Imagination Feels Like Poison

(book reviewed by KV Bailey)

I am in this issue reviewing only three collections, all from Stride Publications, all beautifully printed and presented, each with a strikingly distinctive cover, and one of them containing photographic studies which complement certain of the poems.

Imagination Feels Like Poison by Martyn Bates. This is the one of which I’ve said its photographic studies complement (rather than illustrate) the poems. They transpose theme and mood into the visual, never trespassing on or duplicating the poet’s specific imagery. Most are the work of Elizabeth S. The seventy or so poems are lyrics selected from albums representing performances of the period 1982-1995. (A full discography is included.) Now, divorced from voice, melody and instrument, the lyrics are here to be judged and enjoyed as they stand on the printed page. The rhythmic impetus and imagistic succession often come through okay, as in the opening of ‘Shorepoem’: “come alone come alone/ to run all these sands that you know/ come alone run alone/ by the watery flow”. But the lyric continues: “I love to see you/ whatever you do/ I love to see you/ and all you live thru”. That may get by as modulated by voice and guitar; otherwise, one has to say, it’s doggerel. And, where so many poems are centred on the emotions of love, longing and loneliness, banalities and clichés, given the chance, are all too ready to creep in. Such occasions, however, are countered by the frequent freshness of key images and metaphors: “chains of saddening weight”; “tall halycon days”; “where night is artic white” (that last from a successful and moving poem, ‘Letter to a Scattered Family’). In a back cover appreciation, Daniel Crokaert (the artist of a wonderfully “atmospheric” photograph) writes: “These works are definitely not just lyrics, but transcended prose in touch with some global un/consciousness capable of stirring you to interaction.” A high-flown accolade, but I know what he means. There is a kind of alchemy in many of these lyrics, a fusing of elements and substances with subjective traumas and joys. When this occurs the poetry moves up a notch, as for example in ‘Midday Coming Misty’: “clasped hands/ to the hiss of the hail/ cracking at you/ singing as it pours”. Such experiential moments emerge from the verse as though lit by lightning flash.