The Porcupine's Kiss by Stephen Dobyns
illustrated by Howie Michels.
[Bloodaxe Books, £8.95]

Dobyn's plumpish book is a very easy bedtime read. It is full of amusing aphorisms and some darts which hit certainly hit me where it hurts – the blaming one's failure on the success of others mood is a case in point. Full of pith, really. When I leaf through it now I find it enjoyably downbeat, Dobyns finding the sourness in each drop of nectar, and exercising his fundamental human right to respond to every kindness with ingratitude. That is all very admirable. The trouble is, though, that when I put it down I found little of it sticking in my mind – even to irritate me.

Dobyn's language is perfectly simple, of the type sometimes called muscular. It's prose, please let it be prose, not 'prose poem'’, Bloodaxe or no. it's foolish and pointless to care, I know, but if it stands apart from prose, then it's only by a Rizla. Perhaps, then,  invention and interest are to be found in the ideas (rather than the language), which are able to unfold a little in the prose poems as they are not in the section of very short pieces called definitions
. There are micro-stories, remnants of stories, seeds of stories, and indeed there are ideas. However I get the feeling that ideas are stretched, that the mini-texts could still have been cut without losing anything essential. His topics are revisited without being greatly developed, things tuck back in on themselves with a formal neatness

The prose poems themselves – each about  a page – are written for a purpose I can't discern & perhaps have qualities I can't imagine. They seem to point morals from keenly observed vignettes. Only, with that pat formality again, they're too neat to be really real. In which case, can they really be keenly observed?  Ratherperhaps they are again externalised mental tableaux – exisitng to prove a point or point a proof. They often seem portentous, weighty, and yet one cannot imagine any of these scenes staying in existence once one closes the page.

Further, one quickly gets the idea of double-bluff insights, so surprises become fewer.The definitions
section reveals  a particularly endearing distaste for academicians – Carapace – academic tenure (p115 )

and several others to similar effect. Add to that the many bitter reflections on fame and success and their opposites which arrive in a quick-fire stream more raw-boned and engaged than the prose poems – and you find plenty to amuse:

     Small talent; big smile. (p14)

mixed with the vacuous biblically profound:

     Each destination is Death's lieutenant. (p16)

     When I give nothing away, I can call nothing mine. (p92)

As for:

     You are the song you are learning to sing. (p 26)

that doesn't get us much further forward than 'you are a child of the universe'. Is it about language, therapy or reflexiveness? Or  is it a notebook jotting which woke up and found itself published? There's too much here and some of it should have been discarded.

The linocut style illustrations by Howie Michels are agreeable enough of their sort, apart from his women who frighten me, but his line drawings are doodles – no doubt intentionally unfluid. Not to my taste, but admittedly taken together they do add to the book's flavour. And it can be good:

     Dependable – still lends you money (p119)

Overall then: could do shorter. Ah yes, the back cover mentions deep psychological insight. Risky having one's own shallows sounded, but maybe just maybe – as the lady said – reflections in a mud puddle.

         © Robert Joyce 2004