Guest Review: Smith On Pugh and Williamson

Barbara Smith reviews
Relinquish by Meryl Pugh
Prussia Cove by Patrick Williamson

What is poetry? If you are involved in the business of poetry you will be asked time and again to define it. Lately, the best effort at defining poetry I have seen is in The Enthusiast Field Guide to Poetry: "an arrangement of words containing possibilities." That definition is loose enough to permit that each of us has a bearing in the perception of poetry’s capacities, but tight enough to allow that poetry is qualities of language in a special amalgam that separates it from its cousin, prose.

With that quotation as guidance, I look for possibilities in poetry that aren’t static like pinned butterflies in a Victorian lepidopterist’s cabinet tray. Poems should point towards something that the reader equally works towards gleaning, as well as demonstrating the sureness of craft. Two poetry pamphlets received recently, I think, demonstrate two poets approaching that point in their careers: Relinquish, by Meryl Pugh and Prussia Cove, by Patrick Williamson.

Relinquish shows a sheer delight in words and their possibilities in as many arrangements as you could possibly think of. Pugh really enjoys playing with sound as much as with form. Many of the poems are crying out to be heard aloud, such as this extract from "The Vault": "Vault: volver – volutum – to roll / A cavern. A chamber of interment. / A covered drain or sewer. The inside / of a steel furnace. But also: a gymnast’s leap, / to turn."

What music there is in the soft ‘v’ sounds morphing into the harsher consonants. Not only does Pugh play with sounds inherited and inveigled from other languages, but also breaks the lines just so to anticipate the crescendo to each and every ‘turn,’ in lines that fold in and out like the folds in a blanket waiting to be shook out.

Pugh’s sense of humour combines well with a "distancing trick" in the "Alien" sequence of poems, reflecting a calm objective study of Other as well as exploring how we can renew the point of view of the poem. In Craig Raine’s Martian day it was a new thing to make the ordinary extraordinary by carefully choosing language to renew the act of seeing and recording. Pugh slants this idea giving it fresh impetus: the ‘strange’ behaviour of the subject that has become normalised for the onlooker becomes refreshed for the observer and the reader, making it newly strange again.

In "How Do I Know She’s an Alien" one of the answers to the title’s question is simply: "Because she observes me with the curiosity / I reserve for centipedes."

This has the effect of making our skin crawl in anticipation of what is to come. The horror factor that can be eked out of something as banal as wearing false nails becomes a brand new observance of ourselves in "The Alien’s Fingernails": "When they fall off, they make a sound / like the pods of peas opening // and her real nails/ are crusty and unearthed."

For me this harks back to the B-movies of science fiction, with people who are invested with that tension-inducing aspect of alien domination (usually just about the climax of the movie). Fear drives the narrative of this sequence on further, when "The Alien Takes a Walk" and the fear is realised: "I heard her call and something answer, saw / the investigating tongues of shrews, // the eager snouts of voles reach out. / They heard the whine, pulled back their heads. Too late. // The next time I looked, she’d made a clearing. / Burnt rodents like small logs. The water boiling."

There’s something of the Baba Yaga mythology of the cauldron and the witch entwined within this poem, underscored by subtle slant rhymes. Closure comes in the last of the sequence, "Getting Free of the Alien," where we realise what has seemed a sequence about being distant from something in order to observe it, was in fact very strong emotional reining or paring back in order to best present a very difficult subject: "... No more singed hair or speaking calmly / or lowering my voice or staying silent. // No more freezing my arse off, nights, / straining to see what she swore was up there, / invisible to radar."

This poem is the key to the others in the sequence and will prompt a re-read, which of course is the best praise poems can ever draw.

Prussia Cove by Patrick Williamson works more on the impression that place leaves with us: when the sea seeps into every part of existence informing his work. It is difficult to write poetry of place that will still resonate with the reader unfamiliar with the places invoked. That is why the possibilities of words here must work much harder to draw in the reader. Williamson does this by allowing the sea to combine human and elemental characteristics, finely observed as in the title poem of the pamphlet, "Prussia Cove": "The preventatives will never catch us coves / stumbling up our wagon rutted rock / as the moonstone plucks at waves / washing our feet with each turn of the tide."

This poem gives us not only sense of place in the trick of "cove" - but tips a sly wink at Cornish characters that might have lured ships to the rocks in bygone days, without losing the subtle strain. Williamson uses this sea-sound nuance again in "Safe Passage" where he blends sea rhythms and body rhythms together: "...the metronome beating / as the boats rock in counter yaw – curves / carried like your heart pulses under skin..."

The series of dashes on every second line add a stop-start breathless quality underscoring that meaning that you’re getting to, but not quite, without allowing the poem to become trite and allowing the reveal to come quietly in the last line.

"Maestro" is Williamson turning the spot-lamp on someone who seems to be part boatman, part musician, part magician, part shaman, by weaving a gypsy, Celtic wildness into the poem: "Swoop, then pounce like a hawk, / pluck each inner eye, stoke the fire / unsplint limbs so the energy lines flow – / and music slides into cracks of molten lava, / settling pliant vessels ablaze, only then // will waves plunge onto the rocks..."

The poem is almost unreadable as to who this person might be: with so many suggested personas all whirled together in the mix, it comes across as language driven almost to the point of desertion of sense. Yet the more you re-read, the more sense it appears to make, catching us at that point in a storm – of words, sea, music, medicine – you must decide which sense to trust.

Relinquish and Prussia Cove both reveal dexterity with language that disguises how hard both poets have laboured to gain this potential. Although the work of both poets strains in different directions, quite startling ones at times, I find that the poetry seems to elude and yet simultaneously respond to the possibilities of the words within their work: a fine-tuned high wire balancing act indeed. My own preferences would lean towards Pugh’s poetry, but I am glad to have acquainted myself with Williamson’s work, too.

Barbara Smith was born in Dublin in 1967. Her first full collection, Kairos, was recently published.


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