Caroline Clark reviews
by Richard Price
It is rare, I felt on reading Small World, to be so very drawn into the ‘what happens next’ of a book in which the language is often fragmentary. In the past decade I have enjoyed the fragmentary language of writers such as M.T.C. Cronin (beautiful, unfinished, Salt 2003) and the compelling narrative of J.O. Morgan in Natural Mechanical (CB editions, 2009), and here I find a most dexterous combination of the two elements: the fragment with the narrative, the unfinished with the finished.
The small world is that viewed from the bedroom, the wheelchair, contained in drawers, scrapbooks, playground rhymes, a hospital ward. The narrative line, the author’s life, emerges in the details: two daughters (whose beginnings we learnt of in the poet’s previous book Lucky Day), the elder in a wheelchair, then his girlfriend emerging from a coma following a stroke, newly in a wheelchair. The first section of the book contains poems about the girls and home life, and the longest, final section is about the stroke Patient. In between there are two short sections, touching on memory and loss. The narrative details build up across the poems: in one poem we learn of ‘a little big-sister,/ a big little-sister’, and in the next poem, they are given their names and medicine is administered. We read, piece things together. This is enough to keep our narrative lust happy, while are gradually drawn in by the language
The first section is shot through with playground rhymes and rhythms and the poet’s absorption, re-working of them:
All aboard the wheelchair! The whirled chair!
All aboard the world chair! Small world. Small world.
It is easy to skim over a few poems, such as ‘Faster!’: ‘Eeny meeny yak yak,’ but even so, such poems contribute to the pace, playfulness and energy of the whole. And when you come to such energy combined with impressive inventiveness and lyricism, it is rather hard to pass on by:
Steep to good sense, the three gripped the roughcast.
They settled to survey, confer, to attest
(they’re squat little scraps at rest):
from a blue-black sketch-of-a-guess
they solidified to a delegation, a thorough inspectorate of doubt.
Of course, quotes won’t work fully to effect here; and this is very much a book to be read in the right order, as the effect is accumulative. I returned several times to the final three poems in the first section: they are captivating, lyrical and contain some elements that remain elusive, but intriguingly so. Interestingly several of my hesitations, ‘what’s this about?’, were resolved when I listened to the recordings of the poems here: http://www.archiveofthenow.org/authors/?i=76 (some in previous versions).
The details that emerge become ever more personal, and in the final section the reader is desperate to simply find out ‘what happens next’. But language must be made to match the task, to match the truth of real life. Here the fragmentary is used to great effect, in half-said phrases, dialogue, a lyrical searching to say a way forward. Rather than fragmentary, perhaps the language is uncut-offable. It won’t be tied down into neat endings or sealed into regular rhyme and rhythm (rhythm, I should add is something at which Price excels).
The use of the / and > signs soon become familiar, a kind of personal punctuation that adds to both the pace and fragmentary nature of some of the poems, hinting at space, things left out. It is the sense of the spaciousness of Price’s language that I particularly came to admire in this book. In his longer poems there is a roominess: nothing is easily locked down into simple structures; the complexity of thought and sensation is given room to be fully expressed, not simplified, yet remain accessible:
If ‘remember’ can be true there’s an intensity I cannot anchor:
it’s a meeting remaining in its happening,
it was ‘so –’ and, so, it is always so.
These lines come from the poem titled ‘Nimble, oblique’, a phrase that would do very well to describe the language here in general. I haven’t mentioned the humour, the wittiness; quotes won’t do. It is there throughout, as is a boldness of utterance:
She wakes in war poetry, ache, slow aware.
She wakes in famine footage, woozy as a foal. A dapper fly
rests on her cheek: he’s whispering church latin.
(‘She wakes in war poetry)
I might call what Richard Price has achieved the new personal. The poems are not burdened with the weight of having to tell what happened. Here, however sorrowful the story, I hope other readers too will feel the energy of language in the making.
Caroline Clark's first collection, Saying Yes in Russian, was published in June 2012 by Agenda Editions.