Flarestack Poets, 2012 £4.50
Reviewed by Niall Campbell and Jake Campbell
NB There is no stripe rating for this pamphlet because the third reviewer was lost in action, and so was the copy of the publication sent to them. Apologies (ed.).
This collection is made up of quatrains, couplets, loose sonnets — a variety of forms, more or less well implemented. These poems have obviously been crafted — I only wish the formal structures had been harnessed to put more of a pressure on the content. As it is, many of the poems seemed to me stretched and overdone. One would hesitate to say that the poet was enjoying himself (many of the poems have a furious bleakness to them) but an effort might have been made to reign-in or condense the author’s ‘enthusings’, such as in the poem ‘Nocturne’:
.....................Where the bricked-in
brook cocks its dogleg against a scraggy park
and a gaggle of smoking boys accretes
around a buzzing streetlamp, blowing columns of fume,
their bullshit soured by base-notes of fuck-off
cologne. A pishy wind scourges
Clarke has a tending towards the visceral — both in image and in the means of its description. This is evidenced, too, in poems such as ‘Symphony of Horror’ (“I watched him glide towards me,/ a fanged phallus, smothering me with his silhouette”) and ‘Cabbage’ (“this shell without a seed, revealing tributaries of creamy matter which pattern the gaud of its amethystine brain”).
As a whole, much of the work left me cold—the ire and idiosyncrasies of the poems seemed so confined to the writer that I, as a reader, did not find it easy to ‘get in’ to them. Despite being so bluntly confronted by images and ideas, I didn’t feel I shared them, the language or perspective forcing too much of a distance.
A final example might be in the ending of the opening poem, ‘Sword-Swallowing for Beginners’. In this poem, as in many here, there is definitely something there (a really great metaphor, a true image) only I can’t help but feel it would be better served if it was barer, freed from the noisier alliteration and “deathly spindle”:
take a blunted
bayonet, silver and slick with spit. Arrange
your body around that deathly spindle,
repeat to yourself — I am unharmed. Unharmed.
Gaud starts in a way I wasn’t expecting. ‘Sword-Swallowing for Beginners’, a tight bundle of quatrains, gives instructions on how to “sit for hours/ with a knuckle softly pressed inside your head”.
I feared this poem might fall into – well – something quite gaudy. I’m pleased to say Clarke is better than that. Instead, it soon becomes a parable for swallowing political deceit: “you can sit for hours [ . . . ] watching rolling news of the war.” By the end, “you” will be “ready to take a blunted/ bayonet, silver and slick with spit.” Use of the second person here feels apt, given the undertones, and the sibilance is perfect, its highly connotative presence ideally weighted against the more conversational conclusion: “repeat to yourself – I am unharmed. Unharmed.”
Many texts here pertain to the pamphlet’s title, 'My Night with Edith’ in particular. The poem is urgent and deeply atmospheric. A quirky but rather splendid use of unfamiliar words brings the event to life. “You sashayed to the jukebox”, announces our narrator, headlong in the throes of a one-night stand begun at “A queer bar in the East Midlands/ or was it some dive in the Latin Quarter?” The short lines lend themselves to the pace and mood, and descriptions such as “Our shadows swung on a naked bulb” made me feel like some voyeur to the spectacle. I was less sure about Clarke’s decision to keep the very last line, “No regrets.” After the headlong rush through the rest of the poem – and particularly after the sharp, penultimate lines, “Your hand/ on my knee, your tongue in my mouth” – it felt a little heavy-handed, as if I’d been forcibly removed from the poem with no time for reflection.
Elsewhere, it’s not difficult to see why Gaud was a winner of Flarestack’s pamphlet competition. ‘Nocturne’, which resembles a scene from a gritty TV drama, is succinct in its contempt for “smoking boys [ . . . ] around a buzzing streetlamp”. Here we see “A pishy wind” driving out “all signs of grace”. In ‘Gran Reserva’ – possibly as far away from a Shakespearean Sonnet as one could get – I was nevertheless moved by Clarke’s attention to detail and finesse for reinventing tired scenes, as in: “The knot/ of sex that bound us working loose in sober/ mornings, the glass I drank when it was over.”