This quarter's round-up comes with seasonal solidarity and very best wishes to all our readers. It also comes rather belatedly. I have to admit that I have struggled to choose the books I would include in this selection. Not through lack of choice, but because 2021 afforded such an embarrassment of poetic riches, in the UK and beyond. This year both Culture Matters and Smokestack Books published finely wrought works steeped in the local lives of working-class people.
Chris Searle's meditative and empathetic collection, Over Eagle Pond (Culture Matters) is one such example, and Anna Robinson's Whatsname Street (Smokestack books) with its lively interrogation of communal history is another. Joelle Taylor's bravura exploration of visibility and voice, C+nto and Othered Poems (The Westborne Press) carved a place for butch and working-class lesbian women on the T.S Eliot Prize shortlist. This feels like a deserved and significant victory, as does the inclusion of Daniel Sluman's work of hybrid memoir and sparing lyric, Single Window (Nine Arches Press), which details with unflinching witness and tender intimacy the reality of disabled lives.
This year also saw two wry, intelligent explorations of blue-collar masculinity from Jake Hawkey and Ryan Quinn Flanagan. Hawkey's debut Breeze Block (Lumpen) is particularly focussed on the often complicated relationships we forge with lovers, friends, family, and with our wider communities. Quinn Flanagan's A Tripwire for the Soul (Marathon Books) is also a collection much concerned with dailiness, and with our misfiring attempts to communicate. I read both books in concert with each other, and found their directness, their deadpan and self-deprecating humour deeply refreshing.
Alan Morrison's Anxious Corporals (Smokestack Books) is also a work of notable scholarship, mental energy, and lyric reach, exploring, elegising and performing a lost working-class autodidactism. These books deserve more sustained attention than I can afford them here, and many I will return to. But for now, I wanted to signal just how much exciting working-class poetry is happening, and that I did not choose my favourites lightly. These are:
Rocksong by Golnoosh Nour (Verve Poetry Press, 2021):
“I look at my brother through our screens” writes Nour in 'Through a Screen Darkly': “he watches me watch him feed his cat half his steak;/ she is conspicuously Persian, with an air of arrogance and/ trauma, just like my brother, and perhaps like me.” I think this is my favourite poem in Rocksong, the hotly anticipated debut collection from Golnoosh Nour, published by Verve Poetry Press in October this year. It is my favourite piece because it perfectly encapsulates Nour's key thematic concerns: specifically, the fraught interplay between arrogance and trauma, and the ways in which identity is mediated, distorted, and fractured by all the traumas and technologies of un-belonging.
To put it another way, Rocksong is a supremely decadent book, where “decadence” is not the feckless hedonism of over-privileged fuckwits, but the evidence of and resistance to the coercive demands of capitalism, heteronormativity, and poetry's implied white audience. It is a book much occupied with excess; excess as both a language tactic and a mode of being. Nour's speakers are variously raging, sarcastic, and unrepentantly perverse. Together the poems create a bravura performance of singular originality and wit; they swagger and they coax, they threaten and cajole, they – to quote Genet, which feels apt – “use menace, use prayer”. In this way, Nour brings a baroque sensibility to the shallowness and cruelty of our contemporary moment. Grotesque and tender by turns, Nour makes no accommodation to the Poetry Gods of Tedious Ironic Distance, but erects instead a dangerous and resplendent imaginary, a Tehran of the mind, her own “wicked capital,/ saturated with gold oil, dripping with black glory” ('The Wicked Capital').
Nour's poems negotiate a queer exile: which is not the same as absence from a beloved native land. It is the kind of spatial dysphoria that takes place when no “home” accepts you; the specific pain of being other to everyone, and the work of carving a kingdom for yourself from the insubstantial stuff of words, hashtags, references, and other assorted cultural ephemera. Rocksong takes this work seriously, most seriously of all its responsibility to joy, to sensual and aesthetic pleasure. In its steely refusal of victimhood, this is a defiant and daring collection, an anthem for our dark days.
The System Compendium by Zak Ferguson (Sweat Drenched Press, 2021):
The System Compendium is a book astonishing in its extent, its scope, and its intensity. An ambitious and beguiling mixed media manifesto, it shifts between genre, typography, point of view, image, and text in ways often disorienting but always purposeful. “THIS IS NOT A BOOK” begins Ferguson, underlined and in all caps, “THIS IS A STATEMENT”. And indeed it is: the work strains at the limits of form; of what a book can and ideally “should” be according to the straight-jacketing dictates of typical/ neurotypical literature.
Described as an “autistic manifesto”, the books seems to embody the non-trivial effort demanded of neurodivergent persons to navigate a society and a culture set up specifically to exclude them. It is not merely a book in which neurodivergence manifests in symptomatic or performative traces, but in which autism itself exerts a compelling power over the rethorics and aesthetics of literature; where it becomes a transformative tool with the power to renegotiate terms of textual and political encounter. To put it another way, The System Compendium challenges our orderly, linear habits of reading. It demands more from us than passive content imbibing, and it shakes our belief in a default “ideal reader”, specifically ourselves . As we grapple with and navigate the text, Ferguson turns the tables. We are the ones wrong-footed and unsteady, our attention pivoting wildly between sensory and ideological overwhelm as we attempt to assimilate this strange new territory.
If this sounds rather dry and worthy, don't let it put you off. Ferguson can sustain this remarkable endeavour because his writing is also bloody good. This, from the opening section gives you a flavour of unnerving hard-edged humour on offer: “Do you feel the pressure from my scarred fingertips?/ Thick with a new growth of protective skin. KEYBOARD... you're on my mind! (Baby you're always on my mind!)/ Constantly I need you to be extrapolated and built upon. In your functions and processes. You need the attention as much as me, like an abused animal. Beaten, pressed. Hardened, yet still prone to needing that one thing you are accustomed to or risk another night without that of which you and your basis have been evolved around./ Keyboards of the world – do you like your pleasurable abuse?” To read this is to think of Clarice Lispector’s ‘Água Viva’, reimagined, so that when Lispector writes that she is “a typewriter making the dry echo in the dark, humid dawn. I haven’t been human for a long time. They wanted me to be an object. I am an object. An object dirty with blood. An object that creates other objects and the machine creates us all. It makes demands. Mechanisms make endless demands on my life. But I don’t totally obey: if I have to be an object, let me be an object that screams” Ferguson is similarly entangled with his machine: through punning play and pop-cultural allusion, the text posits an intimate, tactile relationship between writer and apparatus, as the keyboard becomes further and further enmeshed in the speaker's writing and thinking processes, at once interlocutor, victim, other self. Throughout the book Ferguson explores typography and technology as methods for mediating and constituting different subject positions, particularly those considered “mad” or in some way outside the sanctioned grammars and syntaxes of polite society and good middle-class prosody.
This is a rich and complex book. It is also visually stunning, an art object of rare fascination. As Ferguson holds the notion of “the system” in its varied guises up to the light the reader finds their comforting commonplaces about language, society, technological process, and the potential of the human mind called into question.
Be Feared by Jane Burn (Nine Arches Press, 2021):
For those like me who have long enjoyed Jane Burn's work, her latest collection, Be Feared traverses familiar territory: myths, monsters and magical transformations abound; there is an attentive and clear-sighted regard for the natural world, along with an abiding concern for language, and its potential as prayer, as hex, or as charm. What distinguishes Be Feared from Burn's previous collections is perhaps the subtle and sustained merging of this Otherworld with its mundane and struggling shadow side: Burn's speakers are a polyvocal brood of selves, imperfectly held by the Real. The magic within is always looking for an out, barely contained either by daily life or the structural strictures of the poem. In consequence, her work is a masterful shape-shifting engagement with form, moving from sonnet to villanelle to the plaintive recitative chant. These poems feel restless, but the the effect is far from being haphazard. What impresses about this collection is the sense of search and purpose at work; form embodies the transformational magic that is the thematic heart of Burn's writing. These are poems as process, poems as a gradual becoming, a painful, beautiful moving-towards. Be Feared evinces an enviable control over language; throughout the collection language in fact functions as the medium of control, of tempering emotion and experience into the white hot steel of a cutting blade.
These are also poems whose use of language is strikingly original. I have written before about the ethics of scavenging, splicing, reusing and repurposing in the poetry of working-class women, and Burn makes the most adept and inventive use of these techniques. Here, nothing is wasted: an adjective might be a noun, a local dialect word might comfortably rub shoulders with an arcane ecclesiastical reference; pop-culture might intersect with fairytale. This follows a determination to use every available poetic resource – a literary counterpart to the tools with which we negotiate life – but in Burn's hands it is more than this, she is so much more than an omnivorous enthusiast: Burn's use of language is joyful yet disciplined, and deployed with absolute precision. Every word is available, but not just any word will do. The magic resides in the choreography, which in this collection feels absolutely at the peak of its powers.
While the collection deals with fear, the poems present the various ways in which language may express, contain, banish or subvert that fear. It is a gathering of strength, a ferocious song of survival.
Underneath by Martin Hayes (Smokestack Books 2021):
It would be extremely difficult for Hayes – or indeed any writer – to top the political engagement, the intellectual and imaginative reach of Ox (Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2021 ), with its sustained interaction with fable; its complex reckoning with the animal industrial complex and all the apparatus of mechanised suffering. To be sure, Underneath is a very different book. Although Hayes' characteristic concern with the multiple assaults and oppressions of our “gig economy” is still a driving and viscerally present force, his latest collection eschews allegory in favour of vividly rendered vignettes and shorter poems of empathetic portraiture. This strategy is simple but extremely effective: by focussing on the particularities of experience that beset individual workers, Hayes slowly builds our sense of them – and of ourselves – as a class cohort. The poems becomes small units of resistance, a place to extend the sustained attention and care seldom afforded workers as citizens or subjects. With patience, with humour, and with a sharp eye for eccentric detail, Hayes sets about rendering the occluded lives of workers visible.
Underneath, then, is necessarily a large book, and it is a testament to Hayes energy and charisma as a poet that the work does not feel over-extended or heavy. As is typical of Hayes' work, the language is deceptively direct while in no way plain or simplistic. Rather, Hayes judiciously deploys arresting images and pungent phrases: “all the supervisors in the world” as moray eels with “jaws unpeeled and teeth sticking out” is one that will stay with me for a long while yet. Hayes is not a poet to drown the urgency of his message by loading every line with ore, instead the reader is struck by sudden flashes of gold.
And what is Hayes' message? It strikes me that Underneath is a compassionate call for global class solidarity; to see ourselves as part of a collective struggle in which the the individual – their unique culture, context, talents and sufferings – absolutely matter. What is Underneath is both the inscrutable and merciless functioning of the capitalist machine, but it is also the humanity of the workers Hayes brings to life with such clarity. The book is an act of rescue, from anonymity, from a system that wants desperately to see us as a homogenised mass of faceless economic units. Underneath reminds us of what poetry is for, and for that I am grateful.
The Cursory Remix by Michał Kamil Piotrowski (Contraband Books, 2021):
As somebody who recently completed work on a collaborative translation project, I found this book, which is playfully sensitised to the ethics and aesthetics of translation both simulating and useful. Described as being “co-written” by Google Translate, The Cursory Remix translates passages from The Cursory Epic by Stephen Mooney into a language other than English, then back again, through the medium of Google's ubiquitous translation tool. In the process, context is stripped, nuance shaved, meaning skewed. Piotrowski's text becomes a meditation on the linguistic expressions of cultural hegemony: the hidden operations of power ceaselessly smuggled inside even the most benign-seeming of language encounters.
What is striking about the book, and about Piotrowski's process is that Google produces not merely “incorrect” translations, but subtle and suggestive shifts of meaning that complicate, extend and undercut the original. We find ourselves sifting and weighing the remix: what exactly is the associative affinity between a “friend” and a “sacrifice”? What is the exact difference between a “quest” and a “task”? Such questions are pressing, particularly within the context of capitalism, where we frequently find ourselves at the mercy of language manipulation: through small print, pseudo-speak, political and corporate propaganda. This is made achingly clear in the section entitled '[from the Cursory Epic 3.5 – The Cursory Spell Book:]' where government pronouncements about single mothers and benefit claimants are mangled just enough to expose their absurd and sinister nature.
But to my mind the most fascinating places in the book are the silences and gaps it proliferates: the moments when language technologies fail, producing a speculative space of possibility and vulnerable openness. As the book is “interactive”, following the form of a Choose Your Own Adventure story, the reader has no choice but to inhabit these silences, to work through and reckon with these myriad failures of communication. This is a collection retunes our attention to the fact that we are not merely language using subjects, but intimately and irrevocably subject to language.
William Blake at the Bridge Hotel: Ten Newcastle Poets, edited by Paul Summers (Culture Matters, 2021):
Although some of the voices collected in this anthology were previously known to me, others were a wonderful surprise. The work of Catherine Graham and Kathleen Kenny in particular has been one of my happiest discoveries this year. These poets exemplify the best of the work in this timely book, introduced and edited by Paul Summers and illustrated with haunting photographs by Dan Douglas. Graham and Kenny impress in both the quality of their attentive local witness, and their imaginative and empathetic reach across communities and throughout history.
This anthology feels important for a variety of reasons, not least because it challenges the implied position of London as England's literary and political centre. It offers proof, if any were needed, that the North East has its own rich and ever-evolving set of poetic traditions, intimately connected both to embodied experience and to class identity. An intimate and tactile sense of place is woven through the fabric of these poems, a sense of life as it is lived and language as it is spoken. This is a marvellous antidote to the cult of ironic distance that prevails throughout much of contemporary poetry, and where the expressive effects and unique eccentricities of accent and grammar are flattened or fetishised in the name of “good” prosody.
This collection treasures the particularity and the diversity of local lives to produce an anthology of poems that are materially and socially situated, historically and politically engaged, but most of all viscerally and inspiringly alive. Douglas' images lend the work an air of psycho-geographic haunting, where native place is not a backdrop, but a collaborator, shaping literary production and sense of self. This anthology offers an artistic reckoning with the North East, with its political legacies and long continuities of struggle. It also provides a rare space of preservation and joy.