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Guest Review by Alexis Lykiard

LOST DAYS by Stephanos Papadopoulos. (76 pp, Leviathan & Rattapallax, 2001). £8.00.
A WORLD PERHAPS: New & Selected Poems, 1971-2001 by John Lucas.
(158 pp, Sow’s Ear Press, 2002). £8.99.
BLUES FOR BIRD by Martin Gray. (286 pp, Santa Monica Press, USA, 2001). $16.95.
TAKE IT EASY by Jim Burns (40 pp, Redbeck Press, 2003). £5.95.

A quartet of unusually enjoyable books from a tyro and three veterans. Lost Days is the attractive first collection from a 27 year old American-Greek, and includes a CD of the author reading most of the poems from his book. The CD, though a nice touch, doesn’t actually add much, for Stephanos Papadopoulos reads in what seems to be the prevailing American style – brusque and rather deadpan, if not altogether passionless. However, hearing poets read their own work is invariably instructive: strengths are underlined, weaknesses exposed, stresses and obscurities clarified.

Papadopoulos has a gift for phrase-making and the vivid detail, but unfortunately tends also to ramble overmuch. In consequence, these poems – variously descriptive of America, the Caribbean, Scotland, England, France and Sweden, as well as Greece – often lose focus and direction, drifting toward a conclusion perhaps less meaningful than intended. But with a touch more irony and experience and some tighter editing, he could turn into an interesting poet. As it is, there are occasionally questionable line-breaks and too much reliance on the present-tense pictorial approach: within the selfsame poem pleasing images in neat phrases may be coined, yet their impact is lessened when they’re juxtaposed with examples of rhythmic or linguistic slackness.

The over-extended opening poem, ‘Mavraki’, epitomises the curate’s egg nature of this nicely produced piece of bookmaking. A description of a derelict building has “the memory of plumbing/ risen to the surface like veins.” Excellent, but a few lines later the eponymous protagonist “traces the snail’s path through sidewalks/ that speak of old Athens through forty-year cracks,/ of a younger, lighter man.” Such awkwardly expressed clichés are soon followed by the epithet “salmon-tired”, applied to tourists moving up Hadrianou Street. Y et this same piece ends with a memorable sentence on Hellenism and Greek mythologising: “Before/ the gods became a circus out of work.”

Despite the sporadically lazy diction – poems strolling along in rather too leisurely or self-conscious fashion – there are pleasing discoveries here. In the main port of Samos (a large island where I lived during 1979), the poet sets the Sunday morning scene with quiet accuracy – its café “tables bare / of all but chairs stacked/ in fours and the occasional cat,/ relaxed, laid out cold in fact, / like a question mark that / fell sideways and stayed.” But the poem’s all of two pages long and doesn’t really get anywhere, despite a thumpingly nostalgic, abstract conclusion! Indeed, the shorter length poem sharpens his focus. There he employs rhyme and syllabics unobtrusively, taking neat verbal snapshots: “ photographs of men trapped/ behind the iron bars of black moustaches”; “the still puddle reflecting the tug/ of a calf muscle stretched to perfection”; or “a grapefruit / losing its ruby-red symmetry to the spoon.” Yet often Papadopoulos sounds a jarring note – a particular phrase like “the gaping of your absence”, or (from the very last poem in the book) a bald, apparently unironic statement: “It is hard sometimes, being a man” – which undermine a poem’s general effect. Here’s a young poet, however, making a mercifully unparochial, lyrical and likeable enough debut.

John Lucas’s book is inevitably more substantial, and is wholeheartedly recommended. Lucas is one of a rare breed – Geoffrey Grigson and Alan Ross were others – so essential to the health of UK culture as a whole. I mean that endangered species of committed and combative literary all-rounder, the poet-editor-critic. As befits any good jazz musician, moreover, Lucas has a fine ear, a keen sense of humour, and a highly distinctive, relaxed yet precise style. All these qualities are in evidence throughout this generous selection from 5 poetry books published since 1971, alongside some new work.

This is an allusive, literate yet very accessible poet, in no way cramped by his academic background: while most of his poems use rhyme and metre to their best effect, the content and tone matter equally. The serio-comic voice is both congenial and shrewd, and there are captivating poems about important, too often neglected areas of life – cricket, jazz, and cats. But Lucas is also properly (and improperly) satirical about less appealing issues like politics, propaganda and death: these he tackles head on, putting one in mind of a grittier Midlands version of the late Gavin Ewart. Gavin, I’m sure, would have relished especially a couple of little gems here, ‘Randyloins and Murdoch’ and the found poem ‘The British War Effort: Cairo 1940-45’. (These and many others should be loudly declaimed, and in full, rather than merely quoted from.)

For all the humour and fluent writing, John Lucas can move the reader too: there’s a fine sonnet sequence commemorating his father, and another – alternating prose and verse – entitled ‘Flying To Romania’(1992). The latter very precisely and ironically gets the measure of a ruined, complex state trying to recover from the havoc of Ceausescu’s prolonged, vile dictatorship. Like Lucas, I too visited that beautiful, spectacularly grim country – but in the late Seventies, when its gruesome repressive regime (quite disgracefully supported, off and on, by the UK) seemed immoveable. Lucas provides a fascinating and observant view of his own visit – hilarious, poignant, engaged and engaging – which in itself is well worth the price of this excellent book.

My only quibble may seem pedantic – too many typos: see pp. 8, 10, 138, 152, 153, 158 – but there are minor blemishes and oddities of this sort also in Martin Gray’s original, splendid and unclassifiable book on the genius (ignore Larkin’s sour strictures!) who was Charlie Parker. I’ve been reading Gray’s epic elegy, Blues for Bird, over almost a decade: half a dozen chapbooks, initially, then the 88-page 1993 publication from Ekstasis Editions, Canada, and now this revised, expanded and probably definitive version, 12 books and 5400 lines, complete with glossary and author’s Introduction.

Jazzlovers will scarcely need read the well-merited comments on the back cover: the musicians’ names will be enough – recommendations from Horace Silver, Howard Rumsey, Frank Morgan, Stan Levey and Teddy Edwards! The great Silver, a longtime hero of mine, affirms that “One of the great blessings of my life was to have known and played with Charlie Parker”, and Gray’s freeswinging, anecdotal, referential (though not unduly reverential) verse biography will surely send readers back to those classic recordings with renewed awe and astonishment.

Gray is another eminent academic, a Tennyson specialist, who therefore knows much about the music of poetry, its rhyme and metre. He explains how and why he has chosen the six-syllable trimeter, largely iambic line, analysing the various strengths and weaknesses of this particular form. But the basic problem remains one which another academic and jazz buff, Glyn Pursglove, identifies in a recent, appreciative if highly critical, 9-page review (Poetry Salzburg Review 5, autumn 2003): “Too much in Blues for Bird seems to me to be prose ‘matter’ turned into verse.”

True, and this can result in some awkwardness and stilted diction (e.g. ‘Jack’ McLean, passim). Typos (‘Thelonius’) and occasional errors also creep in – surely the great trumpeter Kenny Dorham didn’t play trombone? – but on the whole such blemishes don’t unduly detract from what Jim Burns (in Penniless Press 16) rightly calls “an ambitious work”.

As Burns concludes, “[t]he story of how Parker revolutionised jazz and at the same time led a life most of us would have found a full-time occupation in itself” is described “in a plain direct language that, if it doesn’t match Bird’s flights of inventiveness, is at least easy to read”. Jim Burns himself is an enthusiastic yet scrupulous and accurate writer on jazz, Americana and much else. His own poetry is always attractively direct, if deceptively relaxed: it tells stories, too, and in consequence has been misread as ‘flat’ or ‘prosaic’ and thus generally underrated. Take It Easy is a short yet far from slight collection whose title measures up to its laidback, lucid contents.

Since his earliest publications in the 1960s Burns has produced a substantial body of criticism and poetry. In both areas, the wide but unpretentious frame of reference, the fairminded and well-informed radical viewpoint and the quietly witty, disabused Northern humour have been consistently in evidence. There are splendid pieces here on music and musicians, life, death, work, cats, social injustice, illusions great and small.

And every freelance should take to – if not learn by – heart, a poem entitled ‘Propping Up The System’, which in its 25 short lines exquisitely satirises the employer’s old ‘cheque-in-the-post’ excuse. It really needs quoting in full, so here instead is another, shorter gem on which to close:

A Question Of Belief

Midday on Market Street,
and a man with a beard and a Bible
is crying to the world
about the wonders of religion.
We walk past him, smiling,
clutching our shopping bags.
The noise of the traffic
soon drowns him out,
and we are glad.
What we believe in
is what we have bought.

review by Alexis Lykiard
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