HappenStance, 2012 £4.00
Reviewed by Charles Whalley, Ben Parker and Nick Asbury
If a line break is the main conventional flag of a poem, the shorter the lines the more frequently this flag is waved, slowing the experience and saying ‘Think about this; this is significant’. Frequent line breaks therefore often come with apparently simple poems (think plums in the icebox). In Close Theresa Muñoz uses short lines and stanzas, often with simple diction and syntax. There is the question, then, of whether the poems meet the responsibility of the extra significance they are claiming.
Close succeeds in the poems that allow themselves to spread. The stronger poems are longer and fragmentary. To quote from the middle of ‘Wishing’:
scrunching my eyes
for that deep down place
the black-red canvas
speckled with light
a Japanese wishing tree
white slips tied
to a thin branch
I asked my wise friend
in her office
of tenderly held novels
what happens when we pray?
does something happen every time?
Here the reader fills in the gaps. This is Muñoz’s short lines at their most effective, and so poems like ‘Wishing’, ‘Travelling’ or ‘Hard to know’ are powerful, especially as the extra legroom allows for more abstract lines, like “the future is coming/ its unkind wave chasing” (‘Travelling’).
There are two spaces in any poem: that of the words and that of the conceptual space they invoke. The latter should exceed the former, it seems to me, by as much as possible. Poetry is, after all, about meaning more but saying less. It is a shame, then, that many of the poems do the opposite. Too many cover their subject in writing leaving the reader with nothing to do. This is often the result of manufacturing a meaning rather than exploring it. An example is ‘Our Lady of Lourdes Primary’, which relates a school exercise of writing on a heart “a quality that defines/ you and your family”, ending:
Determined, my dad wrote.
The teacher calls out
Who has the answer?
but I shrink in my seat,
small and blushing.
Those last three words are placed on their own to enhance their already privileged position, and yet the poem was so overwhelmingly headed for this single moment of significance that it feels thin.
In all, Close as a pamphlet feels unready: deep and confident poems are buried amongst others which do little. It needs less deliberation, to my mind, and more wildness.
The title of Muñoz’s pamphlet can be read ironically, because the subject of the book is so often distance. Many of the poems explore the impossibility of ever fully knowing another person, and the gulf that can exist even between those who share an intimate relationship.
In ‘Our Lady of Lourdes Primary’, a father’s summation of the family as “Determined” is swiftly undercut by the narrator “[shrinking] in my seat// small and blushing”, while the poem ‘Hard to know’ sees a lover consider the impossibility of ever discovering her partner’s inner life. At times the collection seems to suggest that even if there are aspects of another person’s life that can be known, there’s still the insurmountable problem that two people may never fully reconcile their interests. The opening lines of the pamphlet are “We agree to reconvene in a few hours/ because you would like the Picasso,/ and I want the animals” and again, in ‘Hard to know’, “I said it, I said/ Do we like/ the same things?”
Yet there are also poems of unity to be found in this collection. In ‘Ice’, for example, a game of hockey played “eight thousand miles west” unites a group of friends. The specificity of the distance is interesting, and brings us to another of the book’s concerns. Of the 20 poems collected here, four refer to specific locations, while another three are more generically located: ‘Zoo’, ‘Home’ and ‘Settlement’. Against the backdrop of human relationships, Muñoz returns again and again to geographical ones, perhaps finding in their fixity a contrasting source of certainty.
The strength of this pamphlet comes from the author having two such strong themes, which means each poem does not stand alone, but talks to those that come before and after.
‘Close’ is a good title for this collection, which is full of telling details, short one or two-word lines, and a sense of intimacy and vulnerability throughout. It’s also an appropriate word given the poet’s evident knack for a good closing line. In several of these poems, I found myself admiring the way she achieves a real ‘sense of an ending’ without resorting to the usual trick of closing end-rhyme.
‘Photo in Edinburgh’ is one example—a meditation on a photograph of the poet’s parents:
dad’s flat cap
ruffling his hair
I love that handful of wind—probably my favourite line in the whole thing. The poem ends simply:
their glasses are similar
their smiles alike
years of being close
There is no sense of grand climax, but the ending nevertheless feels powerful and exactly right: especially the way it finishes on that key word ‘close’.
Another good example is ‘Ice’, which opens:
Some eight thousand miles west
of our window (where
an ashen moon
twelve players skate around
a white rink
The poem very effectively zooms in from that big moon to the circular white rink and finally to the little object at the centre of the action:
where they loop the ice
and fling the puck
tiny and far far
It’s a beautifully constructed, circles-within-circles poem, which again ends simply but convincingly. Throughout this collection, there’s a sense of human beings huddled together, trying to connect in a cold world full of great distances.
All this may give the impression of a "small and blushing" poet, to use a phrase from one of these poems (‘Our Lady of Lourdes Primary’). It’s certainly the case that these poems don’t thunder from the mountaintops, and may initially come across as slight and diffident. But they also have a deceptive edge and strength to them, which reveals itself the closer you get. As I said, it’s a good title.