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Steve Spence

"Noon: An Anthology of Short Poems" edited by Philip Rowland   Isobar Press   158 pages

This collection draws its material entirely from the thirteen issues of Noon, edited by Philip Rowland and is a substantial introduction to one individual’s take on ‘the short poem’. Obviously I can’t comment in depth on the whole collection, which includes material from over 90 poets, so I’m going to take a few of my favourite samples and leave the reader to explore in his/her own time. It’s certainly a worthwhile endeavour and includes an array of examples of the compression typical to shorter poems while also supplying plenty of the more ‘experimental’ moments which provide unexpected pleasures. As a slightly tenuous connection, I’m thinking of the Reality Street Book of Sonnets from some years back which was also an ambitious and wide-ranging affair, even within its apparently more narrow constraints, though the reader may be surprised at how ‘embracing’ the sonnet form is, at a stretch!

Sonnets are largely excluded from this selection, with the exception Jim Kacian’s ‘Sonnet for Philip Glass’ which has a relevant mix of the repetitious and the minimalist – ‘sturmsturmsturmsturmsturmsturmsturmsturm’ – which shifts slightly from line to line and includes a visual/concrete element, aided by its typewriter font and humorous progression.

The organisation of the anthology is geared to aiding a ‘smooth flow’ and there are a group of poems which deal with painting, my favourite in this field being John Phillips’ ‘Mont St Victoire’, where we get a neat yet puzzling encapsulation, so typical of his work: ‘The hand painting / the mountain / creates the mountain / we go to / see’ . Phil Terry’s ‘from Homage to Catatonia’, based on ‘mistranslation’, gives us a number of strange squibs, including the following, which I found quite disturbing – ‘No one can explain / The enigma of the cats / Hanging from the trees.’ I also enjoyed the brevity of Jeff Harrison’s untitled poem – ‘Swedenborg exploded, / & also certain angels’ which was both suggestive and I think humorous. From Sheila E. Murphy we get the following extract: ‘vines I do not know the name of / challenge actuarial detail’ while in Alan Halsey’s ‘Ars Poetica’ we have ‘As if a flock / of small birds ate / the feeder but / left the nuts’. There are also poems which are primarily visual, such as Phil Terry’s ‘Tadpoles’, from which I’ll include a short extract and simply suggest the ‘dazzle effect’ (Bridget Riley?):        ‘’    ‘’    ‘’    ‘’ ‘’

Witty and playful and there’s a similar thing going on with Alistair Noon’s ‘Reading Kafka’ which I won’t quote from here. 

I enjoyed Jane Monson’s haiku:

          The sky turns cartoon
          birds fall into clouds, laughing;
          death can’t touch us here

which does a good job of encapsulation while being wildly offbeat, suggestive and also promoting our curiosity – did the inspiration for this piece come from a painting perhaps?

Chris McCabe, a master of a variety of poetic forms, mixes ‘reality’ with ‘virtual reality’ in his section from ‘Paternity Leave’ where an extract from The Blue Planet becomes coterminous with what’s actually going on in the here and now – ‘the hatchlings, however, have already started out on their journey’ . From Geraldine Monk’s ‘Poppyheads’ we have the following: ‘It was like the Marie Celeste except / we weren’t at sea and no one was missing’. I love Monks’ poetry, witty yet continuously unpredictable, often political but never in a clichéd way and always stimulating in a variety of ways. Peter Hughes’ work here mixes the physical with the more abstract, hinting perhaps at the metaphysical but in a thoroughly grounded manner, another favourite of mine: ‘the river is illuminated by late light /echoing songs of redemption / though what is carried where remains a mystery’.

 Richard Kostelanetz’s SNOW is as brief as it gets and suggests immediacy and a sense of ‘nowness’ which feels very appropriate to the title/poem/subject, while Mark Terrill’s untitled – ‘a road crosses a road another road does not’ makes your head spin even though it is entirely logical and apparently uncomplicated as a statement. The reader’s sense of time and space is thrown askew. Many of these short poems offer puzzling, philosophical problems, often never to be disentangled entirely, perhaps one of the pleasures of reading them. Language is a slippery business, dealing as it does with its own existence and also with ‘the world out there’.

After having read through this collection a couple of times and then dipped in periodically at random it’s the pleasure of the unexpected line, the puzzling yet encapsulating minimalism of ‘the short poem’ (a very widely embracing term, I have to say) that keeps me interested. There are plenty of names new to me here as well as a good dose of favourite poets and I thoroughly enjoyed my encounters with this beautifully produced tome. The mix of compression and exactitude, troubled by puzzle, uncertainty and a sense of the nebulous, is a wonderful combination. I hope you enjoy dipping in and out as much as I did.

Copyright © Steve Spence, 2019