Oli Hazzard shifts and repurposes clichés about the rainforest in his poetry. Photo: Getty
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Puzzle pieces: finding the patterns in the poetry

Matthew Sperling looks at new poetry collections by Paul Batchelor, Oli Hazzard, and Toby Martinez de las Rivas.

The Love Darg
Paul Batchelor
Clutag, 52pp, £8.50

Within Habit
Oli Hazzard
Test Centre, 48pp, £12

Terror
Toby Martinez de las Rivas
Faber & Faber, 80pp, £9.99

When a new poet published by Faber & Faber starts using ampersands in his poems, you know something is afoot. In recent UK poetry, the symbol has been a stylistic identifier for “experimental” work; for Don Paterson, “the Ampersands” is a derisive nickname for pretentious avant-gardists. Yet in the opening lines of Toby Martinez de las Rivas’s remarkable first collection, Terror, we find ampersands working in the service of a lucid and spontaneous lyricism:

As snow falls, as the first snow of this
 year falls & falls
 beyond all light & knowledge . . .

In the same poem, “Twenty-One Prayers for Weak or Fabulous Things”, the spirit of a recent avant-garde poet is invoked:

I pray for the wild ghost of Barry MacSweeney
which has a bird’s throat & thrumming, elliptical wings.

If it’s true that a generation is coming to maturity for which the stand-off between mainstream and experimental poetry no longer holds, then Toby Martinez de las Rivas’s first book, along with the second collections by Paul Batchelor and Oli Hazzard – all of them English poets born between 1977 and 1986 – marks a decisive moment.

The modernist ambitions of Terror are signalled immediately by its typographic strangeness. We get two kinds of title (one large and roman, the other small and italic) with no obvious reason for the distinction; dividing pages with mysterious large dots, perhaps recalling the large dot after the penultimate chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses, and a Latin word underneath (“Ignis”, “Natura”); words that escape from the lines into marginal and interlinear space; and a final poem, placed after the notes, like a hidden track on an album, that consists entirely of punctuation.

This all sounds rather tricksy, but the exciting thing about the book is how unlike most of his contemporaries Martinez de las Rivas seems to be in his seriousness and intensity – a mad monk living among baffled hipsters. (The only writer on the Faber list he resembles is David Jones but Jones was born in 1895.) His poems go deeply into the matter of Britain, digging up buried cultural deposits from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, from early-modern sacred anthems, from religious history. If this reminds you of Geoffrey Hill, it is surely intended to. The sequence of poems that come as prose paragraphs is clearly the work of a writer who has learned much from Hill’s masterpiece Mercian Hymns (1971) about how to twist the language into phrases that seem to come out of nowhere, at once surprising and true. Terror is a bracing performance.

Like Martinez de las Rivas, Paul Batchelor both enjoys an ampersand and finds room in his poems to credit a wide range of poetic forebears. His new book, The Love Darg, elegantly produced by the Oxfordshire small press Clutag, takes epigraphs from, among others, Louis MacNeice, the darling of a whole generation of mainstream lyric poets, and Bill Griffiths, among the more alienating of avant-garde outsiders. This was already the case in Batchelor’s first collection, The Sinking Road (2008), but six years on, his poems have gained a different sort of authority and formal control altogether. The opening poem, “Brother Coal”, begins with a Heaney-esque childhood vision of the “darkness of the coal shed” and follows through with seven stanzas on the “compacted sentiment” and social history of coal:

Fibred, veined, fissured like an icicle –
black, pleated muscle ripped with black blood-crystal.
It stranged my mind that I could never lift
a shovelful or lug a sack – the heft!

There is muscle here but elsewhere Batchelor is capable of a light touch, too, particularly in the cool-headed love poem “The Catch-Up”, which perhaps takes as its formal model the rhyming triplets of Elizabeth Bishop and Derek Mahon and stands up pretty well to the comparison. The publisher’s blurb boldly states: “Batchelor is the most accomplished poet of his generation.” The Love Darg shows that to be a credible claim.

Like Batchelor’s book, Oli Hazzard’s Within Habit is a deluxe, small-press offering from a poet with one previous book with a mainstream publisher. Put together by the east London-based Test Centre, it’s a beautifully printed, large-scale object, the size of an exhibition catalogue, with generous white space around the blue text. It’s not one for reading on the Tube. John Ashbery writes in a preface: “Oli Hazzard’s stunning set of prose puzzles suggests a kit with only a few instructions supplied. We must figure out what to do with it . . .”

So what is to be done? Hazzard’s text has all the components from which people create significance – the raw materials of language, the body and spatial relations: “Here lies | the field across which patterns such as people appeared | to feign intimacy in appearance.” But it’s as if the parts have been jumbled up and speculatively put back together by an archaeologist. The vertical bars in that quotation are part of the text, presented in prose blocks divided by bars into units that seem sometimes conceptual, sometimes phrasal and sometimes a bit random. As we read, the meaning emerges not on the level of primary statement but through secondary implication and pattern-making.

This is more fun for the reader than it might sound. Throughout the book, motifs recur teasingly. Ideas about reproduction and authenticity are important: “I prefer the copies | of masterpieces | over the originals,” Hazzard writes. Limits and boundaries are significant, too, and again the opening poem gives the keynote: “I was intimated across the threshold | of a margin | of a centre.”

Clichés come back in shifted and repurposed forms: “High over | an area of rainforest | makeshift barriers are erected | to distinguish the trees | from the wood to form a thick, impenetrable paywall . . .” Hands and faces stand in for bodies but may be merely stage props: “I extend my hand to shake your | rubber hand.”

Other readers will find their own patterns. It’s not quite clear what Within Habit amounts to but the experience of the poems is exciting even when missing the meaning – and the book is a lovely thing to own and have nearby. Get one while they’re hot.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

JESSICA NELSON/MOMENT OPEN
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The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times