Mab Jones finds much to celebrate on the home front, poetry-wise, and wants to tell you about it this June. We want her to as well! You can also buy the poetry she publishes if you fancy supporting the scene and all, just a wee heads up…
I’d like to begin by giving a little heads up on my own publications – not written by me, but published by me. I run two small presses, and one, Infinity Books UK, has recently put out new titles by two talented local poets.
Ghost Of Clone is an exciting, inspired collection of cool experimental haiku which sit alongside gorgeous, Tarot-esque illustrations by author, poet and musician Marc Zeuk Roberts. Meanwhile, Nights Travel At The Right Speed is the remarkable debut collection by George Sandifer-Smith, packed with spark and spirit, passion and profundity, intelligence and insight. Though I can’t really review these books, I strongly urge you to read them – and, of course, your support for this one-person-press will really help it to continue.
I’d also like to mention Slowly As Clouds (Indigo Dreams) by Wales-based poet Jane Campbell – who, again, it would perhaps be wrong of me to review: I was previously asked to endorse the collection and loved it so much I then invited Campbell (who I already knew) on a programme I made for BBC Radio Wales. The poems in this book won Jane the Geoff Stevens Memorial Poetry Prize; meditations on death, life, nature, and healing are beautifully, sensitively, gorgeously rendered, and I highly recommended that you read this one. Anyway, on with the reviews proper…
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Collected Poems, Peter Finch (Seren, price: £30 for both volumes)
There’s a word, ‘Finchian’, meaning “like the writing of Peter Finch”. Whether you’re familiar with Finch’s writing or not – as one of the UK’s leading poets, you need to be! – it might be useful here to think of finches the birds: sharp-eyed, smart, and agile; sometimes musical, often colourful; as a family, remarkably diverse – all descriptions that could be attributed to the work of Finch himself.
I first heard the poet on the radio when I was a teenager; now, as an adult, I was pleased to be present at the launch of the poet’s collected poems, which marks the culmination of nearly 60 years of publication. This two-tome volume is weighty, stylish, and chock full of poetic delights, from proclamation and provocation to concrete and cut-up, including list poems, prose poems, pictorial poems, and more. Poems might contain an excess of brackets, or numbers, or be made up of words that slide and smear across the page. They may resemble a telephone directory; form a circle or the shape of a planet; or be entirely diagrammatic. Poems might also be ‘poem-shaped’, resembling what we think of as poems, but Finch might well use that form to subvert and surprise, too.
Unpredictable and exciting, these books show the sheer range of the poet, and why he does deserve his own descriptive word. One of the first poems in the collection, A Welsh Wordscape, summarises exactly what Finch isn’t:
“To live in Wales,
Is to be mumbled at
by re-incarnations of Dylan Thomas
in numerous diverse disguises”
Well, Finch isn’t an imitator, but he does still carry through that flaming torch of pure unbridled energy which we associate with Thomas. Personally, I find Finch far less morose than Thomas, who could at times sermonise; there is no such leadenness here. Finch has always been and still is, experimental, with a daring and intelligent imagination that is enviable. He’s always been a poet who lifts up, and off, into airy new terrain… Finch-like. Finchian. A must-read collection, of course.
Seams Of People, Mike Jenkins (Carreg Gwalch, price: £7.50)
Dylan Thomas makes his way into a poem in Mike Jenkins’ new collection, Seams Of People, too. In Dylan’s Bastard Son, an unnamed protagonist offers his particular claim to fame. This character doesn’t appear to be a writer, but the poem is a little nod to what Finch’s poem, written in the 1960s, alludes to: the fact that Thomas’ shadow still looms large in Wales. Jenkins’ poem, however, is less a statement than a story, told with empathy and giving voice to another person, as so many of these poems do, the first-person point of view offering immediacy and a strong poignant sense.
It’s this mix that makes for the most affecting poems in the book for me, and Jenkins is certainly one who can put himself into myriad other shoes, whether that’s care home residents, asylum seekers, taxi drivers, or a kid who is Named After A Motorbike – “he races around the classroom”, swears and sticks up fingers, but still, he is human, and his story is told with compelling honesty.
There are also many poems inspired by place in this collection, including some which offer powerful visions of an independent Wales; others set in sites such as London, Belfast, Berlin, Mumbai, and Corfu; and other poems which look out towards glaciers, deserts, or take us on An Imagined Journey. Although he lives in Merthyr, Jenkins’ outlook is broad, never insular, and even in poems without a given place there are often images of movement, travel, and journeying: “I have come quite a distance”; “from site to site”; “I have reached a place”; “Moon in full flight”, etc. Jenkins is a poet who may travel outward, inward, across to other cultures or down, into our own; but always, he grasps the reader firmly by the hand, in poems that are lucid and illuminating in equal measure.
A Swansea Love Song by Stephen Knight (Smith/Doorstop, price: £5)
Not a new publication, A Swansea Love Song came up in a recent Radio 4 programme on dialect poetry I was involved in and I’m including it here because it has recently come into the limelight it seems. In any case, this slender pamphlet is terrific fun to read. Penned in Swansea dialect, Knight has a lot of fun using varying words and phrases, with a mix of the known and made-up, to recreate the city’s accent. You may, like me, find yourself reading aloud, and accompanied by a glass of wine and/or a friend, this is very entertaining indeed.
The language is clever and inventive, using unusual phonetics to ‘spell out’ words as they are spoken, but despite having to sometimes spend time ‘working out’ what is being expressed, these are poems tethered to a true, perhaps even tender, understanding of Swansea dialect. Dialect poetry is one of the strands I also like to write in though, which perhaps made this pamphlet particularly appealing to me.
Tied together within this style, then, are subjects full of pathos, or bathos. The voices in the poems offer up their thoughts and their souls, sometimes to comic effect, but also leaning into the tragi-comic or towards concerns that are more serious. There’s something about the accents of cities in south Wales that’s funny, I feel, but Knight seems to me, a poet full of humanity and a sense that every heart has its yearnings. Contained within the dialect are notions and expressions that often struck me as Shakespearian in their flowery mix of the philosophical and emotional – deep thought and feeling. People are people, this book tells us, but along the way, there is, in this pamphlet, much liveliness alongside the highs and lows of life itself.
Is there also a word, ‘Fiskian’…? If there isn’t, there should be. Idiosyncratic, individual, set in the every day but with influences of music and pop culture; a little bit rebellious; a little bit blokey, but always up for a laugh – this is the admixture that would make up that word.
Poems like Things You Can Do Without Needing Government Help, and Unpublicised Variants, both in Moving On, showcase the poet’s jubilant humour. This latter, although Fiskian, is also quite Finchian, taking the form of a list and utilising it to fly into something humorous, wry, and imaginative. Some of the poems in these books, however, especially towards the end of Funny Business, move towards the more obscure, one stanza including surreal images or “sex”, “apples”, and “ear wax”. Strange and dreamlike, ‘Fiskian’ writing can also follow unusual loops of logic and illogic, it seems, which makes the books, at least, original.
In all, though, the poems are essentially entertaining. Generally, the language is plain and clear, although Fisk does delight, here and there, in wordplay. Subjects are mostly from the every day and the now, rather than the past or future, and offer a glimpse into a specific world and time as seen through a particular Fiskian mind. The blurbs on the back of the books use the words ‘ramshackle’ and ‘shambolic’ in their self-description, which I think is unfairly negative. Rather, let’s say that here’s a mind which is remarkably agile in its thinking. Fisk’s muse might be more lascivious than Finch’s, smoking “a fag from the fag shop” when we imagine her, but she’s a muse nonetheless – and Fisk’s work is, in its own way and on its own terms, inspired.
To order this one, send a cheque to Square Books, 2 Richmond Road, Cardiff, CF24 3AR or contact on [email protected].
words MAB JONES
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