Saturday, October 31, 2009


D.E. Oprava’s American Means is an epic poem, in ninety-two pages, twenty sections and a short coda.  Despite its length, after reading it, re-reading it and reading it again, I know nothing about the poet’s relationship with his father, how he responds to trees or sunsets or whether or not he has the capability to become a stitch in poetry’s rich tapestry by executing a sonnet, ode or villanelle about his feelings for his lover, perhaps, expressed via the extended metaphor of eating a bowl of soup, or God forbid, the act of writing a poem.

This is because, in the context of contemporary English-language poetry, David Oprava has done an unusual thing: he has written a book that sustainedly engages with and explores an important public and political theme (broadly, the state of contemporary America) and is not, like most other books of poetry (collections?), a series of disparate personal observations and experiences refracted through the disengaged yet narcissistic lens of a le poeme pour le poeme sensibility.   And you know why he has done this, why he has been able to do this?  Because, Oprava’s point of departure in American Means is that he’s got something to say; he’s not just an Eng Lit whizz-kid with an arguable flair for language who wants to be a writer as an end-in-itself.

Borne of ‘frustration and hope with an aim to cross the divide between the poetic, the political and the purely academic’, American Means (a triple pun – read it and get it) is a despairing lament for what America has become and an inchoate call for revival.  Oprava’s deeply felt position is not an original one: the blame for America’s decline from Leave it to Beaver to Generation Kill is laid squarely at the door of the conspiratorial, election stealing, waterboarding, greed-is-good, moral-panic-mongering forces of darkness that have undermined tolerance and social justice in America for decades, in the modern era culminating in the grotesque perversity of the Bush II years.  For all that, American Means is a poem of hope, and a large chunk of Oprava’s hope, certainly according to the poem’s coda, seems pinned on Barack Obama.  Whether this is because Oprava genuinely believes that Obama has the wherewithal to steer America in a more progressive direction, or simply that he’s not a skull and bones WASP looking to exploit the country for the benefit of a plutocrat elite, is moot.

American Means is a road trip through USA 2009 in two main voices, ‘she’ and ‘he’.  Via the voices of these characters, we encounter despair at what America has become and hope for what America might be (once again).  ‘She’, is a nameless woman who has been deserted by her man (‘Greed’).   The protagonists are allegorical; on my reading, ‘she’ is America, or at any rate, the ‘innocent’ America, the working people, the salt-of-the-earth left bereft and despairing by out-of-control capitalists and the pervasive ideology of hyper-acquisitiveness that has thrust the world into recession and in doing so maimed uncounted lives.  As we read on, other capitalized allegories of American archetypes – Waste, Sloth, Avarice, Faith, Charity – think Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy (Murder, Fraud, etc) are introduced.  I’m not sure this device works, or is necessary.  The old dictum ‘show not tell’ comes to mind; perhaps fewer voices, allowed to organically become fully rounded characters, as well as allegorical representations, would have been more impactful?

‘She’ remains the main protagonist nevertheless, and American Means progresses via her travelogue through recession stricken America, a Grapes of Wrath style journey to find hope and a future.  Along the way, after first being run down by the heavy-handed metaphor of an out-of-control ‘eighteen wheeler’, she ranges across (allowing the narrator to critique) various aspects of the contemporary USA – the healthcare system, poverty, apathy, gun-culture, imperial decline, feminism and many more.
American Means is written in a loosely associative, lyrical free verse.   The mood is wistful and pensive, the opening lines of the poem being typical - ‘This land, a lonesome notion/whose hopes hang on clothes-/pinned winds, chafing, ideals tied to the/forsaken roots of what’s been.’    However, for all its sensitivity, this is passionate and angry writing – Oprava writes like a wounded animal – ‘A new no man’s land creeping/cross country with the/dispossessed sleeping in /shanty towns whilst their/repossessed homes lie empty … turn children out on the/street … vandals sack and loot … the principles of free-market/draconian-isms’ - showing vulnerability, anger and pain.
As might be expected from such a long and ambitious work, there is some unevenness.  Although 

Oprava’s language is always evocative, his imagery and references are sometimes too disparate and require tighter wiring.  Although you can see what the poet is aiming for, and admire the lyrical ingenuity, in something like, 
‘ … the/Gotterdammerung gearing-up at/the Last Chance Diner, lost in/the pulled-tooth range of a/once-upon west, mining/companies gone with hammer and/tong leaving no fiscal/dentures to fill the mountainous gaps,’ the over-complex metaphor seems forced and focuses the reader less on the affect of the language, but the virtuosity of the writer, dissipating impact.  Sometimes less is more.
The weary tone and excursive narrative style of American Means put me in mind of Amours de Voyage by the Victorian poet, Arthur Hugh Clough.  As with Amours, American Means is an accessible, intelligent read that is easy to settle into and encourages further reading – a virtue in a long poem.  However, it shares with Amours a lack of variety in pace, intensity and format that can sometimes result in a flat, monotonous effect, allowing the reader’s attention to drift.

Despite this, there’s some great writing in American Means (‘an uppity mobile home fuelled on/bottled gas rots in weeds/nestled amongst old tires’; ‘Cop doesn’t care for the look/of the man hovering at the gas/station pumps, skulking naked-/faced and scribble-lipped’) and some cracking sardonic lines (‘this is what Jesus would/have done on a welfare check,/got drunk and bought a gun).   Oprava is always attentive to the possibilities of language and wordplay proliferates (‘the milk’s cheesed off’, ‘beating it flaccid’, ‘waging sense on the automatons pressing flesh in the trading halls’) without ever giving the impression that he is merely a ‘clever’ writer.

As ‘she’ progresses cross country to the ‘continental divide’, middle America/ordinary Americans is/are encountered in towns, diners, bars and in the landscape; it seems to be here, in the ‘middle of elsewhere’ (as opposed to the ‘coastal crust’) where the people have ‘no malice or leering eye’ and cling to ‘home and family … a job and a car that’s seen better days’ that hope and decency is to be found, primarily articulated in the voice of ‘he’, who ‘she’ encounters in the latter sections and who I can’t help but feel is an alter-ego of the poet himself.   In finding hope in middle-America, Oprava’s position echoes that of the Simpsons’ Ned Flanders, who responds to actress Sarah Sloane’s patronizing metropolitan jibe, ‘I didn’t know there were still people like you left,’ with, ‘Yep.  We occupy that useless bit of land between New York and Los Angeles called America.’   
The poem ends with an appeal to ‘turn back ways’, implicitly to the core values of decency embodied in middle-America, to find ‘hope/a new American mean’.  A coda follows, the heart-on-sleeve Hope, a poem originally written to commemorate Obama’s inauguration as President, in which the narrator outlines his impassioned hope that Obama can lead the regeneration of a nation.
Oprava is to be congratulated for his ambition, and American Means is some achievement; but the question remains – has he pulled it off?  Has he managed, over the 92 pages of this mammoth poem, to sustain engagement with his theme and maintain the quality of writing, insight and structure to the extent that American Means can be adjudged a realized, ‘successful poem’ and not merely a ‘laudable attempt’?    

By and large, I think he has, although I do have reservations; the thinking-out-loud, narrative style of American Means can lead to prolixity and excursis; it is perhaps too panoramic, too all-encompassing, which sometimes leads to generalisation and abstraction.  The many allegorical voices/characters can be confusing.  The summarizing interjections of the narratorial voice are sometimes intrusive.   Overall, I can’t help but feel the whole would’ve been be sharper and more polished if it had undergone a more rigorous editing process, that impression perhaps being confirmed by the presence of some erratic punctuation and possible typos. 

Overwhelmingly though, kudos to Oprava; he has made an honest, heartfelt and often successful attempt to engage with an important theme, and beyond that, with a world that many poets barely acknowledge the existence of  - the world outside themselves and their personal experience.  American Means contains much admirable writing, a good deal of insight and a richness and intelligence that repay re-reading.   If you’re going to buy a book of poetry this week, buy this one; a big, risky, aspirational work - flawed, yes, but with flaws that come with reach; far better that than the more typical poetry book experience – being underwhelmed by an arbitrary arrangement of safe and (sometimes) perfect forms.

-reviewed by SE

96 pages

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

TREE by Ursula Hurley

Like all good people, I like trees, and I like poetry; well, good poetry anyway.   And if that poetry somehow involves trees – think Binsey Poplars, Bare Almond Trees, Birches, Elm and so on - then so much the better; nothing like the synergy of combined passions.
            So to Tree, by Ursula Hurley, a self-described ‘nature poet’, one for whom the natural world provides ‘endless material’ and for whom each poem is ‘another attempt to capture an impression of the wonders that surround us’, in this collection, via forty ‘rich, passionate and intelligent poems’ exploring the ‘city/nature interface … celebrating the elemental and modern’.   
            Despite the blurb, with its unnecessary striving for ‘contemporary relevance’, I’m encouraged.  After all, isn’t much of the best and most relevant English poetry, from the Old English Maxims to Ted Hughes, essentially rooted in the bucolic tradition?   And don’t forget.  I like trees.  So here we go.    
            The opening, eponymous poem, a paean to an unspecified tree, gets the collection off to an uncertain start, setting the tone for the collection as a whole.  Some evocative images (the ‘blue fire’ of magpies’ wings, ‘brocades of moss and lichens’) are juxtaposed with the over-adjectival, gratuitously metaphorical striving-for-effect of self-consciously ‘creative writing’ (‘gnarled dun bark’, a magpie’s nest in the tree’s branches compared, unaptly, to ‘an oyster proudly bearing its pearl’).    The  sub-Wordsworthian protagonism of the final two stanzas, ‘If I could touch you/tree … then I would know/your breathing leaves’ strikes a false note (think the last stanza of Hughes’ Horses, or Heaney’s The Tolllund Man (‘Some day I will go to Aarhus’) and is essentially meaningless; faux-wistful echt-poetic posturing.
            Equinox, an imagistic sequence of enjambed haiku-like stanzas, shares with Tree the desire to capture the moment’, but stumbles due to imprecision (‘gawky greenfinches’), clumsy syntax (‘Sliding away towards winter earth turns’), and pedestrian phrasing (‘Dahlias glow black-red’).  However, the ‘wings catching rainbows’ of the ‘inebriated’ crash-landed bee is vivid and evocative.
            In her quest to ‘capture an impression of the wonders that surround us’, Hurley often strives for the snap-shot compression of haiku-like forms.  The six short, alternately indented lines of Sun and mountain are certainly evocative, but ultimately empty of real meaning, and with the two-line Hope‘The sky clear-pale and cold-grey/A vase of daffodils upon a clean windowsill’ – you wonder what the point is.
            You are an airport, I am soap, seems to be about a failed relationship – he’s flown off and she’s washed her hands of him - and although it contains some striking writing, particularly the last stanza (‘Possibilities whispered through plastic bags snared/in the branches of the ash tree’), it is ultimately too disparate in imagery and too personal in reference to connect with any power.   The title and punning epigraph ‘For Lax from LUx’ come across as a little bit too-clever.
            Many poems are more ‘experimental’ in form and use of language.  The imagistic Black bird, with its peculiar spacing of words and lines has the appearance of a ‘shape poem’ and contains the excellent lines, ‘everything quivers with vitreous light/shadows sliding/along greasy pavements’.  The Black bird (sic?), holding a red berry in its yellow bill is vivid; however, the apparently arbitrary form, puzzling punctuation and the use of the verb ‘leaks’ to unaptly describe music heard from a open van-window, undermine. 
            The central poem of Tree and by far the longest, is the three-section, three-and-a –half-page Cathedral notes.  In an interview with ‘partner in poetry’ Andrew Taylor at, Hurley indicates that the genesis of the poem lay in a challenge from Taylor to Hurley to respond poetically to Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, a place of significance to Taylor she had come to regard as ‘spiritually oppressive’.  Parts I and II narrate the speaker’s unease in journeying to the Cathedral; however, these sections are ultimately unsatisfactory, as there is no clue at all why the speaker should be uneasy and consequently both sections read as preambling, excursive travelogues. 
            We have to wait until section III before explanations are given to account for the speaker’s unease: three are advanced: the speaker’s fear of others recognizing her ‘pagan soul’; her self-ascribed unworthiness in the eyes and opinions of the presumed devout; and, the feeling of physical or spiritual oppression engendered by the scale (‘enormity of the space above’) of the cathedral.  However there is a distinct lack of content and intensity to this ‘crisis’; it’s just not convincing (perhaps she could’ve generated some tension by having the speaker break out into a projectile vomiting fit on sight of the holy building, like young Damien Thorn - his Dad was the original pagan soul).  The poem ends, bizarrely and bathetically, with the speaker seeming to hope that she’ll get a poem out of the visit – ‘Hoping/that this space/will germinate words’.    Is that it?   Has experience itself no value, meaning or merit?    Or is it just a sequence of poem opportunities?  Poems are not ends-in-themselves.
            And yet, there some real quality in Tree.  Poems like I will pick flowers for you ‘old chard and nasturtiums knocked sprawling by frost’; ‘Water dripped from the chestnut/tree, dying assuredly yet outliving us all.  We gathered/conkers on the dark lawn/Needing to hold life in our hands and keep it’ – are the real thing.   Hurley can certainly write - but I’m not sure she’s yet got anything to say.   In these poems she comes across as a tourist of her own experience, and as a result, her sensibility is trapped in the reactive promiscuity of occasional verse.  
            There are many trees in Tree, but Hurley hasn’t really made any of them her own.  Hopkins’ lament for the felled poplars at Binsey was not so much an ecological protest poem about trees, but a displaced expression of the aesthetic and spiritual crisis that dominated his sensibility; Plath’s violent and disturbing Elm parades her familiar demons and is only in point-of-departure a ‘response’ to a tree; in the extended metaphor of Birches, Frost rehearses another of the misanthropic generalizations on the human condition that is his defining characteristic.   Perhaps Hurley needs to forget about ‘responding’ to trees and cathedrals and such-like and begin to write herself.  

-review by SE

Friday, October 9, 2009


The first word that comes to mind after reading Billy Childish’s new book is HUMAN. Of course all poets are human, but often times they obfuscate their humanity with abstractions and pretense to the point that the words might have been written by a poetry text book and not a poet. From the intentional misspellings and disregard for punctuation, Childish wrote a book that doesn’t care about convention. In fact, I am not sure he cares about the reader at all. Beyond the artist’s innate need to express, there is something more in this book. There is a mind at work. As I read through the book (3 times in fact) I felt as if I was inside his thoughts rather than reading his poems. There is an intimacy to the language and no separation between sentiment, meaning, and delivery. This is a nice feat that makes the book exceedingly readable, almost subliminal.
One poem that especially got into my head and under my skin is

“to get to the bambies”

at 3
she tried to open the door
of a speeding car
to get
to the bambies.

(they were doing 70 on the motorway and
there were no deer)

at 43
her hand is still
on the doorhandle

Not only can I see this scenario and feel the workings of a child-adult’s mind, but I am also immediately transported through forty years of time in the blink of an eye. I am left to fill in the gaps with my own imagination; therefore, the poem, in its simplicity, gives me the bare bones of a deep sentiment that I can then manipulate to serve my own needs. No mean feat. In fact, it is an excellent example of seemingly effortless poetics that hits just the right chord. Again, I am impressed with this work.

The other poems in the book are equally evocative in a subtle, matter of fact way. He avoids grand allusion and relies on his memories, imagination, and internal struggles to draw the reader into his family, his infidelities, his ignoble defeats, and a few hardened triumphs. All in all, more than a solid book of poems, it is a palpable book whose tactile words and sentiments are as real as the rough card cover and deeply stamped intentions, a trademark of all beautifully crafted Blackheath books.

I’ll read this book again, and then again, at times when I need some grounding, some perspective on my own dilemmas, and an escape into the mind of another in those times when my own has become just a little bit too cluttered.

Opinion: Great Read

-review by GJ

56 pages
perfect bound
ISBN: 978-1-906099-19-0