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Steve Spence

"Broken Sleep Anthology 2018" Edited by: Aaron Kent and Charlie Baylis. 114pp. £7.00

This new anthology from the intriguing Broken Sleep imprint includes five poems each from thirteen poets, (and in one case five photographs) previously published in individual collections. In this sense it’s a kind of sales pitch (an interesting concept within poetry publishing!) plus an overview of work published during the year. Established names jostle with newcomers here (I recognised around half a dozen names) and while the quality and diversity is pretty mixed the overall feel of the book is one of sophistication, high-end material produced I suspect mainly by poets working within an academic framework. This isn’t a criticism, merely a passing comment and in any case I’m sure there are at least one or two exceptions to this ‘rule’.

The names I am certain of are Sarah Law, Maria Stadnicka, Rupert Loydell, Sheila Murphy (Sheila E. Murphy, I think) and Sarah Cave. Sarah Law’s poetry mixes a fairly traditional stanzaic layout with a hinting towards the spiritual and a conversational tone which suggests an ongoing debate between father and child: ‘Latin vocabulary; capital cities; paper Mobius strips. / I didn’t much care for the politics of the place / so I gave you Arguments for Socialism / just as you turned thirteen’ (from ‘Education’). Rupert Loydell’s poems here have a diary feel (underwritten by ‘New York Journal, 2018’) but in any case seem to be unmediated reflective pieces and not his more usual recent montage work though you can never be entirely certain of anything with Loydell as he’s such an expert at producing seamless patchworks: ‘I’ve / always been someone who is ready for change: it’s the / easiest way to get what you want without having to go / without. ….’ . Laid back and apparently an internal monologue but whose voice are we hearing? Maria Stadnicka’s pieces from The Unmoving are exceptionally accomplished, puzzling, rich, linguistically aware yet full of dark emotional stuff: ‘A chill sliced through the city / awoken stone rolled over the main road / as if that slippery thought / / crossed my wrist’. Sarah Cave’s poetry mixes theological underpinnings with an experimental brio and a political angle yet her poems are always filled with such energy and light. She’s an emerging talent and is rapidly becoming prolific:

          The Lighthouse

          Fluorescence skims water,
                                        the shoreline
          puckers with ice.
                    Konstantin, a thick band of wool
                    pulled tight to his skin, watches
                     obscure
                         silhouettes on the horizon. He
                              strains
                       his mind, seeking
          middle ground, middle meaning, middle –
                         middle.

Sheila Murphy’s prose poems have a meditative quietness to them and are beautifully constructed internal monologues which share minimal description with the reader to enhance mood and encapsulate the moment. I almost said ‘therapeutic’ but that that sounds a bit naff and these succinct pieces are anything but that:

     Then

     Pale lake light showing the round moon. Breath in quiet.
     Time to fill the page, reform the blankness. Concentration
     forms a silhouette of inference. Full face at one time loved.
     against a sotto dark. Was a story ever there, then white
     space? Calm formation, lapse, unpainted wood. A quill to
     capture what it was.

     Intention, chance notations, white bark

A poem about the writing of a poem, perhaps, or the painting of a picture, or being blocked in the process but not in an anxious or worrying way. Cumulatively, these five poems combine a playful questioning of the here and now with an accompanying calmness about being ‘in the present’ without in any way appearing arty or mannered. Great stuff.

Aaron Kent’s poems are also based around the writing process and are copied typed texts with handwritten amendments which describe the various experiments through to the ‘finished piece’. They are actually quite small and difficult to read (with my failing eyesight in any case) and are the literary equivalent to showing ‘the working out’ in a maths examination. Interesting but not something I felt the need to tarry over for too long.

Emma Spruce’s five photographs (from 5 photos from Natural Curiosity) are interesting pieces, each b & w picture framed centrally on the page having something of interest: a formation of birds in a lightly clouded sky; a sheep outlined against a featureless landscape, centre-picture and composed pretty much according to the golden section (so hinting at painting); two sections of large trees, shot from below and cropped so the patterning and dark/light contrast and textural qualities are highlighted, plus what looks like a small van or similar vehicle in the distance. Nebulous and misty with a foreground that could either be broken ice or a heavily potholed surface. These pieces all have a lyrical aspect and certainly draw the viewer into the frame.

Chris Kerr’s poems from Citydyll combine popular culture with an element of display and a ‘cocky irreverence’ which verges on the dangerously throwaway at times: ‘Totally apolitical. To celebrate / Isis cracks a tray of ice spheres. / A roll of the ice and your head / disappears.’ There’s a jaunty rhythmic quality to much of this work which feels intriguingly at odds with the subject matter. An interesting read though and filled with irrepressible wordplay. I get the feeling that Serena Mayer has been reading Tom Raworth but I’m not quite sure why I’m saying this. It’s partly to do with the apparent disconnections and abbreviated phrasing and the suggestion of a political commentary which exists but you have to fill in the gaps, a pleasurable enough process when there’s enough information to work with. There’s an aesthetic edge to these poems which is partly down to the layouts but also relates I think to the pithiness of the phrasing and the ‘blurred imagery’. I liked them a lot but I’m still not sure how good they are and I remain intrigued by this feeling.

Alice Kinsella mixes the internal with the external in these very personal, meditative pieces which also combine traditional lyrical tropes with something more jaunty and outgoing: ‘The shivering shadow of my feet as I swung higher / than I had ever done when parents were watching.’ (from Mea Culpa). She also has a knack for arresting conclusions – ‘’I pluck it out, paint my lips labia red.’ (from On finding my first grey hair at 24). I don’t know her work well enough to know whether this is a regular occurrence but can’t help feeling it would lose its impact if so. Sally Burnette uses the persona of the Barbie Doll to produce poems which are punchy, slightly visceral and very concerned with gender issues. It's difficult to be sure of the poet's age but if as young as I suspect then these poems are pretty effective and suggest greater future accomplishments.

Nisha Bhakoo’s poems have a dreamy, lyrical quality and are also confessional pieces in an under-stated, mild-mannered way. There are no biographical details here so I’m guessing at a female writer but I could be wrong about this. These pieces have the feel of ‘worked-on’ diary entries, personalised, mood-music poems which describe a little and evoke a lot. I quite liked them but not sure of their long-term impact which isn’t necessarily a serious criticism. Finally, we have Brian Ng, seemingly an American writer (as several of these poets surely are), intellectual, probing and apparently conducting an ongoing argument with his father – a poet/scholar? – if the autobiographical suggestions are to be trusted. These poems are full of cultural and literary references (some of which I was unsure of) but this mix of high and low, reflected in the conversational tone and often throwaway endings has a long pedigree and although I’m not sure whether they add anything new to the brew they are well put together and effective as poems.

Which is how I felt about the entire collection given a brief period of reflection. The older writers, those whose work I know of to varying degrees seem more assured and confident but the younger voices coming through are in different ways ‘full of themselves’ which is I guess as it should be. I feel I’m being judgmental and I’m operating with limited information but I enjoyed reading these poems even if with two or three exceptions nothing here exactly took my breath away. How often does that happen these days though? There is so much new poetry emerging at a certain level of quality and the outstanding poets of the here and now have yet to be ‘canonised’, even if we could agree on a canon.

 

 
Copyright © Steve Spence, 2019