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Michael Ayres
reviewed by Alistair Noon
104pp. Shearsman. GBP£8.95 2007. 139781905700431 paper

This review is about 9 printed pages long. It is copyright © Alistair Noon and Jacket magazine 2008.

Songs of Despair


How does one write the 21st century love poem? Plenty of individual love poems, from the amazing to the awful, were written in the previous century. But few sustained sequences along the lines of Shakespeare’s or Petrarch’s sonnets seem to have surfaced and survived out there on the water: Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair would be one. Maybe after the trenches and the death camps, the love poem seemed a superfluous, defunct, dishonest form. Perhaps also, with a progressively less restrictive sexual code in some societies and cultures, the sublimation of eros into art, for both artist and audience, became less necessary. Or, like narrative poetry, love poetry lost ground to novel and film: who needs sonnets when you’ve got Wong Karwai?

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In Michael Ayres’ Kinetic, a cosmopolitan lover and frequent flyer records and reflects events, feelings, conversations, scenes, moments of shared observation and perception from one or possibly more relationships, touching sometimes on the world beyond. Many places are mentioned: New York and L.A., Japan, the roof of the American embassy in Saigon, Arizona, Cuba, Germany, and Tiger Leaping Gorge — destination number one for many a backpacker travelling through China’s south-western Yunnan province. Cameo appearances are made by medieval Japanese nobles, a band called the Czars, and the character played by John Travolta in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. It’s the lyrical self and its Lover Other, though, who are usually in close-up.


In some of the poems, the emotion is fully earthed in the imagery. ‘Plateau’ is a reflection on a relationship that has passed the intensity of its initial phase:


Soon we will be moving through an emotional landscape
of gulches and ravines
a place of pauses, dead ends, full stops
Our mouths will hardly touch
sometimes they will hardly move at all
Something sour and harsh will collect inside us
leak out of us and slowly flood the rooms in which we stand
Weeds will gather where the waters run and spool
beads will drip in necklaces like light-filled pearls
plaster will slump off the walls the walls
will crumble moss and ferns will begin to grow
where the bed is made and the pillows
are undelved by the shapes of heads


A fine balance is kept here between language that surprises and language that is familiar enough to keep the thing moving: the mouths touch and the weeds gather, but the water spools and the plaster slumps. The flow and continuity match the unfolding of a relationship over time: the lines don’t so much express a moment in time, as put a period of time into a moment. Creative Writing Do’s and Don’ts might warn against that ‘something’ as being too unspecific, but here it’s appropriate and accurate, defined by ‘sour and harsh’. The passage arcs out from ‘our mouths’ to an extended sequence of non-human images of stasis and decay, to then return to the lovers in ‘the shapes of heads.’


In other poems, too, sustained and concrete images depict phases in a relationship:


... our eyes like smoke which have drifted in glances
far from the point of original fire


Or perform more or less literal scene-setting, such as on what sounds like a backpackers’ beach in South-East Asia:


The girl who danced to the badly tuned guitars
in a tatty sarong
among the needles and the used condoms


Or evoke the retinal impact of the sun hitting the multiple windows of high-rise buildings:


The skyscrapers glisten and shine
in their slow self-immolation


Pressurized language condenses into observations:


Rainclouds forming over the lights
The design of storms never changes


And into perceptions:


...the hands which move through memory
have no feeling


One of the book’s tropes is displacement. A longer poem, ‘Jetstream’, closes:


Emptiness of places
emptiness of lies
We’ll fly out tomorrow
We have no ties here
no ties at all
the people are strangers
locals lost in their struggle
each scrabbling, scraping and little,
they’re all the same
We’ll wake somewhere else
We’ll make everywhere elsewhere
We’ll get there tomorrow
They say it’s the bomb
a happening place
They say it’s poor
backward, provincial
I don’t much care
Blue collar greed
White collar shame
We’ve a long way to go
Leave it all in our jetstream


The mindset of some travellers is accurately presented here, with a substrand of irony (‘They’re all the same’, ‘Leave it all in our jetstream’). And these lines can be read as a refusal to be the Poet As Recorder Of The Ills He Has Seen, writing the kind of poem that, on the basis of a fleeting and superficial encounter with ‘locals lost in their struggle’, appropriates the pathos of their situation for a putative but false identification with them.


In its quick passing over of the struggling locals, the passage seems deliberately unempathetic. Criticism and resignation mix a little uncomfortably here: the poem criticizes a particular attitude, but refuses to offer an alternative. More generally, in many of these poems, only the emotion of erotic love is seen as true, if threatened; the rest of the landscape is flooded with despair, ennui and a sense of loss. A kind of neoexpressionist End-Of-The-Worldism is evident in the atmosphere of drama and dread, and the avoidance of humour.


Sometimes the despair is perceptive and expressive: ‘Our children / will live in fear’, or ‘We take our own children to the market’, where the market is clearly more than a place to buy fruit and veg. The despair on its own isn’t much more than a commonplace of intermittent guilt in the First World: ‘We cried because children were starving’.


Some of the formal tactics are equally ambivalent:


Later you’ll go somewhere.
In a while when things start up again.


Vague language plays a necessary and significant part in communication[1]: without beating about the bush, making approximations, concealing known facts, rounding up figures and leaving things open we couldn’t get through life. Try asking for a pay rise without a bit of initial vagueness. For this reason, that Creative Writing mantra of Be Specific requires nuancing. But in contrast to the ‘something sour and harsh’ mentioned earlier in ‘Plateau’, the unspecific items here — ‘later’, ‘somewhere’, ‘in a while’ and ‘things’ — don’t gain power from their immediate linguistic environment. Or again:


For a while things seem okay then for a while
they’re not so good but they’re not actually bad


This seems to be an intentional astringency, a deliberate move away from density and compression, a distrust of artifice. It sounds like rapidly produced language: an email, or something to be read next day at a poetry slam. Does this style result from another kind of despair — perhaps parallel to the despair at the state of world — at the tools of poetic artifice?


‘In the moments lie the years’ reads one expressive line in the poem ‘Helsinki’. In the same poem and in a similar grammatical structure we also get: ‘In the silence lie the words’. This line might refer to the role that non-verbal features of interaction play in communication, but in the context of poetry arising out of a relationship, this and other lines scurry along the border with kitsch. In another poem: ‘If I’ve done one significant thing in the world / I murmured, stroking back the hair from your face / it’s that I’ve loved you’. The emotion here seems to be more in the motivation than in the product.


‘...[T]here was no more music / there was just me and you’. In some of the poems the seats seem to be reserved for the poet and the Loved Other: the pronouns ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘we’ remain confined to their immediate field of reference, namely the speaker, the lover, and the couple. ‘I’ll be here, I said’, ‘Trust me, she says’, ‘Don’t, she murmured’, ‘Don’t stop I murmur’ (throughout the book there is a lot of murmuring and whispering). These samplings of dialogue are given prominence via location — in a single-line stanza or at the end of a poem. At other times, the ‘we’ opens up, where it is written into one surface-reading of the poem, but can stand for a wider ‘we’: ‘... we sleep among thunder / and wake in its storm’.


Locality seems to be evaporating from Ayres’ work. His early poem ‘Docklands’ took the construction of London’s new Central Business District and made of it an emblem of neoliberal globalization. In this book, locations provide names for poems but not much else. Place names are mentioned, but few details follow. Perhaps this enacts a perceived loss of place in the world: mention the place but don’t write about it, or even really from it, is the tactic. The result is poems not of place but of placelessness.


In his large selection of poems, commentary and essays online at Shearsman[2], Michael Ayres talks about the evolutionary spurs of his work. Despair at some of the tools of artifice lies behind the following explication by Ayres of his changing poetics:


...In the early nineties, even before the publication of my first book, I found myself having to re-evaluate my life and my poetry. It seemed to me that I had to try and reground things. One consequence of this movement to reconfigure things was the desire to write differently...

...The earlier poems ... — for example, Feint Bivouac — have surrendered their belief in people. Writer and reader are alienated from each other; the work of art is a form of moral luxury, a game, a pastime, without radical power; poetry is an anaesthetic and not an aesthetic experience.

Well... this was a dead end. In order to resurrect writing within myself, I felt that I had to rethink my understanding of the relation of writer to reader. I had to seek to believe in the reader — then, the poetry would be real. To put this another way, I felt I had to go towards the reader; and perhaps this very process of going towards the reader was the process of poetry itself.[3]


‘I felt I had to go towards the reader’ — is this what is going on in Kinetic? What I think can be seen here is a poet schooled in but dissatisfied with Modernist imperatives of objectivity. Kinetic, and some of the previous work of Michael Ayres on the Shearsman Gallery, seems to be an attempt to break away from those prescriptions, to find a more personal tone. It’s a long way from the density, concreteness, monosyllabicity and artifice of these lines from the aforementioned ‘Feint Bivouac’:


Flit of a small and shy bird,
only bob, slip, wingflick;


to many of the lines of Kinetic, which replace the worked-over with the conversational, and density with fluidity.


In some ways, the poems of Kinetic also enact aspects of the evolving poetics of the British poet and critic, Andrew Duncan, himself one of Ayres’ admirers. Many of them are written in the Duncan line and the Duncan stanza — an uberfree verse with ne’er a hint of regularity in the number of beats per line or lines per stanza. Here, the pentameter isn’t just broken à la Pound, but pulverized. A fierce justification of this poetic, an abhorrence of artificiality and bourgeois notions of technique, can be found in Duncan’s Alien Skies: ‘I denounce the stupor of precast lengths, the fabric of monotony’[4] (Duncan’s criticism is, not surprisingly, distinctly uninterested in poetry predating about 1910).


When the forces of tangible imagery and strong rhythm are brought to bear, such as in some parts of Kinetic, in ‘Docklands’ and ‘Feint Bivouac’, in earlier love poems such as ‘Partial Eclipse’, and in much of Duncan’s own work, this tactic yields fine results. But the unworked expressions of emotion in other parts of Kinetic seem so light-weight — in terms of language — as to disturb the equilibrium of the structure. Some forms of information — political, historical, linguistic, and the erotic when framed in imagery — seem to work within a poetic based on the idea that ‘the ranks of the ancient stave have been dispersed’, as Duncan puts it[5]. Others — formulations in Kinetic such as ‘We are only kissing / We are only saying goodbye’ for example — don’t.


Ayres also seems to be following the Andrew Duncan Way with the mass of poems on more or less the same theme, with broadly similar form and tone: throw as much as you can at the target and some of it is bound to strike full on. Duncan has rationalized this approach in a discussion — actually of translation — entitled ‘Fault-tolerant Poetry’:


Two conventions of discourse about poetry are that information (formal or semantic) loses value as it becomes more familiar, and that precision and concision are central values, so that a redundant poem is ineffective (and unprofessional). However, I am arguing per contra that poetry ought to be very highly redundant and that artistic devices become much more effective as the readers acquire greater familiarity with them.

...It may be that a poet who eliminates redundancy from a poem also eliminates all capacity to influence the mood of the reader. The poem stops being a volume and becomes a plane. [6]


What’s being opposed here is a poetics of over-selectivity: a minimum of poems, a minimum of lines, a minimum of words, and — in its extreme form — a minimum of poets (Peter Riley has highlighted elsewhere the discourse among many poetic mainstreamists that assumes a ‘fewness’ of poets. [7]) Duncan’s ideas here are also coloured by the notion of poetry as resistance to dominant discourses, the idea underlying some experimental/late modernist poetry: not only do you resist capitalist appropriation of your words by making your poem difficult, you also do it by making it long (which is sometimes the same thing as difficult).


As a step in the creative process, the calculated throwing of a large number of bean-bags at the target — and I think that’s what Michael Ayres does here — must be productive for some poets. It may be what Shakespeare and Petrarch were up to in their sonnet sequences. And in terms of audience, familiarity no doubt breeds understanding.


But decentring precision and concision at the present time also posits a highly sympathetic readership with lots of spare time, in an era in which the number of internet pages is approaching the number of human inhabitants on the planet. The approach resembles that of research scientists, under pressure to secure publication-based funding, churning out papers to a minimum standard of quality. It’s true that the more throws you have at the target, the more likely you are to hit. But when you do hit, the throws that missed become irrelevant; papers lacking novel findings survive, if at all, in journals with low impact factors.


Removing redundancy might make the poem a plane rather than a volume, but what is and isn’t in that volume remains important. For this reader, the moments in Kinetic when the seriousness teeters on, and sometimes falls over the brink into overearnestness, the simplicity into banality and the emotion into sentimentality, are too frequent.


Some of the poems are Director’s Cuts where everything seems to have gone in that could. I’d like to be moved by the emotion and — more or less continuously — interested, or at least not irritated by the language. Watching Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) (another film name-checked in the book), you can be moved by the specific emotion expressed — the realization that humanity cannot bear very much guilt — and impressed by the use of a small myth-like story to make such a big statement.


Among my favourite moments in Kinetic are those where the suspicion of artifice and product nevertheless creates lines that reach orbital velocity:


Gradually, the place we built was a journey.


Precision and concision might not be the only over-rated virtues in poetry. Memorability could be one too: there are some god-awful lines by really bad slam poets that I cannot get out of my head. But it’s in the kind of line just quoted that Kinetic come closest to a kind of Nerudean Deep Lyric, or to some of the poems by Ayres in the Shearsman Gallery. These seem to me to be among the finest written by a British-based poet in the last couple of decades, realizing Ayres’ own lines in ‘Orpheus’:


What do we ask of the word?
That it be strong, and fine, and straight.

Alistair Noon’s poems and translations from German, Russian and Chinese have appeared in, among other places: Oasis, Shearsman, Litter, Intercapillary Space, Cipher Journal, RealPoetik, Softblow, Mimesis, The North, The Recusant and Poetry News. He has work forthcoming in Ecopoetics and Cha.

[1] Channell, Joanna. Vague Language. Oxford: OUP, 1994.



[4] Duncan, Andrew. ‘The Clauses of the Empire of Sound’ in Alien Skies. Cambridge: Equipage, 1993.

[5] ibid.



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