Quicksand Beach by Kate Bingham
(Seren Books, 61pp, £7.99)
Review by Luke Kennard
If you can get the sensory stuff right, I’m pretty much sold. I remember reading a Hopkins poem as a child – the one where he describes the afternoon light as looking like a piece of foil being shaken (something like that, anyway) – and thinking that poetry was pretty worthwhile. Bingham’s visual facility is superb – “Purple-red clouds the size / of oil-tankers jammed the horizon”; and “listening to rapturous fat darts / batter the glass” is one of the noisiest descriptions of rain I’ve read in a while.
Let’s set out stall: if there is any such thing as a poetic mainstream, "Quicksand Beach" fits it like a favourite shoe – personal, anecdotal, accessible. If, like me, you profess affection for the work of both Simon Armitage and Louis Zukofsky (and bollocks to anyone who hasn’t got over the tired old grudges of the 1970’s), you won’t instantly think that’s a bad thing. Let that be the movement of our generation: The New Generosity.
The biggest question for all poetic traditions must be ‘So what?’ Your dog died. So what? So did mine. You wrote a poem based on a computer error and filled it with vaguely subverted cliché to draw attention to the state of language. So what? I came up with ten of them before breakfast but I didn’t think they were worth writing down. You wrote a poem about a talking penguin. So what? Children’s cartoons have a keener sense of absurdism. You wrote an end-stopping faux-rap about the Bush administration. So what? You don’t even watch the News at Ten. Michael Buerk is more subversive than you.
So if we say that Bingham’s poetry is of the ‘Your dog died’ school, it’s fair to conclude that her writing shows keen awareness of this and the self-absorbed ‘lyric I’ is subverted in a variety of ways. ‘Diamonds’, the book’s second poem, begins
Let’s not have an argument this year
about my birthday. You know what I want
because you always ask and always spoil
it by then not giving me diamonds,
choosing some less extravagant present
to symbolise the extent of your love –
So at this point I was sighing and wondering if the poet shouldn’t be having this embarrassing conversation with a loved one in private. However, the monologue is then complicated by references to “diamonds / dug up and traded year after year / to finance wars only despots could want.” And I slapped myself on the wrist for assuming the first-person narrator was the poet herself.
Of course, there are times when the first-person narrator is the poet herself – and the personal details revealed in "Quicksand Beach" are perhaps the most beautifully observed. Take this couplet on breast-feeding:
Inside your mouth is the shape
of a single perfectly accomplished gulp
And ‘The Island Designing Competition’ (from which the book’s title is taken) brilliantly evokes the interior struggles and deeper resonance of the games we play as children.
…snatching the red for my stick men,
each to represent one hundred votes.
They stand in public squares demanding a recount
as the President mouths his acceptance speech
and such is the confusion no one sees
my brother’s auxiliary fleet…
Actually, scratch the “interior struggles” and “deeper resonance” – ‘The Island Designing Competition’ is about how great it is to have an imagination. There is a voice and a personality here – and it is the voice and personality of a person rather than a voice a person thinks sounds like a poet. Oh, and the first line of ‘In the Birchwood’ is:
I had always wanted to shoot myself
Which is just a great first line. This is the stuff of everyday life presented with its mystery intact – even in contented boredom; “the finger flavour of a weekday afternoon.” Bingham writes open, accessible poetry, but in place of the sarcasm and self-importance that often plagues open, accessible poetry, we get metonymy and anthropomorphism, thank God. The poet is aware of memory as an ongoing journey; not something you might distil into piquant little episodes from which to draw a tidy moral, but an ever-changing landscape that reveals different shapes at different aspects. The five sonnets that make up ‘Roads’ contain well-selected details that perfectly fit the metre:
An usher who won’t wear his buttonhole
sits on the gate whistling Mendelssohn.
I never loved you more than when our car
span quietly across fresh snow in the fast lane.
Elsewhere, Bingham turns her voice to historical character – without affectation. ‘From the Chronicles of the Abbess of Almesbury’ echoes Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi’ – the pertinent details over archaism:
Three or more unremarkable days
in succession and they doubt again,
awkwardly, want back their thrown-away
Others plot in the refectory,
my downfall usually.
The intimation of menace continues in ‘Epilogue’, featuring a woman who keeps her funeral mink “in case of revolution”. The personal segues into the political.
It got so bad only the bankers could afford
to live in Central London, rampant wisteria
blossoming all summer long through razor wire
and everywhere the hum of bored, exhausted
The temptation to steal “rampant wisteria” for a title is almost unbearable.
If there is something wrong with many poets of the ‘My dog died’ school, it is exactly the same thing that is wrong with many poets of the ‘Subversion of language’ school: it is their mimsy affectation of the poetic, their obsession with their role as A Poet and their assumption that anyone gives a flying fuck about them or their work. What is refreshing here is the complete absence of all that crap – just well-written, thought-provoking poetry. But don’t listen to me: I’m just a neo-Fabulist.
© Luke Kennard, 2006