Bethesda Constellations, Peter Hughes, Oystercatcher Press, 2020 28 pages
The Celestial Set-Up, Zoë Skoulding, Oystercatcher Press, 2020, 24 pages
LIAM GUILAR combs through two new poetry pamphlets
Oystercatcher Press is one of the many small presses keeping poetry alive and well and providing readers with the opportunity to sample a writer’s work for a relatively small cost. Both these pamphlets are by poets with substantial back catalogues.
Peter Hughes’ Bethesda Constellations contains three short sequences of that name, samples from two works in progress, and some individual poems.
The three Bethesda Constellations provide mini-galaxies of images:
the rain in all these seaside Brexit towns goes into the night a single taxi never moving from the station.
The stand-alone images collaborate to evoke place, but also a range of moods from the serious to the whimsical.
The other poems range from these sparkling details to pieces that tetter on the edge of what C.S. Lewis called ‘Privatism’; the feeling you get as a reader that you’re overhearing one side of a conversation about a party you weren’t invited to and know nothing about. Often this can occur in individual poems. ‘re;lode26’ starts in specific kitchen details, not just garlic but “& four fat cloves/ of this year’s garlic” to:
I saw you stick a mini octopus on the front of your SG which served as temporary amp & living strumbuddy
It’s difficult so know what that means, or what the context is that would give it meaning. The three ‘Re:lode’ poems are part of an ongoing collaboration, and therefore taken out of their own contexts, though Re:lode30 with its seamless integration of song, local history and imperialism is one of the most enjoyable pieces in the pamphlet.
Such moments as the one quoted above are fortunately rare. On rereading, the movement away or towards the particular within a poem creates a feeling of exhilarating movement, as though you’re a passenger in a vehicle taking a blind bend at speed. This is particular true of the shorter pieces, like ‘Ant’ or ‘Choir’, which begins:
an amateur choir is filling the hall with love songs on the last day of September
and proceeds to
rumours & a heart of gold shuffle back onto the street & on beyond the street light.
Zoë Skoulding’s The Celestial Set-Up seems to invite a different reading practice. ‘Why are you telling me this?’ seems the valid question.
‘A Rose for Rosa’ opens the pamphlet. It begins,
This is not the grave of rosa luxemburg she is not here you will not find her neither will you find her at the memorial to rosa Luxemburg at the lichenstein bridge…
and so on for 29 lines of unpunctuated prose, in which variations on ‘she isn’t there’ and ‘you won’t find her’ link any number of statues, monuments, streets, buildings or institutes named after Rosa Luxemburg.
Many of the poems like this one feel like writing exercises. ‘The Bed’ begins:
Our bed was never made from a still-rooted olive Our bed was never planed with a brazen adze
with its nod to ‘The Odyssey’ but then continues for another 26 lines each beginning ‘Our bed was…’
As a writing exercise encouraging students to consider metaphors and how they work, this might be fairly common, but the end result is a list that is rarely interesting for a stranger who doesn’t know who the first-person plural refers to and can’t make the plethora of images cohere and say something of interest about ‘us’ or ‘the bed’.
For much of this collection I was left wondering if my presence as a reader was essential or even if it had been considered as part of the process.
‘Displacement Fixing by Steerage’ sounds like a parody of officialise, but since I haven’t read the document in question, I’m left wondering what I’m supposed to do with lines like this:
No matter from what point of ebb’s northern hindrance you look at it, it’s always within one delivery of true note
The same is true of ‘A Divinatory Calendar’, a sequence of 13 five-line poems. They are verbally inventive, but phrases like “Get to the point just when it dissolves like salt in drizzle bristling the skin” or “The habits of highly productive people include lying down at the crossroads covered in ash” had an initial attraction that didn’t survive too much consideration.
‘A Strait Story’ is neither a story about the Menai Strait or a straight story about a boat trip. Something happened in the Strait, but the facts and the writer’s response to them are presented in a baffling way that suggests both are an opportunity for a bit of writing rather than a desire to engage the reader with the experience.
The piece is divided into prose paragraphs and short passages set out as poems. This could be a nod to earlier Celtic genres where the prose conveyed the narrative and the lyric was used for speeches or moments of intensity. But there’s little narrative, and of the four ‘lyrics’ two are simply lists that have gained little by being written out in verse.
Despite the invention of the internet and the explosion of opportunities for publishing and reading poems, pamphlets still play an essential role in the circulation of poetry. For many poets, their first collection still takes the form of pamphlet or chapbook. For the more established, pamphlets offer a wide variety of possibilities: the chance to try out new work and see what kind of reaction it receives, or to use as a calling card.
For the curious reader, pamphlets offer a cheap way of reading a lot of different poetry and sifting the cacophony of unfamiliar names and vaguely familiar claims. For a relatively small cost – these two cost five pounds each – you can dip into a poet’s work, spend some time with it, and decide if you think the poet’s publication list is worth pursuing. You, reader, should buy some pamphlets.
LIAM GUILAR is Poetry Editor of the Brazen Head