Red Squirrel Press, 2012 £4.00
Reviewed by Stephen Payne, Noel Williams and Peter Jarvis
This pamphlet of 17 poems, printed over 30 pages, was the winner of the Second Annual James Kirkup Memorial Competition, run by the publishers. It’s a nice object, with pleasing artwork on the cover and a playful title.
The poems within have some pleasures and, to my mind, one common weakness, which I’ll come to later. Among the pleasures is the subject matter, which ranges quite widely and quite idiosyncratically.
One theme, I suppose, is travel; the strangeness and interest that inheres in exotic places, especially cities. This is perhaps a natural topic for a man from Birmingham who lives in Rome. It’s not an unusual theme, perhaps, but I like the way it is approached in the first poem, 'Aid Worker on Independence Day', which uses a rich description of setting, and of the aid worker’s behaviour and observations to gesture toward some political issues in rather pleasing, world-weary tone:
Awkwardly he consults his pockets –
Fumbling on only a few mint coins,
Flings his donation alongside the rest,
Held by the things that make him most complain
Other poems describe character too: a rant about 'Opinionaters' and a kind of exposé of Casanova who, apparently settled for “second and third rate women/ whose favours he paid through the nose for” (I must admit to being uncertain of this use of idiom).
There are a several ekphrastic pieces, including a series about Cézanne paintings and another about Hokusai woodprints. In every case the poems rely on quite thick descriptions, with plenty of interesting diction.
The main difficulty I had with the poems was syntax and punctuation. The quote from 'Aid Worker on Independence Day' which is only a fragment of a sentence, exemplifies the rather consistent style, which is to use very long sentences, in (I think) an attempt at speech like syntax, with heavy use of dashes (although usually printed as hyphens), but also free use of colons and semi-colons. Sentence structure frequently becomes a little hard to track, with inversions and seemingly misplaced modifiers making parsing trickier than I’d prefer. Perhaps it’s a deliberate way of slowing the reader down, moving the focus to the individual sub-phrases and words.
But I must confess to finding it quite disruptive, sidetracking me with questions I couldn’t satisfactorily answer, such as when to use a dash versus a colon (very few of the dashes are parentheses). Here is the whole of 'Wittgenstein in Norway':
Quiet’s inlets, cliffs, fjords –
At a heady diagonal across them
Gulls and cormorants of words:
The more whereof we cannot speak
I think this illustrates my issues with both punctuation and syntax, but also shows the kind of thoughtfulness and knowledge that underlies the poems and gives them their character. Missing final full-stops, as here, are rather frequent, but again I couldn’t find any pattern to confirm they were deliberate.
This is a nicely produced pamphlet on good quality paper, with generous margins and a good-sized font but I wonder why the blank pages aren’t used for one or two more poems. More irritating are a handful of proofing errors, at least four pieces having typos or grammatical errors.
I’ve mixed feelings about the poems themselves. I suspect they’ll appeal to some readers more than others. On the one hand, they tend towards the purely descriptive (that is, some poems are not that consequential beyond accuracy and occasional unusual observations). There’s not much in the way of deep meaning, complex interpretation, sustained metaphor—in fact, very little to push the reader far into introspection.
On the other hand, those descriptions are often deft, succinct, apt, even interestingly odd. Reading demands attention because of compressed syntax, some striking imagery and linguistic dexterity. Bennett’s clever vocabulary particularly achieves some fabulous rhymes. Those I like include “et cetera/beggars”, “eclipsed/glitz” and “grandiose/potatoes”.
The language as a whole is sophisticated, especially syntactically, sometimes creating expressions that incline me simply to step back in admiration, especially when they construct a perfectly chosen image such as Bennett’s description of a writer’s struggle as “Somewhere between ink/ And aspirin” (‘Rhymes: An Irregular Sonnet on their Elusiveness’).
Many of this poet’s subjects are culturally derivative demanding a little external knowledge from the reader. If you like exotic allusions, this works. If you feel excluded by such references, you’ll be a tad annoyed. Where these tendencies combine is in poems such as ‘Wittgenstein in Norway’, ‘After Rimbaud’ and ‘After Hokusai’, which seem to say “look, I’m a cultivated artist” but really don’t offer much in the way of imaginative insights into their subjects.
On balance, therefore, I found many things to enjoy, but not that many poems took me beyond the dazzle of the surface.
Nearly all his poems here testify to Martin Bennet’s expatriate professional life as aid worker, teacher and translator in Africa, Europe and Japan. Several are those of a responsive viewer encountering paintings or poems, with the stance of a keen-eyed, sometimes detached observer dominant. The title is drawn from to a pedantically humorous prose-poem analysing a couple’s one-sided romance and its unhappy marital aftermath, seen in terms of pheasant courtship behaviour—male urgent, female aloof.
In the opening poem, ‘Aid Worker on Independence Day’, set in an unnamed West African state, Bennett uses six-line stanzas to explore the guilt-tinged unease of his aid worker. A countryside is being overtaken by grotesque urbanisation, aggravating terrible inequalities where postmodern technology and poverty have to be bedfellows. This is the most engaged of Bennett’s poems, more deeply felt than others as it traces sardonically the tyranny of Big Mannism updated and, worse, the affliction in African states of their enslavement to a global trade in armaments.
Bennett relishes looking closely at paintings. ‘After Hokusai’ is a suite of ten short poems with some irregular end-rhyming, addressing 36 Views of Mount Fuji. These are descriptions more than reflections, yet cumulatively they venerate, as do the paintings, Fuji’s permanence beyond the “fret” of ambient winds, tides, clouds, lightning, storms and the passage of human and animal life—so celebrating the yin-yang balance of universal forces. (It is a pity to report, though, that three of the Hokusai poems are marred by typos). Surprisingly, the final Mt Fuji poem nods at Villon, with Bennett’s jesting answer to the abiding question ‘Where are the snows of yesteryear?’ The snows may be found, indeed, clustered around the cone of Fuji “and will be there tomorrow”.
In ‘After Rimbaud’ Bennett deploys his translator talents. He tackles four poems, but it would be more accurate to see these as imitations. For instance, he closes ‘Temptress’ ( La Maline) with
Her downy cheek touched by the sun’s last ray,
her décolletage a dream come true
This misses the exquisite sauciness of Rimbaud’s waitress. But Bennett is bold to tackle ‘Vowels’ ( Voyelles). Rimbaud’s poem plays with the printed appearance of the vowels, attributing to each one various objects and a mystical colour. Here is Bennett’s version for U:
Owl’s favourite, this one conjures foghorns,
A cavern’s gape, sagacious beards—
Bright-scarved skaters flashing across lakes in Finland—
Turquoise twisting in the dark
In all 17 poems of the collection there is scarcely mention of English life or culture. Closest would be ‘Language Lesson’. In Bond Street a struggling TEFL teacher— “the cash-strapped pedant”—is interrupted by student Mr Fukushima clamouring to recite his just-born haiku:
‘How be . . . be . . . beauteous
Toru paper-sliding window’
Here is a welcome lightly comic touch only present fleetingly elsewhere, in an otherwise wide-ranging, earnest, intellectual collection somewhat bereft of the ‘thinginess’ of everyday life.