Shoestring Press, 2013 £7.00
Reviewed by Fiona Moore, Christie Williamson and Helena Nelson
This beautifully produced pamphlet has a Gauguin on the cover, and an epigraph from Gauguin’s Tahiti journals that tells an island-creation myth. These set the scene. The island, here, is Mauritius. Tim Liardet’s themes include climate change, and an inter-racial marriage. The poems are carefully ordered around a seven-poem sequence, ‘At Gris-Gris’, which tells and retells a story of a monster sighted off a beach, a symptom of global warming; it either disappears or is washed up on shore and brutally slaughtered. The variations bring a mythical feel to the story. Both they and the couplets are wavelike. From poem 3:
I have heard the waves talk, their sea-stone gossip,
not only of beasts but of icebergs. Once faceted
in drama like raw jade, they melt, grow toothless.
Four hundred square miles of Ice Shelf,
broken off, move slowly north . . . All’s strange to itself.
Part wolf, part Sea-cow, part everything extinct,
part Antarctica’s lugubrious stray,
the beast sighted at Gris-Gris, whatever it is, shows up
in waters warm enough to keep the Bludger-fish;
the Bludger-fish in waters cold enough to keep the beast.
There are mozzies in the body of the penguin;
in the belly of the mozzies penguin blood.
The whole sequence is admirably ambitious —the amount of other discourse on climate change makes it a tough subject for poetry. For me ‘At Gris-Gris’ works in parts. I’m not sure to what extent this is a matter of taste. I find the passage quoted one of the most effective, in the way it moves, typically, between lyrical description and Lewis Carroll, from “sea-stone gossip” (lovely!) to the delightfully bizarre Bludger-fish. But the fourth line, maybe shortened to give emphasis to the shock, breaks the expertly constructed iambic sway; and “grow toothless” feels bathetic. The change of tone and rhythm in the bald factual statement of the penguin couplet falls flat.
Where the beast appears, despite “its thick grouty hide / so scratched and pitted and scarred”, I find it too amorphous to invoke pity or horror. I’m not emotionally engaged by the sequence, except where it takes lyrical flight as in the first lines above. I also, perversely, want end-rhyme. Where occasionally it occurs, the lines work extra well.
Things out of proportion occur throughout the book, which begins with a magnified wood wasp and some talking giant bamboo and ends with ‘Giant Lilies’ (one of several poems which does have aabb end-rhyme) reflected in a pond:
we watch a wide and evil mouth steer its head
down into the dark, slip out of sight,
as if its cellar were our lily-cratered state.
The Anglo-Mauritian marriage in ‘The Crowding’ is another example, the “tiny” Mauritian wife “displayed to us for the first time”. This, and a couple of other step-mother poems, are written with sympathy, though without conveying much character, but I find the tone of several poems in which women are observed a bit too close for comfort to white male gaze syndrome (see also Gauguin on the cover). Mostly it’s the female body that’s being observed. There’s even a poem, ‘The Sega Dancers as Pre-Sexual Beings’, which starts:
Their quims could be the point, finely dusted in hair,
but it’s not their quims they shimmy to the drums;
it isn’t their quims they trade here so much as their wings.
However a female personification of trees takes off in ‘The Flame Trees of Trou aux Biches’. The quatrains work well, though in some other poems their contribution is less clear:
not wishing to be thought at all plain
on their highway diet of two-stroke and gasoline;
not wishing to be outshone or overlooked
by the brilliant and branch-outreaching, swept
by salt-wind toward the inland spaces
That is Liardet making the most of his skill with loose iambics and his Mauritian theme which, with the long sequence, are what make this pamphlet arresting.
Cold. Wet. Dark. Three words which describe a Scottish winter perfectly, and so enjoying these poems of the southern seas is your perfect pastime in this neck of the woods. Because these poems are anything but. Except of course in ‘At Gris Gris’, a spectacular poem hunting a mythic beast from seven different angles. The narrator tells us –
we’d no idea of what might have mated with what,
and dragged out the boat, took ropes, took tackle.
We took strength, through the hull into the breakers
that threw it back at us again and again.
Launched, it tipped and bucked – we climbed aboard,
all four of us, and rowed out over the waves
That’s got to count as wet, even for the most land loathing of veteran mariners.
And then in ‘The Blinding’, a poem beginning with “That wallpaper – crazily hard on the eye” and arriving at “You said the rings were eyes //you dreamt the whole room was riddled / by some terminal shoot-out, the shots / puncturing your Muslim probity as much / as the wallpaper and walls, like eye-beams”
I don’t know many people who wouldn’t find that dark. But cold I can’t detect.
The 23 text pages pack a surprising amount in, and it took me a long time to read, because the writing is rich and stretches our (or at least my) horizons so consistently. I can see me spending years with these poems more easily than any other measurement of time. Between cover and Gauguin-bedecked cover, the spirit of exploration and of adventure consistently shines, both in the exotic subject matter, and the use of language and form.
And furthermore, there’s discovery. The discovery of cultures clashing over time, and most tellingly the personal discoveries which so memorably construct that discovery – of Madame Sassoo going bathing, and finding
every article of her nakedness
she wished the water could explore
and taste like expert tongues had been
stolen long before she dared to wade.
Tim Liardet is good. There’s no issue about his sure-footedness in doing whatever he’s doing. And this lovely looking pamphlet is a fitting vehicle for that kind of mastery. So it’s simply an issue of whether the poems suit the taste of the reader.
What was it Wordsworth said? “Every great and original writer, in proportion as he is great and original, must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished.” I wasn’t always sure in Madame Sassoo Goes Bathing whether the poems matched my taste. But some definitely did, and others won me over. Among their attributes is an element of puzzle, and this draws you back. It’s not just curiosity about events or situation, it’s also the puzzle of what the poet is up to. He is certainly engaging in mischief at times, toying with reader expectation, teasing with imagery and sometimes, it seems to me, on the verge of dalliance. Choice of word and detail is often seductive.
But I thought the dominant tone was a mixture of perplexity and marvel: a human being (male) faced by things he can’t understand but still finds wondrous. A recurring construction is a contradictory ‘but’: “not a man but a beast”, “not binoculars after all but gun barrels”, “I kicked it out / but it crept back in”. Expectations are continually challenged and confounded. In ‘Meme’ “the thousand mile threshold / of taboo and of faith and of politics” is just about to be crossed.
Liardet is strongly visual. Often you find yourself engaged by a rich picture, good enough to relish all by itself. For example, the Muslim bride who marries into an English family and has to be fitted as step-mother into their infinite Englishness. She is “displayed” (in ‘The Crowding’) “in her yellow hijab, her brightly figured rayon, / her brooch and hijab-pin, her tiny gold-toed sandals, / her many-bangled wrist and henna’d hands”. She is like a painting, a painting with a last line that trips the heart:
“She stood there so tiny in a puddle of spilt light.”
This is more than ordinarily emotive; it’s compelling. There’s so much you don’t know. Why is the diminutive bride moving from one culture to another? How has it come about? What happened to the first wife? Why does she seem so vulnerable? What will happen next?
That last question is the key to the tension that runs right through this collection. Many of the poems end like the bride on the threshold: just about to step into something else, sensuous and faintly daring. The sensuousness doesn’t extend quite to eroticism, I think, but that edge is there. In ‘A Man Seeing Experience Enquires The Way of the Woman in the Pamplemousses Garden’, for example, Liardet is flirting with the idea of heat and moisture: the playful element is evident from the title onwards. Two hot people are in a tropical garden described as a “green and boiling amplitude”. They are male and female, and the frisson is heterosexual. Her thoughts “absorb the wet – / they drink, they open up and are beset / by the soft excitements round [her]”, while his “tremble, slide and are repelled, can only hold on / as well as the droplet of sweat that eschews / my nose and chin, and drips on my shoes.” It’s nicely done, and fun.
I’m less sure about ‘The Sega Dancers as Pre-Sexual Beings’, which makes much of the word “quim” – dances around it, in fact. ‘Quim’ is a vexed word for a woman reader – far too many uneasy connotations – though undeniably useful in Scrabble. Still, this feels like a man’s poem for a male reader to me.
I’ll end with ‘Darwin in Mauritius’. I loved this poem unreservedly. Darwin marvels at the elephant, which transports him softly and silently, despite its hugeness. The picture of the great man himself couldn’t be bettered – the sight of it, the sound of it:
through the weft of his floppy brim under which
his prune-face lost itself in beard and thought.
Just the straps creaking, creaking against
the creaks of bamboo through which they strolled . . .