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Thursday, 19 March 2009

Guest Review: Smith On Quintavalle

Barbara Smith reviews
Make Nothing Happen
by Rufo Quintavalle

You take a calculated risk when you take on Auden’s phrase “poetry makes nothing happen,” from his infamous elegy to W. B. Yeats. You might take that risk in spite of all that lies behind that phrase: a whole movement in poetry that was beginning to end in the late thirties, not just a ‘so long’ to Yeats, ‘and thanks for all the fish.’ This was a time when writers and artists were emerging from a decade of discovering how closely one could marry one’s convictions with one’s art and how important that would come to be in the future.

If only they had known what we know now: all art is continually trying to reinvent itself, to ‘make it new.’ Some people are overt in their convictions; others prefer to be oblique. It is always easy to recognise the difference after the fact.

This might just be what Rufo Quintavalle is attempting in the pamphlet, Make Nothing Happen from Oystercatcher Press. It is in the chiselling away of that ‘s’ from Make, that allows a new usage of that old adage. This chiselling, better still, fine scalpel-work continues in the language that Quintavalle employs, but more so in the way it is employed.

First, there is the feel of the thing in your hand: smooth, high-grade white paper leads you into the crispness of the first five-part "Letter from Iceland" and on into the body of work. There is self-reference but there is cleverness in the structure and shape of the poems.

There is also that continued scraping away of the language used, as though too many words would denigrate the sentiment. There is indeed that ‘thing that nags / and shakes the house’ in his work; making you want to work as hard as the poems do in conveying meaning by what is not given. That ‘thing’ is the continual shuffling back to the title, Make Nothing Happen, as though the writer is trying to achieve just that effect. Or is he?

There is no definitive answer. We may be in the realm of Beckettian existentialism where, as Quintavalle puts it in "Moses & Aaron": ‘there is so much / in the way / of words / these days / it might make / more sense / to say / less.’ Here, the lines scrape back little by little to reveal that silence is preferable to having to continually hear words in something even larger than a burning bush: an ‘afternoon.’

Everything encountered seems absurd and remarkable. There is, in most poems, an attempt to reduce things, but without being reductive – again that scraping back. For example in "Iceland", there are simply four words, ‘Dark / glass / crow / berry’, standing for the whole idea. This is risky, but effective in the context of the pamphlet.

There is a device that Quintavalle uses in his work too: sometimes words are put into unexpected arrangements, arresting the reading; making you read again and find more meaning from the poem. The last line of "Election Day"- ‘Layering a history / on history like concrete or that carpet / so plausible birds sat down on it to eat / does what that a newspaper doesn’t do?’ I quote the second stanza in full to give the entire sense that that strange construction in the last line does: it forces a second and even a third reading to reveal the meaning.

All of this comes from a poet who has been described as ‘a British poet with an Italian name who lives in Paris.’ This would also suggest a poet with a facility for other languages, and this is demonstrated in Quintavalle’s word haul. A word like ‘festinalenting,’ from "Moses and Aaron", leans into Latin and pinches out a new meaning for its context: ‘clouds / festalenting across the sun,’ becomes a satisfying way to describe that rolling hasten slow cotton-cloud motion.

But this is to pick at parts of the pamphlet, the whole of which can be read in the recent light of the collapse of our perceived fiscal sureties. It has become a commentary on it; for example as in "Figs": ‘Today the huge idea of money stopped / but the force which makes money gather and burst / which used to move through God / and some say will again, / will outlive money itself.’ This force, the bubble and bust, which Quintavalle mentions does drive the movement through the pamphlet itself, making the whole an intriguing argument against banal monetarism.

Quintavalle’s poems seem to want to play dodge with the reader: it’s as though they were penned or corralled into the pamphlet – just in case they escaped from the pages, got out and wanted to make something happen. If this is the case, I hope that a full collection will not be long in forthcoming. I should look out for it.

Barbara Smith is an Irish poet. She reviews for Eyewear.
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