Mantle Lane Press, 2012 £4.00
Reviewed by Matt Bryden, Helen Evans and Matt Merritt
This attractive, reasonably-priced pamphlet posed several problems for me, not least with the narrator, whom we may assume from the dedication to be Daniels herself. Following unsuccessful fertility treatment, she takes a lover and her marriage ends. We are party to private scenes of lovemaking, and then told this new lover intends to leave his current relationship after “one last family holiday” with his partner and their son.
Neither he, nor the narrator’s husband, are fleshed out in detail. In particular, one pities the husband, and senses he isn’t getting a fair deal. Take the specular poem ‘This marriage is over’ whose lines “Brazil’s four weeks away. He never really wanted / to go” are reversed to read “Brazil’s four weeks away. He never really wanted / our frozen embryos, our one miscarried foetus gone.” This seems at odds with an earlier detail in ‘This drug’: “unspoken: an Adoption Information Evening / and a silent dinner / with my husband afterwards.” Dealing with infertility is a painful, confusing business, and Daniels’ judgement of her husband seems too black-and-white to ring true.
On a month-long trip to Brazil to attend her brother’s wedding, her reference to “you” does not refer to the husband whose relationship has been destroyed, or its end hastened, by her affair, but to her new lover in their first flush of love.
There is no real reckoning of the consequence of her actions, rather a vainglorious welcoming of risk — “I believe in the unknown.” What about the effect on her husband, the partner of her new lover, and their son? In fact, the pamphlet reads like a narrator telling you, less and less convincingly, that she’s done the right thing, before drawing attention back to her own pain. This disjunction might unwittingly be the main draw of the collection.
The pamphlet also seems to me too dependent on narrative and its exotic Brazilian backdrop (dolphins, churrasco, Caipirinha etc) to attract interest, rather than the writing itself, which often lacks attention to detail. ‘Restaurant, Rio de Janeiro’ includes both “and” and “&”, adding to its note-like quality, while the penultimate line of ‘Boat, Paraty’, “look look look”, is undermined by previous, apparently unconscious, repetition (“stripes”, “dive”, “drift”, “through”,’ “into”). Random tourist-guide definitions of Portuguese words in the footnotes are often superfluous.
I did like several poems. The sonnet ‘Strongroom’ is an interesting opener and setting, suggesting the everyday would not come clear in her hands, and so the narrator was forced to handle the exotic. The pamphlet’s Here / There / Here and There structure works quite well. Ultimately, however, there’s something about the privilege of the narrator which sits uneasily with the break-up of one, perhaps two relationships, whose distant treatment-by-pronoun one feels might be swept under the carpet completely should Daniels have her way.
The Geometry of Distance is a neat little pamphlet addressing messy subjects: fertility treatment, a miscarriage, an affair, the break-up of relationships, a trip abroad for a family wedding. The size of a notebook you might carry in a coat pocket, it is like a notebook, too, in the quality of its observation and its sense of progression over time. There’s a straightforward narrative arc to the collection, and I like the way Katie Daniels refuses to depart from it. There’s no moralising, although clearly the protagonists’ decisions have moral content; there’s no attempt to draw tidy conclusions; there’s no pretence at telling anyone other than the narrator’s story. Her skill as a writer is evident, especially in poems like ‘Airport’ and ‘This Marriage is Over’ – the latter is a specula, or mirror poem, where she achieves the rare trick of making the second stanza not only re-order the narrative, but deepen our understanding of it, too.
The cross-shaped ‘O Cristo Redentor’ worked less well for me, partly because of the echo of George Herbert and partly because its last lines (“I look up / into Christ’s empty eyes”) took me to Edward Thomas’s ‘February Afternoon’ (“And God still sits aloft in the array / That we have wrought him, stone-deaf and stone-blind”). I’d prefer one strong association, not two, in a short poem and, more importantly, the comparison between an individual grief and the broad sweep of Thomas’s poem did not quite hold up, for me.
But Daniels’ use of form is generally inventive and fitting, her language is clear and direct and, at her best, she handles metaphor lightly and well. I loved her description of a hummingbird’s shadow: “an absence of light, beating”.
Perhaps the most memorable poem for me is ‘Red Balloon’, a response to bereavement, which begins:
I am holding a red balloon with a long silver string.
This is the baby I lost.
I want to let it go.
I am on the boat near Paraty
because I am happy here. Everything is still.
The red balloon is still, but every week
I let the silver string slip
a little further through my fingers.
The Geometry of Distance feels like a deeply personal pamphlet. I enjoyed the sense of standing alongside the narrator as she observes her life; now I’d like to see if she can write about other subjects equally well. I suspect she can.
The bulk of this attractively produced and genuinely pocket-sized chapbook finds the poet on a trip to Brazil, to attend her brother’s wedding. It avoids the potential pitfall of becoming merely a poet-goes-abroad travelogue by setting this journey against the backdrop of troubled or uncertain relationships back home, and by using it to analyse the nature of separation.
But even before that happens, there are some unusual and memorable touches. ‘This drug’is an imaginative and touching way of talking about fertility treatment, with the more oblique stanzas contrasted well with bald statements such as:
This drug is acceptance
It is never going to happen.
The effect, of course, is to make such statements all the more arresting. It’s skilfully and unobtrusively done.
‘First view of Sao Paulo’, meanwhile, quickly evokes the disorienting, slightly surreal nature of long-distance air travel with the fractured syntax of “Long haul: in it for the. / Are we?”
For most of the Brazil-based poems, Daniels strikes a good balance between the sensory details of this new and completely foreign environment and the emotional journey or journeys she is also making, but there’s the occasional stumble. The line “We are in fragile territory”, for example, at the end of ‘Sao Paulo Vignettes’, feels like a needless restatement of what we already know from what’s gone before.
But that’s a minor gripe. There’s a particularly fine two-part closing poem, ‘Griffin’, which is again an object lesson in how to be quietly but brutally honest:
I wandered round the same dead space
only to find this within myself:
more than me.
It ends with a graceful and memorable coming to terms with the pain of what’s gone before:
There’s a cheap big view
of a far-off city
under the cloak
of what shapes him:
the geometry of distance.
Wear it like a chain.
That’s a satisfying conclusion to a highly readable and involving collection.