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“A poet of fantastic inversions.” Poetry London

“Multifaceted, mega-fabricated, louche architecture.” Magma

“Voraciously experimental, precociously accomplished.” Poetry International

New Media Writing Prize

I’m on the shortlist for the New Media Writing Prize — the only poem, I think, though digital literature tends to blur the line. I recommend playing through the other, varied and brilliant entries.

My piece, ‘L and the Empress of Sand’, is a new, single-player version of a performance piece I originally wrote for the Kendal Poetry Festival. It takes place in the same world as the poems of Sandsnarl.

AI is no threat to poetry; we’ve already got it licked

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Why do artists feel threatened by AI? Loss of income on the one hand; on the other, the fear that art as a medium of communication — as a testament to subjective human experience and the reach of the individual human imagination — will be replaced by art as mood lighting, as mechanism, as a grey soup of reiterated styles and trends. Remember the promo ad for Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse, where the tech bros interrupt their poker game to check out some ‘3D street art’? “Wow, this is stunning”, “That’s awesome”, “I love the movement”, they chime, before drifting onto the next thing — because in a capitalist utopia, the purpose of art is to inspire a warm, fuzzy feeling, either by representing some kind of accomplishment, or by recalling that which is comfortingly familiar.

AI poetry will be up to this task soon enough. But it needn’t bother — human beings have already produced more than enough to meet demand. Whereas in the case of visual art and prose fiction, AI can potentially fill a gap created by the exactitude of an audience’s desires — ‘a portrait of this person in the style of this artist’, ‘a story in this genre featuring a protagonist of my own design’ — poetry of any specific character is barely imagined. As Brian Phillips notes in ‘Poetry and the Problem of Taste’, it’s not that the reading public have poor taste in poetry, but rather that they have no taste at all — no sense, that is, of how their own personal preferences differ from anyone else’s. Poetry is poetry, the way table salt is table salt. You like a little, a lot, or none at all.

Relatedly, it’s become a lot easier for more people to write and publish poems. They’re short, and there are no rules left to break. You can study to be a better poet, of course, but no one is going to stop or even chide you for sharing whatever comes into your head and calling it finished, in which case AI really isn’t much of a time-saver. In the future, it might double or quadruple the scale of poetry production, but what does that matter when the current rate already exceeds our collective ability to respond to its existence?

I’ll just make this clear, in case this is your first time reading one of my commentaries: I don’t think too many people are writing poetry, and I don’t think that the low quality of some or much of what is written is an issue. My position is that the whole artform is diminished by the narrow way it is persistently framed, such that the threat AI poses to other artforms is already a present reality for poetry: that is, we have a landscape where everything looks like a mash-up of everything else, and most of it seems designed to serve its creator’s aspiration to be regarded as an artist, rather than having any clear communicative or explorative purpose. Note: ‘looks’ and ‘seems’. This is an issue of perspective, of fogginess.

For as long as I can remember, people have complained that all modern poetry is indistinguishable. And for as long as I can remember, the principle way critics have tried to separate the ‘good’ poetry from what they implicitly agree amounts to a rubbish heap is through insistent use of subjective epithets. In other words, in place of an ongoing exercise to document what distinctive characteristics may or may not be possessed by an individual poem, book or author (the appropriate answer to accusations of sameness) we have perpetuated a game of ‘squeaky wheel gets the grease’. The loudest, the most repetitive, the most passionate, fawning or grandiloquent claims are those that stick, and these on behalf of, inevitably, the better-connected, better-resourced, more shrewd and more well-behaved poets — though that point matters less than the fact that the qualities which are thereby attributed to them are vague, bland and frequently preposterous. Rather than teaching readers to discern and prize myriad specific attributes, and thus to tell one kind of poem from another by sight and feel, this process teaches them to think predominantly in terms of how ‘important’ a poet or poem seems to be, and to feel warm, fuzzy feelings that should on no account be interrogated further. It is one almighty confidence trick, at the expense of any sense that the new thing is much of a departure from the last thing. Gaze! Gasp! But do not look behind the curtain.

This in turn affects the way poems are produced and distributed:

  • It incentivises (for both poet and publisher) high output with minimal editing, since only recently released work is regarded as sufficiently exciting to swoon over, and right-place, right-time has more to do with it than content.
  • It incentivises broad, bombastic claims about the scope and purpose of a publication, lest it fail to speak to some common mood.
  • It de-incentivises investigative reviews or cautious responses to a less visible work, since the only currency the reviewer may deal in is applause or heresy.
  • It positions the reviewer, or critic, as someone lesser than the poet, someone who is merely affected and reports the effect, putting people off a role that is potentially vital in leading to the formation of individualised tastes.

Most frustratingly, for me at least, it steers what ought to be healthy debate about and around the artform toward a sluggish kind of territorial warfare. Disagreement over which poetry deserves what kind of attention is rife, as it should be. But trapped within the confines of a metanarrative that characterises poems as sources of fleeting, powerful feeling, too many interested parties end up huddled around their shared prejudices and faiths, failing to mount any argument beyond “Thing bad, other thing good” — albeit spun out across thousands of words. Others, wary of outbreaks of ugliness, stick resolutely to “Thing good”. Tower-of-Babel-style, we are not really talking to or understanding one another, except where we already see eye to eye.

I mean this, as ever, at a general level. There is good criticism and there are productive exchanges that lead to one or both parties being able to say, “I now see a little more of what you see”. But so much of what is supposedly the serious attention paid to poetry by its champions is barely more than gestural, tribal, phatic. Basic maintenance of the same rhythms and rituals of praise and complaint. As long as that continues we will struggle to shift the impression that the artform amounts to anything more than a piquant condiment which some consume in greater quantity than others.

If you enjoyed the thrust of this short piece, I explore a closely related topic in my essay pamphlet, Poems Are Toys (And Toys Are Good for You), and try out a different approach to poem critique in this article for The Friday Poem.

‘Creative Amplification’ and A.I. poetry

On Tuesday, I attended ‘Making A.I. work for writers’, part of a series of workshops organised by ARU’s A.I. working group, in collaboration with my own Cambridge Writing Centre. The emphasis here was on Lynda Clark’s concept of A.I. as ‘creative amplification’; that is, as a tool to use in conjunction with one’s own writing practices to produce new and surprising effects.

For the second half of the workshop, we wrestled with Max Woolf’s GPT2-Simple, a Colaboratory Notebook for training your own pet text-generating A.I. Think of it this way: freely and commercially available language-modelling software like Google Gemini and ChatGPT 3.0 is trained over months, using vast swathes of harvested data so that it can produce statements and respond to prompts in human-like fashion. We trained ours over the span of 20 minutes, using about 50,000 words (or, in my case, almost everything I’ve written in the past decade), so that each one could produce random assemblages of text which crudely resemble the work fed into it.

Here is my favourite thing it produced. I’ve added it to this website’s lucky dip with a short explainer:

This isn’t the first time I’ve made a foray into what may be loosely termed ‘A.I. poetry’. For 2017’s Bad Kid Catullus I used a simpler Markov-chain-based text generator to come up with a new Catullus poem via Catullus’ existing oeuvre and Google Translate. I’ve added this to the lucky dip too. Here it is in its Instagrammable square-image form:

“Sometimes blurtingly”

Note: this post is duplicated from my Substack, Stray Bulletin.

A post-January update covering the start of this year and the end of the last one.

Dive, dive!

My first publication of the year is a short essay called ‘Next time you dive’ (or How to play a poem), published online in The Friday Poem. It’s a follow-up to my winter pamphlet, Poems Are Toys (And Toys Are Good For You), a considerably longer essay which began as a talk I gave for a conference at York University some years ago. Poems Are Toys argues, in short, that readers and critics ought to treat poems as tools of imaginary play, rather than exhibits to be admired, or coded messages. It’s an anti-elitist screed which took me most of the summer to write.

Here’s how it begins:

Essays making grand statements on English-language poetry are usually pointed in one of two directions: either they’re intended for a general readership, seeking to persuade indifferent readers that poetry is sorely overlooked, or else they’re aimed at poetry’s scattered, somewhat fractious community of readers, practitioners and critics, looking to put some fresh cat among the pigeons. This essay is pointed in both directions at once, with the attendant risk that I fail to meet either audience on terms which they find comfortable. But since my concern is eroding the boundary between general reader and reader of poetry—since I believe, in fact, that this ingrained separation of interests is a symptom of a deeper dysfunction in how we relate to one another—I feel obliged to make the attempt.

‘Next time you dive’, meanwhile, is an attempt at a practical demonstration of what I argue for in theory in Poems Are Toys. I take a poem — ‘Swimmers’ by William Thompson — and discuss it in terms of how I imaginatively engaged with it, batting it around my brain, rather than adopting a pose of critical distance.

Two other reviews in The Friday Poem take a similar approach, one by the journal’s editor, Hilary Menos, and one by my old editor, Helena Nelson. To my mind, both of these pieces are far more readable and instructive than the average critical run-down of a poetry book, because they show us reader-and-book together, in the act of creative negotiation. This is an aspect of writing on/about poetry that has always existed, but it tends to get squeezed out by the impulse to act as salesman for a book we like, or headsman for a book we don’t.


Poor Beleaguered Wizard

For just about my final trick of 2023, I published three ‘Magician’ poems in Berlin Lit, edited by Matthew McDonald. The Magician is the star of his own book, forthcoming … when? I don’t know.

Here’s the first stanza of ‘What’s First Learned of Magic is Later Learned of Love’, a prose poem:

That it cannot be summoned, bid, baited, beckoned, smithed or shook from a tree. That it isn’t made from this or that raw material – and to the extent it’s sealed inside a fortress whose circumference you’ve begun earnestly to map and probe, that fortress is entranceless, its polished walls rising steeply into a sort of smudge of moon and sun.


Basecamp Established, Over and Out

Towards the end of the year I helped organise and host a launch for the Cambridge Writing Centre — a new research group based at Anglia Ruskin University, where I work. I’ve also been hard at work developing a website, logo and podcast for the Centre, as well as planning various events for 2024 with my colleagues. The idea is (a) to have an umbrella brand for the different strands of writing-related research going on at ARU, inside and outside the writing department, and (b) to work more closely with other local literary groups to cross-promote readings, workshops and other activities.

The budget for doing all this is … well, let’s just say we’ll have to take it as it comes, and get a little creative. But hopefully the more we put ourselves on the map, the more opportunities will open up to us.


Maximum Vintage

Before returning from the Christmas break, I managed to finish Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier. I read the first half the previous Christmas, but it’s my mum’s copy, so I left it a year before resuming. It’s gorgeously written, and the Manderley house and estate makes for a haunting, memorable setting (if only Emerald Fennell had paid as much attention to the titular mansion in Saltburn). It also becomes, gradually, a thriller, a page-turner, and in this respect it presented me with an interesting problem: while reading the final third I found myself wading through the paragraphs of sumptuous description as if they were snow drifts, almost leaping over some of them, since they stood between me and the coming revelations. The book seemed caught between moods, in the same way its protagonist lurches between passion and paranoia. This is almost a kind of ghostly ancestor to ludonarrative dissonance, the term coined by Clint Hocking to describe how a video game can have divergent narrative and ludic priorities, eg. the story demands a pressing-on, a sense of haste, while the game element rewards you for stopping to look under every stone.

We should talk more

Here’s a rare sight indeed: a discussion of poetic form and its effects (or lack of them) on Twitter/X:

It’s a source of frustration to me that you’re only likely to see such exchanges in the wake of a spat or controversy, as in this case. I don’t agree that social media, as a forum, is especially ill-suited to hosting debates about poetry, or anything else for that matter. The problem is the icy stand-off between attitudes of thought that are equally rigid. On the one hand you have an ever-present, stiff-collared conservatism that pines for orderliness and reassuring authority in everything. From this attitude emanates the demand for a stable ‘definition’ of poetry and a carefully managed system for sorting it into gradations of quality. The worst adherents to this school profess an awe for the ‘beauty’ of classical formalism, but seem to be mainly motivated by their discomfort with both the volume of contemporary poetry and the volatility of the tastes and passions underlying it. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they regard art primarily as a means for them to pose as refined beings, and resent anything that makes them feel they’re outside a scene. Those on the less extreme end of the scale, meanwhile, are often just bemused that the rules they were told to follow themselves are no longer in play, but lack the means or inclination to work toward a new evaluative framework.

On the other side, we have a supposedly more generous, more egalitarian position that denies, sometimes playfully (but mostly defensively), that there is any kind of consistency at all to what constitutes a poem. Its advocates frequently fall back on flimsy maxims like “I know it when I see it”, or “It’s a poem if it makes me feel something”. The problem here is a failure to recognise just how smugly elitist it can look when the in-crowd insists to frustrated outsiders that their club has no rules. Clearly, there is some sort of mechanism by which a poem leads one or more of us to ‘feel something’, to recognise something of value, and if we’re too lazy or too possessive to make any effort to explain what that is, then we invite speculation that the secret sauce is really favouritism of some kind. There also exists the not-unfair perception that those on the meagre gravy train of arts funding don’t like to talk about why a poem works or doesn’t work because it gets in the way of the endless sensationalist bluster that needs to be performed in order to keep paying the bills and feeding the ego.

Between these positions lies the vast potential to have conversations about the different values and expectations each of us brings to reading a poem, why the same small block of text might provoke feelings of joy in one person, feelings of fury in another, and nothing at all in a third. Occasionally one such conversation breaks out, but it’s all too often a brief interlude in a major bust-up, one that ends once the big factions have retreated to their respective corners and habits, muttering sourly at each other. What if we were to alter our expectations, such that distinct experiences of the same poem were something sought out as an opportunity for learning, rather than something mostly avoided – something which, once brought to light, can only be resolved by the conclusion that one or other person is a nitwit?

‘Sequence’ by Jamie McKendrick

I’m using this poem in an MA class this week – offering it, perhaps unfairly, as the archetypal literary sequence in miniature. I don’t think that’s what it set out to be; the title is punning on ‘quince’ and the whole thing is obviously an extension of that joke (15 lines in total; ‘quince’ is Spanish for 15). But it does serve my purpose. Despite it being made up of individual, haiku-esque tercets, there are strong indications of time passing between each stanza: fruiting follows flowering, ‘Exile’ begins “By now”, and reference is made to ‘transience’. I’m not sure what to make of the weird chronological inversion whereby oil paints turn up long after an iPhone, or the sudden appearance of Shakespearean English – perhaps, in keeping with the theme of renewal, the history of the world is cycling round and round.

The word ‘quince’ repeats throughout like a series of haphazard stitches, and softer echoes of that word are frequent: ‘one’, ‘borne’, ‘whence’, ‘wind’, ‘since’, ‘white’, ‘sweeten’. Hence we have the essence of the sequence, how it differs from a narrative: something is being held in place, squirmingly, even as everything around it changes.

“Your skullsy secret”

Note: this post is duplicated from my Substack, Stray Bulletin.

The year’s nearly done, so here is the first of two planned posts picking out some highlights from all that I haven’t found time to blog about over the last six months.

Creels and rockpools

Although I’ve made a start on countless digital ‘ludokinetic’ poems, hardly any of them have reached a complete, publishable state. Too much tinkering still required! Also, there’s hardly anyone to publish them with. The New River are one of the few outposts for such projects, and I’m very grateful to editors Amanda Hodes and Florence Gonsalves and their team for taking on ‘I could kiss, say,’, an interactive eco-poem in which you, the reader-player, get to romance the natural/unnatural landscape. Turn your sound on — there’s vocals and a little synth music to go with the movement and play.


Dust and honey

I wanted to write so many more reviews and responses to books and individual poems this year! More than that, I want to start proving and exemplifying that reading and critical writing can and should be as expressive and creative as what we deem ‘creative’ writing. You’ll know if you’ve been following my thoughts on this subject that this is because I value poetry and art as an ongoing, inclusive conversation and that my bête noire is the idea of the poet, the writer, the artist as the one who speaks for, at or over the top of others.

But drafts and notes have mostly failed to coagulate into finished, publishable pieces — except in the case of one more ‘Single poem round-up’ where I investigate poems by Sarah-Jane Crowson, Kate Crowcroft and Callie S. Blackstone, published online in Stone Circle ReviewBerlin Lit and Rust & Moth respectively. There are links to the pieces in question, so that you can read them in one browser tab and follow my thoughts on them in another.

Short extract from the review itself:

These are all poems about love, of one sort or another — though look what happens to the personal pronouns as each unfolds […] In all three, the traditional pose of the love poem quickly gives way to something more febrile, some more insistent energy which leaves me reaching to pull together the fragments.


Stereograms and anagrams

In the long-gone summer I made my way to Seville to present a paper at the DiGRA (Digital Games Research Association) international conference. I’ll get to the paper in a later update; for now, I’d like to link you to a digital copy of Hidden Entrance, a tiny pamphlet I put together to hand out to other attendees:

As well as a QR code linking up ‘I could kiss, say,’ and extracts from last year’s Look Again: A Book of Hidden Messagesit includes three brand-new, one-page ‘role-playing’ poems based on recent video games SableCitizen Sleeper and Stray.

To my knowledge, no one yet has solved the anagram on the final page. Perhaps I should offer a cash prize?


Flirtwort and fossils

The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow has been termed a gnostic horror game — not normally the kind of thing that attracts my attention (too many horror games are just slavish adaptations of Lovecraft, or zombiefests). In this case, though, a few things swayed me: it’s a traditional point & click puzzle adventure, utilising primitive-looking graphics to unsettling effect; it’s more indebted to M. R. James than Lovecraft, dealing in the obsessions of a Victorian archaeologist; and it’s set in Bewlay, a fictional village just down the trainline from Bakewell. This does not place it, as some players seem to think, in the Yorkshire Moors, but rather in the Peak District, close to where I spent most of the pandemic.

The script and voice-acting is generally of a high standard, with only the odd dodgy accent, and the story is well-paced, becoming gradually more uncanny the more you uncover of the protagonist’s background and present situation. The backdrops are wonderfully bleak, capturing the feel of the Peaks on a foggy day, and the occasional close-up animation is richly disturbing. Impossible not to think of The Wicker Man as you weigh up the likelihood that the residents of the village are conspiratorially toying with you, keeping the answers just out of reach. The point & click genre lends itself well to this kind of tale, since its puzzles are always so oddly contrived — must I really jump through all these hoops just for some puddings, a horse hair, a pail of goat’s milk? Yes — because in this case, it adds to the sense that you are being led, step by step, toward some grim fate.

As to the ending, I was left a little unsure. It might be that the story lost its footing in the final act, becoming overly predictable, or it might be that I just wanted a little more agency in a supposedly interactive medium. This aside, The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow is one of my favourites of the games I’ve played this year.

Single Poem Roundup: Crowson, Crowcroft, Blackstone

Part of ‘Uncertain Objects‘ by Sarah-Jane Crowson, which accompanies her poem.

Time for another look at three recently published poems, from three different poets in three different journals: ‘Small decrees of dust: A love song with moths’ by Sarah-Jane Crowson, published in Stone Circle Review; ‘The Other Cheek Turn’ by Kate Crowcroft, published in Berlin Lit; and ‘When asked to map the downfall of our relationship’ by Callie S. Blackstone, published in Rust & Moth. I readily admit that having decided to write about the first two I went on an afternoon scavenge for a third ‘Crow’ poet. I thought of Claire Crowther, whose work I admire, but couldn’t find a recent online publication (though the exercise reminded me that her Solar Cruise should be bumped up my to-read list). In the end, having skimmed through a dozen or so different contents pages, I decided I should content myself with a softer associational link — though the reappearance of moths in the title of the journal helps to make it a neat set.

These are all poems about love, of one sort or another — though look what happens to the personal pronouns as each unfolds. Blackstone’s ‘When asked to map the downfall of our relationship’ follows the most straightforward course; it announces its subject matter right away, then gives a bleak, lightly fragmented account of a trip to a lighthouse. But the first ‘you’ only occurs at the end of the first stanza, and there’s just one more after that (“The expensive sandwich shop turned you away”), plus a single ‘us’ and two instances of ‘your anger’. By the end, the addressee has become ‘he’, no longer a subject of the poem but an antagonist.

This is one of the ways the poem undercuts its own mode. That is, it sets itself up as an introspective piece — the speaker poised over a map, hesitant (“my fingers hover”), busy in thought (“images blur together”). It has the hallmarks of a tender address to an ex-lover (“I can sing about you”). The first two stanzas are of equal weight, the lines of decidedly average length. But then the first stanza break cuts off the word ‘you’ from ‘and me’, and it becomes increasingly apparent that something is wrong. The repetitions start to signal distress, emulating the manner of someone trying to make themselves heard (“the place that was my surprise, the place was my surprise // surprise, surprise!”, “I can’t, / I can’t”, “this was supposed to be / this was supposed to be”). The stanza shapes become ever more irregular, sentences run into one another, and as evidence of the male partner’s demanding, abusive and controlling nature stacks up, the lighthouse (“small, suffocating”) starts to look uncomfortably phallic — symbolic of a non-consensual sex act. It seems to me Blackstone first adopts the style and a genre of poem she knows many will find more palatable, using it as a way to smuggle in the tale she wants to tell. This is also reflective, of course, of the way awareness of our own mistreatment creeps up on us. For a moment or two, we think we’re in a love story — then the lighthouse looms into view.

Crowson’s ‘Small decrees of dust’ begins with a prominent ‘us’, and a flower-soaked scene of romance:

The lilacs watched us from the fragrant garden–
heavy and bewildered like a drowning.

OK, the proximity of ‘drowning’ and ‘bewildered’ gives it an uneasy edge, but fragrant gardens and heavy lilacs are strongly suggestive of physical intimacy. And yet the ‘us’ never appears again, nor ‘you and I’ (‘you’ is completely absent). I’d expected the poem to keep the couple locked in its gaze, since this is normally what love songs do, but instead there are a succession of sudden shifts. The second couplet is in italics, implying we’ve moved to a different vantage point — perhaps years have passed. The speaker of this couplet then appears to be interrupted by another speaker in the third, who completes their sentence:

That time before the world was boxed
in a whisper before…

before the darted glance, distorted.

Asterisks between the stanzas act as quick cuts, switching up the persona again. There is an ‘I’ and a ‘she’ who never quite settle into distinct figures, though they seem to be united in the closing phrase, “our hair unleashed, / rain-drenched, unpinned, unlocked”. Thematically, the poem quickly cools: there’s only a very short distance between that first fruity couplet and talk of a profound lack of intimacy (“It came to her that she had been alone for so long / that she had become a statue“).

This disjointedness — more complex and jarring than the gradual reveal of ‘When asked to map …’ — is in part a stylistic choice, tying the poem to an accompanying visual collage which mirrors certain images from the poem: the statue, the moth, the twisting of plant and human bodies. But what else is going on? To my mind, this structure evokes the way we look on ourselves from different angles in moments of doubt and hesitance, holding up the mind’s eye like a phone-camera when taking selfies. The person on the phone screen becomes a different entity, someone whose thoughts we can narrate in the third person. It’s also at that moment, posing, that we become statue-like, frozen in the headlamps of our own scrutiny.

The moths in the poem begin as “quiet words”, but the eyes of the lovers also turn into “moth wings”, disinterred from their context (“like a land that is locked, or lost”). So moths here are pieces of memory and language which fade away, but in doing so whirl and flare (they are “ecstatic with decay”). I think this makes ‘Small decrees of dust’ a poem about trying, fitfully, to love yourself, to gather up the evidence that will allow it, including the evidence of having been loved by another.

As intimated in both the syntactic arrangement and imagery of its title, ‘The Other Cheek Turn’ also sets out to mix things up. For some reason, I find myself thinking of it as half way between the other two poems. The first two lines require a double-take (or did from me, at least), since the well-known trope is of a face being struck — a woman striking a man’s after he confesses his betrayal, or a man striking a woman’s to cow her. Here it’s either the face or its expression of “a love so tangible” which is thought of as potentially dealing a blow. This convolution is immediately followed by a much more straightforward, almost cloying declaration:

Your face stalled in a love so tangible
it wouldn’t strike me when I asked it to. Hard
to learn how loved we are
when it’s unfamiliar.

Just like Crowson’s first couplet, there’s an unsettling element — in this case, the allusion to physical violence — but this stanza nevertheless seems to describe a moment of conventional romantic passion. And just like in Crowson’s poem, the sense of a ‘you and I’ vanishes immediately after this point, until the end, when a note is left saying “I want you / to know what is real and what is / not”. (The line break after ‘I want you’ momentarily gives the impression of a love letter, but the rest of the sentence reveals that the writer of the letter seeks control of the narrative). The speaker of the poem goes wandering, conjures a ‘he’ who may or may not be one half of the ‘we’ in the first stanza. It’s more plain here that time is reeling by — there is coffee with a friend, and this out-of-nowhere image:

… the neon
overalls of emergency
workers moved quick
in honeyed light

It reads like an unravelling — the rainbow becoming particles, then neon and honey. Like in Blackstone’s poem, there’s a line of reported dialogue which is blunt, off-register. Here, though, it’s the considered advice of a confidante. Crowcroft’s speaker seems, to my mind, to be trying to find the right groove, to be testing propositions and coming up against further uncertainty. They lie “in sheets — arrhythmic” at the close of the poem, giving in to … what? Perhaps “the charge” is not an accusation but a burden, or even an electric current, so that what the body must accept is a kind of tremendous confusion of the sort that comes from being in love. (Devil’s Elbow, by the way, is a double-hairpin bend in a now disused road in the Scottish Highlands, so the idea here is of someone walking almost back and forth, turning on themselves, in the effort to follow a marked route).

In all three poems, the traditional pose of the love poem quickly gives way to something more febrile, some more insistent energy which leaves me reaching to pull together the fragments. They make me think of how treacherous even simple settings and journeys can turn out to be when the senses are fully activated.