Sunday, 3 April 2011

Life on the Edge: Edgelands, a Review

Holden Street, North Adams, Massachusetts,
July 13, 1973 by Stephen Shore, from
When I was given Edgelands, a new collaborative publication by the English poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, to review a couple of weeks ago, I received it's accompanying summation with not a little scepticism. I was assured by the guys at the Poetry Book Society however, that although it was basically a book essays about sewage works and scrapyards and trailer parks and all the places that are grim and degraded that we deliberately choose to avoid, it was actually very interesting and well written. And, as usual, they were right. And again, I was confounded and converted. I'm now giving up pessimism for Lent.

All I'll say right now is "read this book". If you don't have a copy, or can't afford one, you can come round and borrow mine. And if you're still not swayed, maybe the review below will tip you over the edge...

Edgelands is a collaborative work by the multi-faceted poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts. Although written with fine poetic flare, Edgelands is all prose. Comprised of 28 chapters, or essays, the book is a thorough and committed appraisal of the oddly liminal, constantly shifting twilight zones where the rural and urban landscapes bleed into one another.

At first glimpse, perhaps as a peripheral impression made upon the consciousness when travelling through by car, or train, or bus, these edgelands appear scattered and random, bleak, detrital and largely uninhabitable. Upon closer inspection, argue the authors, there is in fact a great deal going on here. Take, for instance, Cars, the first 'chapter' of the book. While venturing in, amongst and between showrooms and scrapyards, bland cul-de-sacs and deserted multi-storeys, we, or rather, Farley and Symmons Roberts come across a man standing by the side of his car.  He is peering up at the night sky through a pair of binoculars, waiting for the visible flare of the sun reflecting off the panels of an Iridium satellite.

"At first, there's a slow and langourous brightening, and we became aware we were tracking an object. Its magnitude intensifies, flashing suddenly into brilliance for a moment, before fading away."

Throughout Edgelands, Farley and Symmons Roberts hardly miss an opportunity to turn our expectations on their heads. They are like post-apocalytpic dowsers, treasure hunters or pan-handlers, sifting and searching the fall-out of our modern lives for the shimmer of something beautiful or extraordinary. And how they find it. There are "rainbow pools of drizzle and petrol", "Pre-Raphaelite" ponds on the outskirts of Peterborough and the "simple geometric playgrounds" of sewage farms.

Growing up on the outskirts of Liverpool and Manchester in the late 60's and early 70's, Farley and Symmons Roberts have both migrated away from the "junk space" of these so-called edgelands. The fact that in more way than one, they are returning 'home' in this book allows them the poetic elaboration and nostalgic idealism they seem incapable of staunching. It is also why this book is so deeply compelling. It is written with such genuine interest and creative insight that one cannot help but feel altered by the experience of reading it. It is truly an exceptional piece of work.

About the authors:

Paul Farley was born in Liverpool in 1965 and has since won several awards for his poetry. His first collection, The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You won a Forward Poetry Prize in 1998. He has also won the Whitbread Poetry Award for The Ice Age (2002), and been named as one of the Poetry Book Society's Next Generation poets (2004).

Michael Symmons Roberts was born in 1963 in Preston, Lancashire. He has also won the Whitbread Poetry Award, in 2004 for his book Corpus. He has also been shortlisted twice for the TS Eliot Prize, for which he also been a judge. 

1 comment:

  1. "I'm now giving up pessimism for Lent." Can I get a signed copy of this?