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’:
ahead when magma
was just a girl hurled along masculine
vertebrae to spill her tresses hotly orange
or part in pleasure here &
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 It would take a lot for Petrucci to argue that society has transformed so far to see the art we have as being out of date and out of touch to require a Neo-Modernism.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.
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.’
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’)
by Robert Sheppard
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
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:
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.