Nine Arches Press, £5.00
Reviewed by Stephen Payne, James Roderick Burns and Ross Kightly
This is an ambitious pamphlet: formally, syntactically and semantically. A wide variety of layouts explore the use of space across the page. Sentences are often spun across formal units. The diction includes a liberal scattering of words that my word processor underlines—tokamaks, tesserae, phytochemicals, and in general there's a liking for rather long, infrequent words, plenty of adjectives and abstractions. Even the subject matter is ambitious, switching between the private and the public, from sex to politics, while maintaining a tone capable of delivering a message of bleakness in human affairs at all scales.
I found I often had to suspend comprehension as I read, sometimes never to recover it. Some readers will enjoy feeling baffled more than will others. I think it's fair to say that Larbey is experimenting with the language, trying push at its constraints, and that she values comprehensibility less than innovation.
Indeed, there's 'A Lament for the Broken Promise of Something New', which may conceivably be read as a critique of writers whose value system is the opposite, and readers who buy their work:
A poet has ceased to be
sealed in text.
While the false pulse of fiction invades
the non-issue of political sincerity,
these words are enemies.
Not all Larbey's poems are so elusive. Here is the first sentence, the octet, if you will, of 'Fusion Sonnet':
I am repulsive. I can't help it, though
you—who would use this sleeping miracle
kraken lurking in my depths, my heart-piece,
to create electric constellations;
because you have the data to leash a
Sun; because 'cleaner', 'safer', are words you
understand; because, divided, things will
fall apart: I am your ouroboros.
Perhaps the only difficulty here is that the poem is giving a voice to matter, or the atom, or the nucleus whatever, speaking to the human race. The syntax is a little stretched, too, arguably, and 'though you' might be better grammatically as 'unlike you'. But once you're through these slight barriers, there's certainly an impressive, engaging air of menace, a neat linkage of sci-fi to science to myth, making for an interesting take on nuclear power. The line-breaks look weird, but that helps you realise the poem is (so far) in strict syllabics—10 per line (for some reason this pattern is abandoned in the sestet). And the sonnet certainly delivers a shift at line 9:
Ibexes head-cracks fall the melting snow
which beautiful line is either an image of unspoiled nature, or of future horror (nuclear winter?), depending on whether a reader can assume that only a blind ibex would headbutt a tree.
This is the first product of Nine Arches Press I have seen, and I'm pleased to report they have done a nice straightforward job on the production: a deep purple card cover and clean, readable typography, nice quality paper throughout.
James Roderick Burns:
This is an infuriating pamphlet. Not because the poet cannot produce work of quality—comprehensible, direct, even moving—but because she can:
Laughing, we woke, and ate, and flew
the strings of kites
between the trees.
Listening carefully one day
and I felt hot with the first surge of what
it felt like to live branchlessly.
Now, whenever the day brightens
suddenly, like a tin-foil flash,
I know the world is dark elsewhere.
Pieces such as these, amounting to perhaps a fifth of the poems in Funglish, do what it seems to me poetry should: engage the reader with a living, recognisable voice; hook us in through rhythm and idea; carry the mind along to unexpected places, sights, sounds. The remainder of the work seems to spring from a very different place.
In ‘Doldrums’, for instance, we encounter the following stanza:
For all the finesse of those
insistent fairy wings
mimicking unfurling crenelations
to the short line of slaughter,
this mantid afterglow still
the pride of the castled
The lines are pure bombast, jacked up by adjective after adjective and buttressed by ‘unusual’ verbs, but attain no sense and build to nothing. The same dense effect runs through many other poems. In ‘And the walls came tumbling down . . .’, for instance, two stanzas fervently defy all sense:
I paced a morgue of tables faced across a
narrow room whilst, unseen, a pleated skirt’s rigour buckled
under that first tank-roll (occupied). Memory
(the chastened facts) paused, formed stalactites.
The images come thick and fast—death, discipline, military invasion, geological time—but there is never pause for any to be properly worked out, weighed in the balance. Larbey seems desperate to amass as much poetry as possible in a limited space. After thirty pages it becomes wearying, and this reader for one switched off to any possibility of change long before the end.
This collection of 24 poems has an epigraph from John Berger suggesting that language “cannot be hostile to man”, a claim that the rest of the collection seems to try to refute.
Ruth Larbey is evidently intoxicated by language, by words and their relations with each other and, in a sort of way, with something we might call “sense”.
As is often the case with somebody who appears to have had one too many, the sense of what is going on in a lot of these poems seems to be something the poet (probably) understands and the reader has a shot at guessing.
The title poem racks up a count of eleven adjectives or adjectival phrases, plus one adverb.
The sort of input I’ve been receiving recently from editors and those who run and participate in poetry workshops is that one adverb is one too many for any self-respecting “contemporary” poem, and that adjectives indulge in “telling” rather than “showing”—which seems to be another cardinal error for the grown-up twenty-first-century poet.
Well, tough. That’s what I say. Tough.
If you don’t like to feel yourself a bit adrift on a strange, seagoing roller-coaster that often seems to mutate into a helter-skelter and then finds itself up a rather odorous creek as a not-too-comfy canoe lacking means of further propulsion or else a “High-heeled, mini-skirted . . . concubine . . . ” sitting in a pool of something unpleasant in a twilit world of marginally familiar words, then don’t buy this challenging and stimulating pamphlet.
Sphinx reviewers are invited to consider ‘coherence’, among other aspects of pamphlet publications. I don’t think ‘coherence’ is the name of the game for this one. If you accept it as a bit of a surreal, slightly self-indulgent but exhilarating romp through the Baroque Wing of the Palace of Language, then it has its own inner synthesis.
It’s often no easier to be certain about what is happening in these poems than to read the black blurb on the deep purple back cover of the pamphlet—but as far as I’m concerned, the effort in both cases is eminently worthwhile. As David Morley indistinctly mutters in the purple haze of the jacket, “Ruth Larbey’s language is alive and gravid”. And even if he does use the word “edgy” elsewhere in this comment, I am inclined to agree with him.