Review | Rough Trade Books | Series 3

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The recently-launched Rough Trade Books imprint has been releasing pamphlets at a prolific rate since the summer of last year, bringing us highly collectable series’ of editions that veer between poetry, visual art, essays, short story, and even tarot, all packaged in Craig Oldham’s unique and distinctive designs. As I wrote here, much like the best record labels, digging through the Rough Trade Books imprint is akin to discovering a rare archive or feeling as a part of a secret club, but without the tiresome social stigma which comes from joining a cult.

Last month saw the release of six new pamphlets, and below is a rough round-up of what you can expect from them.

To start I will look at two collections that do something very interesting with the essay form, with Jarvis Cocker’s Good Pop, Bad Pop, and Charlotte Newman’s Counter Reform.

Counter Reform is a psychological, physical, and really quite incredible look at Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and strategies of resistance to it. It is split into a series of vignettes, and written in powerful poetic prose that evokes the best writing of Maggie Nelson. Counter Reform is dense with catharsis, anecdotes and historical allusion, and reminds me of the Semiotext(e) tradition of autofiction, while also being an incredible treatise on a difficult-to-understand disorder. It’s invention mirrors the mental gymnastics that the minds of obsessive-compulsives go through, linking numbers, patterns and sequences into an at times unbearable modification of reality. The pamphlet is a great success. 

Jarvis Cocker’s pamphlet on the other hand focuses around Brexit, and the 2017 general election. He skilfully contrasts the rise of two types of populism – 1990s Britpop music and the political populism of our current decade, while reminding us that this is nothing new with his allusion to what is known as the Evil May Day of 1517, which was a riot about foreigners living in London.

How long do you think the elusive, mythic 1% will be able to hold out when they realise that the best they can get for their corporate events is a Boyzone tribute band?

from “Good Pop, Bad Pop” by Jarvis Cocker

Much as with the best of his music with the band Pulp, Cocker’s pamphlet allows us to look at ourselves and our society with a wry (but optimistic) eye, and shows us that, perhaps, we are not as unique as we thought.

Next up is the poet Martha Sprackland with Milk Tooth, which follows her brilliant 2017 pamphlet Glass As Broken Glass (Rack Press). As in her previous pamphlet, Sprackland’s words pierce through the mundanity of the everyday, creating intense emotional landscapes out of experiences such as shopping octopus in a supermarket, or needing to have a tooth out.

All the world’s cameras
are on this clamorous point:
this knot, this bole, this clot,
this breaking news, this fire,
this prisoner of war,

a sealed world seething
like a black egg
incorruptible by amoxicillin
and saline wash.
I want it out.

from “Tooth” by Martha Sprackland

But where Milk Tooth differs from Glass As Broken Glass is in its variety of form and subject matter, both in the brilliant prose poem “Twilight Sleep”, and in the final poem of the collection “De la lycanthropie, transformation et extase des sorciers”, which looks at the last child sacrifice of the Pawnee Morning Star ritual in 1838. With Milk Tooth, Sprackland continues to establish herself as one of Britain’s finest young poets.

Outside of Milk Tooth, perhaps the highlight of the new series for me was Mathew Clayton’s collection I Was A Teenage Bell Ringer. I Was A Teenage Bell Ringer is a simultaneously very funny and very interesting rumination on the history of the use of bells in music, which revolves around the theories of a mysterious German musician called Wolfgang who Clayton met in 1976, while bringing in acid house, Napoleon Bonaparte, Jeff Mills, Henry David Thoreau, Timmy Mallett and others into the discussion.

Elsewhere, there are the Christmas stories of the novelist Marcel Theroux, while the off-beat, uniquely British humour and melancholy combination of the poet Luke Wright can be found in the collection After Engine Trouble, which finds the poet as always, able to capture the weirdness of post-industrial Britain like no other.

The AA man arrived like someone’s Dad
blew into his hands and talked in bloke
two hundred quid later we coughed
onto the carriageway, better off.

From “After Engine Trouble” by Luke Wright

For more information on Rough Trade Books, visit their website

Words by Robert Greer.


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