HappenStance, 2010 £4.00
Reviewed by Annie Clarkson, Marcia Menter, Stephen Payne
Scarecrows is a difficult chapbook to review. It contains momentary brilliance, deeply interesting subjects, and yet felt emotionally empty at times and a little too clever.
The language, imagery, use of rhythm and sound are unquestionably good. These are poems with depth, an excellent grasp of poetic form and a distinct voice. Images such as “Her nudity/ is a weekend you are urged not to attend”, “the man whose head’s been Morris-danced into bandages”, “the pie-shop window of my breath” make exciting lines to read.
The broad reach of its subject matter is equally exciting: here we have a collection of poems filled with witchcraft, folklore, characters from comic books, glamour models, Shinto spirits, surgeons and artists. Many of the poems have historical/mythical starting points, each with a fictional or poetic life of its own. So, for instance, ‘Bedhair’, gives modern versions of a tanka by a young female Japanese poet writing in the early part of last century, and I loved the gutsy persona in the poem with her “which-wind-did-I-fuck bedhair”.
Other poems are inhabited by Egon Schiele, Jonathan Crane, Christina Lindberg, Voronoff, to name just a few. This is an intriguing aspect of Scarecrows: fascinating, clever, but also potentially frustrating. It depends what kind of reader you are: the one who understands the references, likes to learn, is impressed by esoteric subject matter; or the reader like me who found it distracting to have to make substantial use of Google to get a full appreciation of the poems.
There’s a short section of notes at the back of the book that guides the reader, but I couldn’t find out what ‘Jake Root’ is, and at some point lost interest in googling for answers, deciding I was either a bit dumb or that perhaps poetry can sometimes be so individual or personal in its myths and knowledge that it’s in danger of alienating the reader, almost like you’re not part of the in-crowd, not invited to the party or excluded by your own ignorance.
I can appreciate this chapbook as good poetry: the rhythms, word plays and sounds in these poems, their pace and imagery, the poet’s attention to detail. But I think perhaps a cleverer/more informed/willing reader than me might get more satisfaction from a collection like this.
On a finishing note, it is beautifully produced: perfectly stapled, good quality paper, a beautiful illustration on the front and a reasonable price. I would be very happy if all pamphlets were designed like this.
I swear that until this moment it never occurred to me that making a poem can be very like making a man out of straw and spare parts and sending him out to wreak havoc upon the populace. Or like fashioning a golem from clay and—if it’s Jon Stone’s golem—sending him through the streets of Prague in a “kitchen-white Skoda”
scrumping your Buy milk, eggs, bread list
in my steadying grip, ashing the kerb
with more scrapings of paint . . .
He’s a grumbler, this golem, carping about the way the sun bakes fissures into his clay flesh, but he’s clearly a good-natured, useful sort. And he walks, in his clanking way, the fine line between humor and dead-seriousness, morality and depravity, charm and menace. Ask me about Jon Stone’s poetic line and that’s the line I’ll talk about.
Stone is well-read, keen of ear and a very, very fine technician, but what wins me over is his divine crankiness. He has a flair for tall tales of criminals, charlatans and monsters, told from the skewed perspective of the people who admire them. In ‘Henching for Jonathan Crane’, the teller is a guy who’s made a career as a henchman for comic book villains: “You name the crook-cum-freak, I donned the shirt”. Jonathan Crane, of course, is Scarecrow in the Batman movies. (Actually I had to look that up. But I had fun doing it.) The other scarecrow in this collection is the narrator of ‘They Never See Themselves,’ a modern take on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story ‘Feathertop’ (which I’ve never read but will now). It’s a chilling little morality tale in four prose stanzas, and if you think that’s easy to bring off, just try writing one.
There’s also the homunculus pictured on the pamphlet’s cover, which has to be the subject of ‘Jake Root,’ a rattling good rant about ginger which never actually uses the word ‘ginger’:
[ . . . ] Get me that jake root,
that stick of mouth-gelignite, brute tongue-number,
that flashover powder, that head unblocker,
that knothole of daggers, that good thrumming petrol,
that woodknuckle jump-lead, that sting-in-a-knock . . .
I’d call it a tour de force, but I hesitate to use that phrase after reading ‘Bullshit-Related Injuries in the A & E’, in which recklessly flung clichés send people to the hospital. That’s a pity, because there are other poems I would very much like to call T***s de F****. One is ‘(The Dark Lord Must Be) Aubade’, which I read several times before getting the truly awful pun in the title. This deadpan song of a post-orgy dawn is written in precisely the same ten-line stanza as Philip Larkin’s ‘Aubade’, echoing that poem’s existential despair while mercilessly sending it up. I liked the poem even before I twigged to the Larkin connection, and that’s the thing about the dark pleasures of this pamphlet: the more I dig into the poems, the better they get.
This is a wild, highly original collection of poems. The main theme is Horror, ranging from the occult to the criminal underworld to medical curiosities. The diction comes from all four corners of the dictionary. And the writing is transparently accomplished, one gets a real impression of skill and care working together.
My favourite poems are the ones written in strict form. The forms are handled so well and the content is so unusual for formal poetry that these poems really stand out as first-class writing.
For example, there’s a version of Philip Larkin’s ‘Aubade’ (using precisely Larkin’s stanza form as well as several of his images) as spoken by the host the morning after an orgy. Here are the first four lines:
I wake at four and find I’m still half-drunk.
The light’s already edged the bedroom blind
but misses flanks and ankles that are sunk
in other flanks where bodies lie entwined.
Or check out, by googling, ‘Jake Root’, commended in the 2010 National Poetry Competition. Its driving dactylic rhythm sustains a long paean to (I think) chewing root ginger. I’m not sure about the adopted Caribbean figures of speech, but it surely is a poem of extraordinary forward momentum.
My main misgiving is that it sometimes feels as though the main point of the poems is their skillful construction. I’m left at the end of a poem full of admiration for the imagination and the ingenuity of the poet, but less often moved or provoked into my own thoughts about anything except poetry itself. This may be just a lack of sympathy with the content—I’ve never enjoyed the horror genre in film or literature, which I’m sure is my loss.
Occasionally, I wonder if the poet isn’t striving a little too hard for originality. I think the best lines might benefit from plainer contexts—as it is, the poems have a very high density of poetic effects—sonic, lexical and semantic. And I’m sure I’d enjoy reading a Stone poem with very conventional content—a love poem, or an elegy, say. I don’t believe he would be capable of writing a dull, all-been-done-before poem. If you like your poetry fast, dirty and dangerous, buy this pamphlet.