Review: The New Oxford Shakespeare: Modern Critical Edition

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review on 16 January 2017.

With any new publication, especially concerning the “universal” bard, it’s worth asking, ‘Who is this for?’ The New Oxford Shakespeare is no different. Coming to us from general editors Gary Taylor, John Jowett, Terri Bourus, and Gabriel Egan, Oxford University Press’s fourth iteration of the complete works is actually not one book, but four: The Complete Works: Modern Critical Edition (under review here), The Critical Reference Edition (containing the folio and quarto texts in their original spelling), the Authorship Companion (explaining the editors’ choices in detail), and an online resource gathering all of the above. The Complete Works’ modern spelling and slick cover design marks it as one for Waterstones’ shelves, but its prospects for this audience seem dubious. At fifty pounds it’s hardly in the ‘stocking filler’ price range, and it comes at a time when access to Shakespeare is widening anyway, through live streams of major productions and online resources like Folger Digital Texts. Despite apparently having taken 27 credited editors and consultants ten years of work, The New Oxford Shakespeare seems uncertain of its audience, and for all its critical insight it never quite satisfies.

This lack of satisfaction is partly due to a frankly bewildering introduction. The first part, ‘Why Read Shakespeare’s Complete Works?’, takes the standard tack of listing every major historical or literary figure to ever say anything vaguely positive about Shakespeare. This routine list is enlivened by the editors’ knack for cringeworthy phrases. We are told that “Shakespeare is the ghost with the most”, and that The Complete Works is “an anthology of extraordinarily powerful and varied virtual reality game worlds.” Besides the fact that they mix metaphors like a sea of troubles, lines like these feel incredibly patronising, especially addressed to a reader who has already picked up the Complete Works, and so presumably does not need persuading of Shakespeare’s importance. The presentation is also woefully inconsistent. One section attempts to refute accusations of racism in Shakespeare’s plays with a bullet-point list of notable non-white people who have interacted with the bard. All of Shakespeare’s other appreciators are generously discussed in continuous prose rather than simple listing. The introduction also mentions both Delia Bacon and J. Thomas Looney, without once stopping to clarify who these people are, despite its stated aim to create “something more accessible”.

This inconsistency further manifests in the second part of the Introduction, ‘Why Read This Complete Works?’, which explains the book’s editorial decisions. The editors note that this is “the first edition of Shakespeare’s complete works to include music for the songs, whenever a reliable original score is available”. While this is slightly less radical than the editors state (the 2015 Norton Shakespeare’s online edition featured recordings of the original music), it is a genuinely worthwhile move. The Tempest, for example, reads very differently with a more pronounced emphasis on music, and this simple change does more to inspire fresh reading than any waffle about virtual reality. Similarly good are the performance notes accompanying each play. The Tempest opens with the following:

“The play begins aboard a ship at sea. This is often accomplished through the uses of wind machines or sound effects, and ropes and sails manipulated by the actors. In early modern stagings a cannonball was rolled down a wooden trough to simulate the sound of thunder.”

This running commentary draws attention to the gaps and ambiguities of the script, as well as to different periods and types of staging. But while these performance-centric details are admirable, the authorship choices are baffling. Collaboration is this edition’s watchword, reflecting the trend in Shakespeare scholarship over the last fifteen years or so, as seen in books like Shakespeare, Co-Author and William Shakespeare and Others. This edition has grabbed a few headlines for listing Christopher Marlowe as co-author of the Henry VI plays. Yet its other choices betray its bardolatry; Shakespeare is interminably front and centre, even when his hand in a play is minimal. The collaboratively-written The Spanish Tragedy and Sir Thomas More are represented only by the bits ‘probably’ written by Shakespeare, with no indication of what came before or after, obscuring his impact on the overall script, and frustrating any reader unfamiliar with the plays. This fragmented presentation comes to a head with The History of Cardenio. A lost collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, it was adapted by eighteenth century playwright Lewis Theobald as Double Falsehood. In presenting it here the editors have used specialist software to identify the words most likely to have been written by Shakespeare, and left out everything else. This approach results in unreadable gobbets of text:

RODERICK   Why he hath pressed this absence, sir I know not
But [             ]  letters [
Wherein [Cardenio], good Camillo’s son,
[             ] (as he says) [
[                                 ] gold
To purchase certain horse that like him well

know the value of

There is some critical value to an exercise like this, but presenting it this way is not only frustrating to read (and hardly accessible for the general reader), it contradicts the sense of co-authorship the editors seek to emphasise. It may have been better to include the complete texts while typographically demarcating the collaborators. The Oxford Middleton, for instance, put Middleton’s additions to Macbeth in bold, and the Arden Titus Andronicus presents an inserted scene in a different typeface. The insistence on isolating Shakespeare serves to increase his iconic stature, rather than qualify it.

All told, The New Oxford Shakespeare has a distressing tendency to miss the wood for the trees. For the most egregious example we must return to the introduction. In relating Shakespeare to today’s theatre, the editors spend a page on Hamilton, ‘the most conspicuous theatrical event of the 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death.’ The influence, it turns out, is fairly minor, but the truly shocking moment comes in reference to playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda’s dedicatory sonnet at the Tony Awards. The editors dutifully mention that it contained “the very Shakespearean tautology “And love is love is love is love is love”.” What they fail to mention is that the sonnet was written in response to the Orlando nightclub shooting that happened the same week. This is The New Oxford Shakespeare in a nutshell. For all its worthwhile contributions, its careful attention to detail, and its slick presentation, it suffers from a near total divorce from the context in which its material appears, be it that of 1616 or 2016.

‘The New Oxford Shakespeare: Modern Critical Edition’ is available to buy in hardback, RRP £50.

 

Review: I Sold These Poems Now I Want Them Back by Brian Sonia-Wallace

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 15 September 2016.

Some books are brilliant and original. Some are predictable and clichéd. And some manage that strange combination of both, by being not quite as original as they at first appear. Brian Sonia-Wallace’s debut collection, I Sold These Poems Now I Want Them Back, fits the latter. Sonia-Wallace has spent the last few years as a self-styled ‘RENT Poet’, braving the streets of L.A. with a typewriter, and taking on-the spot commissions with an aim to create “a society of patrons for the arts starting at $1”. Each of these poems was “written in 5-10 minutes for a stranger who shared themselves with me on the street or online”. Sonia-Wallace then photographed his output for re-sale purposes, and here presents the best of what he produced on the job. A good idea for a collection, but Sonia-Wallace seems convinced that his scheme to “write poems for cash” is somehow revolutionary. He declares that “you can keep your high art, I am shamelessly for hire”. But street artists have been around for centuries, and working on commission is as old as the arts themselves. All of that said, there are some solid poems to be had here, even if the ‘RENT Poet’ persona fails to boggle the mind.

Given its street origins, it’s not surprising that the collection feels like all human life has traipsed through it. From grieving relatives to frustrated teachers, from squabbling kids to hopeful parents, there’s a real range of subject matter, handled with spontaneity and wit. The opening of the early poem ‘Courage’ is a good example:

We all begin as voyeurs,
flies on the wall
with frogs in our throats

eating our words
to get more salt in our diets.

What’s in our throats
eats us up,
consumes us, sticky-tongued,

throat frogs and stomach butterflies—
let them drown.
I’m done with being Noah’s Ark.

The lines are misshapen, yet coherent, shifting between twisted haikus and deformed couplets, the poetic voice alternately creepy, bitter, acerbic and weird. The sense of emotions turning against us as “throat frogs and stomach butterflies” is subtly unnerving, and the comparison of the human psyche to Noah’s Ark is rich in its implications. This complex yet elegant style is where Sonia-Wallace really shines. It makes one curious as to its original commissioner, as many of these poems do. Sonia-Wallace sadly includes only a handful of his poems’ backstories in the end-notes, a combination of poetic licence and patient confidentiality, and ‘Courage’ is not one of them.

There are moments where he’s wonderfully playful with form, as well as with his own role as a poet. ‘Eulogy for a Poem’ is particularly dry: “Cause of Poem: unknown./ Time of Poem: 8:18 PM./ Rest in poem,/ Poem.” It’s a pleasing send-up of death’s banality, and the final couplet borders on the profound: “Here lies poem/ survived by us all.” But while Sonia-Wallace is extremely daring within his short time frames, he occasionally lets his pen run away with him. This results in peculiarities like “eating breakfast off the tits of destiny”, the sort of cringeworthy line which would hopefully not survive a more thorough compositional process. That line also points to the book’s irksome casual sexism. The penultimate poem, ‘Watching You Go’, exemplifies this:

I guess your ass is a peach.

Not a melon but a sort of stone fruit. Juicy.
It’s already hot out here.
You’d better watch what you do with that thang

your body is a novel.
I’m a voracious reader.

It feels like leering dressed up as insightful artistry, which is no excuse. On its own it’s objectifying and crass, but as one of the final poems in the book it leaves a bad taste. One can only speculate as to its original commission, but the poor woman’s reception is probably worth a poem in itself.

I Sold These Poems is a perfectly decent collection, whose better moments transcend their hurried origins. Sonia-Wallace’s work ethic and commitment to populism are admirable, even if there are moments that can be accused of thoughtlessness. The book’s status as working poetry cuts both for and against — its roughness gives rise to poetic brilliance and rushed-out nonsense, and there’s no easy way to separate the two. But if, as Sonia-Wallace asks, we judge it as a purely commercial item, it’s easy to recommend — at $15 for 31 poems (a wholesale price of less than 50 cents a poem), this book certainly represents value for money.

Review: Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 30 July 2016. It contains some bad language. Obviously.

It is the greatest binary in human thought. The divine and the earthly. The sacred and the obscene. Or, as Melissa Mohr puts it in her debut book, the Holy and the Shit. Mohr has a PhD in Renaissance Studies from Stanford University, which puts her expertise in the middle of the period covered by Holy Sh*t, which chronicles foul language from ancient Rome to the present day. The basic appeal of the book is a kind of Horrible Histories for grown-ups: an examination of the rudest aspects of human speech, lent respectability by virtue of being published by OUP. Your opinion of the book will likely depend on whether seeing the dialectic of history applied to swearing causes you to shake your head or grin like a schoolboy. But while taboo thrills are certainly fulfilled, the book provides an interesting glimpse into history and culture, even if this 2016 paperback release hasn’t added much in the three years since the hardback came out.

The book starts with ancient Rome, and the Latin ancestors of modern swearwords. Subsequent chapters focus on swearing in the Bible, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and then the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. Mohr states from the outset that her primary focus is on swearing in Britain and North America, and she distinguishes between two types of swearing – oaths, and obscenities. That is, swearing in a religious sense (such as ‘By God’s bones!’ or ‘Oh my God!’) versus swearing which refers to taboo acts or body parts (words like fuck or cunt). It’s an intriguing dichotomy, even if it seems to leave a lot out: positive obscenities, like ‘fucking brilliant’ or ‘it’s the shit’ don’t get a look-in. But Mohr handles her topic with wit and panache, and the book is most interesting when the two categories begin to bleed together, as in phrases like, well, ‘Holy Shit!’

The Holy, originally, was the more powerful of the two. Mohr notes that “Medieval people were, to us, strikingly unconcerned with the Shit… The Holy provided the strongest taboos and most highly charged language.” It was even believed that swearing could physically wound Christ himself. Mohr recounts a fourteenth-century fable in which the Virgin Mary confronts a swearer with her son’s mutilated body. “Here is my son… his head all broken, and his eyes drawn out of his body and laid on his breast, his arms broken in two, his legs and feet also. With your great oaths you have torn him thus”. It was with the decreasing power of religious institutions from the Renaissance onwards that “the Shit started to make a comeback”, and swearing by the human body started to become more offensive than swearing by divine ones.

But the Holy and the Shit, while entertaining in themselves, are a lens to focus on the wider culture of the historical periods in which they were used, and Mohr’s anecdotes provide entertaining colour. Her treatment of the Victorians is especially interesting, as she tells us that John Ruskin was shocked at the sight of his wife’s vulva, and that Robert Browning used the word twat in one of his poems without apparently knowing what it meant. Mohr argues that euphemistic Victorian language “covered up twat and the rest of the female body so thoroughly that that they disappeared altogether for our two eminent Victorians”. The erasure of the female body in language is rich in its implications, and insights like these are proof that Mohr’s potty-mouthed approach can yield valuable historical insights.

In this same chapter a new type of foul language crops up, which represents a problem for the book. Mohr argues that the rise of European nationalism “also led to the creation of a whole new category of swearing – racial and ethnic slurs.” It’s an awkward moment – Mohr is unflinching in her discussions of racist words, but she’s conscious that they do not fit comfortably into the Holy/Shit paradigm she’s been exploring for the last two hundred-odd pages. Racial and ethnic slurs haven’t even been mentioned up this point, despite Mohr’s admittance that they existed prior to this. As such, the theme feels under-developed – the following chapter, on ‘Swearing in the Twentieth Century and Beyond’, does better, but the transition still jars. The book spends so much time on the power of the Holy and the Shit that it seems unwilling to introduce a third category, only nodding towards such language when it reaches critical mass. This final, and many would argue most heinous, type of obscenity is left without a category of its own.

There are also some minor nitpicks, most notably that the ’Postscript’ of this 2016 release feels tacked-on and brief, adding little of value to the book overall. It serves to drag out an already disappointing epilogue, which offers little beside lukewarm speculations about the future of swearing. But while the ending is a disappointment, the journey is undoubtedly worth taking. Mohr takes obvious pleasure in her subject, and the book has a light touch which makes the intricacies of Renaissance theology just as entertaining as the etymology of the work fuck. Calm, precise, and terribly good fun, Holy Sh*t is a must-read for the foul-mouthed and the clean.

Review: Shakespeare’s First Folio by Emma Smith

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 21 July 2016.

Emma Smith’s study of Shakespeare’s First Folio sets out with the aim “to contextualise the material Shakespeare”. As such, it’s less a book about the material of Shakespeare than the material around Shakespeare, less about the text itself than about note-taking, performing, and doodling in the margins. Smith presents a thorough, cogent, and highly readable history of this landmark publication, and while her sense of structure is occasionally idiosyncratic, this is a definitive work of Shakespeare bibliography. It’s also a refreshingly materialist piece in a year of gaudy Shakespeare pageantry.

The book is organised into five chapters: ‘Owning’, ‘Reading’, ‘Decoding’, ‘Performing’, and ‘Perfecting’. The history is organised thematically rather than chronologically, and this is true even within the individual chapters. At first this can be a bit disorientating, as the first chapter lurches from eighteenth century book collectors, to the use of the Folio in the first ever National Lottery broadcast, then back to book collecting in the twentieth century. But once the reader has found their sea-legs it makes for quite an appealing style, governed by associative logic rather than strict chronology. It allows Smith to play the raconteur – she is ultimately less interested in Shakespeare’s Folio than the stories surrounding it, and the anecdotal approach brings them vividly to life. Colourful characters, bizarre misreadings, and facetious marginalia abound – an effective conversation-starter might be to ask readers what their favourite stories are.

Some of the best sections concern the efforts of librarians to get their hands on the Folio. Smith relays the story of the Bodleian Library’s first ever fundraising campaign, an attempt to purchase the First Folio from a student (the gloriously named Gladwyn Turbutt) in 1905. The observation that “the wheels of the university ground very slowly” in securing funds hits close to home, and the details of the 2012 ‘Sprint for Shakespeare‘ Campaign to preserve and digitise the Folio are a fascinating case of history repeating itself. But my favourite story is the tale of the Birmingham Shakespeare Library, the only public library to own a copy of the First Folio. Smith notes that “the dominant ownership mark… is the purple library stamp of the Birmingham Free Libraries Reference Department on several of its pages” as well as the charming detail of “the faint tread of a cat’s paws across a page of Henry VI Part 1″. Smith’s prose is clear and measured, but she takes a clear delight in relaying these minute observations, resulting in a book that feels richly detailed and slyly playful.

But while the stories told are many and varied, certain themes recur throughout. The spectre of capitalism haunts the First Folio, as the book is almost always a prop for the rich. The introduction details the first recorded purchase, by up-and-coming nobleman Sir Edward Dering, and from there we see the rise and fall of English aristocratic ownership, before American hyper-capitalists (most notably Edward Folger) move in, a battle Smith refers to as the “squirearchy” vs. the “squillionaires”. This commodity-fetishism repeatedly crops up, as do the book’s own inadequacies – printing errors abound, and Smith documents the various owners’ attempts to correct them. Smith also touches on female ownership – she points out that “attested female readers of Shakespeare’s First Folio seem more numerous than for many other early modern books” – but the theme feels a tad under-developed. One gets the feeling that the search for a “Feminist Folio” would be worth a book in its own right.

Smith’s prose is crisp and clear, but retains some of the annoyances of academic writing. Almost every chapter begins with Smith baldly telling us that ‘this chapter will explore x’, instead of getting on with exploring it already. There are also occasional typos and a variable layout design, with easily-missed slithers of the main text appearing beneath large photos, which interrupts the natural flow of the prose.

Nitpicks aside, Shakespeare’s First Folio is a marvellous bit of scholarship. Detailed without being dry, playful without being silly, it’s a well-researched, thoroughly balanced account of this ‘iconic’ book, and one which remains aware of its flaws. The Folio is riddled with typos, mistakes, dirt and marginalia. And that’s OK – more than that, it’s what makes it worth documenting. Smith concludes with the sobering reminder that “it is quite possible to over-value this most valuable of books”, and it’s a fitting message for this Year of Shakespeare. It’s the plays themselves that we love, and they are worth far more than the paper they are printed on.

‘Shakespeare’s First Folio’ is available to buy from Oxford University Press, RRP £19.99.

Review: The Kraken Sea by E. Catherine Tobler

A secret lake, containing a beast known only to myth. A species made of smoke and shadow, capable of following you wherever you go. An orphan on the run from fate itself. Whatever its faults, The Kraken Sea can hardly be said to be short on ideas. It’s a rapid-fire story with the guts to be weird, almost every chapter introducing a strange new concept. Sadly, concepts alone do not a good story make, and Tobler’s prose and sense of pacing leave more than a bit to be desired.

The story centres on Jackson, a mysterious orphan taken in by a Catholic order in late-1800s New York. The novella opens with him on a train to his new adoptive home in San Francisco, but a stopover at a sinister carnival unleashes a disturbing secret. Jackson is not truly human, but is in fact a tentacular monster struggling to maintain a human form, watched over by a Sister who may be a literal embodiment of Fate. Once he arrives in San Francisco he finds himself embroiled in a turf war between two rival gangs, with mysterious creatures lurking beneath the streets.

The novella’s key strength is that it manages to make Jackson sympathetic without being heroic as such. He’s broadly relatable, asking mostly the same questions as the reader at any given moment, but occasional glimpses of his childhood reveal a much less human side to him. We’re told throughout that he bullied his fellow orphans, and at one point it’s revealed that he ate a largely unthreatening child, “broke him and swallowed him because he could”. Moments like this are genuinely chilling, and create an interesting tension over what, exactly, Jackson will become at the end of the story.

But the rest of the characters are nowhere near as interesting. The supporting cast features a generic femme fatale, a generic sinister nun, a generic female gang boss who doubles as a femme fatale, a largely mute henchman and a few more femme fatales to make up the numbers. There’s a late subplot about Jackson trying and failing to fall in love with an ordinary human, but it’s under-developed and goes nowhere. The overall structure is a bit of a mess; the novella feels like a string of barely-connected episodes, oscillating between tedious over-explanation and cratering leaps in time and logic. The last third of the novella jumps from a normal encounter between Jackson and his girlfriend to all-out apocalyptic war, with absolutely no explanation for how we got there. It’s a jarring transition, and Tobler provides almost nothing in the way of buildup.

On top of that, the basic prose style is mediocre at best. Tone wavers all over the place, right down to individual sentences, such as this late moment where the Kraken emerges: “There was a curiosity, perhaps a respect, which sent a chill down Jackson’s spine. The kraken knew what the man was about and weren’t intelligent monsters the worst?” The text is also riddled with typos, and cringeworthy similes abound, my personal favourite being “It was clumsy the kiss, like learning to tie his shoes, like riding a bike down a steep hill, like throwing himself into boiling ice water.” Weird fiction can often get away with clunky wording in the name of creating an uncanny style, but this goes beyond alienating into actively sloppy. While the ideas here are frequently interesting, the execution is extremely sub-par. Tobler’s novella is daring and ambitious, but feels at least four or five drafts away from the finished product.

Review: Giving Ground by Theophilus Kwek

This article first appeared on The Oxonian Review website on 24 May 2016, as part of their weekly ORbits feature. It was an absolute pleasure to write, and I’m rather proud of the end result.

‘I want to take you on a journey’. It’s the rallying cry of so many books and articles these days, despite the obvious paradox involved in doing so through the sedentary act of reading. Enter Giving Ground, the third poetry collection from Singaporean poet Theophilus Kwek. It’s a globe-trotting book, with locations as wide-ranging as Singapore, Scotland, America and Oxford, but the overriding theme is one of generosity. Effortlessly flitting between urban observations and national mythologies, Kwek is less interested in ‘taking you on a journey’ than he is in presenting you with a starting point for your own.

British cities crop up throughout the collection, and Kwek is adept at creating a sense of place through typography alone. His poem ‘Edinburgh’, for instance, conveys the absurdly hilly nature of that town through deft word choice and intelligent use of form.

Heart’s geography. Streets beneath streets,
a map let fall on an uneven hill. Right angles
where the same houses open to the bridge
and far below, again at street level.

The lines’ smooth iambic pentameter is shrewdly extended with evocative phrases, ideas appearing at “Right angles” which surprise while remaining thematically consistent. The idea of physical structures extending across different levels is embodied in the poem’s own structure, as thoughts and images recur and expand across the lines. The image of the map draped across a hill is a nice moment of linguistic playfulness, and one of several Kwek manages, like his assertion that the city’s stairs “lead where we are/ inclined”, the line break creating an effective pause before the punchline is delivered, and a frankly glorious pun on “High Street”. It’s a poem which naturally emerges from the geography of Edinburgh while still conveying a distinctive, personal vision.

The city of Oxford also makes multiple appearances. A student at Merton college, Kwek clearly understands the experience of studying here, never resorting to the crass stereotype of The Oxford Student Experience™. ‘Night’ perfectly captures the slightly stilted experience of chatting in the kitchen with a housemate you barely know – “It’s awkward, but it’s fine when we laugh;/ by the time we eat we’ve known each other/ for years.” The poem conveys a sense of understated camaraderie, which, as any frazzled undergraduate will tell you, is essential to surviving in this “eccentric city”. It’s immediately followed by ‘Michaelmas’, a witty and affectionate comparison of Christmas celebrations in Oxford and Singapore.

After the last dinner of term we are asked
what Christmas is like, back home: if there
are seasons, or how early the sun sets. If
it snows.

By turns warm, wistful and sardonic, the poem maps out the liminal space occupied by Singaporean students, “translating ourselves across the interminable/ sea”. Kwek returns to this theme in ‘Weight’, which spins a moving reflection out of a grandmother’s observation that her grandson has gotten thinner during term time, another experience familiar to many: “excess baggage. waving hands at the door/ have lifted us weightless from shore to shore.” The poem itself is vivid and elegant, although the lack of capitalisation starts to grate after a few stanzas.

Singapore comes into its own in the final section, with poems about the country’s founding myth and early history. These entries, while solid, end up feeling like warm-ups for ‘Foreign Relations’, which manages a near-perfect synthesis of personal and political. Figuring Singapore-Malaysian relations through the metaphor of two brothers, Kwek manages some of his finest imagery, describing the dynamic between two nations grown up separately. “I’ll hear your voice/ or you’ll hear mine, the water in the wall/ crackling through our landline like the sea”. The final stanza manages a perfect balance of poignancy and historical awareness, a triumphant climax to the collection overall.

you and I together
in this house, with all the furniture we bought
when good as new, and the plans we made,
to mark the casting-off we knew as birth.

The section’s final poem, ‘Archaeology’ offers a vision of the future “c. 3015”, reworking Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, as it surveys the remains of a once-mighty city. Kwek finds an analogy between the poet and the archaeologist:

but our pronouncements, lacking precedent
are at best facts we ourselves have spun.
This, after all, is our trade.

It’s a sombre poem, but with a sense of defiant optimism, as the poetic voice seeks to know “what’s done, or what it is we have begun.” As a final statement, it’s damn powerful; the poet offers up old grounds that we might make them new again. Giving Ground is a stylish, thoughtful, thoroughly accommodating book, and boasts a poetic voice as well-read as it is well-travelled. Recommended for anyone with an interest in human geography.

Review: It’s About Time by Stanley Moss

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 8 May 2016.

Stanley Moss is an undisciplined poet. He deliberately conveys the messy, contingent, and complicated nature of personal and political history, through a frequently chaotic, untidy poetic method. His style is typified by the book’s cover, a murky picture of a grey sky and stormy sea, a battered brown hat tossed carelessly into the middle of it. That’s It’s About Time all over – muddy, moody, and understated in its human elements. Moss’s main weakness comes in his transitions between the sublime and the personal; rather more comfortable in the latter register, he never quite manages to make them fit together as smoothly as they should.

A recurring feature of Moss’s poetry is the sudden appearance of the solid, rhythmic, and memorable line in an ocean of strained and uneven ones. They are quiet, subtle, and easily missed, and for all their eloquence the excessively long buildup diminishes their power. A good example comes in the poem ‘What’, a meditation on the ambiguity of existence. Its opening stanzas are an excessive tangle of signifiers, a pileup of rhetorical questions and real world allusions which convey the frustrations of life in a world both deeply ambiguous and repeatedly quantified: 

What is an atheist on the temple mount, and way of the cross.
What says ‘Rome’s Wolf is younger than Manhattan’s Mastodon’.
Rivers of what, what, what, what,
run into the ocean, flood two thirds of the world.

But in the final stanza Moss produces this little passage:

Now death is in fashion but love’s not out of style,
whatever the hemline, glove or cuff.
I don’t see proof death’s worthwhile.
It never says enough.

Here, a moment of clarity; the poetic voice is questioning, curious, but his choice of symbol is concrete and homely, uniting with the straightforward language to create something memorable. The meditation on death contrasts nicely with the “hemline, glove or cuff”, and the gradual reduction in line length emphasizes the point. This is followed by the wonderfully rebellious line “I spit in death’s ocean”, a simultaneous rejection and submission to the ambiguity of death, a statement both rebellious and humble. Unfortunately, the poem then returns to the death-as-clothing image, with the revelation that “Life and death are hand and glove”. There’s nothing wrong with a good mixed metaphor, but this feels like the least interesting option to take, returning to the inevitability of death rather than continuing the subversive play around it. This is a recurrent problem with Moss’s poems; he’s usually having a bit too much fun with his conceits to draw entirely satisfying conclusions.

That sense of playfulness also informs Moss’s religious themes. His poem ‘Hell’, for instance, is a charming and witty riff on George Herbert’s ‘Heaven’, aided by a more scatological style than Herbert would have dared, and managing a few laugh-out-loud moments. That irreverent attitude towards theology also lends his reflections on religious conflict a brutal honesty, such as in his poem ‘Song of Jerusalem Neighbours’, where he declares the concept of God an aphrodisiac for warmongers. However, these aside, the best poems in this collection are undoubtedly the most personal. Reflections on Moss’s dog are an unexpected highlight, funny and heartfelt, their domestic scale piercing Moss’s self-conscious textuality to create genuine pathos:

My good dog Bozo ran wild with my shoes.
Because I sleep and dream old news,
secrets I keep from myself, I smile in deceit,
while my dog smiles, mounts a wolf at my feet.

It is this voice, generous, witty and self-deprecating, that Moss truly excels at, and which does more to indicate an awareness of time and memory than any number of ponderous metaphysical exercises. Unfortunately, this voice is by far the less present of the two, and over 170 pages that sense of inconsistency becomes exhausting. At the end of the day, the best I can say of It’s About Time is that it has its moments.

‘It’s About Time’ is published by Carcanet Press, and available to buy from their website.