Acumen, 2010 £3.50
Reviewed by Richard Meier, Helena Nelson and Nick Asbury
Post Elizabeth Bishop, I reckon you have to be pretty ballsy and/or a tad naïve to open a collection with a poem about maps. And doubly so to word-drop both “maps” and “North” as Lepchani does in the first and last line of her poem 'Cartography'. Now, a reviewer—given that the poet seems to have made some link, or comparison even, between herself and Bishop (whose poem 'The Map' begins her first collection 'North and South')—might feel licensed to spend the review discussing whether or not such a comparison is justified.
The fact that I don't think it is (at all) is not, however, the point in this case. I found Lepchani's poems rather jejune and unformed on the whole; but it's her editor I feel the review should take issue with, not the poet.
Apart from the injudicious choice of opening poem (where the editor might have simply had a quiet word to persuade the poet to start on a less treacherous tack), there's the egregious typo in the dedication (“Dedicated to evryone [sic] who loves a poet”), the plethora of missing apostrophes throughout the pamphlet and the unedited vacuity of the blurb on the jacket: “Lucy Lepchani is poetry activist [sic]. The Beckoning Wild encapsulates that force which shifts and shapes itself within her work.”
Although I generally feel these poems lack the requisite distance from their subject matter really to move the reader (or this one at least), there are odd moments when Lepchani's talent comes through:
These soft-dough invincibles
were ballast in my childhood's fragile hull
('An Armada of Aunties')
Even such instances, though, are to my mind rarely as polished as they might be. A more fastidious editor might, for example, have questioned “soft-dough” (tautology, no?) and perhaps suggested “doughy” instead.
I instantly warmed to the colourful painting of Shiva, which animates the front cover of this pamphlet and seems to connect with “that force which shifts and shapes itself” claimed on the back cover. And the pamphlet is a very nice size too: fits neatly in a reasonable pocket. So I wanted to like what was inside.
And I did like some of what I found there, but not all of it. ‘Fruit of the Jelabi Tree’, for example. I love the last three lines:
And so I lied. It was bittersweet for me
to taste the benefits of fruit
that grew on the Jelabi Tree.
I like the sound and shape of those lines and also the neat way they sum up the wry message of the poem, too complex to here. But the earlier parts of the poem are looser and sometimes exhibit a much heavier touch. The jelabi in the school lunchbox, for example, makes the narrator’s heart “ache/ as if the taint of Eden had breathed/ its contempt for my contemporary Fall”. Why not just mention the heartache? It’s enough.
This sense of a mixed response to the poems continued. I loved much of ‘An Armada of Aunties’, those relatives who “swooped down on us children like/ billowing storm-clouds of flesh”. But “these soft-dough invincibles” (I even rather like that description) went one step too far for me with “were ballast in my childhood’s fragile hull”.
To me this poet has a lovely feeling for word and image but an imperfect sense of when to pull back. ‘Brewing’ has the poet as “Lady Chatterley, Lilith and Eve” who creates “a storm in a teacup” which is (I think) also “the seeds of my truth”. Meanwhile, her partner broods “like a shadowy King of Spades” who needs to inhabit the poet’s “vision of Eden” where she ate the apple first. She wants him to sip the contents of her teacup, which may be “primeval soup” and the cup may be “your own true Grail”. This is such a gallimaufry of symbols and metaphors that it leaves me alienated.
However, there is no doubt that the mixture is deliberate. Lucy Lepchani chooses to throw multiple myths into her poetic stockpot. A reader is either going to find the result stimulating or have rather a strong negative reaction.
It seems to me there are poems that work here (‘The World is Our Own Back Yard’, ‘Waiting for News’, ‘Born, not made’, ‘Subliminal’); there are also parts of poems that work beautifully; and there are poems with an appealing rhythm and humour which would work well in performance. One of these is ‘The Beanstalk’ and it allows this brief and strongly individual collection to end on a round of applause.
At its best, this colourful collection demonstrates an intoxicating love of language—lots of big, bouncing alliteration, internal rhyme and end rhyme. These are the main formal devices in poems that are otherwise largely resistant to tight form or metre, and always teetering on the edge of the "beckoning wild" suggested by the title.
The title is also a clear steer to the thematic content, which contrasts deadening systems of order with the wild, untrammelled imagination. The opening poem ('Cartography') recalls a male partner who "flat-packed horizons / reducing landscape neatly into grids". The poet eventually makes her escape, following her own "true North".
Elsewhere, we find Sarah, the scat-jazz singer, whose talents are boxed in by the maternal role imposed on her—"the fate of certain women of a certain age is that / husbands and small children, sometimes, keep them from the stage".
The collection ends on a similar note with 'The Beanstalk'—a playful retelling of the beanstalk fable, adapted to the modern-day world of health and safety, planning permission and corporate interests:
But up sneaked Mrs., up sneaked Mr.,
got to the top and surveyed the scene:
wasteland. Famine, and a fat corporation.
That's what you get from Genetically Modified beans.
It's an appropriate ending for a collection in which the poet is cast as a champion of the beckoning wild against the restricting forces of social convention. While most readers will no doubt share this impulse, my recurring niggle was a lack of definition about exactly what this beckoning wild is, and where the "true North" is located. I felt there was a vague spirituality at its heart that never really came into focus—lots of energy, yearning and joy in nature, but a frustratingly formless feel to the vision being expressed, as well as the manner of its expression.
That said, there is one poem here that offers a clear, utilitarian moral vision and is crying out to be anthologised and printed on greetings cards (I mean that in a good way). 'The World Is Our Own Backyard' opens:
If I stop throwing snails into my neighbour's garden
and she stops her cats from crapping in mine,
then gradually extrapolates outwards to the point where:
. . . even arms dealers might stay home, play golf,
and peace will grow deep roots
oh if only, if only, I would stop throwing snails
into my neighbour's garden
It's a nice, universal message that must go down well in readings. In fact, I'm sure a lot of this collection does—it's lively, heartfelt writing from someone with a clear love for the physicality of language.
The pamphlet's cover is as colourful as its contents and the poems are smartly presented, although I tripped up on a couple of typos that I'm sure the editors are already kicking themselves about.