READS OF THE YEAR 2014: SAMUEL TONGUE

Leaf Graffiti by Lucy Burnett (Northern House/Carcanet 2013)

A sequence named ‘Variations on an Urban Monotone’ opens this debut collection, striking in its insistent syntactical and conceptual energies. Each new poem in the sequence takes a word from the previous poem and gives a word to the next; somehow ‘ashes’ links with ‘shadow’ which links with ‘brylcreem’ which leads on to ‘chevrolet’, and so on. Although every literature student jumps gleefully on the idea of writing a ‘stream of consciousness’ without any need for editing or control, Burnett’s conscious poetry often leaps across imagistic distances and lands surefooted enough to engender the reader’s trust. Moving between the urban and the rural, natural and artificial worlds, everything is interconnected. Burnett holds a PhD in ecopoetics and this perspective of the co-inherence of all things is evident throughout from how the

wheelie bins are beergutted     obese
spilling packages     just like a gift

of unrequested feast […]
                           (Variations on an Urban Monotone: vi. Breakdancing)

to the central sequence that narrates Burnett’s diagnosis of ovarian cancer and the subsequent removal of her ovaries:

My fingers knead my new-found lack of symmetry,
a half-aborted womanhood. The doctor promised me

‘the woman left will end up working twice as hard.’

This is a book to read and reread, revelling in the surprise of image and multiple forms, and inspiring a paradoxical vision of the everyday world: “incorrigibly plural” yet concentrated, intense. In Burnett’s hands this world is far from monotone.

Conspicuous Consumption by Thorstein Veblen (Penguin 2005 [1899])veblen cover

Recently, I was fortunate enough to purchase almost a whole series of Penguin’s Great Ideas from our local library at a very reasonable price. Perhaps these “great ideas” were not being borrowed enough. And, I have to admit, along with Series 1, I don’t get them off my own shelves regularly enough. However, with the recent referendum inspiring me to think more deeply about the political and economic structures of our time, I was drawn to Thorstein Veblen’s provocatively titled Conspicuous Consumption. This is an extract from his less provocatively 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class but, aside from some of its more turn-of-the-twentieth century language on so-called “primitive societies,” it lays bare some of our most cherished ideals as to how consumption operates symbolically. As Veblen suggests,

in any community where such invidious comparison of persons is habitually made, visible success becomes an end sought for its own utility as a basis of esteem. Esteem is gained and dispraise is avoided by putting one’s efficiency in evidence.

For Veblen, modern culture, defined by the increasing levels of “leisure” time, finds new ways to demonstrate that this leisure is actually a visible success, making clear that those engaged in its consumption, should be esteemed above those involved in manual labour and drudgery. For example, decorum is upheld and manners are performed because “their ulterior, economic ground is to be sought in the honorific character of that leisure or non-productive employment of time and effort without which good manners are not acquired.” Within our own economic structures, fiscal and symbolic value often go hand-in-hand, and, according to Veblen, it is the ceremonial consumption of luxuries that separates the classes: “Conspicuous consumption of valuable goods is a means of reputability to the gentleman of leisure.” Although this sounds outdated in its register, I wonder whether social media now allows a hyperreal communication of conspicuous consumption, even more subtle when it is what is now termed the “knowledge economy.” A book and a theory to ponder on and begin to apply.

Moontide by Niall Campbell (Bloodaxe 2014)

When a debut poetry collection wins such prizes as the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award and is shortlisted for, among others, the Saltire First Book of the Year and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, you have to sit up and take notice. However, such accolades do, of course, make it difficult to come to a book without equally high expectations. Fortunately, Bloodaxe sent me a copy of the book early in 2014 and, without sounding like a shrill adolescent (“I was into Campbell before he was cool!”), this collection is beautifully assured, quiet, offering an open invitation to the reader to enter into the shifting worlds and seascape visions of the poet.

In ‘The Letter Always Arrives at its Destination’ (which won the Poetry London Prize in 2013), we find a young boy filling glass bottles with “maps of wader nests, / burrows and foxes dens” and, later, “crushes’ names” only for them to sink almost on launching. Instead the boy finds that he “had written / about the grass to the drowned sand, / again; and to the sunken dark, / I had sent all the light I knew.” Campbell is keenly aware of his poetic vocation and what it means to write these letter-poems to an ever-increasing audience. Although there are a couple within the collection that sink quickly, perhaps because they are written for a smaller audience of one (e.g. ‘The Winter Home’), Campbell embraces the work of poetry with vigorous responsibility. In ‘The Work’, the poet seeks for a definition of his role, from “the whaler poet” to “the poet nurse [or] “the oil-driller poet” ending with “the waiter poet – / offering the choice wine, polishing to the light, / the bringer of the feast and the bill.” Perhaps with a wry nod to the economic niceties of the need for contemporary poets to have a USP (Unique Selling Point), this poem is unabashed about the importance of the craft itself, alongside other crafts, almost to the point of a nostalgic remembrance for skills lost (see ‘The Forge’). But beyond the machinations of the poetry market, here is a poet who will continue to bring “the feast.”

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