Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

Smith/Doorstop, 2013   £5.00Sphinx seven striper

Reviewed by Emma Lee, Stephen Payne and Hilary Menos

Emma Lee:
These are poems drawn from experience. Their subject matter includes spam, missed calls, fairgrounds, headlines, gigs and school dances. In ‘Flags in East Dulwich (1918 – 1938)’, an unidentified “she” gets a flag from the attic at Armistice in 1918. Her mother then tells her that they aren’t celebrating, the implication being that a male relative hasn’t returned from the war. The poem ends:

Twenty years later in spring, the rules
for the flat were no pets or children:
the dog and cat were installed, then twins.
Looking up to the guttural canoodling of doves,
brisk and undaunted by threats of another war,
she’d hang out the bright forbidden washing.

The girl who wanted to conform and retrieve the flag has become a rebel instead. I’m not quite convinced by the final sentence, though. I know what the poet is trying to say, but it seems to me clumsy. It’s “she” who is “brisk and undaunted”, not the doves. The listed rules haven’t mentioned anything about hanging out washing so I’m not sure why it’s “forbidden”. It’s a loaded word that detracts from the flag imagery used throughout.

It is when David Attwooll writes about specifics that his poems come to life and convey the impression they were written because they had to be. ‘Freedom from Torture’ is a series of couplets interspersed with words for bread from different languages:

Our baking group meets on Tuesday evenings
when the displaced and numb can speak

mkate   kikwanga   kobiz

and it helps to come and make simple things
kneading dough a haven, bread an innocent shore

panis   pita   pen

the smell of wholeness, home, before

The lack of an end stop is deliberate. The bakers’ stories aren’t finished yet and some aren’t ready to be told. The pared down language is basic and reflects the necessarily simple language within this multi-national group. It offers space for the reader to imagine what those stories may be and why a creative focus in the simple task of bread-making is imperative.

 

Stephen Payne:
David Attwooll’s enjoyable first pamphlet was one of the prize winners in the 2013 Poetry Business competition. It’s not a pamphlet with one central theme, but there are several poems about music, a couple of poems about particular places in the author’s home county of Oxfordshire, and four poems set, as it were, on his computer, in the email folder or the web browser. Many of the poems are touching, such as ‘Reunion Gig’, which sees band members gathered around the bassist’s hospital bed:

In a white room staff faff
chattily with curtain hooks
and the old rhythm section
scurrilously reminisce

What makes the pamphlet consistent and coherent is the poet’s tone, which is worldly, hovering at the boundary of humour and pathos. There’s an intelligence evident in the vocabulary and command of syntax: the long sentences constructed out of interesting words make for intensity and density. Occasionally, the poems seem hard work in that sense, demanding concentration even though there’s no fracturing or disconnection or obscurity. But it’s work that is rewarded.

To illustrate, here is the first stanza of ‘In Praise of Spam’:

compliment of the day it may be surprising
through unmoored texts that cloak salesmen and thieves
gleaming from midden hoards innocent of meaning
we scroll down codices & enter with ease

The lack of punctuation in this poem is not typical, but the linguistic density is. And here is the second stanza of ‘Nesting’, which is the pamphlet’s last:

This fine origami of fog folds our cache
of impressions in wisps of blown muslin,
like books left outside slowly read by snow:
colours lose density, words become ash,
and our lives refract to white light, still woven
into empty cells when the insects go.

I enjoyed the poems most when I read them one at a time. And I enjoyed them especially when they were personal and idiosyncratic and at their most direct, as in the love poem ‘Anniversary’, which begins, very beautifully:

You’re the girl in the mist
on the school touchline, duffle-coated;
next thing, I’m here at mid-on playing cricket
on our thirty-first anniversary.

 

Hilary Menos:
I like David Attwooll's lack of pretension and preciousness. He is playful and experimental and while he doesn't always pull it off, his poetry is interesting and sometimes provocative. Of his more experimental pieces, the one that works best for me is 'Freedom from Torture'. In it  Attwooll alternates couplets with groups of three words for bread in different languages.

Our baking group meets on Tuesday evenings
when the displaced and numb can speak


mkate    kikwanga    kobiz

and it helps to come and make simple things
kneading dough a haven, bread an innocent shore

panis    pita    pen

It's an investigation into etymology (something any poet worth his or her salt must bear in mind), but also hints at how languages travel, and at the human cruelties that lie behind forced movements of people. And it reminds us how certain small comforts can evoke or even stand in for home. Atwooll navigates this serious undertaking with masterly assurance, managing to be personal without being sentimental, and political without being didactic.

After this I am disposed to try and like ‘In Praise of Spam’ which eschews punctuation and even grammar in a fragmented flurry of verbiage (“they drift as sand dunes sort my gnash of id space /oddly connected keep we light off & feel free”). Attwooll works in publishing and his interest in technology, media and communications is evident here, and also in ‘Murmuration’, which looks at critical transitions in complex systems, and in ‘Lost Finger Turns Up Inside Fish’ (“In my inbox there's an email headed / Today's Levitation”.) He's also a street drummer, and there are a number of poems showcasing his love of music throughout the pamphlet. Some of these are lovely, such as ‘Listen:’, about what he calls “adolescent password music” (“hot tarmac and petrol fumes fuel /an idling pause, and the tremor as bass notes kick in”). Some are less so, such as ‘Siren’, which hauls a siren singing on the rocks rather roughly out of Greek classical mythology and into the present day, making her a carnival DJ skanking on her float.

But where Attwooll writes about specific locations, he really comes into his own. ‘Port Meadow’, about the ancient grazing land which runs along the bank of the Thames in Oxford, highlights what I like best in his work – the way he can use long lines, a conversational tone and a focus on the small detail to build up a visual picture of a place, into which he introduces, and then foregrounds, the human. In ‘Port Meadow’ the “long low and flat landscape” becomes "a peopled place /of course: painted landscapes often need, somewhere, a red smudge." This poem creeps up on you gently and rewards you again and again, and it demonstrates why Attwooll was one of the four winners of the Poetry Business Competition 2012/13.

Smith/Doorstop pamphlets are always a joy to handle and read; this one is no exception.