Guest Review: Chingonyi On Chivers

How To Build A City
[editor's note: this is a Salt collection - buy it and help Salt out of its summer financial crisis]

As you might expect from a volume entitled How to Build a City, the metropolis is a prominent motif in this Crashaw Prize winning debut collection from Tom Chivers. Throughout the book there are references to city workers, business deals and mass transit. This is not to say that Chivers is a poet whose only concern is the urban sphere. Indeed, as the collection progresses, Chivers shows himself to be a poet of genuine range. The reader is never allowed to rest too easily on the overarching thread of the book but rather is challenged with poems covering themes as disparate as honour killings, the nature of photography and the poet’s relationship to his or her influences.
On this last, the reader is treated to ‘On Kinder Scout’, a poem which pays fitting tribute to the late Barry MacSweeney with its blunt lyricism:

                        Bold wiry sheep sneak between boulders
                        where the wind is like a papercut or a slap in the face.

This is an apt entry point to the collection since the best poems in this book are characterised by the linguistic precision illustrated above. In the poems ‘This is Yogic’ and ‘Hasty Excise’ incidents of violence—which might, in the hands of another poet, seem to have been employed only as shock tactics—are described in oddly beautiful terms. Rather than saying there has been bloodshed, for example, Chivers opts for ‘paving the colour of wet tongue’ (‘This is Yogic’) and ‘dark poppies’ blooming on the ‘white shirts’ of ‘[y]oung men in off-the-rack suits’ (‘Hasty Excise’). Not only is this kind of descriptive skill compelling, the reader is also forced to question their own reaction to these depictions. In the setting of these poems in different eras, and the ambivalence of their respective speakers, lies another important question about the way violent crime is understood to be a part of city life. The collection brims with such moments where the reader is made to engage.

Of the books many successes ‘Rush Hour’ has to be among the foremost. As with any artistic response to an event as devastating as the bombing of London tube trains on July 7th 2005, the weight of expectation is high. This poem finds its strength in being both about the event and rendering the event vivid to the reader. This is achieved, in part, by the shape of the poem and the weight certain words and phrases are accorded depending on line length:

                        the first bomb went off
                        and the lights went out
                        and the square marked
                        area in the centre as if
                        the wiring was burning

                        I knew                         we were told
                        as I walked                  because I
                        could not bear             two views
                                                            of a short moment
                        Don’t trip Larraine,
                        whatever you do don’t trip

This poem announces a formal awareness which is at work throughout the book and which makes, as good poetry should, for a sonically as well as semantically engaging reading experience.

Returning to the assertion that Chivers is a poet of range, the second of the collection’s two parts traverses historical and personal terrain with poems exploring the poet’s interest in history alongside others reflecting on the loss of the poet’s mother, to whom the book is dedicated. On this latter point, rather than writing a conventional elegy, Chivers gives us the moving ‘Thom C and I’, a series of diary entries written by the poet’s mother and reworked by the poet. This is evocative of the bereaved attempting to hold on to something of the deceased, a part of grief that any reader can easily relate to. This idea recurs in another of the poems in this section entitled ‘Photographs’, by which the reader cannot help but be moved:

                        And so instead there are photographs,
                        poems from photographs, choices to be made:
                        what to cut, what to leave intact.

That phrase ‘choices to be made’ is redolent of surrender to the offices of grief as well as the ways of organising memory and is illustrative of the virtues of Chivers’s sense of the world as layered.

When asked in a recent interview about whether he was trying to uncover the ‘true face’ of the city in his writing, Chivers said that he doesn’t ‘really believe in truth’ so much as ‘perceptions’. This resistance to the definitive is further reflected in a line from the title poem which extends the thought to: ‘I do not/believe in irony, just multiple levels of recognition’ this follows an earlier exhortation by the poem’s speaker where they ask to be given ‘layers, strata, a geology of sound-sense’. The title poem in particular, taking the form of a set of instructions for recreating the area in and around Liverpool Street Station, speaks to the book’s timeliness in an age where multiple frames of reference jostle at high speed creating a fragmented sense of identity and, by extension, place. This notion is explored to great effect in poems that deal with the ubiquity of digital technologies as well as in the inclusion of poems set in by-gone times, some translated from Anglo Saxon, others hinting at a London not quite wiped out by the palimpsest of modernity.  

Though the shortcomings of this collection are few, the poems which miss their marks do so because their attempts to capture the zeitgeist seem too striven-for. The poems ‘Iconic’ and ‘Your Name Has Been Randomly Selected’ fall down because, when compared to the other poems in the collection, they seem less original. ‘Iconic’—a Google poem, if I’m not mistaken—raised a smile but felt a little too much like light relief. Humour is a welcome thing in poetry but the problem here, for this reader, arises from the fact that the joke isn’t developed enough as the poem progresses. Though the ensuing list that stems from the spur word is varied enough to keep the reader’s interest, at the end of the poem not much has been added to the reader’s understanding. Similarly ‘Your Name Has Been Randomly Selected’ cannot, ultimately, escape the novelty of the spam names which inspired it.

Typically, however, the poems in How to Build a City serve to redress the balance of emphasis placed on the work of Tom Chivers as a publisher, editor and live literature producer by showing him to be firmly at home among the many talented writers that make Salt Publishing’s poetry list one of the best in British Poetry. This collection is characterised by linguistic inventiveness, the exploration of a wide range of subject matter and an authoritative approach.

Kayo Chingonyi reviews for Eyewear.  He appears on the 2009 Asking A Shadow To Dance Oxfam DVD.  He is a poet and performer.