Eds. Martha Sprackland and Andrew McMillan
Cake 3: Key Lime
58 pp., £5.00
The third issue of Cake, 'Key Lime', is a take-no-prisoners affair. It comes in at fewer than sixty pages – but among the short poems packing out most of the issue, some punch above their weight, while the critical content at the end ranges from the thoughtful to the enjoyably catty (Wes Brown flattening The Slap: “Other paradoxes are not drawn with great nuance. Or any nuance”). Guest editor, Mandy Coe, and Martha Sprackland, the poetry editor, open the issue in a spirit of critical urgency, exploring the place of poetry – and by extension of the magazine – in austere times. Sprackland argues in her editorial that “The micropoem is a form of concision, of self-control, and yet of ambiguity”, and this is certainly true of poems like Abegail Morley's 'Too Warm', which converts the sheer strangeness in learning of a death into this elegant and half-surreal image:
It's not your words, not what your hands say,
but how you stare as if you see him ascending,
his arms upturned, surprise on his face.
Morley's lines give a concrete visual shape to the reconfiguration of the known world that death demands, and the poem in full feels 'bigger' than its twelve lines. Simon Barraclough's two contributions are also accomplished: 'Roman Heart' and 'Tapestry Heart' are both just a few lines long, and share a single page in the magazine, but Barraclough – whose first collection, like Morley's, got a nod from the Forward Prize – does well what a lot of people do badly. Both poems turn on wordplay and are rather more than the bagatelles they appear to be at first glance. 'Roman Heart' is wry, humorous and self-consuming:
Don't play with your words.
Don't speak with your heart full.
I found her weeping beneath tartarughe.
Her heart was artichoked.
She didn't know how to prepare,
so would pare and pare and pare
until the artichoke wasn't there.
To enjoy the complete scope of Barraclough's 'Roman' game, the poem needs to be read in full, and the same is true of 'Tapestry Heart', which in its floating, moth-eaten form mimics the tapestry in question to good effect.
Helen Ivory’s poems, accompanied by an authorial commentary, constitute the issue's central feature. Ivory's discussion of her work explores the influence of altered states, both natural and sought-out (such as dreaming or the use of Ouija board), on the poetic consciousness. A visual artist by training, she also considers the ways in which her two disciplines intertwine in practice, a reading which helps to bring out the visuality of the three poems included here. She cannot, she says, write from her own sculptures, though others can, “because it feels to me that I have already made the poem”. The object-focused poems showcased here in Cake ('Jumble Sale', 'What the Bed Said' and 'My Grandmother's Ghost') are eerie affairs animated by suppressed currents of feeling and violence. The end of 'My Grandmother's Ghost' offers an especially unsettling moment in its portrait of a half-freed, half-fractured ghost agoraphobic:
My grandmother's ghost
on an out of tune piano in the yard.
her hands are shelled crabs
scuttling up and then down the keys.
Some of the stronger poems in Cake come, unsurprisingly, from established voices, but the editors are committed to new writing, and the youngest contributors are at times very promising. Joe Dresner's 'God' ends in a tiny, wonderfully aural and rhythmic moment of threat against the snail which is the poem's subject:
It's the undeniable violence which
the chilling thresh
of the thrush's neck.
I'm in half a mind, snail. Half a mind.
Sarah Jayne Kipling's 'Growing Pains' funnels the inarticulate sorrows of growth into an exchange of too-small shoes for larger ones, concluding on an effective, faux-naïf note with this address to the outgrown: “I keep your laces in an angler's knot / Around my bedpost to catch the too-big dreams”. The piquant touch of those “too-big dreams” retrospectively glosses some of the poem's melancholy, hinting at ineluctable disappointments, but avoiding melodrama. The poem that follows, Jo Brandon's “It's like”, is an extravagant piece, with something of the image-driven energy found in Sylvia Plath's 'Cut', here played out in a more cheerful and contemporary tone: “blob of hair mousse / spilt milk on black tiles”.
One of the pleasures of this issue of Cake is the jostling together of very different poems like these. Andrew McMillan, the features editor, describes the magazine's contents “rub[bing] up against each other”, and this relaxed, curiosity-shop approach creates a reading experience that entails frequent readjustments of expectation. After Jo Brandon's effervescent poem are two slow-paced, lyrical contributions from Ron Scowcroft (the most beautiful lines coming in 'Dolphin Watch': “the curve and the curve and the curve / of dolphins hefting the arc of the bay”), while elsewhere in the issue, short reviews come in highly varied guises. McMillan's reflective reading of Orchids, by J. T. Walsh, certainly made me want to buy the pamphlet in question, and Joe Dresner is having unmistakable fun in his review of Muldoon's Maggot, a collection which, he suggests, makes something of a speciality of “drawing out the rot in erotic”. This review is accompanied by Naomi Smith’s enjoyably horrible illustration – the maggots convincing enough to render these pages unsuitable for reading at meal-times.
A short but engaging piece by Helen Mort, 'Linger', concludes the issue. This brief personal essay exemplifies the art of writing accessibly and thoughtfully about creative praxis: Mort reflects on the functions of negation in poetry, both as a categorical mode and as a technique with specific appeal to her as a writer. “The difficulty of saying everything I want to say is almost oppressive,” she observes, “I think that's why it's sometimes easier to allude to the negative world”. Although this is not a new theme – in Burnt Norton, for instance, words “slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision”, and in doing so prompt a recourse to negation – Mort enlivens the topic with well-chosen quotations from a variety of poems, and expresses herself with brevity and real vividness. This skill reflects Mort's strengths as a poet, which Mark Burns Cassell pins down, earlier in this issue of Cake, in his review of A Pint for the Ghost: “[Mort] writes with a real gift for distilling whole moods and images into the fewest words”. The critical writing in Cake is as a rule perceptive and discriminating, but it is Mort's piece that seems to me particularly memorable, while several strong poems – and many with good moments – also make this a magazine worth buying.
Chloe Stopa-Hunt is poetry reviews editor of The Cadaverine and a senior editor at The Oxonian Review. She has contributed reviews and review-articles to Poetry Matters, Asymptote, Mslexia, and Poetry Review, and her poems have appeared in magazines, pamphlets and anthologies.