By Maureen Jivani
By AF Harrold
Difficult Second Album
By Simon Turner
When A F Harrold writes in ‘Atlanticism,’ ‘I have no way to measure the distance across / the Atlantic,’ it’s unintended allegory. I know very little about contemporary British poetry—Americans rarely publish in British journals and Brits only slightly more often send work this way. I knew none of the three publishers of these books and had heard of only a couple of the journals the poets had published in. Harrold, Jivani, and Turner could have been a 70s Art Rock band for all I knew. In short, when I started reading these books, I was flying blind.
And it was exhilarating.
As someone who just went through the book-compilation process, I was curious not only about the micro aspects of the internal design of the poems but also the macro design of the book itself. I was struck, for example, by A F Harrold’s author photo. It seems so utterly English to me with the black suit coat and matching black tie. Bespectacled and bushy-bearded with a black bowler and a lapel pin, Harrold could either be an embodiment of the earnest British poet or be mocking the semiotics and accoutrement of the earnest British poet.
A quick dip into the book suggests it might be a bit of both. In ‘Watch,’ for example, the second poem in Flood, the poet begins with an observation-slash-anecdote: ‘I own three watches (two belonged to dead men, / and one’s still my own) and none of them work. / I looked, just now, and saw the time, read the hands / and thought how slow the day’s going’ (10). Frank O’Hara’s casual off-hand self-narration that serves as both entrée to the poet’s world and as comic relief from that world comes to mind when I read these lines. Both poets enable the small to become a metaphor for the big, in this case watch and time, the effervescent present, the dead-laden past. Where this poem departs from O’Hara is its weight—Harold is far heavier. O’Hara’s feet skip so lightly across the page; Harold’s verse, here and elsewhere, is more lapidary. Those weighty spondees and iambs thunking along like a stone clock make the poem move as slowly and as deliberately as the speaker claims the day goes.
This is a nice move.
It’s a great example of form not just mirroring content but creating it. Harrold, as it turns out, is a stealth formalist. He’s sneaky. His easy diction combined with his reluctance to go for the intensely lyrical, uber-imagist clause can lull the reader into complacency. But, in wonderfully rendered poems like ‘The Phone Number’ an irregular rhyme scheme hooks up with a regular meter:
What great disgrace he took away, what secret shame,
I never knew. Only that, for one reason or another,
He was hardly mentioned, like someone else’s cancer
Or an over the limit phone-call we’d all rather forget.
In time I grew uneasy about this conspiracy to silence,
And I unfolded a scrap with a phone number on it
And knowing it felt wrong picked up the receiver.
And there was that voice, so distant it seemed quiet (27)
When you can pull off consistent two-syllable end rhymes without sounding Dr. Seussish, that’s strong work.
The alliterative appointments and clever internal and slant rhymes fill out the poem’s aesthetic design, but what makes this poem equally captivating is its impressive narrativity. It’s a great story. In fact, many of Harrold’s poems are great stories. Like O’Hara, Harrold’s poems enact what we might call the anecdotal maze. They often begin with an observation or anecdote and then take us, circuitously, to and ending point that, unlike most postmodern poetry, actually is determinate. Note the opening lines of the following poems:
One day, walking from here to there in the rain
It might have something to do with windows, my not driving
Walking home from another disappointment
It’s the same music day after day. From my studio wafts
Kate said she’d once kissed a man whose cock
There’s very little in your fridge again
The clouds are low tonight – no stars shine –
These are envois that invite engagement. They beckon the reader in to their little homes. These poems love the reader. This fact might be one way British poet distinguishes itself from American poetry—at least at present. English poets seem less eager to put the reader through the ringer.
When it does come, then, it feels particularly glorious. My favorite poem in the book, ‘Keep On Keeping On’ is a whirlwind of language:
Pass through the portal, the passage, the doorway,
the alley, the wormhole, the window, the chink,
the keyhole, the skylight, the gateway, the tunnel,
the pinhole that’s forced in the butterfly’s back,
crack in the rock-face, the cave-mouth, the well-mouth,
the trapdoor, the hatchway, the fanlight, the frame,
the eye of the needle, eye of the hurricane,
the hole in the ear where an earring’s just been (33)
Whew! Great stuff! But, you don’t want a whole book of it. It comes almost exactly in the middle, just when you want a jolt of language to shake you out of your readerly lethargy.
I would like to have seen more pieces in this vein and fewer conventional love poems like ‘Star,’ which enjoys far too much intertext with Linda Ronstadt’s ‘Somewhere Out There.’ But, that is a minor complaint. The brevity of these poems and their philosophical underpinnings reminded me, favorably, of the great Argentine poet Roberto Juarroz, and their penchant for form invites comparisons to a San Francisco poet British readers may not know but would like, Randall Mann. Overall, this book was a treat for me: comfortable and surprising at the same time.
I might say the same of Maureen Jivani’s Insensible Heart, except to say that it was both slightly less comfortable and slightly less surprising. Drawing on her experiences as a nurse, Jivani locates many of her poems in dislocating settings—operating rooms, hospitals, the open body, disease. These are not, traditionally the provenances of poetry, but they are topics currently permeating popular culture. It’s no surprise that Insensible Heart has been shortlisted for the London Fringe New Poetry Award for 2010. It will strike a chord with a number of readers. Those who know Dana Levin’s wonderful In the Surgical Theater, another impressive debut, will see similarities in the two books and their title poems.
The opening poem, cleverly titled ‘Open Heart,’ sets the stage for the whole book, or, should I say, clears off the operating table for the poet/surgeon to begin. ‘I had a heart in my hands once,’ the poet exclaims, and we realize after a second, that sentence is no metaphor. Or, perhaps it is but it’s not solely metaphor—it’s also fact. So, when the poet writes
And sometimes it leapt,
That insensible heart, like a flying fish
Or one left behind when the tide
Goes out. Poor heart to be stranded
Like this, a fist of blubber, in my small hands.
The patient’s heart is not the only thing leaping here. Hers and ours also jump. But, the secure grip of the poet brings it all back home, securely, in those final two lines. I love ‘fist of blubber’ here. It’s a perfect image and a perfect metaphor.
In fact, I wish Jivani had ended the poem there. I’m not sure we need ‘in my small hands’ either sonically or thematically. And, if I have a criticism of the book it would be from this craft perspective. This poem serves as a good example. The second line after the stunning opener is ‘It shivered like an injured bird.’ As a metaphor and as a line of poetry, a shivered and injured bird brings nothing new to the (operating) table. A few lines later she writes, ‘Such an enormous task, / it took all the long afternoon.’ Again, ‘enormous task’ and ‘long afternoon’ fall flat to my ear, as does ‘a tunnel of light’ and ‘dungeon-cold room’ which appear in the next stanza. In a short poem of only fifteen lines, every phrase, every word counts. The punch of holding a heart in your hands wants to be met by an equally jarring linguistic or syntactic punch. Don’t get me wrong: I like the poem, and Jivani gets some good shots in, but it could have hit harder. It lands a glancing blow, and I want to be bruised.
Jivani belongs to what I would call the Mary Karr school of poetry. Karr, best known for her memoirs, such as The Liar’s Club, locates the poetic not in language or form but in story and emotional resonance. Jivani’s best moments come when her diction is pared down, almost minimalist so that the expressivity of her project takes center stage. Consider ‘Stone –baby,’ a riveting poem about still-birth:
I hold you in my palm,
trace the outline of skull, torso, limbs.
I hold you to my heart
expecting a heartbeat
or at least the echo of a heartbeat.
I will name you a sacred name.
I will offer you my own stopped heart (29)
Tactile and wrenching, this poem, like the previous, emphasizes the poet’s hands and what she holds in them. To over poeticize this moment could be viewed as aesthetic inappropriateness. It is almost in bad taste to invoke language’s exuberance for so horrid a tragedy. The poem sacrifices what it might accomplish linguistically for what it communicates emotionally.
Sacrifice remains for me the enduring theme in Insensible Heart. What we give up; o what we give up. In ‘Times is Hard, Mrs Lovett,’ we don’t know who is giving up what:
The whore folds
herself into him,
her left hand
on his groin,
Such times, lover,
closer to god. (35)
There’s that hand again, holding something else this time! In this poem, as in ‘Stone-baby,’ the predictability of the line breaks undermines the surprise of the poems—but not much. These are still amazingly intense pieces, in part, I’ve decided because they revel in physicality. What is surprising is the poem ‘Stroke.’ One reason is because the poem is illustrated. How often does that happen? Another reason is because in a book about illness and nursing, one expects a poem entitled ‘Stroke’ to be about cereberovascular accident. But, as the illustration and the poem suggest, it’s actually about touching.
My favorite poem in the collection also surprises. ‘Forensics’ is a prose poem divided into four ‘exhibits,’ all of which are just this side of gory. Jivani’s language here dons the white coat of the lab technician. It’s clinical, detached, almost scientific. Darkly tragic (or tragically dark), the poem also flirts with the comic (or the blackly comic). The tone is absolutely perfect, and the poem’s architecture is ingenious. It’s a brilliant poem.
Perhaps the most brilliant aspect of Simon Turner’s Difficult Second Album is the cover. It is the coolest looking book I’ve seen in a long time. My wife, who designed my book cover, kept raving how well done it is. I detected a hint of jealousy.
I, too, felt a twinge of jealousy reading Turner’s book. On more than one occasion, I found myself saying, ‘Hmm . . . I wish I’d thought of that.’ Difficult Second Album is a marvelously cheeky book (I felt very English there). I enjoyed it so much, it came dangerously close to making my Best Poetry Books of 2010 List for The San Francisco Chronicle.
The most experimental of the three books under review, Difficult Second Album might also be, paradoxically, the most accessible. On one hand, the poet plays with poetic form in a disarming way. For instance, a series of short epistolary poems bear the title ‘My Rejection Slips.’ Most begin, ‘Dear Simon,’ and all revel in a tone one could only describe as charmingly self-deprecating:
Thanks very much for your submission. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s quite ‘right’ for our publication. We’re as open to the ‘avant garde’ as anyone else, but a Giro slip & a cheque for £49.50 made out to British Gas is perhaps taking innovative poetics a little too far! (13)
As the second poem in the collection, it helps establish a modality; it indicates to the reader that the rest of the book will be pitched in a certain tenor—ironic, even postmodern, humor. However, even if a reader doesn’t really get the postmodern self-reflexivity of the book, she will get the experience of rejection, and she will understand the relatability of poking fun at your own failures.
The self (or the many selves) emerges as the main topoi of Difficult Second Album. Or, put more theoretically, the book enters into a state of play with the poetic self and its antic (but burdensome) persona. Entertain, for instance, section 1 of the uncapitalized ‘the poem is nothing—version 2.0’ in which the poem’s dedication reads: ‘after Simon Turner.’
I am reminded of Charles Wright again, this time for his sharp poem of self-interrogation, ‘Poem Almost Wholly In My Own Manner.’ For Wright and Turner, poetic self-awareness is not a drawback but a kind of animus. Both are always already aware of themselves as poets and their poetic manner as a means of identity formation. That ability to never be fully immersed in the poem but standing just outside it, perhaps even mocking it, can come off as coolly aloof. Turner’s humor saves his work from self-obsession or solipsism; however, the awareness of the poem as a text risks detaching the poem from its emotional source.
Thankfully, other poems in the collection pick up that ball and run with it, but even then, it’s a guarded emotionalism—a notably poetic intimacy. Much of the poems concern themselves with poets and poetry. There are poems to or after Ted Hughes, William Wordsworth, Edward Thomas, and a striking number of American poets, like Charles Simic, William Carlos Williams, Frank O’Hara, Ezra Pound, and James Wright. Others begin with aphorisms about what poetry can and cannot do, and, again, all are punctuated by the recurring series of rejection slips. The cumulative effect is that poetry is everywhere and nowhere; it does so much and nothing; I am poetry and yet I am not. Thank goodness we always have poetry. Yikes! We may only have poetry!
But, it’s good poetry.
When Turner unlocks the cuffs that shackle his poems to irony, some real beauty breaks free:
In the humming bird, the bright hinge under her muted grin
In the big-eyed bride, the grey bird triggered the bridge
In then hundred chapels, let us plunder these unseen trenches
In the furious stone, the fusion of risen sun
I watch the moon, too closely, have watched
till dawn, the sun wedged between hills,
a plucked fruit, and have sensed a swelling
terror when I saw the moon remained,
and the sun remained
ignored. At noon I bloat my belly
with bartered wine and sweetmeats,
all the body will receive—
indulgences, abuse. Dust smears everything,
and gives off its light. Surgeons wring
their hands, ply me with salves
of river-cooled oil and juniper ask.
The sun—rose and beaten brass—crashes
down on the city as dusk;
rolls through the alleys and souks,
comes to nothing. My garden, this night, is awash
with colours: jasmine pumps musk like squid-ink.
This final passage, from the penultimate poem ‘The Twins, Embracing,’ is a gorgeous meditation on the twinning of city and garden, nature and nurture, the body and its other.
So, what did I learn about contemporary British poetry from these books? You’ve got some talented poets over there (which, of course, I already knew). It was refreshing to have different voices and timbres in my head. British English carries a slightly different cadence. It still, to my ears, sounds more formal than American English. And, in that internal voice your brain produces when you read poetry silently, I kept hearing a British accent (especially in Harrold’s poems), which makes me think of Sir John Gielgud or Benny Hill. Either way—as with all of these books—it’s win/win.
Dean Rader's debut collection of poems Works & Days won the (American) T.S. Eliot Prize for 2010. He reviews regularly for The Rumpus and The San Francisco Chronicle where he also writes a column for the City Brights section. He is a professor at the University of San Francisco.