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, 18 November 2017

"The Trip to Echo Spring" by Olivia Laing (Canongate, 2014)

A study of 6 drunk writers - F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Berryman, Cheever and Carver. She quotes from Lewis Hyde's "Alcohol and Poetry" - 'four of the six Americans who have won the Nobel Prize for literature were alcoholic. About half of our alcoholic writers eventually killed themselves.'. She writes that "Most of this six had - or saw themselves as having - that most Freudian of pairings, an overbearing mother and a weak father. All were tormented by self-hatred and a sense of inadequacy. Three were profoundly promiscuous, and almost all experienced conflict and dissatisfaction with regard to their sexuality" (p.9). She visits their haunts, the landscapes they fled to for recovery, goes to AA meetings and recalls her alcoholic father, how he left when she was 4, how another alcoholic, a woman, came to live with her mother, how eventually they ended up in Southsea then on an estate near Portsmouth, UK.

She 33. During the long train rides across the USA she reads their works for scenes that might be true regarding the effects of alcohol, reading much into Cheever's "The Swimmer". She reads their letters and diaries, finds out how they use drink as a cure for social anxiety. She writes about their common themes of insomnia and denial.

By p.170 a theory's beginning to emerge - "The three-way relationship between childhood experience, alcohol and writing ... A sense was building in me that there was a hidden relationship between the two strategies of writing and drinking and that both had to do with a feeling that something precious had gone to pieces, and a desire at once to mend it". She notices that "the dream of letting go into water is prevalent in the work of alcoholic writers. ... little fantasies of cleanliness, purification, dissolution and death" (p.207).

I hadn't realised that "The expansiveness Lish objected to was intimately bound up with [Carver's] own sense of recovery and renewed grace" (p.277). In the end Carver acquiesced to the removal of the happy endings.

Other reviews

  • Sophia Martelli (Laing explores the causes in admirable detail and astonishingly good prose – incisive, powerful, illuminating – that rivals the output of the authors she is writing about. )
  • Keith Miller (There are even fragments of what might have been a rather better book: a straightforward first-person memoir in which Laing talks about having an alcoholic stepmother. But it doesn’t seem to occur to her that her personal experiences may have made her less, not more, able to write objectively about other people’s drinking. )

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

"Luna Park" by Grevel Lindop (Carcanet, 2015)

Poems from "London Magazine", "PN Review", "Poetry London", "Stand", "TLS", etc. I was impressed by individual imagery and the overall imagery arc of the first poem, "Cosmos". It begins with the night sky - "Between Orion and Gemini, an almost-full moon" - then the influence of distant objects on water - "Wrinkled tidewater tilting at the lips of Morecambe Bay" - then resemblances between heaven and earth - "Galaxies of cow parsley edging the valley fields./ Slow explosions of lichen on the fellside boulders". From fields we come closer to home before reaching out again at the end - "An ink-slick spreading in the pen's furrow:/ gold keel ploughing an ocean of churned Norway spruce.// All of it drawn and drawn into the pupil's black hole,/ the dark that cannot be seen, the space that is everything else".

But the third poem, "Bed", is disappointing - unsurprising imagery and structure. In section 1 the bed's a "great book. Open the covers". In section 2 "it's a boat ... that tilts on the tides of sleep" then in the final section "it's a grave, the narrow space where each day's laid to rest ... the morning provisional resurrection that one day will not come."

"Pencil", "Pupil" and "Pomegranate" are segued associations, some rounded with a pensée. In "Pencil" for example, there's "the point at first hypodermic-sharp,/ then an aircraft-nose, streamlined but soon/ softening, snubbed by the flow of paper/ that streams against it, an abrasive sky/ whose friction will humble it to a mere nub, unhelpful cobble" ending with "reach for the sharpener, you deserve/ point, clarity, a pristine world/ for your thoughts. Though there's imperceptibly/ less of it each time, and a little less.". "Cigar" (which won 2nd prize in the 2014 Kent and Sussex competition) has some interesting facts about cigars, ending with "Both of us end in ash."

He can do iambics too -

In spring we walk by Seven Springs,
fresh water welling from the earth,
a long pool welcoming the dogs
and children shrieking their delight;
the shattered water's upturned sky.
(p.41)

Sometimes there's rhyme

Disordered times: an almost rainless spring,
hot April, sun and freezing winds that bring
leaves and white blossom drifting to the door,
dusty and littered on this marble floor
(p.43)

though overall I don't care much for the "Slugborough Eclogues" section from which these extracts come.

Then there are travelogues, some more prosey than others

  • from "For Our Lady of Guadalupe" - The taxi windscreen's broken,/ lightning-starred with a crack from one corner:/ signature of a stone from Oaxaca road./ It drops me by the shanty-town of stalls/ where I will buy her plastic image later -/ garish, I hope, and cheap,/ for kitsch is authenticity
  • from "The Letters" - Soon after dawn, one side of the square's lined/ with housepainters, electricians, plumbers hoping for work./ They sit against the cathedral railings, each/ with a hand-lettered cardboard sign affirming his profession

There are some short-lined rhymed pieces, and "The Graveyard Yew" which has a abadeedeb rhyme scheme. Here's a sample

No: the yew's flesh is white, mottled blood-red.
You might carve two chess-armies from one trunk,
the scarlet-marbled buttermilk that's spread
like bull's flesh, or the fat that laps
the human struggle of a stopped heart
no voltage will restart.
On dark and day its rings are fed, it traps
those opposites with patient art,
the branches shading where the roots are sunk.

Though it's a stanza that I selected more or less at random, the craftsmanship is evident. I like the imagery, and the organisation.

On pages 77-92 (yes, it's a long book) there's some prose about New Orleans 4 years after Katrina. Moreso even than some of the poems, it has a BBC Radio "From Our Own Correspondent" feel.

Reviews

  • Adam Tavel (Marked by its descriptive lushness, its multicultural immersion, and its formal dexterity, Luna Park achieves a rare harmony, proving itself one of last year’s best books.)
  • Edmund Prestwich (I found it hugely rewarding, though I have difficulty with Lindop’s faith in what his website refers to as “the ‘deep imagination’ – the place where our individual insight and creativity connect with universal archetypes and spiritual dimensions”. Sometimes I felt this faith gave a soft-centredness to the writing.)

Saturday, 11 November 2017

"Forgive the language" by Katy Evans-Bush (Penned in the margins, 2015)

Articles/essays from "Contemporary Poetry Review", "The Dark Horse", "The Los Angeles Review of Books", "Magma", "Poetry London", "The Poetry Review", etc - an impressive haul. Inevitably there's some repetition, with pages 45 and 50, 61 and 73, 130 and 215 sharing blocks of lines. She's a pro - professional in her approach, and in favour of what she writes about.

Comments on particular essays

I was aware of Ira Lightman's investigations into plagiarism, which she tackles in "Now I'm a real boy". I hadn't realised how many moral boundaries Sheree Mack had transgressed -

  • She broke the trust that fellow workshoppers presume
  • She exploited the Black/authenticity theme, bizarrely transplanting poems by Douglas Dunn, etc to Trinidad
  • She taught creative writing at the OU.

KEB writes "It seems to me obvious that this is self-harming activity" (p.191), which seems quite possible.

"The Line" covers much material in a few pages, making several useful points -

  • "Clearly the line plays a different role in sound, concrete, 'innovative,' 'post-avant,' language and other poetries" p.194
  • "Many poetry tutors don't like to discuss [line endings] at all; there is such a taboo on discussing this most personal aspect of poetry" p.196

Uncharacteristically she quotes some lines she doesn't like. Then on p.204 she takes some lines from "Briggflats" and reformats them so that there are "Orphaned words ... Symmetries ruined ... like a refrain in a 60s pop song ... a line too clotted even to falter ... trivial ... the final line portentous and reminiscent of Peter Greenaway". I can't see quite as much of a difference between the 2 examples. She points out some risks with certain types of line break -

  • "Done badly, it means the reader has to go back, reread the first line ... and then proceed, having gained nothing from the experience" (p.206)
  • "so many poets adopt [the utterly atomised line break] merely to break up something they think would have looked predictable otherwise" (p.207)

I see many such line breaks even in famous poets' works. Of Sharon Olds' poems she writes "Putting the stress on the first word of the line below, it creates a sense of urgency as well as hesitancy, and disorientates the reader, who then grabs for the emotional content as for a lifeline" (p.207). I don't feel urgency, hesitancy or disorientation. After a line or so I adapt to the style and the trick loses its (in any case minor) effect.

For me there seems a lot of subjectivity in people's response to line breaks, opinions based as much on the poet's name as the layout. A wide range of alternative formats of a poem could be defended because there are so many grounds (not least of which is "breaking convention"). We need many more experiments, more psychology of reading. How, for example, do short lines affect reading speed (actual and felt)?

Differences between us

  • I tend to accentuate the negative, the darkness blinding me so that I miss some good features. A case in point might be Dorothy Molloy's poetry of which KEB writes "This sound is her own music, and it is the thing that makes these poems work despite their weakness of melodrama, sentimentality, and the sometimes lazy diction which leads to sloppy imagery ... She annoys me with a slight histrionic edge, almost adolescent, as if she were the only person who had ever had a hard time" (p.83, 84). When there's doubt, I have trouble interpreting positively whereas KEB sees the bright side - "Merwin's characteristic late style avoids punctuation and linear narrative ... This has the effect of thrusting the reader right into the words themselves, undiluted by all the hesitations and qualifications of the comma, semi-colon and full-stop" (p.114)
  • She tries to be interesting - no statistics for example.
  • She's good at summarizing large areas of knowledge - a poet's oeuvre; a movement, etc - the results sounding like hard-won conclusions rather than bland generalisations.

Things I couldn't bring myself to write

  • "we have a solid core in us that makes us human, and that this core is expressed through poetry" (p.48)
  • "These poems chip away at the nonessential in the words they are made of, become prisms of association and fractal intensity " (p.109)
  • "shapes yield fragments of meaning, like a race memory. Spin the [Liliane Lijn] cone and even that disappears into the particular abstract Energy of the particle" (p.165)

Typos

  • but now how to get to it (p.24. "now" should be "not"?)
  • this is a poem is that is (p.135)
  • was also reiewing (p.137)
  • life issomething (p.153)
  • compelling anf immediate (p.163)
  • Bing too linear (p.164)
  • alongisde (p.166)
  • A quotemark's missing from the final paragraph on p.171, and some quotemarks on p.194 ('innovative,' 'post-avant,') look wrongly placed to me.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

"The Water Table" by Philip Gross (Bloodaxe, 2009)

I liked "Sluice Angel". Why angel? Because when the gates of a sea lock open, "two green-grey-brown stiffening blades// of water fold in. They curve, feathering/ themselves in free fall: wings// flexed, shuddering, not // to soar// but to pour themselves down". Finally, "the world,// our world, small craft, come through."

Scattered through the book there's a sequence of 10 "Betweenland" poems, which Andrew Green looks at. In "Betweenland I" the sea is "pulled two ways (earth and moon like parents not quite in accord) ... always trying to be something other, to be sky, to lose itself in absolute reflection.". "Betweenland III" is weak. "Betweenland IV" begins promisingly - "A mouth, we say - as if it spoke the hills'/ native language in the lowlands' slow/ translation". "Betweenland VIII" is better.

Some pieces are what-ifs. "Atlantis World" imagines the sea leaving, "waterfront apartments rebranding themselves as mountain villages like Tuscany". He can do Formalist pieces too. "Fantasia on a Theme from IKEA" is a ring of 7 sonnets on the theme of "ground". I like them. "To Build a Bridge" is a villanelle.

He has ideas about self-hood that he expounds clearly using analogies -

  • "Pour" - "Call it connecting one moment with another ... this slick and fluted glitter, slightly arcing, rebraiding itself as it falls ... a thing in space that lives in this world like us, with purpose though not one least particle is constant... could account or be held to account for what it is or does"
  • "Drip" - "a drop in a dark/ cave lake, its ripples spreading and// reflect/deflected from the unseen/ edges .. which make// a texture that for want/ of words we might call Me"
  • "Salt" - "a surprise to the mind from the body,// from the corner of the eye down my cheek/ to the tip of my tongue ... We might be drying// out slowly, to a hot and frosty glitter/ like a shallow rock pool in the sun"

though sometimes the philosophising sounds contrived -

  • "Though/ we don't know what it is/ that knows, it knows" (p.33)
  • "a memento of itself or what we had forgotten we'd forgotten" (p.50)
  • Severn song

"Elderly Iceberg off the Esplanade" was featured in "Forgive the language" by Katy Evans-Bush as an example of negative capability. She writes that "it's impressive how much empathy Gross applies to this iceberg ... it never becomes anthropomorphic. It is thoroughly an iceberg"

"Ware" seems thin. "Amphora", a shaped poem, doesn't do much for me. I didn't like "Thinks Bubble". The book sags for a while from about p.40. I didn't get the book's line-breaks and indents. They're all over the place.

Other reviews

Saturday, 4 November 2017

"Birmingham Jazz Incarnation" by Simon Turner (Emma Press, 2017)

In the extensive "Notes and acknowledgements" section of this pamphlet the poet describes at least some of the pieces as constraint-based, and recommends "Oulipo Compendium", edited by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie (Atlas Press, rev. ed. 2005). I've read that book (and Simon Turner's essay in "Stress Fractures"), and I have written pieces that could be described as Oulipo. It's a broad church - some pieces are dominated by easily applied randomness or automated procedures, others use such restrictive rules that writing any piece which conforms is a triumph. Let me first try to pre-empt some standard responses to such work -

  • Anyone could do it, so it can't be good - This is said of works when randomness or semi-automated procedures are involved. The same is said of some types of art. Should readers take into account the means of production when assessing/appreciating works? Should poetry be like competitive diving, where "degree of difficulty" is a component of assessment?
  • It's clever, but it's not poetry. There's no emotion: it's just wordplay - Some readers like the language used in poetry to be transparent rather than being an active component of the poem's effect. I think there's more to poetry than love and death. Besides, poetry can have both wordplay and emotion. The problem is that some readers get distracted by the wordplay if they're not used to it, even if the wordplay is a bonus that doesn't displace emotional content.
  • Why impose restrictions on yourself? Writing's hard enough as it is - Poets who think they're free may be subject to constraints (of habit, fashion, etc) that they're unaware of. As Peter Consenstein wrote, "if an author does not define his or her constraint, the constraint will in turn define their work for them". Early in this book Stravinsky's quoted - ‘The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.’

The author also writes in the "Notes and acknowledgements" that "a goodly part of a formal constraint's fun comes from working out what the writer is up to, how they have gone about achieving their chosen effects, and the ways in which they’ve overcome the obstacles" though he does explain some of the devices. Most are self-evident enough. Poetry readers are more used to seeing them now that anagrams and other wordplay are back in fashion - Luke Kennard, Paul Stephenson, and Jon Stone are amongst the non-avant garde poets who employ such techniques (Heather McHugh's my favourite US representative).

A flick-through of this pamphlet will reveal that it's illustrated (woodcut-style) and several of the poems are in landscape mode. A quick read will reveal that the poems are reformulations of the same ur-poem expressed first in "Birmingham Jazz Incarnation" which begins with "What a feeling, to step out of the musty/ twilight bookshop air with a collection". The character then passes an improvising busker who seems to spirit the city into being. The shortest rendering of this plot is the 5-lined "tl;dr", the longest is 2 pages. Some poetry collections (he mentions several in the notes) have used the same multiple-rendition idea. "Jane, Unlimited", a YA novel by Kristin Cashore published in 2017 has 5 endings each in a different genre, so the idea's not too niche. There's a wide variety of forms/styles -

  • Here's the start of "Redacted", a version of the poem on the facing page. It's becoming a popular device. Here for comparison is the start of a recent Rishi Dastidar poem - . In this pamphlet, the revealed text forms another poem - neat.
  • "A Saxophonist Reborn in Brum" is 5 limericks
  • "No Vow’l No. 2, à la G.P." doesn't use the letter "e". It begins with "What a joyful thought, to hop away from this musty/ twilight bookshop air with a chapbook"
  • "A is A" is an easy form of abcedarian, made harder by being in rhyming couplets
  • "Anglo-American Blues Concert (with Q & X omitted)" begins with "Ah, absolute 'appiness ambling away after abiding amid archaic/ bosky bookshop breezes, brandishing broadsides" (one of the easy-to-do pieces)
  • "Flatpack" is (I'd guess) all the characters of some text (the initial poem?) in alphabetic order (another easy-to-do piece)
  • "Opposite day" replaces words with their opposite, "fresh-smelling overlit nightclub" replacing the "musty twilight bookshop", etc.
  • "Not enough hours in the day" (24 lines) has numbers sonically (or sometimes allusively) buried in the lines (e.g. the 7th line has "city's evanescent"; the 15th has "breath reeling" - it's not a 24 hour clock). An easy form - I've used it.
  • "Petrarchan Lyric Variation" is a sonnet - a traditional constraint. There may well be more to it, but I didn't notice anything.

The concluding 2-page index is fun. Here's one entry - "Birmingham, dismissively reduced to indexical terms (see bus-stops, crowds, fountains, monuments), 21; described as dirty and decrepit, 8".

So what should we make of these variations on a theme by Turner? "berhyme taunter" or "a berhyme nutter"? Is it niche-transcending or just "good of its type"? Do the poems hold their own? Are they too gimmicky, or is this the acceptable face of Oulipo? How useful are the various constraints? The over-arching, unifying constraint on the subject matter adds technical interest, and is a loose analogue to a jazz performer's variations on a theme, but it doesn't help with the individual poems' impact. For example I think the "Flatpack" idea could be better exploited were the poem entitled "Flatpack Lord's Prayer".

One type of ideal poem would have an ingeniously complex form that integrates with the content, the poem being liked by the uninitiated. In practice, at least one aspect needs to be compromised. Readers will have differing preferences regarding what should be sacrificed. For me, "being liked" is the priority, though I'm prepared to accept a reduction if the form is innovative, relevant to the plot, or difficult to produce. There are 14 poems in this pamphlet. "tl;dr", "Album of the Week", "Opposite day", "Anglo-American Blues ..." and "Flatpack" are easy to do, and don't work for me (even if the idea is justifiable, the result is far too long for inclusion in a pamphlet). I suspect some of the others would struggle in isolation too.

But the point is that they're not isolated. They come as a well-designed package. They depend on each other, and improve in each other's company. The value of "What a feeling, to step out of the musty/ twilight bookshop air with a collection" is enhanced by comparing it with what it could have been. The whole is better than the parts, a justification of the pamphlet format - the poems don't outstay their welcome, and their peers are never far away, always ready to offer support.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

"Andraste's Hair" by Eleanor Rees (Salt, 2007)

Poems from Stand, etc.

p.4 ends with "My city is wearing costume jewellery tonight -/ glittering and real", the final line of which seems somewhat gratuitous, and p.5 starts with

A Red Moon

I break the top from the cathedral
and it comes,
          oozing steam,
cream,                champagne,
a thick cloud on the ground,

is a cake now, a castle, an island,
a ship, a table, pip in an apple, an eye

which rather than having too many words, has too few for me. I don't get it, and I begin to distrust the poet. I could imagine the first line to mean that the top from the cathedral disappears in cloud, but does the "it" in the second line refer to the moon (initially this seems the most likely option) or the top? How does a cloud end up on the ground. I know that Hamlet suggests to Polonius that clouds can take several forms (and Polonius always agrees) but that doesn't seem to have much to do with this situation. Maybe the cathedral is a food container, or a bottle. The shape of the poem suggests oozing that breaks into 2 streams as it falls to the ground. But again, the analogy breaks down and nothing's left. The while space has an adverse effect.

Here's the start of another poem

The Clock Tower

I see the right-hand smile.
          A line
          from five across to nine
          turns to a curve

The detail makes me want to decode the image. Why the indentation? Why "right-hand"? Were a piece of taut string tied from the point of the hour hand to the point of the minute hand, and the time was 9.25 (i.e. "from five across to nine", then as time progressed, the string (the [straight] line) would turn into a curved line, a one-sided smile (like that of a stroke victim), but using the term "right-hand" in the context of clocks (which have hands) is confusing if the lopsided smile is what's being referred to. I suspect I've lead myself a long way down a garden path.

The title poem is long only because the lines are so short - unnecessarily so. "The Fair" is over 2 pages long because, .e.g., "A man nabs the collar of the girl before she bobs beneath the stalls -" occupies 7 lines. Elsewhere in the same poem, typography is used to highlight intended poeticisms - not using CAPS and/or COLOUR but, just as garishly, spacing -

Outside fences, past the car park,
empty squares of dark field are
                                                     unspoken.

On p.31 is "There is a table in the room. It is also rough, made of oak. On it are laid the plates for dinner though the staircase that runs into the room is empty and the upstairs rooms are empty and the kitchen is empty", spread over 16 lines. It's the kind of thing that gives poetry a bad reputation amongst prose writers.

And yet, she can produce passages like "Heat battens the day/ to stone,/ seals all edges into/ a whole:/ a monument of sun." (p.32). I like "Parkland". Fragments like "Battling green oak trees fall burdened/ with ciphers,/ letters bundled to the ground/ washed from newsprint spell/ unspoken needs/ in the back street puddles" have potential that to my mind is damaged by the context and inattention to detail. Do the trees fall, or just the leaves?

The book ends with a 5 part, 15 paged piece called "A Nocturnal Opera" which contains many sections that I find confusing. E.g.

  • "I can see Jupiter's rings hooked on the church tower.// I can see the sun buried in the public gardens,/ its red fuzz streaming from freshly dug soil" p.62
  • "In the forest, trees have no substance -/ are octopus, flailing blue veined" p.64
  • "Your blood in my veins like axe marks on a tree stump" p.69

Saturday, 28 October 2017

"South 56" (October 2017)

About 50 packed pages, 7 of them containing reviews and 3 with articles/letters. A featured poet (Jean Watkins) occupies 11 pages. Other poets include Gill McEvoy, Jenny Hamlett, DA Prince (who also is a reviewer), etc. Well crafted pieces, non-experimental.