Identity Parade – New British and Irish Poets
Ed. Roddy Lumsden
Identity Parade is an extensive anthology in which Roddy Lumsden has cast his net far and wide in order to carry out the gargantuan task of reflecting the rich pickings of the current generation of British and Irish-based poets. I have attempted about three different reviews with varying slick angles of approach; I have tried to juxtapose societal paradigm shifts with the poems: Did you know that the past fifteen years could be seen as the post-post modern era, what with the internet and the war on terror? You probably don’t give a shit do you, eh? Good for you.
In truth, I have found what many others will find when they tackle this beastie: many poems I liked and some I didn’t, and the poems I started but didn’t finish reading were even fewer. In the interests of doing something constructive with my word allowance, it is the ones I liked that I wish to dwell upon.
Reading the book in its pre-publication PDF form allowed me to play a fun game of throwing myself slap bang on to a random page, reading through it and then scrolling back up to see whose work it was. A lot of the time, I’ve been confronted with a familiar name that I’d yet to read properly.
To cite one example, I’ve been impressed by Chris McCabe’s performances in London for some time, but haven’t got round to buying his collection, something I seek to immediately rectify. This is the first time that I’ve allowed his playful, devious verse to slap me in the chops. The collection of aphorisms that thread together in ‘Poem in Black Ink’ skilfully merge witty, pithy observations with pared-down urban imagery:
The icicles start to melt from the satellite
as the London Signal reconnects –
all was quick around us that night
but we have since forgotten & lapsed
like days of endless breakfast radio.
Laptops on thighs that negates their sex –
lambs in latex on the abattoir ride.
Clever fusions of image and commentary also occur in the poems of Tiffany Atkinson. As last year’s floods continue to reverberate in the national psyche, she plies us with familiar images before reminding us of the unreal world of the mass media that makes them so strikingly familiar:
burst their staves and soaked the folds mid–
country; they were schlepping people out in pedalos,
and punting through cathedrals saving cats. One lad
clearing out his granddad’s drain was still caught
when the waters lapped the record set in 1692.
Imagine. News-teams donned their somberer cagoules.
Was it a Monday morning when the garden was returned,
tender with slugs, astonished at itself? Our joined hands
were the last toads in the ark. We walked, we needed news.
While Lumsden’s introduction acknowledges that about fifty per cent of the poets in Identity Parade come from academia, he does a good job of representing poets from the experimental and live poetry scenes. While Patience Agbabi opens the anthology with a flare and sparkle that will charm newcomers, we soon settle into a gritty tour of London’s darkest corners with Jonathan Asser’s ‘Something To Do’, a journey that includes an intimate acquaintance with cobblestones in a North London street:
To lick each cobble in the mews, to feel
the individual curve against his tongue:
at night, when slugs are making love in compost;
foxes sifting air that’s floating off
the Camden Road, before they veer and trot
underneath rows of postal vans corralled
between divergent streams of railway tracks,
whose points are wishbones bathed in moonbeams.
Tim Turnbull’s masterful ‘Ode on a Grayson Perry Urn’ showcases the formal brilliance and humour of a poet who has done more than many to make a mockery of the page/stage divide, while still keeping an eye on the ever-present class divide:
Hello! What’s all this here? A kitschy vase
some Shirley Temple manqué has knocked out
delineating tales of kids in cars
on crap estates, the Burberry clad louts
who flail their motors through the smoky night
from Manchester to Motherwell or Slough,
Pen Pusher readers will also be happy to see Tim Wells’s boat peering out from page 351, leading me to wonder if he has gatecrashed this anthology in the way he gatecrashes many a book launch, heading straight for the free food, booze and Daisy Goodwin. Ever a keen cultural observer, in ‘The 1980s Are a Long Time Dead’, he points out how the masses reject the multiculturalism that is foisted upon them from above in favour of a more urgent, pungent and immediate unity:
The books in the ‘community’ bookshop have gathered a lot of dust,
despite being neatly ordered onto Black, Turkish, Lesbian
and Gay shelves. Opposite, Florjan is doing a roaring trade.
Since buying the shop from Mr Choudhury he’s added
Polish to the stacks of Caribbean, Turkish, kosher
and English food.
Flipped Eye editor, Jacob Sam-la Rose, is perhaps one of the most influential names among the spoken word artists in this anthology. Many have had their love of poetry ignited by Jacob’s school sessions while his influence continues in his stewardship of The Vineyard and Malika’s Kitchen collectives. ‘Blacktop Universe’ buzzes along with an energy that mirrors its subject, rendered with innovative, sporadic punctuation:
the court marked out like
a star-map / each shot launching
a satellite into orbit / rising / lofty /
tarmac spangled with the salt
of exertion / with each bounce /
each elbowed jook / each shimmying
hip / each jangling near miss /
each phrase of patter-jazz footfall / a world
was born / and to extend the metaphor /
I guess that made us gods
Similar use of gaps to emphasise rhythm occur in the work of poetry wunderkind Ahren Warner, whose intelligent exciting lines hint that he may indeed be the next big thing when the next generational anthology comes along. Unfortunately, the poems work as challenging, graceful wholes and no excerpt would do justice to their full effect. You’ll just have to read them for yourself.
In the midst of all these urban comings and goings, we also find the rural ode to be in good health. It’s almost a surprise seeing Alice Oswald in a new generation anthology, so quickly has she established herself as the British nature poet. The same goes for Jacob Polley, whose Hughesian musing on the outdoors does not offer the country as some blessed escape from the rigours of town life, but instead, in his own words, ‘the urban quickly runs into the rural, which is itself full of the un-lyrical, the abandoned, the rusty, polluted and dirty’.
For Alan Gillis, the rural becomes an inbetween place; the town’s dramas framed by the fields between them that he drives through in ‘Harvest’:
Maybe this is why I’m licking my chops
at the thought of microwaved trays
of pork bangers and bleached potato slops,
driving to Killymoon through hay fields and green
fields decked with pat-caked cows;
why my parents have turned into odd
truisms, viruses mutating through the thin streams
of my brain into screenplays of low-beamed
corners in dancehalls; why I’m wondering how
two free wills become two peas in a pod.
It is easy to assume that the poets who debuted in this fifteen-year period as young upstarts slipped effortlessly into first collections and pamphlets after aceing their creative writing degrees. Newspaper articles pop up perennially with a new crop of youngsters who are the next hot tip for the TSE prizes of tomorrow. This often gives the impression that literary fates are sealed from the age of twenty-one. But so many poets produce startling debuts later on in life, when they have a fair dose of living to reflect on.
In ‘The Symbolic Meaning of Things and Reasons for Not Dying’, Annie Freud perfectly illustrates how a suddenness of feeling can trigger a whirlpool of knowledge:
Fighting the habits of my filthy mood,
I stood at Centre Point, soaked to the skin,
when suddenly, in the street’s ecstatic fugue,
I knew that it was you I had been thinking of
and with a book about Velázquez in my hands
open at An Old Woman Cooking Eggs,
I saw the shadow of her knife curve in her bowl
and the third egg that I will one day fry for you
ready in her hand – and just today I notice that she’s blind.
Visceral experience that has to be lived to be learned also features in the work of Sally Read, a former nurse who, with terse and efficiently instructional lines, takes us into the forbidden world of a dead body and the person who prepares it for release:
If he complained at the damp when alive, dry
again. Remove teeth, all tags, rip off elastoplast –
careful now, each cell is snuffing its lights,
but black blood still spurts.
All in all Identity Parade tells a satisfyingly comprehensive story about what has been happening in British and Irish poetry for the last generation. Inevitably some may bring up names that have been left out, but there are enough doorways here that lead into the many interwoven thoroughfares of these nations’ contemporary practitioners. If new readers don’t find a certain luminary here, the breadcrumb trail is laid out for the rest.
For many readers, this may indeed be the first brush with contemporary poetry, as the nineties Bloodaxe showcase, Poetry with an Edge, was mine. There will be readers who are yet to sample the works of Stammers, Pollard, Waldron, Kennard, Joseph, Rollinson, Nagra, Bird, Farley and many others whose brilliance I already take for granted. But I am still grateful for the job Lumsden has done in bringing this anthology together. If his aim was not only to cater to many tastes but challenge them; to force us to reassess poets that we may have already framed lazy opinions about; and to introduce the most hardened poetry know-it-alls to wordsmiths and ideas they have yet to experience, then he has passed with flying colours. Not only is this a collection that plugs me into a dynamic body of work that will recharge my creative batteries in readings to come, it will also get me and many others, to do the unthinkable: buy more poetry.