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November 10, 2010

The Wonderfurled World of John Stammers

Freshwater Stone People by David MorleyJohn John Stammers Interior Night is various and startling. The pose of the speakers in these poems can be grim and urban (‘The House Sale’, ‘Mr Punch in Soho’, ‘Dead Alsatian in a Vegetable Crate’) but, across the body of this evocative collection, there’s a childlike candour to his perception and poetic language that has much in common with Romantic poetry. You might say that the poet loads every vein with ore but knows the human cost of each gram. Stammers is attracted by hope, even at its most hopeless (‘A Dramatic Monologue’). His floridity of diction can be beautifully exact and natural (‘O’). He hears more than he wants to understand (‘in words culled of sense as if mastered by the wind’ – ‘Sands’). Possibly the best poem here ‘The Shrine of Proteus’ has the speaker and his friends create ‘a possible light diversion / for the boys and me during the summer holidays’:

Around the altarpiece we placed found items from the shore

and discarded or lost objects drained of their original affect

by casual disposal or the caustic action of the seawaters:

whin-feathered dune flowers, hardy but etiolated by the undercut

of salt breeze and the bitter, constant scratch of blown sand grains;

and two branches that the profound twist and torque of wave motion

had probably transformed into twin horses of the deep.

The poem invokes an encounter with a version of the Ancient Mariner as environmental catastrophist (‘some kind of sea-god of antic myth’) that leads to disillusion and remembrance of things past. This is a poetry of growing up and unlearning harsh wishes:

I was compelled to punish them that night for going too far

in their silliness. And I would have beaten the old sea dog

who had set their minds into such a ferment, had I been able.

There are boundaries I will not have violated.

Stammers’ mythic form of address and longer line are unerringly right for these slightly weird materials: affected as they are with literariness without being fake. Some of these poems unfold a fictional continuum in which plausibility and possibility are bent and reconstructed to make a strong and inevitable narrative - the kind of thing fiction writers like China Miéville prefer to call ‘weird fiction’ – enacting the kind of parallel universe which Simon Armitage’s collection also explores. In ‘The Encounter of M’ Stammers describes and re-describes a brief meeting between lovers that is transfigured by recollection, retelling and switches in time until ‘The sun was low and we cast no shadows / across the plush white lawn’. There is a weird music to the diction of Interior Night that charms and chills.

Interior Night, John Stammers, Picador Poetry, pb., 64 pp., £8.99, ISBN 978-0-330-51338-8

Many thanks to Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, where this piece first appeared.

David Morley’s new collection from Carcanet is Enchantment. He is editing The Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing. His website is right here

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