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13 May 2015

Cutting up the now: Sean Borodale, Frances Leviston and Sam Riviere’s new books

Three prize-laden upcoming poets return with second collections driving poetry into the digital future and the human past.

By Philip Maughan

Matrimony reloaded: Kris Humphries and Kim Kardashian in 2011. Credit: Beverly News/Rex

Human Work
Sean Borodale
Jonathan Cape, 68pp, £10

Frances Leviston
Picador, 69pp, £9.99

Kim Kardashian’s Marriage
Sam Riviere
Faber & Faber, 96pp, £10.99

Sean Borodale writes on the job. His first collection of poetry, Bee Journal, was an ­account of two years spent tending a colony of bees. “Note, if tapped the hive will roar,” he jotted quickly on the pad he carried with him. “Did this; it did.” Bee Journal was the work of an obsessive, a voyeur and an apprentice bee-keeper who was both an alien presence among beasts – “Gauze, visor again, veil,/the white suit, until I, anonymous” – and an anxious worker drone, a fragment of the conscious hive.

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As he watches the bees create a home – “And they rig crack, lump, recess, ridge/to the commune of a memory” – he shares in their sacrifice. One poem, “27th July”, reads simply: “And is she in?” Without the queen bee, “maker of bodies”, all is lost, and so some poems are devoted, Edmund Spenser-like, to the health and happiness of “our queen”. Only rarely does the colony become trivial, as in “12th November: Winter Honey”, in which it is relegated to a provider of food: “Giant’s Causeway hexagons we smeared on buttered toast . . . Much work, one bee, ten thousand flowers a day/to make three teaspoons-worth of this/disconcerting/solid broth . . .”

Human Work, Borodale’s second collection, was also penned on the job – only now the poet operates within a human dwelling, slaving by the flame of Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, to prepare stewed apple, venison, raita and elderflower champagne for his family. At its best, the new book is a sensuous account of an ancient human activity, a set of action poems that thrusts the reader into the space where imagination meets taste and touch. At its worst, it is a posh cookbook, plagued by obtuse phrases – “the grammar of leaves”, “the phonetics of frying” – and banal instructions: “Beat egg-yolks into sugar/whisk into hot milk,”
and so on.

“Today I work/for the opened mouth,” Borodale writes in “Pancakes”, which, like Bee Journal, places the reader within the calendar year. “Kipper” memorialises an “incident of supper” in which a desiccated kipper eaten alone on a gloomy night moves us out of the kitchen to the “trawlers moving towards dawn’s grim sweep”, their hulls groaning with “fish; flashing bright bullion of water,/hurting and gasping into a writhing bale”. It is a poem in which the beautiful and terrifying processes that stock middle-class kitchens across Britain are felt as an ache, registering the social relations that underpin foraging and feeding in modern times:


I taste the ruined cartography
 of smoulder;

see the knife-blade mark and
 wound-size of its length;

the cold stain of its smokehouse life [. . .]

What is that face

of fish bone and spilt milk and skin

looking up like it’s known me? So blue.

What have I eaten?


Another sophomore collection, Disinformation, by the Durham-based poet Frances Leviston, associates fish with death and decay. In a bizarre dramatic monologue, “Bishop in Louisiana”, the public catastrophe of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill parallels the private thoughts of a narrator who appears to be the 20th-century American poet Elizabeth Bishop, resurrected and working as a PR woman for BP. “I myself eat at the hotel: beef, pasta, anything but fish,” she says, “watching the black sea break foamlessly/against the chemical barricade . . ./ There is little to accomplish here.”

The collection asks how dependably we can rely on received wisdom, the kind of information picked up while we idly listen to the radio, tour the ruined structures of ancient Greece or even revisit events from our own past. It is a theme broad enough (or vague enough) to contain some magnificent individual poems. Disinformation is full of memorable opening lines (the poem “IUD” begins, “This gadget intrudes so nothing else can”) and often reduces complex ideas to knife-sharp quatrains, such as, “Well, but what/is sentiment? Emotion/out of time/with its occasion?” or, in a punning, playfully arrogant description of the “Propylaea”, the entrance to the Acropolis: “It is properly/the gate before the gate,/the entrance before the entrance,/a huge tautology.” Leviston’s powers of observation are also on show, as when describing the rubbery red leaves of the Iresine plant familiar from working-class gardens: “Shocking pink and plasticky-looking,/like something that would titivate an antechamber/or teach medics nerves”.

“Story”, the final poem in Disinformation, offers the reader a variety of narrative possibilities – “pollen blown from the next field along, belonging to whom, missed/by whom, questioned by which particular method, scarred where . . .” – while doubting the legitimacy of completion, of truth, in art. “Why will it then be permitted to surface,/the end of the story, the body we need?” It is appropriate that such a sceptical (though far from humourless) book should terminate with a question mark.

While she roves through objects and structures associated with the transmission of data – GPS, a university (which she compares cannily to a rabbit warren), shrunken heads in an Oxford museum and a memory foam mattress – it is curious that Leviston does not pay greater mind to what Sam Riviere referred to in his debut collection, 81 Austerities, as the “radiant cloud” of the internet. Kim Kardashian’s Marriage, Riviere’s new book, is a sequel – perhaps “remix” or “director’s cut” would be more appropriate, given the poet’s subcultural interests – made up of 72 poems (one for each day that the socialite and social media doyenne Kim Kardashian spent married to the basketball star Kris Humphries) constructed from results produced by Google searches for headings lifted and reworked from 81 Austerities.

“I DO NOT OWN OR TAKE CREDIT/FOR THIS SONG,” begins the second stanza of “american dust”, a nod to the curatorial process that created it. Despite the frequent occurrence of an “I” (who can never be identified), the poems are the opposite of confessional. They advertise their fabrication and yet by clipping text from blogs, comment boards, wikis and social media, they reveal plenty.

A recent blog on the New Yorker website described Riviere – who has a degree in fine art as well as a PhD in creative and critical writing – as part of a coterie of writers producing “post-internet” poetry: “the literary equivalent of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades”, abstracted from reality and given new meaning, bringing “the poetry of witness into the 21st century”.

Maybe. The “post-” refers to an attitude towards unacknowledged reproduction of images and text that is in essence ambivalent, which is not to play down the wit, range and narrative reach of these ­poems. From the surreal (“You know what this means?!/eyes love infinity”) to the comic and sad (“Do people really go/to an anime-inspired fantasy world/when they die?”), they replicate perfectly the exasperating flattening of information wreaked by the internet, where natural disasters, historical dates and dogs on slides are made equally uninteresting.

Because we know how the poems were made – and because Riviere has chosen Kimmie, the quintessential new media ­celebrity, as his patroness – we become alert to shifts in register, suspicious of rhyme and fluid meter, constantly interrogating the form that each collage takes. In the ­collection’s longest poem, “the new heaven”, we see what looks on the page like a hymn. “What might this mean?” it asks. “What are the implications of this?/Does it have, The New Earth, Wikipedia/the free encyclopaedia?”