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LITERATURE 21st-century poetry

Reviews of latest collections from Alan Morrison, Kevin Higgins, Graham Fulton, RF Francis and James Womack

“O WHAT hope for red roses/To grow among the thorns of red-top-hypnotised, populist-/Supporting proles, working-class Faragistes, Workington/‘Gammons’, purple-rinse reactionaries, blue collar/Conservatives, proletarian Tories (Old Benjamin Disraeli’s/Angels in Marble coming back to haunt us through/Poltergeist psephologists, now Boris’s blue collars, his batmen/Bootscrapers)...”

So begins Alan Morrison’s new epic poem Anxious Corporals (Smokestack Books, £7.99).

It’s an extraordinary essay in verse about education and class, deference and independence, reason and reaction, the victory of shopkeeper values and the defeat of the postwar consensus.

And it’s a history of the British working class from Kipps, Leonard Bast and the Age of Hooper to Workington Man and Sir Keir Starmer’s Patriotic Labour Party.

Taking its title from Arthur Koestler’s idea of culture-thirsty conscripts in the second world war, Morrison recalls the men and women who once sought self-improvement through correspondence courses, adult education, political parties and Pelican paperbacks: “Those distance-learning autodidacts who craved educations/Uncensored and books unabridged... to help emancipate hearts and minds from prisons/of circumstances...”

Kevin Higgins’ new collection, The Colour Yellow & the Number 19 (Nuascealta £8.88) is subtitled Negative Thoughts That Helped One Man Mostly Retain His Sanity During 2020.

It’s partly about the pandemic — Higgins has been shielding because of a long-standing lung condition — and partly about the incompetence and venality of the political and economic system that allowed the virus to spread so fatally among the most vulnerable sections of society, as in Who Runs Ireland?, Tribute Acts and the brilliant Normal:

“I wouldn’t have you back/With your nice houses and good school... Normal, you’re just a script/given us by the Publicity Department/which we acted out for so long/we believed/you were all there ever could be.”

Graham Fulton also writes very well about the absurdity and the pain of being alive in the 21st century. His latest collection Chips, Paracetamol and Wine (Smokestack Books, £7.99) holds up a cracked mirror to the world, reflecting the chaos always just below the surface.

Hopeful and hopeless, detached and engaged, it’s a book about dunderheids and smackheads, lost cats and stuffed dogs, Charles Bukowski and Jimmy Johnstone. Worth buying just for There Was Once a Moment When None of This Existed, A Clockwork Nokia and The Muppet Show:    

“FUCK OFF/YOU TINY-HANDED/ORANGE-FACED CUNT/painted/in red/on card/is one of the less ambiguous messages/at the Death to Donald Trump rally/in George Square in the sunshine/as is/BAWBAG/TRUMP’S A FUD/RAGE AGAINST THE TANGERINE/TRUMP’S AN EEJIT.”

RF Francis’s first collection Subsidence (Smokestack Books, £7.99) is a kind of hymn to the post-industrial Black Country landscape, where houses sink into old mines and the present collapses into the past.

These poems are brilliant love songs to the dialect and culture of the Black Country, odes to working-class communities and non-RP speech:

“We ay from brumajum/weem in the borderless/pits — black be day/red be night... burning trade and toil and song/and burning a brand... whose embers were stamped/and pissed on by ministers/of education immersed in/double spayke... ready,/with Blakean bows, to fight/shot to shot — to burn back/with our vernacular...”

James Womack’s Homunculus (Carcanet, £10.99) is a clever rendering of poems by the sixth-century Roman poet Maximian. These are elegies to lost youth, studies in old age, infirmity and death: “here is old age slumped over his walking stick,/not walking but slumped, afraid of collapse... his wrinkled old mouth opens and shuts/like a barn door in a gale… the gale’s inside his head.”

Fortunately, Womack imports a jokey tone into his versions, shamelessly combining high and low culture references —  “A meta traveller from an antique land,” “South of the Lethe, this time of night?” — without which the book might be unbearably painful.

But then, in the last few pages, the book suddenly turns from self-pity to a larger sorrow for a dying world:

“I’m not sorry for myself, but for the whole collapsing world... I see children at play, the last-but-one issue of children:/beautiful, but the state of the current world/ruins everything, even beauty... Future aliens will try to pierce together/who we were really, and why we fucked up so hard...”



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