National Poetry Day 2020 Bumper Blog 3 - Mini Reviews
The four newest pamphlets from Offa’s Press are the latest in a long line of sumptuously-produced books, which promise to nestle snugly in your hand while you take in the beautiful covers and immerse yourself in the words within – and I should know! Given the current climate, the struggles of launching books without live readings (which also translate to sales) are becoming painfully clear to independent presses. Whether you’re treating yourself for National Poetry Day, or planning ahead for Christmas, For my final National Poetry Day Bumper Blog post, I’d like to give you an insight into each of these pamphlets, to get to know them a little better, and to help you select which ones you may enjoy! Strap yourself in for a whistle-stop tour which will take you from the Lake District to Wednesbury, stopping off at a coffee shop and to gaze at the moon.
Hokusai’s Passion (36 Glimpses of Skiddaw) – John Sewell
Hokusai, the Japanese artist whose ‘Great Wave’ has been gracing the bedroom walls of students for as long as anyone can remember, is the inspiration for this ‘concept pamphlet’. Hokusai produced Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji, and Sewell presents thirty-six different views of Skiddaw, a mountain in the English Lake District, all titled appropriately. In From Russet, Pink to Blue from the Lodore Swiss Hotel, we see the moment the author falls in love with the mountain, shifting in the evening light. In fact, the first half of the book dresses Skiddaw up in its beauty. We see holidaymakers, historical mountaineers, and people living in the mountain’s shadow. The characters’ stories are at the forefront while the mountain is an ever-present force in the background. This ties back to the Hokusai sequence which often set Fuji in the background of the works, while a peppering of 5-7-5 haiku through the book props up the Japanese connection.
The second part of the pamphlet takes a darker turn, with deaths on the mountain, one-night stands, and the suggestion of a fracturing relationship. The effect is the feeling of descent through shadow from the sparkling summit set up in the first part of the book. Everything about this book feels like a mountain, from descriptive imagery of the scree-filled slopes, to the total immersion the poet draws us into. I’m sure many of us have felt a kind of addiction to a place – I certainly feel that way about Cannock Chase – and there is a sense of uncovering every stone on and around Skiddaw. Often, the view comes through a lens of intertextuality – Wainwright, Dante, and Giotto make a cameo, while postcards and newspaper cuttings slip between the traditional poems, all of which make me think that we’re reading a scrapbook of the author’s relationship with Skiddaw. A line in From Derwentwater sums it up; ‘to mix something of ourselves with the mountain’ – the poet has done, and invites us to do the same.
Perfect for: Hikers who love the Lake District with a sprinkling of Japan.
Barista – Nick Pearson
Fans of Pearson’s 2011 collection, Made In Captivity (also Offa’s Press), won’t be disappointed with this long-awaited follow-up. Opening with the mundane yet revealing life of a Barista Manager, we’re invited to sit in the window of a coffee shop and watch the characters pass by. We see some up close and some from afar – girls who walk through doors without looking back, a woman with a scratch card obsession, and a boss who’s ‘damp in all the right places’. Underpinning the entire pamphlet, there’s a kind of background hum of cynicism – we see Pearson poking fun at pomposity – imagining a posh lunch which ‘writes about itself in three languages’, and in Blue Plaque – named for the UK institution of pinning a blue plaque to buildings where notable people did notable things – the poet asks can’t the ordinary be notable too? In fact, most of these stories are those of so-called ordinary people, but we’re reminded again and again about the poetry of everyday life, from lemons which 'stud the fading light with sunshine', to saveloys which 'leave the chip shop like exotic sex toys'.
The claws come out in some of the more scathing poems – conflating market-goers with a gull brutally pecking a pigeon’s corpse springs to mind – but towards the end of the book, the poems become introspective. We imagine the poet in his coffee shop, toying with his pen between his fingers, his thoughts turning to a phone call from his ageing mother, a doomed date, his garden shed. This – to paraphrase Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs – pointing of the ‘high-powered perception’ at himself is perhaps what keeps Pearson from appearing derisive in this pamphlet – he’s saying I’m one of you too; he acknowledges his own part in the fleeting circus of life.
Perfect for: Down to earth folk who like their people-watching paired with a wry chuckle.
The Wednesbury Mangle Theory – Marion Cockin
You could be forgiven for categorising Marion Cockin as a ‘Black Country poet’ – given her previous publication as one of three Nailmakers’ Daughters (also Offa’s Press), a Black Country-centric triple-decker collection, and the gentle nudge of the title. While there are shout-outs to the region, including some expertly-played dialect, this pamphlet is brimming with universal experiences, gathered from far-flung corners of the earth. We follow the poet from her background, through school, on her travels, and to being the matriarch of a family. As you read and re-read the poems, a narrative emerges. An artist, stifled by her schooling, makes sense of life, family, pain, through her artistic influences, and the minute details of her surroundings. Each poem feels like it could be ekphrastic – crafted with an artist’s eye, they hone in on details which others might pass over – swallows rippling a river with their wings, rusty prams, the eyes of lupine boys. The startling imagery at times creeps up on you; peeling back the plaster from an old wound.
The pamphlet is filled with titbits of trivia, and we are courted by some of the biggest names in literature and art – Monet, Manet, and Mondrian cosy up with Dickens, Rosetti, and Woolf. It’s almost two fingers to the outdated (and patently false) stereotype of working class Black Country folk as uneducated, but it isn’t crass or forced, just born of a natural curiosity and love of knowledge. The Wednesbury Mangle Theory of the title is less about the geographical location of the mangle, and more about the poet's theory for making sense of a chaotic world where life doesn’t always go as planned.
Perfect for: Artistic souls and Black Country wenches with a thirst for factoids.
Under Smoky Light – Michael W. Thomas
Under Smoky Light is segmented into four parts - almost mini-pamphlets in themselves. In A tunnel for the gust of time we speed from 1919 to 2020 in ten pages, from Massachusetts to Bilston, skating across the poet’s youth to the public’s emergence from lockdown. We watch the scenes reel past like movies; a runaway housemaid, a neighbourhood razed to make way for a new road, a child going to the pub with his father, schoolmates meeting after a decade apart. The segment is thick with change and jostles with the passing of time – it presses us onto the rest of the pamphlet. The last segment, All that waits, is slower in pace – it aches with loss and isolation, winding down to the death of a father, touching off with an incoming night.
The spirit of the pamphlet feels like a rushing towards the inevitable – but far from morbid, the poems are ethereal, moon-bathed, fuzzy as an old photograph. They are concepts. They sigh for how things were – seemingly inconsequential actions which turned into memories so quickly. They are mournful, staring as things unravel, wondering what’s to come. Not that this means they skimp on imagery at all - the images are surreal and skewed – dogs become ‘tiny horizontals with dot feet’, thoughts are discarded like lint balls, and trees 'play dead.’ The moon returns amongst the imagery over and over as it does every night, burning out and dying each month only to return the next. These poems will surely do the same in the reader’s mind.
Perfect for: The wistful with a strong sense of nostalgia.
I hope you've all had a wonderful National Poetry Day, perhaps discovering new poems to love, or returning to old favourites. And I hope the above has been a helpful guide to which new titles you may enjoy from Offa's Press.