Saturday, 24 December 2022 08:53

Christmas poetry round-up, 2022

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in Poetry
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Christmas poetry round-up, 2022

Fran Lock unleashes her annual round-up of outstanding poetry collections; image above by Imtiaz Dharker

So here it is, “merry” Christmas? Or not. Not a lot to be joyful about, is there? As the Tories inaugurate their own personal Nightmare Before Christmas. Which feels like it has been going on since summer. 2013. But in the midst of despair, let’s take a moment to cheer cultural production, in the form of six variously playful, provocative and acutely awake poetry collections. Collects that prove it is our creativity that raises, unites, and sustains us in the darkest days.

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Impure Thoughts by Golnoosh Nour (Verve, 2022)

This is the second poetic offering in as many years from twice Polari-shortlisted Nour, and while it retains the baroque stylistic flourish that characterized 2021’s Rocksong, it is, in so many ways, a far stranger, more intellectually driven beast.

The collection stalks ‘impurity’ across its many incarnations. Nour interrogates its operation within political space and upon the subjectivities of those branded or embraced by it. Throughout the course of the collection the notion of impurity pivots from glorious self-dramatizing defiance to a generous and embracive recognition of the other: impurity as both an aesthetics and an ethics of queer care.

‘Ode to Courage’ is particularly haunting in this regard, as the poem invokes a complex solidarity with an addressee returning to their country (Ukraine) at time of war. Admiration and wounded ambivalence mix as the speaker is forced to confront their own vexed relationship to national belonging: ‘I was born to leave; I left to escape, no love was drunk/ enough to keep me in a country that was falling away from me./ It is true – I threw away my country like used condoms.’ In this last image Nour concentrates disgust for self and country, and a bottomless sadness for the failed possibility or wasted potential of both. While Nour’s ‘Ode’ is an expression of genuine respect for the bravery of a loved friend, it is also an act of mourning for a political territory that violently forecloses the possibility of such an act for the speaker. Many levels and registers of loss meet in this poem. How should one grieve for a country that refuses to love you back, that would evict or destroy you, that will not recognize your full humanity? Nour’s writing here is fierce and muscular; it avoids conventional sentiment, creating instead a deeply moving portrait of female friendship. This friendship exists in irreconcilable tension with the ‘violent shame’ of the political – and politicized – subject. That Nour distills this tension with such clarity is a testament to her skill as a poet.

Elsewhere in the collection, such as in ‘Curious Circumstances’ and ‘Reliquary’, Nour plays with the troubling connections between carnal desire and consumption, colliding images of fruit and flesh, cake and orgasm, signalling predatory instincts and carnivorous appetites. A number of the poems inhabit the intersection of consumption, carnality, betrayal and trauma, exploring the ways in which desire is performed and warped through (and by) the distorting lens of consumer culture; mediated by its technologies, susceptible to its logics. A number of the poems see the speaker identify with the discards and detritus of late-stage capitalism, only to use that very media to stage a counter performance of trademark bravura. ‘Cheap Tricks’, for example, is horny, hungry, and unapologetic in its pursuit of a pleasure so often denied to its poetic subjects.

Nour’s writing owes much to a queer lineage that includes writers such as Georges Bataille and Dennis Cooper in its preoccupation with forms of perverse and polymorphous bodily abjection, yet this concern is also tempered with a strong streak of feral feminism, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the collection’s shape-shifting animal motifs. These weave through Impure Thoughts and its predecessor, Rocksong in forms at once monstrous and ghostly. Nour constellates ideas of extremity, excess, queer desire, sickness and animality in a variety of arresting ways. ‘I desire so hard I give/ myself migraines’ she writes. This desire is both an animal search for satisfaction, and an intensely political yearning for a home that evicts or serially abuses and betrays. The body is a territory, a border, an autonomous republic of one. It is an untamed and frightening space, a site of escape, belonging, and resistance. So too the body of the text, which Nour reconfigures in a host of dynamic forms, full of libidinal energy and oracular fury.

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Loading Terminal by Danny Hayward (87 Press, 2022)

We live amidst a ‘carnival of state reaction’, in the global welter, writes Danny Hayward, of ‘basically the most intense state violence you can imagine’. Very little recent poetry gets into the gears of that meat-grinder with as much acuity or force as Loading Terminal, which collects three long poems together with a selection of shorter pieces and essays, all concerned with the distortional stresses of late-stage capitalism on the substance and structure of thought and speech.

There is no catharsis in this book. You cannot, Hayward seems to suggest, resolve crisis in language, rather language dissolves in the acid bath of contemporary disaster. The language of Loading Terminal is compulsive, impeded and repeating; it hiccups and collapses, glitches, stutters and loops. Hayward is very much occupied by the limits and failures of language; its obsessive and neurotic qualities, the ways in which it reproduces the very conditions it attempts to disclose. The commonplace that poetry – that any writing – is intrinsically therapeutic or improving turns on the notion that language exists apart from the events it describes, the emotions it seeks to express. Our language does double duty: as diagnostic and surgical tool. We can tell each other where it hurts, we can “heal” through the articulate transfer of emotion.

Except we cannot. Language is infected and infectious; not the end of alienation but its instrument. Rather than connecting, it becomes the crucible in which we ‘harden’, our ‘solipsistic anger cut off from reality don’t/ care about the dead/ pretense of sympathy for the dead worse than none at all/ I feel none today so that is better’. What do we think we’re doing when we are doing poetry, when we are doing culture, when we are doing language? What gets under my skin about Hayward’s work is how inseparable this doing suddenly feels from everything I call my ‘real’ life, how susceptible our poetry is to both the linguistic shrapnel and the zombie logics of neoliberalism; permeated and hijacked on every level. ‘Hysterical middle class poetry sleeps in the same room/ as unrecognisable reality’, writes Hayward. In the early hours of the morning an uncomfortable idea enters my head: that hysterical middle class poetry is a large part of what keeps reality ‘unrecognisable’.

None of which seeks to capture the rhapsodic urgency of Hayward’s language, his syntax of alternately loose connection and cutting precision. It’s not the smug moral inertness of ‘innovation’ for innovation’s sake. It feels driven by a desire to get at what’s at stake for all of us who ‘fuck around with phrases to understand this/ world’. We know any such attempts at understanding will fail, and that ‘fucking around’ is all we are doing, yet we’re still compelled, it’s all we have.

In the midst of which, moments of tender solidarity break through. I was struck in particular by ‘Elegy’ and ‘Letter to Sophie’, poems where the most vulnerable and intimate address intersects with poetic tradition, the mediation of received forms, and digital technologies. There’s a passage in ‘Letter to Sophie’ that I think it is worth quoting in its entirety:

Some other things I wrote down in my phone while I was sitting in hospitals: “Poetry is inhibited by the desire for knowledge. The desire for knowledge is insatiable. It tells you you’re not ready to begin yet. But that’s not right. When you sit in a hospital and listen to people talking on the phone about the cancer surging through their bodies you know there is no time to wait, and that poetry is the only thing there is.”

These gleanings feel radical, wakeful, too hot to handle, which is perhaps why they come to us third hand, doubly delayed – through the letter – which form of communication already embeds the possibility of delay – off the phone screen, from the limbo of the hospital. Mediated, pre-digested, yet still unsettlingly vital. It’s not that poetry is a less a failure than other forms of language, but that poetry is a superb attempter. The attempt is frigging everything.

What do I mean by that? I was reminded, reading Loading Terminal, but something the poet Lisa Robertson once said: that she doesn’t know how to write, each time, and then begins. Writing is the attempt itself, assuming the risks and vulnerabilities of failure. Writing is persistent failure, persistent process in a move toward an other, others. ‘I resolve to drastically lower the bar for expression’, writes Hayward, ‘All my most instinctive sympathies are with people who don’t know how to talk anyway’. None of us do, but the effort is a profound act of solidarity.

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THE AUTISTIC-MEMOIR-MANIFESTO OMNIBUS, by Zak Ferguson (Sweat Drenched Press, Forthcoming)

When reviewing Ferguson’s The System Compendium in 2021, I described it as a book both impressive and surprising in extent, scope, intensity, and ambition. This is equally true of this genre-bending, experimental opus. The Autistic-Memoir-Manifesto Omnibus collects four previously released volumes– ‘White Font on Obsidian Sheets’, ‘U N R U L Y Black Stains on The White Page’, ‘T H E A U T I S T I C ( " = " )’ and ‘The Full-Form’ –  into one gloriously disobedient, gleefully irreverent, fruitfully disorienting package.

It's not often you encounter a writer – or indeed a press – who really knows how to play; who understands play as a provocation, both political and intellectual. Rarer still to discover a writer who is able to communicate this without sucking all joy and juice right out of their text. These aren’t arid little arty-farty “games” calculated to confirm writer and reader alike in an over-inflated estimate of their own intelligence. No, this is something else: the text kibbitzes, heckles, goads, teases, pranks and punks you. It is as if Harpo Marx – the character, not the actor – had written a book, by way of Antonin Artaud, Hannah Weiner, Valerie Solanas and SpongeBob SquarePants. There are what readers might recognise as typically Fergusonian flourishes: a restless shifting between genres and modes, a concern with typography and the structural stuff of the text, those jittery, innervating jumps between points of view, and the rhapsodic runs of language that drive Ferguson’s interrogation of language, literature, and neoliberal cultural production.

Because, while this book is undoubtedly both a manifesto and a memoir, it is also a mode and commentary on those things, perhaps even a deconstruction. Certainly, Ferguson takes to task the notion of ‘memoir’ as it emerges from the bland imaginarium of mainstream publishing: a polite and politically neutered confessional space. Such literature works to absorb, revolve and narratively package neurodiverse struggle within a linear trajectory, one that is firmly in step with the normalising aspirations of western capitalism. The dictates of this form demand nothing less than the banishment of all that makes autistic thought unpalatable, gritty, lively and strange from the space of the page. There is no room in this marketized crap for recalcitrant anger, social criticism, or textual difference. Autism becomes a story, a narrative motor divorced from the bodies and brains that live, think, and feel it. Ferguson’s ‘memoir’ is the best antidote to this nonsense I’ve ever read. I see myself in this text: in the obsessive, rapidly cycling autistic creativity that drives it. This challenge to an implied neurotypical audience for autistic literary production feels necessary and refreshing.

It is the collision of memoir and manifesto forms that gives Ferguson’s omnibus its raw power. I previously compared The Autistic-Memoir-Manifesto Omnibus to the work of Valerie Solanas, and this is not a comparison I make lightly: Solanas’ S.C.U.M Manifesto uses the manifesto form to stage a feral burlesque of queer rage, to embody the too-muchness the world hates in women, queers and poor people, and turn into a hyperbolic, excessive and polarising mode. Ferguson’s writing has much the same spirit.  It is iconoclastic in the best sense, razor sharp on the machinations of the literati and on publishing culture. Incendiary, and unafraid to be thought of as ‘petulant’ – Ferguson’s own phrase – bratty or hysterical. Both writers speak frankly about shame in ways that transmute that shame into its absolute refusal. There’s no meekness, no phoney-baloney gratitude for table scraps. Ferguson’s text gives the middle finger to the script that says we should play nice, eat our greens and accept our place. Such a refusal has greater potency, existing within the frame of vulnerable – often abjected – autistic subjectivity.

What stays with me about this work is indeed its sense of vulnerability and risk – which is both a mode of existence and a manner of writing. It is ‘edgy’ in the sense that Ferguson’s textual practice is exiled to the margins of literary culture. It is ‘edgy’ because as a citizen and social subject the author is excluded or disenfranchised. But it is also ‘edgy’ because it is inspired by and emerges from those liminal spaces in art and consciousness where the sparks fly. It is writing ready to expose itself, to assume the risks of failure and break new, uncharted ground. The result of this process is a profound consideration on what it means to live, create and contribute, not only as a neurodiverse artist, but as a member of the suffering human community.

There are moments of biographical disclosure (particularly within the ‘Gay Friction’ section of ‘The Full Form’) that are distinctly uncomfortable. Yet despite this, Ferguson’s blend of incisive thinking and self-awareness prevent the events he writes about becoming sentimental or sensational story-fodder. Instead, the text shows its working, the inseparable mesh of experience and theory that form the basis of his cultural analysis. This analysis is wide-ranging, rangy and compelling. Ultimately, The Autistic-Memoir-Manifesto Omnibus seduces and confronts us with how one singular vision was shaped, and how it negotiates the dystopian landscape of a culture and a society not of its choosing.

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Grace Note, by Peter Godfrey (Smokestack Books, 2022)

Smokestack have had a good year, bringing us a rich array of titles from contemporary poets and long-neglected radical forerunners alike, including an important collection from lesser-known Soviet poet Olga Fyodorovna Berggolts (The Blockade Swallow, 2022). These are poems of unflinching witness, and their English translation is disarmingly direct and assured. Berggolts writes of starvation, siege, and almost unimaginable cruelty during the Stalinist terror. Yet at her most compelling she is a poet of practical necessity and daily life: the mechanisms by which mourning is forestalled and compassionate political conviction survives in the midst of persecution and fear. This collection deserves a far more sustained critical treatment than I have space for here, so for now I will note it as a welcome edition to Smokestack’s catalogue of radical women writers, placing women and girls at the forefront of both revolutionary activity and literary production.

Other honourable mentions include the zeitgeisty, engaging and hilariously sharp The Love Songs of Late Capitalism by Martin Rowson, and The Knucklebone Floor by Linda France, which bristles with intelligent and riddling artifice. France’s collection is in part a verse-biography of Susan Davidson (1796-1877) who spent thirty years landscaping the grounds of Allen Banks near Ridley Hall in Northumberland. It is also a complex meditation on nature, patriarchy, time and memory.

Yet my favourite collection from Smokestack this year has to be the consummate and painterly Grace Note by Peter Godfrey, for Godfrey’s uncanny ability to bring a single, small moment into dazzling focus with the subtlest of strokes. A poet who shows more than he tells, Godfrey conjures his scenes and subjects through the judicious arrangement of fine detail. For instance, in ‘Recife café’, an encounter between a young homeless subject and the poem’s comparatively affluent speaker is brought to life through sparing yet freighted lines: ‘the comfort of my pocket’, ‘a white tooth in her smile’. This could so easily have been a sentimental poem, yet Godfrey’s awareness of disparity is matched by a patient and attentive regard for the humanity of his subject. The young girl is held by the text, compassionately acknowledged.

We might think of this compassionate regard as a form of grace, and grace in its various guises – as eloquence, as good will, as virtue, as prayer – is the organising principle of the collection. The poems move through place and time touching on moments of spiritual quickening, quiet resolve, revelation or crisis in the course of each unique life. Godfrey’s evocation of Jacques Brel is particularly effective: an understated chanson of a poem, capturing both something of Brel’s supple half rhymes and his deflationary deadpan: ‘Low horizon a monotone/ pierced by a church spire like a needle./ A desk, a lamp, a single bed,/ my glass of Orangina.’ However, it is when breathing life into unknown figures that Godfrey’s writing is at its best. I do not, for example, know who ‘Morag Ann’ is, yet by the end of the poem I feel I am intimately acquainted with her. Hers is a hard life, beset by the elements and by the grim vicissitudes of fate, yet born with patience and almost infinite stoicism. ‘Morag Ann’ is one of many poems in Grace Note that savours of place, of woodsmoke and the sea. It captures two things not often seen in contemporary poetry: the resilience and quiet courage of rural working people, and the inscrutable workings of the human heart.

If one thing unites Godfrey’s poetic subjects it is their status as outsiders, as those who go against the grain, often out of step with the aims and aspirations of capitalism while in tune with rugged nature and native place. The poems set in Scotland and the Hebrides in particular are written with obvious relish, and contain almost exultant descriptions of the landscape, and the people who live and work it. ‘In a Hebridean cemetery’ is my personal favourite: a poetic declaration of solidarity, extending backwards to ‘the people of Scarp’ who ‘hauled our boats up the shore,/ fetched water at the well,/ combed the beach for driftwood, and sang./ MacInnes, MacLennan and MacLeod/ by runrig furrows and the purple hill/ that rang with schoolhouse voices./ Our names kissed others’ lips before we went.’

This last line is haunting, and it provides, I think, a key to the heart of this collection: to sing and celebrate our unlikely tribe, both near and far; to uncover our affinities across time and place and lift their names to the light.

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The Shouting Tories, by various, ed. by Mike Quille, winners chosen by Andy Croft (Culture Matters, 2022)

Where would my round-up be without a Culture Matters anthology? And as it celebrates its sixth year, it seems right to take stock, not only of this year’s Bread and Roses Poetry Award Anthology, but the prize as a whole. And the first thing I want to note is that it is an ‘award’, and not a ‘competition’. While the prize seeks to recognise and celebrate poetic merit though publication and a small cash prize, it also attempts to acknowledge and bring together a cohort of working-class writers on the left; to foster participation and broaden networks of solidarity.

A tall order, perhaps, but over the last couple of years I think this bold ambition is beginning to be met. This latest anthology is proof, bringing together an impressive roster of new and familiar faces, united by the urgency and energy of their poetic mission. This is all the more impressive for the difficulty of their task: to meaningfully respond to a social and political reality that seems to obliterate the very possibility of meaningful response; a grotesque reality in the face of which language seems unequal. The problem is two-fold: where do we even find the words to encompass the scale of this crisis, and if we had the words, what would be the point? The poets collected in The Shouting Tories are savvy strategists who erect against defeatism a lively and pressured engagement with syntax, structure, and the blank space of the page. While these voices are united in their preoccupations and concerns, they are also various, as in life they use whatever comes to hand, and these poems are by turns lyrical, satirical, declamatory and compassionate, most often choosing to zero in on small moments in the lives of those so often seen as little more than faceless economic collateral.

While this iteration of the anthology is necessarily full of rage, it is also a celebration of those same lives, and a hopeful recognition of their capacity to challenge and to change the state of the world, for all of us.

Read 1474 times Last modified on Saturday, 24 December 2022 09:45
Fran Lock

Fran Lock Ph.D. is a writer, activist, and the author of seven poetry collections and numerous chapbooks. She is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.