Reviewed by CJ Underwood
December 3, 2009
In the world of contemporary British poetry it is widely believed that the sky is falling. If that is indeed the case, then this new series from Faber goes a long way to prop it up. Is that because the poets featured are any different to many other young poets writing at the moment? The short answer is no. In fact, compared to some, the writers selected are positively ordinary. But such glibness aside, Faber have produced a fine and well-rounded series that debuts four promising individuals who with any luck will one day take their places as established poets.
The pamphlets are graced with typical Faber subtlety of design and presentation which does excellent service to the egalitarian nature of the series. Two males and two females are given fair hearing with between fifteen and seventeen poems each. They are couched inside covers of delightfully effervescent colours that pulse with a vitality which practically forces you to hurriedly open the books to devour the contents within. Contents which prove to be no less worthwhile than their expertly crafted containers suggest.
The works of Fiona Benson inhabit a world where thought and feeling almost congeal around her subjects. Words become soporific clouds that create a very human halo which simultaneously, if contradictorily, obscures and reveals. Her focus on light and distance are key factors in creating this impression. Whether it is the vast, mechanised urban gloom of ‘Emmaus’ or the fleshy brilliance of ‘Poem for James’ the reader cannot help but see, and through seeing come to empathetically experience. This is expressed most potently in ‘Landscape with Harm’ where a rural void is compressed to an animalistic singularity of human action;
tunnelling us through to this: a derelict barn,
and both of us biting down, latching on,
for a once-off fuck in the dark.
Such concrete affirmation of our existence is ingeniously counterpointed by Toby Martinez de las Rivas. His poems have a decidedly more abstract perspective where everything is either not or is exactly what it seems. When reading his work you are never entirely certain of where you are, but you know you are somewhere. For example in ‘We are the Borg’ the cyborg villains or Star Trek fame, for all their relentless destructive will, are prefigured as our potential grim saviours. But regardless of such absurdist pop-culture references and jocular stabs at academic dialect poets as in ‘Free Dialect Poem with Every Collection,’ there is an unequivocally mundane undercurrent to his verse, one that adds to rather than detracts from the impact of the work. The penultimate line of ‘Poem, Three Weeks After Conception’ makes this all too apparent, as the child yet to be will
live to see supermarkets dictating military policy to
Like many of us, Martinez de las Rivas is a poet with a bone to pick and fortunately Faber were willing to give him a chance.
Heather Phillipson’s work on the other hand is much like a piece of well-cooked fish, except here it is the bones that you are after rather than the flesh which given her style becomes too oily and rich. With poems entitled ‘German Phenomenology Makes Me Want to Strip and Run through North London’ and ‘Relational Epistemology’ her pamphlet brings to the foreground her obvious intelligence. Her Fine Art Practice PhD has clearly served her well but for all the clever polish inherent in her poems they can at times be too glossy, prissy even as they attempt to inject themselves with true grit. That is not to imply however that her work is not good. Far from it, at times it is even too good. ‘James Grieve’ is an absolutely stand-out poem where the simple act of eating an apple becomes a tempest of barely suppressed, rapturous sexual energy;
Vivid as the crimson curtains, I sing
canticles from the second storey as if all flesh depends
on the sinking of teeth through air: premise of our rapport.
It is in love poetry that is not entirely love poetry that Phillipson excels. Her allusions and deceits are made all the more exquisite for their innocuous appearance and tenuous connections to grand romantic traditions. The poems are highlighted by wonderful little moments which like orgasms are over too soon, but when placed within a wider context are necessarily brief.
Brevity is never more admirable than when used as a poetic tool. A tool whose use Jack Underwood, the last of the poets in this series, is well on his way to mastering. It is rare to find a young, male poet capable of such concise and coherent thought even if rather stereotypically the dominant subject in hand is sex and/or the lack thereof. This preoccupation, intentional or otherwise, is demonstrative of an understanding of fundamentally basic human motives but it also lends his poems a profound sense of disconnection and loss, feelings akin to post-coital afterglow. Animal desires and philosophy are lashed together in poems such as ‘Theology’
where he had waited for thirty minutes,
staring up at a dark hut hidden in trees.
Suppose there was no panther.
And ‘Your horse’ where unexpected loneliness is the order of the day;
There are more of me, than of him.
We are crunching on polo mints together
and remembering the way your body used to move.
His pamphlet is perhaps the finest of the four as he has harnessed the raw-nerve-trampling uncertain nature of young manhood and used it to show us that art and life reflect each other in an often grimy mirror.
The writers featured in this series are the first group to benefit from what Faber hopes will be an ongoing and productive project which will nurture poets until they can produce standalone collections. Doubtlessly, they are sitting with hands in finger-pyramids eagerly anticipating the day their plans come to fruition. I for one cannot wait either.