Pamphlets by Matthew Clegg and Ben Wilkinson
Ben Wilkinson. The Sparks. tall-lighthouse, 2008.
Matthew Clegg's pamphlet Edgelands is a collection of 50 tanka (there's a fold-out matchbox edition with 6 additional tanka, but I'm not sure I approve of such – well – gimmicks). The theme is the end of a relationship, but it's mainly expressed through the depiction of a landscape and the projection of mood on to landscape. The speaker notices grim and bathetic details which reflect his state of mind and his sense of isolation. The 'edgelands' are various areas at the edge of Sheffield, some of which I know well, but they're also, of course, mental and social edgelands.
I don't know much about tanka, and the most obvious kinship that occurred to me here was Frank Kuppner. I'm already dealing with the formal means of this sequence at a (parodic) remove. In fact, reading Clegg's work I've been interested to realise that Kuppner's 'Chinese' poems draw on formal and tonal materials just as much as thematic ones - his emperors and concubines are obvious chinoiseries, but his technique too, the sequence of discrete units and the deadpan tone and the agglomeration of seemingly insignificant details, seems to draw on tanka; it bears strong resemblances to Clegg's work here, at any rate.
There are some strongly Kuppnerian moments, such as the moment when 'two paths diverge in a wood –/He takes the one less travelled by', only to find that it peters out: 'What next? Check for ticks. Turn back.' But on the whole Clegg's handling of tanka seems to be less parodic, more serious. There's an attention to the striking image which Kuppner doesn't pursue: running badgers have 'rugby-players' shoulders'; there's 'A hubcap like a felled star'; some of the more beautiful poems here are wonderfully restrained in keeping their attention to the image:
Three horses – black, auburn, white.
Black: in its feet, shaking off flies.
Auburn: on its side, head up.
White: flat out, ear to the ground,
Listening for its own stillness.
I find it interesting that I like least the poems which deal with the failed relationship, or social concerns generally, more or less directly. The contrast between the speaker counting coppers into bags with people in the bank talking about ISAs is rather indulgent and self-romanticising; much more interesting and complicated and charming is the old man who puts litter 'on the tines of railings, fences'. It is the poems' record of otherwise unrecognised 'care' which generates the sense that this is a living landscape. Similarly, depictions of the speaker himself tend to lack the openness, the looking-outwards, of the landscape-focused pieces. Several early poems show the speaker morose in his house – you can see how this is necessary narrative, but it feels rather static. The best poems reach out from personal mood into a world which bewitches and redeems:
He's been too inward-looking.
The slug-trail on his window
Traces a perfect love knot
Before stopping abruptly.
It has a fine pelt of dust.
The sequence is an accumulation of small miracles like this. Their modesty is a risk: when they don't come off they slide over into the banale (the tow-rope 'like life. Like love' is one example); but such failures are rare. A more unavoidable limitation is in the form. This is a true sequence, not simply a collection of individual poems; as with Kuppner's work, the units accumulate their effects into something larger, but not into a narrative to speak of. You couldn't go on reading (or writing) them forever. Of course it is mean-spirited to cavil at what these poems are not. The discreteness of the units, like the style's lucidity, is a strength; but I'll be interested to see Clegg working in other forms and using other arguments.
Ben Wilkinson's The Sparks is not a sequence; it follows the other pattern of the pamphlet, offering a sampler of his work for readers and prospective editors. On the back Conor O'Callaghan says the work is 'responsive to the elemental layers that underscore the material sheen of our early twenty-first century'. 'Elemental' is an apt word here; what strikes me most about Wilkinson's poems is their discursiveness, their willingness to extrapolate from the phenomena they record towards moral and philosophical conclusions. Such a method reminds me of the Romantics, and particularly of Wordsworth; but here Nature is replaced by the complicated, unsatisfactory, urban contemporary landscape.
In several poems that landscape is, explicitly, Sheffield; and there is both geographical and tonal overlap between Clegg's and Wilkinson's work. But while Clegg's speaker views the (edges of the) city from a marginal position, Wilkinson's seems to inhabit it comfortably, even if he doesn't see it as idyllic:
When I leave with Jes, the sky has cleared:
a van trundles down Sharrowvale past
the shell of a butcher's, boarded and barred;
the sun and bulky nimbus in weird contrast
as I open up the Marlboros, offer her one,
struggling to recall if it was accident or arson.
That ambivalence, like other moments in the book, show the influence of Michael Hofmann; but on the whole Wilkinson is more discursive than Hofmann, and less ironic. The danger of a reflective style like this is that the reflection takes precedence over the poetry (Wordsworth again), so that the imagery becomes mere ornamentation, when it needs to be the engine of the reflection. (The imagery of 'Hex' seems to fill in the gaps, rather than providing the structure, of that poem's argument.) Paradoxically, these poems have most to say when their imagery obscures or smothers their argumentative structure. 'Filter' tells an almost lucid story about a trawler, which manages to break free of its syntactical controls into strange territory, ending with the satisfyingly puzzling idea of 'how the Egyptian cobra shed its skin,/intact, carefully rubbing its head, leaving behind a perfect replica of itself.' (The rest of the poem justifies this closing, but not in a literal way.)
In fact my favourite poem here is one where Wilkinson eschew reflection completely, allowing material to speak for itself. 'Byroads' is a series of four rural vignettes. There's so much delicate material here (movement, tension, narrative, tone), and it's stronger for not being interpreted:
Hanging baskets frosted white
in the orange blur of a maple wood dusk,
ice stalactite rigid towards the pavements.
The firing of some gun from the wood's
clearing. A bus rumbles on, coughing,
and a local makes his turn at the pub's carpark.
I also like a lot the jangling music of the first section of 'The Quiet':
I was drinking my way through a fifth pint of lager
and sparked up a fag as the tidemarks grew larger,
walked to the bar as the music grew louder
and noticed in minutes I'd clocked up two hours
when stumbling away from the urinal's cowl
I turned to the exit to make for your house.