Salt Publishing, 2011 £6.50
Reviewed by Eleanor Livingstone, Stephen Payne and Marcia Menter
The Snowboy is number 10 of the Salt Modern Voices series. It looks wonderful with its elegant, sophisticated cover and neat spine. Salt are not the first to publish pamphlet-sized collections which are every bit as perfect-ly produced as the best quality books but they do it with admirable style. The only thing which marks this as a chapbook is the fact that you get a modest 28 pages of poems for your money. Given that full-length collections are available elsewhere from £7.00, it did make me gulp once or twice to see the cover price for The Snowboy is £6.50.
The poetry inside is every bit as smart as the chapbook’s outside—clever poems with a fair number of references and vocabulary which might puzzle some readers or send others, like me, to Google or Wiki. Though when I google ‘Emoliage’, the title of the opening poem (which otherwise is straightforward), the references are all back to Mark Burnhope and this publication, except for a website for Deviant Art, so I’m not much clearer on that. It also helps if you’re familiar with characters in Pinocchio, Moby Dick, the Hunchback of Notre-Dame and the Bible. For a flavour of the poems, try ‘To My Best-kept, Quasimodo’ in which he writes:
........But my better eye has seen us,
....... cliché cripple and Romani
....... gypsy, run to escape the flash-
....... storm of rain and paparazzi
....... curiosity forward-slash greed
The back cover tells us this is Mark Burnhope’s publishing debut. There’s that variety in the poetry common to first collections which makes me wary of generalising on themes. However, the issue of disability recurs and with a careful lack of sentiment he writes poems about wheelchairs which are so sharp they could cut; and about Milo who, having been prescribed hydro-therapy, “won’t go in the water/ like they’ve said he ought to.”
I can see how the intelligent ambition of poems in this chapbook will appeal to a less mainstream readership, though for me those which worked best were the simpler and more lyrical ones, like ‘Queequeg (Reprise)’, or ‘Singlehenge’, which I quote in full:
........In order to recover
....... a kernel of our loss
....... let us build an altar
....... to someone smaller
....... less tangible, and none will
....... wonder why we raised her.
The poems In this pamphlet are ambitious, with intriguing subjects (disability and literature the main sources) and unusual diction and syntax—they seem experimental in a literal sense, the author trying out moves, testing their effects. Some poems puzzled me, and the ones I enjoyed most were the clearest, often the shortest. Perhaps my least favourite was ‘Twelve Steps Toward Better Despair’, which is included in Salt's Best British Poetry anthology, but which doesn't strike home for me and shows what I perceive as the collection's main weakness—an overstretching for strangeness at the expense of meaning. I mention this because it suggests my own taste is more conservative than this pamphlet caters for.
The first poem is called ‘Emoliage’, which I assume is a new coinage, a blend of Emo and Foliage. Emos wear black and this poem is about some kind of surreal quest for black flowers:
....... The furor is on to find our blackest flower.
I like "furor" and I appreciate the sound effect it helps create, but does it quite fit its syntactic frame? This gives me pause, makes me focus down on the language rather than its meaning. Some may enjoy being forced to switch between levels in this way.
The end of the poem describes the ultimate failure of the quest:
....... Always an occasional vein to carry
....... a liniment-light to every extremity.
....... The festival staff are sick with worry.
It all makes for an open-ended poem, inviting an allegorical interpretation but leaving the reader a little spoilt for choice. And the penultimate sentence seems loose—how can there “always” be something “occasional” that reaches “every” extremity? Pedantry on my behalf, for sure, but when expressions seem strange, I specially want to trust they've been chosen with complete care, lest I work in vain to appreciate them.
Yet Burnhope's poems can be both new and affecting. ‘Milo Won't Go in The Water’ is a moving tale of a patient refusing hydro-therapy—the slangy tone seems unsentimentally sympathetic and makes for a compelling portrait that will stick in my memory. I also admired ‘Shinglehenge’, a kind of elliptical elegy "to someone smaller".
The pamphlet's a nice object with a lovely cover design, though £6.50 seems steep for 21 poems. In my copy some of the print was at a slight angle to the page, which is something the quality control team at Salt might want to keep an eye on.
Apologies. I’m in one of my periodic phases of not knowing what poetry is, and of impatience with the usual sort of blather about it. All I’m able to care about is the blood on the page: Are the poems full of the juice of life? After I grapple with them, am I changed? I have to address Mark Burnhope at that level because, well, that’s his level. He knows how transformative poems can be, and even when he’s being playful, which is most of the time, he’s playing with letters of fire.
The cover blurb says he was born in 1982 and studied theology before getting an MA in creative writing, and that his poems “peer out over disability”—meaning he’s in a wheelchair and writes about it. So of course I started piecing together my own narrative about him: Not yet 30, but with more Life Experience than most people his age, able to feel more deeply, write more bitingly . . . All this is nonsense. Burnhope’s poems are good because he’s willing to work hard to get the right words down and get rid of the rest. He has a kaleidoscopic mind, a good ear and a fine sense of irony. He makes deft use of Biblical and literary images that ring in the reader’s mind and absolutely nail what he’s trying to say. And he’s funny.
So when he writes about being disabled, he draws me into his world. In ‘To My Familiar, Queequeg’, this is literally a tentacled embrace.
........I too am tattooed.
....... I too tap away
....... nightly at an idol . . .
....... . . . Once, I woke to find
....... your tentacles tightly
....... wrapped around me.
....... I wished to be tangled
....... safe, like Ishmael
....... finding in you his wife.
Not only does the poet find a mystic identity with the tattooed man from Moby Dick (blood brother to the writer tapping at a keyboard), but the inked lines themselves—on the page, on skin—become a pathway through life. Burnhope also finds a kinship with the “cliché cripple” Quasimodo and with Pinocchio, the puppet turned real boy turned puppet again who lives his life with a wink and a hard-on. (Pinocchio’s name, alas, is misspelled, and so, in the book’s epigraph, is that of Wallace Stevens. Where on earth was the copy editor?)
Burnhope’s poems are compressed and take a little work, but reward it. This is a poet who can make his local landscape sing, and who can express grief for a failed marriage, and a child lost to miscarriage, in ways that feel both personal and universal. So yes, very juicy.