|Centigrade 232 Book / CD review
14th October 2007
Thirty years after the original publication of Bob Calvert's first anthology of poems, it has been reissued in a
dual biblio / audio format by Voiceprint...albeit in a very limited run of 500 copies.
This material had also surfaced on audio cassette in 1987, published under Bob's own imprint, Harbour
Publications. The original print title long having been unavailable with the publisher Quasar Books being
defunct, Bob read all 49 of the poems in the collection and this is the audio source of the CD which is
included in this package.
On these decades-long timescales, the timing of this particular release seems very bunched, coming as it
does squeezed in between the recent Brock / Calvert Project CD (reviewed here), which set a few of these
poems to music, and the forthcoming comprehensive anthology to be entitled 'Robert Calvert - The
Action Man Explains'. As far as I am aware, there is no cause for alarm in this, with all this usage of
Bob's material being authorised by his family. Both the format of this particular release and Voiceprint's
involvement in it seem to be keyed off the audio readings of the poems, and their appearance in this guise is
particularly welcome given the necessarily selective presentation on the Brock / Calvert Project, and the fact
that The Action Man Explains will be a printed book.
The physical aspect is that, just like Voiceprint's 2000 release of the (non-bootleg) "Dawn Of Hawkwind"
title, this consists of an A5-size booklet, with the CD inside a transparent plastic sleeve glued, upside-down
for some reason, to the inside back cover. There is to my way of thinking a certain lack of gravitas in the
material being presented in this way. During his lifetime, Calvert sought recognition as a writer and poet
and was, I believe, frustrated that the front rows of the audience at the staging of his plays were invariably
Hawkwind fans: rather like Bob Marley playing in Harlem for the first time, only to see rows of white faces
craned up moonfully in studentish anticipation. Placing Calvert's poetry into a medium that feels to the hand
like a tour programme or a cable TV channel guide undermines the literary character of his work.
Inside, the original introduction and dedication from the 1977 Quasar Books edition are reproduced, along
with some notes and credits that dwindle down to the bottom of the page in reducing sizes of typeface.
The facing page shoehorns in the entire list of contents, with the final title just squeezing in above the
cropped edge of the paper, like the last passenger who leaps about a Routemaster bus as it pulls away from
the stop. But once you are into the actual meat of the thing, this jostled quality falls away somewhat, with
greater white space and some excellent photos of the author (many not seen before) allowing the words,
especially the longer pieces, to breathe. Where the format does not work so well is on the more concise
poems, such as Insomnia, which ought to be printed in the middle of a page, all alone.
Something similar occurs when listening to the CD with the poems tumbling one after another as audio
tracks are wont to do. It would be ludicrous to say this is Voiceprint's fault, but all the more does it
highlight what a brilliant idea the Brock / Calvert Project was. It is not Bob's delivery of his own work that
is the shortcoming, just the unavoidable sardining of his readings in this format. On the Brock / Calvert
Project CD, given Dave Brock's musical settings, and added space around the lyrical content, Bob's
recitation worked wonderfully...there were even a couple of tracks where particular stanzas were repeated
to serve the lyric requirements of the exercise, showing that it's almost impossible for the same material to
work equally well in two such different formats. This we can accept, but annoyingly (and avoidably),
when you listen to an audio poem while reading the print version simultaneously, you notice all sorts of
errors in the latter. The first four poems in the book each have at least one typographical error, omission or
complete misrendering of a word, such as "stored" for "stirred" in First Landing On Medusa...
That is just one of many pieces that having been used as lyrics in Hawkwind songs, or in Bob's own solo
material, are greatly familiar. Some of the other lesser-known works are possibly more satisfactory in a
purely poetic context. For example, "The Pause" does brilliantly in that role, though I did find it reminding
me of something, and recalled 'Hawkwind Fly As A Kite'. And some of those poems work better as such
than when they've been used in a musical context. An interesting example is the title piece, which IMHO sat
very awkwardly as the lyrics in the song "Fahrenheit 451" but did considerably better as "Centigrade 232"
on the Brock / Calvert Project. Possibly better there than here, in either print or audio format, for all that it
provides the title to this anthology - I'm hardly fit to write criticism of Mr.Calvert's poetry but it does not
strike me as his best work. It is one, though, where I prefer the reading to the print version. A near
neighbour, "The Naked And Transparent Man Gives Thanks:" is the opposite, where the warped near-sonnet
format works wonderfully on the printed page, but the final rhyming couplet sounds clipped and abrupt
when heard on the CD. "Some Sketches Of A Hand" suffers in the same way.
"A Letter Of Complaint To The Council" is another poem that was also featured on the Brock / Calvert
Project, but it is now revealed to have been mangled on that title, with the amputation of almost the entire
final stanza, satisfyingly restored on Centigrade 232. It's actually a very typical Robert Calvert poem with
its motifs of the macroscopic projected into domestic mundanity, but I see I am starting to stray into lit.crit.
So overall then, this collection has a split personality as befits the dual format: simultaneously unsatisfying
and essential. Perhaps it was a clever move to release this in such a limited quantity, since it's necessarily
competing with the other Calvert titles that have recently been released and are forthcoming. And while it is
difficult to fully appreciate these works within the format in which they have been presented, I am
nonetheless pleased to possess a copy and like that it is one of only five hundred that there will ever be.
Fast forward five years to March 2012, and behold! A third edition is here. Unlike Voiceprint's, this has no
CD -it's just a book- and although there are some initial visual similarities between it and Voiceprint's edition,
the differences are the more significant.
But those similarities first. I was surprised to see that the cover has the same image as the 2007 Voiceprint
edition's, although it's provided in a larger format: approximately 6" x 9". This even has some of the same
interior graphics, and slightly disappointingly, a "booklet-y" feel to it. Never having seen a first edition, my
suspicion is that it too was somewhat low-budget. Perhaps it's unrealistic to hope for a hardback
leather-bound weighty tome that would properly express the literary value of the contents.
As with the second edition, the original introduction and dedicatory prose are reproduced. There is also,
right at the end, a page of notes providing background information. This new edition has been published by
Gonzo Media Group, and Hawkwind fan Graham Inglis was instrumental in its' appearance, not that he is
identified in the credits. Further digging reveals that Gonzo and Voiceprint are in fact the same outfit, more
or less, which explains why the new edition looks so similar to the previous one: they probably reused the
same printing plates etc.. However, Voiceprint's 2007 edition was a limited run of 500 copies, and the new
one is no such thing, and will hopefully remain in print for ever. (Well, long enough to sell plenty more than
The book thematically groups Calvert's poems into several chapters, which are The First Landing On
Medusa (sci-fi); Buster Keaton and the Virgin Sperm Dancer (interpersonal) ; The Urban Mountaineer
(suburbia); Ragworm in a Rock Pool (naturalistic); and The Red Baron Regrets (biographical). The editor or
editors have shown a sure touch in the adroit selection of poems into each of these chapters. However,
perhaps something has been lost in so doing: one of the pleasures of reading Calvert's poems lies in the
contrast of themes from one work to another. However, the naturalistic motifs certainly recur throughout
these poems, in whichever chapter they have been placed. Those grouped together under the 'Ragworm in a
Rock Pool' heading are more specifically to do with the shoreline, to be littoral about it. However, this is not
something new in the 3rd edition - the Voiceprint version also observed the same grouping and chapter
titles. So it probably originated in the first edition, back in 1977.
Calvert's frustration at being better known as Hawkwind's frontman than for his writing is well known. A
quarter of a century after he died, there's little indication of that having changed. Although, given the relative
paucity of his output and his tendency to write shorter pieces, the best that can probably be hoped for is that
he would be remembered as a "minor poet". And this is where the third edition scores, by remedying the
glaring defect of the second: each poem has been typeset to a single page, preserving the integrity of each
individual piece. (Some of these works extend to a second page, but the point is they're not all run together,
pell-mell and breathless as in Voiceprint's 2007 edition.)
The typesetting is not perfect, though it is much improved from the second edition. In that, I complained
about the line "One man stored from the trauma of this birth", in First Landing On Medusa, saying it should
be "stirred from". In the new edition, it's "One man stared from the trauma of this birth", which makes no
more sense than "stored" did. On page 73, the title text for The Red Baron Regrets is not boldfaced, as all
the other poem's titles are, and the final work's title is rendered as "the legend of ezra pound", that is, all in
lower case. Every other piece here is titled in capitals. The layout is also slightly skewiff on "John Keats At
Margate", with the final line of some of the stanzas having become detached, and abutting up against the
numbering of the next. By looking at the 2nd and 3rd editions side-by-side, I can see that the problem
originated in the 2nd edition (as did the lower-case titling of "the legend of ezra pound") and was not
corrected in the 3rd edition. Indeed, it has been exacerbated, if this matters. It's a pretty minor point, but
surely the whole point of the 3rd edition was to alleviate the layout issues of the 2nd. (And to make it
available beyond the limited run of 500.)
For the most part, though, the 3rd edition does succeed in fixing the least appreciated aspect of the 2nd, by
having each poem start on a new page. In the 2007 review, I mentioned this having spoiled the shortest
work here, Insomnia (three lines of text). It has so much more impact given the way it is presented in this
new edition. And the wider availability is excellent, perhaps affording Calvert the best chance at the
recognition that he sought, nearly twenty-five years after his passing. Good job all round.