Tim Murphy reviews To An Occupier Burning Holes by Ken Evans (Salt, 2022)
In a time when seemingly more and more poetry collections are tightly focused on singular themes, the range of subject-matter in Ken Evans’s second collection, To An Occupier Burning Holes, is noticeably broad and diverse – indeed, to say the poems tackle a very broad range of subjects, as the book’s publicity says, is to understate the case. Such is not obvious from the outset, however, because a kind of militaristic or authoritarian magic realism seems to be emerging early on, with references to “orders”, “defenders”, “invasion”, “war poet”, and “Mr. President”. The opening poem is the titular ‘To an Occupier Burning Holes’, which begins,
Orders to bring our middle names to the Square
on a scrap of paper and throw them on a bonfire:
a ritual purge, our lives crumpled and shorn
in a black smoke of scribble.
The poem focuses on middle names, but these orders are said to come from “the regime”, and something of the same tone is struck in another early poem, ‘Bacchanal’,
Our defenders offer to match an invaders’
rounds, but they refuse, ‘No, this is on us,
drink up. You’re welcome.’ In hospital,
drunk songs yell from booze-sodden beds.
In the following poem, ‘Appeal’, the narrator “[offers] … Mr President the fraught service / of a war poet”; no answer is received because the authority figure is “busy on his invasion to-do list”.
But this thematic thread is short-lived, and while one more does emerge – there are some poems about the poet’s family – the overriding sense is that each poem seems to further underline the book’s eclecticism. There are nearly sixty poems in all, and the majority deal with quite specific, disparate topics – ‘Flowers in the Rain’, for example, concerns the siren testing at Broadmoor that continues, according to the poem’s note, for seventy years “after an inmate escapes and murders a child in 1952”; ‘The Unmet Needs’ is about the poet, Ko Un, who survived the Korean War working in a graveyard; and ‘Mysteries’ is based on a story in Mary Roach’s 2011 book, Animal Vegetable Criminal.
Each poem seems to further underline the book’s eclecticism
Many poems are personal and local – ‘All My Addresses I’ve Never Lived’ is a found poem from addresses that have “Brookvale” in the first line, like the poet’s; and ‘Alert on the Local Network’ comprises real or fictional text messages regarding a van that is blocking a footpath – while others, while retaining specificity, have a more universal feel. ‘Learning to Fear Properly’, for example, riffs sceptically on a Fukushima reactor official’s comment about the “proper” level of fear:
Aftershock. Snowfall mixes with burning ash,
no time to flee or run for a car. The flakes cry
into the flames that light our ghosts ashore.
We learn to fear properly, but not too much.
‘Raspberries’ is a masterpiece of poetic observation, beginning with this perfectly pitched stanza break:
Little red boxing gloves,
of late October.
Sliced in half,
where the berry
plugs into the branch:
a light fitting.
Other poems that include a kind of microscopic analysis of the everyday are ‘The Biro, in its Legions’ (‘a torturer’s tool to gouge out the eyes’ for example, as well as ‘a blowpipe for words’); and ‘Clearance’ includes this evocative description of an old lawnmower:
of sharpened blades
and gloves, the empty fingers
curled around the handle
by the once constant grip
relaxed now, and black with juice
from long summer cuttings,
slow baked with a catch-your-breath
smell in the nostrils
of caramelized milk and butter
‘Eclogue with Dad over Bradnor Hill’ is a pastoral poem in which the conversing shepherds are the poet and, imagined alive again, his father, the latter recounting details of his courtship with, and marriage to, the poet’s mother. In ‘Haibun for a Son, Cooking’, the poet sees “how love shines in [his son] from the still centre”, but Evans’s relationship with his mother is not portrayed so positively. In ‘Mother, You Make Therapy a Brick Wall at Times’, she resists her “grandkids’ love” and ignores the gift of “a white tea towel they make in school”; and in ‘A Yellow Finger’ Evans visualizes his dead mother as still present in his life,
No one wants to credit their own mother
as a Nemesis, a reminder the dead goad us,
finger-wagging from the heat of the pyre.
‘A Final Invoice from the Co-op’ is introduced as a “part-found poem”. It includes a funeral invoice that is presented along with his mother’s approach to spending: “She would dance on her stick to hear such a deal — look! / no VAT on my death, a saving to you of 20%!”
An individual and distinctive collection
Many other poems also have a humorous element. In ‘Saving Blushes’ the customer at an “Adult Toy Shop” is assured her purchase will show on her statement as “Health Care Aid” rather than “Inner Goddess G-Spot Shaker”. ‘A Glitch in the Admin’ relates the story of a man attending Memorial Day commemorations and joking about the fact that he is listed as “Missing, Presumed Dead” on the town memorial. Another funny poem, concerning CAPTCHAs and therefore likely to resonate with most if not all readers, is ‘How many traffic lights are there in the picture?’:
Not to yield to my fixed tendencies
but please, define first,
‘a traffic light’? Is it
a gantry on an interstate
in the Midwest?
This is Evans’s second collection, after True Forensics (Eyewear, 2018), and an insight into his current poetic philosophy may perhaps be found in ‘Appeal’:
I know what it is to be seen through
a net of khaki words, the camouflage
of language, destroying in my sights
what I never really see.
To An Occupier Burning Holes is above all a well-observed collection, in which Evans seems to “really see” what he writes about, yet here he acknowledges the limits of language and poetry. Within these confines, though, this is a poet who uses his considerable craft to treat of themes and issues in a carefully personal way. Overall, an individual and distinctive collection.
Tim Murphy lives in Madrid. He is the author of four pamphlets, Art Is the Answer (Yavanika Press, 2019), The Cacti Do Not Move (SurVision Books, 2019), There Are Twelve Sides to Every Circle (If a Leaf Falls Press, 2021), and Young in the Night Grass (Beir Bua Press, 2022). His first full-length collection is Mouth of Shadows (SurVision Books, 2022), reviewed by Richie McCaffery here.