Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

Ellipsis 1/Sylph Editions, 2009

Sphinx High Striper

£15.00 (for three booklets)

http://www.sylpheditions.com/ellipsis.html

 

nine-striper

 

Reviewed by Karin Koller, Marcia Menter and David Floyd

 

Karin Koller:

The Announced is the first of three slim booklets which together comprise the first volume of Ellipsis, a new literary series from Sylph Editions—a company that publishes a variety of books including limited edition art and different forms of experimental writing. Their website says “every work is meticulously produced, care given equally both to content and form”.

 

This is the first booklet from Sylph Editions I’ve come across, and my only regret is that I didn’t know about them before. There’s something wonderfully uplifting about holding in your hands a book that has been so thoughtfully and lovingly produced. The pages are French folded on Offenbach Bible 60gsm paper, and the text of the ten poems is printed in Trinité font, an extremely elegant typeface that captures the quality of Ruth Valentine’s poetry perfectly.

 

Valentine is a very gifted poet. She has mastered the craft of starting a poem in a low key, almost conversational style, describing a past event, quietly dropping a single disconcerting word into the lines which unsettles but you’re not sure why. So you read on, and there are further hints, subtle, understated, but always pulling you towards an exploration of something you realise has universal importance—but by being brought there as a travelling companion of the poet, you discover it in parallel with the poem. It’s almost as if you’re walking around in the poem itself, seeing the whole landscape of it.

 

Historical events from the past are used to great effect—letters from Leonard Woolf, death certificates, catastrophe cemeteries for plague victims, car bombs in modern day Iraq where poets go on reciting poetry from within the bomb wreckage. The title poem is hauntingly paced. It describes with respect and sensitivity people who commit suicide by jumping in front of underground trains in London

 

Soon

they’ll be stripped of even

that vital sign, a verb: due to a person.

It is what they always

aspired to, the state of harmlessness,

to be no longer responsible for holding

the grey sky on their shoulders to stop it crushing

 

beauty out of the city. They become

[in November, daily] an inconvenience:

At the present time, all trains

are non-stopping at Oxford Circus,

 

and live for forty years in the night vision

of the driver, the last

being to see them tremble, the aghast

unblinking eyes above the ballooning headlamps.

 

The long central sequence ‘Sea Fishing’ explores the whole question of how we face our own mortality through examining what happens when the poet’s terminally ill brother-in-law travels to the Canary Islands to go fishing on his own.

 

Valentine is able to reach across from the living to the dead, bridging that great divide in tender ordinary words. This is truly meaningful poetry. I would urge everyone to read her.

 

Marcia Menter:

Since there is no cover blurb about this talented poet or her work, I was flying blind, and it took me two or three readings to find my way into what Ruth Valentine is doing: imagining herself into different times, places and voices. Sometimes she’s speaking about her own life, but even then she slips from past to present and place to place. If you enter her poems properly, you’re entering a living stream of consciousness. For example, she remembers tasting the Turkish fruit called musmulla, “a succulent name like three in the afternoon/ in September, half waking in the breeze/ off the bay, unfinished bungalow/ and sugar-white marble paving stones. . .” I loved reading this, but wished I knew a little more about her.

 

I think the editors are being vague on purpose. The Announced is one of three pamphlets sold as a set for £15 (the other two are fiction). The pages are French folded—each page’s edge is a fold and there are blank pages hidden inside—so that (the cover copy says) “the book is as much about the tacit as the told”. This is way too artsy for me. But I suppose there’s something to be said for coming upon these poems without preamble and slipping into their dream space.

 

And, okay, a few poems do have helpful notes. ‘St Mary Graces’, the opening poem, is about a woman’s skeleton unearthed from a mass grave of plague victims, over which an abbey, and later, the Royal Mint, were built. It begins

 

I give her a name, Nell, the lost belltower

reverberating again. . .

 

Oooh. Nell, as in knell. The lines are set ringing, and though the words are plain and clear, a brief imagining of the dead woman’s life and her centuries in the grave, the poem’s music makes all those years resonate together. I would have greatly appreciated a background note for the next poem, ‘The Settlement’, about children who were taken from immigrant parents and died, or didn’t die, some time in the past in an unspecified “ancient land” that sounds vaguely African—desert, shantytowns. (Another poem alludes to time spent in Senegal; maybe that’s a hint.) Again, the poem’s music is beautiful:

 

We were poor

and hopeful and thirsty and simplified with walking.

 

In a particularly successful sequence called ‘Sea Fishing’, Valentine imagines her way into the body and mind of a cancer patient—her sister’s partner—“who’s packed up everything,/ the sun-cream, the secondary tumors in his lymph glands,// and gone fishing in the Canaries. . .” I was dubious that she could make this work without veering into melodrama. But she really brings you there. And it’s gorgeous.

 

David Floyd:

Ruth Valentine’s The Announced is one third of Ellipsis 1 which, according to the publisher, is “a new literary series from Sylph Editions, published as a set of three 32-page booklets. Each volume presents a trio of contemporary writers offering a selection of forms, philosophies and densities of language.”

 

It’s stylishly produced, with clear attention to the details of font choices and paper selection.

 

The poetry itself mostly lives up to the publisher’s pledge that “each book is as much about the tacit as the told”. The first poem, ‘St Mary Graces’, is a tribute to a plague victim buried beneath the Royal Mint.

 

In it, the poet uses humanising (fictitious) details about the subject’s life to both counteract and amplify the fact that some bits of some body parts are all that remains. The effect is both sad and quite odd but also understated:

 

I offer her

 

what little I can, being so ignorant

and she so diminished, a scattering

of ribs and knuckles over a narrow space

hollowed between her neighbours

 

‘Leonard Woolf at 80’ is also full of odd sadness. It finds Woolf paddling his boat along the river, remembering his lost loved ones, particularly Virginia:

 

I keep them afloat on the river, the just-living.

Thirty years. She was wedged there all the time,

where the fence in the water keeps the cattle from straying.

I was the fence post. Sun

shone on our faces, shone on my flower-garden.

And none of it was practice for anything.

 

Describing a man as the fence post his wife’s body was wedged against following her suicide isn’t one of the more obvious ways to create beautiful poetry but when a poet tries something this unlikely and succeeds, as Valentine does, it’s something to admire.

 

Suicide is also the theme of the title poem, which is about people who throw themselves in front of trains on the London Underground. It’s a subject that is fraught with potential difficulties and “Some/ pace and up down, impatient for the moment // which will terminate here” is a dark pun which the poet may have done better to resist. Still, it doesn’t spoil the overall effect of the poem. The main difficulty, as both poet and reader know, is that the one person who truly knows why they have chosen to kill themselves is not around afterwards to share their reasoning.

 

As a general explanation of why a person might take that decision, this (both in terms of the idea and the execution) is pretty good going:

 

It is what they always

aspired to, the state of harmlessness,

to be no longer responsible for holding

the grey sky on their shoulders to stop it crushing

 

beauty out of the city.