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Steve Spence

"Portland: A Triptych" by Tim Allen, Mark Goodwin and Norman Jope, pub. KFS. 27pp £11.00

The starting point for this intriguing collaboration was Tim Allen’s long poem ‘Pontoon’ which comprises the heart of the project and was originally written in the early 90’s with minor alterations made more recently. Tim grew up in Portland (a very unusual environment) and to some extent this is an autobiographical poem (not that you would necessarily notice) which ‘is both about a place and a blatant evasion of being about place’. Norman Jope’s contribution was put together in the late 1990’s (when he was living in Bristol) and is based on two visits to Portland together with psycho- geographical projections of other places, notably Malta, Gibraltar and Aden, linked to three historical characters – Brian Jones, Rimbaud and Coleridge. Jope utilises the idea of the Veasta, a mythical beast which may well be based on the oarfish, a creature which when it pokes its head out of the water can be mistaken for ‘a giant swimming chicken’ and is very much an image of the outsider, or scapegoat, in this context. The third collaborator, the ‘radical landscape’ poet Mark Goodwin (also a rock climber and interested in ‘the sculptural qualities’ of language) came on board somewhat later, basing his work on two visits to the island in tandem with a ‘reworking’ of the language of Allen and Jope. A final contribution to the project is by way of four wonderful black and white artworks (I’m not going to call them illustrations as I don’t think that’s how they operate in this context) by Susan Duxbury Hibbert: totemic, textural pieces which incorporate aspects of landscape and remind me of a mix of frottage and ancient cave drawings. As we’re talking about visual matters it’s also worth mentioning the high quality of Brian Lewis’s type-setting  which gives a very professional finish and somehow creates a surface cohesion between the different elements of the collection.

Tim Allen’s work is mainly fashioned from three line stanzas where the line becomes the key formal constraint though there are other short-line pieces within the overall framework which often play with breaking down individual words across lines, so we get, for example:

          ‘s an array
          of un   der
          ground   gall
          eries all daz

          zling white
          em         pty

Apart from emphasising the visual or graphic elements of the text this can prove disorienting initially and aids the notion of the artificiality of language and while this ‘deconstructive element’ has its serious side (as do Allen’s hidden autobiographical snippets) there is also a strong element of playfulness in his writing, an aspect which makes the experience of reading very pleasurable. I still relish the mix of zaniness and tightly constructed sentences which are key ingredients in his poetry:

          Crooks looking at abstract paintings in the Police Station.
          Policemen scratching their heads. Grace floods espresso.
          Wax grapes. Ex-chickens in concrete. Energy oasis.

          Damp entropy spoof. Brawl outside pub in Kentish Town.
          Glittering milk bone puts iron in Knitting Pattern Bay.
          Raggle Taggle hypostasis. Tidal choke.

          Tired stars slip below horizon. Not everything’s pearly.
          Not all of it’s so visibly titty plastic or foliage whisper.
          Mass coated chocolates. Literature swept in by floods.

                         (from ‘Pontoon 5’)

Tim Allen’s poetry often has a strange beauty to it, a mix of crispness, decisive alteration, absurdity and a saturation of ‘stuff’, a bringing together of materials to fashion a response to the world, language and image as both weapon and exploratory play. Sometimes you can see how one line leads to another and sometimes you can’t. It’s easy to become obsessed with this sort of material so it’s best taken in short doses. ‘Pontoon’ is just about doable in one go but you may find it better to pause occasionally.

Norman Jope is a different kind of poet. His mix of arresting lyricism, psychogeographical exploration and outsider status hints at the Romantics but also incorporates a more modern approach in terms of his relation to landscape. He uses both research and direct observation to fuel his wanderings and thoughts, fusing an at-times journalistic precision with a more ‘otherworldly’ aspect. The Veasta (Oarfish or Poet?) is seen as the outsider in ‘Portland Mix (Reprise)’ where:

          The virtuous have copyrighted fury.
          They mistrust the observer
          who is surely idler, nonce or spy,
          who distorts the silence they believe in,
          who appropriates their names and actions
          on the strength of a bus ride or a stroll -

          who is self-obsessed when harmless,
          drugged and crazed when dangerous,
          who obliterates what he describes,
          etherealises work and vaporises stone…

                         (from ‘Portland Mix (Reprise’)

There’s an underlying sense of melancholy to this writing, not without its humorous aspects for sure but clothed in a sense of isolation and apartness, a response to landscape and people which implies difference, an almost spiritual response to the cosmos which combines beauty with foreboding and almost terror, a modern version of the sublime, perhaps. In the closing stanza of ‘Portland Mix (Reprise)’ the overwhelming power of nature is brought down to earth in a less than transcendental moment when bathos is as present as mystery:

          Beneath a dark blue sky
          with indifferent stars, he bows
          before vanishing once again
          for five hundred years or a day.

Mark Goodwin describes himself as ‘very much a physical poet, : a treader and toucher’ and there’s certainly a sculptural quality to his writing here, interspersed (usually in blocks) between Allen’s ‘Pontoon’ poems. Typographically his pieces, which include repetitive concrete poetry and short stretches of brief observation, are often a mix of bold and halftone, disappearing as it were into the landscape, otherwise, as in the following extract, apparent italicised ‘comments’ on the main body: ‘Avalanche hat Gulp! / Daguerrotype of Intuition / subs B Elizabethan cork / misleading experience Knowledge /Magazine foetus Coalhouse’.

Whether or not you’re familiar with Portland as a place these interconnecting and clashing texts make a for a fascinating encounter, especially for the open-minded reader up for something a bit different and even a bit challenging. The mix of experimentation, psychogeography and visual stimulation should keep the pages turning. This is surely one of the most unusual and stimulating poetry publications of the year so far.



Copyright © Steve Spence, 2019