Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

The Phantom Rooster Press, 2009   £3.00

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Sphinx four striper

 

Reviewed by Hilary Menos, Matthew Stewart, Nick Asbury and Richard Meier

 

Hilary Menos:

Some pamphlets are slight, a mere taste of things to come. Poems2, by Judy Prince is more like a full collection, with 37 pages of poetry. There is a downside to this—my pamphlet started to fall apart after a few days. Two staples are clearly not enough to contain these poems, which burst forth from the pages fizzing with juicy kisses, fortune-tellers, elderberry knickers and brandy-soaked bees.

 

From the off, the images are arresting, if occasionally rather bawdy. In ‘Catching Over and Out’ Prince asks

 

will you poke through my tea leaves?

I’ll peel your splendid carrot

presented on sprigs of cilantro

 

My jury is still out on whether this is sexy and amusing, or too much like vegetable porn, and I’m still worried by the ‘peel’ bit.

 

Many of these poems are intensely personal, and very sensual. Some are lyrical and sweet (“my heart topples/ in the warm caliper/ of your hand”); some have rather too much of the stock-in-trade stuff of poets—clouds, oceans, moons and a wind-bent cypress—and some are possibly a little too intimate (“be my love if we will move this way/ and move again this way/ outside time / ---oh god outside time”).

 

At her best Prince pulls out a phrase that seems to say something perfectly (“three centuries of oatcakes/ and now you want shortbread”) and some of her juxtapositions are illuminating and lovely (I particularly liked “suede earth”). But then she seems to pick a word which simply doesn’t work, for me anyway. In ‘Taken To Mean Dry’ she says “death, even a slow bleedy one/ would be better than silence”. I just can’t get past that “bleedy”.

 

And too often I found myself keen for a bit of clarity. In ‘The Uncovering Wait’, (I quote in full):

 

my face in the window looking in, looking out

your hand like the back of a leaf

huddled in a hedge

green life going

 

a tree spire of blackbirds dreams

in dips and rises

 

there is no light, no season of shells—

only my face in the paling night

when I must hand you over

 

This is an interesting succession of images which seem to hint at something big and important going on, but ultimately I feel the meaning remains elusive. She also regularly hyphenates words to make adjectives (a “tune-ready” ear, “click-finger gloves”) or nouns (eggs as “soon-birds”). These rarely add to the poem.

 

This collection is patchy. It has a lot of energy and vivaciousness, and ranges far and wide in its scope, but Prince needs to spend a bit more time on the craft of making the meaning of a poem available to her readers.

 

Matthew Stewart:

This pamphlet has something of a old-fashioned feel, taking me back to the time when I started reading small magazines that were produced on a kitchen table by dedicated editors. It does look slightly amateurish, but Judy Prince has put a huge amount of effort into writing the poems and illustrating them herself.

 

Moving on to the poems, I found them evading me. Full of juxtapositions and snippets of language, often only hinting at physical context or points of reference, they also tend to avoid punctuation, as in ‘Elderberry Knickers’:

 

you write of blue snared in a star’s tantrum

of white myths swirling in snowdome tunes

 

you bribe alive my animal night

gondola thumping wood, globe clutching light

 

The poet’s clearly enjoying language here, but she’s leaving me nonplussed in spite of the accompanying illustrations, which seem to highlight one of the objects described in each piece without managing to enlighten.

 

As for titles, some are great fun, as in ‘Poetic Notes Of A Clairvoyant Neanderthal In The Ardèche’, so why, why, why is the book titled Poems2? Even the suppression of the space between the word and number can’t save it! All it tells us is that there was a predecessor to this collection.

 

One or two of the poems do get more specific and tell more of a story, as in ‘Working It Through’, which deals with a relationship. Even so, images such as these don’t convince. . .

 

train yourself to interrupt me

when your bladder’s full

so I can shut the toilet door on your mouth

 

In summary, Judy Prince has grafted to get this book out into the world and offer it to readers who might enjoy it. I’m just sorry that I’m not one of them.

 

Nick Asbury:

This collection sometimes left me feeling like an eavesdropper on a private argument, which can be an uncomfortable experience. Its main attraction lies in the vigour and physicality of its language. This extract gives a flavour:

 

right, here’s how it fits

in my pockets, this flailed

marriage

barristers sliding down the

banister

splintering our arses

salvation through secular mindshifts

copulation for population

inane beats insane

 

here’s a pen, start taking notes

you might record the great bowel shift

I’ve emptied the vacuum

(‘The Oldest Proposition’)

 

There’s some difficult, angry stuff being worked out here, seemingly rooted in a traumatic divorce. The fragmented, incantatory feel of the language is powerful, but opaque—as though private feelings are being exorcised, with no real impulse to involve the outside reader (perhaps not even requiring one).

 

The fragments are enticing nonetheless. “I’ve emptied the vacuum” is great—simultaneously suggesting something as mundanely domestic as emptying the hoover, while conjuring up an existential state of emptiness more profound than emptiness itself. That’s a clever trick.

 

Of course, taking into account the preceding line, there’s also the suggestion of emptying of a different kind. There’s a lot of messy bodily stuff in this collection—splintered arses, split throats, letterbox cloaca, petrol farts, full bladders, juicy kisses. All this is mixed in with moments of disarming tenderness:

 

sometimes when I’m lying in bed

I think all is lost

the world is coming to an end

then I look at you

sitting at the desk

eating cashews

(‘A Likely Story’)

 

Even here, the observation is rooted in the messy physical act of eating, and offset by the detached scepticism of the title. (It’s a common trait of the collection that the titles are used less as a signpost into the poems than as a diversionary or complicating element, offering an oblique commentary on what follows.)

 

Many of the poems feature hand-drawn illustrations by the poet herself, which I felt varied in their effectiveness. I loved the sketch of the park bench that accompanies ‘Queen’s Park’, but some of the others seemed like private doodles that didn’t add much to their poems. That said, I’m a big fan of combining the two art forms and it’s heartening to see the practice continued here.

 

Richard Meier:

This is the opening poem in Judy Prince’s pamphlet:

 

single goblets worn in hand

tossed simply to fuzzy-haired patrons

uncorked fancies

 

you walk my riffing mind

tentative sport talk

the gel outside my certain fever

 

power plate sluicing, cocked cutlery

I can analyse for clues

but your breast clears passageways

linings grope and digest

 

shall we apply our knives to the bleeding lamb?

will you poke through my tea leaves?

I’ll peel your splendid carrot

presented on sprigs of cilantro

 

if we fill our cups in the car park

arrange a hierarchy of puddings in the boot

who will see the spots we spill?

heady way, flooding caffeine

sing us home with your cinnamon throat

(‘Catching over and out’)

 

I quote this poem in full since it’s representative not only of the intensity Judy Prince often achieves in her poems but also of an occasional tendency to cross the line between intensity and opaqueness. For while the “cocked cutlery” and “uncorked fancies” strongly convey the sexual undercurrents of this particular dinner party, “the gel outside my certain fever” and the “cinnamon throat” had me groping for meaning.

 

Some of the poems are less dense, but equally charged—’The Slightest Move’, for example, with its evocation of the intensity of parents’ love and reverence for her child:

 

our child

our youth, our dance

wire strung and strung to strength

she scrapes meanings into eggshells

and with her saved coins

buys an automaton

mate for quantum leaps

 

she starts cloud engines

lives in a star each night

kicks memory chunks down a dirt black road

and jumps into silver, her breath unafraid

 

oh this child—her loose arms free

brush her hair into rhythmic singing

catch her sleep

swan feather at our feet

(‘The Slightest Move’)

 

Prince also does passion well:

 

my heart topples

in the warm caliper

of your hand,

my body a raised map—

new lines like moving silk

dance for you

long legs enfold the sea

(‘Summate’)

 

Occasionally however, some of the poems can come across as a little trite:

 

is this the night to put out the wheelie bin?

after 8, as if wheelie bins are an embarrassment

like a pregnant daughter in the attic [. . .]

 

one marriage is as bad as another

what’s the use of whingeing?

(‘Working it through’)

 

All in all, a pamphlet which is a rich, if occasionally perplexing, feast.