What’s up? No posts for over a year. So maybe it’s finally time to post the top-secret review I wrote of my own second poetry book “Rhymes for all times” immediately prior to its publication in Winter, 2015. Without further ado, here it is:
by Alexander Velky
For a kick-off, let’s slay the mammoth in the antechamber: yes, I am reviewing my own poetry book here. It’s important that we get that clear from the start.
You’re encouraged to do this sort of thing on creative writing modules of English degrees, but less so when you’re out here manufacturing and distributing art in the real world. Not sure why. Out here you’re supposed to persuade a couple of other people (usually poets, ideally marginally better-known than you are) to say a paragraph’s worth of nice things about you or your collection so your publisher can have that printed on the back of your book. As both a poet and a publisher I have no interest in doing this, for three reasons:
1) It looks shit. As a reader I don’t appreciate seeing it on other people’s books – either on a critical or an aesthetic level. I’ll put fluff quotes in the adverts, not on my product.
2) I don’t think anybody is either willing to provide, or capable of providing, any such service for me.
3) Nobody is better placed to say anything about my work than I am.
I will be referring to myself mostly in the third person for the purposes of the review. This isn’t just because I’m a twat; it’s also so the tone more closely matches that of a review than a press release. I will also be writing the review before I write the press release, because I don’t want to fall into the same trap as those who have previously reviewed my work and rely almost entirely on it for the purposes of the critique.
That’s the disclaimer. Now for the review.
“Rhymes for all times” is Velky’s second collection, and the second in the “Has Doubts” series, which is loosely themed around the notion that the poet uses his poems to articulate “doubts” or questions on a particular subject. The claim that all these poems exist in a carefully focused artistic field seems dubious. While “Where is the heart of Europe?” for example takes this brief very literally, being composed almost entirely of (presumably rhetorical) questions, many of the other poems are regular (even recognizably structured and themed) poems that could theoretically appear in any given poetry book – if (and it’s a big if) they were thought worthy of publication by anybody other than the poet himself.
Velky’s first volume (whose theme was art) barely made a ripple, but the consensus in the couple of reviews that surfaced was that it did not live up to its own opinion of itself. “Rhymes…” is no less grand in its scope; the two introductory quotes come courtesy of a Canadian political punk band and a renowned European historian, setting the focus this time on history. So what does Velky doubt about history? The first three poems hint at various subjects, but remain dense, obtuse and curiously self-satisfied in their obtuseness. The first poem to articulate the history theme clearly is “What really happened”, concluding its ambling pontifications about dinosaurs, religion and Richard III with the truism that “…it’s impossible to say / What really happened.” If this poem can be considered a question, then the question (the mark of which is notably absent from the title) must be something closer to “How can we trust history?” And this is probably a good guiding theme for use in considering the other poems in the collection.
We are subsequently asked to apply the question to numerous historical events – some specific, some less so; some explicit, and some less so. “John Simpson’s burka” for example uses the BBC war correspondent’s infiltration of Afghanistan as the basis for a sort of agnostic hymn for the post-9/11 era. Though repetitive and unlikely to warrant rereading, it’s one of the rare instances in which Velky’s poetry seems to at least be doing what he intends it to. “Kuzka’s mother” treats the detonation of a nuclear bomb in Siberia similarly, although taking some liberties by assuming the perspective of a (presumably) imagined Russian soldier for the narrative. These poems work because of the details: “the haboob-thick fog of war” and “a mushroom the size of a concept” are both evocative images of conflict that inform our TV news–heavy notions of recent historical events: grand, sweeping, apocalyptic. It’s a shame then that the majority of the poems zoom out from the details in favour of broad historical narratives on subjects as blunt and well-chiselled as war, tribalism, nationalism, migration and (oddly, and in punishing depth) Father Christmas. Uninspiring titles like “Cities”, “Roads”, “Borders” and “Ages” aim for profundity in their scope, but the execution often smacks more of aiming too high and missing by a mile. We as readers then, in the line of “friendly fire”, are the “collateral damage”.
There are too many personal poems. More, surely, than the professed theme of the collection requires or justifies. The relatively free verse of “In the Fabergé museum…” provides some half-way respite from the militaristic trudge through roughly iambic rhyming stanzas that makes up the majority of the book, but its shrug-worthy conclusion only really leaves one wondering what it really wants to ask us about history at all. As an anecdote, it’s too boring to have been made up – because nothing really happens; but the end result seems to amount to little more than a meditation on how expensive Fabergé eggs must have been to produce. Elsewhere, on “Painted horses” and “The old house”, Velky revisits the familiar poetic territory of dead relatives and, you guessed it, old houses. Both tend to carve out their messages a bit too bluntly to justify their double-page length, and it seems the poet is doing a lot more telling than either showing or asking in poems like these. “Legacy” might make a better (at least a more poetic) case for itself in exploring what we take from one generation and hand on to the next, except that, again, this ground is simply too well-trod – and by many much-better poets than Velky.
It’s hard to know where to go from there then. Outside the “rhymes” alluded to by the title, “Tragedy branding” is a plainly written memoir of a “between” time in the poet’s life where nothing seems to be happening, juxtaposed with supposedly seismic world events like 9/11 and the War on Terror. But the frame for the story in introducing the unnamed (former?) heroin-addict promises more than it delivers; and in spite of a much freer stylistic rein than Velky usually allows, the poem never really lives up to any of the numerous possible meanings suggested by its intriguing title. Poems like “Sonnets from the corners of the map” and “Advertising space” make partially successful attempts to tackle grand themes – respectively, the cultural composition of an arbitrarily politicized landmass, and the editorialization of history for political and commercial gain. But for every one of these there is a weak, amateurish or gimmicky poem (respectively, “Proof”, “Failed states”, “The Antenationale”) that nevertheless seems to show where the author’s voice is at its most comfortable. “New Roman times” is essentially a list poem with no theme; it doesn’t even try to hide its historo-pop-cultural lowbrow-ness, lifting the line “We didn’t start the fire” directly from Billy Joel. When considering Velky’s artistic reaction to the changing world around him one doesn’t have to go far to find a poet who’ll put it more… well, poetically. While his experiments with classical forms like sonnets (in “Landskeria”, “… for Rockall”, “… from the corners of the map”, and the title poem) and villanelles (“Escape to the country”) are competent, none of them could be said to either fully sympathetically play to the strengths of the medium, or to update it for the 21st century. Meanwhile, his free verse poems are either interminable (“Begging letters”, “Cities”) or bland and unpoetic (“Balance”, “Tragedy branding”).
It would be tempting to characterize Velky as an ostrich, with his head in the sand of some imagined poetry past; but really it’s probably his scope and ambition that’s his downfall. The poems with the simplest concepts and executions are those that work best. Perhaps Velky puts it best himself at the end of “Voice from a bin”:
“I threw my voice once too far; / Now I speak from that bin.”
If Velky is to be commended at all for this publication, it must be in perseverance. Perseverance with an artistic package that has already been returned to sender following the tepid reception to “Mistaken for art or rubbish”. Perseverance with compiling unedited (or at least unprofessionally edited) volumes of unwanted poems and maintaining they have some kind of artistic merit in a tired marketplace crowded with as many producers as it has consumers. Perseverance with the self-diagnosed genre of “doubtist” poetry, which reads rather a lot like the sort of poetry most people either gave up writing, or progressed from, in their late teens.
But who knows? If he flogs this horse-corpse for long enough, maybe something of worth might be made from its bones.
Alexander Velky, 2015.
Alexander Velky is a poet and a reviewer of poetry – but only of his own poetry.
Alexander Velky’s “Rhymes for all times” is available to read and buy here.