Monday, December 17, 2012
Antony Rowland, I am a Magenta Stick (Salt, 2012)
Antony Rowland's first book, The Land of Green Ginger, was an excitingly varied collection: there was a cartoonish humour, interest in family history and European history, travel and holidays, and a strange, dense style which did violence to syntax and vocabulary while seeming on the whole to be perfectly clear. I am a Magenta Stick continues all of that – and in that sense it's pretty much a continuation – but perhaps the elements are more integrated. The personal and public histories coincide; it still feels varied, but also coherent.
The 'Engrish' poems of the first book appear again here, compiled (really or purportedly) from miswritings by those for whom English is a second language; and there are several using a similar approach to a different sort of found text, online hotel reviews:
We found someone in our bathroom. That was weird.
The relaxation room was cold. The toaster
was trained by a parrot. No coasters
for the bell-captains. We found a beard
in our suitcase...
It goes almost without saying that many of the source texts are funny; what makes these into poems is, on the one hand, the play with lineation (most don't rhyme, unlike the one I've just quoted), and on the other, the way the sources are collated into a larger text with a poem-like trajectory of mood, tone and/or narrative.
There are poems about puddings, 'Sausages' and 'Gravy'; Rowland has pretty much cornered the market in historical-language-of-food poems. Neither of these rise to the heights of his masterpiece 'Pie', but they do show how almost any topic can be an occasion and opening for thinking about, say, the First World War, and how joyful a close and benevolent attention to the sound of words can be.
Rowland's interest, if that's the right word, in the Holocaust is represented with some fine poems. In particular, there's the tension between needing to know about history and the danger of enjoying them. 'Serchio Bathing Party' visits the scene of Primo Levi's death ('our cameras flash in awkward reverence'), while 'The Fuhrerhauser', reprinted I think from his Knives, Forks and Spoons pamphlet, visits various death camps. There's something of Paul Celan, not just in the subject matter, but in the scrupulous refusal to editorialise; we're just given words, and the discomfort of bafflement is one of their effects that we won't be excused:
Why are you in
a mystical corner, a roof
beached on its concrete?
Landscaped to perfection,
the reserve peters
to a wood koy platform.
In lines we tortoise
the Clumber: children hand
each other, clasp roses...
At the imaginative centre of the book are the family history poems, or rather the poems which use family and wider public history as conduits to reach and illuminate each other. 'Elizabeth Frost', a kind of potted life-history of a servant (doesn't that sounds worthy and dull?) is one of the most wonderful poems I've read , a masterclass in sound and richness and narrative pace:
We come out of a smile round an altar
in a Dissenting chapel, allowed with a cap
every other Sunday, Elizabeth haltered
to a black dress for the family baths,
dressing, scouring, cooking, running with coals,
pulling cinders from hearths, tending laths...
In a way the whole poem is a foudnation for the final image of the old woman 'dug/into Ganton Mount with a quota of stout,/a gill fetched every evening in a silver jug'. The image resonates in the lifetime the poem has conjured; it's miraculous.
The book also has one of my favourite ever lines, describing a sloping cobbled street as 'steeped in leg-work'. Lovely. And Rowland has just won the Manchester Poetry Prize; read this book to see why.