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Steve Spence

"Rages of the Carbolic" by Clive Gresswell, pub. Knives Forks and Spoons. 64pp. £9.00

Clive Gresswell’s second collection from KFS is sectioned into four parts. In terms of visual layout and semantic presentation these poems/texts are more homogeneous than his first collection. There are no capital letters outside of the occasional titles (these poems are mainly numbered or unnumbered within their section headings) and the ampersand rules the roost. Again, as with the first collection each poem works on a line-by-line basis, with some enjambment, occasionally aided by the use of a repeated ampersand at the start of the line.  These poems work both sonically/texturally and in terms of phrases and snippets which have meaning in relation to their neighbourly lines but it’s a meaning which the reader has to tease away at and no ‘interpretation’ is going to entirely agree with another’s version. There is a strong political discourse or series of hintings underlying the whole project and while there is a lot of anger here the individual pieces are playful and full of poetic information, by which I mean a rich panoply of technique is employed. If this is modern surrealism it takes you off-guard and forces the reader to immerse him (or her) self in the poetry before taking on board what might be a wider social significance. As with much work in a more experimental mode I like to zip through the poems quite rapidly at first then engage at a slower rate on a re-read. The lack of caps at the beginning of the lines/sentences both enhances and ‘frustrates’ this intention but the clashing and/or meshing of convergent lines is all part of the process, both of reading and of writing, I suspect. From Part 1: The (Bracket) Poems we get the following:

          horn-billed by the throat
          encircling slaved cities where (mind)
          & madmen muddle by on mandolins (trapped)
          walled gardens (secret promises)
          we delight in the breath of rancid gut soldiers
          whose (maps) of war resplendent with orchids
          blood red drips capture alsatian times
          still (the trains run on time) goblets of steel
          hallmarks of last winter’s lithe victory
          & where the (parable) entered through castle walls
          a chink in (remoteness)
          factory girl’s faces blushed with blood
          (rushed) to touch his coat
          as he fell before the wall

You can clearly see the influence of writers such as Tom Raworth and Sean Bonney here, both in terms of form and content. Each line could be used as a starting point for a more conventional narrative but the images can be yoked together (as they are, possibly at least in some cases from pre-existing material) to create an hermetic whole which is filled with fragmentary remnants and resonances. The suggestion of fascism, for example, in ‘still (the trains run on time)’ with its clichéd
certainty and the more ‘off the wall’ alliteration of  ‘& madmen muddle by on violins (trapped)’, followed by the ‘walled gardens’ with their ‘(secret promises)’, where there is a degree of consistency in the claustrophobic imagery. If you felt so inclined you could spend some time analysing individual poems in terms of the allusions, contested imagery, strange juxtapositions and ‘overall feel’. The line ‘whose (maps) of war resplendent with orchids’ is particularly interesting as it connects with poem A. in the final section ( Part 4 End Poems) where the final lines, also referencing ‘map’ are arguably more direct and more politically charged:

          & we had to guess which insect
          & later which mammal
          & when we said human
          there was just the laughter
          it was just your joke you said
          & got out the maps & said i name these countries
          & later we named the shapes of natural disasters
          & you said my god we killed them all!

You could build or record a whole history of colonialism around those few lines in fact!

I love the ‘multi-dimensionality’ of these poems, the way in which the reader can have a visceral response to writing which also has a cerebral element. These are poems which are ‘about’ language, often foregrounded in fact, as in ‘a lockjaw on your language / a hinge of noun verbs linger / & trail away thru glib filters’, for example (from 16, Part 2 The Other Exploded), which explodes beautifully on your tongue, combining a lyric presence with an exploratory, nascent, almost ‘incoherent’ delving into the depths of the psyche and the mysterious presence of words. Gresswell seems able to juxtapose the abstract with something approaching representation without in any way appearing arch or mannered. His wordplay has a hint of Lear about it – ‘there signed the jewel in bigotry / the room of elephant piquancy’, for example (16, Part 2) or ‘a rusted nail reaches out resplendent’, also from Part 2, no 8 – where each line can be relished for its individual contribution while also being immersed in the ongoing onrush of critique and celebration. This is ‘driven writing’, hard won and in a sense tortured but it’s so stimulating in its various ways and quite rare I think at this level of success. From ‘D. Tears Trace Down’ (Part 4) we get this wonderful couplet: ‘& the hollow mouth melting / into ego’s i shadows’, a terrific and witty encapsulation. Also from Part 4 we have the following:


          an exciting series of runs / at the oval
          in human waves against / the iraqi lines

          the thin white line blinks on the screen

          he opened his mouth
          but there was no

          a white picket fence against
          your white picket face fenced

          outside it is raining
          beetles on the lawn
          if you want to know how the girl will turn out

                              on your tongue the tantalizing taste
                              is something sweet & sour
                              how you remember bedtime stories

          wrapped in your blanket
          field of dreams
          behind the whites of your eyes
          symbiotic fluid leaks

          & all the kings horses & all the kings men
          marching an army of dreams on its belly
          into the umbilical

The first three lines incorporate a shift from sport to war and the possible recording of events on a computer (though it may be a television screen) followed by an almost clichéd response to some terrible event (no words will come). Then we have the wordplay around ‘picket’ and ‘fence’ and the repetition of ‘white’ in a different context. This is followed by a possible surreal image (raining beetles) which could also be simply descriptive as the lack of punctuation leaves an obvious ambiguity of meaning here, followed by a future projection – ‘if you want to know …’, which again feels like a line taken from elsewhere, a pulp fiction story perhaps or a ‘popular psychology’ textbook (who knows?). Then there is the reference to bedtime stories and that ‘tantalizing taste’ (a Proustian moment perhaps?). There are references to dreams and again in a different context, white, (‘the whites of their eyes’), another cliché, with military resonance which leads us to the children’s song ‘all the kings horses…..’ which combines both the world of the soldier and of childhood. While this is a fractured text, the connections and resonances are there to be thought about, enjoyed perhaps, in terms of recognition, but also to act as a goad or an irritant, in the best possible sense of the word.

Clive Gresswell’s poetry is both political and playful, not dogmatic in the sense of telling you what to think but using the methods and skills of a journalist and poet to provoke and prod as well as clearly having a lyrical and aesthetic aspect. His emerging work is in the company of Sean Bonney, Robert Sheppard, the late Barry MacSweeeny and possibly also Luke Roberts, a poet and critic whose work I’ve recently come across. It’s well worth getting hold of I’d say. The cover art, again by Sophie Gresswell has the impressive aspect of an oil painting but may well be computer generated, I’m unsure. It’s a powerful image, a portrait which looks like it might be Paul Cezanne but probably isn’t!



Copyright © Steve Spence, 2019