Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

Calder Wood Press, 2009   £4.50

www.calderwoodpress.co.uk

Sphinx five point five striper

Reviewed by Richard Meier, Liz Bassett and Matthew Stewart

 

Richard Meier:

I’ve not heard Kevin Cadwallender read his poems, but I’m told that he is something of a tour de force on stage. And one can easily imagine some of these poems lending themselves to a live format—more than, perhaps, to life on the page. Readers who are comfortable with the poet-as-entertainer will, I suspect, get much more from this pamphlet than I was able to—I found the poems too lax, too knowing, all in all.

 

More specifically, I found too much poetry about ‘Poetry’ in this pamphlet. This, for instance:

 

I work in the church of the word without end

From the trinity Roger, Adrian and the holy Brian [. . . ]

 

I have stressed at the feet of masters [. . . ]

 

I am bic pen tamer with e.t. Left out.

(‘The Church of the Never Ending Word’).

 

And worse:


t;/p>

There will be similes like nobody’s business,

Twisted clichés and the silence around the world.

 

It won’t be great, that is a promise, it will be adequate,

filling in the hole left in the doughnut of the soul’

(‘Poeisis’)

 

Perhaps these texts might work in delivery—with a racy performance style—but when you have time to observe closely, your attention is drawn to errors of judgement and want of craft, the chopped-up prose, for example, in ‘Manuka and the Beat Generation’:

 

In the vegetarian supermarket

The William Burroughs’ look-alike

Is trying to pay for a jar of manuka honey,

with Scottish pound notes that he has

previously been caught shoplifting

from the store

(‘Manuka and the Beat Generation’)

 

Then there’s the ungainliness of some of the attempts at form:

 

I never said I loved with such grace

Content to believe you were always mine,

I was too arrogant, too often out of place

Too drunk, too swallowed in all of that wine.

(‘I never said I loved you with such grace’)

 

And the numerous proofing errors:

 

A knowing of one;s [sic] self

A knowing of place.

(‘Billy and the Military Tattoo’)

 

I couldn’t begin to understand how a poet could employ the extremely strange similes of ‘Windmills of Your Mind’, other than as a drunken sing-along to a well-known tune:

 

like a condom in a blender, like a tampon in a bog,

never flushing just revolving like a bollock licking dog.

(‘Windmills of Your Mind’)

 

I read on in mounting astonishment as to how something so flippant, so careless (does the poet not care that he has just told us that the tampon in the bog is like a “bollock licking dog”) found its way into print. But perhaps this is meant to be simply funny, and I just have the wrong sense of humour for this particular pamphlet.

 

There was one moment, however, when I felt that a poem might come off:

 

You are a gentle,

determined hunter,

Muddled and over thinking

everything, worrying the

sun from the sky

(‘Old Gold in the October Trees’)

 

The presence of some real feeling had me forgiving ‘over thinking’ (hyphen, no? or one word?—not two at any rate) but then the whole thing was demolished by the throwaway, oh-so-clever last line:

 

I dreamt of leaves you said

although I realise in the cold

breakfast of morning

they might be cornflakes.

 

 

Liz Bassett:

I wasn’t sure about this pamphlet when I first read it. There are some poems that made me smile but left me feeling unsure they were good poems.  Poems that are raucous and funny and probably, to be fair, far better heard at a reading than read from the page. I’m thinking about ‘Windmills of Your Mind’:

 

like a condom in a blender, like a tampon in a bog,

never flushing just revolving like a bollock licking dog.

 

But if I’m not sure about this as a poem for the page, than I am, oddly, sure about the poet behind it. There’s a dark humour in these lines, and images that stick in your mind (even when you don’t want them to) and a humanity.  So I kept reading. After all, the poetry pamphlet is a mixed bag of tricks—not all of the poems are going to work for everyone—and that’s ok.

 

‘After Strawberries’ did work for me. Like Edwin Morgan’s original, the poem uses a direct voice to the addressee and lays its intimacy out on the page. The language is simple and the phrases measured. There’s a balance and counterpoise, like a pendulum or a piece of machinery, that gives it a cleanness, an openness. It seems honest (whatever “honest” means when writing about love).  ‘After Strawberries’ does that thing that all good poems do—it gives you lines that live with you, lines that come into your head when you’re walking along the street days after you read them. Lines like these:

 

When I read ‘Strawberries’ I think of you

And the love that I gave you, that is yours

And yours alone, and the pain I handed you.

 

That precise phrasing recurs in ‘Old Gold in the October Trees’ addressed to a friend baiting traps for the “tiny hearts” of mice. The humour and timing is there again (note the gentle emphasis leant to everything by delaying it until the next line) and the tenderness is that of a love poem that poems to true friends should contain:

 

You are a gentle,

determined hunter,

Muddled and over thinking

everything, worrying the sun from the sky. . .

 

There are annoying punctuation slips in this pamphlet. Full stops surface in strange and unwelcome places—I feel I have to mention them. They are a pity because they could have been avoided with more careful proof reading.

 

 

Matthew Stewart:

Dog Latin makes its playful seriousness clear from the off: the cover features a canine in the middle of a church! This sets the tone for much of the poetry to come. Socially and politically aware, Kevin Cadwallender often uses humour to make his points, as in ‘Twenty One Mice on Salamander Street’:

 

Twenty one mice on Salamander Street

The sun chucked up outside as day was complete,

Even the mice have liaisons to keep,

Political asides and protective sheaths,

Twenty one mice on Salamander Street.

 

A couple of ventures into other tones are less successful. One instance is ‘I never said I loved you with such grace”:

 

You were patient, even constant, I see,

Although I failed to give you a clear sign.

You were someone I always relied on

And you told me I would know this in time

 

The technique might be tight here, but the content’s flabbier. We struggle to feel part of the poem.

 

Nevertheless, most of Dog Latin grabs our attention and demands that we commit to it as readers. Cadwallender deserves praise not only for this but also for a crucial quality that his best poems possess: only he could have written them.

 

What I mean by this is that while I might never have heard him, the idiosyncratic tones of his poetry lift lines from the book as if he were in the room when I’m sat here reading. This is a terrific talent—few poets are capable of placing their personal speech patterns on a page, intensifying them and turning them into poems.

 

All that’s left now is for me to make it to one of Cadwallender’s readings and hear his voice in person overlaying the words he’s already placed in my head.