Shoestring Press, 2009 £5.00
Sphinx High Striper
Reviewed by Emma Lee, Hilary Menos and Michael Tolkien
This is a series of 15 poems, most with an epigram either from the Bible or taken from The Poetical Works of Richard Crashaw and Francis Quarles’ Emblems With Memoirs and Critical Dissertations, although the poems are contemporary, referencing DNA and CCTV. They explore how people react and behave in an urban landscape. The tone is one of quiet evocation and atmosphere, for example in ‘The Incantation: A Mandika Song (Theme & Variations)’:
Dare you take my hand, shake your feet free of the dark
as you’d step from a circle of discarded clothes?
Can you turn your eyes from the hands of the clock?
The lines look wordy and awkward but that belies the careful rhythmic structure that makes reading aloud easy. The language flows too with assonance and alliteration, giving the reader confidence that the poet knows what he’s doing. These aren’t poems that feel the need to advertise themselves or remind the reader they’re ‘poems’.
In ‘VII: Side-Effects’, where the side-effects are those from anti-depressants:
Buttercups nod on a darkening lawn
and ivy slumps like a safety-net
in the shadows thrown by a carriage-lamp.
You tell me you’re watching your own mind work from a long way off,
does that make sense or are you going mad?
The orange upglare of the skyline burns
like rushlight on armoured, unmoving clouds.
The imagery is appropriate to the reported speech, observed from a distance just as the person in the poem watches their mind working from a long way off (which can be an effect of anti-depressants). The choice of words is deceptively simple and conveys layers of meaning. There’s plenty of space for the reader to interpret and read the poems.
This pamphlet is one I would return to. It rewards re-reading.
Reading this pamphlet I am reminded of paintings by Georg Grosz, of Cornish tourist resorts out of season, and of the parks I played in when I was a child growing up in Luton. It’s all pretty dark and populated by characters I might now cross the road to avoid.
Burrows gives us ‘Sixteen poems after Frances Quarles' Emblems, divine and moral, together with Hieroglyphicks of the life of man’. Quarles’ Emblems was published in 1635 and his Hieroglyphics of the Life of Man followed in 1637. Both constituted a kind of Practical Morality, and consisted of paraphrased passages of Scripture, rather plodding verse and pat epigrams illustrated by a series of elaborate engravings. Quarles’ homespun piety was immensely popular with ordinary people, running into twelve editions before 1700, but he was panned by critics as low-brow and populist.
It’s an attractive pamphlet with a reproduction of the frontispiece to Quarles’ Emblems on the front. The poems are each prefaced with a quote from the Emblems, some more appropriately than others (I’m not sure what the Mandinka song is doing there) and are mostly in Burrows’ trademark rangy blank verse. From the “coloured plastic clip-on case for your mobile phone” to CCTV, Stereolab and Jackie Chan, Burrows unashamedly hauls Quarles into the twenty-first century.
In ‘Temptation’, the poem begins with “a gleam of slate/ like serpent scales”. Snippets of ad-speak break in throughout, forcing the writer out into a world which revolves around consumption. “I (. . .)/ pass a dozen billboards for cars, sweets, phones . . ./ A voice in my head is singing eat eat eat/ as I reach for the chocolate in the mini-mart.”
This loose style studded with modern references often works well, painting vignettes of grim reality, occasionally leavened by a dash of hope. In ‘The Archway Altarpiece’
At my back, the dark, exhaust-stained stone
of the Archway Clinic of Sexual Health
extends asylum behind electric doors
to every conceivable shade of love.
However, when his poems are overloaded with reported speech they begin to sound contrived and unreal. In ‘The Headlines’ an ex-banker describes his former life:
I’d take Citalopram, keep my thoughts in check,
pin unease on personal flaws,
stifle conscience with wine, cocaine.
And some of the poems are a bit gimmicky. ‘Among the Landscapes of Cliché’ takes 24 long lines to make a fairly slight point, and ‘A Curse (New Authorised Version’)’ ends with a pat rhyme which the poem hasn’t really earned.
But when Burrows goes lyrical, he has a powerful way with words. ‘Side Effects’ ends with “The orange upglare of the skyline burns/ like rushlight on armoured, unmoving clouds”, which does it for me. He can sound authoritative, compassionate and compelling all at once, as in the final poem of the pamphlet ‘Underground’, which concludes:
We shall flood junctions, stations, buildings, streets, like a power
surge in the circuitry
before a system crash. This is only a moment, a single forward
step in time
that might have ended up anywhere, but seems to end right here.
The initial quiet, measured three incantatory variations (called ‘Mandinka Song’, significantly derived from another culture) invite us to shun interiorised fear and gloom for a world of light, open spaces, and fertility. These are best read both first and after the last poem (or emblem) where we are hurtled along on a tube journey with its lost, jittery passengers, illusory sense of destiny and return to light:
. . . we flow through the earth like words in a wire, the blood
in a vein,
will rise among gleaming escalators into the sunlight of the
Fourteen poems earlier in the first ‘emblem’ poem, we are plunged into a seductively repellent, lurid, unsettling urban landscape, imperceptibly blending nightmare with the credible mundane, a journey in the tradition of trips through Hades. All along, there are recurrent ironic resonances of that first gently persuasive song with its uncluttered, confident aspirations that imply what lies at the heart of the ‘diseased’ lives and scenes we experience.
Though there is parallel redemption. ‘The Headlines’ (because they are inconsequential and such careers won’t be noticed!) is a one-way dialogue with someone who’s rejected corporate greed and its dreams for the skills of carpentry. Work that’s precisely described, yet feels like actions of true substance and meaning. And here, along with many of his less fortunate characters, Burrows leaves room for empathy.
No one should dismiss the poems’ relationships with the epigrammatic emblems of the mid-17th century poet Francis Quarles, the frontispiece of whose Emblems adorns the book’s front cover. He imagises a world and society rich with potential so easily ruined. His finely-honed aphorisms assume we’ll supply details from our experience, whereas Burrows makes innumerable emblems hit us from all angles: we flounder among them either trying to make sense and find illumination, or becoming no-hopers.
In ‘A Trick of Light’ the epigraph from Quarles reads:
See how these fruitful kernels, being cast
Upon the earth, how thick they spring!
The poem plunges us into the illusions of advertising, sterile and delusive, as seen from the viewpoint of exhausted and excluded people waiting for a bus to nowhere desirable.
Overhead, on billboards flashed bright with floods
and florescent strips, the smiling, quietly
confident face of the woman who knows
her needs are met, the man whose
chiselled, sun-warmed limbs
frame a six-pack of airbrushed skin.
In these pacy narratives that include (with apparent inevitability) eloquent objects, gestures and half-finished statements, our senses are out on stalks along with the poet’s. Much contemporary sniping at urban malaise, itself a cliché, plays to the gallery. Burrows is the genuine article, makes us laugh and despair at once and touches on unlikely sources of renewal.
Congratulations also to Shoestring for yet another perfect marriage of content with presentation and format.