REVIEW by Amy McCauley

NWR Issue 97

Lung Jazz: Young British Poets for Oxfam

by Eds Todd Swift and Kim Lockwood

Lung Jazz is full of genuinely surprising and eccentric poems. Poems which don’t belong in a ‘British’ anthology at all. The influences here are clearly a hybrid of American and European poets whose loose, impulsive, and often translated vernaculars have been absorbed (or imported) by many of these poets.

Chrissy Williams’ poem ‘On Getting Boney M’s Cover of “Mary’s Boy Child” by Harry Belafonte Stuck in my Head’ is a delightful example of this. The tone is casual and intimate. The language is fresh. Like the poetry of the New York School, the poem offers a rich sense of the variousness of city life – a feat achieved by quick, subtle shifts of tone and form. The lines – ‘We make things new to make them new. / This is what we do’ – serve as both a nod to Ezra Pound and a personal declaration of intent.

Williams’ charm and unpredictability are shared by Todd Von Joel’s poem ‘Company’, a single-minded piece that digs deep into the poet’s lived experience. There is an obsessive, level-headed mania in this poem which – as in the poems by Jane Yeh and Ryan Van Winkle – gives the sense of a mind caught in the act of thinking. These are poets with guts, who – along with Jon Stone, Isabel Galleymore and Agnieszka Studzinska – impress with their confident, unaffected eccentricity.

A second cluster of poets, whose styles are less irreverent, but whose voices possess a solid, strong energy, include Tom Weir, John Clegg, Martha Sprackland, Antony Dunn, Bobby Parker and Ben Parker. Alongside these poets, I would single out VA Sola Smith as being particularly powerful. In Sola Smith’s poem ‘Sylvia’, the poet tackles the anxiety of influence head-on: Plath is ‘a panzerkampfwagen // no less’, while Sola Smith is ‘a useless model death machine of [Plath’s] design.’ The poem travels through parody and becomes a self-referential homage. Sola Smith explores the complex feelings many female poets experience in relation to Plath, while demonstrating a talent for offsetting a sense of recklessness with acute formal control.

Finally, there is a group of poets whose voices combine both surprise and inventiveness with a thorough sense of strength, energy and experience. This cluster includes Hannah Lowe, Joanne Limburg, Christian Campbell, Tiffany Atkinson and Sarah Corbett. Two new discoveries for me, however, were Fran Lock and Lorraine Mariner.

Lock’s poem ‘Year of the Rabbit’ exercises complete control over the language in a narrative which explores sexual power and the ways in which we see one another. The lines are rich and fat – ‘You saw the slow spooling / of whorehair’) – and revel in language’s materiality. The physicality of the story is matched by physical turns of phrase, as in: ‘You weren’t to know / how my ovaries waxed / electrical’– lines that spring open like a trap.

Lorraine Mariner’s ‘The Deadly Sins – No. 1 Lust’ is an exceptional, shocking little prose-poem. Like Eugenio de Andrade, Mariner dares to say the unsayable with a clear, unflinching directness. The poem is also, for me, typical of a new willingness among female poets to explore darker territories with a very real sense of fearlessness, and Lung Jazz taps into this vein of female daring in a most celebratory way. (Indeed, female poets marginally outnumber male poets, which bodes well for a more representative canon of the future.)

However, equally important is the fact that the poems in this anthology prize risk over orderliness, openness over seriousness, and transgression over tradition. Lung Jazz is certainly a book with ambition coming out of its ears: 153 poets; 153 poems. And this ambition – along with a persistent sense of risk, unpredictability, humour and adventure – gives me a great deal of optimism about the future of British poetry.

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previous review: Here and the Water
next review: Clueless Dogs/White Walls


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