Original Plus 2010, £3.00
Reviewed by D A Prince, Matt Merritt and Richie McCaffery
D A Prince:
Five poems, exploring aspects of the lives and myths of Mata Hari, Ada Lovelace, Lou Andreas-Salomé, Isabelle Eberhardt and the Black Madonna: any one of these might have been enough for a single pamphlet, but Nightingale is ambitious in scale and expects the same from his readers. Four of the poems are sequences; the fifth (‘The transparency of veils’) is a long, looser exploration of a dream in which a black madonna appears and disappears. Nightingale is not a poet of the safe, well-trodden subject and his range of approach within this pamphlet is impressive. Yes, he can write as a lyric poet but this is not his primary aim: the lyric voice is only a small part of the poet’s range, and the imagist and the surreal are, in this pamphlet, more dominant.
I’m not, generally, a fan of footnotes in poetry collections: a poem should engage with its reader without explanatory support material, but I’d make an exception here. The poems focussed on the four women require some knowledge of their varied biographies; I felt far more confident after spending time with their Wikipedia entries, and that was only for the briefest of outlines. What drew Nightingale to link these women in this collection is not clear, but all four have dramatic intellectual lives with layers of erotic experience. They travelled, read, wrote, loved, suffered. But Isabelle Eberhardt is not a familiar name, and how many know that Lou Andreas Salomé, during her affair with Rilke, persuaded him to change his first name from René to the better-known Rainer?
Armed with some background, the poems become more accessible, and the quality of the poetry more evident. The longer dreamlike lines in ‘The transparency of veils’, with their repeated phrases and variations—‘as André Breton says’, ‘North becomes south’—allow Nightingale the space he needs to develop ideas and images that can seem too truncated in earlier sequences, and to linger on the delicate and suggestive surface of the dream.
The eight short poems in the sequence ‘Augusta’s hoax’, a series supposedly produced by Augusta Ada Lovelace (Byron’s only legitimate child) under the influence of Mesmerism, and titled with the Bernouilli numbers she was working on in her correspondence with Charles Babbage, defeated me—perhaps they are a surreal joke too far for a non-mathematician. But this is poetry that tackles new territory, and unfamiliar subjects—just have your usual search engine on side.
You’d be hard-pressed to pack more variety into a 36-page chapbook than Andrew Nightingale manages in this collection, produced in Original Plus’s familiar neat but unadorned style.
The five long poems (the first three might equally be described as mini-sequences) are concerned with Mata Hari, Ada Lovelace, Lou Andreas-Salomé, Isabelle Eberhardt and the Black Madonna, but a lot of the interest is in the range of approaches to these lives (and the myths that surrounds them) that Nightingale takes.
So, while the Mata Hari and Andreas-Salomé poems generally go down a more straightforwardly lyrical, and sometimes narrative, route, there are intriguing diversions such as Amortomaton, a concrete poem which takes Mata Hari’s music box as its starting place. It boasts memorable phrases (“the rambling thoughts of chisel and saw”), an awareness of poetry’s own artifice (“I will dovetail the sides/ like an ABAB rhyme”), and perhaps most importantly, a concern with the myth that accumulates around such historical figures (“they say she’s involved in a dangerous conflation of/ the stage and the everyday. . .”). That last one is something that Nightingale returns to again and again, “the tyranny of icons” that he speaks of in the Andreas-Salomé poem, and a major strength of the book is that each piece contains echoes and reflections of the others.
The Lovelace section is perhaps the most ‘difficult’ of the book, with an oblique, surreal edge to it, it too touches on familiar concerns. The same is true of ‘The Transparency Of Veils’, which uses repetition to build an impressive cumulative effect.
If I had to choose, I’d probably say that ‘Salomé in Nizovka’ is the poem that I’ll return to most often out of the five. In the section ‘Watching You Sleep’, Nightingale asks:
If we all lived happily ever after
wouldn’t you feel cheated? Wouldn’t you
shake your head in wonder at it?
When reunited protagonists live on you ask,
So what? Does nothing happen next?
That sums up Nightingale’s aim, I think, throughout. He imagines what happens next, and most importantly he invites the reader to do the same. I wasn’t always swept along with him, but the best moments here are more than worth the price of admission.
There’s a philosophy for leaving, each travel book
is a second-hand jigsaw, one piece left behind.
(‘5. Philosophy of Departure’)
These two lines capture the reflective tone and depth of an often quirky and linguistically ambitious collection by Andrew Nightingale. There’s intertextual energy and intellectual verve on offer here, twinned with a unique type of language that can be both sensuous and cerebral in 'Telling Lies' with its “Sanscrit couture/ a bodice of seductive words./ The art of telling lies”.
Perhaps the most demanding section of the collection, which explores larger than life female deities, heroines and writers (although not quite with the deftness and finesse of say, Sydney Goodsir Smith’s ‘Under the Eildon Tree’) is the sequence based on Ada Lovelace’s Mathematical Scrapbook. Here the small, disjointed poems carry with them some of the grandeur and unapproachability of Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns—“this ampersand machine in the great laboratory/ of my unspoken libido”.
Certain image choices are noticeably stronger than others. The “sombre six o’clock mist/ like stillness after battle” flounders somewhat beside the crisp description of the “paisley green Seine”. ‘Amortomaton’ is a brain-teasing concrete poem that reads and looks like a very erudite 60’s experiment by Edwin Morgan.
The collection as a whole is admirable for its refusal to follow a well-worn metrical or stylistic path. This results in a poetry that ranges, as the cover blurb suggests, from “narrative and surreal, concrete and ekphrastic” to “lyrical and cut-up”. More often than not, it’s the eye-catching facets of a well-turned phrase that arrest the reader, such as “her fluvial limbs” and “spume’s feta tang” in the opening poem ‘Sailing from India’.
Mainly, Nightingale offers a poetry of codes, formulas and enigmas, which only gives back as much as the reader is willing to invest. In short, it is at times tough going and even too dense, particularly in longer poems like ‘The Transparency of Veils’. But it often repays the effort and surprises the reader with some striking lines:
I quietly close the door behind me,
alone and looking up into the cathedral of dawn.
('Philosophy of Departure')