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Review: Sad Giraffe Café, by Richard Gwyn

Who was it said that human beings cannot stand too much reality? Richard Gwyn's new collection Sad Giraffe Café begins with the line: The Acrobats were packing up the show. Joel Lane's book begins: The last thing you expected to find /in a carrier bag, on a skip: / a human skull. The first points towards a magic realism that the rest of the book holds carefully and precisely. Joel Lane's beginning points towards a much starker, more journalistic realism.

Unsurprisingly, Gwyn's book of page-length prose poems is written in a more prosey, sometimes sightly closed, style. Lane's style, on the other hand, although it can be a little bare, often gathers a density and strength towards the end of each poem; his skill is to move from the story towards a verbal imagination that works its way into the heart of the story. This verbal imagination couches each story in a deft intensity. And Lane has precise trajectories for his poems, too; moving them from the bare bones to evocative and emotive endings that subtly change and deepen the reader's perspectives. These pieces are often dark pictures of the seamier side of Birmingham. The Rituals depicting the beatings meted out on his wife by a man who kissed the blue-black runes that stood / like Braille on her damp skin, reminded me of Ted Hughes' Her Husband. And the Birmingham landscape with its combination of urban abandonment and urban excess is evoked in a far drier way than his great predecessor, Roy Fisher, is wont.

Gwyn's prose poems are written in short declarative sentences:

He enters a village, walks over to a well. He drinks and sits in the shadow of a tree. Realising that he has visited this village in a dream, he sets out to find a house. In the house he knows he will find what he is seeking, has always sought.


from All These Ithacas

Gwyn has a PhD in linguistics, so will know that the tense he uses for the verbs is a simple present tense; we use it for facts e.g., 'The sun rises in the east.' This can create a rather impenetrable surface to some of these pieces and occasionally the question 'why' occurs about the poems. However, Gwyn has an undoubted gift for the trajectory of his short texts, and an eye for telling details and the way to juxtapose them against other such details that makes the poems very striking.