Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

Gratton Irregulars, 2010   £3.00

Reviewed by Peter Rawlings, Jon Stone and Rob A Mackenzie

Peter Rawlings:
This pamphlet appears in stark black and cream, and stripped of anything superfluous. Bareness is its keynote, devoid as it is of punctuation and upper case. In addition, in its twenty-six sonnets Thompson omits a successive letter of the alphabet from each in turn. This is a nod towards the Oulipo group who wrote under the severe principle of restriction in order to intensify the creative act. Lipograms omitted chosen letters from their texts. George Perec, one of the group’s luminaries, omitted the letter “e” from his most celebrated novel, A Void, with brilliant effect.

Twenty-one of Thompson’s poems merely omit a succession of consonants. This has no discernible effect, whereas proscribing a vowel affects the texture.

A Haunting is, nevertheless, a bold conception although it amounts to no more than a sterile technical achievement. Any overt technical gesture (patterned rhyme, for instance) must be subservient to meaning and emotional power and this tricksiness of Thompson’s fails on these grounds.

His method is extreme compression and staccato utterance. The poems read like automatic writing; a flicker of perceptions is tumbled together, indiscriminately it seems:

     but now that leaves have failed we talk in darkness
     fluttered on a banquet of roses
     it is not always      an artist’s impression
     as I leave     fresh misnomers portion out
     their footsteps down frozen alleyways
     a faint collusion of detail
     I want names      each of them as they fall
          (‘growth’)

This poem omits ‘g’ from its body, but do we care? Its little darts of clarity always subside. These characteristics are a formula for obscurity.

The collection refers to a close personal relationship; a couple’s daily life and its ups and downs are described; there is comment and homespun philosophising on this quotidian experience:

     please slow down      this isn’t      yet a new question
     will the genuine glass belief please stand up
     edging jasmine      a last showing softens
     can you attempt to climb the steps      I’ll help
     you pass by      shouting of animals sleeping
     what do you think      ‘we can only move one way’
          (‘rarified’)

I wonder in line 2 if I am missing a crucial pun, but if not, this typical poem of the pamphlet makes me question Thompson’s purpose. He is too elliptical. Bare phrases placed cheek-by-jowl without a subtle grammar make for a testing and tedious read. I see no wit, no verbal acuity, other than in sustaining lipograms. And this is not enough.


Jon Stone:
For those not familiar with lipograms, the concept of this collection is handily explained in an introductory note, which also identifies the poems as loose sonnets (ie. 14 lines of roughly equal length). From a to z, each piece omits a letter of the alphabet, except in the title. The resulting absence—never too tight a constraint—is what creates the 'haunting', a sense of something imperceptible acting on the language, teasing it this way and that.

The lines themselves are fractured, often split into pieces, with minimal punctuation, and rely on an accumulation of suggestive phrases to create a theme or mood. There are no easy conceits or propositions here—Thompson is defiantly post-lyric, and his pieces lie somewhere between collage and reduced narrative. Trying to dig beneath the surface to unpick underlying arguments or concerns is a frustrating exercise, one probably not intended to be undertaken, and while there are occasional flashes of imagery— “the wind's sharp cuff”, “a banquet of roses” —most of these fragments, whether of speech, confession or observation, are deliberately spare. Their success, therefore, depends very much on how much the reader is prepared to allow themselves to be disorientated and swept along by the concatenations, as if by a string of coincidences. If you find it hard to discard an analytical bent, you're likely to end up in conflict with Thompson's approach, which seems to trace an almost intuitive line as it skips from wild assertion to instruction to idiom to question.

The production needs work.  There's no blurb or author information, apart from the short note at the start, to put the writing in any context. Layout is nothing more than serviceable. Worst of all, its cover is nearly identical to another book (The Size of a Human Dawn, Ralph Hawkins) from, presumably, the same press. I say 'presumably' because despite the same production values, one is attributed to Skald Publications while the other to Gratton Street Irregulars. Scouting about online, it looks like there may have been a name change. To emphasise my protestation at this level of care, I am copy and pasting this paragraph into my review of Hawkins’ pamphlet with a couple of minor alterations.


Rob A Mackenzie:
The first thing I noticed was a hint of alphabetical order about the poem-titles e.g. from G-K:

growth
the haunted
dietary habits of the aye-aye
Rupert Brooke’s journey with the Eskimos
a crack in the pattern

A note then explained that, in each sonnet, the appropriate letter in the sequence is omitted, although it may appear in the title. The absent letter, like any formal element, compels a creative tension in the writer, forcing him to make decisions he wouldn’t otherwise make. It also asks questions of the sonnet form. The typical end-rhymes and metre of a traditional sonnet are replaced by different formal pressures, which impact more directly on the writer’s experience than the reader’s.

These sonnets exert pressure on conventional modes of expression by splitting up lines into fragmented phrases. The opening lines from ‘rarefied’ illustrate the technique:

     please slow down    this isn’t    yet a new question
     will the genuine glass belief please stand up
     edging jasmine    a last showing softens
     can you attempt to climb the steps    I’ll help
     you pass by    shouting of animals sleeping

We might fairly ask of line 1, ‘What question?’ The next line with its Eminem echo may or may not be what’s referred to. The pairing of “genuine” and “glass” connotes authenticity, transparency and fragility, belief in danger of shattering. The third line veers off course. The fourth has another question, a hint of quest. The fifth has a nightmarish vision of animals shouting in sleep. The poem then centres itself in London, a journey through the city. Windows by night are memorably described as “winking aliases sung by a city/ closing.”

So the poem offers a degree of conventional narrative, but this is offset by a multitude of non-sequiturs, perhaps evidence of distrust in the ability of ordinary discourse to navigate complexity. The idea, I guess, is to avoid marching towards fixed meaning and instead to open up various tangents a reader can grapple with. This technique can also be used to mask superficiality, especially when, as here, the writing itself is skilled, packed with interesting thoughts, phrases and juxtapositions. However, I suspect there is something happening through most of this pamphlet.

‘rarefied’ also contains séance references, which recur in other poems. In fact, you could spend a long time cross-referencing Nathan Thompson’s words and images. Absence and emptiness haunt the pages. In ‘growth’, the “leaves have failed” while people move forward (often by looking back), and:

     as I leave    fresh misnomers portion out
     their footsteps down frozen alleyways
     a faint collusion of detail
     I want names     each of them as they fall

There’s plenty going on there—tension between “misnomers” and “names”, footsteps and falling (and the earlier “failing”), and the detail adds up to a “faint collusion”. This is poetry of faint collusion rather than definite outline. It is therefore true to a certain way of experiencing the world.