Abi Curtis reviews
Last year a talented poet friend of mine was short-listed for the Michael Marks pamphlet award and I went along to hear her and the other contenders read. Richard Price gave a wonderful speech about the importance of the pamphlet as a form for poetry, its great tradition of showcasing a poet’s work, the fact that the pamphlet has a sense of limitation, distilment, condensation that makes it quite distinctive. Price is a champion of the form and some of the nine sections in Rays began their lives as limited edition pamphlets. Though the sections have subtle, echoing relationships between one another, there is a sense of each as a particular poetic space. This is a particular strength of the collection, allowing it to feel startlingly fresh and alive, but also because the reader gets the sense of a poet that is interested in poetry as a collaborative endeavour. Pamphlets are lovingly created and this is a collective process, they are often the result of more than one artist getting together to explore an idea, they are attentive to the materiality of reading and of language itself.
All of this is apparent in Price’s work. The section Wake Up and Sleep explores the treatment of sleep disorders, cleverly combining technical and medical language with the emotional and philosophical implications of sleeplessness. For example, in ‘The thought keeps counting’ the burden of the sleepless body is evoked:
The weight of my own eyes.
I have a forehead. A mouth,
dry. The thought –
the thought the thought the thought
This poem is presented in short, disjointed fragments, where the insomniac’s voice is undercut by the voice of a specialist:
With primary insomnia the data suggests
there’s decreased regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF)
to the frontal medial, occipital and parietal cortices,
and to the basal ganglia. I’ll explain these things later.
The effect of this juxtaposition is powerful; the reader feels the personal import of this alien scientific information. In the poem ‘Wake up and sleep’ Price employs his characteristic use of repetition and rhyme, turning the language on the page into a song or chant:
Wake up outside your ache, your late luscious just-what-it-seems,
wake up and sleep.
Wake up to the what-happened, wake up to the casehardened,
wake up between look and leap.
Wake up in the shatter and decade-seep,
wake up and sleep.
This is a powerful poem in its witty introduction of little philosophical twists and turns. You realise by the end of this poem (which closes the section) how mysterious and important sleep really is. This is the work of a sensitive, empathetic poet, willing to delve into new ideas and engage with other disciplines.
This sense of collaboration continues with the section Lute Variations where Price ‘improvises’ around the works of Louise Labé, a rather remarkable French Renaissance poet. These are love lyrics of a kind, evoking the agonies of desire unsatisfied. But they are also about the love of language and the strangeness of the act of translation itself. The reader is never quite sure if the lover is, not a person, but the poetry itself or the implied author Labé, her mysterious figure called out to over language and time:
Your eyes translate me. You look – away.
Sighs. Close to tears. Crush. ‘The first signs of rain.’
The night is my master, in thrall in vain.
Dawn breaks? Lush nothing again, just the day.
(from ‘Your eyes translate me’)
As the collection moves on, it seems to me that love becomes its real focus. Not a simply understood or clichéd version of love, but love in all it’s quirky, witty and infuriating guises. The poems become spare, beautiful distillations and the reader feels as though they are walking into an apothecary’s shop, sniffing and tasting tiny bottles of essences of thought, idea, feeling. One of the most striking pieces is ‘Shells’:
Ache to know –
or just hold.
It’s what you think.
Shells mock the ear.
Shallows? The swell?
New / Just healed. Howls
mock the air. Howls
mock the scar.
Look – that was you,
An enigmatic piece, where one is compelled to meditate on each image, to unlock and unwrap its importance. At the same time, the language here is dynamic and deceptively forceful.
Price’s wit and humour are also strong throughout the collection, particularly in the precision and play with which he creates his images; ‘Dippers’ are ‘skinnymalinks’, a wren ‘spot-checks the garden’ in an ‘apron’. In ‘Parkway’ Price’s deft use of rhyme spins us through the poem, ‘The West’s attractive/mermaids in nets. Credit card pagans/crabster bets.’
The section ‘little but often’ presents tiny, distilled verses which take the alphabet as their structure. The piece reminded me of Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse in its fragmentary combinations of joy and lament. This form felt absolutely right for its subject – one that can only ever be unique and personal, one which you can only present to others in a half-glimpsed, beautifully modest way. Two examples:
snack wrappers and receipts
clog the garden by the cars
their quiet citrus stars
lips to lips,
lips on supersensitive skin
a kiss is a conclusive start –
where do I begin?
Price demonstrates a great confidence in his range of forms, knowing when to distil as he does here, and when to expand, as he does in the section Darkness and Dazzle. Here the lines are longer, more expansive. In ‘Questions’ love is again the subject, but a very different vision of love, in a different voice, ‘Love starts life where memory is already living/It makes the most of its generous host: strikes it dead.’ Price has a voice of his own, which comes through in all the work, but his generosity and lack of ego as a poet allow him to speak through and with others, to translate, to empathise. Price is a poet who listens, and this makes his work sing.
Dr Abi Curtis is a British poet and university lecturer with an interest in creative writing. She won the Crashaw Prize, and has a debut collection from Salt, Unexpected Weather.