Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

Nine Arches Press, 2011    £5.00

 

Sphinx seven striperReviewed by Peter Daniels, James Roderick Burns and Noel Williams

 

Peter Daniels:
Tone shifts unsettlingly in this pamphlet: several poems on opposite pages echo each other in very different moods. In ‘Salt’, a “bloody-toed” middle-eastern woman faces the disappearance of her self into her husband—“my mouth will forget/ the shape of my own name”. Opposite, ‘Dry Dock’ is about a model at a photo shoot with faux-fur and bare “improbable breasts”. The poems meet in the detail of toes:


.......arched feet
.......fidget in red straps as wind
.......lashes her scarlet-tipped toes with grit.

I like this understated connection, and I admire the risk of a shift in tone being more a jolt than a contrast.


‘Genealogy’ is about skeletons in cupboards, taken literally: the “rattle of restless long bones” are


.......not as loud
.......as the empty space that’s kept
.......for the one who left and never
.......looked back.

The jocular tone including the grandfather with “boys and young men” is cut sharply by ‘Sarah talks to the Social worker’ opposite, a mother talking about her husband’s child abuse.

 

The empty space in ‘Genealogy’ is a recurring theme, with John Burnside’s line “No one invents an absence” as epigraph at the front of the book. ‘The Impossibility of Inventing Absence’ feels contrived (or is that the point?) and the overblown title reminds me too much of the Damien Hirst shark’s title ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’. I prefer the final poem, ‘Absence’, more personally experienced, with a spaced caesura in each line keeping the sense of a gap before us, but all the time “something must     be there”. In ‘Prospect’, absence is being created by built-up detail of the things rummaged through in expectation of something unknown.

 

 

Animals make numerous appearances, and apocalyptic times: in ‘Bad Tidings’ the changed world is manifest in animal behaviour, while human knowledge depends on information like tide tables “as if knowledge were sand bags”. Animals are major representatives of the unexplained. ‘A Letter Home’, written as if from the end times to here, starts “The well is full of dead rabbits”. In ‘Science Lesson’ crows nesting in a school ceiling represent nature versus the caretaker. ‘Empty Horses’ is a lovely poem of spareness, in both senses: the horses are what we ignore, the life going on around us. In this book, there are some disturbing possibilities of what that life may be.


James Roderick Burns:
This pamphlet is a lesson in frustration. It has several—perhaps even four or five—peaks of achievement: 'Littoral', 'Dry Dock', 'A Letter Home'. These poems are whole, resonant, fully rounded. They place real human beings in complex situations and work through the ever-branching meaning of such lives with subtlety and fresh, chewy language. The second stanza of 'Littoral', for instance, is note perfect, invoking the spirit of the shoreline in all its bright, savage wonder:

 

.......Near the coast, the salt-scent wakes
.......old secrets, stirs old yearnings;
.......he runs over rocks, stumbles,
.......throws himself into the shock of sea
.......where his legs kick together,
.......power him into breakers
.......that roar in celebration.

 

Wonderful—we, too, roar. Or in the post-plague wilderness of 'A Letter Home' we gasp, then mourn, at the characters' bitter, trammeled lives:

 

.......There have been some new families
.......in our water queue this week.
.......They have teenagers and I have watched
.......a boy and a girl look, and look away;
.......flirt and grow close. I don't know now
.......whether rabbits are wiser
.......in choosing a shorter arc.

 

These individual poems are as accomplished as any in contemporary letters. But the overall impact of that achievement is diluted by many others in the collection which, while not bad, are irritatingly incomplete, giving the impression of not having been worked or thought through fully. The intriguing premise of 'The Impossibility of Inventing Absence'—that by examining three present facets of the same state of absence, physical, emotional and metaphorical, we will better understand what it means not to be—is undercut by the poem's rapid run into the sand in stanza three, which feels like a distinct petering out. Something similar happens in 'Bad Tidings', whose slow build of creepy detail falters and falls, just as it is building to a climax. And the conclusion of 'Salt' literally stops short—grammatically, and artistically:

 

.......I've allowed him to lead me . . .
.......and know that my mouth will forget
.......the shape of my own name. I taste
.......the salt from all the tears I shed as I

 

As the rest of the collection is meticulous in its use of punctuation, I assume this is intended as a poetic device, but like the collection's almost willfully obscure title (referring apparently to the merrymaking of whaling-ship sailors in Greenland), it hinders, rather than enhances, meaning, and niggles to boot.

 

I wish this collection had been divided into two: the significant core of very strong, lasting work, and the also-rans, experiments and not-quite-finisheds. As it stands, it feels a little like a pig in a poke.


Noel Williams:
‘Mallemaroking’, in case you’re wondering, is “the drunken carousing of sailors on ice-bound whaling ships in Greenland”. Not many of these poems smack of drunkenness, or carousing. They are dark, threatening, uncomfortable. Which is perhaps the experience of ice-bound whalers, and maybe their excuse for mallemaroking. A simple browse along the rich opening lines of the poems illustrates the darkness:

.......
A black rod/ and white wig    blind (‘First Person’)

.......
Nights were empty of the vixen’s/ yip and screech (‘Bad Tidings’)

.......
The well is full of dead rabbits, Mother. (‘A Letter Home’

.......
The walls of this house are stuffed with bones. (‘Genealogy’)

.......
Night-walking into fog      a torch throws/ blindness back (‘Absence’)

 

These are strong beginnings, drawing you in like the tunnel under the ringroad with all the lightbulbs smashed.

 

And, once you’ve ducked under that damp concrete, glancing over your shoulder,  squinting hard into the gloom ahead, you’re not surprised and you are surprised by what you find. ‘Leda, after the Swan’, for example, gives you what you’d expect. After the rape Leda moves away, “couldn’t bear/ light touch against her skin”. But the poem also reveals what you can’t quite believe. In the night her persistent dream contradicts her:

.......
the sinuous strength in a white neck.
.......She dreams of a down-lined nest,
.......of opening like a water lily at dawn.

Can she continue to want her rapist? France can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but she’s more interested in the darkness within.

 

The ‘Matryoshka’ offers another metaphor of the hidden dark, the doll inside the doll:

.......
The flowers on the next one
.......look like smears of blood, its apron
.......a ragged stain.

 

Blood and darkness, though superbly seductive, do not limit these poems. They operate in a range of ways and deliver a range of tones. ‘Science Lesson’ for example, is little more than an uncomfortable account of birds caught in a classroom chimney. It captures the menace we all feel at the hidden scrabble of panicked creatures, and perhaps echoes our own panic.

 

But ‘Salt’, also about a trapped creature, offers us several ways of reading and won’t tell us which to prefer. It narrates the relationship between a woman who allows a man’s “passion to cover my head”. Perhaps it’s an arranged marriage. It’s certainly a marriage where man’s rules impose concealing dress. We’ll assume it’s the hijab. Yet the suggestion may be that all marriages are such. Perhaps all relationships. The woman loses her identity. The poem ends with a splendid risk:

.......
my mouth will forget
.......the shape of my own name. I taste
.......the salt from all the tears I shed as I