Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

Red Squirrel Press, Sand Poetry Chapbook Series, 2008   £4.00 - www.redsquirrelpress.com

Just published by Red Squirrel Press, an independent press in Northumberland founded by Sheila Wakefield in 2006, Stevie Ronnie’s pamphlet The Thing to Do When You are Not in Love offers glimpses of a wry and imaginative mind, willing to experiment with language and academic ideas. Ronnie’s poems are carefully composed, but the collection seems to suggest that when not “in love”, one writes less impassioned verse—verse that offers rational response to, rather than within, the world. That worries me a bit.

I missed a clear focus for the collection. Certainly the title of this pamphlet alerts readers that these poems are not love poems, and therefore we should not expect passion, but I can’t forget that Czeslaw Milosz has defined poetry as “a passionate pursuit of the Real.” I miss the passion. Although several of these poems offer sharp responses to the world, those primarily cerebral views tend to flatten their subject. ‘Rebuilding the West’, for example, with its black and white portrait of the barren workaday world all dolled up with “shopping centres/ in the style of prisons, next door/ to the enterprise park” certainly urges readers to recognize the conditions of our world, but does it—as Wordsworth suggests a poem must— awaken “the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom … directing it to the loveliness and wonders of the world around us”?

Of course, a cursory review of cultural history reminds us that the argument for and against passion in art and thought has long been with us. Two hundred years ago, Coleridge argued that his predecessor poets “sacrificed the heart to the head,” and that his contemporaries gave way to “the glare and glitter of a perpetual, yet broken and heterogeneous imagery, or rather to an amphibious something, made up half of image, and half of abstract meaning.” The mind/body split has long been with us.

‘Almost Everything She Taught Me’ is the one poem in Ronnie’s collection that sneaks up on love (without the passionate confusion of being ‘in love.’) Linking abstraction with imagery, body with mind, he tells us he has learned:

That hair holds beauty.
How to use the word fair.

How to listen, how to make sounds,
the taste of cider. How, each month

a woman turns from an ally to a foe.
How to let go. Talk. How to walk.

That maggots can be found
in brambles. How to love.

But that knowledge—How to love—he has yet to share fully with his reader.

Today, in our post-postmodern age, awash with the glittering excess of late capitalism neatly mapped by the ‘reasonable’ and the ‘accurate’, we sometimes forget that to live joyfully and well in the world, even when not in love, requires notice of all the minor details of the everyday—but it is passionate wonder that can (and will) turn that notice into love, bring colour to a greying landscape, music to world deafened by noise.

Perhaps it is time to abandon the old argument of passion versus reason and instead let mind and heart dance, each yielding gently to the other. Stevie Ronnie may soon be a poet who will allow his heart to engage in spirited dialogue with his mind: I felt that capacity in these poems. When that dialogue erupts, I want to read more.

Tia Ballantine