Stride Magazine -


Me and poetry haven’t been hitting it off for a while… Apart from the new John Burnside [The Light Trap, £8.00, Jonathan Cape] there’s been little to engage with in the Stride/Orbis review box; and the local bookshops’ poetry shelves continue to shrink and I’m sure will soon disappear completely. Even the Charing Cross Road bookshops, the London ‘flagships’ of the major bookshop chains, have little to offer. So, apart from the odd secondhand delight from Peter Riley’s splendid sales list, I’ve been sticking to fiction. [Tim Winton, Huraki Murakami and Jonathan Coe, since you ask.] But it was beginning to feel like make-or-break time: was I going to find new poetry, was in fact there new poetry out there to find, or should I just call it a day and forget about the wretched stuff?

 An hour later, had my money and I had gambled – relying on a mix of strangers’ recommendations, review quotes, sample pages and minute reproductions of book jackets – on a number of poets mostly unheard of to me. And you know, having now read them, I didn’t do badly.

 What’s interesting to me is how the younger American poets [or some of them, anyway] are able to produce a hybrid of Language [& other postmodern] poetries and the kinds of domestic narratives that swamp the market here. The way they write, however, isn’t the focus of the work – they don’t wear their ‘avant-garde-ness’ or ‘experimental processes’ on their sleeves, they simple get on with using it, producing witty, accomplished poetry that has taken many things on board, in a way that is rare to those accustomed to the unambitious [if sometimes accomplished and well-written] poetry offered to us by the major UK lists.

 Larissa Szporluk apparently has a new book out, which I have every intention of buying soon. In the meantime, her Dark Sky Question [Beacon Press, Boston] is simply astonishing. Small, complex poems startle with their unexpected vocabulary and heartfelt sensuality. These poems move strangely along, making synaptic and syntactical jumps; new ideas and images come at you page after page, impossibilities made possible, language and feeling laid bare for the reader to understand and process.

 Dean Young’s Skid [University of Pittsburgh Press] and Joshua Clover’s madonna anno domini [Louisiana State University Press] seem to me to share their way of working and the resulting poems of dislocation and surprise. Based on juxtaposition and collage, with a hint of John Ashbery’s sly humour, these poems ask more questions than they answer and always end up somewhere other than expected. Clover is more obviously quirky, perhaps, with titles like ‘Romeoville & Joliet’ and poems such as ‘Zealous’ clearly showing their construction [an A-Z acrostic]. Young is slicker and stranger, more surreal, the poems slither all over the place, appropriating, juxtaposing and simply abandoning, yet also building upon, ideas gone before. Skid is also one of the nicest designed books I’ve seen for a while.

 Maurice Manning’s Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions [Yale University Press, New Haven] is more troubling. Well, it isn’t troubling, it’s brilliant, a fragmented saga of a child growing up in the South – we’re talking Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner territory here – narrated by not only the boy himself, but his black friend with learning difficulties, the narrator and other characters. Imaginary and real friends, events, toys and stories, all manner of dialects and voices, combine to present a technicolour widescreen version of Lawrence Booth and where and how he lives. Troubling? Well, I can’t see much ‘poetry’ in the book, I simply read it as broken prose, it’s the story that intrigues. Well, the language, too, but there’s no music or shape for me that makes it a poem; it’s not really even prose-poetry. That aside, I still rate and recommend the book.

  Jane Mead, judging by her books The Lord and the General Din of the World [Sarabande Books, Louisville] and House of Poured-Out Water [University of Illinois Press, Urbana] is a more traditional poet, seemingly writing [sometimes auto-] biographical narratives, particularly in the earlier The Lord… where her father’s and her own drug/drink problems and their violent relationship is a backbone visible throughout the entire book. For my taste there is too much declaration and assertion in this earlier volume, the reader gets told and shouted at far too much, something that has been put to rights in House of Poured-Out Water. Here, the poems are less verbose, quieter and more thoughtful, often gathered in sequences that hover and buzz around a central theme. The language is more compact, fresher and more original, although there is in the end perhaps still too much pondering and thinking aloud, too much focus on declamation and ‘saying something important’ rather than on letting the language move the poem [and reader] along. But I like her quirky take on things – ‘That music in the background, trying to be / of use …’ – and her gentle clear lyricism when she gets it right.

 I struggle with Sam Witt’s Everlasting Quail [Middlebury College Press, University Press of New England, Hanover] because it looks and feels so horrid: it has a slimy gloss laminate cover, and the typeface, particularly the italic, is too ornate and difficult to read. The poetry echoes this in some ways: I can’t get a grip on it, and it seems to be trying too hard to be experimental and profound, where mostly it reads as drawn-out comment, observation and new-age [non-]profundity. Disappointing, as is Matthea Harvey’s Pity the Bathtub its Forced Embrace of the Human Form [Alice James Books, University of Maine, Farmington], despite it’s great title and high praise from Dean Young, August Kleinzahler and Jorie Graham. These poems sit wide on the page: long, long sentences moving left to right and down, along, towards their small conclusions through the mechanisms of thought and action. They lack the vocabulary, the words, to make this kind of thing work as, say, C.K. Williams does [or Robert Creeley in a much-abbreviated version of transcribed thought]; there’s simply nothing here for me to get a grip on, no way in to these convoluted and self-obsessed poems.

 And finally, two bigger names. Jorie Graham’s Never [ecco, New York] continues the poet’s journey in to fragmentation, long poems & sequences of poems, and religiosity. I like the accumulative power of her short poetic sections, the internal dialogue of these poems, although at times she, like Matthea Harvey, is also prone to poems so tightly bound up the reader cannot enter. The ‘prayers’ throughout the book are a highlight for me, moving lyrics as concerned with doubt, despair and absence as deity. I don’t like this volume as much as Swarm, her previous book, and I miss the scientific metaphors and concepts she used in earlier works, but it’s intelligent, intriguing stuff.

 Charles Wright’s A Short History of the Shadow [Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, New York] shows how literary and artistic allusions, thought processes, and conversational tones can inform, indeed be the very substance of, good poetry. This is sprightly, entertaining and moving work that references many authors, painters and philosophers, yet never wears ‘learning’ or ‘knowledge’ like a badge. This is simply the world Wright inhabits, as real as the landscape around him, the light and shadow, the stars and sun, and the possibilities of belief which concern him. These tightly-sprung poems, full of hard-worked and hard-won lines that stretch to fill the page, ponder the known and unknown, look forward and back in time, see anew the human condition. For me, Wright is one of the best poets writing today; this, one of his finest volumes to date.



          © Rupert Loydell