In two previous collections, The Edge Of The Screen and Trouble In The Heartland, Joel Lane has quietly established a reputation as an unflinching observer of the overlooked corners of post-industrial Britain (and especially Birmingham).
He's one of those poets who, you quickly find yourself thinking, ought to be better known. Perhaps, with mainstream British poetry showing signs of a renewed engagement with political reality, his moment is at hand. The Refugee and Suitable For Viewing quickly set the tone here. Regular stanzas of pared-down, often plain language, which never even approaches the sentimental, but always steers clear of sounding uninvolved. It works well, but he really takes flight on something like Red Bastards, which starts as straightforward reportage of political activism, and ends with a startlingly precise image:
The glob of spit on the car window
still gleaming as we left the district,
our voices rising above the situation
while the fear waited down below
to unfold its many legs and crawl
up into my chest, an insect larva
already at the awkward age,
impossible to evict or live with.
That very personal taste of fear that he gives you drives home the reality of the situation described earlier. One of Lane's main themes throughout is the doublespeak and downright lies the general public are fed on a daily basis - little details like the one above go a long way towards establishing his credibility? as a witness.
Similarly, poems like The Mandate and Internal Security work well as neat political allegories, with Lane moving between deadpan telling of a slightly off-kilter tale and a sarcasm that leaves you in no doubt where the poet's sympathies lie. The latter, for example, has the zoo warden narrator concluding his explanation of his job with:
Our safety guaranteed, I go back to writing
my book on the leopard's genetic defects:
how it's not equipped by nature to run,
how its claws are merely vestigial.
Even the title poem, which starts off lamenting that:
There never was an October / like Van Gogh's avenue of fire, / a slow and ecstatic decay... takes a political turn:
as Parliament fails to blow up,
and on every bare-knuckled street
fireworks slam again and again
like the doors of some vast institution.
Elsewhere, Urban Postcards treads ground previously covered by the likes of Roy Fisher, but Lane has, dare I say it, a journalist's eye for detail, so there's much to savour.
In the book's second section, Lane introduces a musical theme, and while it's still the rain's rhythm that's the backbeat to much of what follows, this new turn lifts the momentum just when the collection needs it. Lane still maintains a scrupulous control over his language, but there are small flourishes and subtle splashes of colour, and he sometimes opens out to a much more cinematic perspective than previously.
Edge Of Town, for example, starts with an observation on a typical Springsteen track, and ends up with the moon shining
its accidental light / on the bare road, the abandoned house. In moments like this one, Lane allows glimpses of a wider world, even if he characteristically brings any romantic dreams down to earth by following up with a poem, Last Train, that feels quintessentially English.
If all this sounds like Lane doesn't do the personal quite as well as the political, you'd be wrong. Nightfall movingly tries to come to terms with loss, while Pluto is a terrific unrhymed sonnet dealing with loss of sight through an unexpected but satisfyingly precise metaphor.
If Lane sounds like a veteran campaigner who simply refuses to lie down, he's well aware of the potential for failure for any radical. Rebels' Rest, for example, deals with those who
never quit the barricades, who are:
Tasting the slow diabetes of failure
in how much of a threat they weren't
to a world where the word 'new'
was in every mouth, like Prozac.
A page or two later, Presumed Dead deflates any romantic notions the reader might have about disappearing acts who return
clutching an unpublished book, a personal / organiser, or (God help us all) a new faith. In no time at all, they're losing the same battles, while failure
clings to them like gelatine / on the cheapest tinned meat.
It's this willingness to speak absolutely plainly that marks Lane out - he never tries to ingratiate himself with the reader, trusting you to go along with him on the accuracy of his reporting. For the most part, I did. It's not an easy read, but it's a rewarding and often energising one.