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No ordinary narratives - Barrett and Lane

Posted 1st December 2010

There’s a short poem towards the end of Joel Lane’s Joel Lane new collection that does what writers sweat for – it travels through time, it drags at the heart but it could not have been written at any other time but now.
It’s called ‘Text’ and it’s about a teenage boy buried with his mobile in his hand. Lane’s a stylish writer and The Autumn Myth, where this wonderful poem lives, is his third collection with Arc. He won an Eric Gregory ward in 1993 and writes novels and short stories too.
The Autumn Myth begins with a poem about a skull in a carrier bag found in a skip. Its title ‘The Refugee’, signals the essence of this poem and points the way into a collection that is deeply political in the tradition of those two greats, Langston Hughes and Pablo Neruda. I don’t understand why Lane isn’t better known in contemporary poetry but then again, there are many excellent poets who aren’t. His sharp, unsentimental metaphors and his pared-down style are utterly right for poems that take urban life and shake out its pockets. In fact there’s a series called ‘Urban Postcards’ and all the way through this collection, Lane’s journalist’s eye is tuned to detail, to the metaphorical weight of room spray, deaf soccer fans signing a chant. Lane's two previous collections of poems, The Edge of the Screen (1999) and Trouble in the Heartland (2004), are also published by Arc.
Elizabeth Barrett Elizabeth Barrett is on record saying there’s not enough ordinariness in British poetry so it’s unsurprising that her new collection A Dart of Green and Blue ushers the reader into its emotional journey through death and loss by grounding it in the everyday. Barrett doesn’t equate ordinary, though, with dull – her poetry shows how the everyday is what the best writers relish as the starting point for insight (as Fred Voss affirms in his wonderful poem, ‘Now is When Einstein Shatters the Universe with his Mind’). Lane does this in his own way, too.
So Barrett’s wonderful opening sequence is proof that a good poem doesn’t need to strain towards the exotic or the freak-show, it can work by holding within it a tilting of perception, a momentary reflection like the bizarre haunting of ‘Lights, Bangs, Flashes’.
Just as when I read Lane and ‘Text’ embedded itself in my memory, so in A Dart of Green and Blue, I arrived at ‘Hem’, a poem about a child’s favourite pyjamas and every element in the poem was true, universal.
Another of Barrett’s observations in The Inky Sheffield Writers Newsletter (Winter 2004 – 2005) is that there’s not enough respect for narrative poetry. She approaches her stories from different angles in this collection. The first section, ‘Kingfisher’, is relatively familiar, but she follows with ‘Gull View North’, whose title itself should be a sign, shouldn’t it? Its fourteen numbered poems contain elements of a mythical transformation and in ‘Penelope’s Magpie’ and ‘Finch’, the next two sequences, birds and flight take over as the metaphorical vehicles for her narratives. This is Barrett’s first collection with Arc – previous collections, Walking on Tiptoe and The Bat Detector were published by Staple (1998) and Wrecking Ball Press (2005). She was editor of Staple magazine from 2000 to 2005.