Indigo Dreams, 2010 £3.75
Reviewed by Rob A Mackenzie, Helena Nelson and Jon Stone
Rob A Mackenzie:
This pamphlet covers plenty of ground: descriptive nature scenes, a Blur album, a beautiful Italian woman, and town-centre chaos in Mansfield on a Friday night-to summarise only a few of its contents. It's a decidedly uneven affair with some good poems rubbing shoulders with a larger number of ordinary ones. It is worth reading for the good ones, but I wish there had been less baggage.
The strengths of Richard Handley's writing are clear in 'Horse', where the poem's sound and rhythm makes the galloping horse leap off the page. The horse is "a torrent through reeds,/ hooves tossing up sand and surf in thud and splash // nostrils flared, snorting clean sea-air." However, what lifts the poem beyond simple description is the surprising turn it takes at the end, where the horse and landscape become moonlike:
a mile-long parabola dividing aquamarine sea
and white gold sand. High above, a mare's tail
rides a naked sky, in blissful solitude.
Handley conveys a sense of distinction, mystery and 'otherness' about the animal. It transcends itself, just as the poem leaves an imprint more lasting than its collection of descriptive images.
This brings me to the main problem with the lesser poems: 'Wastwater' and 'A Sunday Morning at Brancaster Staithe' didn't leave that imprint. They described unremarkable scenes in unremarkable ways. The same goes for the prosy 'A Mansfield Night Out' where stock imagery was applied. Mansfield on a Friday night, predictably, is "wallowing in piss and sick and // knife drawn blood: broken glass,/ the air punctured with sirens."
In the opening poem, 'Strangers', the narrator sees a woman open her window and cup her hands to catch falling snowflakes. The narrator feels a connection with her, and his desire to break down the distance between them is evoked well. However, the opening lines exemplify the pamphlet's problems:
Where I live there is a row of houses back to back
to my flat, but raised up a level so that, sitting at my
desk in the window, my eyes are level with where
I imagine their lawns would be, behind the fence.
"Where I live" is redundant, given the "my flat" of the next line. The line-break at 'my/ desk" is inexplicable (as are several other breaks in this poem and in others). It makes for a choppy read and an impression that not enough thought has gone into the poem's structure, as if it's been uncomfortably shoehorned into tercets. And why the odd repetition of 'level'?
When Handley writes well, his poems have real impact, such as 'Girl from Viareggio', 'Rain & Traffic', and '6 a.m., Monate'. The latter transforms a description of the lake into an uneasy meditation on life and death. As for the first of these, the beautiful girl from Viareggio turns every head, and "All of Viareggio stops-admiring itself in the mirror", a clever and yet still unexpected observation.
This is a nicely presented pamphlet, with plenty of space round the poems so they read to good effect. The poems themselves have mixed success. They feel like the work of a relatively inexperienced poet, who is publishing a small collection before he's as good as he could or should be. The acknowledgements page seems to confirm this: two poems have won accolades in competitions; one was published in Writers Forum. There are 21 poems here, however, which suggests that 18 have not previously seen the light of small press publication.
But there is enough encouraging work here to suggest that Handley could place poems in worthy small press outlets. And enough flawed work for him to find rejection from those same magazines a useful learning experience. 'February', for example, opens delightfully:
A sad and dreary uncle of a month-
tolerated but not loved.
But then he goes into the sort of metaphor overkill that would make most editors groan. He hears rain
[ . . .] ticking away like
the grandfather clock in a maiden aunt's hallway-
spelling out the drudge of time.
It seems like winter is here to stay,
clawing my back, sinking its fangs
into my neck. . . .
And yet in places, Handley can do the business. In the title poem, 'Rain and Traffic', the imagery is delicate and precise-a beautifully handled piece. I liked 'Fishing - 4 a.m.' too, and parts of other poems.
Many poets publish pamphlets too soon. But hell-if we examined the pamphlet skeletons of many of the great and good, we'd surely find publications that their authors have gladly forgotten, reserving only a couple of the simpler poems for posterity.
There's promise in Rain & Traffic. Handley needs to develop as a poet by playing to his strengths. Submitting to good quality small magazines will soon tell him when poems are working-because they will find warm acceptance. And if some of them keep coming back to him, there will be a good reason why that should be so. It's a sort of apprenticeship. I don't know any good poets who haven't gone through this process.
What struck me most on an initial read of this debut pamphlet by Richard Handley was how close the poet comes to disaster at several points, only to just about get away with it. At least two pieces, for instance, instantly recall in their subject matter poems by Ted Hughes and Carol-Ann Duffy (good ones too). It's a testament to Handley's imagination that the poems still manage to distinguish themselves, rather than falling completely under the shadow of those well-matured talents. 'Kingfisher' has some very memorable images in it, not least the 'pterodactyl grin'. Another poem, 'The Lost Age of Steam', begins in creakingly prosaic fashion-
Blur put out a record called 'Modern Life is Rubbish'
and to illustrate this truism, put a steam locomotive on the cover.
What better symbol of lost romanticism?
-but goes on to charm with its understated contemplation of a soft-focus fantasy world.
The low point of the collection, meanwhile, is 'Too Cool By Half'. You can already tell from the title it's a fuddy-duddy poem, and the first four lines consist of uncomfortably venomous stereotype-bashing that wouldn't look out of place in a Richard Littlejohn column:
Chisel cheek skinny boys,
jeans hanging off their cocks,
speaking in patois to their bitches:
alabaster skinned waifs-
Yet Handley still manages to make the final image, grotesque as it is (the girls have 'perfect little blowjob mouths'), ring in an interesting way, and it hints at how good he can be when he's not being curmudgeonly. The first poem, 'Strangers', is splendid, cunningly structured and with its images carefully stacked to a subtle finale, while 'February' begins with a truly quotable couplet:
A sad and dreary uncle of a month-
tolerated, but not loved.
Several other poems also shine, and Handley is ready to undermine his own lyrical flourishes with a mischievous bluntness ("Sowester'd sailors mess about with/ropes" -'A Sunday Morning at Brancaster Straithe') which leads me to think of him as a potentially good poet whose work has been collected too early (he only began writing, says the book, in June 2009). With some more judicious editing and less hand-wringing about misguided youths, this would be something I could warmly recommend.
The presentation is a similar mixed bag. The soft-cover finish has a lovely feel to it and the layout is clean and simple. But the cover image, pretty as it is, is over-literal (traffic blurred through rain) and I just cannot make out what the Indigo Dreams logo is supposed to be! They do get extra points, however, for playing Al Stewart's 'Denise at 16' to me when I visited their website.