November 5


Do you ever get the feeling there’s too much published poetry, too many poets? Well, you’re wrong. And you’re a dickhead. It’s like saying there’s too many athletes or musicians or too much water. Why don’t you go away and do something really obscure like synchronised swimming? You can lament that the nose-plugs aren’t as good as they used to be.

Nevertheless, you have the beginnings of a point: there is an awful lot of poetry and it’s difficult to know, if you are wont to know, which you should buy. The problem is not that there is too much, but that a lot of ennard, it is achingly mediocre. Many’s the time you’re landed with a real page-creeper. You start finding things to do around the house rather than read it. I once filled in my tax return form over finishing the book I was reviewing. And that’s sad. And it hurts to be lied to – it hurts when you read a ringing endorsement of something which turns out to be a poet finding parallels between ancient history and their train being delayed. Or a poet on an ego-trip writing about what it is to be a poet.

I’m not talking about any specific aesthetic here, but can we at least agree that poetry ought to be just a teensy bit compelling? Or if it’s supposed to be boring, can we agree that it ought to be so boring it’s funny? (Like Beckett, but without just ripping Beckett’s ideas off.) Right? I thought we could. I like you. I probably don’t tell you that often enough.

The fact is there’s tons of great poetry, too. Does it get reviewed anywhere? Hell no! The LRB and the TLS barely even review novels anymore! Poetry? Ha! So let’s also agree that you and I probably miss out on a lot of great stuff while we’re debating Israeli foreign policy and wishing that, just once, the literary press would stop fulfilling the role of an especially erudite daily newspaper and review some gosh-darned literature. Oh, sure, there are magazines specifically dedicated to poetry, but most of them are so dull you fall asleep halfway down the front cover. A new translation of Robert Lowell’s unpublished haiku into Scottish-zzz-zzz-zzzzz-zzzzzzzz.

So I submit for your approval an occasional column dedicated to books which may have slipped off your radar – along with your coffee and your pastry, you bad radar-attendant, you! Let’s crowbar a little trust back into the reader/critic relationship, no? Think of me as Super Grover from the golden age of Sesame Street.

Oh, and also, if you have any suggestions for poetry books of the last decade I should already have bought – and if I haven’t already bought them and if when I do they’re actually good, I’ll feature your suggestion in the column, credit you as the source and give you a pound for the bus fare home. Email me by clicking here. Or, if you just want to bash me for my posh accent, same address, darling.


Person Animal Figure (Landfill Books, 2005) by Vahni Capildeo

Capildeo4Vahni Capildeo is one of this country’s finest prose poets – and "Person Animal Figure", a pamphlet available from the Salt website for the price of a coffee, is a great introduction to her work – and the perfect accompaniment to her full collection "No Traveller Returns" which I haven’t finished yet.What’s great about her is that she puts the fun back into Modernism, riding roughshod over form, syntax and image whilst never losing her sense of humour and, most importantly, coherence. By which I mean Capildeo has the desire to provoke thought and talk about ideas and events other than the boring old ‘atomisation of language’ we’re always getting told about by the new Modernist elders – as if any of us didn’t know that junk mail is a bit annoying and the rhetoric of the economist is a blight on the language. Capildeo provides an alternative to this trash-thought as opposed to just bluntly subverting it over and over again.

The bestiary – which forms the backbone of "Person Animal Figure" – is as baroque and surprising as a bestiary should be:

The animal who kisses persistently is much to be avoided. The more it is avoided, the more is comes back. It will seek out its prey in the middle of dreams about castles in nowhere, and make its catch before the staircase in the upper servant’s hall.


The animal who has a leaf in its mouth is not to be comforted. It chews on the leaf to keep bitterness fuzzing its geranium tongue. […] If told its faults, it stiffens its back and walks on, chewing.

The pleasure is in the effortless combination of surreal detail and acute observation:

The animal who feeds is ashamed of itself, for it keeps on feeding. The way to make it less ashamed is to offer it more food. Even then its dumb look will signal not gratitude, but shame.

These are interspersed with bursts of breathless reflection on living in an adoptive country:

I have been talking to the wrong people they make me guilty about everything! What can I do!

On English supermarkets:

…big spills of sunshine on bare feet and funny hats isn’t it wonderful it’s like the whole world ends up in here…

On how one takes conspiracy theories about supermarkets:

…they feed salmon pellets now isn’t that clever some people say the pellets have stuff in that attacks people’s brains I’m sure that can’t be true they just don’t like commercial success well tough titties fish is for everyone at last…

On everyday paranoia:

young men by the new flats not very nice flats cut across and across me for fun when I’m walking my mouths quiver because they know they’ve been seen through my clothes what nonsense they’d do that to anyone wouldn’t they this story surprised my husband because he’s six feet tall not because he’s a man he walks straight forward eyes front and mouthless…

All done in pitch-perfect stream-of-consciousness which never (however personal and minutely detailed) runs to self-indulgence. The lack of punctuation feels justified – this is a true interior-monologue and the language itself provides the rhythm. (“I wake up with such a craving for a semi-colon” – p. 17) What’s more, the quotidian details build into a convincing sketch of life in this country – our Argos fleeces, The Bill, hot chocolate…

Juxtaposed with the arcane voice of the monsterologist, the autobiography becomes a kind of reverse-anthropomorphism, making both the reader and the poet a species in themselves, each of us unique and vaguely monstrous. Really it’s just a delight. Capildeo is a contemporary master of the prose poem and she should be read. And that’s all I have to say on the matter.

© Luke Kennard, 2006



November 9


photographs by Mark Hillringhouse




Mark Hillringhouse writes:

Urban decay and desolation are captured in a broken window in the corner of a factory in Paterson, New Jersey. The interior world of the defunct factory looks out onto the exterior world of the dilapidated city. The two worlds share the same atmosphere: broken glass, brick walls and desolation. 

I like the texture of the brick, the wood and the glass, all three elements mingle in a sort of disharmony. I like the urban blight of this factory town and of course the desolation. There is something more isolating in an urban setting than there is in the vastness of the desert. And there is something that feels more threatening.

I took the photo of the wall because I liked the way it symbolized layers of time. It is industrial archeology, the large sandstone block forming the oldest layer on the bottom, the ancient history of Paterson and its industrial past.   

The sink was taken in a lavatory in a turn-of-the century orphanage in New Jersey. I love the ceramic bowl shape and the classic chrome and porcelain faucet handles. I can hear the splash of children wetting their faces. I can hear the flushing of toilets, the showers raining on cold hard tile.

© Mark Hillringhouse, 2006



November 12


One of my pals called David (I know so many Davids I am losing count: it’s like almost every other bloke I know is called David) just sent me a copy of a biog of The Fiery Furnaces which I’m pasting in here. I think originally it came off Wikipedia but it’s not there any more, but by all accounts it seems to have been written by the band so probably they won’t mind it being here and read. Dave and I saw The Furnaces a couple or three years back at The Rescue Rooms in Nottingham and had a short chat with Eleanor after the gig…. Not that I can remember much about it; it had been a bad couple of days ….

You can listen to a track ("Two Fat Feet") off The Fiery Furnace’s first record, "Gallowsbird’s Bark", here: [Listen]

Anyways, here’s the biog, which I think is kind of funny:

Eleanor was constantly ridiculed in the crudest and least interesting manner by her brother Matthew. He, for his part, had to suffer such things as her coming in the room and various other affronts: for instance, talking, or watching the TV show she wanted or putting on a record she might like to hear.

So Eleanor had to hide her likes and dislikes until he left. It was a beautiful day. She stood at a second-floor window, watching as Dad drove Matt off, and roughly, excitedly, triumphantly put "Houses of The Holy" into the CD player, turning up the volume on what used to be her brother's stereo.

Matthew had only liked The Who. He had Who records and videotapes, and as a youth, down in the basement, he tried to make Who noises. But he failed miserably and, with black jealousy, guarded the scene of his humiliation and insufficiency, that basement, where he kept the tape recorder. In fact, Eleanor was hit over the head, stabbed in the knee and smashed on the foot for coming down in the basement. But that didn't make his songs any better.

Years later, when Matthew - his pride gone, his spirit, such as it was, crushed - encouraged Eleanor to come down in the basement to make their first Fiery Furnaces music together. Maybe he should have hit and stabbed and smashed her. But he just swore. Things had changed.

Her older brother went to Germany at 17 and managed to learn not a word of German or even have a good time - apparently pining for mommy and daddy, and doggy, and the comforts of home, which he was incapable of enjoying in the first place. After failing repeatedly at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he cleverly stayed in that fascinating metropolis until he was 26. He then moved back in with his mother, sealing his fate and cementing his status as parasite and waster of indulgence and advantage. Looking for further opportunities to squander goodwill and embarrass himself, he later imposed upon a high school friend to help him move to New York (because his sister made it clear he couldn't stay with her). He was, you see, the proud author of such works as Spider Spite, Toad King Land and Banobazus Persian Prince. But certainly those things are terrible and only give evidence of no-talent and periods of excess sponging. No one doing a good job and paying the rent could ever have time for something as stupid and illiterate as Toad King Land. By the way, he has musical ability only as compared to his sister. His only achievement, in fact, is a series of short videos, made with a student he worked with in Urbana, Illinois. But Matthew never bothered to do the narration he promised to the student's mother. And the poor student is now dead.

God rest his soul.


This all reminded me of a great biog of a band I like a lot, ……And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead. This was also autobiography. It’s a few years old now but it’s still lurking on the web and, I think, holds up as a good example of the genre. Here it is:

Kevin Allen, Neil Busch, Conrad Keely and Jason Reece grew up in the small Christian community of Planoe, Texas (not to be confused with Plano, the suburb of Dallas) - a place more known for cattle ranches and it's single corner grocer than for it's music.

The four boys grew up in close proximity; Conrad, Neil and Jason attended the same Sunday school at the Planoe Anabaptist Ministry (Kevin's parents were Presbyterian). The four shared an interest in the sciences and literature, but also shared a love of singing. In Junior High they joined the church choir where they competed internationally in vocal ensemble competitions (Planoe Methodist Choir won the National Boys Choir Award in 1983).

During college the four lost touch briefly, then reunited in Austin, Texas, where Neil was attending UT. There they rekindled their old love of singing, and performed for a while as a four piece vocal ensemble for church revivals.

During a recording session for the Austin All-Male Ensemble they were introduced to Mike McCarthy, who would later wean them into recording artists. For the present, McCarthy infused the four with his interest in audio recording, fascinating them with the idea that the technology for sound recording predated the steam engine, and had actually existed for several thousand years.

It was also during this time that the four took an interest in the budding field of Maya, a field that was progressing with leaps and bounds at the University of Texas. Another research project they had started in high school and continued through college had also become an obsession - thinking along the precepts of Greil Marcus, Guy Debord, and Anton Levay, they had begun to search for a unifying link which would tie patterns in popular and ancient cultures with a singular repeating theme. In other words, to anthropology what the Theory of Grand Unification would be to physics.

Studies in both fields lead them to the "...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead", a glyph discovered to be present in distantly related ancient cultures that was currently being investigated at the Mayan department at UT.

Meanwhile McCarthy, who had become a constant presence in their lives, had coaxed the four into a studio at the Hamstien offices in the Austin Hill Country which he was using as a laboratory for his own experiments in sound manipulation, continuing the unfinished investigations into the field started by the likes of Wilhelm Reich, Michael Oldfield, and even the unpublished speculations of Thomas Edison.

Originally planning to record the group performing two versions of the popular hymns "Lord of All Hopefulness" and "Bell of Creation," they decided instead to put their recent hypothesis into practice. The four's explorations into music anthropology had lead them to experiment with idioms in rock music and it's commonalties with primitive folk music, especially that originating in Papua New Guinea, Hindu Kush, and Polynesia. Converting the tonal and rhythmic variants of the hymn "Lord of All Hopefulness" along a random logarithmic arc, they made the first recording of the “...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead” experiment - "Richter Scale Madness."

Over the past several years the four boys, under the name "...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead" have toured continuously throughout the US and Europe, also finding time to record three albums. Their first, comparably rawer eponymous LP (Trance Records) saw the four expanding upon the conversion of ecclesiastic hymnal into secular rock disaster theory.

Their second foray into sound manipulations, "Madonna" (Merge Records) dealt heavily with the themes of iconoclastic worship, the creation and subsequent defamation of popular idols in the post-industrial age, and the premature development of cynicism among modern children due to the pressures of our hastening information age.

...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead is currently continuing its research into it's theory of Anthropological Unification, which they intend to publish in full in the near future.


This all makes a lot more sense if you listen to their music, a sample of which ("A Perfect Teenhood") you can listen to here: [Listen] I am always whistling this one as I stroll to work, or around the supermarket looking for the drain cleaning fluid.

I think autobiography is great. It’s where truth sometime is and sometimes isn’t.



November 19


A poem by Paul Violi



         A month of twilights, laglight, fritterdusk. Withered plants, soggy bulbs, stubble. The Garden in February. Mold and tendrils, colorless scribbles dangling from a ripped-back carpet of matted leaves. Fresh hole in the frozen ground that looks like it was made by a pick-axe, a fang. Smeared dirt and frost, diamond slime. Paradise a child’s notion. Paradise painted one stroke, one phrase, one glimpse at a time, whatever a lightning flare reveals of it. Blunderblink. An invitation. Mr. and Mrs. Dwindle. Request. Demand. The pleasure of your company, your antics, your fervor, your moodiness, your stolid numbing small-time solemnity, your contempt, your pig-headed pride, your carelessness, your squalling self.

© Paul Violi, 2006



November 26


Quicksand Beach by Kate Bingham
(Seren Books, 61pp, £7.99)

Review by Luke Kennard

If you can get the sensory stuff right, I’m pretty much sold. I remember reading a Hopkins poem as a child – the one where he describes the afternoon light as looking like a piece of foil being shaken (something like that, anyway) – and thinking that poetry was pretty worthwhile. Bingham’s visual facility is superb – “Purple-red clouds the size / of oil-tankers jammed the horizon”; and “listening to rapturous fat darts / batter the glass” is one of the noisiest descriptions of rain I’ve read in a while.

Bingham Let’s set out stall: if there is any such thing as a poetic mainstream, "Quicksand Beach" fits it like a favourite shoe – personal, anecdotal, accessible. If, like me, you profess affection for the work of both Simon Armitage and Louis Zukofsky (and bollocks to anyone who hasn’t got over the tired old grudges of the 1970’s), you won’t instantly think that’s a bad thing. Let that be the movement of our generation: The New Generosity.

The biggest question for all poetic traditions must be ‘So what?’ Your dog died. So what? So did mine. You wrote a poem based on a computer error and filled it with vaguely subverted cliché to draw attention to the state of language. So what? I came up with ten of them before breakfast but I didn’t think they were worth writing down. You wrote a poem about a talking penguin. So what? Children’s cartoons have a keener sense of absurdism. You wrote an end-stopping faux-rap about the Bush administration. So what? You don’t even watch the News at Ten. Michael Buerk is more subversive than you.

So if we say that Bingham’s poetry is of the ‘Your dog died’ school, it’s fair to conclude that her writing shows keen awareness of this and the self-absorbed ‘lyric I’ is subverted in a variety of ways. ‘Diamonds’, the book’s second poem, begins

Let’s not have an argument this year
about my birthday. You know what I want
because you always ask and always spoil
it by then not giving me diamonds,
choosing some less extravagant present
to symbolise the extent of your love –

So at this point I was sighing and wondering if the poet shouldn’t be having this embarrassing conversation with a loved one in private. However, the monologue is then complicated by references to “diamonds / dug up and traded year after year / to finance wars only despots could want.” And I slapped myself on the wrist for assuming the first-person narrator was the poet herself.

Of course, there are times when the first-person narrator is the poet herself – and the personal details revealed in "Quicksand Beach" are perhaps the most beautifully observed. Take this couplet on breast-feeding:

Inside your mouth is the shape
of a single perfectly accomplished gulp

And ‘The Island Designing Competition’ (from which the book’s title is taken) brilliantly evokes the interior struggles and deeper resonance of the games we play as children.

…snatching the red for my stick men,
each to represent one hundred votes.
They stand in public squares demanding a recount
as the President mouths his acceptance speech
and such is the confusion no one sees
my brother’s auxiliary fleet…

Actually, scratch the “interior struggles” and “deeper resonance” – ‘The Island Designing Competition’ is about how great it is to have an imagination. There is a voice and a personality here – and it is the voice and personality of a person rather than a voice a person thinks sounds like a poet. Oh, and the first line of ‘In the Birchwood’ is:

I had always wanted to shoot myself

Which is just a great first line. This is the stuff of everyday life presented with its mystery intact – even in contented boredom; “the finger flavour of a weekday afternoon.” Bingham writes open, accessible poetry, but in place of the sarcasm and self-importance that often plagues open, accessible poetry, we get metonymy and anthropomorphism, thank God. The poet is aware of memory as an ongoing journey; not something you might distil into piquant little episodes from which to draw a tidy moral, but an ever-changing landscape that reveals different shapes at different aspects. The five sonnets that make up ‘Roads’ contain well-selected details that perfectly fit the metre:

An usher who won’t wear his buttonhole
sits on the gate whistling Mendelssohn.


I never loved you more than when our car
span quietly across fresh snow in the fast lane.

Elsewhere, Bingham turns her voice to historical character – without affectation. ‘From the Chronicles of the Abbess of Almesbury’ echoes Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi’ – the pertinent details over archaism:

Three or more unremarkable days
in succession and they doubt again,
awkwardly, want back their thrown-away

Others plot in the refectory,
my downfall usually.

The intimation of menace continues in ‘Epilogue’, featuring a woman who keeps her funeral mink “in case of revolution”. The personal segues into the political.

It got so bad only the bankers could afford
to live in Central London, rampant wisteria
blossoming all summer long through razor wire
and everywhere the hum of bored, exhausted
cleaning ladies…

The temptation to steal “rampant wisteria” for a title is almost unbearable.

If there is something wrong with many poets of the ‘My dog died’ school, it is exactly the same thing that is wrong with many poets of the ‘Subversion of language’ school: it is their mimsy affectation of the poetic, their obsession with their role as A Poet and their assumption that anyone gives a flying fuck about them or their work. What is refreshing here is the complete absence of all that crap – just well-written, thought-provoking poetry. But don’t listen to me: I’m just a neo-Fabulist.

© Luke Kennard, 2006



November 28


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This was the sunset from my balcony here in Zhuhai, China on Sunday. Me and my buddy figured it was easily the best and most unusual we've seen.....  if you click on an image I think a big one will appear.