Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

HappenStance, 2011 £4.00

Sphinx eight and a half striperReviewed by Helen Evans, Charles Whalley and Anna Crowe

Helen Evans:
What I love about Arson is the way Sue Butler uses simple, conversational language to take her readers somewhere that isn’t at all familiar or comfortable. The world she sees is unpredictable, sometimes violent, and her uncomplicated words suggest its complicated possibilities. This effect is cumulative, so it isn’t easy to illustrate in a short review, but it shows in the strength of her poems’ endings. In ‘Hunger’, for example, the narrator’s ex-partner is loading his possessions into his car, during a storm, after the break-up of a relationship:

Two shirts escape, ghosts
in a fight. One flies down the lane.

One waves.

That theme runs through this pamphlet: a woman in midlife, considering what she has experienced, lost and learned. “If I’d known [. . . ] I’d have checked your promises/ for hallmarks and sell-by dates,” she writes in the title poem. Again, ‘Emergency’ ends:

You speak only to the dog, sleep

on the sofa, drink



scotch before work and tonight

smash plates. You glare



like your father, punch

the kitchen wall instead.

These personal concerns, though, are informed by a wider perspective. She writes about the suffering of civilians in early Soviet Russia—a poetic strategy which can go wrong (‘Front line’, which likens her boss’s tyrannical behaviour to the German invasion of the USSR, doesn’t work for me) but which also gives rise to outstanding poems, such as ‘Reflection, 1937’. This describes what happens when a civilian hiding from a massacre encounters one of the drunken conscripts responsible for it, beginning:

All day and night you tread water

in a well, hear soldiers
shooting

There’s something about this clear-sighted, compassionate 12-liner that makes me read and re-read it. One of those small poems that get bigger the more you look at them. And, now I come to think of it, that’s true of many of Sue Butler’s poems. They creep up on you, understated and seemingly straightforward, but then hang around, asking awkward questions. Good for them.

 


Charles Whalley:

Sue Butler deftly executes the moves of the short poem, but the comfortable motion of her poems in Arson is deceptive, as her greatest skill is in shifting ground and constantly challenging the reader in their moral and emotional response. Often this takes the form of a moral emptiness, not from nihilism or amorality but from a tense unresponsiveness caused by either wonder or exhaustion, or something between. ‘Emergency’ tells of a couple’s conflict over the speaker’s desire to care for an autistic child. The ensuing fall-out is unsettling both for its ferocity and for the tired blamelessness of its portrayal:

All week I hammer
Adam
, Adam, a wedge between us.

You speak only to the dog, sleep

on the sofa, drink

scotch before work and tonight

smash plates. You glare

like your father, punch

the kitchen wall instead.

It is akin to watching someone drown without raising their hands. The poet is daring the reader to react. ‘Walking on water’ and ‘Hard’ are, in this way, deliberate tests; the former revolves around the “Delicious [. . . ] thought” of a brother’s death, and the latter, with more complexity than this review can explore, ends on the desire to kidnap a baby.

In ‘Reflection, 1937’, alternatively, which is perhaps the best poem of the pamphlet, this sort of emptiness shows how literature can (and should) deal with atrocity. In it, “you” hide in a well from murdering Russian soldiers, and then, when a drunk, “exhausted conscript” peers down, “you” mimic his movements to be mistaken as a reflection. It is devoid of judgment as the moral/emotional burden is passed, unprocessed and entire, to the reader.

Suffering in Soviet Russia appears repeatedly in the speaker’s grandparents, as a sort of (straight-faced) counter-balance to 21st century life, although they are not always introduced well: both ‘Front Line’ and ‘Lighter’ begin as silly poems which swerve suddenly off to Russia; they are inflatable beach boats weighted with hulking, rusted Soviet anchors, and the preface seems unnecessary once we know where it’s headed. The Soviet swerve is one of a few of Butler’s devices which are considerably less successful across a whole pamphlet than they are in poems read singly.

That said, there is much in Arson which commends the poet’s talents. It is probably unfair to fault a poem for being presented alongside its fellows. It is an unnaturally powerful pamphlet.


Anna Crowe:
This is a wonderfully courageous collection that draws on dark family history, work, and personal grief to carve out spare and fiercely ironic poems. 'Arson' is the first of many that chart the disintegration of a relationship, its imagery full of sinewy verbs that transform an 'if only' theme into a wry but angry appraisal. By the end of the poem, the poet has travelled far enough to wish she had not learned to sing the blues:

...............I soak your lies
in petrol
(strum), post them lit
through your letter box
(strum).

Although this is the expression of a negative wish, the imagery is so arresting that it comes across as an act of revenge achieved, and the power of this poet's language to describe and face up to pain means she triumphs over it in poem after poem.

The anguish of childlessness alluded to in 'Arson' finds expression in many poems. In 'Baby', she exposes the insensitivity of a woman who does have children, and the grief comes through loud and clear again in 'Hard', listing every manifestation of hardness from the obvious ones like “cliché, iron, nails, a Soviet fist” to ones that make you stop and think, like “illiteracy, arum lilies, money/ or its lack”. The poem ends by reminding us why smiling babies might be seen as 'hard' by a childless woman, and why one definition of 'hard' might be “not burying one/ under my long, blue coat, stealing/ into the crowd, then running.”

She writes memorably about her grandparents and their suffering at the hands of the Russians during World War II. 'Germination' I like especially, telling how her grandfather, a gulag prisoner, had his sentence increased for secretly growing apple pips, a memory triggered by reading a newspaper account of Guantamo detainees trying to make a garden in dry earth. These stories are framed by the lighting of a fire: “I split logs, crumple The Times”, finishing with “I strike a match.” The memories gain resonance from these simple actions, and in that crumpling of paper, she seems literally to be crumpling time itself to make a blaze, to warm herself and her widowed grandmother as she weeps over a frozen water-tap. The ending is characteristically both poignant and triumphant:

................................For days
she won’t speak, just carves the ice
into a frieze of sunflowers and life-size trees.

Buy the book!