Granta 2012 Poet and visual artist Sean Borodale’s debut collection, Bee Journal rightly earned him an Eliot prize shortlisting and a Guardian Book of the Year accolade. What he terms “poem work” involves making verse in situ – smoked at the opened hive, or note-sticky at the honeyed centrifuge. If most poems may be considered incomplete until they leave the page to be read aloud, then arguably in this subject-immediacy his writing has a performance element prior to its affirmation in print.
Borodale revisits this method in Human Work – writing amid apple peelings and bubbling jelly pans. Although the poems are not dated in the manner of Bee Journal, the collection follows the year’s arc, from an orchard-rich autumn, through strongly felt colder months, to finish exactly a year on. However, does the quirky technique which nourished his last collection still taste good when his new jars are opened?
Human Work may, or may not, be a strong bargaining title. Women making poems in the kitchen is old news. Undoubtedly, on many levels, food’s preparation and preservation is indeed a fundamental task, but do we scent the suggestion that there is something more challenging and laudable about a man holding the wooden spoon? In the second decade of the twenty-first century? If we need visceral, seasonal domesticity we already have Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his ilk – but of course, they don’t make poems. So, beyond the male in the kitchen, and the feel-good factor of the cook-provider, does this collection gel?
Borodale codes his poems to have the appearance of annotated recipes – upper case titles, square-bracketed interjections from the methodology followed in a notional cookbook or even a passing thought cutting into the process. Round brackets surround imagined interruptions. Throughout, the ingredients – flesh or fruit – are likened to a body: cut, impaled and laid out.
It tasted old as the origin of apples.
“STEWED APPLE 1” opens the collection strongly, and Eden is indeed here; but, in addition to the fruit, the studied bubble, and the Biblical, there is classical imagery, visual art is referenced, the building in the poem becomes a battleground and there is a smidgeon of the smiddy. Already, in one short poem, there seem to be a surfeit of diverse ingredients. By page 6 of the book we have the seriously scientific tossed in with a whiff of alchemy, and by the time we finish “RUSSIAN KALE” alone, we have swallowed a totem, and then “I got / a guard with rubber boots/ marching across the tongue”, and it is hard not to sense a wild-eyed Jilly Goolden swilling a particularly pungent vintage.
However, that is harsh. There is not a single poem here, read aloud which did not delight with its love of image and sound – every one had at least one vivid line I noted to savour again – consider “the phonetics of frying”, and – of a kipper – “the harp of her bones”. Curiously, some of the strongest poems –“TALLOW” and the decanting and incantations of “TESTING & BOTTLING” and “WASHING UP” happen when the poet looks beyond the stove, linking into a life nearer than Hades, shadowed by homely figures who are not Diana or Hestia. There seems to be a desperation – “a vomit of meanings” – Camelot, Tiresias and the Balkan question boiling over a too-small pot. Why?
Borodale’s method of making verse is well-told, but what really shows us? Do these poems need the stained papers or the almost installation-like aspect of their making to be comfortably whole? Arguably the poet has so much to say that the conventional book is not the right medium. Bee Journal entranced, and I hotly anticipated the subject-matter of Human Work, but I could not love it as I had hoped to do. Borodale produces extraordinary poetry – but the entirety of his “poem-work” may be better served in a more challenging format.
* Ed – Human Work is published on 5 February.