Templar Poetry, 2010 £4.50
Reviewed by Kirsten Irving, Patrick Yarker and Ross Kightly
The broad landscape format of this pamphlet was always going to be the first thing to strike the reader. The dark red lino print cover of The Stammering Man opens like a calendar; this has a very commanding effect, like setting down a painting in front of you—because it takes fractionally longer to flip leaves, and because the size forces you to hold it central in your field of vision between two hands, each piece demands more attention—a good call between publisher and author for the most part. It’s less fun when you’re trying to nip between pieces (say, when reviewing it), but that’s a minor gripe.
A shame to open with ‘Tube’, one of the weaker pieces in the collection. A mishmash of easy targets, such as right-wing papers, the tired mass-media refrain of “you are what you . . .”, in which the speaker is obviously scornful of “the parrot instinct” and the author doesn’t explore any new territory on a well-trodden track. Employing “cliché” in the penultimate line of a poem about repetition and cliché is also totally unnecessary.
A shame because immediately after this, we’re treated to a pair of pieces, ‘Alter’ and ‘A Tesselation’, which really make the most of the layout, the former setting two columns side by side in order to depict parallel lives, and the latter the first of several ‘tesselations’ present in the collection, which cannily juxtapose separate stanzas, each of which can be read as complete in itself or running on through its neighbour.
The centrepiece of the pamphlet, ‘The Trial of the Stammering Man’, is a narrative composed of such linked structures. The poem uses the idea of stammering and repetition beautifully in certain instances, almost Gertrude Stein-like in ‘The stammering man instructs counsel’, with the sequence of false starts that begins, “but rarely the soul is/ but rarely the sense is/ the throat is but rarely” creating an abstract and fractured attempt at communication. The plea of “G-G-G/ N-Not Innocent” is a great touch too. Overall, though, there’s too much othering of the title character in terms of the stammer. He is depicted in pretty condescending terms (“Say hello to the stammering man/ really he can’t hurt a fly”), and if this was meant to be deliberate, it doesn’t feel like the author justifies this tone.
I enjoyed the shifting set pieces and scenes generated by each arrangement in this collection. At once both disorientating and clarifying, the form mixes elements of visual art into the poetry, offering alternative routes in and making the reader adopt an active approach to looking at each piece. I’d have preferred a few more inspired titles (‘A Tesselation’ being an obvious signpost), but overall a pamphlet that not only bears but actively rewards re-reading.
I liked reading this. I hadn't expected to; the format tripped me up initially. I opened The Stammering Man as any normal pamphlet and found it has been printed in landscape rather than portrait mode. This meant I had to shift it through ninety degrees in order to follow the words. Doing so, I found the long slim format reminded me of a cricket scoring-book, and this checked the irritation I'd felt at having to adjust my usual way of reading. Poems should, of course, adjust one's usual way of reading.
Inside the not-quite-cricket-ball-red of the cover, seventeen poems frequently (but not always) arranged in what at first sight appear to be three blocks of verse-paragraphs stepping down and across the wide page from left to right. There are variations on this novel and at times unsettling arrangement. The line will jump or wander from the first block into the second, and eventually right across to a third block, so that reading the poem becomes more overtly than usual a small journey of the eyes as well as the mind. Such a format more-than-usually underscores the moment a line breaks or extends, charging this flicker between units of language, and charging the words around the flicker too.
The lay-out of some poems visually summons their subject-matter. The two tall thin columns of 'Alter' might be read as the table-legs of an altar. 'Barnacle or Brent' looks like a high-flying v-skein of geese, (and the words of the poem conjure their sounds.) 'Cloudless' (which I take to be designed for reading up the page) rises and disperses like escaping steam or a long exhalation.
There is frolic and play in the language of many poems: puns, internal rhymes, allusions (and apparently-academic references), descriptive lists which link by association and assonance as well as by sense or a sharp eye's accuracy of observation. Bait is "writhing pearls". Dead bodies in a police investigation are "high-tented, like the fete". The poet's ear, too, is open and alert: a tube-train's carriage "grates out of Moorgate". 'Mud' riffs on that vowel-sound. The pamphlet's title-sequence includes sections which highlight the plight of the stammering man's inability to articulate freely through a wry use of rhyme, or the poignant deployment of repeated rhythms.
I found the format a little claustrophobic or wearying in those few poems which contained no full-stops. In these I needed a breather. There is thoughtfulness as well as display in these poems, and I was grateful for those which allowed me time to think inside them as well as after I'd emerged. The collection presents a contemporary world of game-shows, convenience-stores, unsolved crimes, global warming and financial crashes, but also find room for grass, water, sky and the wind. The poems engaged me with their wit, formal inventiveness and frequent emotional understatement.
The first thing to remark about this pamphlet is its shape: resolutely landscape and almost a third as wide again as A5 is high—the result is a Widescreen effect—Cinerama rather than VistaVision or Cinemascope—very wide indeed.
On the back cover both George Szirtes and Moniza Alvi are very complimentary about the expressive possibilities and effects of this format, remarking on “real poetic invention” and “a glassy, shimmering experimental music” that it engenders.
However true this might be, I found myself rather locked into a process of attempting to discover why a poem had to sprawl across such a ‘Way the West Was Won’ lateral extent, rather than conforming to a more normal portrait shape.
Certainly the 25 words of ‘Barnacle or Brent’ need a whole page to mimic the v-shape of a skein of geese, but I am still not sure that having done so they constitute anything much more than a fairly simple ‘Concrete Poem’.
In the case of ‘Cloudless’ the seventeen or so words that permutate themselves across a whole page in various combinations and sequences to form a broad funnel shape that appears to be sucked into the title which lodges at the bottom of the page rather left me wondering.
This is all sounding rather sour and discontented, and I have to say that there may well be reasons for the shapes of other poems that are simply not apparent to me, though they might very well be to other readers, and it is a pity perhaps to focus too closely on this perhaps eccentric choice of format if it distracts from some other felicities: in ‘Tube’ for instance, the poem slides across the page to culminate in a triplet in the far right corner that is just lovely in itself:
the parallel slang of the tracks
the cliché of clackety-clacks
the slap of the slack of the facts
with the last line picking up the idea that the poet has been the ‘victim’ of an unwilled exposure to the ‘ideas’ in ‘two Suns/ and a Daily Express’ with which he is sharing the carriage as it "grates out of Moorgate" station.
And it is certainly true that the Doppelganger conception of ‘Alter’ benefits from the arrangement of the poem as two vertical columns occupying the centre third of the wide space.
Despite suffering to my mind from being the ‘wrong’ shape for easy reading the production-values of the pamphlet are excellent and I have to conclude by agreeing it is eminently worth the trouble of getting to grips with it: rather like an unconventional art gallery information sheet—you have to make an effort to follow the sequences, but the effort is well rewarded.