Matthew Caley has long suffered that curious curse of being a 'poet's poet', while one could venture his appeal to be even more specific. Though his wide vocabulary and constant refrain to the giants of art and literature will have academics stroking chins in masturbatory delight, you can imagine the next line's slang and South London street savvy losing the poor dears completely.
One can picture Caley's perfect reader being some tattooed urban wastrel sat at the back of a rundown café or boozer leafing through Voltaire or Frieze magazine. With this in mind it comes as no surprise that one of the first champions of his work was the mighty Ken Smith. Indeed it is Caley's surprising and adventurous vocabulary, as well as his sheer formal audacity that has won him the respect and admiration of many urban poets. He has twice been a runner up of the National Poetry Competition, and his first collection Thirst was nominated for The Forward Prize. Yet, one feels if he had only written the odd pastoral idyll, or a weighty solemn nod to the dead of the Somme, he'd be buried under laurels by now…
Two poems into Caley's new collection, The Scene of My Former Triumph, we are treated to a squatters tale of arguing lovers and threadbare carpet, Caley manages to throw in such references as Frida Kahlo, Alistair Crowley, Manet, Courbet, and early nineties freedom lovers The Soup Dragons. Caley breathlessly relays all the action while reminding us that he is still the poet and must always note down the small, seemingly unimportant details: 'Even now I can still see/ and describe – it's down to me -/ the scene beneath the stairwell,/ each paint –blister, mould-petal/ hanging in the balance between earth and air. / Down to me to note/ it as it rots/ from the inside yet sends me singing/ slightly off key, maybe/ like The Soup Dragons sung by Hamlet in his eyrie.'
In a way, this passage seems to be a manifesto that he carries into other poems. In Ammonius Saccus we read about a reader poring through the works of classical philosophy as well as Paul Thoreux, whilst being reminded of the reader's current sinus troubles as well as all urban ambience of his environment that sometimes disturb his contemplation, be it the night bus crawling up the hill or the almost Yeatsian 'Peacock screams from the city farm; the curlew of a car-alarm.' This is an interesting truth about reading, be it of poetry, philosophy or Heat magazine. Everything we consume mentally becomes part of how we experience the streets we walk down, the suits or rags worn by the people we bump into. Our environments affect our experience of art, and vice versa; 'Seattle rain consists of pain and grunge'.
There is plenty to enjoy in his book, be it the oddly touching bawdy comedy of Lines Upon a Prophylactic Found in a Brixton Gutter to the formal audacity of Pantomime Horse and Arctic Fleece, both having a sheer 'how do I get myself out of this one' playfulness as he somersaults between lines and references and back again. Once again Caley has written a book of urgency, wit, fun and real relevance to the day-to-day world we live in. The poems reward a second, third reading and quite often require it.
Other quirky and under appreciated talents can be found in Clare Pollard's latest Reactions anthology. For some reason I'm reminded of the scene in The Untouchables where Sean Connery tells Kevin Costner 'It's not a case of knowing where the factories are, it's whether you're prepared to cross Capone!' In the same way, many of us know where the new talent in poetry is, but sometimes it's an absolute eternity before anyone comes along and publishes it. Then again, in the same week as this review has been written, Tim Wells and Tim Turnbull have both brought out their debut full collections, with Mr Turnbull being nominated for a £10,000 prize, the first of its kind to recognise the art form of performance poetry.
However, Tim Turnbull is one of those rare beasts, the performance poet who does pretty well on the page. This is probably due to his formal integrity along with his acerbic humour. In The Men from U.C.O.O.L he writes about leaving an arty gathering at the ICA with 'spoken word shouted frew a shit PA/ It felt like we'd been there for firty days…' to go down the local, '…drank each others' health,/ watched the wrestlers wrestling on the shelf' before concluding this treatise of high and low-brow culture with the killer punchline, 'beer tastes better when you've bought it yourself.'
Tim Wells, editor of the wonderful Rising magazine, opens his segment with an upper class 1920's fantasy On Being Expelled from Eton for Shagging Tallulah Bankhead, 'Been there, pink gin in one hand, dick in the other.' Before showing he's also a dab hand at urban melancholy, be it with the heroes send off at a reggae Sound Man Burial or his paean to the lonely in Songs that are Whistled, with their 'potted plants/ grown with love/ in fired China.'
It's also good to see NYC spoken word star Cheryl B printed in blighty. Her prose/free verse poetry is often so explicit and frank that they prompt a belly-laugh one moment, a wounded gasp the next, sometimes both, here's a line that never made Sex in the City: 'You know when a bunch of guys get together, they're like going out for pizza. We're going to the abortion clinic,'.
Moving away from the performance scene, the rest of the book consists of poets that have just brought out debut collections, are about to, or damn well should have collections out.
Daljit Nagra catches language as a force that is never set in stone but is always in a flux and being changed by the shifts in culture and media within society, be it with the emergence of second and third generations in immigrant communities or the barriers that have been broken down by the internet rising to the forefront of our social interactions.
Gareth Jones writes about the hushed ripples of passion and sometimes despair that exist beneath the muted habits and interactions of the sprawling middle class; two lovers meet by the canal with only the joggers as witnesses, the huddling smokers become a metaphor for all the human qualities that cannot fit in with the sterile austerities of office life.
Sinead Wilson, a member of John Stammers' The Group, seems to be carving out a refreshingly dark niche in urban London gothic with Her Life's Work and The Collector, both packing a sting in their tails.
There are many other surprising and deserving poets within these pages, Leanne O'Sullivan and Rebecca O'Connor pointing towards a bright future for Irish poetry, and many others making similar waves for Britain. Reactions 5 is an optimistic reminder of tomorrows big guns as well as a platform for today's writers, and readers of refreshing new poetry.