Smith/Doorstop, 2013 £5.00
Reviewed by Emma Lee, Matt Bryden and Peter Jarvis
Kim Lasky’s poems are inspired by scientists and inventors, people who explore and experiment with the world around them. ‘Animal Electricity’ considers both a scientist’s and his subject’s viewpoints. First there’s Giovanni Aldini, the scientist who has stuck a deal to get the body of a hanged man for experimentation:
Foster’s hanged body,
the conducting rods, the battery –
how the jaw contorted
as if in pain
and one accusing eye
opened, a shocked witness,
it’s not medicine he thinks of
but this: his own night fever –
ghost torturers fingering
wires inside his head
The subject (George Foster), however, is ignorant of the experiment:
As for everything after, the hour hanging,
the blood draining from his spinal cord,
Aldini, the rods, the battery,
as for any of that, he can’t say.
The poem’s weakness, it seems to me, is in the sameness of diction in handling the two perspectives. It’s easy to work out which part describes the scientist and which the subject without having to refer to the subtitles. But the lack of colloquialisms, verbal tics and similarity of phrasing make both men sound as if they’re from the same class and cultural backgrounds. They are merely two sides of a coin. I don’t get a sense of personality.
Opportunities to hint at individual character are also missed in ‘Now she has lost the words to her thoughts’:
I bed down in the upstairs room arranging
normality. A paperback two-thirds read,
a travel-alarm opened from its case like a clam,
perfume bottled in blue cathedral glass
that refracts light from the window
in the hour after lunch when she sleeps
nourished by whole minutes without fear
while I shut impatience tight behind the door,
lie noticing how stained glass fades
from dark ocean to rock-pool – uselessly
practising the poem of it: petrol, cyan, electric.
The title of the paperback, whether it was bookmarked or left open at the last page read, the name of the perfume – such details would hint the narrator’s personality. But such clues are avoided. The poem’s life is in the observation of light through the stained glass, the different shades of blue. I’d like to see that forensic eye turned to people, to grant them life beyond that of an object observed but not understood.
Despite these reservations, I enjoyed this pamphlet and savoured, in particular, the meeting of art and science.
Winner of the annual Poetry Business competition is a coveted title, and if this handsomely-produced volume, with its succinct judge’s blurb, is typical, then it belongs to the select.
Simon Armitage (whose own Smiths/Doorstop release came out in 2010) notes how Lasky “flirts with form”, and in the opening poem, rhyme is surrendered for the sake of expression (you can actually see the moment of her decision, where she drops the rhyming word “exact” to the next line for the sake of the integrity of the line, while maintaining the poem’s couplet structure.) The scientific mind is “cold as stream water”, she writes, then pans back to reveal “They are slaughtering dogs in the city, // locking the sick inside to die.” Yet the scientist husband fails to notice, lacking “the grip of loam on [his] heels.” When rhyme does reappear it is to stress the couple’s mismatch: “But what lies between us festers, / like the day you said you’d burn these rafters // and me with them.”
The second poem aligns the writer herself with such scientific detachment —“make of yourself a lens” — and the third, ‘Animal Electricity,’ suggests such study can actually be arcane. In this, Italian physicist Giovanni Aldini re-animates the muscles of first a frog’s legs and then a convicted murderer using a battery.
Lasky’s pamphlet itself touches on the dead. Sequences of poems deal with both her mother’s passing and her father who died in the Second World War, with whom she imagines a dance. There is something reminiscent of Joseph Wright of Derby’s ‘Experiment on a Bird in a Vacuum’ about her project, the scrutiny of the poet taking place in a kind of half-lit ghost-world. “Sleep is not for you, no,” she writes, and her scrutiny of fishermen, scientists, pylon erectors and writers suggests that anyone tending a skill does so at the expense of the real world.
She writes beautifully throughout:
It is the end of September.
Industrious waves have carried, lifted, thrown
another season’s worth of surfers
In perhaps the most haunting image, which also provides the pamphlet’s knock-out title, perfume “bottled in blue cathedral glass” refracts light from a window. The narrator lies, “noticing how stained glass / fades from dark ocean to rock-pool.” The weird passivity of the vessel animated by a power outside itself is at the core of this pamphlet. On the one hand, you sense that Lasky is “bedded down” in Sussex, her poems coming from a calm place, a stillness to their clarity. On the other, that she wakes each morning exhausted, having been possessed like the bodies co-opted by Aldini’s experiments, but this time by poets she reads half-conscious in the twilight (‘Nocturne’).
The rich hue of the pamphlet’s cover suits the nocturnal air of reminiscence, and hospital attendance of the collection: “misty fairgrounds / where waltzers spin and blur // and the dead move through fog / in dream-skins.” Events can be rewound (a YouTube link allows us to re-watch the murder of a circus elephant) and it can be attractive to do so: “It’s easy to waltz gently backwards, / turn, face forward again”, she writes of her father, “with you leading.” Always though, there is the risk that, like ‘The Night the Village Drowned’, such immersion will result in a contamination, “drowned meanings [ . . . ] leaving bracken debris abandoned / on yellow lines, cat’s eyes.”
I can’t really credit this publication enough. The poems cohere, and become more than themselves. Echoing the tripling of the title, the last poem includes the line “frayed twine, green glass, driftwood” before ending on the word “blue” itself. It concerns the poet’s fear to plumb the depths of memory, history, grief, death and time, even though the pamphlet is testament to its rewards.
Two poems in this brilliant pamphlet each place a pair of lovers in an uncertain, vertiginous universe. ‘Clifftop, Birling Gap’ is a site of crumbling cliffs, beyond which “Elsewhere stars collapse / and flare, burn into black holes.” In their human frailty, one of the pair – as if asserting a sudden need for order in dissolution – remarks: “There / is something necessary / [ . . . ] in the touch of your hand.” In ‘Ditchling Beacon’ one of a couple, feeling overwhelmed by the vast, inscrutable night sky, finds reassurance only in their companion’s presence (“your outline beside me”).
Love’s precariousness – especially in its filial forms – seems to be Lasky’s principal concern. Three poems placed in the centre of the collection (‘Fifth Chakra’, ‘There are not enough words in the language’ and ‘As if the Very Air’) engage with the difficult articulation of love. They are preoccupied with the differing and deteriorating capacities of mother and daughter to relate authentically to each other:
you and I, knowing genetically
the rules of being a daughter
fail even to manage something colloquial.
One impediment to their communication is the mother’s wordless fear as she sinks into dementia. Another is the daughter’s reined-in impatience:
in the hour after lunch [ . . . ] she sleeps
nourished by whole minutes without fear
while I shut impatience tight behind the door
(‘There are not enough words in the language’)
The daughter’s feelings cause her unbearable tension, picked up by the terse phrasing in ‘Fifth Chakra’. Not even yogic meditation helps much to unblock her communicative powers. “Flammable as paraffin, the unspoken; / petrol poured on thought.” Walking with the mother along a beach serves only to aggravate their problems.
In ‘There are not enough words in the language’, Lasky empathises with the mother’s inability to communicate, by dwelling on loss of memory, thought, language and bearings:
I’d like to follow, travel to the end
of our regular route in silence,
arrive at a place we never knew
so have no need of forgetting.
Only an afternoon nap gives the mother respite from her distress, and her daughter space for “arranging normality”.
The title ‘As if the Very Air’ is explained in the last line – “as if the very air was the word love” – thus clicking into place Lasky’s chief theme. Daughter is at dying mother’s hospital bedside. She wipes two circular tea-cup stains from the locker:
the sepia ring has split into two crescents –
a cracked planet, slid open, one half falling by degrees
down into the bottomless universe.
Such stunning imagery shows this skilful poet’s integrative power. There isn’t a weak poem in the entire collection.