Saturday, 9 April 2011

Guest Review: Jivani On Wyke

Maureen Jivani reviews
by Dan Wyke

Dan Wyke’s debut collection is full of the dead and the bereaved. The dead are present even in childhood which is one of the book’s enduring themes.  And is a theme in which, to varying degrees, he presents the reader with a selection of surprising portrayals. Here is a childhood that is touched by fear but also by a milder, but nevertheless powerful, sense of ennui.  The collection begins with an unrhymed sonnet : ‘Polaroids’, evokes a clear, unsentimental view of an upbringing, where despite the ‘psychedelic  veneer ‘ of the early 70s, ‘nothing can animate the air’s ashen tint;’ which ‘hangs like pollution’ and  later becomes, ‘the pallid halo around the face of a freshly dead person.’  It’s a powerful poem and earns its position on the first page by the fusion of ordinary suburban images present in the octave, and the metaphysics preceding the poem’s final image in the sestet. Or consider, ‘Willow’, a five stanza poem which opens with this image, ‘The branches hung upside down/like my sister’s hair drying in front of the fire.’ But alas the death of the family dog, in stanza four, which they then bury beneath the trunk, changes everything:

                        That winter a storm filled its head with bad dreams.
                        Whipped, I heard sobs and moans from my bed,
                        then creaks and clicks as it settled
                        before the lashing began all over again –
                        clawing the window as though it wanted to come in.

In the title poem, ‘Waiting for the Sky to Fall’ (a title which immediately and deliberately brings to mind the children’s tale of Chicken Little) the speaker declares, ‘Death, it seems, is no more remarkable/than dinner going cold on the table;’. Here is the author as counsellor: the tone is clinical, calm, measured, the diction is (to borrow from the poem’s speaker) ‘…extraordinary/for its ordinariness.’   The message here seems to be, as is the message of Chicken Little, one of assurance in life’s continuity: Don't be a Chicken Little. Don't be afraid. The sky is not falling. Fear brings doom. Take courage. However, in the end the message isn’t entirely convincing and nor is it meant to be: paradoxically, the poem’s greatest strength is in the sentiment’s underlying frailty which skilfully mirrors mankind’s own sense of the same.

Given the weighty subject matter, Wyke never descends into bleakness. He moves deftly between darkness and light. ‘The Gift’, a poem about his mother’s death, is expertly handled and in fact turns out to be a love poem.  Of the parent poems, I found ‘The Last Man’ moved me the most, in terms of imagery and content, where (serving as a perfect metaphor for the emotional distance between father and son) ‘the film on the box is Scott of the Antarctic.  And in one of my favourite of Wyke’s poems, a tense nine liner, titled ‘Fires: An Alternative Verdict’, ice and fire become elemental barometers of desire.

The book is ordered chronologically, beginning in childhood and predictably charts schooldays, teenage years and adulthood. And I couldn’t help feeling that a stream of consciousness approach might have worked better in terms of sustaining the reader’s interest throughout this lengthy collection.  However, there is, at times, a wonderful juxtaposition of poems and images on the page, and again this effortless flick from darkness to light:
           
                        pale pink
                        toilet paper

                        shit-smeared
                        rich
           
                        and noxious as
                        the sweet stench

                        of myrtle.


                        (‘Italian Pastoral’)

And on the opposite page, wonderfully, though with a few questionable line breaks, a description of European art where ‘Patches of plaster’ fall away to reveal:
                       
                                                […]
                        whips flayed flesh,
                        free again
                        to climb the wall,

                        pressing against
                        the emblazoned ceiling
                        as if the artist
                        wanted us to see

                        they had outgrown
                        the imitation heaven
                        and reached
                        the light.

                        (‘San Zeno, Verona’)

There are poems that should have been left out of this long collection of 72. Some because they appear to be repeating the same sentiments, only less convincingly than others:  the short poem ‘Winter Evening’ seems to be a condensed version of the preceding ‘Christmas Day’ and while the latter contains one of the collection’s most memorable lines : ‘Love of life, I think,/is a love of its particulars,’ the poem would have been strengthened by a little pruning: Wyke might have easily employed the blank space more usefully than the line ‘- it knows not what.’  Likewise, as much as I enjoy chatting to poets about their writing process, I rarely ever enjoy reading poems about the writing process and predictably then, poems included on this subject did nothing for me, but weakened an otherwise strong collection.  So, if you’ll forgive my use of cliché, sometimes less really is more. That said, Waiting for the Sky to Fall has much to offer, and Wyke’s animal poems are an absolute treat. In the end, to paraphrase Dan Wyke’s final line in this ambitious, insightful, and intensely rich collection, occasionally its better just ‘letting [some] things be’.

Maureen Jivani is published by Mulfran Press.
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