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, 22 April 2017

"Stranger, baby" by Emily Berry (Faber, 2017)

Poems from Granta, LRB, Poetry, Poetry London, Poetry Review, etc.

Imagery

There's much about ghosts and water, bodies and deserts. If you've an aversion to poetry about dreams, or about therapy, you may need to skip some pages.

"Summer" has enough repetition of images to make one think that there's a conceptual structure. It begins with "In a kitchen, on an island, stirring tomato sauce, I am far from home". Already there are complications - kitchens can have islands. Then the sauce is thickening. The kitchen is hot and deadly. The sauce is deadly. It "cracks my ice caps ... they let out a scream ... Someone is holding me and crying". Perhaps doing something that mothers traditionally do has provoked a breakdown of sorts. In future the persona won't prepare food, s/he'll have food that "cannot break into me: white cheese, white bread". The poem ends with "Colour all over my hands, I get down on the floor of a tiled, white room" - which could be a ward. The sauce could be blood. White (purity? processed?) is contrasted with red (raw life).

In the middle of this poem is the line I'm most envious of - "I am thirteen years away from home. Later, twenty, and so on."

There's a temptation to transfer imagery between poems (justifiably perhaps - interviewed, the poet stated that the book "was written mostly written in fairly intense bursts over a couple of years. Most of the poems address the same subject matter"). In any case you'll need to do some calculating. After reading "my self is a river, yours is a sea ... A river cannot survive in the sea ... I cried the way the sea cries when it has swallowed a river" (p.55) it's worth exploring the implications of "sea"="Mother". The earlier "Picnic" poem involves rain and the sea too. And eyes

If you are not happy, the sea is not happy
...
Watching the sea is like watching something in pieces continually striving to be whole
...
The mood of the sea is catching
Your eyes wear out
...
Its colour became the colour of my eyes and the salt made me cry oceans
...
I started to be able to see in the dark
It hurt my eyes
          My, yes, salty, wet, ocean-coloured eyes
...
When the rain came after the drought they said it was not good enough
It would not change things
It was the wrong rain
The rain came out of my eyes

The first line associates "sea" with "you" (meaning "one"?) the "you" affecting the sea, preparing for the 2nd line in this extract. Lines 3-5 of this extract suggest that the sea affects the self. Rain and tears are conflated. Towards the end there's a suggestion that some cathartic release was merely physical - "the wrong rain" - but who are "They"?

In the extract below, towards the end of the poem, self and sea, tears, rain, language and other people come together. Language is a mirror aiding self-reflection, but can a moving self ever be captured in words?

Who are you. Who are you. Who are you

Stop, language is crawling all over me
Sometimes if you stay still long enough you can make it go.
...
If a person standing still watched another person minutely moving
          would it seem after a while as if they were watching the sea?
I remember just one thing my mother said to me:
Never look at yourself in the mirror when you're crying

In a world of water, "spillage" (which appears explictly a few times) becomes significant.

Voice-centred poetry

Bakhtin's definition of hybridization is "the mixture of two social languages within the confines of one utterance", which is evident in this book. There are rapid changes of register - switches between intimacy, intensity and evaluation - flattened into monologue. Here's a passage from "Picnic", where switches come thick and fast.

I like curved things
     Apples, peaches, the crest of a wave
We once agreed the apple was the only iconic fruit

I like it when I am writing a poem and I know that I am feeling something
To be poised and to invite contact
Or to appear to invite contact

Once the "voice" is presumed to require a persona to produce it, the reader might go a step further, reacting as if in the presence of the person in a social situation (on a bus maybe)

  • Line 1: The speaker is telling us about their likes, communicating well, though it's a rather odd predilection
  • Line 2: Perhaps realising that the first line might not be helpful, more details are provided; again, a good sign. However, the list of 2 similar objects then a very different one is rather odd
  • Line 3: Using the apple as a link, another person is introduced. After having previously drawn us in, an intellectual albeit interesting conclusion is reported. The speaker's straying off the topic
  • Line 4: The speaker's telling us about another of their likes, in another line that ends in "thing[s]", (as if a self-revelation needs to be balanced by an abstract concept). How does this interest relate to the previous one, which it's connected to by anaphora? Should we take the second phrase of this line to mean that the persona needs to write poetry so that they know that they're feeling something?
  • Line 5: "Poised" = balanced. "invite contact" = ready to engage with others. These are socially desirable goals.
  • Line 6: The difference between appearance and reality is again emphasized - others don't know the real feelings of the persona, who may only be pretending to be sociable. Again, having approached the reader, the persona withdraws, without asking for comments.

Poems like these exploit readers' conversational skills, using their reactions to the persona as the pivots that articulate the movement within a poem in preference to using their ear for music. Because discourse-based poems emulate speech, they tend not to use sound effects (regular ones, at least), using register changes instead.

Bryan Walpert points out in "Resistance to science in contemporary American poetry" that in Language poetry "The 'meaning' ... lies not in an expression of the individual author or speaker but in the collision of languages or discourses" (p.128). This isn't language poetry, but the collisions are in these poems. He points out that "it is in language that we construct what appear to us to be unified central selves and so it is language that poetry must scrutinize" (p.182). In these poems conflicting emotions are held together, just, by a single voice or the sea.

Therapy

There are poems with "Freud" in the title - his "War", "Beautiful Things", "Horses" and "Loss". There are allusions to therapy - e.g. "Imagine trying to pick up a piece of the sea and show it to a person / I tried to do that / All that year I visited a man in a room / I polished my feelings." (p.4) - polished in the way that a poem's polished, or in the way that a pebble is polished by the sea.

Some phrases have a therapy feel -

  • "I want to be loved for the wrong reasons. I mean I want to be hated for the right reasons" (p.38)
  • "Every time I say the word 'I' I am ashamed. When I say 'I want' I am triply ashamed." (p.38)
  • "My thoughts are wrong. My thoughts are wrong/ The thought that my thoughts are wrong is wrong" (p.5)
  • "If it was up to me, I would not have her back// It is not up to me, and she is not coming back." (p.37)

Therapy's a useful ploy in poetry - poets can explain and "tell" in the guise of "show".

Dreams

On p.56 there's "Over a period of weeks I had a series of dreams" followed by some prose which is dream-like. So is "Several people point to gaps in my face where the little girl has been cut out" (p.30). Strongest though is p.45, where after "Numerous dreams about rain, flooding, and bathing", we get another water image - words responded to with a smile.

Doubts

  • "Tragedy for One Voice" is formatted like a play script
  • "So" is 20 one-word lines
  • "The whole Show" is all in upper case
  • The poem on p.43 is 7 words long with an 18 word title (the poem's a quote from the writing of the poet's mother — she was an academic but also wrote novels)
  • "Aura" is right and left aligned, a gap displayed towards the middle of the lines that don't have enough letters to fill the line

Such poems will confirm the doubts some people have about modern poetry's gimmicks, not least because these particular tricks are so easy to do, and the content of these poems tends to be weaker than that of the other poems. Of course, apparent ease of production shouldn't influence assessment of effectiveness. The trouble with the "one-word-per-line" trick however is that many 20 word sentences are going to seem more interesting in that format if readers are so inclined. And experiments have risks that extend beyond the piece itself - in some books, poems provide mutually support but for me these poems raise doubts about some of the others.

Similarly, the sections in prose cast doubt on the value of the line-breaks elsewhere.

Misc

I noted some other lines -

  • "she obsessed me, in spite of the fact that she died when I was thirteen, until I was forty-four" (p.50) (Emily Berry was born in 1981)
  • "People can be removed from the world/ They don't tell you that, but it's true/ I mean, they do tell you, but they don't tell you/ People you love can be removed from the world/ (They can remove themselves) They will be removed from the world" (p.56)
  • "Be my mother, I said to the trees, in the language of trees ... they looked into my eyes as only trees can look into the eyes of a person, they touched me with the rain on their fingers till I was all droplets, till I was a mist, and they said they would" (p.57)

Conclusion

Interconnections add value to the individual pieces. For example, on p.53 there's "BAMBI'S MOTHER WAS SHOT AND KILLED DURING BAMBI'S FIRST WINTER. THESE ARE THE DANGERS OF LIFE AS A FOREST CREATURE", which benefits from being read in association with "Canopy" and "Winter".

"Ghost Dance" is long and sprawly. I prefer "Summer", "Picnic" and many fragments.

Other reviews

  • Ralf Webb
  • Annie Muir (This poem sets up a book in which its author comes out from behind the costumes and props and takes control of her own story. This is not an easy thing to do well. It is the kind of writing which acts as if it is giving everything away, even though it is the most embarrassing and painful thing in the world to do. It is the kind of writing ‘biographer[s]’ live for. Berry does it very well.
  • Sarah Crown (Where those in her first collection were sprawling, arch and metaphorically lush, these are honed down and pared back ... There’s water everywhere in these poems)
  • Dave poems (One thing Stranger, Baby does better than almost any book I’ve read is in its intensity of care for the reader, its careful management of the poems’ often brutal subject matter. The book doesn’t aim primarily to shock or appal the reader with its ideas, but it doesn’t shy away from them either ... They operate in full awareness of their artifice, remaining sensitive to the unspoken contract between reader and grieving poet: this is a book about mourning, and to some extent, the reader will anticipate some performance of sadness.)
  • Charanpreet Khaira (Berry’s speaker conveys the gulf between poetic intention and creation. Poetry is stripped of its mystery as the process of creation is described with almost staged self-awareness)
  • Todd Swift (This new book of Berry's, frankly, is stamped, on every page, with Riley's ideas and advice, regarding language, identity, the body, and the strange. ... Berry's contribution to this field is to accept both the constraints of Rileyian ironies, and the unlimited expressionism of Plathian self-revelation.)

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

"Resistance to science in contemporary American poetry" by Bryan Walpert (Routledge, 2011)

He begins with "Contemporary American poets are obsessed with science" (p.3) which over-states the case I suspect, but there's a fair bit of science in poetry nowadays, even if some of it's superficial. Poets use words from science (it's a rich source of new, strange words), use metaphors (comparing the double-slit experiment with how people act differently depending how you look at them) and exploit the authority that an association with science provides. I think a truer statement is "As science has gained in authority, literature has largely been relegated to amusement, and poetry even further marginalized because it is now primarily associated with the lyric, which is in turn associated with personal 'expression' and, in the eyes of its least charitable critics, solipsism" (p.5).

Poets and literary theorists haven't all faced this situation by retreating. He goes back to Plato to trace the status of poetry, then winds forwards - "Poetry's twin aims, expressed eloquently in 20 BC by Horace but echoed through the generations, have always been to delight and to teach, the emphasis shifting from one to the other with the currents of fashion" (p.16). He points out that "Critics have long observed that romantic poets took a great interest in scientific developments" (p.75).

Science

One tactic is to devalue science, though what is attacked is frequently an outdated version of science as if it were a pure, objective investigation of what Reality really is. Maurice Riordan is quoted as saying that "Science employs rational hypothesis and rigorous experiment in the attempt to arrive at objective laws. Typically its success requires repetitious mental activities and observation kept free of subjective interference ... science employs a language drained of suggestion ... The bulk of scientific activity, moreover, is routine and unexciting" (p.181). He selects these features to make a contrast with poetry. As generalisations I think they're true, but people working in science (Riordan too) know that

  • Science doesn't primarily seek to discover what reality really is, though it may be able to predict and control with great precision
  • Science is rich in metaphors - indeed, one could say that the value of t in a formula is like the temperature of a gas. Metaphors that are dead to scientists may be more interesting to outsiders.
  • There's more to science than Bacon's notion of collecting data and making deductions. Indeed, things can work the other way - a theory is proposed and an experiment is designed to test it. Scientists know that "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail", and that there's a risk that "Scientific instruments and experiments, then, create the reality they purport to observe" (p.156). As Bohr, said, "apparatuses are particular physical arrangements that give meaning to certain concepts to the exclusion of others"
  • There are assumptions (Kuhn paradigms) but there are also many people eager to break them - magazines like "New Scientist" frequently have iconoclastic articles about whether the speed of light is constant, etc.
  • Egos, politics and money can get in the way - scientists are only human.

A general tendency in these arguments is to suggest that all science is the same - but not all experiments are like the double-slit experiment where "The scientist's relationship with that is studied is in effect not study but entanglement", p.171 nor are they all like Evolution, where repeatability can be an issue

I agree though that science isn't as scientific as some people think. Ditto (though it's beyond the scope of this book) for maths.

Poetry

To contrast with his broad-brush description of science, Maurice Riordan produces this description of poetry - "poets rely on their instincts and shape their 'truths' out of currents of personal experience ... poets only make their insights persuasive through the use of language that is rhythmically heightened or image-laden, in order to induce a fictional mimesis of lived experience ... dull and worthless are near synonyms in literary criticism" (p.181)

Walpert uses work from the Language poets to challenge this description. Also there have always been people who claim that poetry offers a special form of truth - "far from thinking that the imagination deals with the non-existent [the romantic poets] insist that it reveals an important kind of truth", Bowra, "The Romantic Imagination", p.92. And post Foucault/Derrida, perhaps "Poetry, [Retallack's] work argues, can - if it engages discourse - create new knowledge of the world by engaging with the world; it is a part of the world with which it engages", p.157

I sympathize with the notion that "it is in language that we construct what appear to us to be unified central selves and so it is language that poetry must scrutinize", p.182

Conclusions

The most interesting aspects of this part of the book for me were the examples of poetry (by Alison Hawthorne, Deming, Pattiann Rogers, Albert Goldbarth, etc), and some points made by Barad about the implications of a fetus as shown on a sonogram not being a faithful representation (how much of mother is shown? is it made to appear independent?).

I can see how the significance of the choice of apparatus could lead to a situation where "What twentieth-century innovative artists came to see is that the form that the experiment takes is not preliminary to the answer, not preliminary to the creation of the art object. It is the answer. It is the art." (programmatic art)

If one believes that language is all that there is, and that language creates what we "know", then scientific language and poetic language are on a similar footing. But I don't believe that. Assertions like Pattiann Rogers' "I think science is a form of investigation; so is art" have little value to me. The list could be extended to include Cookery, Chess, etc.

Ultimately, as he points out, "Two questions that underlie the tension between poetry and science might be summarized as "Does science matter in the way we think it does?" and "Does poetry matter at all?" ...[Science] has permeated because it works. Science saves lives", p.180.

Other reviews

  • Peter Middleton (For several decades, literary theory largely refused to talk to the social sciences, preferring to manufacture theory in-house and produce its own versions of knowledge – though this was a concept often abjured – of language, subjectivity, and society. ...Literary historians of poetry and science in the Romantic, Victorian and high modernist periods have begun to find methods for acknowledging the validity of claims to knowledge alongside recognition of the richness of poetic thought and affective reflection on the cultural efflorescence of the sciences. ... Walpert believes that poets such as Deming and Rogers are hampered by their poetics, by their tacit theories of language, subjectivity and epistemology. Poetry of the kind written by Rogers and Deming fails to respond persuasively to the challenge from science because it refuses to take into account the constitutive character of language in the creation of knowledge ... But Walpert’s argument rests on a questionable assumption about the character of scientific knowledge ... Walpert’s discussion of [Joan Retallack's AID/I/SAPPEARANCE] deserves to be widely read; it provides one of the best accounts available of this major poet. ... . I must admit to some doubts whether Barad can quite carry the weight that Walpert wants her theory to bear. ...Resistance to Science makes an important contribution to the study of contemporary poetry and science. )

Saturday, 15 April 2017

"Quantum poetics" by Daniel Albright (CUP, 1997)

According to the foreword, "Quantum Poetics is a study of the way Modernist poets appropriated scientific metaphors as part of a general search for the pre-verbal origins of poetry". The author identifies 2 trends -

  • "The investigations of physicists into the nature of elementary particles gave strength to one class of poet: the poet-researcher, the poet-engineer ... the words themselves convey the poememe across the gap beneath writer and reader" (p.18-19). An example is "Pound, with his images, vortices, hard bits of rhythm, was a researcher into elementary particles" (p.24)
  • "The investigations of physicists into the phenomena of radiation gave strength to another class of poet: ... the words per se are of little account" (p.18-19). An example is D.H. Lawrence - diffuse poetry where "the poet of the wave writes, in a sense, only one poem, his whole canon" and there is a "loss of prestige of the noun" (p.20)

He points out that these tendencies were around long before science, and that they're evident in other arts too. He writes that "the construction of poetic ultimates through the theft of the elementary particles of physics is merely an exercise in metaphor, and deceptive metaphor at that. But the success or failure of a work of art has never depended upon the correctness of the artist's theories about art" (p.2). Science was in the ascendency in modernist times, and poets were explicitly alluding to it both in their poetry and essays. "Certain poets, especially Pound, aspired to a genuinely quantum-mechanical view of the poetic act, as if poetry and physics were the same thing" (p.2).

The 2 trends weren't mutually exclusive - most Modernist poets could (like Niels Bohr with waves and particles) see things both ways -

  • "By 1920, Pound had reached the limits of the particle model", (p.26)
  • "D.H.Lawrence, for all his sense that language should aspire to the condition of wireless telegraphy, came to hate many aspects of the literature of the wave", (p.25)
  • "Eliot ... reached the limits of the wave model, and sought relief in particles", (p.27)

Discussing Yeats, he strays too far from the plot, though Yeats' reaction to the rise of Modernism is interesting - "In much of Yeats's work one finds a preoccupation with empty backgrounds ... As Yeats moved away from the doctrine that the proper goal of art is self-expression, towards a colder, more impersonal theory of art, these empty backgrounds started to yield images of a different sort" p.33

Turning to Ezra Pound, we read that had several attempts to identify the essence of poetry -

  • "I believe that the proper and perfect symbol is the natural object, that if a man use 'symbols' he must so use them that their symbolic function does not obtrude so that a sense, and the poetic quality of the passage, is not lost to those who do not understand the symbol as such" Literary Essays, p.9, Pound, 1918
  • "Imagisme is not symbolism. The symbolists dealt in 'association,' that is,, in a sort of allusion, almost of allegory. They degraded the symbol ... The symbolist's symbols have a fixed value, like numbers in arithmetic, like 1, 2, and 7. The imagiste's images have a variable significance, like the signs a, b, and x in algebra", Ezra Pound and the Visual Arts, p.201 1914

He points out that Pound's "image made little distinction between the two terms of the comparison" (p.140)

After that, the few science intrusions are hardly relevant, but there are some interesting quotes all the same

  • "many of the characteristic gestures of Modernist poetry - such as its disruptions, irruptions, abruptions, interruptions of syntax - are based on the old-fashioned linguistics that Saussure and Wittgenstein tried to refute, according to which meaning is generated, not from phonic differentiation or the play of usage, but from primary uralt pan-significant vocables", p.151
  • "Both Eliot and Pound were much struck by the flimsiness of Lessing's division of the fine arts into the arts of succession (nacheinander), such as literature and music, and the arts of juxtaposition (nebeneinander), such as painting and sculpture: for Eliot and Pound, the spatial arts have a strong urge toward unfolding themselves in time", p.156
  • "Much of the vigor of Modernism sprang from the attempt to discover the homologies among the arts", p.164
  • "The Saussurean view of linguistics has generated a method of literary criticism that has proved remarkably successful", p.282

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

"Subtle Bodies" by Norman Rush (Granta, 2013)

53 numbered sections, some half a page long, some a dozen or so pages. Ned (48, a campaign organiser) has rushed off to the funeral of Douglas, an old friend who died in an accident. Douglas was the charismatic leader of a gang of 5 idealistic students who have kept in touch. The survivors meet at Douglas's big, isolated house. They discuss Douglas and the changes in themselves. His widow and strange son Hume (14) are there. Ned's partner, Nina (37) wants to get pregnant (the trick is to do headstands after). She has a quirky mother - an astrologist - whose advise she follows. Without warning, Nina catches up with Ned while he's with his friends because she's ovulating.

The females want babies. The males want women and power. I began to wonder what the twist was going to be - Elliot killed Douglas to get his hands on his wife and the estate? Douglas faked his death to find out what others thought of him, or for insurance?

The prose is jaunty -

He said, "I know you like to keep on about my supposed anarchism, but for a change you go ahead and come up with a better system of your own."
"Well under anarchism would the trains run on time?"
After a pause, he said, "Trains? what trains?"
All this had only been a diversion meant to distract him so she could get into the bathroom ahead of him. She laughed as she won the race.
(p.149)

Why the title? Well, "the question was still there of whether their true interior selves - the subtle bodies inside - were still there", p.198.

Other reviews

  • Rachel Cusk (Subtle Bodies is a novel whose assumptions are so thoroughly back to front that it offers an oddly lucid account of its own shortcomings)
  • Geoff Dyer (A creaking of novelistic machinery can be heard as the gathering’s darker purpose is winched into action but not loudly enough to disturb our stay in these sprightly pages)
  • Andrew Marszal (Subtle Bodies never allows its characters to move beyond the glib and unlikable. While sporadically moving, this novel suffers the same fate

Saturday, 8 April 2017

"Unthology 9", Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones (eds)

Spoiler alert

  • "A Trip Out" (Juno Baker) - Jim fears going our because of the cars, but he has to go out anyway to save his illicit plants.
  • "Yellow" (Roelof Bakker) - The partner of a swimmer who was lost at sea sees someone die in a swimming pool, then tries to kill himself at sea. But he's saved.
  • "Trap" (Judy Birkbeck) - a male composer and female artist move to a remote cottage. He continues to have international successes. She gets worked up about animal cruelty, and leaves him.
  • "May Day" (SJ Butler) - In lyrical prose, we read about widowed Harry, his longing for the sea, a lost ball, a tree. "hand in hand, they climb higher and higher, they swing with the waves, on and on, till there's nowhere to fall, and nothing to hold but air, and he lets go".
  • "You May as Well Give up Trying to Make Something of Yourself" (Gordon Collins) - A kidney operation with a difference. I like it.
  • "A debt" (Dan Coxon) - Greg saves a suicider then abandons him, passing the buck (actually, a figurine of a man with a cat) to his sister as she's struggling with cats.
  • "As Linda was Buying the Tulips" (Sarah Dobbs) - Set in New York. A male artist has a strange relationship with his sexy mother. Then Linda comes into their lives.
  • "In Rehearsal" (Sarah Evans) - An ambitious, childless surgeon saves a newborn with a risky operation.
  • "I" (Rosie Gailor) - While drowning herself in the bath, a character recalls some liquid-related episodes when self-respect was weakened or re-enforced. A works kitchen is mentioned.
  • "About Time" (Tania Hershman) - Time machines, with a twist.
  • "Scapegoat" (Tim Love) - The main character's flexible personae appear in a few episodes starting in a works kitchen, involving a cancer sufferer, ending with an attempted death by water.
  • "Motes" (Mark Mayes) - the main character takes on a strange job. I like the style. It's my favourite piece so far - p.36 is my favourite page of the book.
  • "Breathless" (Jane Roberts) - a 3-page deathbed scene. The woman's partner had left her. He has returned for her final days.
  • "My knee" (John D Rutter) - A couple who are about to divorce (she was unfaithful) are involved in a car accident that's not their fault. He loses his cool with the other driver, punching her.
  • "Traffic" (Nick Sweeney) - Set in Kiev. A mother contemplates a new life, planning to sell her baby.
  • "Marlboro Country" (Tim Sykes) - Set in a (Russian?) ward of (terminal?) patients. A carer overdoses a patient hoping that she'll have a few minutes of bliss.
  • "Double Concerto for Two Violins" (Jonathan Taylor) - Music and memories of a concentration camp.

Death and suicide are frequent. So is water. Females are less faithful than males. The only standard family unit in the book ("Trap") won't last much longer. On the plus side there are no sandwich-generation stories, and no stories centred around Alzheimer's.

It's available on the Kindle

Other reviews

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

"The Faber book of 20th-century Italian poems" by Jamie McKendrick (ed) (Faber and Faber 2004)

In his introduction McKendrick points out that "Twentieth-century Italian poetry is still largely known in the English-speaking world via Montale" and that Italian poetry is more inter-textual than English; poets allude to other poet's poems.

Translators include Michael Donaghy, Kenneth Kock, Robert Lowell, Edwin Morgan, Paul Muldoon, Tom Paulin, Christopher Reid, etc. 44 poets are represented. I've heard of 13 of them. An Italian I know who did literature in Italy until she was 18 has heard of 10 of them, which is probably more than a typical English person would recognise from a comparable English anthology.

In the 2nd poem, D'Annunzio writes "The mouth of woman never was to me so full of pleasure in the ways of love ... as the pale opening out, the silent lips of this small stream that springs in Falterona" which I can't take seriously, and yet I'd be happy to read "My mind's a jellyfish" in a recent work. One's tolerance to hyperbole is time/culture-dependent I suppose.

Here are some soundbites -

  • "a suburb that always/ looks/ like the day they dismantle a fairground" (Ungaretti)
  • "lifeless as a circus/ between performances" (Ungaretti)
  • "then the lightning makes trees and walls/ famous for a moment" (Montale)
  • "Snowflakes ... An expert in meteorological matters would call it a falling in love but me, an expert in these things I'd say perhaps that it's an ambush!" (Rosselli)
  • "The Moroccans with the carpets/ seem like saints/ but they're salesmen" (Cavalli)
  • "Behold the earth, this hapless aircraft/ held hostage by an armed passenger" (Magrelli)

Other reviews

Saturday, 1 April 2017

"Swimming with Jellyfish" by Stuart Pickford (Smith Doorstep, 2016)

Poems from Rialto, Stand, The Poetry Review, etc.

I liked "Skin", about how growing older feels at various stages of life. "Lighthouse" is 28 lines. A father drops his son and struggling wife off for a guided walk. He picks them up at the other end, the final lines being "There, there he is/ sitting outside the pub, waving". Here's the penultimate stanza - "At the lighthouse, the guide laments/ how it's now obsolete - all shipping/ has sat nav - but the captains/ still look up to know it's there". I looked up "Sugar-stealers" - they're dandelion seeds. I like "Acts of Faith", its excessive control. "Dads at Weddings" could have been a lot worse. "After Closing Time" works for me. "Middle Age" has many funny (though not always surprising) lines. Strange that it's in triplets though - after all, "Tips" has 5-lined stanzas. "Showering on a campsite" brings back memories, though I prefer "The truth about gaffer tape" which doesn't. I like "Ana Mladic Remembers Her Father".

The "Storywaters" section of the book deals with a late pregnancy. Between holidays in exotic places there's a pregnancy test, ultra-sound, amniocentesis and planning how to turn the study into another bedroom. Then the birth of "it, foetus, he, our son". My least favourite section - too few surprises.

Section 3 has some "dads growing old" poems - "In six short months, I've become my dad" (p.63). In "Note" a father's married life is summarised, then at the end, after "He waited till the girls had gone, were doing nicely", he went to a cavern. "It was normal week day./ He left his briefcase at the top./ The police said he left no note.". "Notes for a Successful Affair" begins with "Delete your mobile's Call History" and ends with "It it wasn't for this affair, you'd have left/ your wife years ago. You're doing it for her". I liked "Swimming with Jellyfish" and "Blind". In "Diving on Tongue Reef", "Clown, angel, trumpet and butterfly all making sense with fish".

I've written several poems like these. The poems in this book may well be better than mine, but they'd have to be much better if I were going to be convinced. Quite a lot of the life experiences in this book are inevitable material for poems (or humourous articles). In my "Why I slept with a stranger" poem there's "because it's my way of coping with raw desires that I know upset you", etc. In my "Trying again" poem, kids are taken to an ultrasound scan (I think ultrasound scans - foetuses waving, or distant lands being viewed on a radar screen - are the shards and rainbows of parenthood poetry). In my stuff, sons begin to let me win at sports - middle age must have its funny side.

Other reviews

  • Wendy Klein (Pickford’s conversations between men ring with masculine authenticity. ... This is a poetry of family, memory and relationships: narrative poems delivered with warmth and style ... Stuart Pickford is a master of the light touch,)
  • Matthew Stewart (Rather than throwing all sorts of fireworks and overt technical virtuosity at his poems, Stuart Pickford specialises in the tightrope-walking art of simplicity.)