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Steve Spence

"Article 50" by  Kelvin Corcoran   pub. Longbarrow Press   (28 pages)

I haven’t come across much poetry relating to the whole issue of ‘Brexit’, though no doubt there are plenty of on-line submissions that I’m missing. The New European publishes a regular weekly poem and while I’ve usually been in agreement with the sentiments expressed the poetry hasn’t been that interesting with the exception of a piece by Carrie Etter a while ago. Good then to see this pamphlet edition, also reviewed in The New European, from the pen of one of our finest poets, seeing the light of day, published by the little-known but excellent Longbarrow Press.

Corcoran’s great strength, in my view, is an ability to incorporate critical thinking within the overall framework of superb lyric poetry. Perhaps this makes him the ultimate ‘postmodernist’ – I don’t really care to be honest –
but his ability to run these aspects together, successfully, is unusual and works a treat in this short collection of poems which combines a sort of lament for England (‘Eng-a-land has played itself out’) with a caustic reasoning which is less satire than controlled anger and emotional contemplation.

Thus we get from the opening poem ‘Rue des Hibout’ the following:

          To write a mythology

                         commensurate to an ignorant island

                         is not difficult.

          They were of that class of traitor

          self-serving, unimaginative.


          Their only skill

                       to make the poor vote for poverty

                       the preterite for abandonment.

          Oh bury me quietly

                       in Hardy’s field.

Here he is thinking about England from abroad (France) and establishes his ‘credentials’ as a European who is also an Englishman (with Irish roots) and locates himself as a human being contemplating the notion of belonging and ‘nationhood’ in a much wider context which presumably implies the more positive idea of ‘a citizen of the world’, a ‘nowhere’ as opposed to a ‘somewhere’ perhaps. His later reference to Greece, a recurring motif and reality in Corcoran’s work, further makes the case for a wider geographic remit and sense of belonging/unbelonging.
Later in the same poem he plays with the notion of images seen in clouds – ‘What in the shape of a cloud?’, which mutates from an undermining of the notion of ‘mystical visions’ as used in place of thought and analysis to a positive lyric setting out of an alternative ‘worldview’ which is equally set off by a contemplation of the sky (and the clouds in it). It’s beautifully done, this linking of the lyric and the analytical and makes clear the way in which the love of land and landscape can be utilised by ‘fake patriots’ to induce hatred of ‘the other’ and a malign form of insularity. Corcoran achieves this while retaining a lyrical strain which, if anything, is improved by the inclusion of an undermining, or mildly comic aspect fuelled by scientific knowledge which adds to rather than diminishes our appreciation.


          Doubtful, we’ve moved on from that,

          Since meteorology usurped portents.

          It disintegrates anyway, thin as air

          snagged on a fault mid-Atlantic.


          I like the high ones up there,

          silver white capsules full of people

          sun under their wings gliding the trade routes

          rising to the world, the many.


He further extends this imagery into the final stanzas of the first poem in a manner which is both playful and critical while keeping the lyrical tone afloat. This is brilliant poetry which I can’t get enough of:

          Yes – the high ones up there zip like silver bullets,

          there’s a silver bullet and there are flightpaths above us,

          they form and evaporate as we pass, there’s a silver bullet,

          the ones I like over the cities of Europe light the sky.


I love the multiple use of the term ‘silver bullets’ here, the simile of the aeroplane as ‘silver bullet’, the notion of the ‘silver bullet’, aka ‘magic bullet’ as panacea for all ills and the implied perception that ‘Brexit ain’t no silver bullet’, with the final image of ‘lighting the sky’ suggesting clear thinking and the opposite of obfuscation, something available to us all. The complexity of this poetry, it’s hinting at Empire and colonialism, globalisation and history with its mixed qualities is so lightly handled and so explanatory in its aim.

There are three further poems lambasting the key Brexiteers, Iain Duncan Smith, Boris Johnson and Gove, beautifully constructed acerbic squibs which combine a restrained anger with comic resonance (Milton, for sure with ‘the lake of fire’) and succinct aim:

          I will, said the Gove, trust me,

          said Michael of the shifty border

          with betrayal in his shrivelled heart,

          the Gove across the water.


In ‘Radio Logos’ there appears to be a hinting towards the relation between social media – ‘you must trust the people, their erudition / from unlikely sources’ – and the outcome of the referendum, which may also suggest an ambiguity yet the closing stanzas of section 4 are a clear mix of sadness via lament and coldly stated anger:

          At the close they dive in to a sclerotic sea,

          buried under a regular sunset, hardly making a splash,

          taking the living with them: thanatocracy.

          Your country has played itself out,

          no those feet did not – freedom, Odyssey, Rambler;

          this is the anti-Jerusalem.

The frontispiece and recurring line from Braudel – ‘there is no history that does not relate to the present’ – relates both to Corcoran’s continuing relationship to the question of Greece then and now (a subject which still has resonance for a lyrical poet, even one where a fierce intelligence is also part of the mix) and his stance towards the whole question of Brexit, not itself unrelated to the current plight of Greece, one has to add. I’m also taken aback (yet again) by the way he manages to combine a lyrical voice with a much more focussed assault which is encapsulated by the careful and precise use of language, an upending of ‘the pastoral’ and a mixing of register which still manages to surprise and is reminiscent of the poetry of Lee Harwood, a writer much lamented in this short collection:

          As surprising as the small pool of cool water

          found high in the mountains, that bright ellipse

          keeping a cold eye on the arching blue.


 ‘A Footnote to the Above’ includes reminiscence of and tributes to the poets Lee Harwood, Tom Raworth, Cark Rakosi, Gael Turnbull, W.S. Graham and Roy Fisher. Robert Sheppard also finds a warm welcome here before we return to the subject at hand with the final poem ‘The Sinking Colony Revisited in the Days of Lee Harwood’ where we get the following:

          Your soft linen like a wing swept the veranda

          analogous to the mystery of the rain-washed view,

          another season of calculations, of glad-handing

          the nabobs and salesmen, their butterfly wives.


Corcoran is ‘thinking aloud’ here, about Greece, of his late friend Lee Harwood and of the awful mess that we are now in since the referendum, pondering how the issues surrounding the events unfolding were probably there for us to see if only we weren’t ‘inside it / encompassed and blind, duty-bound, modern.’ He pays tribute to Harwood’s quiet thoughts in relation to these matters – ‘he was so unassuming, gentle in his detachments,’ and the mood continues in sadly elegiac tone, interrupted by more angry denouncements and fears for ‘where we are heading’. The final stanza has a calmer feel, no melodrama or angst with an understated last line –
‘poet scales the final mountain, everyone’s there, it’s okay.’


Copyright © Steve Spence, 2018