and its worship of strictly policed formulas (there are no perfect formulas for poems in my opinion, and the more 'refined' and 'finished' - and too much drafting can sometimes literally 'finish' a poem - they are, the more manufactured and emotionally un-affecting they threaten to become). In Fountain’s poems there is room to breathe, prompts for prosodic quandary, and some stylistic contradictions, all of which, serendipitously, make for a refreshingly unpredictable read; and unpredictability, too, is a definite asset in any poetry today, since it is rare in the most promoted writing, and is often the un-trumpeted arsenal of the less-formulaic small presses. To which, all credit to Martin Holroyd of Poetry Monthly Press for bringing another strong non-conformist voice to our attention and giving this young poet the chance to prove his worth in his first chapbook (Fountain has appeared in some journals, including this one, and also previously published an autobiographical novel, Out of Time, but this is his debut poetry solo).

But to continue looking at the poems here. The brilliantly titled ‘Revolution Falling On Deaf Ears’ employs a verbal relay-racing technique akin to the ‘daisy chain’ poem form, except it uses whole words rather than only letters; this creates a strong self-reinforcing rhythm. This poem includes some imaginative phrasings:


Fervour lost on the political sandcastle attendants...


Else earth collide with truth

Truth falls on punctured eardrums.


‘On Waking’ has, as with quite a few of the shorter lyrics, a slightly impulsive, spontaneous quality that, in these days of almost tediously polished verse where whole reams of anthologised poetry reads as if it has been written by one or two, rather than a whole range, of authors. ‘On Waking’ is a confident lyric with some deft use of alliteration and subtle sprung-rhythm:


The sky is cracked, cloud clusters icebergs on a cold blue sea.

Into my mind come transparent thoughts,

Into my dreams come symbols to decode,

This mode of living is mystical, yet unforgiving.


Here it is worth noting some echoes of the Roman lyric poets – mostly the epicureans, Ovid, Propertius et al – a propensity that some more lyrical Modernists also demonstrate (see the work of Simon Jenner - who, incidentally, provides a quote on the back of this pamphlet; and, again, Philip Ruthen).  

‘Boring Meeting’ focuses on alienation in the workplace – not a typical subject in contemporary poetry, but certainly one ripe for considerable plumbing – a sort of corporate anomie. ‘Train Journey’ has some subtle alliterations and memorable phrases, and the feeling often with this kind of work is one of witnessing a gestation on the page as opposed to reading a finished product - but this is in a way half of its appeal:


Pylons punctuate the land,

Cables intrude...


I-pods emit music from head phones,

Their owners’ eyes gazing upon cloud-clusters,

While sky-rhinoceroses nudge memories.


In its sparse lyricism and figurative surrealism, this, and many of Fountain’s poems, reminds me a little of the work of Clifford Dyment. Again, Fountain’s subtle and affective use of alliteration comes into play in ‘Cold Coffee’, particularly in the first ‘v’-rich stanza:


Am I one to talk? The coffee counter floats

inviting me to sit and travel, in magazines,

in novels, while the world around stirs without,

I stir here, within, for you and the title of a poem

you gave me, four months ago, and more.


Some memorable tropes sprout from this poem: 'The sky hangs shredded/ like confetti outside a church'. A surrealist sensibility plays with us in poems such as ‘Mating Time’:


A gold finch reels into the spring air, rhythm

In tandem with the wafting trees, Cleopatra

Fanned invisible in their boughs, cradled and nurtured

In a dream, waiting for her Antony, her completing fire

Scorched by their love...


Fountain’s consonantal and assonantal alliterative inflections are a definite signature, and feature abundantly – particularly ‘m’, ‘d’, ‘o’ and ‘a’ sounds – in the Capitalist-sceptical poem, ‘Summer-Induced Amnesia’:


The parched day chokes on itself.

The mind loosened of obligation rejoices

at Creation, the scarlet banners hang

from windows high in the tenements,

the grey world illuminated...


...bewildering the masses, nature brought to the fore,

Capital, a looming danger, presents itself

forcefully, the mistake of the machine

nervelessly evaporates, as momentarily we are free.


The juxtaposition of the Eiffel Tower with a tree in ‘Paris Central’ – along with the pylon image in ‘Train Journey’ – has an almost Vorticist quality:


Wind moves through the metal branches


Beneath the artificial tree house


‘I have travelled’ ends on a sharply assonantal trope:


Reduced to sparkles in the dark.


‘Pallbearer’ is one of the most successful poems in this collection and demonstrates a mature handling of the inconsolability

of death:


I visualize her, quiet in the satisfaction of death...


...The Minister offers prayers,

And I am aware of her nodding, mouthing Amen.


As rain belts on my tired shoulder in further punishment,

I find myself repentant...

...The weight of the vessel’s occupant

Is light, spent in the attempt to go on living,

And now we are at the graveside, lowering her in.


The paradox of a body whose life-force has been ‘spent in the attempt to go on living’ is a sublime insight, and the poem has a funereal beat to it, slightly reminiscent of some of Wilfred Owen’s threnodies, and Larkin’s darker moments (such as ‘Aubade’).

The concluding poem, ‘Indescribable’, is ironically at the more callow end of the spectrum, possibly a last minute addition, and it is the mature, more dextrous ‘Pallbearer’ which is the natural and deeply resonant climax to this collection.

Ths is certainly a distinctive debut collection from a developing voice who shows much promise and no signs of being absorbed into the mainstream academies; another 'one who’s got away', and whose poetry is probably all the better for it. The MacLeod influence aside, Fountain perhaps shares a little of the lyrical surrealism of David Gascoyne and particularly George Barker. Recourse to the abstract in this poetry, through practice, will inevitably lead to a further experimenting in style and no doubt to some even more interesting work to come. But this will not be, I anticipate, any zeitgeist-driven pyrotechnics for the sake of it, but something, I think, more emotionally ambitious, and I am certain Fountain will not be tempted into the ever cadence-sapped, irony-encrypted prosetry that is increasingly hyperbolised today. If this unconventionally plaintive, highly imaginative debut is the shape of things to come, Fountain should continue to impress.



Alan Morrison © 2010

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