Letters from the Underworld – Alan Baker, The Red Ceilings Press

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In Ian Seed’s back-cover blurb to this wonderful Red Ceilings chapbook, he states rightly of how the poems ‘do not shrink from expressing despair’ but also how they ‘reach out to us through their beauty’, and this duality is the lyricism of a ‘crazy scene’ [words from the final poem] which defines Baker’s achievement in keeping us hopeful in the pain of what we read in this collection.

This mix of despair and beauty is, for example, encapsulated in two sets of italicised lines – as speech – in the book’s third prose poem, the second line of which is

“There are no rough sleepers, and no-one is lying awake figuring out how to pay their medical bills. The world turns; there is song, a set of scales and keys; words, a vibration in the mouth and ear; blood, a sense that it no longer rules.”

We immediately recognise this modern world – quite unacceptably our own [framed as not existing] – and the lyricism soothes the thought to ironic sharpness.

A line in the fourth poem subverts further through this mixing, I think, by claiming ‘Tonight I’m feeling lyrical:’ and what follows as a quote is actually quite formal and seemingly dated as an expression, and what continues beyond is a portrait of dislocation and yearning as a synthesis of diminished acceptances, for example ‘hoping for Limbo, if not the Elysian Fields’ and where ‘those of limited curiosity are happy’.

At another location in the next poem there is the sweet line ‘that’s where the aspens shed their silver, and birds sing with the voices of children’ but its face is shoved up against another reality, masked in wit, of ‘Don’t come here, where negative interest rates threaten stability, and the Foreign Minister attends meetings in a clown’s outfit’ so the fragmentation in the feel of moving between various expressions reflects our kaleidoscopic world and lives: we see one momentary and welcoming pattern, but on arrival, the view and experience have been altered a fraction yet to something entirely different.

There are many other more painfully bifurcated hopes and actual experience, as in the sixth poem, but to quote here would be to ruin the involvement of reading in its narrative those shifts, though what has preceded [and I think hits hard] is mirrored in the poem’s closing line of ‘there’s a sheen in the air, rain, or charged ions before rain, before a storm.’

Storms can be beautiful but of course they are also destructive. Therefore, in the ninth poem, a seemingly straight meteorological account of the weather is, we sense, brooding with dark clouds. In the tenth poem, a possible tour guide is full of invite as well as menace.

That these are letters from the underworld which do or do not get past the firewall of their creation attests to their ‘crazy scene’ by having emerged but containing paradox and confusion and lyricism. They are ghost writings in one sense, and like ghosts, bear witness through visitations across the world’s miseries other than death – especially current ones of conflict, precarious escape, desperate hope for sanctuary, and whatever elements of survival can be found: this latter sometimes, but not as often as it should be, through what is provided by the kindness of others who recognise a common need.

As we read through all the poems there does seem to be an increasing and collective conflict between the representation of hope and what is allowed [as I have already mentioned] and this is a ‘compelling whole’ as Seed, again rightly, concludes in his blurb. It is an entirety that has been made so by the recognisable if discomforting contexts/references in the prose poems, but most importantly also by Baker’s language mastery of the prose poems.

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