Review - "no fish (selected poems)" by Chris Hall

Steve Spence

"no fish (selected poems)” by chris hall, pub. The Collective.  £10.00   84 pages

I like the title of this collection by Chris Hall, yet another unfamiliar name to me, and I like the poems as well. There is a mix of ‘open-field’ with a more traditional layout and this is combined with an idiosyncratic phonetics which often inspires wordplay and an almost frenetic ongoing rush of language. I love the use of gill sans as the typeface too, much underrated in my view.

The opening poem ‘epigraf’ is a sort of manifesto but it’s one beset by interesting conflicts and contradictions:

        art is alkemi
        it is not          th taking v raw fenomina
        nd turning them into               earth

The use of ‘v’ to replace ‘of’ is a shorthand that takes a little getting used to but it works well both visually and as an aid to flow once you get going.

 In ‘five surrealist paintings’ we have the ‘play on fish’ suggested by the title:

        infant boy
        scampering towards
        sunriset the left
        sunset t th right
        crossingth canvas
        deep dark forest
        behindth forest           th deep dark forest
        eyeeye in the pyramid

        watching infant
        th grayling

        th cat
        th black cat
        staring from widowsill
        out t th courtyard
        nth empty phaeton
        th scarlet fountain
        th secret templ
        th distant garden
        th pathway t th pavilion
        th rose in th orangery
        purpl turtle
        th writing on th carapace
        th blood on th flagstone

        no fish

Each poem bar the last (immediately above) has the name of a fish in the last line e.g. ‘red mullet’; ‘early salmon’; ‘buttered turbot’ and ‘grayling’. It’s a piece which may have been generated by word association or free form writing or including an element of ‘process’ but I enjoyed its playfulness and its ‘word balance’ and these are aspects which cumulate throughout the collection whether the material is ‘serious’ or ‘throwaway’ or a combination of the two. There’s certainly also a ‘sound’ element to these pieces and it’s fun to imagine them being read aloud or even doing so yourself.

In ‘no ifs’ we have the wonderful opening lines:

        i am a man more
        sinning than cinder genst
        out of v th great no where

There’s a real feeling of ‘the sculptural’ in these poems, where the materiality of the unusual spelling works with the wordplay and suggests a tension between the sound and the meaning. The subject matter ranges from the historical (‘fenician’ – Phoenician, I imagine) to the mythological/ folklore, ‘a saga’ for example’ and you often get the feeling that the title engenders the writing in an almost random manner which often associates and rambles around a variety of subjects on its way to a ‘conclusion’.

In ‘doggonskitsee’ we have a scrambled text which hides its meanings within a mix of shorthand and slightly offset syntax but it’s pleasurable stuff to read and calls to mind of mix of classic surrealism with Edward Lear:

        little bitter sparkl: Twinklin-I!
        little sharp spectacuLAH: Sir Prize!
        hergest harden howlinHoundy Hell!
        a-whalenatmeFragmenten Disguise:

The following five stanzas are more of the same, mixing alliteration with a mix of vocabularies – suggesting ritual and an almost mediaeval aesthetic – with the odd twentieth century hint at popular culture (Three Degrees?) thrown into the mix. It’s glorious stuff, even if I’m getting it wrong! It’s the sort of poetry that I think Tim Allen would appreciate though I think he’d take this method to anevengreater obsessive excess. Barry MacSweeney also comes to mind though his material was largely darker in mood. That said there’s plenty of contrast between ‘dark and light’, in these poems, which discourse on music of various kinds (from classical to jazz) and include something of the epic –‘aerthsong’, for example – which fuses mythology with politics with an, at times, strongly lyrical voice which resonates in affirmation amidst the wordplay and ‘undermining colloquialisms’. I love the way Hall’s language shifts and the different registers brush up against each other.

     In ‘jonni-b’ I think we have a hint towards Chuck Berry but it’s a reference which shifts to John Barleycorn and includes some wonderful runs of language which seem, at least in part, to be generated by word association, skewed etymology and a sense of ‘the immediate’:

                       OH! Oh thfirmament !
                      (that’s what th Ferment meant)
        yeast: east: the torment ceasd
        pourd in thPewterjug
        Lovli in Lushousness:
                       Thisbe th Pentecost
                       Praise be t jonni B!
                       Here’s to y, Good John B,
                       Issue v Barley corn!
        Plenishth Glass!

Chris Hall’s poems feel singular though obviously influenced by both traditional and modernist techniques, as I’ve already suggested. I very much enjoyed reading them and hope you will too.

copyright © Steve Spence,2020