Guest Review: Pugh On Stammers

There are things to like about this collection, but also things I find irritating because you can see how it could have been a lot better than it is. When he wants to, Stammers can use words effectively and memorably, as at the end of "Ondine"

                                         It might be possible for me to be fine
if I could live the way I hear the music when I'm not listening.

Once, when it didn't matter, I knew joy. It passed soon enough.

He does it too throughout "Rimbaud's Rooks" and through most of "The Encounter of M".  Yet alongside this facility with words goes what looks like an intermittent carelessness with them, as if he can't keep his mind constantly focused on what he is doing. From time to time, there is an unsayably clumsy phrase, like

Pathé News is all the rage in an era
with more than enough rage for it to be the all of.

In "The Woman", within the space of a few lines we have both the delicate, inventive wordplay of

                        Any experience is infected
with the germ of its own desire. I mean demise.

and the jarringly convoluted syntax of

I am in a guest-room I have lost the memory
of why I am occupying.

This is the kind of thing that tends to throw you momentarily out of the poem. So do obvious typos like the one in the first poem, "Funeral". This didn't do much for me, but that might be partly because of the line "Wreathes sadden in a damp mode". How in hell did that second "e" not only get into "wreaths" but stay there, given that more than one person presumably read the proofs? By the same token, why, in "The Shrine of Proteus", are "the boys so obviously wrapt" when it's clear from the context that they should be "rapt"?

It's more disconcerting still when one is thrown not just out of the poem but out of the voice it is in. Many of the personae who speak these poems have a slightly mannered, formal, precise voice which Stammers does rather well (certainly more convincingly than he does streetwise in poems like "Afternoon Tuesday"), but every so often there is a word or phrase that jars. "The Encounter of M" is perhaps my favourite poem in the book, a dialogue between two people who may or may not exist, and may or may not have met, a beguiling meditation on the nature of reality and memory.  Its language, mirroring the formality of its setting, full of endlessly repeating, shifting refrains, generates an inchoate yet powerful sense of nostalgia:

                         How charming
the ornamental flower garden is
with these geometric topiaries
that seem to throw no shadow. I see that you and I
cast long dark shadows.

Yet in the middle of this comes the jolting phrase "We suppered/on quails' eggs". Not only is this novel coinage "suppered" considerably uglier than the more usual "supped", it's just wrong for the voice. Whoever these elusive people may be, they are certainly people who would speak of supping, not suppering. Something similar happens in the first line of "In a Time of Great Moment", where a voice which is otherwise rather literary and certainly grammatical

I have expected a lethal occurrence since early adulthood

unaccountably and unrealistically commits one of the oldest howlers in the book, the confusion of "lay" and "lie" in the present tense:

                                 I lay back and assess
the glowing red numerals

It's infuriating when this sort of thing blemishes an otherwise successful poem; it may be just one word, but the whole point of a poem is that every word matters.

There's also, I think, a degree of repetition, not the beneficial kind that echoes through "The Encounter of M" adding layers of meaning each time, but the kind that consists of doing the same thing twice.  "The University" strikes me as an attempt to repeat the haunting, elusive uncertainty of "The Encounter of M" via the same syntactical techniques, but as so often happens, it doesn't work quite as well the second time; it feels more like an exercise. And I suspect "unconscionably" is one of those words you can get away with once in a collection but not twice; at all events, it called undue attention to itself when it cropped up for the second time in half a dozen pages.

There are some memorable poems here: "The Encounter of M", "The Shrine of Proteus", "Out of my Depth", the Rimbaud poems. There are also some, mainly the short ones, that look too easy:  "Dead Alsatian in a Vegetable Crate" goes downhill from the resolutely quirky title to the predictable end which looks like its reason for existing:

                                          he has just gone through
his entire box of tricks: sit, roll over, play dead.

And "Haut Ordure" is an unexpectedly judgemental attack on an easy target. I'm no great fan of catwalk models, but I'm not sure what inside knowledge entitles him to assert with such assurance "they bang for advancement, bitch without quarter". The second, at least, might as accurately be said of literary folk. "The House Sale", pinpointing the divided feelings that attend on selling one's home, is one of the few short poems that succeeded for me. By and large he seems more at home with a larger canvas. And he can achieve some fine effects; I just have the feeling that he'd do better yet if he took a bit more trouble.

Sheenagh Pugh is a well-known British poet and novelist, who has a widely-read blog.  She has contributed several reviews to Eyewear.