As part of our 2016 Saboteur Showcase, we asked the five shortlisted poets to take part in a series of anonymous close readings. Each poet was assigned one of the other shortlisted poems, without being told the identity of the writer. Three of the shortlisted poets agreed to take part in the challenge, and the remaining two poems were given anonymous close readings by members of The Missing Slate’s poetry team.
In response to ‘Life Just Swallows You Up’
I’m laughing, then thinking and feeling, and then admiring. I’ve read ‘Life Just Swallows You Up’ and I immediately want to re-read and then I want to see how this poem is managing all these effects. Here is a wonderful study in economy, but also sleight of hand: the poem appears to be straightforward, but actually an awful lot is happening here.
The extended metaphor is a good one; plenty of poems deal with death but few poems deal with something else central to our lives, eating, and even fewer combine the two! So here we are in a study of our lives — a tale told about three people, in three courses and three stanzas. We see form married to content in the way we start in one place, but by way of the inevitable unfolding of life end up somewhere else. I’m reminded of when I told someone my father had just died and they talked about how I was no longer in the same place — the world had shifted. I’m struck by the word “orphaned” and realise that ultimately that is (or should be) the fate of us all; I like poems that I can nod along to as lines hit home and connect.
Of course, battling through the dish of life is all one can do. Life’s bruises might leave you without appetite and energy to continue but what else can be done? Somehow you have to continue. I’m reminded of the witnesses to the boy’s death at the end of Frost’s ‘Out, Out’: “And they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” It is easy to be critical of this apparently heartless response, but perhaps they turn to their affairs with broken hearts, and besides, what else can they do but continue their lives. In ‘Life just Swallows You Up’ the mother knows to continue and the speaker, perhaps daunted by the vastness of what has happened and what is left, however disinclined, also knows that they will need to get through dessert somehow.
~ Neil Elder
In response to ‘Open-Plan’
For the vast majority of people, certain types of poetry are the ones they’ll stick to reading, in terms of subject, style, mood, even the poets themselves. I don’t discount myself from this. It’s a personal preference. Sometimes, it’s good to be thrown a curve ball, asked to look at work you wouldn’t come across otherwise, even accidentally finding it by yourself. Such has twice been the case in the past couple of weeks. Firstly, just after his premature death, the wonderful American poet & gay rights activist, Francisco X. Alarcón.
~ Stuart A. Paterson
In response to ‘I Am Where’
‘I Am Where’ is a poem concerned with transition. The poem’s four stanzas, which shift between left and right alignment on the page, are immediately reflective of this. Without knowing the details of the poet’s biography, it’s tempting to assume that when the books described in the poem “move continent”, they are enacting the poet’s own crossings. But there are greater depths here to explore.
Finally, the line “the progression of my neon skin to even oak” recalls another kind of transition — a metamorphosis akin to that of Ovid’s Myrrha. The poem revels in the turnaround, in the old switcharoo, that starts to seem normal the older we get: the contrast between the mundanity of brands and rote tasks and the hugeness of momentous events. It takes its meaning from the tricky juxtaposition of these in our existence.
~ Camille Ralphs
In response to ‘Anne Whittle (alias chattox)’
It’s just about possible to place all poems somewhere on a spectrum stretching between sound and sense. At the ‘sound’ end of the spectrum, there are poems which (as Robert Lowell said of Dylan Thomas’s work) “can be enjoyed without understanding”, purely for the music of their lines. Towards the ‘sense’ end of the spectrum, we approach the disputed border between poetry and fiction: ‘sense’ poems foreground narrative over euphony.
Few readers would dispute that ‘Anne Whittle (alias chattox)’ foregrounds sound. Anne Whittle’s voice demands (and rewards) attention from her listener (and this is a poem that asks to be listened to, rather than merely read). The speaker gnaws at each word, turning the poem’s peculiar language over again and again to examine its taste and weight and texture, then spitting it back to the page.
This gnathic line of imagery recalls a detail of Anne Whittle’s confession, as preserved for posterity by Thomas Potts (‘The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster’). Whittle/chattox was one of the ‘Pendle witches’, nine of whom — seven women and two men —were executed by hanging in August 1612. Potts’ account describes how “the Deuill appeared vnto her in the liknes of a Man, about midnight” and demanded “that hee must haue one part of her body for him to sucke vpon.” Although she initially “refused to assent”, chattox soon yielded and gave permission for the Devil “to suck a place of her right side neere to her ribbes.”
Keeping chattox’s confession in mind, the poem’s focus is understandably oral as well as aural. The reader is (vicariously) served a succession of dishes, with “a frumenty of venison” appearing first on the poem’s menu: frumenty derives from frumentum, the Latin for grain, and I’m indebted to Wikipedia for the knowledge that frumenty is paired with venison in at least two mediaeval English poems, ‘Wynnere and Wastoure’ and ‘The Alliterative Morte d’Arthur’.
“manchet”, in the following line, is white bread made with flour “of the highest quality”: the kind of bread that Anne Whittle would perhaps have been prepared to sell a soul for.
Gradually beginning to feel slightly bloated, the reader moves via “marmalade of quince” and “a djug of custard sloshd… oevr goose and peacock, lamb nd potted beef” to “knash[ing] at th bare bakside/ of an apl… nd an appl & another/ apple.” The language itself starts to bloat: apple acquires an extra letter each time chattox (and the reader) return to “knash” at its exposed “bakside”.
The vividness of the poem’s language enables its reader-listener to enter the world of chattox, but it’s a world that feels — in many ways — profoundly unfamiliar. The past is, of course, “a foreign country: they do things differently there.” It follows, perhaps, that a poem which positions itself in the middle-distant past should not be afraid of doing things differently.
Think of the elderly patients in BS Johnson’s ‘House Mother Normal’, inhabiting a kind of post-linguistic parallel world, or the babbling, hiccupping Bazonge placing Gervaise into her coffin at the end of ‘L’Assommoir’. In both cases, the breakdown of language is associated with death and degradation. Anne Whittle, by the start of the poem’s second section, feels “only old”, and her voice seems to slide inexorably into something approaching meaninglessness.
As rich and strange as the poem is, ‘Anne Whittle (alias chattox)’ isn’t quite sui generis. It has roots both in the early 17th-century and in the early 21st. Leo Mercer’s essay on post-internet ‘free spelling’ is a useful point of reference: Mercer cites HG Wells’ hope for “liberation [from the dungeons of a spelling-book]” and suggests that “‘Free spelling’ is one of the techniques that internet poetry is opening up for future poets to use as a matter of norm.” Liberation from the dungeons of the spelling-book may be more significant than any other idea behind the lines of ‘Anne Whittle (alias chattox)’: the poem is simultaneously an attempt to look back, finding connecting threads between the present and the life of a working-class (although the label may be anachronistic) woman in the early 1600s, and an attempt to move forward by liberating language and creating new possibilities for poetry.
Mercer’s essay asks whether a poet works “at the edges of language or at its beating heart?” ‘Anne Whittle (alias chattox)’ demonstrates, perhaps, that it’s possible to do both.
~ Jacob Silkstone
In response to ‘Passing Through’
‘Passing Through’ is a piece which, as its title suggests, is about constant, seminal movement, and negates any false sense of stasis or certainty. The vast majority of verbs appear the present continuous (“Passing”; “Scanning”; “limping”; fifteen in total) which indicate an action being performed rather than its completion. Conversely, in the second stanza, the actions that may affect or be performed by the speaker are put in the conditional: “If asked […] I might answer”.
These continual and conjectural actions (part of the poem’s drama) unfold within a time frame that is regularly compressed or dilated. The poem opens at dusk (an intangible hour), and already attempts to delay the oncoming darkness by holding on to the “last minutes of pink light limping weakly out” (seven stresses for eleven syllables; strong alliteration). Later on, after two introspective stanzas and without preparation, the night is now “behind/& racing in front”. On the level of rhyme (a time-bound unit of measure), the poem plays further tricks on the reader. The first four lines work in a sense of regularity in its straightforward ABAB scheme, while the fifth ends in “coast”, a slant rhyme on “out/shout”, which undermines any sense of stability but rather opens onto another sound system, later chiming with “caught” and “sunburst”.
“basking shark, red kite, stravaiging minstrel,
[…] Looking in I really feel none of these”
In the light of this lack (or withholding) of definition, the poem articulates its speaker around a series of oppositions: the text hovers between “evening” and “night” (set at either end of the poem); “Looking in” and “Looking out”; “what I’d been previously” and “I really feel none of these”.
Ultimately, the poem goes full circle musically with the /aʊt/ rhymes, harkening back to the first stanza, but simultaneously dismisses any tangible certainty in a final couplet of oppositions that remain unresolved, and the poem ends as it began, passing through:
“pasts & futures caught
between that final, tiny sunburst
& the long beyond of doubt.”
~ Pierre Antoine Zahnd