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Review: Reed, Schmidt, Joseph, Jess-Cooke, Pugh

Jeremy Reed, West End Survival Kit, Waterloo, £10, ISBN 9781906742072
Michael Schmidt, Collected Poems, Smith/Doorstop, £18.95, ISBN 9781902382005
Jenny Joseph, Nothing like Love, Enitharmon, £9.99, ISBN 9781904634843
Carolyn Jess-Cooke, Inroads, Seren, £7.99, ISBN 9781854115119
Sheenagh Pugh, Later Selected Poems, Seren, £9.99, ISBN 9781854114976

Any poet worth their salt, as Michael Donaghy once noted, “tries to tell the truth by working truly.” Not by conforming to reified concepts of ‘fact’ or ‘actuality’, of course (but this is what actually happened!), but by being true to themselves, the reader, and the world they construct within a poem, however surreal or fantastical. The linguistic sense of a poem is a measure of this, ensuring that, rather than a private act, poems become a shared communication of recognisable truth, whether literal or imaginative. In short: you give a good poem a shove, and it always bounces back.

The poems in Jeremy Reed’s latest collection certainly depict a recognisable, albeit often futuristic world. But do they ring true? West End Survival Kit contains memorable images and the sort of off-kilter description that defined his early volumes, but also much purposeless repetition, lack of rhythmical invention and, unusually for a poet known for subversive attitudes, dichotomised gender stereotypes. The male subjects here may be anonymous, but they wear “charcoal pinstripe Sisley suit[s]”, “chill with GQ”, and drive sports cars which routinely appear, whether as objects, images or metaphors. Take trophy girlfriend “Sheila”, a “Chinese babe” who sports “a jacket sewn with loud logos // like a sticker-plastered racing car”. Reed’s intention may be a laudable criticism of a certain rich, fast-living, yet infantile segment of society (most of the poems feature brand-conscious, apathetic couples), but without wry humour or the inclusion of more sophisticated characters, such observations remain vague and wearyingly dystopian, however intriguing.

The problem remains in Reed’s over-productiveness. West End Survival Kit consists of over fifty poems, and appears two years after his last volume. There is much to provoke in its vibrant, disconcerting prophesying: “the clouds building / like a schema for World War 4”, or an ‘Interplanetary Executive’ whose “corporate logo’s a DNA strand”. But with few exceptions, these flashes of intensity pepper a collection that sounds the same note over and over; describing capitalist excess, boredom, and spiritual bankruptcy in tercet after tercet of growing fatigue. In the end, this book seems akin to the “canvas stash bag” at the centre of its title poem: curious in its gathering of familiar consumer detritus, but not enough to maintain the reader’s interest.

Unlike Reed, Michael Schmidt’s Collected Poems brings together four decades of work, yet only runs to some two hundred pages. This no doubt has to do with Schmidt’s activities as literary editor, publisher, critic and teacher; his founding of Carcanet Press and the journal PN Review, among other achievements, having earned him an OBE. But one suspects it is also due to deliberative writing methods. A poem such as ‘The Judas Fish’ exemplifies this: its blend of ornate description, everyday idiom, biblical allusion and telling imagery put to the service of a questing mind:

Looking out, indeed, there’s not much to see,

no diver, no near fish, nothing to possess,
though there is a strange possessiveness
in water, as in sunlight, determining the shadows.

Just as the eerie fish has “a Judas eye trained” on the poet, Schmidt’s work looks to uncover the elemental forces beneath surface facades, locating him within the Modernist tradition of Eliot, Pound and Yeats.

The central preoccupations of Schmidt’s poems are uncertainty, indecisiveness, and the mistakes that can follow. This is evident in rhythmical, incantatory forms (“If we swam out and never came back in, / Lapping against the deep end just the pulse / of water, is it water?”) but also dream-like, childhood reminisces: “I, to whom the knowledge had been given, // […] remember how a knot of pains / swelled my hand” (‘Wasps’ Nest’). No surprise that water – in its physical potential and metaphorical implications – often provides a manifestation of such themes: its movements mirroring the poet’s emotions; murky depths both appealing and threatening. But it is the book-length sequence at the heart of this Collected, The Love of Strangers, which is most memorable and original. As the narrator regresses from adulthood to childhood, we are given portraits, impressions, and memories of an eclectic mix of writers, artists, and loved ones; a sustained tribute to those who Schmidt holds dear, whether personally or artistically, and a work which only a poet-critic of such broad tastes and enthusiasms could have produced.

Jenny Joseph’s Nothing like Love is another collection with a wide compass. Her first since 2006’s Extreme of Things, it mixes early love lyrics with new work in what the blurb describes as an “entirely fresh combination”, which makes billing it a new book slightly odd. In any case, there seem to be two Josephs: one who is a writer of sprightly, elegant, but often clich├ęd lyric poems; the other who is an observant, imaginative chronicler of human experience. Several poems positioned recto-verso illustrate this: while ‘Great Sun’ exercises hackneyed imagery, ‘Here Lies Treasure: Here Be Monsters’ is a bracing reflection on love, desire and possession. Similarly, ‘Lady Love’s energetic rhythms disguise a poem of little depth, though ‘The Unlooked-For Season’ adopts plain description in pursuit of subtler effects. Nothing like Love is a mixed success, then, but this reader is not exactly its intended audience. Admirers of Joseph’s celebrated poem ‘Warning’ will, I suspect, find much to enjoy here.

Almost any poetry reader – indeed, any reader – would be pushed not to find something to enjoy in Sheenagh Pugh’s Later Selected Poems. The companion volume to her 1990 Selected Poems, it contains work from five collections published since, and is testament to the muscular, plainspoken style Pugh has developed, capable of addressing myriad subject matters in diverse manners. Life, love, death and all the usual suspects are here, of course – though typically revivified – but so too are censorship, fan fiction, HTML, cartoon characters, and renowned anthropologist Owen Beattie; even the extra in a film, seen “waving his farewells / to the extras on shore, / among whom, // with a rather distinctive hat, / by some continuity cock-up / he also stands.” Pugh’s poems are full of subtle details and double takes: mundanity may often be the order of our days, but if we pay close attention, surprise lurks just out of sight. It is this marrying of the world’s bustle and growing complexity with a miniaturist’s eye for detail that makes Pugh such an accomplished poet; as adept at longer, discursive pieces as following, say, the brief lives of “flakes of ash scudding seawards”: “the wind full / of waste paper, // brief wordless messages, / fluttering out unread.” Because, level-headedly, she speaks of and to our modern, manifold world, Pugh’s is a voice worth listening to.

So too with Carolyn Jess-Cooke, a young poet whose often contemporary subjects – YouTube, hidden-camera TV, jet lag, the fish counter at the local supermarket – are, in the best poems from her debut Inroads, made surprisingly profound through a mixture of woozy shifts in focus, startling imagery, and a freewheeling use of the vernacular. In such a lavishly varied and adventurous collection, it seems a shame to single out one poem in particular for praise. But I kept returning to opener ‘Accent’, where the local and global intermingle, yet “the picked-up place-music” of home lends shifting roots to cling to:

Home? Or everywhere? Like combing coral
or sand and snow globes, or a wave-shaped petal
from Sydney’s Manly Cove
my voice fossils places. The way sound chases
itself in tunnels and halls, the way senses
fold memory into five

is an accent’s suitcase aesthetic. Listen.

As this and the bulk of Inroads suggest, Jess-Cooke is a poet of both achievement and promise; whose future work will be worth looking out for, but who also deserves to be read and enjoyed now.

this piece was first published in Poetry Review