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Thursday, 27 January 2011

Guest Review: Woodward on Larbey, Farmer, Foyle, Noon and Lehrman

Catherine Woodward reads five recent pamphlets

There is a strain of poets I call lexiphiles whose joy of language has at some point become completely subsistent on itself. They are a strange bunch, very passionate, particularly about phonemes and sibilance and glottal stops and I’ve read a lot of their poetry which is, suffice to say, heavy. It’s often hard to find the exact image that is being smothered by the exotic, word-horny enthusiasm that is meant to evoke it. Lexiphiles are important to a review of Ruth Larbey’s Funglish because it is a pamphlet that walks the line between lexiphilia and excellence, and with a fantastic display of skill, manages to remain consistently on the side of excellence. A clever, creative, intuitive lexiphile can indeed be excellent and I believe that’s exactly what Larbey is. Clearly her masterful understanding and control of language are only surpassed by her love of it.

                Larbey has recreated Babel as an exact science, her poems are about liminal spaces, places where much is said but where words resolve into a terrible and inevitable silence. Often these poems give their reader a remarkable deaf-blind feeling, where the world is unstable, half formed and volatile. Because of this, in the opening poems and echoing throughout the pamphlet there is a sense that every word is a desperate attempt against this silence, that the world is in danger, the world is at war and language is the battle ground.

Larbey is urgent not indulgent and her clever, sparkling management of language and syntax subtly bring out multi layers of meaning from her words. She over saturates or over exposes words so that meaning is lost with increased specificity as in ‘“luscious red berries...’ which fades out into  ...high in disease-fighting phytochemicals...”’. Or transforms language, loading the dramatic turn of the poem on a single word, as in Divine Intervention, where God is played by the word ‘orange’, and is expressed and traced in ‘orange’s’ variations and incidental appearances. Or plays with double meanings as in The Northern Line ‘Here, recession sucks air from the vacuum tube’, tuning into the low wave frequency at which can be heard the communication of a city that the city cannot even hear itself. Larbey makes us aware of the pivotal importance of words to human understanding, and of the precarious position that that puts us in. These poems are highly affecting, disciplined and very clever.

This language war is tempered by a running romantic narrative and as such, there comes to be less a war and more of a terrible tension of which language is the crux. Yet this too is perfectly illuminated, providing a decent counterpoint to the depersonalised darkness of war.

Funglish is quite an achievement for Larbey, a very impressive first collection.

I was far less impressed with the lexical experiments of Gareth Farmer’s Dawn’s Resolve and Dusk Falls.

It has to be said that Dawn’s Resolve and Dusk Falls (in twenty-four snatched scenes) is good but not great. The premise and the way that Farmer tackles it are the cause for some confusion. When I read the title I made two predictions about what the pamphlet would be, either Farmer would give us the same four moments – dawn, morning, afternoon, dusk – from multiple perspectives, in which case the scenes would be peopled by multiple characters, styles and voices; or the same day, mediated by the progress of the sun, would be recorded incrementally in twenty-four scenes and following the progression of a narrative in a consistent style and voice. But Dawn’s Resolve was an amalgamation; it instantly throws in multiple pronouns with direct address, running one disconnected scene on after the other but in the same tone and style, both of which are in no way dazzling, and I might go even further in saying that they are frustrating and at many points incomprehensible.  Furthermore, the middle batch of scenes are metaphysical musings on writing and knowledge, diverging greatly from the original premise and the sun and time of day only make three appearances, the last two of which are very vague indeed. The overall impression one receives is that Farmer’s project is something of a lame horse, that the intended poetic endeavour of Dawn’s Resolve never really got off the ground at all, or was veered from completely.

                The typography of the pamphlet needs mentioning. The snatched scenes are split into twenty-four sections of five lines each, all sectioned off into boxes. I showed Dawn’s Resolve to a friend of mine and the instant he saw it his response was ‘I don’t like it’. Typography counts for something. The boxes come across as a product of the book’s limitations, the sections would be better written on the slips of paper inside fortune cookies and discovered in secret, or something equally as fanciful. The boxes give the poems a contrived, limited, inorganic edge. They ought to have been left out all together.

                That I considered Farmers tone and style ‘frustrating’ and ‘incomprehensible’ also needs elaborating. Farmer’s grammar and syntax are often very ambiguous; adverbs as nouns, nouns indistinguishable from present tense verbs and swathes of abstracts in small spaces. His poems come in mid shot, they are fragments which cannot be connected by standard sentence structure. I would be keen to defend this usage as experimental if this ambiguity ultimately served to clarify something more abstract or was emotionally affective, but Farmer’s usage smacks of pretension and contempt for the reader which I can’t defend.

                But to rephrase my opening statement Dawn’s Resolve isn’t great but it’s good. Farmer does shine at times; he mixes the abstract with the physical well ‘bulging with self help’, ‘shower of worst cases’ in bursts of clarity. Some scenes are better than others, capturing a disembodied emotional charge which sparkles among the other more dull scenes. The problem for Dawn’s Resolve is that all my complaints could only be resolved by changing the poems in ways that would compromise Farmer’s artistic integrity and his very palpable sense of personal style. Farmer has put himself in a Catch 22 situation; an improvement cannot be made without denying his particular artistic flare, which is a negative move.

Dawn’s Resolve certainly has its merits, but ultimately it reads as a piece that has been held back, which hasn’t fully flourished or successfully explored.

After reading Farmer’s pamphlet it was a delight to read Naomi Foyle’s Grace of the Gamblers. With its simplicity of theme it expresses a new joy in writing, which is at times sorely needed.

Grace of the Gamblers: A Chantilly Chantey is a refreshing read; the pamphlet comprises of a short ballad vociferating the life and deeds of legendary Irish heroine Gráinne Ní Mháille, or Grace O’ Malley, and is backed by a chorus of sewing girls who listen along with the reader and provide some added dark, cultural grounding.

The darkness of the sewing girls, working their fingers to the bone under threat of starvation during the harsh Irish winter, is complementary, because the main narrative of the ballad is often peculiarly light in the telling. Among the boisterous, bounding music of the ballad is a mixture of Gaelic dialect and contemporary slang which has left me somewhat ambivalent about the poem. On the one hand I found that lines such as ‘The old fella guffawed, took her on board’, ‘O Granuaile’s story is shaping up swell’ and ‘The O’Flaherty clan said ‘thanks, now scram’, made the ballad anachronistic in an incongruous way which disrupted the historical narrative and caused such lines to fall a little flat. But on the other hand this incongruity seemed to give the poem a very special edge. The style is as ‘wanton and bold’ as the poem’s heroine, bounding and vivacious, this curious mix brings ‘Grace of the Gamblers’ and her remarkable story to life. In Foyle’s telling the story is cause for raucous celebration at the same time as it is the dark legend coursing through Irish veins and sewing needles. The whole poem is exciting and uproarious; not only does Foyle introduce us to a fascinating history, but she bowls it along with the palpable joy of the telling. Grace of the Gamblers is different and certainly unusual, perhaps not suitable to all tastes but this is a taste that is easy to acquire. Foyle’s legend is here and now in Technicolor, as well as culturally essential as all good legends are.

Also touching base with history, albeit in a more conventional way, is Alistair Noon’s new translation of Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman.

I was very impressed with this translation, it is an ambitious project and one that Noon has pulled off with virtuosity, but the poem’s technical success is not its only virtue. Noon manages first of all to sharpen and strengthen the passionate and ambivalent undercurrents in Pushkin’s poem, and second of all to confer upon the poem an unexpected contemporaneity which forges new links between the poem and our time.

                Noon’s version of Pushkin’s Petersburg is an organism beyond the rule of nature; where other translations cite the city’s growth as ‘fated’ by nature, Noon’s makes ‘a slave of nature, it ‘hack[s] a window through to Europe’. Immediately the city becomes darker, stronger, more supernatural than seen before. Noon subtly mixes organic and architectural in his opening love poem to the Russian city, fusing it with the will of its founder Peter I, making it both despotic and beloved. These pragmatic relations which often stay pragmatic in other translations come to the fore here. Noon’s Petersburg reminds me of Eliot’s The Wasteland, his description of the city is tantalisingly masochistic and always passionate, as is Eliot’s description of his London. The Modern connection gives Noon’s translation the impression of spanning time, it seems to contain the historical impact of The Wasteland within itself.

                Yevgeny too, the poem’s protagonist, has curiously contemporary speech. When he bewails his poor and feckless state ‘many contented souls/whose intellectual aims/weren’t high – the lazy sods! -/ were on holiday all year round!’ it seems to express the anger of our time as well as Pushkin’s.

                But returning to that briefly mentioned supernatural feeling; I felt that this was one of the translations great achievements. Noon’s rhyme is beautifully unobtrusive, giving his poem a lulling natural quality, and slipped in among this natural appearance are strange breaches. There are two moments in the poem where Noon breaks from past tense narration into quite extensive periods of present tense. These moments then appear removed from the main narrative, at an odd angle alongside it, but these are effective in that they create dreamlike interludes that strengthen the ongoing flirtation between the real and surreal.

                I would say that this is one of the best translations of The Bronze Horseman that I have read; it has a very palpable feel for Pushkin’s poem and at the same time appears to do more with it than I have ever seen.

Successfully combining trans-cultural and trans-historical elements with experimental lexical ingenuity, Rachel Lehrman’s pamphlet Second Waking stands somewhere between all of these, and establishes itself as a one-of-a-kind piece.

From what I can make of Second Waking the pamphlet seems to explore the assertion Lerhman makes in the poem Worship Tendency, that ‘the desire to worship’ is ‘a prerequisite of our faith’. The pamphlet captures this intense desire for worship of something greater, this essential, organic spirituality without the coercive shape of any particular religion. This lack of dogmatic form is what makes Lehrman’s poetry so intense and exciting.

We are presented with a liminal, dreamlike space which is dangerously amorphous and terrifying and the reader is forced into the position of the spiritually directionless subject. It is not only the poems but the typographically interesting nature of the pamphlet itself which manages this. The pamphlet lacks a contents page and page numbers, even the titles, our only point of reference, are disconcertingly vague. So we wind our way through the poems without guidance and Lehrman makes us aware of an urgent desire for shape and order (even in the small sphere of a poetry pamphlet) and makes us understand the alienation a subject feels in a world they cannot objectify.

                Even though this formless, universal desire to worship lacks religious direction the tropes of religion and spiritual practises are not absent. Yoga makes its incidental appearances, connecting universe and individual body, Adam and Eve are quiet but unshakable as schemas for humanity and sin. Largely the flavour of this spirituality is pagan and oriental. Lehrman’s poetry is truly trans-religious and trans-historical and for that has a contemporary feel. But she uses these techniques subtly, without academic pretence, so that at no point does she detract from the elemental, primal gage in which her poems are written.

                Lehrman’s style aims at something in the pit of our brains, tapping into an ancient fear. Her poems are fragmented, with very little punctuation, never is a sentence entirely complete. The result is the expression of sudden, holy incidents in what seem like chants, mantras and spells. Her writing is hypnotic, particularly in that all her poems are rigidly present tense, composed of fragmented statements of things which are, and the reader mentally connects these into an all purpose liturgy. Lehrman captures with extraordinary clarity the breadth of the present moment, the simultaneity of events which are at the same time, immoveable and immemorial, entrenched in time. Lehrman uses language to get outside ordinary dimensions, generating the impression of communion with all things. Lehrman has given us a sparkling advance in poetry of the self. This pamphlet is quite an experience.

Catherine Woodward is a British poet and critic.
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