Josh Ekroy: Ways To Build a Roadblock

I remember during the time of first Gulf War a short radio piece in which the correspondent reported a conversation with someone from a country more use to wars than our own, or our own was at that time. The phrase that stuck with me was how will you live now your country is at war and the correspondent’s inability to respond. While he took the possibility of war seriously it had not occurred to him that it would change the way he lived. And in many was it has not, but our political discourse has changed, become weaponised or militarised. In his book Ways To Build a Roadblock from Nine Arches Press Josh Ekroy navigates the language of war, and the language used by those who find themselves, one way or another, at war, in short, the language required to build a roadblock.

I have known Josh Ekroy’s poetry for over ten years, at its heart is a trust in metaphor and the reader, an interest in juxtaposition and rhetoric, and a strong sense of justice. He is a very dry poet who gives the reader time to catch on to what he is up to, and expects them to place a poem in a larger context. Along the way there is some gleeful vengeance, cool images, an interest in found phrases, percussive language, empathy and an eye for the absurd.

The book is divided into three numbered sections. The first, from which the title poem is taken, deals directly with the politics and experience of our recent and continuing  wars. The second is more personal dealing with family and JE’s literary interests while keeping contact with the political including my personal favourite Kafka’s Recipe for Boiled Cabbage.  The third section returns to the political, reminding us that we have been here before, and putting our shared experience and the poet’s own response into context.

The opening poems of the first section sets the register for the collection.  In the poem Ways To Build a Roadblock JE engages with the formal language of instruction, but introduces a surprising detail in the middle of the poem. If what the poem’s certain voice says is true or not we cannot tell. It pulls a reader up short and makes them think, and brings the idea of having to build a roadblock home. It also includes the evocative phrase Passing the code word back and forth like a grenade.  The first poem of this first section From the golfcart shows JE’s interest in juxtaposition.  A description of the gruesome mating habits of the Empid fly and a gleeful account of the meeting of George Bush and Tony Blaire in 2003.  The two scenes set side by side without comment for the reader to make their own comparison.  The section ends with Pause a description of a soldier finding silence in the midst of the noise battle, the poem creating a real sense of silence and pause as it does so.

The second section moves into the more expected territory of contemporary poetry with Woodpecker recreating the strangeness of a boy being introduced to alcohol, though JE finds his own way into this subject matter with Goldfinches where the birds form a mysterious centre of family ritual and business; and in Gothic Aunt Revival a funny and nostalgic take on family.  It also includes the wonderful Kafka’s Recipe for Boiled Cabbage which has a truly absurd logic which is absurd and nevertheless still logical.  I find it a joy to read.  I can see what is coming and it is a further joy to read it as it comes. Lord Hutton Reports comes close, with the Peer giving his definitive account of the plight of Humpty Dumpty.

In the third section JE’s poetic interests really come to the surface.  The subject matter is mainly political bringing material from ancient Greece, the Raj, and Cavafy.  In Tourist Bus Halt an exotic tourist scene becomes a stage set, in the context of the book this poem seems to me to cast doubt on the possibility of ever understanding another culture, and on our motives for doing so.  The poem Medical Advances describes some new medical knowledge that has been gained as a result of using torture, and brings to mind the spurious science of the concentration camps without ever saying so. This section includes Some Useful Phrases another of my favourites, the poem is a short collage made up from phrases taken from a Short Walk In the Hindu Kush, each phrase suggesting the following phrase, resulting in a map of the consciousness of a westerner in Afghanistan.  The section ends with Leader in which JE occupies his enemy’s language, writing an invective against peace, peace being a room in which it is safe to eat muffins.

In many of his poems JE builds tottering monuments.  His intention is defiantly satirical, delivered in regular stanzas or controlled verse paragraphs.  There is a strong interest in the thump, lope and rumble of language; luminous images as in SAMS a dusty river bed grins back;  juxtaposition not only with metaphor and images but of language where uncomfortable words like excremental, toxin,  and penis are used.

I think this collection is a unique and surprising cocktail, where even the acknowledgements gave me a surprise.  There is only one true epigraph in collection, but from the acknowledgements we learn that many of the poems include found elements.  The only surprise perhaps being that we think anything has changed at all.




Ellie Evans: The Ivy Hides the Fig-Ripe Duchess

I recently wrote a blog about the collection published for the late Linda Lamus, which made me think to go back and look at Ellie Evan’s first and only collection.  A more complete work published a year or two before its author’s death.  The work is now set in time, like many first collections praised fro its promise, it still has much of value when detected from its author’s possible future.

My first contact with Ellie Evan was by telephone. We were both going to a course at the welsh writers’ centre in Ty Newydd and Ellie wanted to know if I could give her a lift, she recently having had an operation and being unable to drive. I remember the unassuming manner of asking, and her bright open character that was apparent even in a short telephone conversation. Ellie was a person of considerable experience and accomplishment who came to writing poetry late in life, her writing life probably lasted no more than ten years, cut short by her death in 2012 at the age of seventy. Late to writing but not late to literature, she gained a degree in English Literature from Oxford in the sixties, and taught English for many years.

I only know Ellie through her poetry, through courses at Ty Newydd and at the Poetry School in Bath. I Remember the clarity and craft of the work she presented.  I was sometimes inclined to think of her as the school teacher setting a good example by doing her homework, which is not fair at any level at all.  Craft is certainly part of her work, especially her control of metre, subtle use of rhyme and well chosen poetic forms.  Above all of this there is joy in her work, the backbone of The Ivy Hides the Fig Ripe Duchess are quick moving fantasies, poems like Cuttlefish and Candelabra and Artist of the Morning Dew found towards the middle of the collection.

If I were to stereotype EE as a poet, which is obviously to say more about me than is about EE, I do find the poems that I might have expected to find: treatment of exotic places, of family history, and art history; all of which is done well, with the control and craft I have already mentioned, I found Edna a tribute to one of her aunts particularly touching, but there is more.  The collection’s opening poem Skin gives the clue, it is a fantasy about being uncomfortable, and even losing one’s skin.

There is something edgy, hard and critical in the best of EE’s poetry. She gives us the end of the world and the truths behind apparent domestic certainties.  The collection’s title poem uses hard flat language to create an image of the apocalypse, that speculates how poorly our current values would stand up to such a test.  EE uses her classical poetic skills partly by holding them back to allow crystal images to come through. The image of corpses nails curling into the earth like sickles is particularly memorable.

The end of days is not always on EE’s mind, the poem Lilac creates a similar feel, though this time in a cold war context. Domesticity and containment are the most commonly reoccurring themes.  These are first encountered in Crazy House at the Fairground and IKEA Room Set.  In the first a hall of mirrors is the setting for a domestic bliss and comfort, where everything is changeable but walls and ceilings seem so straight.  The second is one of several poems that imagine the domestic scene as a film set with obvious artifice and undeniable truth.

EE was a great admirer of Pascale Petit, and the influence is clearly present in this collection.  The poem Weaver Bird is credited as being after Pascale Petit and it shares that poets technique of brining a metaphor to life, so it is a once a thing in its self and a cypher.  In this case the Weaver Bird builds a nest that is also a prison to punish someone who has lied about writing some love letters.  Though this technique is used elsewhere in the poems Ant in Vaseline and Batbridge.

Ant in Vaseline along with Kalypso are probably my favourite poems in the collection.  The first shares something of the metaphorical approach of Weaver Bird, though this time it is a family environment and the environment is stranger, a family who’s father is a natural scientist the other family members his insect specimens.  Kalypso is a beautifully phrased villanelle, in which Homer’s character laments the loss of Odysseus, the use of landscape as a focus for her morning is particularly touching.  There is something in the richness of her longing, which makes me think she might have overcome her loss, even if she does nor realise it yet.   

What Ellie might have done with another decade, we will never know.  What is here is a book of well crafted poems on a wide range of interesting topics, set in fascinating locations, much captivating energy, and a vein of disturbing surrealism delivered in a clear light..

The Ivy Hides the Fig-Ripe Duchess is still available from Seren Books, and you can see Ellie read it on YouTube.  A full obituary is also available from The Guardian, if you go here you will find Ellie wrote under light cover, her real name was Anne Evans.


Books for the Dead

Do the verses that poets write truly live after them, or do they start to fade with the poet’s last breath, persisting only as memories, echoes, or marks on paper. Once the author, the poem’s final arbiter, has gone do they exist like the text of Gilgamesh waiting for future translators to decode them, give them a proxy afterlife.  Reading the recently published collection A Crater the Size of Calcutta by Linda Lamus and The Ivy Hides the Fig-Ripe Duchess the 2011 collection by Ellie Evans who died in 2012, made me consider if there a fundamental difference between a poem written by a living poet and one written by a poet who has since died.

Single poems can probably survive more easily than bodies of work. That is to say the poems life and afterlife are similar.  A poet’s one or two best poems, anthology pieces possibly, or poems that fit their time or fashion well. The body of work raises more questions, possible contradictions, which there is no one left to answer. This points to where a poem’s meaning resides, the poet has one view, the reader or listener another, a translator a third, an editor a fourth, and so on. These meanings overlap, diverge, and any of those involved can choose to change their mind at any time. Except, of course, the dead.

Reputations come and go.  The going, usually by neglect, goes gradually and unannounced.  The coming, by definition, a more public event. Two poets that have recently come back are Lynette Roberts and Rosemary Tonks. Both had substantial reputations for part of their lifetimes, and faded at least in part because they moved away from poetry.  In their cases their deaths cleared access to major work that the poets themselves had made difficult in one way or another. In the case of Linda Lamus and Ellie Evans death was an obstacle, both writers had the conventional desire that their work should be known, but could not be there to see it through.

In the case of Lynette Roberts and Rosemary Tonks their poetry has gone through, or is going through, the purgatory that select few writers’ work endures, on the way to come out as literature.  There are many established literary pigeonholes for them to be popped into.  In the case of more recently dead writers their literary timeline is still uncharted.  What a reader is left with is ordinary grief, either because the reader knew them or has come to join those who know them trough their work. It is the kind of grief made up of one sided conversations and of an awareness of what might have been.

So I feel there is a difference between reading the word of a living writer, an established writer dead for a generation, and one who has recently died.  If a reader chooses to immerse themselves in such work they will find a challenging solitude, like sitting at the end of a play waiting for someone to applaud.

They Shall Take Up Serpents Smiling

Probably the most notable fact about Linda Lamus’s collection A Crater the Size of Calcutta is that it has made it to publication at all.  The poet Linda Lamus died in 2008 leaving a folder of drafts and the expressed wish that these should be published as a collection. It is a great credit to Carrie Etter, the book’s editor, and Mulfran Press, the book’s publisher, not only that they have fulfilled LL’s wish, but also made this interesting collection available.  Which to say the very least contains a more than a few compelling poems.  (The title of my blog refers to a photograph on the back of the book, showing the author holding snakes and smiling.  The image is not as far as I can tell available on-line.)

At its best LL’s poetry works at the border of fable and reality, in the quick world seen from the corner of the eye rather than weighty myth. The title poem is truly the best poem in the collection, creating a fantastic world that is tangible and linked to reality. There is longing and tension in the poem, that is beautifully hinged on a couple of evocative phrases: a crater the size of Calcutta and Black as Newgate’s Knocker.

Most of the poems are sketches of one sort or another, either of characters or places, in particular Asia and Eastern Europe. In these poems LL manages to inject some of the energy and mystery of fables into the everyday. In Tafan and Line-Painting Man humble characters are transformed by the distances and mysteries of their lives. Probably only in Madame Emilia and the Crocodile does LL move into the purely fantastical. It is a poem written in response to a linocut by Chris Pig, reproduced in the collection. Here the writing is compelling with a light erotic touch.

Many of the poems mix mystery and narrative tension to hold a reader, The Consul’s Dog and The Ice Pond are particular favourites of mine. There is a well realised villanelle Circus Days which is more reflective in tone than most of its kind. Walking to the College of Criminal Justice stands out for its energy and love of life. Towards the end of the book are the poems wrote in response to her final illness. These poems are simpler and more direct than the rest of the collection. LL manages to find some of the same characters on the ward that she has found in other places, and provides a disturbing account of some of the careless treatment she received. In the last four poems Bloodsuckers, My Shadow Is Full of Roses, Morphine Queen, and Pacakage I think I can feel the poet bringing her sensibility to her new situation. Pacakage the final poem is mysterious, compelling and touching, and can stand up against any of the other poems in the collection.

Stephen Payne: Pattern beyond Chance

I have known Stephen Payne’s poetry for some years, and come to admire its craft, reflection and generosity.  To encounter a poet’s work from readings, workshops, magazines and even a pamphlet is different from meeting it in a full collection. (SP has already published a pamphlet The Possibilities of Balance with Smiths Knoll.)

With a full collection the poet has a chance to create their own poetic world where each poem can support and inform the other, not have to stand directly alongside the other poetries.  It also simply has more space, I feel the poetic volume of a work increases exponentially with the works length, so a full collection shouts eight times louder than a pamphlet.

SP’s poetic world is in turn interested, keen to interest others, playful, well informed, and tender.  It is direct and personal with all of the poems in the collection coming from the poet’s life or work.  It is essential poetry, no persona poems or historical sequences here.  No struggling for the killer image or hunting through the Thesaurus either.  The writing is clear, metrical tending to free verse, sometimes employing syllabics and rhyme.

The star poem of the collection is Making a Living, it is quoted on the back cover with its great opening stanza.  Which contains the most striking anecdote from SP’s academic background, and also establishes the poet’s sensibility.  I will not give the story away, but there is a point where a young man is standing still, mounted on a bicycle in the middle of a velodrome while the crowd cheer a cycle race.  The crowd oblivious to the young man’s achievement.  In so many of the poems the poet observes but is always there doing his own thing too.  In Maths Teacher he approaches the conclusion to a mathematical proof with his teacher.  In Scientific Method he watches his daughter’s intellectual development, but guides her at the same time.  SP floats within his poems, giving them a level as he does so.

My personal favourite poems are In the Floating Temple and Feature. In the first poem SP pulls off something quite remarkable in using one reality to inform another completely different reality, while keeping both realities in focus.  It is an exercise in extended metaphor which translates the relationship between master and student in an oriental temple into a recognisable western reality, but in doing so brings the beauty of the temple setting with it.  Feature has a similar element where a woman overtakes herself, though I value this poem for its implied expression.  The poem creates a mood with a few details, a slight sadness which it transforms.

SP is clearly interested in rhyme.  I happen to know that at least some of his un-rhymed poems have rhymed in draft.  He uses rhyme effectively and with good judgment.  This can be seen in particular in the poems Imp of the Perverse and Infract that follow each other in the collection.  In the first the rhyme binds the poem together to make the experience of a passing train one whole.  In the second the rhyme halts the poem to encourage thought from a reader, and also to support the subject of the poem.

SP is also a good story teller in Guessing Game and The Kinds of Strangers, and one or two of the poems already mentioned, a reader is quickly thrown up in the air, left feeling a little uncomfortable, unsure what the relationships in the poem are, before the jeopardy is skilfully resolved.  In almost all the poems there is a smooth natural delivery, that holds a reader’s interest.

The collection does develop and for me the best poems are at the end.  In particular To: Linda, a tender eulogy for the poet Linda Chase, which is perfectly judged and encapsulates so many of the collections virtues. And in After the Tram Crash, which seems to allow the mystery of life to speak for its self.  I feel the final poem Pier might reflect the direction the poet wishes to go, ably combining the formal and discursive elements of the collection.

The collection is divided into four sections, though the poems are not on a theme, it gives a reader an extra context to read the poems, particularly rewarding on a second read. The title is a reference to scientific method, but after reading the collection I am inclined to think it applies to the poet’s view of the world as shown through his poetry.