Salt Modern Voices, 2011 £4.99 (£3.99 from Salt’s own website)
Reviewed by Fiona Moore, Peter Daniels and Helena Nelson
Wandering along the shore, you don’t know what you’ll find next—French Symbolists, Breton legend, seascape, cityscape, the French revolution. A near-sestina, a sonnet, rhyming quatrains, experimental shapes; and a deliberate awkwardness of rhythm, a voice not obviously English. ‘Novella’ is after Rimbaud’s ‘Roman’ and starts:
......You can’t be serious when you’re twenty-one
......—the evenings flare, a rolled joint behind your ear,
......drunk on Wednesdays, university veteran!
......You talk in your backyard of us all being queer.
I went back to the original. Then I realised the whole book has a strong French Symbolist feel—the oddness, and sometimes some of the order; the tone, and the throwing-out of lines for the pleasure of it. Trévien was born in Brittany; maybe she was brought up on Symbolists. Here is the opening of ‘Listening to Charles Ives’:
.....The street vainly imitates a theatre,
.....dropped pennies and reflectors footlight my walk
.....the rumble of a crowd gathers and storms.
I did think this evocative poem should have been titled neutrally so as not to overhang the first few lines; Ives appears further down anyway. Another favourite is ‘The Launderette’, which has some repeated lines giving it a villanelle feel and enhancing the surreality of the images:
.....Inside, the machines have caught flies, and shake:
.....they are themselves a fable made of underwear.
.....The clock on the timer lies, you have to multiply.
A few poems don’t work as well, maybe because they’re trying to do too much—such as the longer ‘Mère’, some of whose images are vivid, but there isn’t enough interest in form and language to sustain me through half-comprehension. There’s more than enough of both in the excellent first poem, ‘Sing Bird’, which builds down and across the page from this beginning:
.....Vile....................Birds fried to the wires—electric funambulism
.....Violins....................played by the jaded weaves of a rainstorm
The best poems mostly have the strongest form, often involving repetition: I hope Trévien, who’s young, develops this.
Back to ‘Novella’. I thought, surely Rimbaud must have written more or less exactly this (OK, in French, but still):
.....The sky is all yours, you spy it through brambles
.....palpitating like grass you would like to caress . . .
.....You think the answer’s there to be unscrambled
.....if only the stars stopped changing their address.
But he didn’t. He might wish he had!
These poems are evocative of the Brittany coast in mood and detail, tell somewhat surreal stories, and celebrate youth in a Rimbaudian style (including ‘Novella’ after Rimbaud’s ‘Roman’). In places, a slight foreignness of the language distances us from the expected—“how your teeth typewrote”—making a tinge of rich strangeness; but sometimes this draws attention in an awkward way—“only songs are shred”; “you bildungsroman through books”.
‘Sing Bird’ has two interlocking halves working independently as well as reading across, making effectively three poems, plus the trick of incremental lines that go “Vile./ Violins steal/ Violin-stealth” etc. But what’s most enjoyable about this isn’t the structural technique, it’s the texture of language and image—“Birds fried to the wires—electric funambulation/ played by the jailed weaves of a rainstorm.”
‘Mère’ is a substantial and complex poem at the centre of the book: the day of a father and his young daughter in a seaside town combines with the mermaid story of Dahut and the underwater city of Ys (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ys); but the two do not simply illuminate each other in parallel. What is happening is not always clear, in a way that mimetically follows the child’s point of view with switches of attention and reactions to father’s attempts to get her to behave, while her imagining of the mermaid Dahut takes place in fragmentary square brackets, told somewhat the way children explain things, though not in a childlike voice. The mother/mère of the title seems only significant by the absence of mothers in the poem. It does take effort from the reader, and sometimes this feels more a failure of communication than a good way to stop us expecting a poem to be a nice warm bath. The publisher seems not quite comfortable with this one, as details are more sloppy than in the other poems, especially punctuation (hyphens for dashes, a bad apostrophe). Is “wallowed whole his rapturous scream” a misprint, or a clever image that doesn’t work?
In the other poems, ambiguity and uncertainty draw me in more enticingly, like the mysterious wallpaper in the hospital death scene of ‘The Machine’—“I felt the muscles/ of the wallpaper harden and grow dark.” My favourite is ‘Entrepreneurs’ with children playing restaurants on a beach, with a light touch for the childhood fantasy—“the pudding crawled away, but we have seeds // if you wish”.
I love these little pamphlet-books from Salt. They are a pleasing shape—delightful to handle and read, and they contain just enough poetry to get a taste of a writer without being overwhelmed.
This is a taste of Claire Trévien and it’s a taste that made me want more. The author’s name suggests French connections and that expectation is not disappointed. The references to Rimbaud and Baudelaire are not light ones, the titles of three poems are in French, the hints and geography of Brittany (where the author was born) surge in and out. The poems feel European, rich in their sensations and allusions.
There’s a strong sense of playfulness (as there surely should be in a young writer), both in the variety of shapes and form on the page and in the delight in language. In Journée des Brouettes, for example, which plays games with musical terms:
.....Wring the flat’s neck, let the quavers weep,
.....tweeze the Champ de Mars of its weak.
This is fun, and infectiously so, as is ‘His Story’, where the two stanzas form book-ends, one left justified, one right. The writing is sensuous, taut, takes you instantly to the location. In ‘Belleville’, where “Art boils and is thrown into the gutter”—
...................................Beggars want your grin
......to light on their burnt-out eyes. Rue de Belleville’s
......shirt is open, neon lights winking through for
......Chinese joints and Turkish-Greek restaurants.
......Offside are the labyrinths, darkened and grim
......where minotaurs pulse from wall to wall
......their rum breath like a thread suspended
..... above the groove of piss. You catch through
..... a broken bottle the glint of Avalon.
Trévien does a fine and spirited gallop through history in ‘1789’, a lyrical visit to ‘The Launderette’ on the facing page, an evocative, nostalgic, sonnet in ‘Entrepreneurs’, a post WWII landscape in ‘Beg an Dorchenn’—some fabulous writing here.
I was least convinced by the longest poem, ‘Mère’. Twice hyphens seem have substituted for dashes, which was distracting, as was the proliferation of heavy square parentheses. Having said this, there are some potent intrigues in this poem—the father-daughter thing, the insistence of food, the crêperie. How I loved this bit:
..... ‘Aren’t you eating?’ A fork galloped
..... across the table loaded with a mouthful.
These poems are alive and not to be missed. I am fascinated to see what Claire Trévien goes on to do.