Ikhda, by Ikhda (Ikhda Ayuning Maharsi) (ISBN 978-0-9574596-6-3, The Emma Press, £6.50)
Raspberries for the Ferry (Andrew Wynn Owen) (ISBN 978-0-9574596-5-6, The Emma Press, £6.50)
These two pamphlets from the Emma Press, by a pair of new writers, open windows onto two distinct vistas of language. Ikhda, by Ikhda takes us towards a recognisably cosmopolitan space, where the English language finds its borders with languages from French to Italian and beyond. Language, in Ikhda Ayuning Maharsi‘s pamphlet, is a source of direction and misdirection, as in ‘Anecdote: Paris, Humming, etc.’:
In a little white house
I have found a nice vintage jacket
plus a fancy grandmére
Where this language grows into something more direct and personal, Maharsi’s poems draw us deeper into the private spaces her linguistic collages define, as with her poems ‘Pinkie Minimus’ and ‘Gili Gili’. In the latter, an invented phrase becomes a shibboleth for moments of real emotion, while in the former a sort of nursery language tugs at us, the title phrase replaying and rewinding as a leitmotif for disappointment and loss.
Formally, these poems are largely adept in their efforts to contain and control these interactions between the familiar and the foreign, sense and nonsense. Maharsi’s line breaks clip through the texture of ordinary language, sometimes violently, as in ‘Ancient Victoria’:
Your breasts are the true sources
of those left behind and running in place
and you are the slave of elegancy that dies in a vacuum
between Latin and future
Here the disorienting twists of the poem are underscored by the variations in lineation, driving the forceful surrealism of the work; the sense of a language crumbling into imagistic fragments makes this one of Maharsi’s most successful poems. In other places, her uses of short lines becomes a matter of urging her poetry towards its verbs, as in the bold ‘volare‘ that opens the pamphlet.
However, Maharsi’s writing is rarely without a grand statement to hand, and there are places where her ambitions as a writer outpace her control. The temptation to paint with a broad brush introduces abstractions and vagueness into Maharsi’s poems that unbalance her work’s more focused and precise passages. In ‘Afterbirth’, for example, we have:
A beautiful Turkish girl was surprising everyone.
She felt so angry
and her body was trembling.
The problems of telling and not showing – problems that so many of us struggle to confront in our own writing – have not yet been confronted in Maharsi’s work with the thoroughness that one would expect from a more mature writer. But this remains a likeable and energetic debut from a distinctive voice that will in time undoubtedly find the cadence and balance of the poetry it undoubtedly contains.
Raspberries for the Ferry offers a very different sort of linguistic vista. Andrew Wynn Owen’s debut is a much more forceful piece – both in the positive and perhaps the negative senses of the word. Where Maharsi pushed us towards the English language’s limits, its new confluences of sound and sense, in his pamphlet Owen directs us towards language’s history with several translations of Old English poems, as well as some rather enjoyable raids upon the myth kitty. And in similar contrast to Maharsi, Owen takes a much more traditional approach to verse, with proliferations of full rhymes that bleed every now and then into something more formal.
It’s this search for an intensity of sound that in many ways defines what Owen has put on show here. Take, for example, the opening lines to his translation of the Old English poem ‘The Partridge’:
I know of a bird, weird and twitchy
in renown on the wold, the tricksy partridge.
Unlike all those others who brood in woods
to hatch their chicks, she is an eggless, odd
and unbelaying bird.
Owen’s effort to render such alien music into something more like a modern diction is an exciting prospect, and so very nearly successful. But the poem’s momentum is stopped short by those mismatches of register created by words like ‘wold’ and ‘unbelaying’. They show Owen’s attachment not just to the glamour of that Anglo-Saxon alliterative line, but the mystique of these nearly-obsolete words. Engagement with the obsolete or the archaic is no bad thing, but the rough scrapings that these things make in his verse are an outcropping of the rawness with which these complexes of influence come to the surface. They show Owen’s immaturity as a poet, but they don’t appear so regularly as to come as a disappointment, exactly: rather they show how close in these poems he comes to actually pulling it off. With just a little more patient culling of the obvious archaisms, these translations could have been a startling debut; as it is, they merely show the extreme promise of a gifted young writer.
It feels like a shame to be defining Owen more by his influences than by his own outlook as a poet in this review, but his work invites this definition just a little too often: Owen’s poetry seems so over-conscious of its models and precursors that too often it lets them control it, as with his closing poems in asclepiads. The very conscious attempts to emulate Auden here feel rather unbalanced, and the strenuous efforts the poem makes to adhere to its formal conception push it to include phrases like ‘Toysomely be and, gee! / go with fullness of grace’ or ‘Blaze and amazement-make!’ The verse here is over-full, littered with embellishments that Owen isn’t yet ready to discard.
Yet there are moments when Owen reverses the process, deploying influence in a way that magnifies his aims. In doing so, in a handful of precious, surprising poems he finds something much more striking. His first villanelle in the pamphlet, ‘Icarus’, finds a mesmeric tranquility and balance in its final lines:
Listen for life’s final ripplet
Breaking at his outer margin:
Line for him a floating basket.
Grieve, resent it, cry in secret
But gather lilac, scatter lupin,
Sprinkle Calpol, bandage, blanket,
And set him in a floating basket.
Auden and the grandiose echoes of his 19th century precursors have faded into the background of the form itself, and instead the obsessive repetition that the villanelle form creates allows Owen’s verse to lap calmly at the reader’s ear. The imperfections of his verse may in places ring hard on the ear, but they are impressively spirited flaws, and they convey an enthusiasm for the sound of poetry that’s impossible to dislike.
Owen’s pamphlet shares at least this much, then, with Maharsi’s: they are not flawless productions. The work of these poets is nowhere near as polished as the work of the more mature writers being published by Happenstance, or the Rialto ‘Bridge’ series, for example. But this conceals the real importance of these publications. These works document the apprenticeships of young poets, rightly picked out for their latent talent, and as such form rare and valuable insights into the forces that form the ear and the eye of contemporary writers.
As such it seems appropriate to close this review with a sincere note of congratulation to the Emma Press, who have given these poets such an important space for their work. Even though the poetry can appear a little rough around the edges, the pamphlets themselves are beautifully produced and are enjoyable as objects in themselves. I would like to see more publications like this, not least as a means of providing opportunities for young writers to showcase their work. They may not quite be ready for mainstream publication, but Maharsi and Owen have made an important step in these pamphlets. I hope they make many more.