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Alan Baker

"March" by Andrew Taylor, pub. Shearsman Books. 84pp. £9.95

The poems in "March" are in a tradition usually associated with American poets like George Oppen or Robert Creeley, who prize concision and carve their poems accordingly. The poems in this book seem larger than their appearance on the page, able to contain the friends, artists, poets and musicians that they celebrate, the landscapes both urban and rural, and the recurrent theme of movement and travel.  Taylor can do a lot with this compressed style - humour, social comment, movement, stillness; it's a versatile medium, and Taylor makes full use of it.

Here's an example of a complete poem:

      SUN TINT GLAZING GAP

                 for Cliff Yates

      Only ever hours away
      from the cutting tunnels

      through sandstone

      Follow line of canal weeds angle flow

      salmon and blue striped top girl
      bobbed hair looks like a Belle and Sebastian
      cover star

      at lunch we time it just right

      hand painted billboards coach station
      look and feel of aiport departures

      bridges narrow cut narrows

      After Coke at Ikon John Salt
      Gallery Two bump into Rob

      talk about Scott and Sarah's wedding

      on departure angle
      of fields hedgerow divides
      sun tint glazing gap

Dedicated to the poet's friend, the poet Cliff Yates, the poem implies a flaneur-type walk with Yates, and  we can infer a city built on sandstone, with "cutting tunnels", maybe road or rail tunnels, or the man-made caves under Nottingham, where Taylor lives. To describe the start of the walk, we have:

      Follow line of canal weeds angle flow

This is a typical Taylor line, somehow containing much more than you'd expect from seven words; the noun "canal" has no article and is followed by three words, two of which are nouns, one could be a noun or a verb. Is the verb "follow" an imperative, or a simple description of what’s happening? The walkers could be following something unspecified, and "line of canal", "weeds", "angle" and "flow" are simply a list observed objects. Or they could be following the line of the canal. Or "angle" could be a verb, as the weeds cause the flow to angle i.e. change direction. This uncertainty, rather than hindering the reading, enhances it, as the line feels compressed and the reader is pushed onward by the resulting tension. The next lines are:

      salmon and blue striped top girl
      bobbed hair looks like a Belle and Sebastian
      cover star

For an instant, "salmon" appears to be connected to the canal, but the following phrase changes the sense and we have an observation of a passer-by and a reference to pop culture, leading to the plainest line in the poem:

      at lunch we time it just right

which, as befits a well-timed lunch, has a satisfying sense of ease after the previous compressed prosody. The next six lines reel off a list of things seen as the walk continues, giving an impression of a place of workshops, galleries and artistic endeavour, before bumping into Rob and talking

      ...about Scott and Sarah's wedding

This opens up the poem to an implied wider world of friends and acquaintances, before ending with a final observation of sunlight through a hedge, described as "sun tint glazing gap". This phrase itself is a good example of Taylor's telegraphic style; its slightly unusual diction, lack of articles and the momentary uncertainty over whether "sun" or "tint" is the subject of the verb. All of this has the effect of focusing the reader on the words, on how they look on the page and on their sound, especially on the single-syllable ones "sun tint ... gap". 

The poems hover between the abstract and the concrete; at one moment foregrounding language by isolating words and phrases, and in the next highlighting specific details of a scene or situation; this duality sets up a tension in the writing, so that it's never slack, always progressing. The reader has to work to comprehend these poems; the broken phrases and non-sequitirs slow down the process of reading, and at some point – often after repeated readings - seemingly opaque poems will suddenly yield up meaning, like a Zen koan. In fact, paying attention to the poems in “March” can sometimes seem like a form of meditation.

Most of the poems in this collection are short, no more than a dozen or so lines. But there are some longer ones; "Network" for example, which emphasises the theme of travel running through the book (one of the possible meanings of the title, "March") is an account of a train journey across Merseyside from West Kirby to Chester. Each station has an entry with a brief description:

      SANDHILLS docks oil rig platform sailing

      BANKHALL burnt out pub

      BOOTLE ORIEL ROAD Hugh Baird College view to the north docks

This reads like a series of haiku, and evokes the urban landscape sharply, without any adornment or clutter. In the middle of the poem, there is an SMS message in which the traveler describes being "Stuck at the station think I'll have to find a bus or something" then asks "You going to give up or make it back to Liverpool and beyond?" This short bridge juxtaposes the empty, often derelict scenes in the poem with some human contact, opening the poem up as the lines about Scott and Sarah's wedding do in "Sun Tint Glazing Gap". This is typical of how the poems are open to world; the pronoun "I" doesn't figure in this work, so that instead of an observer looking at things from the outside, there is a sense of engagement, a sense that the writer isn't separate from the world he is describing. Allied with this is the way in which the poems move between descriptive detail on the one hand, and on the other, clusters of words for their own sake ("sun tint glazing gap" again an example). The poems don't have an objective standpoint from which to view people and scenes and comment on them, but they are themselves, in the words of WS Graham "an addition to the world".

In the longer poems attention to descriptive detail combined with a cryptic tone paradoxically achieve an impressionistic effect. The poem “Drinking coffee out of paper cups with plastic lids” is a good example of this:

      wait! The office is not yet open
      by chance the cup is brewing

      pilgrimage seven streets expanded
      views from the floor

      neon of Exchange Bar reflection
      leaves tambourine tumble

      knee high boots weather
      accordion stops
      tail end of hurricane
      or is it a severe storm

The poem is a blur of travel, people, places and events that give the impression of a lively mind engaging with the world. It’s interesting that the absence of a first-person narrator can produce poems in which a distinct personality is present.

There are plenty of allusions in this book, often in the dedications of poems, and often to musicians, but it's not self-consciously literary. What we don't find in this poetry is ornament, showy word-play or even simile (something George Oppen also rejected). Taylor is writing a specific type of poetry and remains true to it; he's also able to extract the maximum matter from a minimalist style. There's integrity in these poems, and a dedication to the art, that makes for a richly fulfilling experience for a reader prepared to spend time with them.

 

 
Copyright © Alan Baker, 2017