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

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

The Isle of Man, from where author Zoe Gilbert hails. CREDIT: GETTY
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Zoe Gilbert’s original debut novel Folk feeds our new appetite for myth

Is Folk a novel? Its publisher says so, but I’m not sure.

I’ll put up my hands and make an admission: I don’t read many contemporary novels. Most of them seem, well, too contemporary. For a long time, much “literary” fiction has skated along the surface of modern urban life, engaging with the “interiority” of the middle-class mind and whatever cultural brouhaha is currently in fashion among the progressive literati.

The result is a kind of placid, smug dullness about which it’s mostly impossible to care: an Ian McEwan-isation of the soul. For years, writers shunned or simply ignored the old storytellers’ realms of mythology, image and the collective unconscious; the strange, magical depths which underlie all things, but which our society prefers to pretend is not really there.

But something is stirring. In recent years, novelists have begun to venture out beyond the shores of reason, beyond the city and sometimes beyond the human, too. The result is a small blooming of books, and of films and music, which are exploring this strange otherness again. Writers such as Daisy Johnson, Andrew Michael Hurley, Sylvia Linsteadt and Ben Myers are pushing the boundaries of what has been called “folk horror”. They, in turn, are drawing from a thriving underworld of eeriness, folk culture and myth that is perhaps unparalleled in Britain since the 1970s.

What is going on here? Well, people are hungry. Hungry for real meat, and missing what they don’t know they have lost. What we might call the “folk soul” still undergirds our vision of the world, however many gadgets we use to navigate it. Why else would the likes of Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings continue to grip the popular imagination?

The surface is not enough. Our culture is starving people of spiritual and mythic nourishment. We barely even know what these words mean any more, so how would our writers know how to engage with them? Yet when our stories remain stuck in a permanent present, something is missing – something old, strange and sacred. “Fantasy” novelists such as Alan Garner, M John Harrison and the late Ursula K Le Guin, have long known this better than their “literary” counterparts.

In this vein comes Folk, the debut novel by Zoe Gilbert, a past winner of the Costa Short Story Award. It draws deeply from the old tales of the Isle of Man, from where the author hails, to give us a book which is genuinely original, disturbing, beautiful and gripping. It is both a joy to read, and –always a bonus – a tricky book to pin down

Is Folk a novel? Its publisher says it is, but I’m not sure. It has recurring characters, but no single storyline; each chapter could stand alone. So is it a collection of short stories? Yes, but no: the same characters recur throughout, popping in and out of each others’ tales and adding to the weight of the whole. That whole makes up a convincing world peopled with distinctive characters, a verdant, living landscape and a liminality of strange beings who regularly intrude upon the everyday lives of the humans.

Perhaps Folk is neither a novel nor a collection of stories; perhaps it is a map. Indeed, one of its attractions for me is that a map of Neverness, the fictional village in which the stories are set, is the first thing you see when you open the book. (I am a sucker for books with maps in the front: I grew up on fantasy novels, and the cartography was always part of the attraction.) Folk can be read as a map of the British mythic imagination: of the river under the river. Starkly original and expertly written, it draws you, like a faerie song, into a kingdom from which you may never escape, and may not want to.

Gilbert’s writing has shades of Le Guin and Angela Carter, and like both of those authors she knows that real mythology, real folk culture, has a core of darkness to it; a core that both repels and entices. True fairytales are not fluffy, and they often do not have happy endings. There is an undercurrent of earthy danger here; a raw sexuality too, unashamed of itself.

A young boy is burned alive in a gorse bush, seeing visions of angels; a girl’s father kills and skins her pet hares; a woman is kidnapped by a water bull and ravished beneath the waves; a girl drowns her father by mistake; a woman murders her sister to steal her lover. But the darkness is not revelled in or overdone; it is intrinsic to the book’s realism. “Realism” might seem a bizarre word to use about tales set in a mythic land in which men are born with wings for arms and women become hares. But in a book like this, it is imperative that the newly-minted world has an internal logic and consistency.

Folk succeeds triumphantly in this regard. Reading its chapters – which have titles like “The Neverness Ox-men”, “Fishskin, Hareskin”, and “A Winter Guest” – is like sitting by a fire with some old storyteller, listening to the strange tales of his people. The work that has gone into creating the world of Neverness has paid off. These seem like stories from a real place.

This is the marker of the novel’s success: that immersion in its world makes that world seem, for a while, more real than the one you are living in. More appealing, too. When you turn the last page, you may find yourself looking out of the window, or at the screen of your phone or laptop, with a pang of regret and a sense of loss. Then you might find yourself returning to Neverness, like the children return to Narnia. It beats what passes at the moment for “reality”, and it is more human, too. 

“Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” by Paul Kingsnorth is published in paperback by Faber & Faber

Zoe Gilbert
Bloomsbury, 256pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game