Alan Morrison on
three more recent Smokestack titles
Light Shining in Middlesbrough (Part Two)
Woke up this Morning Brian Docherty (2012) Smokestack 67pp £7.95
Both Steven Blyth (2012) Smokestack 65pp £7.95
dante in the laundrette sean burn (2012) Smokestack 137pp £7.95
Brian Docherty’s Woke Up This Morning is a bitingly polemical volume of poems. In ‘Manchester’s Big Mistake’, Docherty lambasts the almost satire-proof snootiness of art critic Brian Sewell, who notoriously asked if Manchester was “the Sodom of the North” in his Daily Mail diatribe (in 2011) against homosexuality and transgender storylines in Coronation Street – Docherty pulls no punches here, beginning with a capitulation to the symbiotic title, so ‘Manchester’s Big Mistake’
is being Manchester; too Irish, too Jewish,
too bloody Northern for Brian Sewell’s taste.
we can’t have a Holocaust Museum here
just because a few Asiatics escaped some
pogrom or other. Who remembers Armenia
in 1915 he drawls; we do, Brian, we do.
We don’t have the luxury of aestheticising
experience, of pretending that only socially
conscious art is ‘political’, or forgetting Wilde
wore The Soul of Man Under Socialism.
‘Refugee Status’ is a deeply touching portrait of uprooted lives with some beautifully assonantal tropes: ‘This morning Mama found our lost heirlooms/ in Nana’s soiled underclothes’. In ‘Rodin’s Left Hand’ we get a consummate opening, again, a recapitulation to its title, which again serves as the opening line to the poem:
Is reaching for a cello’s darkest note,
is black & shiny as a burn victim.
Death is reflected in its glossy finish,
the erased roadmap of the smooth palm.
‘Art Gallery Weather’ is a kind of anti-ekphrastic poem, a brass-tacks Marxist rug-puller which pours vitriol over the more pretentious textures of art criticism, suggesting that aspects to a van Gogh painting ‘are not symbols of
anything, do not stand
for anything except
the state of Van Gogh’s
nerves after too much
absinthe or spending
all his food money
on tubes of paint.
‘Autograph’ is another vitriolic piece, written in tribute to a late poet called ‘Norma’ who appears to have been the victim of verse chauvinism throughout her poetic career:
On learning she wasn’t Iain Crichton Smith’s muse,
they decided she was a lesbian & spat in her sherry.
Exiled from Edinburgh, airbrushed out of photographs.
The poignancy of how literary snobbery and chauvinism can wreak havoc over a poet’s prospects and career through a combination of belittling and ignoring their output while they’re alive and producing, and even curtailing their slim chance at posterity, is powerfully put across in the final tercet:
Norma appeared in Court once, and print twice more –
the Daily Record and obituary in the West Highland
Free Press. Neither mentioned her poetry.
‘War Story’ appears to be relating to a man shot dead at the edge of a field that the poet’s mother is ploughing on the home front during the Second World War:
His shirt’s poppy-red stain was redder
Than the flowers on Mother’s pinafore.
She wanted to shake some answers from
Surly men in gaberdine & trilbys sneering
‘Old Working Tools’ is an ekphrastic encomium to eroded industries and their union protections, to the tools of those trades now cheapened and reduced to quaint symbols in auction rooms:
Once, a careless hand picking up the tools
mimed the arcane of demarcation disputes.
Now they are stripped of all mystery & craft;
electricity pours four men’s work into one handle.
In ‘Foliage’, there is a bravura verse which beautifully evokes, through sense-impression and assonance, a culinary scene of ordinary domesticity:
The dominant smell is an open cupboard.
A spilled lid, a steamy saucepan waiting
for the magic touch of tarragon and oregano,
when an ordinary evening becomes an occasion.
‘Our Woman in Havana’ is a description of the quixotic Cuban way of life, but it is no mere hagiography to one of the world’s last Communist societies: the poet describes it as being ‘frozen in 1956’ (though not an altogether bad thing compared to being in 2013!):
Only in Havana’s streets
could you find a pig tethered
to a vintage 1950s Cadillac.
they building they are parked
outside could camouflage
the pig, the one next door
matches the Cadillac’s seats.
In a hotel down the street
a group of elderly gentlemen
are playing tunes they learnt
before Castro started smoking.
English tourists are tasting Salsa.
‘Seasonal Scenes’ is initially about the paintings of Stanley Spencer, particularly in relation to his canvases of Cookham, or what Spencer called “a village in Heaven” – but the poem mutates into a diatribe against the ‘hippy’ generation’s ultimate destination in consumerism:
His Cookham is fecund, verdant, unbuttoned,
his radiant characters sport long hair & robes
as if rehearsing for the 60s, miming middle-class
bohemians of the sort who live all around me,
Often these families decamped to Morocco
or maybe their kids never went to school,
the whole concept of ‘holidays’ meaningless,
their family merging with other families
as the Me Generation went communitarian,
‘Another Country', which relates the poet ‘watching Whistle Down the Wind/ In Ilford Town Hall’, proffers the wonderfully Betjeman-esque ‘Where do the ‘Home Counties’ stop?’. While more of the spirit of Larkin imbues ‘Silver Fox’: ‘My wife observes my beard is going silver./ She says this makes me look distinguished’. ‘Message from a Bottle’ is an evocatively written nostalgia-piece on the bygone Britain of the poet’s childhood:
Milk & mail arrived first thing in the morning.
Sawdust in the Butchers, carbolic soap in kitchens,
beeswax in the parlour; all nice and public.
Let's not forget the catsmeat, tripe, trusses,
the back bedroom with its shelf of bottles
the doctor took 5/- to say might do the trick,
or might end up discarded, leaking vague fluids.
Docherty contrasts yesterday’s shop items – ‘Calamine lotion, turpentine, linseed oil’ with the equally quixotic products of today’s Londis-style mini-markets:
where you might reach down a bottle freckled
with plastery dust, with a price tag so faded
it might be pre-decimal, or so implausible
Mrs. Patel wonders if she can sell it to you.
The polemic on the modern ‘corner shop inheritance’ of second, third and fourth generation Indians and Pakistanis is deceptively non-‘PC’ and takes real issue with Britain’s long-standing tacit ghettoisation of such immigrant families into a kind of shopkeepers caste historically disenfranchised by shoddy products from dubious suppliers:
This ghost of the goodwill which swallowed
their savings after escaping Uganda, glued
to the rear top shelf by sheer recalcitrance,
might be part of the original stock, a remnant
of Crouch End's exclusive past as a village
which had an Opera House, then a municipal
concert hall, and still has cricket pitches.
‘In Regent’s Park’ would appear to be a figurative polemic against meat-eating:
I am ballasted with mud and gravel.
If I grace your table you will not notice this,
although if you eat me in some Tuscan trattoria,
I hope the shotgun pellets choke you.
I am the water, air, the glaze of slime on your trousers
which recalls the tang dynasty pottery you saw
in the british museum, or the flying horse in gerrard st.
which bent your Access card out of shape.
‘Mr Quercus Speaks His Mind’ is a quirky poem in which the poet, his alter ego, or another character entirely, relates how he was ‘struck by lightning’ as a youth but ‘gradually realised that more wind/ could knock me about, loosen my footing,/ perhaps bring me low before my time’. ‘Double Exposure’ is a kind of Confessions of a pornography photographer, in this particular instance, of mainly Asian women:
Film rolled in sporting random aliases,
wage slips wore different logos every week.
I worked with all these women dressed
in Indian national costume, grey anorak
& brown cardigans, shaking their heads,
'My God aren't the English strange.'
I sent extras of the Sharons & Tracys
shot on some suburban terrace afternoon,
curtains drawn, lights on, to Readers' Wives
complete with the punters name & address,
I hope they enjoyed adorning garage walls
or being pasted in toupee'd Sales Reps' toilets.
‘On First Seeing the Bay Area’s Homelessness’ is one of the most powerful social poems in this volume, describing the scale and nature of homelessness as encountered by the poet in San Francisco:
I count at least 200 in one downtown block,
notice far more women than in London,
and that the obviously mad or addicted
are a small minority among this minority
where people of color' are the majority.
Do you give at random or just stroll on
until someone's spiel gets your attention,
like the Jewish gas money panhandler,
or the Haight St. hipster who sold me
a poetry mag featuring Jack Micheline?
Over in Oakland I meet hundreds more.
'Please give me some money so my son can eat'
one man's pitch outside Yoshis Jazz Club,
now I will never hear 'Dock of the Bay'
without seeing the boy on his shoulder.
The collection closes on the peripatetic poem ‘Jetlag’, set again in San Francisco, which the poet compares with bittersweet reminiscences of the cities and times he’s lived in back in the UK:
I want lunch in Marios Bohemian Cigar Store,
what I have is a cold kitchen, an empty fridge,
baggage, a rucksack of t-shirts, cds & books.
Today I am on automatic pilot, doing everything
with deliberate care; for once I empathise with men
who simplify their lives with routine or drink.
Soon I find myself wandering round Crouch End
confused by currency, the local beer, and traffic.
Glasgow had ghostly pea-soupers in the fifties,
obliterating the third dimension till we walked into
something or someone, or came to a kerb & halted.
How do San Franciscans cope with this irruption
of the natural world into their playground, does it
bring out their generosity when tourists make fools
Woke Up This Morning is a kind of introverted travelogue, a psychical pilgrimage through various times and places that have shaped Brian Docherty the man and the poet. These psychogeographies are underscored by a bluesy nostalgia for Sixties counter-culture, a resurgence of which – inconceivable during the past thirty years’ long sleep of consumer acedia – now seems much more likely in austerity-stripped Britain. In our current post-capitalist hinterland of boarded-up high streets, pop-up shops, state-outsourced alfresco socialism of food banks, and increasingly radicalised youth and anti-capitalist movements (such as Occupy and UK Uncut), poet-agitators such as Brian Docherty may well soon find themselves with an arrested sense of de ja vu, and in sudden demand. Woke Up This Morning is a stirring book which will pump a much-needed transfusion of indisputably red blood around the heart of anyone who reads it.
Steve Blyth’s Both (Smokestack, 2012) is another fairly direct polemical collection, echoing similar sentiments of literary destinations from humble beginnings as fellow Smokestack poet Paul Summers (see later), both having transcended their working-class origins through the self-empowerment of the poetic imagination, and doses of autodidacticism. Blyth’s route out was through higher education and then entry into local government white-collar work. ‘Name’ plays on people’s assumption that the poet might be a descendant of the notorious Captain William Bligh of the mutiny on HMS Bounty fame, and the poet’s class-tinted amusement at this. Although, apparently Bligh’s name was a consonantal drift from the poet’s own surname, Blyth, which is Cornish for wolf, so the etymologies are indeed of the same root:
And so I play along, join in the jokes
about breadfruit and mutineers, and hope
my ancestors would forgive this betrayal
However, by noting that his true ancestors are ‘workers in factories, mills and mines’ and not ‘knights, captains of industry, colonels…’, Blyth very slightly misses a trick here, indeed, perhaps unknowingly constructs something of a ‘straw man’ dialectic, since although Bligh eventually rose to the position of ‘Captain’ by the time of the Bounty – although in itself a rank still below that which he might have reached had he hailed from a more auspicious social background – he had had to work his way up through the naval ranks from a ship’s boy aged seven, then able seaman, midshipman from sixteen, then Master’s mate, and then Master at twenty-two when he sailed under Captain Cook. Bligh had himself hailed from fairly humble lower-middle-class beginnings in Bodmin, Cornwall, and was not considered to be of a sufficiently ‘educated’ status to go into the Navy as an officer; indeed, it is often the assumption that Bligh nursed some sort of class-resentment towards his slightly better-heeled second-in-command on the Bounty, Fletcher Christian. That said, Bligh did eventually, by the age of 57, reach the rank of Appointed Rear Admiral, which no doubt would have subsequently improved the social standing of his family line; so Blyth’s play on the name’s associations against a class-based backdrop isn’t entirely misplaced. ‘Paul’s Great Grandmother’ holds more authentic weight in its polemic by focusing on his own experiences growing up and the adult symbolisms he now attaches to them, most effectively too:
its Roman pillars like a Visigoth,
remind us how this impressive Town Hall
was built on the back of wealth from the mill,
This poem comes to a beautifully poignant, symbolic close, made all the more resonant for its pithy, almost abrupt exposition:
Ninety, friends dead, she said, ‘I’ve lived too long’.
The last speaker of a forgotten tongue.
while the Town Hall stood there as grand as ever,
an illuminated capital letter
starting a fresh page. To those who knew her
it will always seem a little smudged.
‘Funeral’ is a charming little dialectic on the emotional distances between some relatives but whose blood-links are marked occasionally with the very British habit of sending cards at birthdays, Christmas and so on. In this case Blyth writes about a far-flung aunt, confessing his sense of guilt at hardly ever answering her paper gestures. In a rather staccato style, Blyth contrasts his atheism with the aunt’s evangelicalism, noting the church she goes to daily ‘where they sing hymns with their arms raised’. A touch sardonically, he closes the poem remarking that the cards ‘keep coming./ A surprise in the second post./ Your proof, perhaps, that God exists’. This tendency towards knowing irony is quite common in much contemporary verse; however, Blyth manages to inject a bit more vim into such postmodernist flippancy by dint of worthier subjects than the average mainstream domestic anecdote. But Blyth is far more profound and affecting when tackling important subjects more through an emotive rather than detached sense of irony, as in the quite sublime juxtapositions of ‘Secret Agent’, in which he recounts his childhood imagination running away with him in its' depicting his father’s mundane desk job as something more in the Conrad/ le Carré line – but the misperceived furtiveness of his father’s activities is simply to do with him doing a bit of cash-in-hand work on the side in order to get in a little extra for his family:
I thought my dad was a secret agent.
Manilla envelopes would arrive marked
On Her Majesty's Service. Like the title
of that Bond film. The word secret was missed
but who cares when you're ten…
All that hush hush stuff was down to the tax –
declared little of what he earned on
Her Majesty's forms, worried about snitching
nosey neighbours. A day job draughtsman
drawing plans on the side – granny flats,
conservatories, extensions to kitchens...
It paid for holidays and Christmas presents,
for a birthday party clown or conjuror.
All those evenings and weekends he spent
earning that bit extra for us. I wonder
if he resented it then or still resents,
thinking of all the other dads who went
down to the pub, the match, the golf club?
'No. Course not. Don't be daft,' he'll say if asked.
But changes subject, unwilling to be pushed,
as if bound by some Official Secrets Act.
Similarly, ‘Tricks of the Trade’ depicts the poet’s friend's ‘Santa Claus moment’ when he first discovers the mundane truth behind his father’s professional furtiveness: he wasn’t in ‘the Magic Circle’ after all but, as their espionage uncovers, his box of tricks was just ‘a briefcase’ and its contents just ‘invoices playing cards tumbling/ from up his sleeves’. ‘First Cigarette’ recounts the poet’s initiation into tobacco with a ‘Lambert & Butler/ belonging to our chain-smoking neighbour’ who entertained him and his friend by blowing smoke rings. Again there are magician metaphors with the poem closing on the neighbour’s eventual smoking-related death: ‘It was just like more of her magic –/ some spectacular vanishing trick’. ‘The Ball Boy’ has some deft metrical rhythms and half-rhymes:
Then suddenly he’d turn brave. He’d volunteer
to get the ball when it went into gardens
that made the rest of us feel sick with fear –
those of old men rumoured to have shotguns,
the old lady who looked like a witch.
He’d dart in and dodge the huge dog we’d heard
had killed several postmen. he had the nerve
for the mad man’s long grass and the long search.
This is consummate verse, if a little prosaic in its use of language; the alliteration of ‘dart in and dodge the huge dog’ works nicely; but for this reviewer this type of anecdotal poetry can tend to read more like versified prose than actual poetry (i.e. a detectable lack of metaphor or transportively phrased descriptions), and though this is not the only stylistic employed in Blyth’s collection, it can become a little bit formulaic after reading a few poems similarly composed. ‘Christmas 1979’, again, is a perfectly accomplished piece of prose writing, but were it not for the fairly frequent internal sprung-rhymes and end-of-line half-rhymes, it would remain just that. Blyth is however particularly good at ending his poems, and this one is no exception:
Being older, they allowed us a sip,
Like that first communion wine on our lips,
This taste just as big a shock – burning, tingling,
Something given to deaden the tongue.
But the subject is highly important and deeply disturbing: a Church Warden using his annual role as a pretend Father Christmas to subtly fondle children through his clothes. As is often the way, of course, the children’s parents don’t believe their anecdotes and silence them as ‘‘Filthy rumours!’'. In this sense, Blyth’s juxtaposition with the sting of communion on the children’s tongues to ‘deaden’ them in the same way the parents’ chides silence their accusations, is a quite brilliant and subversive touch. Blyth’s depictions of his schoolteachers is no less caustic and irreverent, since the teachers themselves betray their behavioural hypocrisies when getting drunk and flirting with departing pupils at ‘The Leavers’ Do’ – not quite Grange Hill:
Gibson fawning over Katie Meacher,
pawing her, trying to smooch in the bar;
Miss Houghton telling the dirtiest jokes.
‘The Smack’ is an extremely brave confessional poem in which Blyth shares with us his grief at a moment’s lapse which leaves him as symbolically bruised as his son’s arm with ‘Red marks’ left on it afterwards. Only parents with the patience of saints have never at least once smacked their kids; nevertheless, it is one of today’s great taboos. ‘White Noise’ describes the poet’s son listening to radio ‘static, as if to their whispers/ to glean experience in cloudy matters’. ‘The Black Arts’ is a touching piece about the grimness of state school days and exam pressures on those who develop a little later, and differently, to the more academic pupils (something this writer strongly relates to):
But swotting hadn’t helped
and I was so desperate
not to get Ds again,
bottom of the class, scared
I’d move down.
This poem closes on a wonderfully metaphorical trope:
Turn over and begin,
Answer all the questions…
Incantations to turn
a prince into a frog.
‘Portrait’ is a charming little vignette on memories of what is presumably a cousin’s father who used to draw ‘griffons, dragons’ and other images like ‘the covers of prog-rock albums’; it also touches unusually on some couples’ protracted cohabitations without producing children:
parents pushing forty, shrugging when asked
if they fancied a family. ‘It just
hasn’t happened’. That’s that. Uncle and aunt.
Subsequently it seems, they did finally have a child, the poet’s unplanned cousin (?):
A world that wasn’t expecting you feels
your presence – you break its pots, scratch its woodwork,
stain it with spills. On its face, a surprised look
you capture in your scribble on the walls.
‘Crime’ is this reviewer’s favourite poem in this volume, one which one could imagine Dennis Potter’s Nigel Barton composing with a bittersweet sense of nostalgia. This time the poet is prompted to recall his workaholic father justifying working late in the office:
When we moaned that his hours were too long.
He’d say, ‘It pays for this and this and this…’
On every this, his finger would prod something –
It was like an attempt
to put his fingerprints on everything
so as to prove he’d been here all along.
This is one of Blyth’s most sublime poem-endings, beautifully judged with imagery that talks of the hard-working father as if, were it not for the material things his labours have bought for his home and family, would feel almost as if he’d never existed, like a ghost. It’s a profoundly figurative moment in which human self-authentication through the tangible proof of ‘spending power’ emphasizes the psychical alienation and fragility of consumerist culture; but more specifically, of the perennial Marxian contention that by distancing the means of production from the producer, capitalism disempowers and alienates him from both the tools and products of his skills. ‘Back Page’ is another unusual topic for a contemporary poem: a working-class poet’s complete lack of interest in sport or football, which further distances him from his more typically bloke-ish father, who advises him to pretend to ‘Buy a newspaper and read the back page’ when he gets bored in his office job. Blyth comments at the end ‘pressing some money into my hand’ to that purpose, ‘the closest he’s come to being classical –/ coins for Charon, easing my way to hell’. Here, of course, there are obvious echoes of the work of Tony Harrison, who transcended his own working-class background through a scholarship and whose poetry frequently revisits his sense of classlessness against his origins, being educated in the Classics and with a particularly active interest in Greek and Latin etymologies of much of the English language.
‘Lefty Robot’ is a slightly sardonic poem on the seeming futility in Union strikes at work, mindful as the poet is of his great granddad having been a shop steward. ‘Dress Down Day’ is a less-than-enthused comment on the sartorial Saturnalia that is the random event of most office cultures; Blyth is particularly good at the aural sense-impression: ‘On the Town Hall’s tiled floors, out trainers squeak/ sounding like excited small dogs yapping’. ‘Promotion’ almost sounds as if it could have been written by Victor Brown from A Kind of Loving, as Blyth laments his own promotion, and then juxtaposes his ‘softly, softly’ approach to having to give a worker her notice with the exposition on methods of a hitman: ‘First, one to the heart; then, one to the head’. ‘The Bomb’ is about the poet and his office workers being shown round the nuclear bunker underneath the Town Hall they work in; it’s composed in rather staccato clipped sentences reminiscent of Philip Larkin. ‘The Prison’ is a timely polemic on the seemingly inescapable ‘ends-as-means’ that is the contemporary notion of work, communicated through the poet’s speculating, as he passes the local prison, if it currently pays tutors to indoctrinate prisoners into the unimpeachable panacea of employment:
Look. Learn. There go people who are honest
To honest jobs for honest pay. Join them.
Start by catching their train the day you’re free.
And buy a ticket. This is your first test.
Remember to do it as they do – grudgingly.
‘Prosperity’ is about a bland suburban estate of that dystopian name but with no Street ‘or way or close or road’ following it; the poet notices some ‘Traces of cobble stone/ under the mud’ and wonders wistfully, ‘once/ did it lead somewhere else?’ This is a sublime metaphor for the tarmac-coating-over of lost working-class communities. The collection ends on ‘Maggie’, a quite profound and ingenious polemic depicting the poet’s lack of choice in having to pursue an education instead of going straight out to work in a manual job, due to Thatcher’s trashing of northern industry and escalating unemployment, as having been perceived at the time by his family and neighbours as moving a couple of rungs down the social ladder, rather than up it:
Thank you very very much, Margaret Thatcher,
for mass unemployment in the mid-80s.
It meant I couldn't follow my granddads,
dad and uncles into the jobs they had –
welders, plumbers, or working in factories
as a skilled operator or a fitter.
It meant I stumbled into education –
further, then higher – as something to do.
I found philosophy, literature, art,
and read and wrote stuff I never thought
myself capable of. All thanks to you.
My life enriched. A sort of ‘wealth creation’.
When it comes to those men, you'll find no thanks.
You're loathed for crushing their trades and industry.
I was pitied because I was ‘unskilled’,
was like a child suddenly made disabled
in some accident you'd caused. Eventually
they laughed at me because I couldn't fix
a pipe or re-wire things or mend machines.
The potency of this dialectic is that, on one level, those older men of the poet’s working-class community who ‘pitied’ him for being ‘‘unskilled’’ had perhaps some reason to: not only does inheriting manual skills significantly empower one to be less dependent on others and more self-sufficient, but in today’s world, there’s considerably more money to be made, say, as a plumber, than as a teacher, or certainly a poet. Nevertheless, Blyth is a chalk-striped poet who works in local government in order to keep himself in the otherwise impecunious position of poetry production, and he uses his frustrations with office life to strong effect throughout these incisive poems. Those recounting symbolic moments of his childhood and working-class upbringing – to this reviewer – make for the most important and memorable poems in this highly readable volume. Occasional postmodernist sensibilities aside, Blyth’s poems would certainly knock the socks off most of those that mainstream editors might mistakenly place them alongside. But some of them are possibly missing the trick in Blyth’s highly polemical output: its complete indifference in being acceptable to fashionable tastes, and its determination to make more polemically complacent readers feel distinctly uncomfortable.
Sean Burn’s (or ‘sean burn’’s) dante in the laundrette (Smokestack, 2012) is, in terms of style and substance, far more than mere after-trimmings of the e e cummings school, even if his industrial-scale use of lower case aesthetically echoes the oeuvre of fellow Smokestack poet Paul Summers (who resists de-capitalising his actual name). This is a blisteringly polemical, linguistically energetic and adventurous collection, its considerable length partitioned into several titled sections; there are vast flourishes of pseudo-Joycean ‘word salads’ (re Finnegans Wake), onomatopoeic word-play and poetic stream-of-consciousness throughout, some pieces occasionally resembling a kind of Droogish logorrhoea (re Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange). In all these respects the book’s strikingly alliterative, surreal title seems entirely fitting, and it’s certainly one which grabs the attention immediately with its purgatorial implications for contemporary urbanity (in terms of catchy titles Burn has much form, one previous collection having been entitled molotov’s happy hour). The book kicks off in topically polemical form – given austerity Britain’s contemporary “1930s moment” – with ‘an evening in the weimar republic’. Immediately one notes Burn’s poetic procurement of word-salad to mark out his aesthetic territory – in the psychiatric world this linguistic phenomenon is known as schizophasia, but in Burn’s usage, it is a conscious poetic conceit intended no doubt in part to communicate implicitly the distinctly schizophrenic nature of modern capitalist society (and in that sense it is a kind of stylistic homage to the writings and theories of R.D. Laing):
cables sinuosity flexes curves
to whip-hand tight over mike as we
underclass raise glasses through
smokechoke to marianne faithfull
stony vocals chiselling edges
i know about the seven deadly sins
and eight nine ten in her scandal school
Then comes the stunning aphorism: ‘we bruise easy as fermenting fruit’. Note also the occasional use of small blank gaps within the lines, as in the first two quoted here, almost acting like visual pauses or caesuras indicated by tabbed space; it’s possible to speculate as to whether this form of broken line is employed instead of using a ‘dropped line’ – but clearly the intention is to instruct a breath-pause if reciting it aloud. Burn has a gifted ear for clipped, almost haiku-like alliterative lyricism: as in ‘people oscillate/ jostle the crowded street’ (‘late night shopping’), or the searing imagism of ‘graveyard’:
mossed in repeat
seep of guttered rain
hangout for sisters
whose moonshine limbs
rave vogue tempt
where syringes drop
blades of green
deserts red coda
This reviewer would broadly categorise – if it is categorisable – Burn’s poetry as a form of contemporary Imagism, or neo-Imagism, descended as it appears to be from the long line of Anglo-American experimentalism of the likes of Wyndham Lewis, F.S. Flint, Amy Lowell, Skipwith Cannel, Allen Upward, William Carlos Williams, e e cummings and of course Ezra Pound and his Ideogrammic Method, which was essentially a poetics which dealt with abstract concepts through concrete use of language (a famous example of which is Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’: ‘The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/ Petals on a wet, black bough’). Burn’s ‘this tumbled stone’ is a highly accomplished neo-Imagist poem:
slick as oil
spelling s for storm
herons great flags of
raggedy not-so-new print
newborn to ouseburn
in dispirited priestly grey
so much ash blown
forlornly down tyne
wren stumbles through
the weather boneyard
a thumbful of feathers
tying up this tumbled stone
This is not an easy form of poetry to pull off without appearing in some sense pretentious or even mechanical – yet with Burn one rarely senses any such lapses and this is largely due to his superior grasp of language and poetic image and his delicate ear for aural impressions, the sounds as well as meanings of words as justifying their pairings. There’s a sensitivity to Burn’s poetic approach, to the extent that it feels more a sensibility than a stylistic artifice; this sensitivity is prosodic as well as textual, and there is a technical astuteness in his employment of metonymy (figure of speech in which a thing or concept is not called by its own name but by the name of something closely associated with it) – this sometimes manifests with Burn in a kind of semi-metonymy, as in ‘boneyard’ instead of ‘graveyard’. As with the Imagists, Burn seems in part inspired by Japanese poetics (more specifically, waka, particularly tanka or short verse-forms) – this is most marked in poems such as ‘remembrance sunday’:
trapped inside last nights
can of mcewans
unable to break free
to fly away
Again, a consonantal alliteration is marked here with the ‘k’-sounds throughout; note also Burn’s anarchic approach to punctuation, such as apostrophes - i.e. by simply not including them: the possessive ‘nights’ and ‘mcewans’. The title poem is a tour de force of synecdoche, metonymy and polemical punning:
just like the vowels at the jobless centre
youth asks for a light says obsessively
i’ve seen yer seen yer i’ve seen yer
i’ve no see terror-wrist acts bad as they
penny for halloween eh this dull thud
of fireworks should be three weeks away
but the flash of blue and thump of powder
‘24/12’ includes the subversive pun on a common phrase, ‘days white as the driven cocaine’, and the very imagistic description of a ‘gunmetal town’; the poem is bursting with associative imageries:
pulsing to the bigg markets disco beating
a butcher heaves past with bleach as
wannabes swig scrumpy crush tinnies
in the gloom big issues have a hard time
pushing christmas specials this month
‘mcenemy’ is a long poem given its own title page; it’s a quite discursively laid-out poem including some flourishes of concrete poetry; rather than attempt unravelling its sub-textual meanings this reviewer instead draws attention to some of the most striking tropes and aphorisms littered throughout:
and six guards haul dole generations molotov from dock
make my wish as rain blurs the ac/dc of night-city
largactyl-dreaming of first electric chair in this place
For those not familiar with pharmaceutical terminology, ‘largactyl’ is an anti-psychotic drug; note too the mention of ‘ac/dc’, which could well be a synecdoche alluding to both the acronym ‘alternating current (AC) or direct current (DC)’, perhaps in relation to still-in-use electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) for some psychiatric patients, and also possibly to Heathcote Williams’ anti-psychiatry play AC/DC (1970). ‘gob, aye’ is a sequence of seven short poems, the first of which, for this reviewer, is the more arresting in its use of image: ‘howling blue, howling black, gobs words/ aquaplane why yer forsakin me?/ waking to hell-salt on the tongue’. ‘symphony of ravens’ is one of the most interesting sequences in this book, many of its leitmotivs rooted in Norse mythology – an ancestral trait perhaps in a Northumbrian poet, the North-East having of course been one of the most extensively invaded and raided areas of the country (mostly by Norwegian and Danish Vikings). Ravens are a common image of Norse myth: the psychopomp and god Odin had two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who kept him informed of mortal affairs. The short prayer-like ‘prologue’ is worth quoting in full:
root, bark, leaf – yggdrasil the guardian tree branching out
across many worlds.
root, bark, leaf – yggdrasil’s early days and late nights journeying
root, bark, leaf – yggdrasil our guardian tree carving where
Yggdrasil was the Norse (most likely Icelandic from the Saga of the Poetic Edda) name for ‘the Great Ash Tree’ which stood at the centre of existence acting as a kind of metaphysical alembic between earth and the heavens. This sequence is again fairly typical of Burn’s aurally associative, metonymic style:
above roseberry topping, clouds were longboats, dragons,
lungs. and up ahead this weather-worn, this beech-nut, this
gargoyle, words slow as volcano.
The symbolic language grows more and more Joycean (a la Ulysses; Finnegans Wake) in its onomatopoeic exposition as the poem goes on:
i look into a great whorled pool, forged and furrowed where
his eye should. the haar shallows moors around while a pair
of ravens caa—caak caa—caak in warp and weft
Burn’s collective noun for ravens is ‘an unkindness’. Allusion is made to Odin hanging himself from Yggdrasil ‘so his mind could fill with poetry’ – though Norse mythology has it that the god did so in order to understand the runes, but Burn’s interpretation fits well with this. The following sequence, ‘never sleep with anyone who has more scars than you’, begins in a phantasmagorical spillage of imagery, faintly Rimbaudian:
child of the mirrorglass
reflecting white stone towers
whitestone towering against grey sky
Burn has his own inimitably figurative version of a kind of Marxian dialectic with lines such as ‘pissing in sinks of whitestone bedsits is no life comrade, no life at all’, which is repeated as if a kind of anthemic refrain. We get some coruscating imagistic rejection of the shallowness of contemporary consumer society: ‘gilt-edge lies, gilded wives and taken down the docks, all the clichés’. ‘mind the reality gap’ is another surreal, stream-of-consciousness tirade (meant in a good sense), this time set in a metaphorical underground:
mind the gap
a hurricane of policies
rutting the night-flowering city
stand clear please
at their feet a deregulated train
howling through ghost stations
inside local gallery, depressives
spell nuts out their medications
That last line is curiously constructed: one feels there should either be an ‘of’ or ‘from’ between ‘nuts’ and ‘out’, but perhaps this omission is deliberate. This poem mutates into a kind of Finnegans Rant:
say sorry sheetmetal maggie
insert your coins now maggie
firework yobs clamp down pinochet flammables
But this is nothing compared to the explosion of Ginsberg-esque outrage towards the end of the poem, which ingeniously intermingles some choicest post-Thatcherite capitalist phrases and tropes whose decadent symbolisms are lost on those distinctly unrefined minds that coin them:
ravish the railworkers / cha-cha-the miners – the firefighters /
rock the dockers / tango the fishermen the seamen …
hetrogaze / scudding the colonisation / that slaphappy
beautybitch baroness thatcher / ramraiding workers
unskilled unmanned / eased off jobless / greaselubed back
to work / so get it, get it out / this plague is sponsored by /
your liturgical meat godhead / this plague is sponsored by /
ethical cleansing is back again / whitenoise whitenoise…
And so on. ‘outstaring’ is a similarly fragmentary stream-of-consciousness piece which is a kind of expressionistic polemic on pornography. ‘leery’ seems to be more a sequence of individual poems – each individually titled – than an actual sequence as most of the other sections are. Most of these poems are again in the lyrical Imagist mould, as in ‘you are now within a foot of the extreme edge’:
scraps of bin bags
on gulag wind
are hung on trees
forecast is grey
the clag becoming critical
For this reviewer Burn is often at his strongest as a poet when in this more disciplined lyrical mode. In ‘we are come to this great stage of fools’ we get some strong imagistic flourishes:
this bleached beach leviathan
out back house bought from council
cheap cig between narrow lips
the accusing aperture starts
This concrete lyricism becomes even more concentrated in ‘a disease that’s in my flesh, which i must needs call mine’:
piss and cig
life’s a lottery
of blood, sweat n bones
‘then shall the realm of albion come to great confusion’ is a deft little polemical lyric on the fatherland:
hurricane tore through leers heartland
trees which stood before shakespeare are fallen
chaos from the butterfly who stomped her steel-capped boot
though thatchers heart was no longer in it
but still the greymen came extending a decade of greed
Again, this reviewer still struggles to see the point in de-capitalising names and omitting apostrophes (for instance, this makes it more difficult to determine whether the poet means Lear’s – as in King Lear – with ‘leers’, having seemingly miss-spelt it, or whether it is an odd conjugation of the verb into a sort of adjective; but the mention of ‘shakespeare’ in the following line would seem to imply it is meant as ‘lears’). This blanket de-capitalisation of all text does create a kind of visual ‘text-speak’ on the page which may or may not – depending on one’s tastes – be slightly off-putting. ‘smells of mortality’ continues the hard-edged polemical tone, especially apt for this current period of pernicious austerity cuts inflicted by government on those with the narrowest shoulders:
your carnivore belief in free market is now paid for
struck down through eating contaminated meat
half-blood cuts stolen from a pensioners picnic
in ‘userer hangs the covener’ we get the very visceral image ‘piss a triumphal arch’. In ‘we two alone will sing like birds i’the cage’ there is some sharp alliteration at play, while tenses are muddied to disorienting effect:
as I passed round cheap beer
gave hard-slap, others spilt handful
of salted nuts and laugh it off
‘fie, foh and fum, i smell the blood’ continues in this viscerally alliterative vein – this time a grim and disturbing depiction of typical state school hard knocks with the detached teachers portrayed as almost sadistic spectators:
teachers held mugs of sweet tea
looked on through reinforced glass
cheesewire taut until tongues popped
lost child of albion shiny with tears
now fertiliser is laced with paraffin
a fist of semtex in suburban litterbins
By the time one reaches ‘when every case in law is right and bawds and whores do churches build then comes the time, who lives to see it’ (phew!), the aphoristic chutzpah punches at the solar plexus:
history’s welt across your bloodied back
tattoo bearing imprint of memory
where once we spoke fairytales
Burn can never be accused of being prosaic, predictable or pedestrian. The final sequence of the book is titled ‘honeysuckled’, a normally gentle-sounding noun which is rendered harder-hitting as a past participle adjectival noun, and almost echoes a kind of unconscious rhyming slang for ‘knuckled’. Burn’s deeply imagistic lyricism is at some of its most fruitful throughout this sequence:
in a game of hic-hac-hoc / paper-scissor … whats
the chance on coming up stone each and every?
caedmon bends to computer screen
her illuminated scream detonating night
slips out and at dawn tender-tendrils
alight to honeystone this city alone
The effect of the tone and language of this sequence is one of almost surreal polemic. Some verses have a certain quality of Dylan Thomas’s more surrealistic, phantasmagorical poetry experiments:
foxes gloving it, their early
bells off – flay, fly and flee
home before sun-sups
and leave of yggdrasil
to power up laboratories
of spin and local par-liar-ments
breweries of light, libraries of neon
There is something deeply unsettling, polemically sublime, even darkly prophetic about such lines as: ‘will today bring winning numbers/ or smoking outside the crem?’; and something quite apocalyptically apt in the more fathomable polemic: ‘honeyed sweet nothings/ of the con-dems when you come right down// - smokers die’. This reviewer finds some similarities in Burn’s highly symbolic, surreal and almost dissociative style with that of the eminently polemical Niall McDevitt’s (b/w, Waterloo Press, 2010). In Burn’s poetry, the sense is that the texture and sound of language is as important in terms of its gut-sense visceral impressions as in any strictly logical dialectical sub-text; in other words, the impression of Burn’s oeuvre over all is of instinctive meaning conveyed through associative (and dis-associative) images, sense-impressions and word-sounds intended to impress a primal effect on the reader (or listener), a kind of unarticulatable baroque –in itself, a gut-felt poetic response to the schizophrenic nature of so-called ‘rational’ society, often through schizophasial language:
ribboning community orchards - they just might be : a
thousand and a thousand and a thousand bairns cherry-
stonings striping the c2c cycle-way, bloom breathed slender
and into fruitful reach - such is caedmons balm
her smile-lines are row upon row of garlic - chive - onion
and seedbombings till sore, nasturtiums - those sluts of the
plant world, are needed more than prow of new business
school; quinces more than executive offices; urging
honeysuckle more than the corporate codpiece – hostmens…
The meaning here is neither instant nor, this reviewer feels, intended to reveal itself in any strictly logical sense on closer reading and dissection; it is what it is, more stream-of-consciousness outpouring, a sort of extemporised poetry, but one which inescapably has an unconscious purpose, a surface metaphorical thrust, and in these senses is a kind of surrealism. Moreover, Burn’s tendency to continually bounce certain demotic and topical terms off one another, and juxtapose archaic with contemporary terms such as ‘corporate codpiece’, or natural with abstract, as in ‘quinces’ and ‘executive officers’, serves as a kind of semiotic signposting, via cultural associations, no matter how bizarrely paired, so that a very metaphorical polemic is deeply felt – if not fully understood – by the reader. Indeed, Ezra Pound’s Ideogrammic Method (the abstract dealt with through concrete language) is particularly marked in this excerpt:
mind is selling off cutlery
- knives are behind the counter
bud vase for lover-sister-comrade
is padded to perfection
wearing their ribs on the outside
cry over onions in the gutter
on borrowed wheelchairs
for these honey-slicked and licked
caedmon soft-slipper shuffles
translucent as vellum
So no matter how surreal, dissociative, schizophasial, ‘Droogish’ and syntactically tilted Burn’s style of exposition, the reader may feel disoriented, but never entirely lost, because the semiotic signposts are always there, particularly through culturally resonant images:
downing shutters, so that on and over
rosed-stone and polished railings
parkouristas make the running…
The synecdoche ‘parkouristas’ is curious, and could have multiple associations and meanings. Burn even cites Anthony Burgess’s grand guignol on urban ‘ultra-violence’ at one point in this sequence:
… vol 68 and for encore discarded clockwork
orange dvd frisbee’d against the drear for a rescued mastiff
(Even Burn allows himself the typographical luxury of italicisation of titles). The contemporary and topical signposting in this sequence grows more and more recognisable as a more polemical purpose surfaces:
and the kissing bairns
hold tongues in reserve
the land asbo forgot - for now
and caedmon never will
seasons new jackdawing
to parkouristas very move wheeling air-spin
hunt late bugs / grubs, rejecting greggs seconds
stalemating around pill court, refusing even freegan
end-of-days - crayfish sandwiches with artisan cress
- excess the soup kitchen barely stomachs
pasties pigeon-bombed into vault spiral
swift break out-climb wheel crash-tag
branches just-turned leaves a-shaking
only for gulls to close - bursting
on thru in hardcore pastie fight
jackdaw-wing foliaged for the wee greens
those bugs, grubs, chrysalises tree'd
Note the interesting grammatical mutation of a noun into a verb with ‘jackdawing’.
the unlucky who - meaning it ironic -
told her approved social worker to run with it
just as they scissored out her blisterpacked meds
now repetitively stubbing flesh out and outside
the new deal fire-station where bhangra lads
hang u-turns - england air-fresheners off rear-views
One might almost term this type of stream-of-consciousness social comment as a sort of phantasmal polemic. Indeed, the Finnegans Wake-style lingual phantasmagoria goes into full tilt a page or so on, carried along by its sing-song cadences, and producing as it does one or two startlingly surreal images, such as ‘cheese-string/ watch’:
drinks can blown up pitt street, blows on up sheer in vent
bairns of the homeless dropping their cheese-string
watch as fluorescent marker stamped throb-pink to retro
cobbles clipclopping one of poundworlds plaster saints
clip-clop ace of spades, joker in the gutter long blown
cli-cli-clop aftershock shots glass rolling idly wild
pair of police horses stride-striving for canter
no longer the happy plod but shucking off
their heavies, trot and gavotte not garotte
Certainly in imagistic terms, this final sequence of the book is something of a marvel – Burn has no shortage of images; he also frequently surprises with sudden, more disciplined lyrical flourishes:
bridging with gap
breath frail skin
exact weight of
before the inhalation
militant in her
this licked, aye
all the new
Burn has a true talent at sublime descriptive images, as in the wonderfully alliterative ‘whiteface blown
into high branches a bleached carrierbag’. The sing-song quality of this sequence is again reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’s more surreal outings, not to say David Gascoyne’s:
trews hung the honeycombing of seven stories
boots ascend the civic bell-tower, the slowdrip
nursery rhyming, cradle, cradle, cradle
rock and bye, rock and bye
rock and bye…
Indeed, the latter lines have something of the musicality of Thomas’s lines from Under Milk Wood: ‘the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea’ – and indeed ‘slowdrip’ seems – no doubt unconsciously – to have ricocheted from the conjunctive imagism of the aforementioned work. The last piece in this sequence, and indeed in the volume as a whole, is perhaps Burn’s most evocative and beautifully composed poetic prose in the book:
and breathe in the moth-sky and sly wolf-light messages seeping night-time libraries, saints and swingers cemeteries, frying bread and fried pans, improvising bridges, kittiwakes feedbacking, drivers cutting up casualty, the casual stitch that, tracks and track-marks, walls and wallflowerings. so many
honey-bound wounds, such sweet-amber blastings, such a lotta anarchy-laughings. caedmon is her own marginalia unmooring from pages this great illuminated, like corporation seahorses upping anchor and floating free, the apocrypha of millennias merging, smile lines from corners her mouth are girders webbing; her onion skin sloughs off, sloughs oil, great crack-winged manuscripting in flight, her honeysuckle-honeysuckling-honeysuckled of pre-dawn and the fist that will always stick, clothing each and every, beautifully with jeweleye, irepoint, ranter
The phrase ‘great crack-winged manuscripting in flight’ is particularly striking, while ‘moth-sky’ and ‘wolf-light’ have almost mystical qualities. This is indeed rather a wistful and beguiling passage for such a viscerally charged book to close on, and perhaps points towards a slightly more refined and spectral poetic approach for the future. Obvious points of caution in conclusion on this compendious volume would be to point to some possible room for future elements of restraint in terms of Burn’s more explosive linguistic tendencies, and a particular vigilance might be exercised in just how much language can be manipulated for long stretches of poetry without risking incomprehension among those readers less familiar with the more experimental end of the poetry spectrum; that is, if Burn wishes to necessarily carry such readers along with his work.
The Joycean lingua phantasmagoria, too, though mostly brilliantly done, could possibly do with a little reining in here and there, at least for longer sequences; and some greater concentration perhaps on communicating specific polemical or narrative purposes to equal that spent on the surface sound-textures of a quite challenging linguistic technique (or sensibility), might well benefit Burn’s poetry in the longer run.
But there is no denying that dante in the laundrette is a highly distinctive, imaginative and striking collection, seemingly boundless in its subversion of language, and is certainly one of the most poetically experimental of Smokestack’s ambitiously far-ranging poetry list. For all those who enjoy linguistic challenge in their poetry, but of the type that skilfully mixes in a quite infectious cadence and rhythm, not to say a sharp palette for the violent beauty and energy of language, dante in the laundrette is an absolute must-read; and Sean Burn is definitely a poet on his own inimitable trajectory, one which is bound – sooner than later – to ferment into an even riper output which may yet startle us all, and so his forthcoming Shearsman collection is one to look out for.
These – and legion other – titles reaffirm Smokestack’s reputation as the natural home of the most challenging and thought-provoking political poetry being written in Britain today. With presses such as Smokestack, and Mudfog, it would seem that much of the future of British radical socialist poetry is firmly rooted in Middlesbrough, a city also, significantly, among the worst-hit by Tory austerity. Where there’s Smokestack, there’s fire; and it is heartening to know that in these dark days of social and cultural decline, and generally vague and evasive poetic liberalism, there is still a formidable crimson light shining in Middlesbrough.
Alan Morrison © 2013