Red Squirrel Press 2010, £4.00 |
Sphinx six stripes
Reviewed by Matthew Stewart, Richard Meier and Helena Nelson

Matthew Stewart:
First impressions here are pretty good: Ancient and Now’s cover is impressively illustrated by the poet himself, although there’s an unfortunate slight fuzziness to both the images and lettering. Inside, meanwhile, the typeface is clear, professional and lets the poetry speak for itself.

Moving on to those poems, a number of points become immediately clear. Donati’s seemingly random left/right/central justification and punctuation surprise the reader, as do the line-endings, which often come after articles, prepositions or conjunctions. Such a technique places great emphasis on creating, breaking and playing with the reader’s rhythmic and semantic expectations. On too many occasions here, Donati doesn’t succeed. Language is chopped up for effect on the page, yet serious doubts remain as to how this would be reflected and rendered at a reading.

Syntax works self-consciously in the collection, groping for effect, as in this example from ‘Urban Scene’:

     Today there is a
     man with a box hung round his neck and
     dressed in a protective
     boiler-suit who

     from a cord hooked roughly to the
     probably quite old wooden
     fence leans

In thematic terms, Donati meets universal issues head-on. ‘Yellowcraigs Sands’ is one such piece. An intriguing scenario is skillfully sketched until we reach these lines:

     as he shall disappear
     as I shall
     as we all shall

The extrapolation just doesn’t seem to earn its poetic corn and demand us to feel. Nor does the title poem, ‘Ancient and now’, quoted below in full:

     the new and the now
     are ancient
     and the only constancy
     the light

     is now
     is new
     is ancient

     to see for the first time merely
     merely to be born and to die
     as impossible as death

     the only constancy . . .

This piece expresses a truth very well, but fails to make it sing, to cast new light on it, to involve us in its process. Syntax, semantics, rhythm and music aren’t coming alive.

Ancient and Now is a brave collection in its treatment of form, although this ambition is not enough in itself. Innovation can have great value in the way it challenges us, but such a challenge is only successfully set when we’re made to care. I so wanted to enjoy this book for its daring outlook on poetry. However, I can only praise the attempt rather than the achievement.

Richard Meier:
In ‘Didjeridu’, the opening poem of Colin Donati’s pamphlet, the “ancient” of the title is connected to the now through the instrument’s “long, low drone”. This is a highly accomplished poem where iambic regularity is ably employed to convey “the open unremitting intonation” of circular breathing:

     three players set, three neighbours side-by-side,
     who paint through breath a time of trance, of dream,
     shadows, trees and animals, from rooted down,
     paint light and leaves and breeze and animate
     from deep, from down, the navel of the earth,
     the belly’s basal floor and lowest ground,
     the world’s floor, the forest floor, a ground,
     a long miasma of a sound, a dream of sound. . . .

Connection between the “now” and the “ancient” are made by Donati in the deftly observed third poem in the pamphlet, ‘Urban Scene’, which describes the risky endeavours of a blackberry-picker:

     Today there is a
     man with a box hung round his neck and
     dressed in a protective
     boiler-suit who [. . .]

     carries on his own manner
     engaged in his precarious search and
     cautiously picking out
     the little city fruit
I felt a number of the poems strove a little too hard to make a connection with the collection’s title, however. The title poem, ‘Ancient and now’, for instance, seemed a little too earnest, a little too T. S. Eliot, really to come off:

    the new and the now
    are ancient
    and the only constancy
    the light

    is now
    is new
    is ancient

‘. . . boy diving’—a poem based on the detail from an Etruscan tomb reproduced on the front cover of the pamphlet—doesn’t to my mind really say much beyond the opening line—“no surviving language”—and felt rather indulgent. I also felt less than engaged by poems such as ‘Keys . . .’, which take a thought—here, that the keys in a particular woman’s jacket pocket are connected—run with it for a bit, but around in circles really, culminating in the rather underwhelming conclusion: ‘the keys in her jacket pocket/ connect . . .’

Still, notwithstanding the fact that Donati works his overarching theme a little hard, there is much in the pamphlet to be enjoyed.

Helena Nelson:
I liked this pamphlet very much. The fabulous Etruscan tomb painting on the cover was an excellent start. Finding a poet who had actually translated Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky into Scots was a great second: anybody who could even consider doing that deserves serious respect. The rather small typeface was a bit of a drawback (I am too old for small print) but hey, you have to work a little for art.

What I liked best was finding a poet who was thinking hard, grappling with life in all its strangeness. There’s something going on here, and it’s not ordinary. Not every poem works equally well, but even in the ones where success is mixed (‘Rung’, for example), there are lovely sections, as well as an aural playfulness that appealed to me enormously. Here are the last two stanzas, which I love:

     Herman Melville 
     peeled great whales
     like they were
     oranges and lemons sing the

     smote the head
     between the hammer
     and the bell.

I’m quoting out of context, of course, which makes you work a bit harder but you can immediately sense the musicality and the juxtaposition of death and joy. Melville, as Donati says in the opening lines, “knew the way/ the rind of life/ is no-life”. The poem courses through a series of dynamic verbs—with ‘rung’, as the title suggests, as the key verb, the singing elegy for the whales, their celebration.

The language and phrasing is troubled, and in places troubling, puzzled and puzzling. Which is the point, I think. Two poems call in a dog as a good-natured emblem for human activity, well-meaning, puzzled, constantly chasing something which disappears even in the hunt. In ‘Yellowcraigs Sands’ the poet and a friend kick sand for a strange dog, which chases the dispersing grains as if they were a ball. The layout and language are vividly visual:

     We kick for it again, it
                         stands sprung
   lugs cockit          staring at ocean
wondering where that was it just heard falling . .

Donati has a good ear for language: he blends Scots phrasing (like the fabulous “lugs cockit”) with English. It works. And I very much liked the existential reflection in the poem—it is perhaps a little obvious in the stanza “as he shall disappear/ as I shall / as we all shall” which might have been better left implicit, but the end of the poem is terrific.

I didn’t like ‘Anti-psalm cxxvi’—the rhyming tetrameter simply didn’t work for me but what was that compared to ‘Half-sleep on the Banks of the Stream of Streets’—one single, sleepy, glorious sentence? And what about ‘Drops bits of Watches from his Pockets’? Such beautiful imagery, developed carefully from the starting line (“The night is a clock without hands”) through “. . . who knows the secrets of the pick-lock week?” to

     The blind watch-seller tinkers on the street corner
     with bits and pieces in his pockets that he
     picked up from the gutters with his fingerless-gloved fingers,

     rooftops drink their work from sunlight, days are hands
     without clocks, cars are incessant, and the drains
     will swallow all our wet weather.   

I even found myself breaking my rule about self-referencing poetry—usually I bristle when poems start talking about poems, but in ‘August 2001’ I didn’t. There’s always an exception and this is one of them. It is about just being—about stopping thinking, stopping writing poems—about experience of life itself in this “strange brief window” in which we exist. Donati reflects on:

                       [ . . . ] what it might mean to abjure words
     the way that plants and air and sun are wordless;
     what it might mean to liberate minds from
     all great grand projects and the constant drab
     unheeded chaos of untended poetry”

He made me stop and think too. He creates a pause, a hush. It’s rare to do this, to take the reader into that moment “while the rowan/ hangs unstill and waits for this air to stir,/ as almost from time to time it does. . .”. This is a stranger, more thought-provoking pamphlet than at first it seems, and that liberating strangeness goes deeper than translating Lewis Carroll into Scots.