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Original lines on the working-class experience

21st century poetry with Andy Croft

ALISON CARR’S Corner Shop Cowgirl (Iron Press, £7) is one of the most original poetry books of the year, cleverly imagining her native Co Durham as a lawless Wild West landscape of tumbleweed towns, one-armed bandits, line-dancers, outlaws and the “coyote calls of men without work.”

Between the Indian takeaways and the empty charity shops lies the “Lost Chance Saloon,” where most afternoons you can find the old timers “galloping through bullet country/ Among the slow burning pints,/Ash trays, pork scratchings/And flipped beer mats”:

“A limp-along cowboy,/Once a miner,/He now counts out his future in coins from a jar,/As he takes his seat at the end of the bar./He calculates every penny, holds tight to every pound,/His meagre pension must go round and round.”

Karl Riordan’s The Tattooist’s Chair (Smokestack Books, £7.99) also uses cowboy imagery to invoke the desperate bravado of working-class masculinity: “cigarette attached to his lips,/zipped up jacket sounds the only farewell./Down the path he turns up his collar,/pushes the gate outwards into the street/like swinging into a Western saloon.”

It’s a stirring and subtle debut collection about growing up in the South Yorkshire coalfield — holidays and haircuts, football pools and pool halls, Mackeson and Temazepam, Saturday night and Monday morning — ending with a compelling sequence about the Barrow Colliery disaster of 1907:

“Mother ruffled up my hair today/ as she scuffled around the kitchen/ in preparation for my 21st./One more shift,/before reaching my majority... My boots are unlaced warming by the fire,/just like those mornings before school...”

There is a lot of history too in Ian Parks’s Citizens (Smokestack Books, £7.99) — labour history, family history, literary history.

Accompanied by the ghosts of Ella Fitzgerald, Honeyboy Edwards and Ernest Jones, Parks listens to “the language of the lost and dispossessed” in places like Blackstone Edge, Cable Street, Burford, Orgreave, Ellis Island and the killing fields of Ypres and Bapaume, ending with a brilliant long sequence “Elegy for the Chartist Poets”:

“Your songs preserve the bite and spleen of it/and when you sing them without compromise/the voices of the dead who sang before/join in to swell the chorus of your song./Now rain comes on in huge, successive waves./ It washes guiltless blood from cobblestones./It rinses teardrops from the chiselled eye./It runs unhindered down the workhouse walls.... Out where the moors are brittle, blackened, burned/and silence levels everything with night;/out there under the grey indifferent sky/the Chartist poets lie in unmarked graves.”

Like Riordan, Neil Fulwood is very good at writing tight, elegiac portraits of the changing patterns of work and working-class culture.

His powerful first full collection No Avoiding It (Shoestring, £10) is a sustained and splendidly grumpy dismissal of the way we live now — “wall-to-wall carpeting, wine lists, feta/cheese and humus” — that doesn’t fall for the temptations of nostalgia: “I can’t trust my memories./I expect the feeling’s mutual.”

He is especially good on the mental slavery of contemporary work — “Your granddad would have quit the factory for less/and decked the prick on the way out” — like the data-entry clerk “desk-shackled” thirty-seven-and-a-half hours a week: “marginally less well regarded than the guy/who replenishes the water cooler, hoisting/those outsized plastic containers, latching/them in place, upside down and gurgling out/the air bubble cascade of a drowning man.”

In Haiku High and Low (Anarchios Press, £5), a new batch of satirical epigrams, Alexis Lykiard as always gives the traditional Japanese lyrical form a witty and satisfying punch — “John Wayne’s widow said/he loved coloured folk, plenty/ of whom he employed.”

And this is his take on Trump in The Latest Demagogue:

“Odd hair and orange/face — Trump’s bluster and vile jibes/reek of Hallowe’en... Rent-A-Crowd applauds/his wild rants — an absurdist/ploy, bolstering lies...”


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