Issue 18: John Wilkinson reviews Poems by Verity Spott & Timothy Thornton

Verity Spott & Timothy Thornton, Poems. Cambridge: Face Press, 2017

This notice of a 28-page chapbook published in 200 copies by Face Press, Cambridge, an enterprise invisible to web search engines and whose publications offer no address or email to facilitate contact (but it is, threatens to frustrate readers persuaded by its recommendation; I fear that before these comments are published, the chapbook will become unobtainable. However, other books by its authors can be tracked down with a little effort, and Timothy Thornton is represented in No.2 of the new series of the UK Penguin Modern Poets (Controlled Explosions, with Michael Robbins and Patricia Lockwood, 2016). And the almost privately-published status of Poems seems apt to what these poems offer. That is a lyric idiom (within whose scope the two writers are distinguishable) developing in a time of political and financial crisis bringing pressure to bear on both outward form and internal structures of the verse, pressure that has the effect of binding lyric address powerfully to addressees unspecified by gender or designated relationship, and engendering a tenderness of physical and verbal attention that cups poet and lover in a community of safety – for ‘lover’ extends to whomever stays within the enclosure of the poems’ address. These poems remind me intensely in this regard of the poetry of the English Civil War, that is, so-called metaphysical verse that holds carnal and spiritual love in its stanzaic fortifications against disorder masquerading as forces of order. The malign forces of law and order are confronted quite directly, but such limits to the poems’ sympathies are the condition of love’s urgent and focused covenant.

Timothy Thornton and Verity Spott are both poets with strong links to a Brighton poetry scene linked to a Cambridge lineage dating back to the late 1960s but with a stronger performative and more intense social and political activity, and a far less academic profile – neither Thornton nor Spott is an academic, the one a classical pianist and freelance music teacher and the other working in social service. The precarity of their employment and Spott’s engagement with homeless people in Brighton can be felt in the texture of these poems which avoid advertisement of political commitment, their “quietly humming eyes | pinned close to peeling | shadows” (Spott, ‘The Haunted Inch’) in their truthfulness to circumstance. The influence of the sceptically lyrical early writing of J.H. Prynne can be discerned as can some of the more abrasive vernacular music of Keston Sutherland, which is to say that this poetry is animated at its heart by the English poetic tradition reaching from popular balladry to Romantic ode to its most powerful recent inheritors. A striking thing about this collection of seventeen brief poems is the emergence of an idiom in common that does not impress by way either of assertive scholarship or of vehemence, but by its compassion in the full sense that the verse is formed from a mutual experience of suffering recognised in the others to whom this poetry draws close, including readers such as this reviewer; and recognisable by those readers acquainted, however sketchily, with its antecedents. When I first read these poems on a train journey between Brighton and Cambridge I was almost overwhelmed by their beauty, but a beauty which is not only aesthetic. Their grace fills a humane compass, tightly circumscribed by the curtailing presence of police and other orders of disorder, as well as by their prosody.

A sort of test of such lyric is the difficulty felt in moving on from each poem. It is a struggle to leave every page when the poems that detain, urge to further dilate. As a first example, the opening poem is by Thornton and includes the lines:

You took those lashes said my blood woollen     , and

swimming with grounds felt

were not capable,       I am but concave for

such sullen days as

                suspension of glass dye under    , sitting

back to long sap rotating

This is the only poem written in such disjointed phrases (although shaped into quatrains with a final five-line stanza) and acts as a kind of tuning-up, introducing some of the effects of diction characterising the poems to follow. The puns here are not flagrant but are subtle knots – “swimming with grounds felt” associates “felt” with “woollen” in the previous line, and coffee grounds with the routine of days. “You took those lashes” means you endured them; ‘swollen’ may be audible behind “woollen” and “felt” which could be a comfort of sorts, with S&M brought into proximity with Christ’s suffering and comforting. The ground we stand on is swimming and our eyes swim in looking at it. The poem is titled ‘(January Ode)’ and the rhythm of sexual violence and assuagement is tempered by the boredom of January’s “sullen days” and their seeming “suspension” which nonetheless belong to the movement of “long sap rotating” leading later in the poem to audible birdsong, “winter it trills”, and to an invigorating frost. It is one of the pleasures of these urban poems that they refer to the seasons and to the holdouts of the natural world, however scuffed. “I am but concave” is a quiet demotion of the lyric ‘I’ to a reception point, gathering like a satellite dish. The entire poem is an extraordinary feat of gathering performed with great prosodic and semantic deftness, with its singing bird introduced as a merciful call-&-response to the “pocket I find myself crying” by its rhythmic incursion through “– peck it the    winter it trills [...]”. The last line of the book’s final poem, also by Thornton, reads “Do we have birds still.” A gesture which either might still the birds or on closing the book fill the subsequent silence with continuing birdsong.

‘(January Ode)’ is followed by the sharper notes of Verity Spott’s ‘Notice’. In general Thornton’s prosody tends to the mellifluous and Spott’s to the angular, although her cruder language serves a compassionate and self-abnegating purpose reconcilable with Thornton’s more generous cadences, however aggressive it might sometimes sound. The two poets’ timbres (authorship is identified in a note at the end of the book) work very well together. Here are the final three triplets of ‘Notice’:

What the fuck is in you? Never

latch the door. You have not been ruined.

Not quite, or if you have

being ruined isn’t shit:

Things become sucked out of you.

Wrongness basted every hole…

Waste became internalised, permission

never given. Take your tiny self

away strangled by your ribbon.

This is Spott’s harshest poem and is addressed “to my colleagues” although it seems unlikely it was delivered to them. The poetic thinking here is, I think, fundamentally Kleinian – fundamentally because these lines not only are driven by object relations theory, but use words and phrases as hard-edged things reduced to penises, nipples and faeces that penetrate or are ejected at the sites of “holes” indistinguishable between mouth, anuses, vaginas, ears (and probably nostrils). Essentially the poem is saying you’re so tight-assed that you’ve become a lump of shit. But by this ending of the poem, “you” has become ambiguous, self-accusatory as well as an arraignment of “my colleagues”, and the dismissive final line a charge against lyric self-obsession. Such a reading is supported by the frequency with which “you” is deployed as a stand-in for the first person in Spott’s poems throughout. What is most impressive about these lines is their formal constriction, with their basic ballad meter allied to ordinary speech with an authority that lends a phrase like “What the fuck is in you” a forceful literalism – the obscenity is wrenched into telling metaphor. Similarly “being ruined isn’t shit” (perhaps the first poetic usage of this locution?) anticipates “Waste became internalised” – that is, being ruined quite literally isn’t shit, it stays inside as corruption. Would it be too fanciful to read the end of this poem as a sardonic reflection on its own piss-elegance?

The colophon states: “Our rule for this book: all the poems included are those we showed first to each other, before anyone else.” One of the pleasures of reading Poems from beginning to end is that what begins as an exchange unregistered in the texts, becomes in the final run of four poems, the first two by Spott and the second two by Thornton, a cross-braiding, bringing the threads together into more than a collection. These poems revolve around the word ‘complete’ designating what is filled entirely. The first of these, ‘The Haunted Inch’ is perhaps Spott’s most beautiful and poignant poem, in which “the haunted inch” becomes “a neatly folded distance | in its softness | unable to unpack”. Here completeness can be sensed but remains unattainable as does the physical fulness of “four of us there | wearing nothing but ghosts.” The syntax of this fluent poem starts out by encircling and “gliding over | containers” which become exemplified in pronouns. The poem wants to break open pronouns to find the fulness of flesh but can only flow around them and in so doing make openings for exchange through its shifting connective tissue. Spott’s next poem picks up on the physical pain of Thornton’s ‘(January Ode)’ in its determination to break through to the flesh, in the ambiguous form of the “rib cage”, the division of the word signifying that it represents an obstacle and constraint as well as a zone or erotic encounter. Pain itself becomes what is entertained “fondly”, with the body then recognised as “faking | & emptied...”. This is what becomes of the poem’s opening flourish “I love you so completely”. Thornton’s following poem, ‘Red Sky in the Afternoon 30.10.2016’, worries about the translation of physical completion into poetry and thence into memory and abstraction. It not only picks up Spott’s phrase “I love you so completely” but also her anxiety about fakery. Both of Thornton’s two final poems echo the heartfelt regret and affirmation of the transcendent reality of love lost, characteristic of John Wieners’ poems. This is the entire ‘Red Sky in the Afternoon 30.10.2016’:

Oh did I dream quick to press something

first as itself and next again as

how we come to hold it in

its persisting. I got all of nowhere, but

we’d peeled awake across those hours, our

distances from wide adventure

lost splayed a silent gull dragged

unseen off the sky in faked threads.

But angled toward evening or

not I do love you completely

past all the misshapen

devices of the final gang.

Here it is the threads of the poem and of this poetic exchange that might comprise a fakery, born from the attempt to hold “something | first as itself” and make it persist. “Gang” as the last word here is reminiscent of its Germanic root and of Scottish vernacular – it signifies a going. But “the final gang” might also suggest the group of poets contributing to the completeness of the love in these poems, with their “misshapen | devices” as well as the going, the gathering, of this particular poem. It was a dream to “press something | first as itself” where “press” slides rapidly from physical contact, the moment of completion which may itself have been quickened only by dream, to preservation of that something as a pressed flower – certain to fade. What remains is a bird without a cry and invisible, forced into this poem from its skyey apparition, bereft of its momentary completion. But in truth “I love you completely” not only survives “the final gang” of this poem but is completed in itself by the poem. The first person plural emerging strongly as this book of exchange develops could signify this gang, or Verity Spott and Timothy Thornton, or a lover not named and perhaps interchangeable.

The book proposes a question how writing so alert to external pressures on language “cordoned into | prose yards from a cop” (Thornton, ‘Tattoo’) can maintain faith in the cadences of social assembly – “Small circles here” (‘Tattoo’). It could be argued that the assertive presence of police lines serves to concentrate and confine damage from which the internal gatherings of prosody and syntax are thereby exempted. The essential humanism of this writing is opened to question only through its hospitality to Christian residues, in Spott’s as well as Thornton’s poems: “They cut you open. | They nailed you to planks, || jabbed your thigh | burned you. Will there be a little cross | here for us too?” (‘La Forma de Spirim’). The language of the Spanner trial of S&M votaries coexists with the Passion; pain might become a last validation for love attenuated by the claims of its consumer and mass media prefiguring. So this is a humanism at whose centre stands not the perfectible but the suffering human being. But how is that being to be envisaged, literally; policed by his or her skin, by his or her gender lock, by species? Is the cultivation of small circles, whether of lovers’ arms or of literary cenacles, any more than an indulgent and privileged substitute for ‘real politics’? By way of answer, can any art or politics be possible without at least an imagined space for compassion? This book shows a poetic imagining of compassion in the process of becoming active, its force increasingly inclusive in its small circles, and having the potential to radiate outwards. No extremity of scepticism overrides the necessity for love and beauty as felt performing in these Poems to join in the basis for moral and political agency, and to regenerate the guttering spirit. Yes, “we have birds still”, to respond to the book’s last question, and as evidenced movingly by Poems.

It would be negligent to fail to congratulate Ian Heames, the printer and designer of Face Press publications, for the unfussy elegance of this book. The care taken makes Poems a pleasure to handle.

John Wilkinson teaches at the University of Chicago. His selected poems, Schedule of Unrest, were published by Salt in 2014, and subsequently a pamphlet, Courses Matter-Woven, appeared from Eqipage and in 2016 a U.S. collection, Ghost Nets, from Omnidawn.