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 December 2016

"Instructions for making me" by Maria Taylor (Happenstance, 2016)

The Acknowledgments mention "The North", "New Walk", "The Interpreter's House", "Poems in Which", "The Manchester Review", "Ambit", "The Compass", "And Other Poems", "Magma", and a Penguin anthology - an impressive haul for 17 poems. Most of the poems contrast the real world with an imagined or dreamt alternative, the subject of interpretation usually being people.

When reading fiction we construct the imaginary characters from their behaviour. We use the same mechanism in real life when we meet people, deducing from external details an internal person (or soul). The opposite happens when we express ourselves - our pre-existing personality tries to express itself using details.

But of course it's not that simple. We role-play ("I'd like to be the woman next door/ with a walk that says I know where I'm going", p.7), dress up, use image consultants and CBT therapists. We might even help people to understand us better, show them how to read our moods, etc. And anyway, what is this "real self" beyond its expression? Is there more to it than meets the eye? Don't assume however that what you see is true. As the poet said of this pamphlet in her poetryspotlight interview, "Some of it’s still biographical, some of it’s surreal. Often it’s a mixture of both"

It's said that being slightly optimistic is more healthy and common than being realistic. I suspect that when poets are not being merely realistic, their way of being healthy is to err towards fancy rather than hope. In this collection, the poet shows several ways to resolve the resulting inaccuracies, thus showing us how to use our imagination to create her poetic persona -

  • An imaginative projection could be preparing the ground for a change. In "Jenny", various Jennys are listed. The 4th didn't exist. Then we read that "A boy called me Jenny ... I nodded and rode home with a different name", reality changing to match imagination.
  • In "My stranger" the (let's say female) persona has hung a painting in the entrance hall. She tries to convince visitors that it's her father by providing anecdotes, going so far as to claim it's a self-portrait. Finally we read that "Dad never lived to paint us all. What a terrible loss, visitors sigh. I lead them into a living room and whisper, Yes.". So perhaps there's regret that reality didn't match the story, but because it's the past, reality's more easily changed. She uses the new, improved father to cover cracks in her current life - changing one's past is a way of recreating oneself.
  • In "The Invisible Man" the persona's daughter is pushing an invisible man on a swing. The persona knows the man - she was stood up by him. She joins in with her daughter's make-believe - a shared, inherited hallucination is hardly a hallucination at all.
  • In "Hypothetical" the persona with surprising suddenness imagines being in bed with Daniel Craig, and her marriage falling apart. The poem ends with "I don't even like Daniel Craig, I tell the ceiling.", rejecting the what-if and returning to reality (while continuing the fantasy).

Suppose someone turns the tables, comparing you with an imagined/dreamt character? At the end of "Also-ran" we read "You can’t compete with the ones they dream about". But it's not the end of the world. In "The Horse" (one of several poems that mention horses) there's an over-riding theme of recovery, beginning with "Everyone says I should get back on the horse" and concluding with "Let me stay on".

"The Landfills of Heaven", "The Invisible Man", "Hypothetical", "Also-ran" and "Poem in which I lick motherhood" are online. I'll end by looking at that latter poem. What does "lick motherhood" mean? Succeed at it? Knock it into shape? Try it, like a lollipop? Or is it like a guitar lick? Here are the first 3 and last 3 lines, with notes -

  • "I have several children, all perfect, with tongues made of soap and PVA glue running through their veins" - Of course, a mother would say that her children are perfect. Soap is used to wash mouths of children who swear. Doing crafts with children is a parent's duty.
  • "My boys and girls benefit from eating the rainbow" - Whereas the first line's metaphors can be normalised, this second line is more stubbornly surreal. If you want, recall the nutritionists' suggestion that eating food with a range of colours increases the chance of eating a range of vitamins and minerals.
  • "I iron children twice daily. Creases are the devil's hoof print" - Perhaps the children have iron supplements twice a day. More likely there's always ironing to do. There's a hint that the children may also need disciplining, that imperfection is sinful, reflecting on the parents
  • ...
  • "Underneath my ribs is a complex weather system of sunshine and showers" - What is under a mother's ribs? A womb? Do sunshine and showers create rainbows?
  • "Heat rises from me and blows across the gulf stream of my carefully controlled temper" - The gulf stream is a path through the pathless ocean, a way to navigate through life
  • "Sometimes I am mist" - A pun on "missed". The first 3 lines all mentioned children. These last 3 don't mention them at all. The persona has become less central, more vague - an environment rather than a person.

Other reviews

  • Matthew Stewart (Taylor’s primary underlying technique and concern is the nature of self, the blending of identities, the interweaving of voices, the merging of fact and fiction through ever-shifting perspectives, never allowing the reader to rest on solid ground)
  • Charlotte Gann
  • Karen Powell

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