HappenStance, 2011    £4.00

Reviewed by Gill Andrews, D A Prince and Matt Merritt


Gill Andrews:
From the first page of What To Do, I felt I was in the hands of a poet who knew what she was doing, and whose company I would enjoy. The opening poem, ‘No Matter’, is a strongly rhymed sonnet with a comic–book feel to it (admittedly, I’m flexible in my definition of ‘sonnet’). It deals with the narrator’s relationship with a character called “Cat”, and ends:

........ . . I should hide
.......from her wrists and her street-thief stride
.......but I stand like a corpse for a crow.

For me, this last, helpless, image was particularly poignant. Irving often gets her descriptions just right. In ‘Explaining it’, the “counter-girl at the chemist” is “blond, pretty as a paper chain”. And in ‘Ants’, a sixteen year old girl is “thumbs through school sleeves,/ backpack rammed with stupid, stupid books.” 

Around half the poems are in some sort of form. This works beautifully in, for example, ‘No Matter’, ‘Meanwhile down in the town, the good people drink on’ (a terza rima) and the delightful ‘The orniphobe’. In ‘Laura’, however, every line ends with a word or words containing the consonants ‘r’ and ‘l’:

.......Clown for her, rail
.......against the idiot you once were, the lore
.......of your mistakes, the Erroll
.......double you left in his lair

This felt too much like an exercise for me, with the form dominating, rather than complementing, the poem’s subject matter. On balance, I had a similar response to ‘Three betrayed lieutenants’, though I did find that piece more interesting.

Irving’s characters are often in some sort of difficulty. Unlucky in love is one recurrent theme, and we also read about Greek gods in a mental institution, and about people on the wrong side of public opinion.  ‘Comparative tranquillity’ concerns the wife of a man who enjoys killing squirrels: 

.......You wonder if she knew from the start,
.......or whether it crept up on her.
.......Because of course she knew.

I found the poem sensitive and compassionate. These qualities were also evident in ‘Pathogenesis’, which concerns the perpetrator of some unnamed wrongdoing: 

.......How long has it been since this town
.......called you Ben, instead of referencing
.......The Thompson Boy, Someone
.......or just plain Cock-Sucker?  

I was very pleased to read this collection. I found it playful, compassionate, interesting and musical.


D A Prince:
Kirsten Irving’s world is a strange, knife-edge place inhabited by people under threat, where myth moves out of its familiar narrative and resides in a mental hospital, and celluloid is no barrier to characters who choose to step into our space. Yet despite the apparently disparate spread of subjects, this is a remarkably coherent collection, held together by Irving’s voice: lean, needle-sharp, questing, intelligent and tuned to human vulnerability. She can strip sexual longing down to its exposed nerves. If she has a fault, it’s that she assumes the same intelligence and range of cultural reference in her reader as herself. For example, Japanese myth simply isn’t the stuff of everyday conversation.

The brief notes help, though. Irving keeps hers short and light, and sent me straight to the two poems cited: ‘Ittan-Momen’—a shape-shifting Japanese ghost, also called ghost-cotton, that hangs in the air waiting to suffocate its chosen victim, and ‘Nancy Archer steps out’. Nancy Archer (for those, like me, who need to be told) is the heroine in the film Attack of the 50 ft woman

.......Dreading my period. It’ll be more of a plague
.......than ever.  But more than this
.......I dread putting my bubblecar eye
.......to the window of the club where I know you sit

.......in love, or joined by something stickier than the floor.

I like the “bubblecar eye”, showing us her size and also implying the date of the film; I like the complexity of the sticky, squalid sexuality. Even better is the way the love/loss of Irving’s opening poem, ‘No matter’, written in the first person and from a teenage perspective, has grown in all directions—fifty-feet tall now, adult, but still emotionally true. So the teenager listening to Cat Stevens’ Here comes my baby, watching her ex and his new lover, knowing she should hide but too numbed by pain—“but I stand like a corpse for a crow”—develops into “she” in ‘Ants’. At sixteen, bored with school, she eat ants offered by an older and more experienced man, to prove—what?

.......She chews these ants to dust
.......for you, who have become a spear for her,
.......a rocket launcher she will fire backwards.

.......The physical power of love is violent and unstoppable. Look at ‘Honey badger’— “To forget me, you square up to a .......leopard”—and the blunt truth of its ending—

.......Go right on, rage through nature. It won’t help.
.......There’s no killing this sort of thing.

‘Recreation period’, the first of the two longer poems which close the collection, brings four characters from Greek myth into the twenty-first century mental hospital. Leda, summed up in rhyming monosyllables that suggest a lack of understanding by her fellow inmates, won’t go out to feed ducks—

.......No spark
.......of regret as we troop out. Won’t even say why.
.......Shame Leda won’t come to the park.

Agave tears apart a toy lion after performing in a play; Medusa can’t respond to a mirror and only wants her head cut off; Theseus threads a reel of cotton through the hospital, oblivious to its effect on other inmates. Although Irving has moved the myths on, there’s no happy ending—no ending of any sort. The teasing intelligence in these poems makes compelling reading.

Matt Merritt:
The back cover of this pamphlet mentions the energy of Kirsten Irving’s poetry, and rightly so. It’s there right from the start, with opening poem ‘No matter’ fairly rattling along to its superb conclusion:

........ . . I should hide
.......from her wrists and her street-thief stride
.......but I stand like a corpse for a crow.

It also introduces the tone of menace that permeates the collection—although this recedes at times, it’s always there in the background. Something’s always just about to happen.

That in itself leaves plenty of room for the reader, and in the poems I enjoyed most here, such as ‘Pathogenesis’, a perfect balance is struck between just the right amount of telling detail and more oblique observations. It opens:

.......In the pasta aisle, in the chemist,
.......wherever you take your scrawn,
.......they’re there pretending not to be,
.......perfectly in love with kidney beans,
.......reading words off the page in the library

.......till you pass. You have never felt
.......so much like a magnet
.......or a ghost. The boy from the butcher
.......cannot stop twitching,
.......refuses to remember.

Irving really does suggestion and implication very well, with ‘Bluebeard’s Photo Album’ perhaps taking her knack of giving you just the bare minimum to its logical conclusion, with a wealth of back-story conjured up from just 20 words.

Two fine mini-sequences, ‘Recreation Period’ and ‘Casenotes’, close the book. The former is concerned with mental health issues but skilfully alludes to Greek myth (modern poetry’s full of poems attempting to appropriate gravitas from the classical world), while the latter draws heavily on psychiatry. They’re stark and sometimes downright grim, but Irving’s writing is never less than compelling because she channels that energy mentioned earlier so well.

The poet has a full collection due next year—in the meantime, this is a near-faultless introduction to a very fine writer.