Thursday, 1 May 2014

THREE RECENT POETRY COLLECTIONS REVIEWED BY OLDHAM

BRITISH POET ANDREW OLDHAM WEIGHS IN ON PETRUCCI, WONG & SHEPPARD

by Mario Petrucci

anima is a sub-sequence of verse derived from a prior modernist experiment, i tulips. Such experimentation in poetry doesn’t tend to cry out to the contemporary vanguard of the poetry scene. It is a brave choice but any experiment in modernism tends to make the reader feel like they are staring in the eyes of dead fish in a rusty bucket dangling for the listing and decaying holds of a fishing smack. Sooner or later something foul and heavy is going to crush you. As an experiment for poetics, it would intrigue other poets but you have to question the reason why Petrucci wishes to add further to the modernist project, i tulips, and whether this is another case of poetry looking back rather than engaging with present and contemporary experimental movements.
 
There is an argument that poetry should engage more with the modern world rather than lay another layer of elitism on the reader. That is a wider argument and not for this review. Unlike Petrucci’s earlier collections, this is a pared down poet and is far cry from Flowers of Sulphur which predominantly unsettled the reader with its power of image; both political and scientific. In anima there is the feeling that this is part of a poet seeking that scientific again, to experiment with the pared down voice and the power of linguistics. There is no denying that Petrucci is a fine poet, who should be applauded more in the poetry scene and the collection itself is mesmerising. This can be seen in one of the key poems, ‘O anima’:

 

you ran

ahead when magma

was just a girl hurled along masculine

 

vertebrae to spill her tresses hotly orange

or part in pleasure here &

here her

 
Petrucci has been compared to e.e. cummings ‘at his best’ but I think this is unfair to both poets. Petrucci even at his worst far surpasses the flaws and failed experiments of some of cummings' poetry; a poet who painted himself into a corner, like Larkin, and sat there comfortably dominating a diminishing world. There is an animalistic verve to this collection, starting with the opening poem, ‘ride the blue lion’: ‘smear crimson rough / with rougher tongue – muscularly / hidebound in fur’ that echoes such poets as Ted Hughes. There is a lyricism, a sense of breath and passion that reminds you of Charles Olson and Larry Eigner. You can see this in the poems ‘your fragrance’, ‘V’ and ‘questions’.

This extension of the modernist experiment, i tulips, may carry a lot of critical and literary weight behind it but it is flawed and out of time. Modernism here is the structure for the ideas rather than the drive. It would take a lot for Petrucci to argue that society has transformed so far to see the art we have as being out of date and out of touch to require a Neo-Modernism. If that was the case it would seem archaic to look back to Modernism for our solution, and tantamount to digging up Ezra Pound and stuffing him for exhibit. Is Petrucci making something new? Is the poet rejecting realism and embracing revision and parody? No. What Petrucci is doing is embracing, in very tentative steps, the experimentation of Modernism. By default Modernism is merely a pigeon hole here, a place to stuff his poetry in for academics to fawn over. This undersells a very fine poet, who may be engaging with ideas of Modernism but who can never fully be part of a movement because he is not of that time.

This makes anima a strange beast. The poetry is animalistic, drawing on the power of experimentation, a stripped down verse to question our own nature, the rise of the man in the beast, as seen in the poem ‘how animal s-‘: ‘the man / a pelt gored from / within by mind a scuffle’ and the pulse of the animal in our nature in ‘as woman’: ‘enters / man anima / -lly you come hot / with yourself in thrusts /beyond blood in / me’. Yet, the weight of Modernism hangs over it, trying to mould it into something it isn’t. This cannot be Modernism, Petrucci has missed the boat. Bunting was the last Modernist and all that wanted to follow him stood in his shadow. Petrucci was not a poet made to stand in shadows.

 
by Jennifer Wong

 This is Wong’s follow up to Summer Cicadas (Chameleon Press, 2006), and like her first collection there is a sharpness to her observations. Wong is drawn to the frailty of nature, people and the past. It can be seen in the poem ‘What Happened to Miss Chang’ which considers the short lived nature of fame and pride:

 

Around the same time last year

Mr Hou was prouder than any Chinese man

as he dropped his question to Miss Chang

(pre-determined winner of Miss Hong Kong)

over a weekend dinner at Macau’s Sands.

 
In ‘Miss Chang’ we find the cult of celebrity and the throwaway culture. Miss Chang becomes the celebrity of the moment, she marries Mr Hou, who Wong tells us - with tongue firmly in cheek - is the ‘owner of thirty fashion boutiques’.  Chang becomes Hou, is stripped by the change of a name from fame to a fashion accessory, to a nobody: ‘When the new Miss Hong Kong / was announced, no one knew / where Mrs Hou was, no one cared’. It is in such poems that Wong explores the nature of relationships, the dominance of men’s pride and the realisation of the truth; that such men do not see the real woman, they see the commodity. It is Wong’s strength in her poetry to question expectations, to dig behind the idea of what makes us who we are and the stereotypes we inevitably fall into. This is seen in ‘The Steamboat’ where the desire to fit in: ‘He showed his sincerity / by using chopsticks, gave up Coke / for proper strong tea’, fails:

 

Adam shuddered, ‘O my Gawd

never have I seen such lively prawns!’

‘Sorry sir, they have more legs than you’

‘But our prawns are pink!’

‘We are being fresh,’

the waiter pointed at the fish tank.

‘We keep them swimming until the last minute.’

 
Here we find ourselves thinking that prawns are pink and that the joke is on us all who say such things aloud: ‘Funny foreigner must live / far away from the sea’. It would be easy for Wong to end there, to show that we all have humiliating differences but again she cannot resist pointing out an untrue stereotype: ‘We Chinese never good at being funny.’ There is a sparkling humour to Goldfish that can be found throughout the collection, in such poems as ‘Gobbling Down Auspicious Chinese Dishes’, but as a whole, Wong brims with nostalgia.

She doesn’t allow it to overwhelm the reader, her nostalgia is built up of tastes, of ghosts in her past and the collective past of others, in the minutiae of a moment, as in ‘Ten Dreams’: ‘I worked hard to memorise / long multiplication tables / in between the love gasps of neighbours. / My pencil stand wobbled.’ It is in these small moments that Wong maps her world to create humour, malice and loss, to remind us: ‘life’s far too short’. That through her poetry she is trying to crack the code, the maths that make up life and to do this she must swim through every memory, every image, every moment, taste, sound and touch to make sense of all things:

 

and I wish

to cover all territory

for once—hospital walls, chinaware,

bed linen, your bland skin

with pattern and fear of all my dots –

by the old wharf on Naoshima

I make my yellow wartime pumpkins.

 

I know my home is not a country anymore.

just a festering colony of the mind:

 

(taken from the ‘Gift’)

 
Wong is not afraid to turn her eye to the collective memory of China, of the politics of being a Hong-Kong born poet subsumed within a wider growing empire. There is a sense in Goldfish that Wong is chasing down the images of the past, to save them, collate them and preserve them before all identity, all memory is wiped away by a changing world that has no place for such imagery. Wong has shown how much we need these images, to cling not just to the nostalgia of them but to the very sound that can be felt in our bones. This is a fine young poet, who with time and experience will produce a tantalising body of work that will change with our conscience.

 

by Robert Sheppard

 
Robert Sheppard is the agent provocateur of British poetry, a poet who thrives in the divide. In A Translated Man Sheppard plays with the divides between the poet as the creator of text, the text as a truthful voice, the translated text and the translator. In it we see the translation of a vast body of work by the poet Rene Van Valckenborch introduced by Eric Canderlinck, formerly of the Institute of Literary Translation, who exports at the start of the collection: ‘This book is the result of an incredible story’. Some readers skip introductions in poetry collections but they are often the key to more complex ideas and Sheppard is dealing not just with recording linguistic divides but a fictionalised poet who is divided himself. Canderlinck, a fictionalised character as well, in his opening shows the key to this book, this is an epic tale, it is a poet as myth, poet dead, text alive, text subverted, altered, bastardised, it is the modern day Iliad but contained as a quest in text, in the solitude of one man through a changing world. Sheppard is walking the divides of text, language, personality, reputation, translation, technology and even himself. A Translated Man questions what it is to be the poet, what happens when the fictionalised characters become more real to the reader than the creator of the text. It is another division that starts with a play on Walloon; a linguistic divide of French speakers in Belgium and these divisions echo into the classical idea of ‘masks’: ‘gouge eyeholes / mouth hole but nose / -nostrils-not drilled’.

It is violence that embraces us into the modern world of Walloon, a sense that mutilation has occurred to all of us: ‘stab eye as mask becomes / body itself in  (-) / animate art life god’. That we have wounded ourselves to become redeemed, to purge sin: ‘he falls to earth / & human sweat / flushes laughing’. As Canderlinck promised this is an ‘incredible story’ and we constantly find ourselves in the Walloon Poems section of the book being drawn into a chaotic, almost confessional poet, who is not real. Therein lies the rub, we are lost in the divide between empathy, sympathy, elation and confusion of a fictional man’s life, translated in a way that may not even capture the real essence of the poetry. In the sequence ‘masks’ language gives way to a beating chorus of a naked mask stick:

 

-- _ - ..

 -- _ - .

-- _ - .. .

 

There is a feeling in the Walloon Poems (translated by Annemie Dupuis) compared to the later section, Flemish Poems, that something primal, rhythmic and violent is being played out in the poet’s life. Even with the violence there is a sense of the divide, as in ‘from violent detachments’:

 

of the poet over

the shivering body

of the poem shrinking before

 

him (here) you

must change your

death mask

 

The mask is a repeating image in this book, another divide, another way to detach but so is the way the translator is seeking to bring a wide body of work to the reader. We often see sections prefaced with ‘from’ giving us a sense of a larger piece of work that simply got detached. Walloon too becomes more and more detached choosing in ‘election day glance poems’ to give up, to give the game away with the process, the equation of his world:

 

form: glance

content: chance

_____________

response: dance

 

A sense that the poet is becoming middle aged and cross with the world:

 

message to all liberals if

 

you carry on putting crap

through my letterbox I’ll

vote vlaams belang

 

But yet the divide lingers, the divide of being outside society, outside an ever changing language. The Walloon section is reactionary, irascible, a feeling of a lingering violence that hides behind the translation. This is a far cry from Sheppard’s Berlin Bursts (Shearsman Books) and that is the beauty of this poet’s career to date. Sheppard is difficult to pigeon hole, he is drawn to the tragic, the comic and the form. Sheppard is a poet who for many years has lingered in the divides of the poetry world and all strength to him for doing so. His work is all at once breathless, anarchic, deliberate and pushing the boundaries of the text-poet relationship. This is borne out by the idea of the text-translator relationship, as we move into the Flemish Poems one translator is replaced by another, Martin Krol, and there is a sense in this section of more measured Valckenborch, a more stately voice, controlled, as in ‘Four Sides’:

 

that perfect circle with no centre.

Shield. Coin. Pay tribute

to it demands

that flex like a triangle

trying to add up to 366 degrees,

until it breaks, incommensurable.

 

It echoes such poets such as Yeats in ‘The Second Coming’, it is poetry comfortable within a classical canon rather than poetry in a classical canon that seeks to rebel, as in the Walloon Poems. This means as we read the Flemish Poems, we question Krol’s translation, his relationship with the text and then start, line by line, to question the idea of the poet when the text is translated in such a way to detract from the original truth. Maybe though, by his Flemish years, Rene Van Valckenborch has become more of a reflective, documentary style poet, as in ‘in this room’: ‘In this room the floor is white. There’s nothing more to be said of it, huge / tile, levelled grave. The ceiling is black. Stretching starless. Chess squares / with no pieces, no moves’. Yet, one cannot help feel that in this tragic imagery that Sheppard has his tongue firmly in cheek, finding the comedy of the documentary and language poets, finding the amusement in the minutiae. That is why Rene is such a great character for Sheppard, it allows him to explore form, freed of the temptation to bring back the poet-text relationship. Sheppard is not Valckenborch, and therefore his creation has more of a freedom to run amuck though tedium, through linguistics, form and algorithms.
 
Something he does with aplomb in ‘In the Complex’, a poem that goes the whole hog when it comes to the idea of the reader-text relationship, here is a poem built up of six lines: a-f and six sections plus coda, here the reader journeys through a multitude of algorithms to construct their own verse: ‘d. If he were to wear the sugared lilac uniform he might become invisible, / staring all day at the hammer striking the anvil, the sharp chips of its / blows’. This poem though holds a clue to the fact that Sheppard is still bubbling under the surface of Rene, the idea of musicality that often pervades Sheppard’s earlier work, the deconstructed world of jazz. Like jazz, Sheppard is deconstructing those divided spaces in Rene’s world and life, looking for the simple sound in a chaotic life. In the end, Sheppard is the deconstructed poet, the poet as mechanic.
 
Andrew Oldham is a British poet.
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