James Sheard Scattering Eva ISBN 978-0-224-07584-5 Paperback 80pp £9.00
James Sheard Dammtor ISBN 978-0-224-09073-5 Paperback 64pp £10.00
James Sheard The Abandoned Settlements ISBN 978-0-70247-5 Paperback 64pp £10.00
From the opening poem in James Sheard’s debut collection, Scattering Eva, we are confronted with a poet of dislocation, exile and otherness. We meet the poet in Konstanz, on the Bodensee, noting the beauty of an evening walk, calling out to those artists located, embedded in a different world and history; our poet is someone who confronts culture while being separated from it, yet the poem ends with a German doch [but], unscaled. Are the poet’s eyes unscaled, or is the realm of possibility contracted, or is it a signal of what may yet be enlarged and emboldened in the poet’s cultural and political landscape?
What ensues in that debut collection is a kind of travelogue of personas which interrogate, absorb, historicise, reflect and, ultimately, judge the prevailing conditions. The prism of the poems is both culturally exact yet acts as a veneer on contemporary society, driven less by aural syntactical compulsions than by a mitteleuropäisch sensibility. Sheard is never a flâneur, he participates in, even glamorises, the emotional frottage of the poem:
We eat. We make our sounds of contempt, or of sorrow.
We pass towns, cross borders, occupy one another somehow.
Despite the descriptive armoury in Sheard’s fire-cracker lyrics, and their occasionally risky male cadence tackling violence, sexual vagrancy, even mild self-disgust, the poet emerges as someone fundamentally adrift from their habitus (in Bourdieu’s sense):
Such lolling, monstrous mots-justes! Primed with their one note, one sound – the one I lack, the one that gives sense
to the where, the why, the being amidst my gentle, if empty, horizons.
These hesitations, impersonations, detective-work and relocations in Sheard’s more textually dense lyrics finally unite in the dazzling long title poem, where he memorializes a victim of the Hamburg firestorms in the Second World War, taking multiple narrative positions as lover, commentator, historian, and historical reenactor, slowly drawing the reader into a profound moral catastrophe –
I always know how to triangulate my women –
Täter, Opfer, Retter.
(Perpetrator, Victim, Rescuer.)
In Sheard’s second collection, Dammtor, he changes gear offering a new voice, more open and accommodating, but no less severe in its transgressions, regrets and sexual frankness. Sheard, like so many other confessional poets, gets it all in – the dirty, combustible material of life. If Scattering Eva was a brilliant positioning of this remarkable talent, Dammtor allows for fewer personas, less history to dress its wounds. Here, the poet is speaking directly about the personal, the political and the profligate. If that judgemental eye had been cast elsewhere in Europe, now it is firmly cast upon himself.
I am not a man for even light. I like it broken, my shadow partial.
Partial – being both incomplete, in another sense, favouring one side, and in another, having a liking for. A tiny, revealing word choice that has position, judgement and appetites.
These reflexive poems see Sheard’s gallows humour sometimes bitterly deployed at his own expense, sometimes, wistfully and collegially landed, like a blow to the poet’s own arm. Less self-congratulatory, more in recognition of faults and fault lines.
In the closing poems of his second collection, the birth of his son, Nathaniel, sees the poet transformed, in one, tellingly a witness account of the event after the fact, Sheard having left the hospital, addresses a pre-dawn drunk at a bus stop and finds:
In that hour after you were born, I turned a key. And because a house left vacant for the night is always strange the space beyond the opening door felt warmer, richer, changed.
The birth signalling another landscape to occupy after a raw abandonment, another shift of habitus, perhaps an escape from the cultural and historical pressures of those early European lyrics, or more plainly, the painful sexual politics and disintegration of Dammtor:
I found you, love, coiled around a bar-stool and abandonment. Your mouth made moues of various kinds. For all that, I heard only: Hate me. Hate me.
In Sheard’s new collection, The Abandoned Settlements, we are immediately signalled about new forms of exile, and the collection opens with the couplet:
We’re all pilgrims. We’re all more or less aware of that.
However, there’s no need to brace yourself, Sheard has found a new sense of emplacement, and a sense of self-accommodation:
We wanted a land where we could watch the weather – see how one hill drew down the drapes of rain, and how another would flash its skin in a fall of sunlight.
Indeed, the terroir has provided a new climate for the poet. But not quite. Sheard still manages, in poems like ‘Rival’ and ‘Note for You’, to explore marital betrayal and breakdown with a sharp eye for the double self, being both participant and witness. Sometimes, this doppelgänger shows a savage wit:
He’s living it, your shadow life. He owns your flat and fucks your wife. He lives it loose, but holds it tight. He’s loving it, your shadow life.
We have the sense that the poet is merely documenting an arrival elsewhere, sorting through the debris as a new home is being made, yet for a poet so profoundly distanced from any sense of Gemütlichkeit, Sheard can appear to be preparing for some transformation, and it arrives in the poem ‘Fallen’:
on the churned earth the bulk of a fallen beast its side torn open still steaming
I am there I am curled up wet and stained
lift me up into the air into the light of you take me into your arms and home and clean me
The bravado of some of the poet’s more rumbustious lyrics is itself cleaned out here, unpunctuated, and filled with beauty, candour and vulnerability. The poet is resurrected, delivered from his preoccupations, his history – both the personal and societal. These abandoned settlements can provide restitution, resolution and reoccupation, for the poet and for the reader. They are rooted in love.
The Abandoned Settlements is published by Cape and is available now.
Mark Waldron Meanwhile, Trees ISBN 978-1-78037029609 Paperback 80pp £9.95
Frankly, this is a task no poet would thank you for, but bear with me. I want to explore some strands in English poetry that are often neglected whilst they are often being celebrated in other terms. Confused? Well, me to, I want to talk about whimsy, that 17th century word that means to be playful, sometimes quaint, fanciful, odd and funny. What is doesn’t mean is trivial. In fact, I’m arguing here that whimsy is a great servant of pathos.
Poets are often frightened of being funny on the page given jokes grow stale, age badly like root vegetables or bags of salad, yet whimsy is the mother of 20th century absurdism, where French writing has twisted whimsy into the philosophical bathos around destiny and agency and left us with some sense of gravitas and haute culture, in English letters it is often used to explore the monstrous with a lightness of touch often in highly-tangential language. Whimsy is, of course, central to surrealism as well as to existentialism. In terms of caprice, it is an elegant engine of lyric expansiveness.
Whimsy is also the best friend of satire and Mark Waldron’s poetry uses it to significant effect, poking fun at our obsessions, banality and sense of purpose. But before I go there, I want to set out my store and contrast Waldron with two other poets — Edith Sitwell and Stevie Smith. You might find these strange bedfellows but both poets are sui generis writers and developed a linguistic world: percussive, postulatory and in thrall to the syntactic music of the poem — that inner structure that builds its sonic world and into which we as readers enter and make of it what we can. It’s a high wire act.
Take a look at this from Edith Sitwell’s poem ‘Metamorphosis’:
The coral-cold snow seemed the Parthenon, Huge peristyle of temples that are gone, And dark as Asia, now, is Beauty’s daughter The rose, once clear as music is o’er deep water.
Now the full moon her fire and light doth spill On turkey-plumaged leaves and window-sill.
Now look at this from Stevie Smith’s poem, ‘Will Ever?’
Will ever the stormy seas and the surges deep, Swinging from left to right over the world, Stay in their idiot pacing, silently sleep In a memorial silence of precreation?
Alas for the crafty hand and the cunning brain That took from silence and sleep the form of the world, That bound eternity in a measuring chain Of hours reduplicate and sequential days.
And now this from Mark Waldron’s poem ‘Uh-Oh Sweet Wife’.
So, you bust us in flagrante, me and my other beloved, myself and my infinite intimate, the world, my mistress world.
Forgive me, but when she lays down her glittery and genteel fuselage softly in my lap I find that I must ruffle and placate her immensity.
What we can see is the use of heightened language cheek-by-jowl with the jocular, the plain spoken and the portentous. The latter often used to comic effect as the personality of the poem collapses on its very gesture of exuberance and transcendence. In fact, this element of hubris is something that informs much of Waldron’s poetic landscape, it’s the pressure valve in many of his best poems, as the reader is spun a yarn about a decadent flâneur collapsing into an interior darkness and, very often, loucheness:
He was thinking, as he rocketed across the Tuileries, top-hat steadied with one hand, cane gripped in the other, and with that coddled little smile still
perhaps he might remake himself from something already half-mutated such as a hotel pool-soaked novel or something whose extra weight, as he would explain to Gaston later, would be promissory, such as the lavish body of a maggot.
This comes from the title poem of Waldron’s latest collection, Meanwhile, Trees — the last line of the first stanza delivering another component of Waldron’s whimsy, the grotesque, often deployed like a depth charge against some current of self-regard.
Like Sitwell and Smith, Waldron’s poems are often the result of their syntax, driven by it as much as controlling it, and this strategy contains risks. The poem in its wild tangents can struggle to hold its form or to maintain its trajectory and denouement. Yet it is something that can be delicious, bold and very funny, while reminding us of mortality:
The first emotion I entertain (as one might entertain a shy and unassuming guest at tea)
was a mild embarrassment at his behaviour. Then, as time went on, I became increasingly
more mortified, until, out of all that itchy awkwardness
there sprang a fragile and unexpected shoot of mirth as a silky stem
might rise proud from a stimulated bean.
Just as with Sitwell and Smith, Waldron’s poetic landscape is informed by the candour of the poet, and the eccentricity and extravagance of the persona brought to bear. The precariousness of this deep relationship between performative persona and, let’s call it, portentously, Weltanschauung, is also part of the work’s tremendous charm and wit, and wit is something Waldron has in abundance.
Meanwhile, Trees is published by Bloodaxe Books and is available now.