Salt Modern Voices, 2011 £6.50
Reviewed by George Simmers, Trevor McCandless and Sue Butler
Amy De’Ath’s Erec & Enide is an attractively produced pamphlet. The quality of its verse can only be demonstrated by long quotation:
......There is a boy who (I) cannot lose,
......unbridled is he and of real flesh
......by Spanish radio he and I were made to be
......And I, he not made nor ever been,
......nor ever did I went with he, never
......eat by such great lies or lied with
......great intent, did I swim swim again
......or consider praying men then give
......my heart to all the boy in pasta—
For this reviewer, the poem is whimsical on too many levels. There is a leaping from thought to thought – flesh, Spanish radio, lies, swimming, pasta – with minimal clues about how these are connected. This disconnection reduces the power of individual words and images; 'unbridled', for example, is just dead language unless linked and expanded – by other horse imagery, maybe. In addition, there is the arbitrary twisting of syntax into ambiguity, the random capital and the (alienating) little typographical trick with the brackets that adds nothing to the poem. Some, I suppose, may feel that the words hover beguilingly on the verge of meaning; others will just find them irritatingly unanchored in any reality.
Stylistic quirks like these are frequently found in the work of the academic poets influenced by J.H. Prynne, who uses them to complex and revelatory effect, challenging and undermining his reader's assumptions about language (but not always, let’s be honest, creating lucid poems).
In De’Ath’s poems, the purpose of the tricks is unclear. Are they there to make us question the narrative voice? Or are they merely decorative? Whatever the intention, they take De’Ath’s language far from any kind of spoken register, and into an English that is purely literary, and for this reviewer at least, unproductive.
The true music of poetry, as it seems to me, comes via intuitive understanding. It’s hard to find the right stresses and pauses when all is incomprehensible. I don’t think I understood two lines together in any single poem in this collection, so I know I must have missed most of the music as well. I stumbled and miscued, my tongue catching and tripping on even single syllable words. Take the first three lines of ‘Sonnet’:
......I believe a readable face as crickets
......swallow gleaming buildings full of
......living banking hearts.
I cannot read and not interpret, so where should I start? 911? Banking, you see, almost works in both its senses: the plane, the workers. And gleaming buildings too. But crickets? Nevertheless, the poem refuses to be shoe-horned. Meaning evaporates for me here, and in the next poem, and the next. My reading was one disappointed hypothesis tripping on the heels of another.
As a kind of score, once I tuned my mouth as best I could, the poetry is sonorous, in fact, even musical. It is cello-like and much deeper than I expected. Sometimes the words filled my mouth in ways that ought to have made soul-aching sense. But this is written in a language I can pronounce, but not understand: it is nearly-heard voices from a further room. There are feelings, but no sense. The first stanza of ‘Three in a Boat’, for example:
......As conjugal as a deep guitar rakes its lawn and gathers
......geniality to add like stars to Christmas stars, mister so-and-so
......student busker paedophile and such-and-such,
......everyone endeared to the lyrics and here for proof—
......too true, prove the proof and we are happily.
I’ve read it a dozen times and typed it, but I still cannot make it have meaning. Every time I think I have a reading, it swerves away from me and I’m left grasping at nothing. Perhaps that shouldn’t matter, perhaps music should suffice (and look, the music is often lovely), but it is not enough. I think I need more verbs.
If you’re expecting everyday syntax and everyday logic in the poems of Amy De’Ath, dahlias and roasted cashew nuts spoke but the room was dented, a second-hand car and four hours saved this morning are for sale. Let me give you a kipper:
......Down dampened sully unknown
......because you ate the sunshine,
......asunder among the porch-light
......a tune to know, of history’s mesh
......an epistolary flash of deer,
......young, always in fashion, in brave
............(from ‘Poetry for Boys’)
Or for those of you who, like me, aren’t boys:
......tell me how long the epiphany takes, so that I
......do you mind about how reservations are made for you
......then slide from you
......I need to be unfelt and shrug it off.
............(from ‘Letter to John Clare’)
It’s a shame John Clare is dead. I would love to have read his reply. For me, these poems balance on a kitchen sink between glorious, magical, unashamed lyricism—and incoherence. Which side of the haberdashery you sit on will be totally personal.
So does a review of poems like these need to be logical and inoculated against typhoid? I say three no trumps to aspirin for relief.
But I did really, really like the poem ‘Dave’. I liked, “David the bravest chicken there is. A/ Man obscure and B sharp”. And I liked the man
......Who on reaching critical mass is shot
......Out of a Mossberg 12ga. And into my
......Mouth. David leaves my mouth
......Sedated but soon he rocks down
......To the Costcutter to buy beans.
......David, reign in your keynote speech
......At the Costcutter. David made of
......Oak. David Diamond.
Apologies and US dollars, I bake bread and digress.