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 October 2016

"Grief is the thing with feathers" by Max Porter (Faber, 2015)

A short-sectioned novella-length piece of text with 3 main voices whose titles are at the top of each section -

  • Dad - a grieving intellectual - "The doorbell rang and I braced myself for more kindness" (p.4). His wife died 4 or 5 days before
  • Boys - 2 young sons, far more articulate than their age would lead you to suspect
  • Crow - Wild - "Strap me to the mast or I'll bang her until my mathematics poke out her sorry, sorry, sorry, look! A severed hand, bramble, box of swans, box of stories, piss-arc, better off, must stop shaking, must stay still, mast stay still" (p.11). Also knowing - "In other versions I am a doctor or a ghost. Perfect devices: doctors, ghosts and crows. We can do things other characters can't, like eat sorrow, un-birth secrets and have theatrical battles with language and God" (p.15)

Interactions begin between these voices -

  • Dad - "There is a fascinating constant exchange between Crow's natural self and his civilised self" (p.22)
  • Boys - "Dad has gone. Crow is in the bathroom ... He says SUDDEN TRAUMA INDUCED ALTERATION OF THE ALERT STATE. Dad comes back. Crow changes his tune" (p.23)

Then the boys' Gran dies. Time pass. "There was very little division between [the boys'] imaginary and real worlds, and people talked of coping mechanisms and normal childhood and time. Many people said 'You need time', when what we needed was washing powder, nit shampoo, football stickers, batteries, bows, arrows, bow, arrows" (p.38). The father recalls when "love was settling into the shape of our lives like cake mixture reaching the corners of the tin as it swells and bakes" (p.39)

The father's been commissioned to write a book - "Ted Hughes' Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis".

Crow starts telling a story - "Once upon a time there were two big men who were brothers with one another. They were in brother with each other" (p.43). At the end he asks "Comprehension Questions" including "If the boots are a metaphor for the ability to cope with grief, who do you think has died?" (p.44).

Crow also has things to say about threes - "But don't stop looking. The triptych is about ways of never stopping. It is culture. On the right we have the boys. Two forms, but one shape, could be female, could be male, we can just about decipher four little legs and four little arms (the newborn calf of the right-hand panel!) and tiny little hopeful faces. And sense is suddenly made of the previous panels, this is pure mathematics, this is ancient logic. It is nature. This is what I call the lift-off, late style, the ten-year-journey-home, the arrow through the eye-hole, the fugue. Very sunset. Very bard. Very poignant" (p.47)

Crow is many things - family protector of sorts, a provider of alternative viewpoints. When dad gets poetically sad on p.50, the section ends with "Eugh, said Crow, you sound like a fridge magnet". On p.103 the bird says "You'll remember with some of my earlier work with you, that what appeared to be primal corvid vulgarity was in fact a highly articulated care programme, designed to respond to the nuances of your recovery". When crow disappears, the father appears to be over the worst.

The boys tell fairy tales. I especially like the one on p.73. And I like the story of the father's trip to see Ted Hughes in Oxford. I like the book. If "Citizen" is poetry, so is this, less pretentiously.

Other reviews

  • Kirsty Gunn (Guardian) (this book that looks and reads like a collection of poetry is very much a novel; a complex poetic grouping of ideas and images that is as easy to read as a children’s story)
  • Adam Mars-Jones (London Review of Books) (Max Porter’s compact and splendid book, a polyphonic narrative with elements of the prose poem, cracks open a set of emotions that has become spuriously coherent and tractable)
  • Heller McAlphin (a wondrous, supremely literary, ultimately hopeful little book)
  • Ann Hulbert (The Atlantic) (The Emily Dickinson–derived title and featherweight of this remarkable volume should alert you that it is more prose poem than novel, but no less capacious for that.)
  • Karen Gentry (The Rumpus) (Porter’s collage of prose and lineated poetry is the very opposite of self-help. Grief does not seek to offer answers, but instead brilliantly mimics the chaos of the grieving brain, offering a vision of how loss dramatically alters it.)
  • Katie Kitamura (New York Times) (One of the challenges faced by a novel about grief is rendering in linear terms a sensation that is more akin to a field. Grief is all-encompassing, radiating outward in multiple directions, circular rather than linear. Recovery is a destination that in Porter’s novel is also a form of betrayal)

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

"The Interpreters House (issue 63)"

I like the way this magazine's evolved - lots of poets and good poems, some reviews and the odd story. What caught my eye in the issue was that

  • in general I preferred the ordinary magazine poems to the competition winners. Sally Festing's commended poem interested me, because it was entitled "What Wikipedia Doesn't Say About My Father" and begins stanzas with "That these were the days of lobotomy", "That it wasn't long before his brother", "That he didn't pretend to be perfect", etc. These stanzas could have begun with "These were the days of lobotomy", "It wasn't long before his brother", "He didn't pretend to be perfect", etc. The printed version feels gimmicky to me, though such repetition's a common enough ploy. Maybe I'll use it one day.
  • I liked Julian Dobson's poems.
  • Martin Malone's review of the Faber New Poets pamphlets copes well with a demanding brief.
  • Though I'm glad there are stories, I can imagine them being shouldered out sooner or later. There's room for only one or two of them, a shrinking habitat which puts them under more pressure.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

"The beautiful librarians" by Sean O'Brien (Picador, 2015)

I'm having trouble getting much out of this. Much of it means nothing to me - e.g. "The difference you missed before/ Is not the weapons only but the belts/ That can hold up the trousers" (p.24).

I like "Antistrophe: Underwater Fires" and "Where it Comes From". I think I understand the Larkinesque poems like "The Beautiful Librarians" (which includes "It passes time that passes anyway") and "Nobody's Uncle" ("The lottery's completely passed him by./ On chairs in shady doorways shelling peas,/ Tilting up their faces to the sunset, No girls grown old think fondly of him now"). I like and/or understand odd phrases elsewhere - e.g. from "At the solstice" - "As daylight turns to cinema once more:// A lustrous darkness deep in ice-age cold,/ And the print in need of restoration// Starting to consume itself/ With snowfall where no snow is falling now". "Residential Brownjohnesque" makes fun of Arvon-like courses - "And someone who is always not there yet/ But on a train / a plane / a mission / medication / sectioned", but it's an easy target. I've seen much funnier articles elsewhere.

Some of the first lines have contradictions, often to do with time - "The morning lasts forever. It does not" (p.2), "We were due here yesterday or never" (p.17), "Here is the present we know as forever" (p.56). And later the final lines join in - "a rose/ That flowers here where nothing grows" (p.60), "Where we will stay forever. Come now. Do not. Yes." (p.61).

Other reviews

  • Guardian
  • James Kid (Independent)
  • James Marriott (Perhaps the funniest poem in the collection is ‘Residential Brownjohnesque’ ... Perhaps the best thing in the collection is ‘Always’)
  • Dabid green (The poem that might be even better than the title poem is Cafe de l'imprimerie)
  • Marc Woodward (Stride) (There is much to admire in the writing here; there's a depth that demands the reader work hard. In a few of the 40 poems the reader is left with the feeling that there are keys pieces of information he doesn't possess and which are needed to unlock the puzzle - for example in 'Immortals' where less sympathetic readers may wonder if it's worth the effort... And in that regard it reminds of Eliot. Indeed there is a sense of three poets present here: Eliot, Auden and Larkin. Eliot for some of the denser imagery and that requirement for more information; Auden because O'Brien plays with different forms whilst carrying strong socio-political messages; and Larkin because there is an overarching bleakness.)
  • Aileen Ni Gillechroist

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

"Rain dancers in the Data Cloud" by William Stephenson (Templar, 2012)

Only 16 pages, but nothing's easily skipped - each poem parachutes you into a linguistic milieu. There's a relationship therapist, a terminal case, a bomb-maker, an online RPG gamer who's contacted by a math prof imprisoned in China, the Jewish experience, Yoda coming to terms with fame - "a star born is". We visit Barcelona, China and Florence. Several of the narrators are away from their culture or language, often doing something mundane. Words slip away from their original meanings, become jargon, trademarks, or symbols on a broken keyboard. And there's surrealism in "The Man Who Became a Syndicated Strip".

2 of the poems are online in Sentinel.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

''The Best British Short Stories 2016", Nicholas Royle (ed) (Salt 2016)

Royle's introduction shows that the net's been cast wide, though maybe he was sent stuff as much as he hunted it down. Some familiar authors are here (Alex Preston, David Gaffney, Graham Mort, Stuart Evers, Janice Galloway, etc) and a few magazines/publishers I've heard of (Picador, Confingo, Brittle Star, Lighthouse, Seren, Ambit) but many of the outlets are new to me ("The Ofi Press Magazine", "HOME Publications", "Anglo Files", "Flight Press") and many established magazines and writers don't appear.

Cutting to the chase -

  • Claire-Louise Bennett - Too long for what it is
  • Neil Campbell - No
  • Crista Ermiya - No, except for the final page
  • Stuart Evers - Yes. I've not read it before, though I've explored similar themes.
  • Trevor Fevin - No
  • David Gaffney - Yes
  • Janice Galloway - Yes. Big issues dealt with successfully
  • Jessie Greengrass - No
  • Kate Hendry - Maybe, but it's not enough. I can't see it being in the US equivalent anthology
  • Thomas McMullan - Yes. Perhaps my favourite
  • Graham Mort - Yes
  • Ian Parkinson - Yes. Features a character called Nicholas Boyle
  • Tony Peake - Definitely no
  • Alex Preston - No. I thought from the start that the might be ghosts, which even if wrong took some of the fun away
  • Leone Ross - No
  • John Saul - Yes
  • Colette Sensier - Maybe. I think I've seen the old people and MMORPGs combination before
  • Robert Sheppard - No
  • DJ Taylor - No
  • Greg Thorpe - Maybe
  • Mark Valentine - No

Other reviews

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

"Physical" by Andrew McMillan (Cape, 2015)

The book contains about 34 pages of poetry, not much more than a pamphlet. I liked most of the poems at the start ("The Men are Weeping in the Gym", "Screen"), disliked or didn't understand several from p.15 onward ("Leda to her daughters", "how to be a man"), then began to like some again from p.45 ("I.M", "Revelations"). The common themes are men's bodies and the way men are supposed to behave, contrasting with how particular men feel - body versus mind; tough exterior versus tenderness. It's that "versus" that he seeks to transcend, preserving both sides.

I'll focus on the first poem, "Jacob and the Angel" because it's a sort of Prelude, and because it's attracted the attention of several reviewers. I had to look up the story because it's not related in the poem. Stanza 1 begins "taken literally", stanza 2 begins "taken allegorically" - a division that haunts the rest of the book. It ends with "his youngest ... says writing something down keeps it alive".

  • Ben Wilkinson points out that the tale's "conventionally viewed as an allegorical contest between the flesh and the spirit", going on to say "In reimagining an iconic religious scene as a chance sexual encounter between gay lovers, the poem is something of a manifesto". I understand that.
  • Dave Coates sees "a deep sense of unease about the processes that turn these private moments into the poems’ public gestures" re "Jacob’s closing request ‘for ink to be brought". It's his youngest son, Benjamin, who asks for ink, though that detail doesn't affect Coates' main point - McMillan doesn't want events to be poetized out of existence.
  • For Rachel Chanter it's "the complete absence of such exultant language as is found in hagiographic accounts" that "renders this poem both startling and tender"

Other reviews

  • Ben Wilkinson (Alongside these portraits of a heterosexual, damaged masculinity as witnessed, Physical also explores what it is to be a gay man. Some of these poems are couched in symbolism – or rather, unpick the euphemistic manner in which the homoerotic has been historically conveyed. ... The long poem at the centre of this collection, “Protest of the Physical”, is a tour de force in the true sense. ... Minutely observed, bold yet understated, moving and often profound in the same breath, Physical is a book everyone should read.)
  • Dave Coates (Throughout its lyrical moments of intimacy – or, more often, physically proximate solitude – there is a deep sense of unease about the processes that turn these private moments into the poems’ public gestures. ... physical is a complex and deeply human book, with some of the finest and most clear-eyed poems about love and personal-level power dynamics I’ve read in a long time.)
  • Richard Scott (I admire McMillan’s syntactical habits of using no punctuation and no capital letters; amid his democracy of men he promotes a refreshing democracy of language where no word or letter is superior to another)
  • Rachel Chanter (This collection both affects and instructs, reconciling the tensions of its subjects into an unalloyed whole which manages to convey at once the pain and joy of love; to bring together and bind the bodily and the spiritual like reunited lovers.)
  • Alan Dent (Unfortunately, the fuss around McMillan is more akin to that around One Direction than the considered response of diligent critics ... at best a mediocre first attempt ... The second section ... is thirteen pages of dull pretentiousness. ... That significant attention has been given to this flimsy debut is testimony to the emptiness of our literary culture. ... no one with a real appreciation or knowledge of poetry could find this an inspiring book. There are some competent and even good poems, but no more than that.)
  • lonesomereader (The poetry in "Physical" has the unique and astounding ability to make you reassess how you exist in your own body. It provokes ontological questions about whether a person’s mind is couched in the gray masses in our heads or the neurological connections within our bodies. )
  • Martyn Crucefix (I don’t think the longer sequence ‘protest of the physical’ is as good as the other sections of the book ... but here is a really talented and bold writer)
  • Robin Houghton
  • Frances Kelly (these poems extend to more than “masculinity” and sexuality; they express love and loss and desire as most of us, of any gender, know it.)
  • Maria Taylor
  • Gregory Woods in the Jan-Feb 2016 edition of PN Review (rewarmed and dilatory ... the homo-eroticism is generally bland and timid ... McMillan's apparent satisfaction with vagueness of diction ... There is indeed beauty in the ordinary but I'm not convinced McMillan ever finds it)

Saturday, 1 October 2016

"The Observances" by Kate Miller (Carcanet, 2015)

Poems from Ambit, Poetry Review, Rialto, TLS, including the winner of the Edwin Morgan prize in 2008.

The first poem is "Regarding a Cloud", which begins thus -

In the ground is an eye,
satined and turtled,
regarding a cloud

It studies the scene
from a patch in the earth
and reflects: I am part of the sky

Actually it's a handleless spoon, convex side up. It's compared to jewels used as eyes in statues of gods, which people gouged out and stole. But this spoon has to stay "earthed", "balancing us on its shell" - an allusion a cosmic myth about turtles, I presume. So is the conclusion that we should welcome seeing things from a novel viewpoint, but we should keep our feet on the ground? There must be more to it than that. Perhaps the 6th line is the key - the spoon acquires self-awareness and identifies with heaven, part of which it reflects. Or perhaps it's significant that the wisdom is delivered by a suddenly appearing Anthony.

"Promise" seems minor. In "The Long Goodbye" (which has more clouds) "You" is more a tree than an old person. "Couple in the park with no kids" is minor. In "No Place" (aabcbcbc rhyme scheme), the persona identifies with a kid who looks newly homeless. They're both looking at a pair of Grebes who will return to the same nest year after year. And that's it?

Themes so far - persona as observer; personification of inanimate objects; a chain of imagery running through successive poems - clouds, trees, walks on the beach, birds. Quiet treatments - sometimes too subtle for me.

There are several poems that I can follow but I don't see why they should matter to me. In "all'antica" for example, the persona leaves a house past trees whose blossom is falling, and is blocked by a mare (rather than a car?). At the end "stooped gardeners turn to look,/ then go on, unconcerned, the tools to hand// unaltered since the year the Empress indulged/ her husband's whim for orchards.". "On Lower March, the Wallflowers" unconcerns me too. Ditto "Observances: The Chapels at Paleochora", "The Deposition", "From the Gods" (the latter describing the protracted actions of a couple (old? rustic?) as if it were a ritual or they were on stage) and "Pilgrimage". I wonder if some of the poems are there primarily because they fit into the sequence. "The Apple Farmers' Calendar" is more interesting.

When she uses extended metaphors, the vehicle and tenor can be interchangeable. One of them usually involves a static art. "Girl Running Still", my favourite poem so far, is in 5 parts stretched across 6 pages -

  • "I   If I could take one home" - The persona wonders which figure in a group sculpture (Nereid Monument) s/he'd like to take home. The original models for the sculpture are imagined, playing in the sea. Then we're told that the persona's uncle watched girls play similarly.
  • "II   At the museum - my last visit" - It begins "Today before I neared the usual room, a child ran up ... Watch me, he gestured, I am so alive". The persona's "sat too often over-hot like any visitor in hospital, distracted by illuminated signs, the clock, attendants". It's more hospital than museum - the aunt being the patient?
  • "III   In the dark and only now" - The persona is alone in the dark with the art-work, or the patient. A deeper understanding becomes possible.
  • "IV   Stone Waves" - It begins "Those men who took you from your bed". Then the persona watches quarrymen cutting out an appropriate block of stone to sculpt a woman
  • "V   Greeting" - "Your head may be on show elsewhere ... you wait, extend a hand towards the new arrivals"

I think it's a good poem. "At the root of the wind is strife" looks as if it could be interesting too, though I don't understand it. "Single Figures" is too minor. I like "Enter the sea" and "The shift". I don't get "After the Ban" or "Sea View and Separation, Sole Bay". I'm pleased to see that my home town features in at least 3 of the poems in the last section.

In summary then, a mixture of poems that seem too easy for me (I sense I've missed/underestimated something), some that are too difficult for me, and a few that are just right.

Other reviews