Alison Gibb reviews
by Arlene Ang
Lately, when I read or hear new poetry I try to select a word from the poems that best sums up what I think the poet is trying to unearth in their poetry. In the case of Seeing Birds in church is a kind of Adieu my word would have to be Mosquito. Their association with blood, disease and their fragility of life reflects the themes explored in this collection of strange, macabre, metamorphic poems that dwell on the surreal experiences of loss and the complexities of human relationships in life and death.
Ang refers to mosquitoes three times in the collection. The first is in ‘Underworld’, where mosquitoes multiply like time and twice more in ‘Pandora’ where the colour of sadness is compared to the red of a scratched mosquito bite and again when a dead mosquito is re-imagined.
She is growing blind,
and it is just as she imagined it –
the crushed mosquito,
the drinks, the blood overtones.
Creepy-crawlies, body fluids, missing body parts, sudden and long drawn out disease-riddled deaths, medical terms and aliments all feature in this collection, in surprising and inventive ways. It is testament to Ang’s talent as a poet that these graphic details are tolerable and inspire a palpable experience of the brutally of loss and grief.
The collection, a mixture of prose poems, sonnets and couplets, creates powerful images that unfold to give obscured perspectives on bleak observations. The opening poem ‘A Sun That Isn’t a Source of Heat But Instead Paints Its Grief on the Walls of a Private Room,’ places the reader firmly in the interior of the poem: “The mirror is a lesson in stillness, in watching the room / as it takes place behind your shoulder.” Skillfully selecting objects reflected in the glass, Ang uses the mirror as a device to create a series of converse images that reveal the conflicting disorientation and serenity experienced by the observer in the room:
The wine glass in one of the paintings now appears
to the right of the bird with the broken wing.
A stray wind sucks the curtains into a perverse tango.
You watch a rat occupy that portion of the room
where you were told to sit and have a drink.
This combination of long and short lines produce a series of vivid, powerful images that pile up on top of each other, as if you the reader were slowly turning on the spot. This motion is further emphasized by the steadfast pace and exacting control exercised by Ang throughout her poems.
‘Pandora’, a four-page sequential poem, can be read as a contemporary take on the popular Greek myth of Pandora’s box. In Ang’s tale Pandora’s box is a coffin, containing the corpse of a brother. The evils-of-the-world is the deaths of loved ones and the reality of being left in a world with only fading memories to hold on to. Hope is the bittersweet knowledge that her life will eventually also end: “She is composed by many backs / turning away. How unhappy. This hope.” Each poem in the sequence is laid out differently and made up of a variety of stanzas and line lengths.
Ang splits her long-lines into punctuated shorter lines that span three or four lines of each stanza. Taking her reader on a journey of transformation where every pause, comma, word and new line is another twist and turn through the complexities of the text:
….Skin was and now
it is a matter of watching
the brother wear a lipstick ten shades
brighter than the rest of the room.
Breaking up her long-lines with shorter one-liners such as: “A box jammed inside the room.” Ang creates a vibrant tension that adds to an overall sense of duality at play in this collection of poetry. In ‘Hot tubs’, a poem made up a five long lines presented in eight couplets, Ang seamlessly morphs the image of a luxurious bubbling Jacuzzi bath into the hellish, deafening military strikes and mass deaths of the Vietnam War:
gurgle like approaching storm,
or helicopters that hover over villages
before blades shatter from bullets.
Light through window grime
plays tricks over moving objects:
the ceiling fan rattles like dice.
This maze like technique of starting in one place and ending up somewhere completely unexpected happens time and again in Ang’s poem, yet still manages to surprise. It is as if she lulls you into a false sense of security and before you know it, things have changed and you are accompanying her through the harsh realities of dying or the loss of a loved one.
It is hard not to be emotionally effected by the poems. At times they feel a bit too personal, like you are intruding into somebody’s private grief process, albeit invited. Finely crafted, with an academic vigor and a seemingly intuitive flair for redirecting a line of poetry on the turn of a word, this collection is a surprising read, packed with startlingly, melancholic imagery.
Alison Gibb is a graduate of the MA in Creative Writing at Kingston University. She is a visual artist who collaborates with a London dance troupe, and a poet. She lives in Cambridge. She reviews for Eyewear.