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Saturday, 21 August 2010

Guest Review: Newman On Four Seren Poets

Charlotte Newman reviews
Vuyelwa Carlin, The Solitary
Siobhán Campbell, Cross-Talk
Hilary Menos, Berg
Ruth Bidgood, Time Being
all from Seren

Siobhán Campbell’s poems are so rhythmic, so driven by momentum that it is fruitless – almost – to quote brief samples, as their ‘pay-off’ – a term introduced to the reader in a pertinent epigraph from Louis MacNeice – is less potent without the developed context of the full poem. A cursory scan will not do, because at first glance these poems appear to be comprised of simple statements, when in reality these are just the building blocks for a rhythmic and lyrical whirlwind. Never florid, always terse and surprising, Campbell knows how to be laconic, and how to distil sense economically; there are no articles, definite or indefinite, or prepositions where there need not be, so there is not rhythmic interruption, nothing to slow the reader’s course to the pay-off:

                        My father cannot quit although he knows
            that aneurism loves his hard aorta, settles there
            keeping its round plan.

These lines from ‘The long last drag’, a tight, long-lined paragraph of a poem, take in a stubborn father who “cannot quit” smoking, shifting between different styles and methods of hardening his aorta but failing every time:

                                    Once he tried a silver
            holder, longer and thinner than a finger, said it made
            him feel a fop, or English. He took to tipped but broke
            their filters off.

Meanwhile, Campbell presents this dying, wheezing man as a raconteur and a chronicler of Irish political strife: “When he talks / of the north, of girls tarred and feathered for loving / from the wrong camp, he calls them wretches.” This is a well-trodden device of shifting from the private to the public, but here it saves this man from pathos by opening him up, almost anatomically, to reveal his personal experience of the public, the cruelly political, so that “It sounded as though nothing worse could happen.” The cynical voice of the poet emerges through the old smoker’s, implying that she knows, only too well, all about the worst that can happen.
            This collection simmers with violence. The sinned-against Ulster girls reappear in ‘Creed’:

Tap, tap he goes, striking fear into the follicles
 of young girls. Their hair shaved off, their bodies
brushed and we knew if he could,
he would cut out their tongues.

This becomes a kind of motif for her, a touchstone of misogynistic violence observed from the opposite angle to Heaney’s well-known ‘Punishment’, in which the atavistic tribalism of the act is endowed with a sense of tragic inevitability; Heaney ‘understands’. Campbell does not, but is wearily familiar with such acts. This quality to her work makes her a far better political poet that Heaney, choosing not to embellish and romanticise brutality with subtle comparisons to Greek drama. However, Campbell is not an enemy of her homeland, and her most striking and compelling poems are more naturalistic in nature, taking in the myth and the superstitions alongside nature itself. A stand-out is ‘Quickthorn’, a lugubrious hymn to a mysterious plant, haw, which is apparently a sign of ill omen. It is worth quoting in full; a wicked snitch below a sonnet at an unlucky thirteen lines long, it is a fine example of rhythmic momentum and rhyme as a cumulative phenomenon:

            Don’t bring haw into the house at night
            or in any month with a red fruit in season
            or when starlings bank against the light,
            don’t bring haw in. Don’t give me reason
            to think you have hidden haw about you.
            Tucked in secret, may its thorn thwart you.
            Plucked in blossom, powdered by your thumb,
            I will smell it for the hum of haw is long,
            its hold is low and lilting. If you bring
            haw in, I will know you want me gone
            to the fairies and their jilting. I will know
            you want me buried in the deep green field
            where god knows what is rotting.

Like a sort of incantation against taboo, the poem is driven by its fits and starts, its pay-offs and its half-rhymes, but it is also told from the perspective of someone fearless and familiar, in the same manner as the political poems. The few capitalised words stand out in print: the two instances of “Don’t”, the plosive rhyming “Tucked” and “Plucked” show resilience and authority; the speaker issues imperatives and displays a searching knowingness when it comes to that which irks her. It is a thrilling, sudden perspective, and enough reason in itself for reading this wonderful collection cover to cover, then back again.
            Hilary Menos’s Berg seems tame by comparison; here are perfectly clement, controlled poems, yet lacking a flair for danger. Her poems are comprised of sentences, perfectly syntaxed, speakable. Charming images, often of beasts or strange men, are the lifeblood of this collection, but as a reader it is difficult to escape the sense that these snatches of whimsy would have worked just as well in prose. The blurb features ringing endorsements from Carol Ann Duffy, Ruth Padel; the latter seems particularly pertinent, as Menos’s voice is very Padelesque: wild exoticism blunted with the rudeness of the modern urban world, as this stanza from ‘Staverton Ghat’ demonstrates:

            My children wade downstream. I can’t forget
            the job the Co-op did on you: your face
            packed and painted. A boy floats past, belly up
like a dead calf, pale against shadow green.

The memory of a badly made-up corpse appearing alongside the image of an Indian child floating in natural water does nothing except lie there, as these two bodies do, limply side by side. This is a quality that rears its head disappointingly throughout the collection. Menos’s skills of observation and rendering observation into lyric are consummate, but her observations tend just to hang undeveloped and unfulfilled. A poem that could have been stunningly chilling, ‘Judgement’, takes the reader on an impromptu tour of a slaughterhouse, finding that, yes, animals are killed, and their insides butchered and hung up to dry. It hovers dangerously on the edge of glib: “Lloyd hooks and hoists a beast. He slits its throat / and Prince’s Purple Rain pours from the tannoy”, though this line just works thanks to its refreshing dark humour, and the subsequent decision to deify another abattoir worker: “Danny angles his saw. His halo is blinding today. / The tattoos on his arms leap like blue flames.” Menos makes her slaughterers into angels of death; they turn out more like Hell’s Angels who have wandered into a Danish horror film. The closing lines just hang like the dead animals: “If you want blood, / there is blood. If you want men, here are men.” There is little generated out of this bloody mess, except for the observation that a slaughterhouse is a bloody mess. No one can argue that it is a fair, and indeed lyrical assessment, but it fails to reward the reader in a way that it somehow should.
            Menos is more in her element when she enters more oblique territory; the strange little love poem ‘My Sometime Farmer’ in which an enamoured speaker finds “the beauty in Beast, the beast in the man”, escapes the pitfalls of the observational poems by offering an enigma rather than a picture. The speaker is relating and rationalising a sense of shock:

            He lives out there in the fields, lives on the cliffs
where the wind whips foam from the breakers
and loads the air with salt. Keen as a knife,
he brought me to my senses, left me there.

The clipped final clause hangs, but this time loaded and personal; condensed loneliness.
It is unfortunate then, that this sweet little oddity is followed by ‘Bernard Manning Plays Totnes Civic Hall’, a horrific prospect in itself, but here it becomes an attempt at poetry stand-up that oversteps that mark into glibness. Of course, this if all innocent mimesis, appropriate for a poem about Bernard Manning stand-up, but Menos adds her own measure of facetious wit: “The wiccans wore woad”, “the womyn / from Diptford Dykes for Psycho-social Wellbeing.” are easily provoked, while the hippies are “High on quinoa and ginseng”, as if they could possibly be anything else. Another ‘poem’ in the collection, one which may well be described as ‘found’ at some reading somewhere, consists of a list of ingredients, both natural and otherwise, that may be found in Tiramisu. It is difficult to recommend a collection that buys into the idea of ‘found’ poetry, let alone ‘poetry’ that can be found on the back of a box from Sainsbury’s.
Ruth Bidgood’s Time Being presents a similar problem – not with reproduced ingredient lists – but with poems that sound less like poems than tick-boxes of observations. Bidgood writes for naturalists, which is not necessarily a bad thing, except that her particular brand of pseudo-Wordsworthian naturalism would actually be better rendered in prose. If the definition of poetry is that it is in some way verse, from the Latin vertere meaning ‘to turn’, then the line-break is always important, or at the very least it should be purposeful. Bidgood’s line-breaks are arbitrary, as if she were writing on skinny paper and simply ran out of room. The consequence of this is that the poems feel somewhat juvenile and amateur: “Dusk. / A smoky tang in the air’s chill. / A time of year when lights begin / to assert a power they didn’t need / in summer dark.” This feels true, accurate, and distillation of truth is a valuable quality in poetry; for a poet writing in today’s progressive landscape, there is little to savour here. Bidgood is better when she turns her eye to local history, becoming a sort of poetic archaeologist. ‘Cart Burial, Young Adult Female’, with its brusque, pallid title stands out from the rivers of rural splendour: “They have dug down / and found her, angularly folded / on the ghost-shape of a cart, / wheels loosed and scattered.” The glimmer of esoteric knowledge here draws in readerly interest, but there is no development, no surprise; we are left with only a feeble conjecture at what this girl may have wished for while still alive, an ending which, especially for such an experienced poet, is curiously artless.
What a contrast then, to come to Vuyelwa Carlin’s The Solitary, a collection whose reach and breadth could be hubristic, yet manages to hang together elegantly. The collection begins with a series of poems charting the growth of young children, yet these poems transcend the hazardous ‘observational’ stance so favoured by Menos and Bidgood by doing more than merely describe; its phraseology alone sets it apart. Poems need to be generative through their form and language rather than allowing language to run circles round a referent. The latter is what journalists are for; poets are supposed to make language work and generate. These lines from ‘Magdalena at Three-and-a-Half Years’ encapsulate Carlin’s approach well: “Great drifts of telling: / words wheel and spin – / whorls of words seen vaguely”. Carlin’s poems show her to work like a weaver; while she watches the young children grow, she is troubled by external matters: a mysterious ‘Uncle’ figure, Dziadek – a Polish grandfather – and various literary figures. These poems act like fairy tales being told to the children as they grow:

Stories are laid down,
pressed in, before Reason –
the slipper’s fit, the bales of spite-spun gold,
the sleep like Death in the dark forest.

        So we yearn over the Pearl, lost and gone,
The black mere,
The muttered snowbound sleep of Gawain.

There are distractions from her watchings, and she makes no apologies for them. The way in which she weaves together different worlds at whim give these poems a sense of conversation, they could be a part of an oral/aural tradition. One child, Lech, is compared to a “young Gabriel Oak”, and, though the speaker’s attention wanders over to that Polish uncle intermittently, Thomas Hardy hints at his presence again in the line “rotting, madding with mortality, / into fits of joy.”
            The Solitary is suffused with a sense of hagiography and elegy; even poems that are not explicitly concerned with the dead exhibit this quality of pathos and regard. The chilling, ekphrastic ‘Dead Child with a Bible’ examines the use of a corpse as a spectacle, a kind of prop, a prototype of what Carlin calls “the windowless dead”. The first line of the final stanza, “There’s no where of you, now”, foreshadows a later poem, ‘Hier is kein warum’, taken of course from Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man. Tackling the Holocaust in poetry is almost certain hubris, yet Carlin’s poise and skill as a poet demand that she be given a chance. It pays off: Carlin’s control over her ability not just to portray tragedy but to create a sense of it lyrically produces rich rewards, not least some of the most brutal, yet somehow peaceful poetry you are likely to come across. There is saving grace, also. As well as despair: “the terrible, unwieldy dead roll about the land” which has been “wrested over and over // from an eluded God: God, waiting / in the ruins, hands full of ash, loam?”, there are tales of the Stokowskis, a family of Polish peasants, we are told, who hid Jews during the war. This represents the pinnacle of Carlin’s weaving; the killers and the killed sit side by side on the page with the resistance, and there is a sense of levelling: “the Stokowskis, / their neighbours (horrible with fear) – transmuted // to birch-sap: all matter that ever was, still is.” In this collection, life and death are cyclical and equalising, and god has little more power over it all than the rest of us. This is a serious book, for serious readers, but it is startling, and unquestionably masterful.

Charlotte Newman read English at Selwyn College, Cambridge, and she has an MA in modern and contemporary literature from Birkbeck, University of London. As well as a brief stint indexing the entire back catalogue of the Erotic Review, Newman worked for the Edinburgh Evening News and was shortlisted for the Allen Wright award for young journalists in 2006. She reviews regularly for Poetry Review; she also writes for Horizon Review, The Dark Horse magazine, and has contributed to the New Statesman.
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