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Steve Spence

"Mock Trough Rasping Crow" by Billy Cancel. 104 pp. Pub. BlazeVOX Books. ISBN: 978-1-60964-293-8

 I first came across billy cancel (or Will Morris/Billy Asbo as he was then known) in Plymouth some years back as he was a regular at Language Club events for some time when he lived in the South West before he moved to New York. I was very impressed with his work ‘on the page’ and with his live performances which were something special. Whatever ‘it’ is he had and clearly still has it in abundance. I was slightly surprised then to discover that despite sending his work to magazines very little of it seemed to be getting into print. Things move on and we lost contact until quite recently when I discovered that he’s been publishing and performing on a regular basis and following a series of chapbooks his first full-length publication (108 pages) is now up-and-running. And what a collection it is!

Mock Trough Rasping Crow is a book in eight sections. Each poem is twenty lines long and each includes a title, emboldened and in italic, as either the opening line or a section of the opening line, eg:  ‘in the event of fire we will all hang out   same way   we tolerate’. The visual element of these individual pieces is important as they look splendid, perched on the page in their varying shapes and layouts. They remind me of what I experienced when I first looked at J.H. Prynne’s Collected Poems, for example, and are also reminiscent, visually, of the poetry of Christopher Brownsword, another fascinating, under-recognised poet. The cover artwork – also by cancel – is a beautiful mix of colour, shape and text, a collage which combines the aesthetic with the everyday, an aspect which I’m sure the late Tom Raworth would have appreciated, as he would have appreciated the poetry enclosed within the book’s covers. I mention this because I can recall seeing Will read at the Language Club on an occasion when Raworth was the main guest reader and Raworth in his down-to-earth and amiable way, being very impressed with Will’s material.

From the title onwards I was immediately struck by the delight in language expressed through these pages, which combine the absurd with the political with the throwaway casual in a mix of registers which explode and tang in your mouth while also having ‘something to say’ however fractured and skewed that ‘saying’ consequently proves. In fact the fractured nature of the texts – phrases and part-sentences combined  in an overall ‘pattern’, however contradictory and ‘at odds’ the pattern may be – is symptomatic of the reality we are all now living in! Even with the title I kept on wanting to say Mock Through Rasping Crow rather than Mock Trough Rasping Crow! Defamiliarisation is a key aspect of this poetry. The section ‘Thorn Cascade Split The Grog’ includes the following poem:

               thus idiocy renews its lease   plain bold
          legible hand    trend follows    signs
          off    with groovy red heart    cute yellow
          flower    against cracking washed out
          background    scratches glitches accumulate
          where once was compact energy swirl eye-
           popping assortment    guardian of
          forbidden sites don’t mean space critter
          future landing site    johnnies-come-latelies
          exclaiming hidden magnet           poem
                    the wasteful way you are usually    made    from cheap scraps 
          toothsome dainties    items that drop inside make a funny whirring
          sound        often congregate round     flowering
           trees depending         on the blah blah blah &
           assimilation thereof            banjaxed with colour music
                    blares from my chest      i wear wonder
          woman head band boots ‘n’ cape       on the
           street nice weather      springing through hazel
          bushes     outside of work i carry     skunk
          cabbage & water bottle

The italicising of  ‘from cheap scraps / toothsome dainties’ neatly suggests the montage method while also highlighting the aesthetic aspect of this poetry, made from the stuff  (readily available language)  all around us. cancel has become expert at running these fragments together, sometimes providing a narrative or part-narrative but always aware of the ‘sound aspect’ of the writing, the way information is received through our bodily senses and this reception is an important aspect of the ‘overall meaning’ of the work. Yet this is not ‘difficult poetry’ in the sense that if you go with the flow and allow yourself to enjoy and experience the work its ‘multiple meanings’ become apparent. I’m reminded at times of the work of Maggie O’Sullivan although her work perhaps carries a greater degree of ‘abstraction’ but also of the late John Ashbery, a poet I think billy has corresponded with and certainly been influenced by.

I was very pleased to be re-acquainted with this poet’s work and look forward to his further projects. I’d love to see him read live again at some point and I thoroughly recommend this collection to anyone interested in the potential delights of truly modern poetry.         





Copyright © Steve Spence, 2017