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Alan Baker

“Micro Event Space” by Robert Sheppard, pub. Red Ceilings Press. 50pp

The Red Ceilings format of small (A6) booklets lends itself to some types of writing and not others; in this one Robert Sheppard has given us poems perfectly adapted to the medium, appropriately titled "Micro Event Space" and starting with a sequence of "twittersonnets" in which each poem presents a small object, ranging from a Higgs Boson particle to a pygmy marmoset. But before we get to that there is an opening poem which acts like a prologue, setting out the poet's aims and techniques. In this sonnet-like poem, simply titled "Poem", we're told

          Every poem is a new beginning...
          trying to figure out
          what it is, like an orphan or a migrant

As these lines confirm, Sheppard starts with language and from there reaches out to the world, much as Burnett, in her sequence gives us language-objects which embody the river rather than describe it. The simile of “orphan”, and particularly the highly-charged “migrant” alerts us to political intent which is always there in Sheppard’s work. The twittersonnets use their narrow layout to break up words and phrases to make strange the objects they represent. The constraint the poet is working under is that of 140 characters split over the 14 lines of the sonnet (in groups of 8 and 6). Here's a twittersonnet in full:


          foetal fin
          gers 3 or
          4 hands of
          necks joi

          nted scale
          d with ros
          y tesserae
          -mosaics d

          arkened pa
          tched micro
          o-cells to

          rescale t
          heir patte

It's clear that the line-breaks help with the forward momentum of the poem while at the same time changing the meaning from line-to-line (as where "fin" becomes "fingers" for example). Sheppard is a contemporary master of the sonnet form and this is another example of his inventiveness with it. There are six such sequences in this little booklet and each one is distinctive, the whole encompassing a wide range of forms. In the sixth and final sequence for example, "Haibun: 52", we have a semi-prose journal recounting immediate impressions and sensations with haiku embedded in it (including a reference to the famous frog haiku of Basho) which is funny and contemplative at the same time. The short sequence "Burnt Journal 1968" (dedicated to poet Simon Perril, born in that year) addresses someone who drives "from an earlier decade / into Wolverhampton" with references to an era (1968) when "Red busses seem redder than ever" and "Lively Lady ... tossing on an alien ocean" recalls the amateur sailor Alec Rose circumnavigating the globe in that year; although it’s typical of Sheppard that the jaunty reference ends with a jolt; the word “alien”, freighted with significance, recalling perhaps British imperialism.

The more the reader engages with "Micro Event Space" the more its depth and  variety become apparent. In contrast to the immediacy of the twittersonnets and the poems in "Haibun: 52 Haiku", we have a strange sequence called "Working Week" which opens with:

          The suspect women
          were too chatty for
          their own innocence, queuing
          outside our Finger Print Room. One
          at a time we'd imprint
          their tiny curlies and swirls

From fingerprinting, the sequence then moves on to other kinds of work, or alienated relations to work:

          I look down and
          I'm terrified. Ant people
          between glass. Every day
          for 20 years - the same.

The poems then move to a woman selling plastic body parts ("But are they plastic?") to three Klansmen to someone who seems to be a sex-worker ("I wasn't / born yesterday and / I hope I'll not / die today"). The sequence contains some striking images ("...a crowd of white shirts hunches / its backs") and is unsettling in its dead-pan delivery.

The emphasis on the small in this collection belies the broad scale of reference and the public nature of some of the pieces, one of which ("Arena Area") is a collaboration with artist  Pete Clark, and another (the “twittersonnets") was commissioned as part of the nationwide "Being Human Festival". This is a much bigger book than is apparent from its physical appearance.

Copyright © Alan Baker, 2019