Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Beir Bua Press: Lydia Unsworth, Vik Shirley, Tom Jenks + Anthony Etherin,

When Tipperary, Ireland publisher Beir Bua Press (2020-2023) announced, seemingly without prior warning, whether to the public or to their authors, that they were suspending publication and pulling books from availability back in June, I knew I had to get my hands on a few more titles before they disappeared completely. Thanks to individual authors, I’d managed to see two titles prior to this two-week warning: Texas-based Irish-Australian poet Nathanael O’Reilly’s pandemic-era BOULEVARD (2021) [see my review of such here] and Hamilton writer Gary Barwin and St. Catharine’s, Ontario writer Gregory Betts’ collaborative The Fabulous Op (2022) [see my review of such here]. Given how quickly the press vanished, it did cause a certain amount of chaos, especially from authors of relatively-recent titles, but more than a few have since been picked up for reissue by other presses: the Barwin/Betts collaboration and both Beir Bua O’Reilly titles were picked up by Australia’s Downingfield Press, for example, with other Beir Bua titles picked up by Salmon Poetry, kith books, Sunday Mornings at the River and IceFloe Press. The loss of the press is frustrating, but they accomplished an enormous amount across a relatively short period of time.

Run by Irish poet and editor Michelle Moloney King, Beir Bua Press seemingly appeared out of nowhere, quickly establishing itself as a press willing to take risks on experimental work across a wide spectrum of style and geography. King clearly has a fine editorial eye, and the print-on-demand Beir Bua poetry titles were well-designed, looked sharp and included some fantastic writing. To be clear: by shuttering the press so abruptly and allowing her authors no recourse (or prior warning), she did her authors an enormous disservice, and they deserved far better. Either way, given the press disappeared so suddenly, I wanted to at least acknowledge a couple of these titles I ordered back in June, prompted by that infamous “last call for orders.”

Lydia Unsworth, Some Murmur (2021): I’ve been an admirer of Unsworth’s work for a while (a third above/ground press chapbook is forthcoming next month, I’ll have you know), and this is a collection framed as one reacting to a sequence of changes in quick succession: moving to Amsterdam from England ten days before the Brexit referendum, and discovering that she was pregnant. As she writes in her prologue: “When I found out I was pregnant, not long after the Brexit referendum, it felt like a part of me had died and like a second part of me was steadily dying. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, because a lot of people feel a lot of things about procreation—about wanting babies, not wanting babies, really wanting babies, having babies, not having babies, really not having babies, how you should have babies, how you should not have babies—but the way I saw it, from that side of the expansion, was that some unknown and unknowable event was lurching towards me, and its manifestations were showing up all over my body; rising out, bearing down.” Unsworth appears to be a poet that engages with projects, whether book-length or chapbook-length, and this collection works to engage with this sequence of new, foreign spaces, reacting to the notion of permanence, and fluidity across what had previously been fixed. Have you read her take on the prose poem, over at periodicities? She writes of escape, changing forms and sustainability, offering a prose lyric that manages to articulate these shifting sands even as they move. “Thought it was wise to stand before the mirror crack,” she writes, as part of the poem “Attempts to Recover My Previous Form,” “wide like bags of old receipts in supermarket bins. I didn’t compare myself to anyone but how can you not look at all those upended trunks trying to hold their bad weather in?”


The body bends towards you like a plant. You are
my sunshine, my ray of sunshine. What do you call
a plant warped by circumstance? I hold you up to the
light. Ten lifts then ten to the side. Environmental
stress weakens the plant. You are heavy fruit. My
stem turns to you, hulking sunflower head bows
down, seeds fall from my eyes. Wind-blown tree –
frozen in flight. Umbrella inside-out, novelty tie
coat-hangered into a U-turn, leg kicked out high.
Flamboyant ice. Waiting for a coin in a hat to say
it’s time.

Vik Shirley, Grotesquerie for the Apocalypse (2021): As Shirley writes in her introduction, the origins of this short collection emerged “out of an intensely creative period in the first year of my PhD, which explores Dark Humour and the Surreal in Poetry. Focussing on the grotesque, I was immersed in, and obsessed with, the work of the Russian-Absurdist, Daniil Kharms, and the strange and surreal fable-like poems of Russell Edson.” This is a relatively short collection (why are these books unpaginated?) very much shaped through the prose poem and prose sentence, and one can see echoes of Edson’s work throughout, with similar echoes that emerge through Chicago poet Benjamin Niespodziany. As the poem “Husband Ghost” opens: “A hospital rang to tell a woman that her husband was dead. // Not only was he dead, but his body had decomposed already and he / had progressed straight through to the ‘ghost phase,’ they said. // They told her she should come and collect him.” There are some interesting echoes, as well, that connect certain of these poems, whether the cluster of “Hello Kitty” poems, or poems that open with a similar descriptive structure. I would very much like to see further pieces by Vik Shirley, and her statement on the prose poem over at periodicities is worth reading, in case you haven’t already seen (and she does mention that this collection will appear as part of a larger work to appear in 2025, which has yet to announce). In a certain way, Shirley appears to approach her lyric from the foundation of the sentence, opening the collection with poems that lean further into line breaks, but soon moving into poems built out of prose poem blocks, each of which offer short, sketched scenes that twist and turn and further twist. The poem “Devil Baby” is a striking example of such, and reads, in full:

A baby started speaking in tongues.

“We don’t want a devil baby,” its parents said.

So they put it in a dinghy, covered it with foil and set it sail down the Nile.

They were on holiday in Egypt, you see.

It was the worst holiday they’d ever had.

Tom Jenks, rhubarb (2021): Providing echoes of the work of Vik Shirley, Tom Jenks’ rhubarb also seems a collection of poems that focus on the sentence, some of which offer line breaks, with others set in a more prose poem structure. One might say that his poems offer first person narratives that seek out their structures. “The horse was revealed to be entirely two-dimensional.” the two-sentence poem “opportunities” begins. “This presented challenges, but also opportunities.” The prose sentences of Tom Jenks offer first person nararatives, moving back and forth from short, sketched bursts, expansive open form poems to clustered prose blocks. There’s such a wry delight in sound and syntax across these poems that are intriguing, and the collection exists as a kind of collage on form, moving from the expansive open lyric to densely-packed short burst. I’d only seen Jenks’ visual works prior to this, so am now quite fascinated by what he is exploring through his sentences: a kind of surreal swirling of narrative twists and turns, one that is open to the experiment-as-it-occurs. I am very interested in seeing where else his poems might find themselves.



Syrop on soya, the square holes in waffles,
cheesy dumplings, ancient grain rolls,
I don’t know what to make of any of it.
All the elements for a good life are in place,
yet a good life is not being lived.
We should rethink the solar system
or buy each other shoulder bags.
I saw a dog that was entirely see through.
I’ve got a ride on mower
but I still use scissors.

Anthony Etherin, Fabric (2022): Another author published previously through above/ground press, “experimental formalist poet” Anthony Etherin, a poet, editor and publisher who lives “on the border of England and Wales,” offers a cluster of poems in Fabric that continue his strict adherence to formal poetic structure, engaging with such as the acrostic, anagram, lipogram, palindrome, villanelle, sonnet and ambigrams, even to the point of brevity, as some were composed with the Twitter/X limit of 280 characters/140 characters in mind. “Fit one sent rule:,” the final couplet of “Sonnet Fuel” reads, “Tier sonnet fuel.” Part of what is always interesting in Etherin’s ongoing work is in seeing just how far it is possible for him to continue across such highly-specific formal paths, and the wonderful variations that emerge through his collections. The overt brevity is interesting as well, offering new layers to his ongoing structures. In his introduction, he offers that “The poems of Fabric [a book he posted online as a free pdf, by the way] are at ease with their poemhood. Some discuss poetry itself, while others are more introspective, eager to evaluate the principles and rules by which they were constructed.” They are at ease with their poemhood, highly aware of their structures, as the collision of sound and meaning provide the delight of what formal possibilities might bring.





The tautogram ties
terms to their typography –
tightening this text.

No comments: