This review was originally published on Dead Ink.
1. Because the second collection from Yorkshire poet Miles Salter, Animals, is such an incredible mystery. This is a 47-strong ‘mewling crowd’ which explores Britain’s suburbia, confronts capitalism and corruption and war and godlessness, and predicts terrifying (as well as mundane) post-apocalyptic futures. Salter’s various voices are charming and challenging, and their richness deepens with every reading.
2. A case in point: the inimitable ‘Ten Reasons Why This World Must End Soon’, a poem inspired, we are told, by ‘a phrase on a placard held by a religious gentleman in the centre of York in Summer 2011′. The poem is literally a numbered list, unrhymed and unlined. Its ‘ten reasons’ range from the obscure ’1) There are not enough elastic bands to go around’ to the pragmatic ’3) There are more of us people arriving each day’ in a typically Salterian flux between high and low style. This is bravado of the highest order, and at times the reader would be forgiven for asking: ‘Is this poetry?’ But Salter should be given the benefit of the doubt, especially as the poem epitomises his complex approach to the collection’s ‘animal’ theme.
3. Animals avoids any cliché or sentimentality about humanity and animals. This is definitely not a book of poems about gaggles of geese and herds of hippos, nor is it restricted to the blurb’s assertion, ‘the most dangerous animal of all – the human being’. Instead, Salter uses animals as a way to talk about much richer territory: whether humans are most humane when acting ideologically or individually, whether humans are nurtured or tamed by their societies, and most importantly for the lyricism of the poetry itself, whether humanity thrives or dies under order. Salter’s attention to the power of (dis)order is impeccable and subtle: ‘Ten Reasons’ slides from the casually coherent ‘why/because’ form into inexplicable poetry, giving us these as final lines.
9) Imagine it. No rock and roll. No stock market.
10) The dust. The light. The silence defeating stars.
This is the kind of animalism that Salter is interested in: it is feral, wild, disordered and chaotic, and—
4. He is expert enough to reflect this tension between order and chaos in his poems’ form as well as subject. For example, ‘The Horse Rider’s Code of Conduct’ evolves from the professional and perfunctory language of the ‘code’ (‘I understand that riding at any standard has inherent risk / and that all horses may react unpredictably on occasions’) into a nostalgic poetry from the perspective of the liberated rider:
We kept going for an hour and the whole
world seemed to flood through me and I yelled out in a language
I didn’t understand, and did not want to go back.
5. Polemic poetry. It seems unfashionable at the moment to write poems with a political, ethical or religious point. But many of Salter’s poems do have an argument that is described and demonstrated as if to convince the reader. Through some clever arrangement the collection almost tackles issues in groups of four or five poems. First religion, as in ‘Their Eyes Were Not Watching God’ which mocks the shallowness of people (‘because the deity / never turned up on a TV show like Britain’s Got Talent‘). Then consumerism, as in ‘The Only Thing I Had Left To Sell Was My Soul’ and ‘World Without End’ which warn against the excesses of Western culture (from the latter: ‘we bought that quiet, single-minded / mania every time, looting shops // with plastic or cash, cramming cars with food’). Then war:
Your Country Needs You to forget the rules
of cricket and become a man who sweats
and screams in his sleep, a man who beats
his wife and daughter
Often the trouble with polemic poetry is that if you disagree with the poet’s argument, it can scupper your relationship with the work entirely. Perhaps conscious of this, Salter includes enough poetic interest (note the misleading eye-rhyme of ‘sweats / beats’ above) to appease to even the most anti-theistic, pro-capitalist and pro-war reader.
6. Because these poems are funny. ‘School’ depicts a Battle Royale where ‘The final exam requires no writing, / but, happily, a single baseball bat/will be available to the group.’ In ‘Ears’ a man keeps a tin of ears and, on some nights, ‘Lighting a candle, he takes one, / from the box, holds it in his palm / and starts. ‘It’s like this,’ he says.’ Okay, well maybe these poems are darkly funny, but it is still another of Salter’s skills which makes this collection such a diverse and engaging beast.
7. The cover photo. Squirrels, boxing.
8. Unlike a lot of poetry pamphlets or collections which look like they’ve been Canon-printed on recycled paper in the writer’s garage, this collection has the highest calibre of production values. The cover design is ingeniously simple, the paper is tactile and the typography is clean and professional. You might call that superficial, but it makes the reading experience into an actual experience. This quality is fast becoming the hallmark of Valley Press, a small Scarborough-based operation run by 26 year old Jamie McGarry.
9. For the sheer poetry of some of Salter’s lines. Examples include: ‘Outside, priceless birds were dancing in the breeze’ or ‘She unhooks the door three times / then places herself in the chamber of the day.’
10. Because you should get to know Salter. He organises York Literature Festival, plays music, and has written for BBC Radio, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The Independent, etc. His other works include his debut poetry collection The Border (Valley Press, credited to Miles Cain), and A Song For Nicky Moon, which was shortlisted for The Times/Chicken House Children’s book award in 2010.