A Map Towards Fluency, Lisa Kelly, Carcanet Press, 2019, pp.112, £8.99
A Few Interiors, Rowland Bagnell, Carcanet Press, 2019, pp.64, £8.99
——Carcanet’s latest publications include the innovative poetry of Lisa Kelly and Rowland Bagnall in their respective collections, A Map Towards Fluency and A Few Interiors. Kelly is deaf in her left ear, and some of the most compelling pieces are in “Orientation”, the third section of her book. The poems focus on the experiences of partial deafness, from being criticized for bad hearing, to celebrating the vibrant personalities of a group of sign language speakers. Bagnall’s collection meanwhile features a range of places, films, and art. His narrators often stand before famous paintings, and in “Ode on a Han Dynasty Urn” he uses the URL for the first photograph in Ai Weiwei’s “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” as an epigraph. The poem itself consists of one stanza of prose poetry, then two stanzas with some, and then more, words missing from the first, to mimic the shattering of the urn.
——Both poets also blend their cultural knowledge with their extensive understanding of the poetic form. The results are affecting: Kelly’s “Corona/Cuts” has repetitive lines stylistically inspired by John Donne:
—————————The globes four corners
a dream. Sons walk the next street, foreigners.
A dream, sons walk the next street, foreigners
share conversation, customs, cares, break bread
——These lines promise unity, and the healing that comes from awareness of others. The next stanza undoes this with quotes from a Guardian article in which teens give their reasons for carrying knives:
To protect myself against my father.
My dad was stabbed to death when I was three.
I will stab them first.
——Family structures are undermined and destroyed, leaving no hope for peace between different communities. Kelly’s repetitive structure becomes a reflection of the claustrophobia of lives affected by knife violence.
——Rowland also makes brilliant use of his sources. “Tangerine” borrows lines from Frank O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter” about the passage of time for artists, and describes the characters’ plans for the future in the last shot of The Graduate: “brief // and out of focus”. The references reveal the narrator’s wandering consciousness, and they mimic the narrator’s isolation from a significant other at the poem’s conclusion:
you are here
but now you’re going and the days go by
and I am on my own and
——These last lines borrow from the “going” repeated in O’Hara’s poem, but the incomplete sentence reminds us that this poem is more than an allusion. Bagnall’s narrator is ongoing in spite of the weight of cultural references.
——Kelly and Bagnall’s poems are informed and thematically complex, but they are also fascinated by language itself. The last stanza of “Corona/Cuts” is a list of slang terms for knife, and the narrator of “Tangerine” makes a list of words that come to mind in the supermarket. Kelly and Bagnall’s appreciation of words ensures their poetry is not all dedicated to high culture; they also discuss themes as universal as breakups. Kelly’s “Life Model” explores self-love after a boyfriend’s judgement, and Bagnall’s “Sonnet” slowly admits the stagnation of a relationship. These are poets who love every aspect of writing poetry: the language which forms it, the literature which precedes it, the art which inspires it, and the lives which make it personal and accessible.
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