Alice Willington reviews Instinct by Joel Lane
Instinct is a pamphlet of 23 poems, and its subtitle is poems of desire. These indeed are “poems of desire”; but the poet’s focus is the end, or the death, of desire, and the aftermath of physical passion. The images are strong, “After breakfast, I’ll walk you/ (on hollow feet) to the bus stop.” Or, “You need these souvenirs. /Your body’s an empty plate on the pavement.”
It is a rare event in this group of poems for the joyful centre of passion to be articulated and for happiness to be told unadulterated. In the poem ‘The Cries’:
“a boy whoops softly, and a girl
Laughs, once, with such complete
Tenderness and repose that the bare
walls cannot use the sound.”
In this collection it is as if the poet himself (or herself) cannot use these sounds of tenderness and repose. It is “too good”, and the poet takes the camera of a listener at the other end of the corridor, rather than experiencing it for himself. The joy in orgasm contained in ‘Fly Boy’ (“far below, a fist of water/puts out the aching light”) is dreamt of, not experienced. The poem starts “To hold you”, as if the poem contains what is desired, not actual, and indeed the tale of Icarus is the tale of a hope doomed to failure. ‘Goth’ is the one poem where sexual pleasure is tasted and relished, spoken by a gravelly poetic persona as if by an older woman to a younger man, and the taste of “cheap roll-ups” leaves the narrator smiling.
This pamphlet is my first encounter with Joel Lane. The 23 poems are collected from the stretch of his writing career, and I expected therefore that there would be some noticeable differences in the forms, techniques and concerns, but in fact the poems display a striking unity. There is a close adherence to regular stanza form. Full rhyme is occasionally used, spread out across a poem to provide an additional hold of sound, for example in the poem ‘Autumn Light’, (meat – cheek – deep) or close together at the end of a poem, to provide closure, for example “kindness/blindness” in ‘Matt’. There is a tendency to close down poems, rather than leaving the images to lead the reader
In ‘Hidden City’, for four stanzas the lovers lie spent, “astonished by pure light”, but the final stanza cuts to an autopsy where “nothing” is “written/on your heart.” I wonder whether this is in fact an unnecessary excising of hope. Sometimes the images seem to deliberately obstruct understanding or insight. In ‘Fireguards’, the images constantly return to “the mess in the chimney’s throat”, after “so long trying to force/doors.” This frustration is, however, a reflection of the way human relationships can be dead ends or a “blind alley,” and also of the nature of desire and eroticism, which both lingers and disappears “while the morning covers up its bruises”, and even before then, in uncomfortable beds where “the passion’s formal”. It is as if the poet is poised forever at the end of the affair and isn’t sure what comes next, or is looking back to before to find the way forward. The aptly titled ‘The Great Unknown’ is the poet wanting “one date left”, but the landscape of the poem is of wolves moving fast over a frozen waste, a “folk myth/ from colder times”, a landscape from the past which is in fact the poet’s future.
These poems are good, and memorable, but they are not satisfying. Love is “a fragile echo on the telephone”, and the brightness of a night with a girlfriend is “two decades past.” It is a pamphlet of dulled pain.
Alice Willington has been writing poems for 8 years, and has been published in Horizon Review, New Linear Perspectives, Initiate and Avocado. She was included in Lung Jazz, the Oxfam Anthology of Young British Poets under 40. She writes about mountains, but lives and works in Oxford.