Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

"Broken English" by Heather McHugh (Wesleyan Univ Press, 1993)

Her main point is that poetry is fractured -

  • "[Poetry] is a broken language from the beginning, brimming with non-words: all that white ... the making of lines is the breaking of lines" (p.3)
  • "If you yearn for wholeness, maybe you need fiction" (p.4)
  • "All poetry is fragment: it is shaped by its breakages, at every turn ... The poem is not only a piece, like other pieces of art; it is a piece full of pieces" (p.75)

She points out that "Valéry is like the Picasso in Gertrude Stein's declaration that "Most of the time we see only a portion of the person with us, the other parts are hidden by a hat or clothes or by light or shadow. Every one is accustomed to completing the whole entirely by memory. But when Picasso saw a single eye, the other ceased to exist for him." And so with Valéry: each is all, there is no MISSING wholeness", (p.66)

She spends a chapter on Tom Phillips' "A Humument"

She deals with some other matters too, e.g. that 1st person is very different to 2nd and 3rd, just as the present is very different from the past and the future. Though each concept is compartmentalised into 3 parts, the parts aren't at all equal.

In "A Genuine Article" she considers the use of "a" and "the" - "When "the bear comes out of the woods", he'd been known or mentioned before; when "a bear comes out of the woods", it's somewhat more alarming", p.87. She have several examples of the distinction from Beckett.

She quotes a Yoruba poem called "Death" which impressed me.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

"Crowd Sensations" by Judy Brown (Seren, 2016)

I don't know whether it's me or the publishers, but increasingly I find that the first poem in a book acts as a prelude or even a tutorial. Here, the first poem, "After the Discovery of Linear Perspective", seems to use art as a visual aid to demonstrate poetry theory. It begins with "You gave us new places to hide". Theory has its disadvantages - " I miss their warmth: the maidens and saints twisted to press/ at the picture plane, all breathy frottage, and damp like flowers under glass". So what's the solution? "Come, technician, let us brush past the samey glamours of Joseph and Mary ... Let's inhale its new space, shout merely to gather echoes". The use of "brush" and "glamours" surely isn't accidental, and the use of theory to open up new possibilities for experience (rather than intellectualize feelings away) is a theme of the book.

She can make poetry out of material that most of us would pass by. Humidity and gaseous exchanges figure more than once (perhaps because she's lived in Hong Kong)

  • "The Street of Dried Seafood Shops..." is in loosely rhymed couplets - a simile/metaphor-fest. At the end there's an attempt to make an overriding metaphor - "After a mile or so, I tell you, I was dry as a drill bit.// I dock at the Irish pub awash with happy hour,/ one more beery dog-fish in a bled-out harbour.". One can see how the poet might wish to turn a list into a narrative, but this ending begs questions. The "I tell you" is, I think, an attempt to make the poem sound conversational, the "you" different to the one earlier in the poem. Why dog-fish? Anything to do with the dog mentioned earlier? In the final line a wet fish in a dry harbour contrasts with the earlier dried fish, but to what purpose? "bled-out harbour" sounds womby, but I can't fit the poem around that idea.
  • The poem after that, "The Dehumidifier", again makes the most out of uninspiring raw material. At the end the reservoir fills - "By Friday it's the usual story ... I ... pour away the absent week's wet harvest ... Once more I will myself to neither cry nor sweat: hereafter I may live as aridly as decency permits" - which makes me assume that the persona's female.

But "The Third Umpire" is more problematic. At the start I think there are allusions that I don't recognise - he "always was, his noonday elder brothers said,/ the piker in the pavilion, pale as milk./ Raspberry feathers ring his albino irises". Looking up online, I find that piker is "Australian/NZ - a person who withdraws from a plan, commitment". Cricket fan readers will know about "the master of instrument and replay ... where the stitched ball left a kiss on the glove shows as snow on Hotspot ... plays the delivery in dotted lines". Towards the end, I like how "Some nights he walks bare-chested onto the pitch and touches the square for some last warmth" but am more puzzled by "He can hardly believe it: that the crease belongs to the umpire and thus can be said to be partly his". The ending refers to the start "If his brothers had him thrown onto this grass furnace/ at noon, would his god really let him burn?". The ideas of judgement, body/mind, siblings, the contrast between being in the thick of it and being distant/technological are all there, but I feel I'm missing a key.

More generally, I like what she's trying to do, but sometimes I think she tries too hard, the imagery becoming ornamental. In "The Leaks: The Golf Hotel, Silloth" for example, there's "The next morning was a pulled pint full of light, and the sea flicked up the white undersides of its leaves" which I like, though it's already tending towards the Martian. But at the end there's "tip half a carton of Co-op milk into my borrowed rucksack, pour out half an hour scrubbing with shampoo and the hotel towel, only to mis-time the ebb tide of the first bus out" where the further pouring out (now of time) and the tide=bus comparison is over-cooked.

"Dove Cottage Ferns" reads like a list of comparisons and observations - "bulked to a galleon's massed rig of sail. Shrub-broad, they're bold as gunnera but feather-cut. From spring's straight-up vectors, they loosen and splay. I count out summer: arc, arabesque, parabola, catenary - a green apprenticeship of curve". I like that final phrase. Do the images knit into a poem? Does it help that I need to look up "gunnera"? The ending introduces another theme - "Flip to the frond's reverse: the future dried on like a code of dust ... I read a fern's microfiche, propagation an abacus clicking away at my ear". She has such a way with words that it's easy to be tempted forward by succulent images all the way through a poem without taking in the big picture. And anyway, what's wrong with imagery being at least in part ornamental?

My problem is that the strength or cryptic nature of an image can sometimes distract me from the poem as a whole. When I start having to engage my brain to decode a detailed image, it's hard to stop -

  • "Prescription for a Middle-Aged Reader" speculates on having one contact lens for long-sightedness and another "for the fine print and the needle's slim traverse". The final 3 words cram a new idea in - local optimisation to the detriment of global effect.
  • "Let the puddings boil dry in their baby clothes. Leave the tinsel coiled in snaky hibernation" (p.38) is far more striking than the rest of the poem
  • "Water drains down the conifers' inner ladders" (p.49). Near the trunk, where there aren't many leaves, the horizontal branches look like rungs, the rain dripping from one to another?
  • "Antidote" - "The fallen-forward mirror shows its brown-paper back/ and picture wire, a coffin to the alp shapes of its smash.// That hieroglyph is her next seven years lying there,/ spoiled to vinegar before they were even toasted in". Is "-forward" needed? It made me think too hard. The fragments are more cuniform than hieroglyph.

My favourites? Maybe "After the Discovery of Linear Perspective", "This is not a garden" and "The Imposters", though there's much else of interest too. I like her writing far more than that of some (currently) more famous poets.

Other reviews

  • Jazmine Linklater
  • David Green (At first I was concerned that some poems were trying too hard, striving too much for novelty and ingenuity)

Saturday, 17 September 2016

"Citizen" by Claudia Rankine (Penguin, 2015)

I've commented before on how poetry tends not to tackle political issues, and how it doesn't use the variety of formats and styles that prose uses, so this book's to be welcomed. It's a mixed media (it includes illustrations), and mixed genre (essay, poetry, scripts). That said, I'm not always convinced by the poetic intrusions into the prose. For example, on p.10 there's an anecdote where someone says something to the narrator that sounds racist, and the narrator wonders what this means about their relationship. It begins "You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed". "in the dark" is perhaps meant to be taken two ways, and tar is always black, so "black-" must be making a point. Fair enough. Only later are we're told that the "You" is driving - useful information deliberately withheld, I presume. The page ends with "It is not also that confrontation is headache-producing; it is also that you have a destination that doesn't include acting like this moment isn't inhabitable, hasn't happened before, and the before isn't part of the now where we are and where we are going" I can understand this, and there must be a reason why the phrasing's contorted. It puts me on my guard though the content's interesting enough.

Later she considers the power of words to offend - "Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present. Your alertness, your openness, and your desire to engage actually demand your presence, your looking up, your talking back" (p.49). Well, maybe.

The poetry alludes back to the prose and comes in a variety of styles. At times there are even hints of Gertrude Stein. I liked Section IV and V. Here are extracts -

  • "To live through the days sometimes you moan like deer. Sometimes you sigh. The world says stop that. Another sigh. Another stop that. Moaning elicits laughter, sighing upsets. Perhaps each sigh is drawn into existence to pull in, pull under, who knows; truth be told, you could no more control those sighs than that which brings the sighs about" (p.59)
  • "You can't put the past behind you. It's buried in you; it's turned your flesh into its own cupboard" (p.63)
  • "You could build a world out of need or you could hold everything black and see. You give back the lack.// You hold everything black. You give yourself back until nothing's left but the dissolving blues of metaphor" (p.70)
  • "Tried rhyme, tried truth, tried epistolary untruth, tried and tried" (p.71)
  • "The past is a life sentence, a blunt instrument aimed at tomorrow" (p.72)

I didn't like section VI, especially sections like "each time it begins in the same way, it doesn't begin the same way, each time it begins it's the same" (p.107). Section VII (perhaps like the previous section) was rather beyond me. I don't get the point of p.134 - it's been done too many times before. And the phrasing of passages like "You smile dumbly at the world because you are still feeling if only the feeling could be known and this brings on the moment you recognize as desire" (p.153) make me struggle.

Mimicry is a risky business. The tennis player Wozniacki imitated Serena Williams. Was it racist? Several people imitate the obsessive habits of Nadal and Shirapova. Is that fair? Accents are imitated. Nationalities are caricatured. When people make comments based on (perhaps false) stereotypes, or features that defy stereotypes, they may indeed betray bias but there are other reasons. From personal experience I know that scientists, IT staff, and accountants put up with a lot of such comments too. They tend not to react, partly fearing perhaps that people will think they're thin-skinned and can't take a joke. They sometimes attempt to improve the public image. Comedy and self-deprecation are used, but their sense of injustice isn't strong - after all, the consequences of the stereotypes aren't too damaging. For racism (and religion) the stakes are far higher.

I think listing microaggressions is fairly simple to do. Discourse analysis has shown how common they are in family and business settings. Analysing the cause of individual cases is harder - I'd have liked to see more of that in this book (quoting statistics might have helped). Offering solutions is harder still. There are widespread misunderstandings and delusions in many areas (belief in Horoscopes, Creationism, miracle cures, etc) that can have serious consequences yet seem hard to refute. Thoughtlessness is rife, even amongst the intelligensia (who frequently get simple probability matters very wrong). So apparent microaggressions are only to be expected. That's the problem of course - they can disguise relentless, thematic assaults. She offers no solutions, but why should she? It's only poetry.

Other reviews

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

"The Lost Art of Sinking" by Naomi Booth (Penned in the margins, 2015)

Ester got into swooning because her mother, an ex ballet dancer, liked it - "There is no falling in love without the swoon" (p.15). After her mother's death she finds ever more ways to swoon (including approaching an artist who specialized in photographing asphyxiated people, and spending a day shadowing a phlebotomist), drifting from man to man, job to job. One man collects her from school - "He sometimes had a bag of chips waiting for me, making the front seat warm and salty-damp when I sat on it in my school skirt" (p.38). While she's staying in a squat, a fellow squatter kills himself and his dog is put down, which puzzled me. Perhaps it's supposed to echo the other suicide?

Descriptions of streets and interiors are sharp. Smelly men, fractals and alcoholic mothers are repeated themes. I think the final disclosure that her mother's death was a staged suicide is supposed to be a surprise, but I'd assumed it.

It has elements of an off-beat comedy, and the people we meet on the way have interesting stories to tell. Her swooning-wish at times seems like a wish to lose Self, verging (with the artist) towards suicidal thoughts. But she backs down each time.

Other reviews

  • Goodreads
  • Sameer Rahim (Prospect Magazine)
  • Bethany W Pope (Sabotage Reviews) (early chapters are faintly reminiscent of good student work and could have stood some revision. This novella definitely gathers strength and force as it moves along)

Saturday, 10 September 2016

"The Harbour Beyond the Movie" by Luke Kennard (Salt, 2007)

I've been meaning to catch up with this poet for years, this book in particular. Sometimes there are prose poems, with Russell Edson as a model, the twist being that there are line-breaks. There's use of familiar images - "When we finally broke down her door we found/ A white curtain flapping in the open window - / As if waving goodbye" (p.5). There are lists of surprise lines -

  • "We all laughed at the decomposing clown,/ But later shame sunk upon us/ And we got smashed on the balcony.// I had lost my left shoe in the blood./ The doyenne and her ten attachés/ Scattered blossom on the divans", p.8.
  • "A pig fell out of the sky./ It landed poorly, but was not wounded./ 'Tell me,' said the pig, 'of cruelty;/ Tell me of the sweet, stale smoke on your fingertips;/ Tell me of your tinnitus and your unsightly body hairs.'", p.10.
  • "Language is the butter/ You rub on a pirate" (p.16)

There are nonsense poems, and poems like "Gerald Variations" that have a structure.

Carrie Etter sometimes lists her favourite passages from books she's reading, which usefully provides examples of the poet's work. But sometimes, having had my appetite whetted by samples, I've been disappointed by the books, which don't transcend the sum of their parts. If poets are going to divide their words into titled sections (in a book - as opposed to a magazine submission - there's no great reason why they should), readers might reasonably expect sections to have some coherence. Kennard's notion of coherence varies. Occasionally there's a narrative thread. Sometimes juxtaposition is used (most commonly in the form of lists). There are somewhat uneasy combinations - "Popular Cults of the First Millennium" for example is a list of some one-liners along with 2 unrelated short narratives. When a poem starts as follows, there's no guarantee that the narrative will be continued.

Bedazzled Crow

The butterflies tick like metronomes over
The music college's dry ice sculpture:

Amorphous No.14. under which I am publicly
Clipping my nails on the off-beat

Why break the line where he does? Why end the poem where he does? If the poet didn't want us to worry about these questions he wouldn't have posed them (and indeed later in the book he doesn't). I like several of the book's sentences. I'm less sure than I like enough of any of the poems. "The Tree" fails. "Ear" and "Eyes" don't appeal, yet I like "Chorus". The longer pieces towards the end don't work for me.

I sympathize with his approach. Perhaps with Nobody's Perfect I edge towards his off-beat humorous style. I don't think I can emulate his version of surrealism, and I can't do nonsense.

Other reviews

  • Sarah Crown (True to the European surrealist tradition of Baudelaire and Breton, in whose footsteps he is clearly following, Kennard's collection proves that humour is a neglected but effective tool in the poet's arsenal.)
  • Tim Markey (Kennard’s collection is superb throughout and includes always ambitious and sometimes difficult poetry.)
  • Rob McKenzie (not only funny — it’s intelligent, satirical, and very well written into the bargain.)
  • Simon Turner
  • poetryarchive.org (Kennard's Python-esque poems often elaborate surreal narratives, given a deadpan concreteness by excessively mundane details)
  • Phil Brown (Kennard’s poetry has always hinged on the tension of self-aware, deconstructive wit undermining the desire to achieve emotional honesty. From his debut collection onwards, Kennard’s most entertaining works often read like an esoteric, polysyllabic riff on the antagonism between ventriloquist and dummy. His previous creations include the recurring character of ‘The Wolf’, the sadistic social worker in ‘The Murderer’)

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

"Sunshine" by Melissa Lee-Houghton (Penned in the Margins, 2016)

At Prac Crit, John Clegg analyses how he was analysing one of Melissa Lee-Houghton's poems -

  • First Pass - ‘I’ll Find You’ consists of twenty-seven sentences, all of which but one begin ‘You could be’ ... This shifting mood is controlled by sentence length and sentence structure ...
  • Second Pass - ‘I’ll Find You’ appears in Lee-Houghton’s second collection, Beautiful Girls (Penned in the Margins, 2013). Read in context, it changes substantially ...
  • Third Pass - ... I feel I’ve got to interrupt. This sort of criticism doesn’t work on this sort of poem at all.

I've previously (see my Beautiful Girls write-up) been tempted to react similarly to this poet's pieces. Here I'll continue the meta-analysis before turning, belatedly, to a few of the poems.

Melissa Lee-Houghton's gained much poetry-establishment credibility in recent years. This book's poems (there are 27 including 5 one-pagers and 5 that are more than 5 pages long) have been in Rialto, Granta, etc, and she's been given several grants. You get a lot of words for your money - there are many pages, and lines are long. Online at PracCrit is a poem from this book which was shortlisted as a Forward poem of the year. She's interviewed there by Michael Conley, providing several answers that might make readers of her poetry nervous -

  • "The whole act of my writing is about claiming control. It’s a place where I’ve imposed my own parameters and it’s important to me that I can do that."
  • "Writing poetry for me is a vocation. Without it, I wouldn’t cope, wouldn’t survive."

So dare a reviewer adversely criticize work of a poet whose poetry is so central to them?

  • "I suffer hallucinations so I have a sense of unreality in my life – I feel very dissociative when I’m stressed and I fall away into psychosis. I’m a high-functioning manic depressive."
  • "In my early twenties I had a period of deep psychotic depression where I had no idea what was real and what wasn’t. I tried to kill myself, and came round after a coma in a psychiatric ward. I thought I was in hell. I didn’t believe that I was alive."

So how much of an "unreliable narrator" is the persona? In "Z", there's "We aren’t and will never be poetry for each other, and I know/ I am more alive when anesthetised than when I’m alone, naked ―/ and I undress, wanting to pick up the phone and call you". Given the importance of poetry for the persona, the wording of the first clause isn't surprising. But then, having stated that she's not at her best naked and alone, she makes herself naked and alone, and wants to get in touch. Such contradictions and self-sabotage abound ("I like to be watched but please don't look at me" - "Blue Prelude"), which shouldn't surprise readers - or carers.

  • "I wrote consistently for about half an hour, maybe longer, from the beginning of the poem to the end. I’ve barely edited any of it; it just arrived. ... If I gave this poem to a good editor, they’d probably go to town on it."

So is it up to readers to be editors too? How much of a work is "meaningful" and how much is random? Is some of it there like a shaky hand-held video camera just to evoke a feeling of immediacy? I think the poems follow the prevailing trend of trying to appear more disorganised than they really are, but nothing feels sloppy or first-draft.

Line-breaks are problematic though. Are they the whims of a writer whose attention is elsewhere, or should we dutifully interpret each one? Some of the pieces that are longer than a page have no paragraph breaks let alone line-breaks. Others have long lines that need folding, and line-breaks. Others are in couplets. There's strange indenting. Is this what she means by claiming control? Particularly regarding this aspect, the reader may be tempted to edit. I suggest in the first instance ignoring all the line-breaks.

  • "There are massive, irreconcilable tensions between men and women in relationships. But that’s also part of why relationships between men and women work, too. I’ve had relationships with women and they work in a very different way. As much as I’ve enjoyed those relationships, I’ve always erred towards being dominated by men, which disturbs me. Relationships with men have been a massive issue in my life – I’ve had therapy about it and it didn’t work. What works is writing poetry."
  • "When you’re manic, you realise that if you don’t keep it going, you’ll go downhill fast. So often I feel very sexual when I’m like that. But I’ve also suffered sexual abuse in my life, so that comes with a sense of guilt too."

If she's had so many relationship problems surely her opinions will be tainted. In the light of this should readers re-calibrate their notions of public/private, etc? The confessionalists (and more gently, people like Sharon Olds) have re-drawn the lines. Perhaps the first poem will help establish the ground-rules. Here's the start -

And All the Things That We Do I Could Face Today

If Disney made porn they would pay us well for our trouble.
We share baths together because we get bored and it’s cold and
we used to talk but now I just pull sad faces and you sympathise.
I was thinking about abstract things, like what distance means to lovers;
physical distance, emotional distance and the distance
between us in the bath in our heads. I looked into your eyes,
your perfect, blue-jay Hollywood eyes, and how starved they sank

Puzzled by the title? In the Acknowledgements it says that it's a lyric from ‘If Only It Were True’ by The Walkmen. I like the potential of "If Disney made porn". The next few, thoughtful lines could perhaps come from an A.L.Kennedy story, though "how starved they sank" rather puzzles me. After this start, there's some one-sided sex in the bath and a Disneyesque follow-up ("Immediately, a dozen bluebirds flew in and tidied your hair,/a gentle and spritely music soothed your brow"). How are these bluebirds related to the earlier "blue-jay"? The female persona feels frustrated - sexually and more generally. She wants to be pinned down, to focus on one thing - perhaps her next book. But first she's going to drink or do drugs with Rob, a 3rd party. She feels hollow, and/or that writing the book will leave her hollow, thinking

Do you even realise how cool the full moon looks
over Pendle Hill and all the rotten towns at midnight, howling
and hollow, and do you remember how good it feels not to touch
on MDMA and have all that hollow love like a mouthful of wasted come.

- a burst of traditional imagery ("moon") and sound effects (clusters of "oo" and "ow" sounds). She ends with "I fit inside love like the breath in a flute. I will escape/ at the slightest pause or hesitation. You need to clasp me./ You need to tie me down. Please. I want to go nowhere". The wish for (artistic) freedom contrasts with the acceptance that discipline may need to be imposed rather than coming from within, though the words chosen hint at S&M, and that restrictive force seems related to love. The poem is "I/You" with an absent (though important) "he", a triangle replicated in other poems - offering intimacy without commitment?

In the early part of the book the final line's often as resolute as this one (e.g. "Z" ends with "I am never, ever, going to be the same again") and frequently contain absolutes - as well as this poem's "nowhere" the early poems have "everyone", "never, ever", "never", "forever", "from now on" and "Right now" near their end. Later poems lose these tendencies.

The transitions in these texts are conventional enough - after all, essays contain contrary opinions and a mix of general/specific. What's lacking is signposting. The passages could be normalized, the montaged discourses disentangled. E.g. -

  • Phrases could be re-ordered so that there's less jumping about
  • Asides could be put in parentheses
  • When 2 juxtaposed passages are connected by implicit "is like" or "is the opposite of" phrases, the relationship could be mentioned
  • When the discourse mode ends (e.g. when the narrator jumps out of the frame), a new paragraph could be started.

Of course, the poet's fully capable of this - for example, she writes excellent reviews for The Short Review. In this book she's adopting a voice with some features of manic language. The verbosity and limited subject matter (all about "I") are part of the package. It's a style not uncommon in poetry. I'm unsure whether this is because manic-depressives find it socially convenient to classify themselves as poets, or whether the style offers poetic opportunities.

In "Prac Crit" John Clegg more thoroughly studies the language of one of her poems. Continuing the passes that I mentioned at the start, he produces "Fourth Pass - ‘I’ll Find You’, like much of Beautiful Girls, negotiates a difficult balance between accessibility and privacy. It takes seriously its responsibility to communicate, and to bring across situations which may be outside the life experience of many readers (hospitalisation, addiction, self-harm)"

I see a "responsibility to communicate" in the choice of imagery, but not in the line/paragraph breaks or the verbosity. He continues - "Themes emerge – unhappy family life, hospitalisation, and finally, most inescapably, death – but there is no argument or superstructure. Instead, there’s a shifting mood ... This shifting mood is controlled by sentence length and sentence structure. In general, the main clause of the sentence gives the scenario, subsequent clauses develop small details: ... Once this expectation is set up, Lee-Houghton can vary it for effect". The movement I sense in several poems is a repeated loosening then reining in (akin to simulated annealing). For the shifting moods it helps me to think in terms of multiple voices. Consider the start of another poem -

The Price You See Reflects the Poor Quality of
the Item and Your Lack of Desire for It


We sleep with minds of black and white confetti -
the fragmented thoughts and brain cells coalesce, dance -
we pose as anarchists, we develop Alzheimer’s
just to lose ourselves within ourselves. Are you seriously telling me
this is your best analysis? The dying stall and drink from virally
           infected cups, and go out
with wet hair to catch pneumonia, because it’s better that way. I
           walk away from you
without glancing back, in case you see in me something I don’t.

Polyphony has been flattened into monologue. In the cause of user-friendliness, let's reformat, reversing the process and adding some comments

  1. We sleep with minds of black and white confetti - the fragmented thoughts and brain cells coalesce, dance - we pose as anarchists, we develop Alzheimer’s just to lose ourselves within ourselves. - we feign disintegrated selves, using pre-existing roles as disguise. The first phrase could be interpreted in a few ways. "sleep with" could be a transitive verbal phrase. Most likely, the sleeper has the mind. "black and white" could denote simplified thinking and/or printed matter.
  2. Are you seriously telling me this is your best analysis? - this steps out of the frame of (1) to criticize the content
  3. The dying stall and drink from virally infected cups, and go out with wet hair to catch pneumonia, because it’s better that way. - reverting to the style of (1), the claim is that dying people speed up their demise without resorting to explicit suicide, again using disguise
  4. I walk away from you without glancing back, in case you see in me something I don’t. - Perhaps continuing the thread of (2), the narrator recognises her dependence on others' opinions of her, wanting to leave yet lacking resolve. Perhaps she's scared that he will see through her disguise. In a later poem where the persona lists her attributes, one is "When I start things I can’t finish I just walk away and don’t look back."

Perhaps it could be viewed as a latterday "To be or not to be" monologue with the voices of "others" internalized. Death is conventionally a symbol of wanting to change. 3 pages later, we reach the conclusion -

Trapped in a little girl’s forgetfulness I beg
and the abacus that infers my life is fettering away
now fades. If I don’t live forever I don’t see why I can’t
do anything I want. Jump ship. Lie in court.
Become a more mysterious person. Leave a blank note.
Scream and wail. Mourn the lives of everyone I ever met whether
           dead or not.
Look back and see you turn away, and never do anything again but
           think on it.

Instead of the first stanza's Alzheimer's, there's a little girl’s forgetfulness. I can't work out the "I beg ... fades" section - is "fettering" supposed to be "frittering"? If the section means that the narrator is forgetting about the rational predictions of her death, then the next section doesn't follow it up. Morality is tied up with immortality. The first stanza's idea of walking away is continued, but now the awareness of mortality means she can more effectively cope with seeing him turn away.

Linkages across a gap of pages occur elsewhere too, challenging the capacity of the reader's working memory. In "i am very precious" the following 2 fragments are 4 pages apart

  do you understand that when the day breaks
semen in the body turning over like a silk belt, slashing
  the way the poetry aches like it does when fantasies
  abate and leave beds turning over like guillotined heads

  ... and a sound like you’re supposed to make when a climax comes,
  so slow and steady you’re silk, the heart turning over
like a silk belt; the little black buckles of the heart snapping
  in turn. I don’t want to take my clothes off for anyone; want to
  sleep with my t-shirt on and wake in a fever,

In both fragments there's "turning over like a silk belt", waking-up/dawn, but what are we supposed to make of the repetition? Come to that, what of fantasies leaving beds turning over like guillotined heads?

"He Cried Out To the God of Austerities Who Said On the Seventh Day You Shall Tax, Pillage and Burn" is different in form and content to the previous poems I've quoted from. It has 18 5-lined stanzas, each stanza end-stopped. Though God, Austerity and a few other themes recur, there's little coherence even within a stanza. Here's a sample stanza

God descaled my heart and French kissed me. He tasted like McDonald’s.
He loves me most when he’s tired, when he’s too tired to run.
So goodnight blackbird, and starling. Goodnight Adrian, and senorita,
and my mother, who swings from the bough of a dead tree,
a conker for a heart and a handset for a brain.

Make of that what you will. The final line's success is conventional enough, but I found 90 lines of this too much to cope with. It's the sort of piece that led me think that this book is less restrained than "Beautiful Girls" (where nearly half the poems were less than a page, and most of the rest less than 2, though "Fettered Heart" is 6 pages), and my taste is towards "cooked". That said, my favourite poem is "The Price You See Reflects the Poor Quality of the Item and Your Lack of Desire for It". I had the most trouble with pieces that seemed more like automatic, manic writing than poetry. And there were times when the temptation to fuse the persona and the poet led to situations where rather than being a reader of a poem, I felt like I was in a train station's waiting room with a stranger telling me all about their suffering and lurid private life. "Mouth" and "Woodlea", "Sunshine" don't work for me, and "Samson Beach" seems minor. I'm allergic to lines like "My pain rings out like the church bells on a Sunday morning. I want them to feel/ my pain, all the ringing, singing lovers under their warm sheets" ("Mad Girl in Love"). I first have to conquer my reaction to people who go on about their pain - is the narrator mocking herself? Then my close-reading habit kicks in. I wonder what it means that the lovers are ringing too. What are they summoning? Are they in pain too? Does she want to contact all and only those who are in pain? But why are they singing? Because they're happy? Is that why the persona wants to inflict her pain upon them?

The book's final piece is "Hope", a page of unbroken text. One by one the people in a group who've been kidnapped and taken to a farm are beheaded until only the narrator's left. This plot commonly symbolises personality integration. "They dressed me in a warm, white fleece cardigan; I’d been cold for weeks. I knew it meant I’d won, and so I followed them into a kitchen. A woman with an apron was chopping vegetables and white meat." What's the significance of the repeated "white"? Is she being dressed like a compliant sheep? Is the woman that she's led to a vision of how she'll become? More whiteness follows - "A man in white with a white surgeon’s mask ... severed my spinal cord with a scalpel, then hacked through the tendons in my neck. Although my psychiatric worker said it’s more than unusual, I died in that dream, and I went somewhere. Part of me remains there, happily, in the glamorous glare of lost hope and a sadness spun of pure sunshine". As death presages re-birth, so losing a head/brain perhaps offers the possibility of acquiring a new one. Or perhaps the separation of head from body represents a Mind/Body split - an intellectualisation that has pros and cons. The "I went somewhere" in this last poem forms part of another long-distance linkage, connecting with the first poem's "I want to go nowhere". Neat.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

"The Quickening Maze" by Adam Foulds (Jonathan Cape, 2009)

In the Acknowledgements the author writes "I have taken a number of liberties, compressing events that occurred over several years into the space of seven seasons and ignoring some significant individuals while inventing others". The narrative is from multiple viewpoints, the language matching the person. When John Clare's the focus, the language blossoms; the book's 2nd paragraph from his PoV is "Walking towards the wood, the heath, beckoning away. Undulations of yellow gorse rasped in the breeze. It stretched off into unknown solitudes". The asylum boss, Dr Matthew Allen (who rates himself as a polymath), gives him a key out of the grounds. He stays out all night with gipsies, playing a fiddle and eating poached deer. Meanwhile Alfred Tennyson comes to stay, along with old, troubled brother Septimus Tennyson. Allen's daughter Hannah is interested in Tennyson, though he smells. Other people have more expressive voices than him. E.g. -

Margaret stood in the dead of the world and looked down at the stopped fish under their dirty window of ice. In the black forks of the trees hard snow was pock-marked by later rain. Crows, folded tightly into themselves, clasped branches that plunged in the wind. Voices of other patients reached her there, the sound dulled by the covered winter surfaces like the clapping of gloved hands. (p.65)

When Matthew's brother Oswald arrives unannounced, we become aware of sibling rivalries. Matthew shows off about his connections. Oswald threatens to reveal Matthew's history of debt. There are religious differences too, Oswald being more Puritan -

Oswald declined a refilling of his wine by covering it with a swift hand. The movement was sharp and attracted attention. He thought that sufficient comment. Matthew suspected that he drank more freely in other company and saw rhetoric in his brother's stiff comportment. (p.73)

Even the children have poetic thoughts - young Abigail Allen "tasted the snow on her palms: a nothing taste, but full of an unnameable big thing, full of distance, full of the sky" (p.83).

An angel tells Margaret to become Mary, reborn. Her thoughts get worse - "what she could not begin to try and explain to him was that in Heaven to see and to eat are the same thing. Looking is absorption, is union, without destruction. There nothing is broken. Light flows into light endlessly, in harmony, and is perfectly still" (p.117). John Clare thinks he's Nelson, Byron, a boxer. Hannah's friend Annabella is much prettier than her, so Hannah marries the first suitor who asks her. I don't think the plot needs quite so many daughters.

In the end, Matthew invents a mechanism and borrows money to exploit it, but he goes bust. The inmates are released, Clare walking for days. "Tennyson sat by his fire sinking into the grief that will make him famous" (p.216).

Other reviews

  • Andrew Motion (Guardian)
  • Lionel Shriver (Telegraph) (Adam Foulds won the 2008 Costa Poetry Award, and he is a skilful poet. These talents are well displayed in his prose which, while lyrical, never grows fussy or highfalutin’.)
  • Goodreads
  • James Wood (It has been a while since I have read a book as richly sown with beauty as Adam Foulds’s novel ... It is a remarkable work, remarkable for the precision and vitality of its perceptions and for the successful intricacy of its prose)
  • Fatema Ahmed (New Statesman)
  • Simon K√∂vesi (Independent)
  • Ron Charles (The success of this story rests entirely on Foulds's voice, which perfectly captures Clare's mind)