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Balancing Acts

By Ben Ray

Love Minus Love

Wayne Holloway-Smith, Bloodaxe Books, 2020

Portuguese Sailor Boy

David Appelbaum, Eyewear Publishing, 2020

As Best We Can

Jeffrey Wainwright, Carcanet Press, 2020

Wayne Holloway-Smith’s Love Minus Love, David Applebaum’s Portuguese Sailor Boy and Jeffrey Wainwright’s As Best We Can are all bold choices for publication in 2020: these poets excite and unsettle the reader, avoiding pandering to a post-pandemic market with easy platitudes and safe assurances. In Holloway-Smith’s jagged unruliness, Applebaum’s globetrotting and Wainwright’s philosophising lies a questioning, experimental and playful essence hidden in household objects, imaginary ships and childhood homes. Despite ranging in scope, subject and style, these collections are united by their harnessing of poetry’s capacity to balance varying elements within itself, housing uncertainties while simultaneously maintaining coherence and equilibrium.

Wayne Holloway-Smith has discussed his inability to analyse and explain his own work, arguing that the experience of poetry cannot be fully expressed through its clunky neighbour, prose.[1] This initially leaves the reviewer rather at a loss: certainly, on opening Holloway-Smith’s collection Love Minus Love, Holloway-Smith’s reticence becomes clear. These poems seem like megaliths, hewn from blocks of language, some eroded and sliding down the paper in jagged formation, some standing as steadfast blocks, obstructing passage down the page. The work is visual and multi-layered, constructed from word-sentences that are elided and purposely snapped, crossed-out lines and unexpected spacing. It seems at times like a stream of consciousness in physical form, a continuous internal conversation frozen on the page. However, like all well-crafted work, this spontaneity is carefully constructed to create this very artifice of disarray.

Holloway-Smith’s innovative approach to his subject matter—his broken, dysfunctional family and difficult upbringing—is both oddly disarming and revealing. With no clear break between poems, the work uses strange tangential vignettes as pathways to deeper meaning. Love Minus Love engages its subject matter from unexpected angles to illicit new vantage points: ‘let’s get down to the boiled / beef of it let’s get down to / the canned ham the corned / beef hash of it the pickled /herring the rump steak’ (‘Let’s get down to the boiled’). This stealth approach to what could potentially be rather an overworked subject gives his writing an eerie, uncomfortable edge, reducing the living subjects of his writing down to objects and pushing them through multiple personalities until they almost lose their original shape: ‘here’s your mother she is Patti Smith’ (‘Here’s your mother she is Patti Smith and gazes hungry’). Fellow poet Max Porter neatly captures this style when he labels Holloway-Smith’s writing ‘the We Are All Meat genre’—and with the striking cover image of a skeleton’s open chest containing a mathematically geometrical heart made of artificial gristle, this message is definitely hammered home. Under the microscope of poetry, Holloway-Smith objectifies a personal story until it becomes some strange, unknown thing, rushed towards in a tumult of language.

Perhaps Holloway-Smith’s biggest accomplishment here is in successfully convincing the reader that his introspective subject matter—incorporating identity, masculinity and family turmoil—can be best expressed in this explosive, singular poetic style. Take, for example, the collection’s very first poem: a line from Kafka’s letters which is crushed and stretched to create two new columns of solid text. The content reminds the reader that the subject matter of the father-son relationship is repeated endlessly across generations, whilst the artificial separation of the text into two individual “others” adds a deeply personal, pained echo of the poet’s individual situation. This text reinterprets someone else’s story to signal the continuity of a situation reborn in new identities with each new family—and all in four repurposed lines of someone else’s writing.

Whilst the lack of punctuation and the bizarre, swirling shapes occupying the collection’s pages strike the reader immediately on opening the book, it is all too easy to overlook the careful choice of words which intensify the seemingly reckless flow of the poems. In ‘Dear Anything please let me last across this moment’, a pained address exposes a loss of control over the body: ‘Dear Anything please let me last across this moment / and on just a bit more / my body is busy thinking itself unwell my body is / thinking itself outside of this moment’. This is poetry which strives in form and content to appear chaotic, always on the brink of collapse—hiding the tight, careful construction beneath.

Holloway-Smith has, in the past, been labelled a ‘working-class poet’, and this collection certainly contains the trademarks of this trope: chain-smoking, drunkenness and domestic abuse. The presence of a difficult childhood and a rocky parental relationship is never far under the surface here: ‘rip open my right lung and probably you’ll find cig / ash butts a staunch inability to leave my dad behind’ (‘Let’s get down to the boiled’). But to pigeonhole this writing into straightforward class-orientated or ‘dead dad’ genres would be to wilfully ignore the inventiveness and rawness of this collection, which utilises poetry in its fullest form: making the placement of the words speak volumes alongside the linguistic sense of the characters themselves. This is poetry stretched to its structural limits, bordering on the semaphore or symbolist, a constant flow with no discernible break that communicates in it the wholeness of being.

The topic of tumultuous family history moves from the personal to the global with David Appelbaum’s collection Portuguese Sailor Boy, an imaginative fictional exploration of the bloodline of the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama. Whereas Holloway-Smith’s concept collection functions naturally as a sustained single piece, Appelbaum’s work forms a wide-ranging and crowded chorus of stories that purposefully carry the reader in multiple directions, with each poem artfully connected through the thread of de Gama’s imagined adventuring dynasty.

From the very first line of Portuguese Sailor Boy the collection bridges the individual and the collective, loosely linking the text through the imagined familial bloodline of de Gama: ‘We were one. We were many’ (‘Legend’). Each poem revolves around a new, bustling cast of characters until the collection’s population becomes vast, acting out fables, family vignettes, ghost stories, testimonials. Appelbaum has managed to inject a different voice into every poem whilst still retaining depth, giving the collection a fast-paced, giddy feel when read in a single sitting. Each piece is a sharp narrative break from the previous one, purposefully pulling the reader into a new reality and offering snatched glimpses of different lives. Like a ship in port docking an unknown country only to leave again on the next tide, each poem seems to only touch the surface of an entirely new landscape.

The many geographical references in the collection are testament to the global wayfaring of the poems. This can sometimes lead to rather unsubtle scene-setting: ‘like a Phoenician drum / not the moon in a pond, Japanese style’ (‘At mid-life’). These clear scene changes can produce the poetic version of motion sickness: the reader travels from a train between Hook von Haarlam to Calais to a sinking ship off the Cape of Good Hope, waits in America for a dead brother’s ghost to return. The collection’s fast pace is disorientating, and at times can be overwhelming. However, this breakneck tour renders Portuguese Sailor Boy the perfect collection to dip into regularly, each page illuminating a neatly contained, crystallised narrative.

Appelbaum’s work is built from the interplay between contrasts and similarities. Dispersed geography is contained within coherent stanzas, a plethora of eras and characters are balanced against the loose thread of de Gama’s bloodline, a steady revisiting of the family unit grounding the collection with repeated mentions of mothers, aunts and brothers. Many poems extend over two page-lengths, which serves to fill an extended narrative arc; these longer poems could have benefitted from moments of stillness, opening up space for greater character exposition. In this style, Portuguese Sailor Boy’s longer poems are reminiscent of traditional ballad or poetic structures, echoing the long narratives told on long voyages like de Gama’s and adding to the sense of the collection as a ‘seaman’s epic’. This folkloric essence is reinforced by the closing stanzas of many of these poems, whether aphoristic, as in ‘The mottled portion’: ‘To make a deal with the devil / is not a crime but love’s story’; or running to a neat conclusion, as in ‘The dance’: ‘The earth had returned to imperfect sleep’.

The balance between the traditional, folkloric style of Appelbaum’s work and his refreshing use of language unifies the disparate tales. The reader begins to recognise the artfully crafted single line closed with a full stop, a signature of Appelbaum’s which promises to deliver an emotional punch, often as its own stanza: ‘All the houses were the same.’ (‘Camp Shelby’), ‘Enough to make a mother die.’ (‘The blindness before friends’). The collection is full of eye-catching moments which pause the poem’s flow momentarily, a phenomenon Clive James once described as the ‘scattered jewels’ which serve to hold a poem together. Embarking on the journey of the collection, the reader can discover such treasure in Appelbaum’s punctuated lines: ‘Memory is like a canteen with a long invisible straw to suck sediment from the bottom’. (‘The double’). These jewels make the whole journey worthwhile, even if it is round the globe.

While Applebaum and Holloway-Smith both strive to cross borders and genres in building tailored poetic experiences for the reader to journey through, Jeffrey Wainwright’s collection As Best We is far more pared-down, even direct. Wainwright is a seasoned and respected poet, and this collection seems the result of many years of reflection and consideration on the purpose of the poet’s craft. His years as an educator, teaching English at Manchester Polytechnic and Manchester Metropolitan University, seem to have bled into this collection: these poems hold a certain a professorial authority, saturated with questions and unknowns.

These questions are carefully thought out distillations of a lifetime’s uncertainties: ‘am I bound / to make up whatever I will believe / is to be found in a tree or season?’ (‘This window again’). Wainwright utilises the open-endedness of the poetic form to fill his work with probing spaces and gaps, gently prodding the reader to query the assumed fabric of the everyday. The collection’s very title, As Best We Can, suggests a person trying to make sense of the world whilst operating in a small patch of understanding. Much of Wainwright’s poetry stems from an effort to interpret signs and glean meaning from objects, searching for solidity in an existence which offers no meaning: ‘Words, signals, signs leave naught to go on’ (‘The swirl’). Windows are a repeated motif in these poems, sign-posting introspection, observation, and philosophising: ‘Empty windows, empty balconies, / clouds that seem desultory’ (‘The other poem’). In As Best We Can, poetry is the condensed conduit for uncertainty, a tool for the unsettling of the normal and assumed. It is a faint echo of Holloway-Smith’s inability to describe his own poetry: a discreet declaration that this is a form which reaches to places others cannot.

The broad, philosophical arguments in these poems are given accessible entry points in the form of small, everyday objects. Through these limited spaces an expansive argument is carefully crafted, extrapolating outwards until the purpose of Wainwright’s aim becomes clear: always a more expansive and elegiac concept than hinted at in the outset. ‘The Plan’ begins with a ‘white towel on a washing hoist’, but soon the poet is asking fundamental, even nihilist questions: ‘how come this, / or anything, is occurring.’ Wainwright’s ability to push beyond the initial setting of the poem into a deeper space keeps these concepts from skirting a shallow pseudo-philosophical debate, using the poem as a tool to build questions so subtle it sometimes takes two readings to ascertain what exactly is being asked. Wainwright questions the tools of poetry itself, such as the questioning of simile: ‘there comes a likeness barging in, / convinced only likenesses recruit consequence’. Wainwright finishes by looking forward to future literary practise, concluding that simile ‘might do for now and hereabouts’, though the poem is never far from its more primary questions: ‘but what is the plan?’

Throughout As Best We Can, Wainwright’s work manages to sustain an overall sense of stillness while dealing with live issues. ‘Who was St Chad?’ is a prime example of this, a 15-page poem spaced in equal three-verse sections which move inexorably onwards. Selected by the poet as his favourite poem, and clearly weighted with strong personal resonance (the poem is dedicated to his late mother), the work examines the slow ebb of religiosity in small-town life, the winding-down of life and the reality of death—though the reader would not immediately guess it from the gentle lyricism and ease of the poem’s progression. The vantage point spirals down and down as the reader descends into the poem through choice reflections and observations: ‘Kleenex balled in every hand / we grieve to find the words / to measure up to measured death’. What could elsewhere end up as dense discussion and analysis is here expressed in easy-flowing sparsity, fitting volumes into the tight space of a single line.

Love Minus Love, Portuguese Sailor Boy, and As Best We Can all contain delicate balances. They also are evidence of the expansive possibility of poetry, working in disparate geographical, linguistic and formal contexts. In Holloway-Smith’s careful, distanced presentation of family trauma a chaotic visual form is underpinned by expert invisible scaffolding; in Appelbaum’s interplay of similarities and contrasts a series of journeys are grounded in the thread of a single bloodline; in Wainwright’s contemplative poetic studies, philosophical debates expand outwards from humdrum objects. In each collection, the reader encounters imposing edifices of thought held stable on the page by the possibility of the poetic form. Perhaps, after all, this is what Holloway-Smith meant when he told the interviewer he could not speak for his poetry: it can only really speak for itself.

[1] Poetry Book Society Summer 2020 Bulletin: 265 (Poetry Book Society, 15/05/2020)

2019 New Poets Prize winner and current Poet-in-Non-Residence for the 2020 Cheltenham Poetry Festival, BEN RAY is an accomplished poet and reviewer from the Welsh borders with ‘a fresh and original poetic voice—full of wit, twists, surprises, echoes and challenges’ (Alan Rusbridger, former editor of The Guardian). His third collection, The Kindness of the Eel, was published with The Poetry Business in June 2020.

Art by Isabella Lill


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