In October, I attended a poetry reading in Oxford where various Salteenies were reading (poets published by Salt) and one of the new books of poetry I picked up that night was by one of the readers, Mark Burnhope.
His first pamphlet, The Snowboy, published this year, is priced at £6.50 - which I found rather steep for a pamphlet of 28 pages. (Luckily, he offered me a small discount when I made my sad spaniel face.) But the quality of Burnhope's poetry is also steep, which made up for the high price. (I also notice it is currently reduced to £5.20 on the Salt website, which is more realistic from a buyer's point of view.)
Burnhope's work is an odd but dynamic combination of mythic or lyrical influences and sudden flat prosaic touches. He is not afraid to declaim or strike postures, which is something I thought had died out with the last of the Romantics, suggesting a return to that contradictory attitude of self-conscious looking outwards which is somehow embarrassing and yet satisfying to encounter. It's an attitude which says to the listener or reader, at least on a subliminal level: 'I am a Poet and this is Poetry with a capital P, yet I am perfectly well aware of what's being written today, thank you, as well as what was written three hundred years ago.'
Being wheelchair-bound, Mark Burnhope's poetry gives us an unusual perspective on life, of seeing things that perhaps others miss, and also an awareness of his own peculiarly stand-out - perhaps even combative? - spatial relationship with the world. One of the most compelling poems in the book is his bold 'Wheelchair, Recast as a Site of Special Pastoral Interest':
O evil scaffold, levelled
and controlled by spirit.
O wing-black spectral-silver mass;
crass imposition upon the meadow
formed of iron-carbon alloy - steel -
and foam; O folk dance of spoke,
wheel, tyre, seat, the latter
to which, flush out of the field,
the executed calf
and ewe contributed.
Here the hard, metallic, man-made structure of the wheelchair is placed in creative tension with the softer, ever-changing elements of the natural world, i.e. the 'meadow' (not a field, please note, which would be agricultural and therefore equally manmade) and the 'calf and ewe' (here, definitely from the 'field'). The 'folk dance' works beautifully with that idea of a pre-industrial world, a celebration of life and death, the 'executed calf' recalling the prodigal son's return, the forgiveness of the father for his wayward child.
So the poet's love-hate relationship with his wheelchair does not so much dominate this book as underscore it musically. In a dream where he is imagined without it, Burnhope writes with grim humour:
In the absence of a wheelchair, I am walking
on one paw like a cirque-du-freak performer.
This seems to suggest that he sees the wheelchair as almost a normalising influence, a damping-down of creative energy, where its absence might allow him to become a daring 'performer', albeit one whose differentness is what people primarily flock to see, that 'paw' in place of a hand bringing an animalistic touch to the image. Burnhope's wild side? He then sees himself morphing into a scorpion that stings itself to death, perhaps through too much introspection. Other poems here mention sperm whales, Moby Dick, tentacles, skate, a cormorant ... Burnhope's touchstone is the sea, and it is a recurring image in this debut, as are those creatures which live within it.
Also a Christian, much of the imagery here finds its influence in the Christian religion, though with a certain dark pagan twist at times. (O folk dance ... ) I tend to dislike contemporary religious verse with extreme vehemence, though it's hard not to admire the sparing delicacy and slate-sharp edges of a poet like R.S. Thomas. It's also hard not to see that - very pleasing - influence at work here in Burnhope's debut:
Boscombe Pier pierces
the sea. On either side of me
the promenade extends
arms that end
in bending wrists of cliff-side.
The land is dark, but look, his fists
loosing breakers overnight.
I want to ask Burnhope what 'pin-lit' means here - Christ's stigmata, one assumes, doubling up with the pinpoints of penny arcade or promenade lights - where or indeed what is the main verb, and how dare he casually toss the trauma of 'extends/ends/bending' into three consecutive lines and leave us to wrestle with that oblique, not quite understandable finale while we are still reeling from all those vibrating 'end' sounds? Meanwhile, this rather fine and striking piece of Christian imagery is a direct rebuttal to the prosaic opening to this poem, 'Christ is not your friend our lecturer said.'
Frankly, yes, wrong in places. But I love it. Not the opening though. I would say here, have the courage to back away from the inspiration for this poem, which adds nothing, and perhaps even detracts from or diminishes what follows it, and develop the lyric impulse instead. That's where the true power lies. Not in what we perceive as 'truth' (like those poor souls at open mic nights who say of their poems, as if to reassure us that it's not mere flim-flam, 'This really happened', not knowing that they are robbing their work of any possible power it might have possessed to ferry us into the magic territory of the 'story', as opposed to the stifling airing cupboard of the anecdote) but in the purely imaginary, the vital thought or image which creates its own reality as we attempt to capture it in a poem.
Though perhaps the prosaic is what anchors the poetry for Burnhope, gives the more powerful imagery an excuse to exist without sounding like 'Art for Art's sake'. Well, I can see how that might happen. But we don't always need to see the working out. Sometimes the solution is better presented naked and shorn of its original props.
What else? Assonance and alliteration like an insane rash. Yes, yes, yes. Let's get back to that in poetry. An odd and discordant use of verbs, or nouns that double up as verbs, or possibly do, so that the poem is constantly wrongfooting the listener, i.e. 'Where the one/we conceived on Christmas Eve/ pools, swaddles grass'. I mean, just read that first clause again. What the... ?
But again, I welcome it. Somewhere beneath the slightly tyro feel to these pieces is my kind of poetry. It's not boring. It has the ability to slap you in the face without being unsubtle about such a gesture. It possesses oddly beautiful and powerful imagery. It hints at dark undercurrents which I would love to see coming to the fore. And above all, it is Poetry, and is unafraid of that concept.
I'm very rarely excited and interested by new books of poetry, being a curmudgeonly sort. But there's something in Burnhope's debut which makes me hope he isn't easily satisfied by what he's got here. Because if he is, he will have thrown away his chance to be a truly excellent poet.
Help to encourage a new poet. Grab a copy of Mark Burnhope's The Snowboy from Salt Publishing or Amazon.