Smiths Knoll, 2007 - £3.00 www.poetrybusiness.co.uk/smithdoorstop.aspx
“The devil’s cut” refers, at least in the title poem, to the cleft in a cloven hoof. It’s quite a visceral image, in that a single stroke (the one that, if you like, cleaves the hoof) separates mythologically-innocent beasts from those that have an attachment to the devil. So, too, can a single utterance change the atmosphere in a room, or a single line change the tone or meaning of a poem.
Imagine a shot in a film which starts at a man’s head and moves down towards his legs. At his waist, there’s a dramatic crash of orchestra, for the man is revealed to be half-goat—the goat of Mendes, the devil himself, as Christopher Lee might say. Like this, there is often an exact point where one of Marianne Burton’s poems changes into something else; indeed, she seems deliberately to experiment with this swift dark stroke.
The first poem, ‘The Baby’, for example, offers a simple, spare account of a summer—until just past the half-way point, when the tone changes: “Say the bruises/ came from slipping off the bunk. Say say.” From then on, everything in the poem seems to hint at some terrible crisis or event that has befallen the family.
‘For a Plain Man’ (first-prize winner in Mslexia, 2006) fixes itself to the subject of a person’s handwriting, and is full of merry words like “curlicues”, “galliards”, “swooping”, “rococo” and “fanfare”, only to come, at the start of the last stanza, to “None of it comforts you of course” and a bleaker picture.
And in ‘The Devil’s Cut’ itself, the first two stanzas are, perhaps deliberately, mundane, the first beginning “Calves’ feet upset me” and explaining why; the second reciting (almost textbook-like) how the hooves are processed into food. The sharpness of the language here— “pluck/ after scalding, or shave, or skin”—leans towards the macabre, but it’s a familiar trick by now, and ultimately leads to the moment when the narrator imagines her own daughter as “veal-pink and cloven”.
Other poems repeatedly threaten to come to a similarly dark dénouement but never do (‘Staying at the Embassy’) or have a whiff of blood and death from the start which only gets stronger (‘Morning Fruit’, ‘Identifying Mr. Barr’).
The ‘cut’, meanwhile, could also work as a reference to the stanza breaks in poems, or the break between one poem and another. This idea crops up in the twin poems ‘Categories of Laughter’ and ‘Categories of Tears’, which appear on facing pages and are each divided into two stanzas of roughly equal length. Interconnected but separate, as if, to borrow from the title poem, “a herdsman/ had smashed his axe up into/ the cushioned sole, severing it/ from back to front.” Beyond this example, however, and the general care with which Burton uses stanza breaks to alter the direction of a poem, the idea isn’t really explored.
So what we’re left with is something of a tableaux of the unsettling— earthquakes, domestic violence, representations of violence, bodies, infidelity and poverty (albeit the kind you encounter when travelling)— lurking beneath a still surface.
In some ways though, I wonder how well this works. These are measured, journal-friendly poems, often divided into lines and stanzas of regular length. The voice is a little dry and the seams of darkness, which should bubble, feel reined in, if you’ll excuse that mélange of metaphors. Like the movie villain who gives our hero all the right cues, they’re part of the make-up of the poetry, well-behaved to the point of artificiality. There are occasions, for certain, when the language is loose and limber enough to betray a stronger emotion, barely contained (such as the “again and again and again” in ‘The Incidental Orgasm’) or awkwardly unpoetic lines (like “what if it has no function except pleasure/ or the drive of a desire to procreate”, from the same poem).
Most of it, though, is simply very clean, very tidy, very well judged. It leaves one impressed but, curiously, doesn’t chill as much as it seems it should.