Sometimes Having to Stand Naked


Leap, Claire Bateman
[57pp, $14, Western Michigan University]


It's no big secret - prose poetry is a hybrid and, therefore, partially in cognito form. Exploiting all the accessibility of prose narrative and lucent description, combined with the 'enchanting, deepening' effects of prosody, the prose poem is without question on to a winner: with the prose poem, you can have your prosaic cake and metaphorically eat it.

With its capacity for capturing other forms within its own fluid parameters - letters, diary extracts, recipes, text messages, e-mails, overheard conversations, instruction manuals, political speeches, historical tracts etc., - the prose poem can't help but appear 'inventive' and 'playful'. Its very hybridity foregrounds this feature. And, with its emphasis on the non-narrative, it can happily set up a story, only to cut it short via the use of ellipsis, setting the reader off at altogether new and surprising tangents, ready to explore discontinuities, red-herrings, dead-ends and hypertextual gardens of forking paths, all at the drop of a hat. Rhetorical flourishes may abound; repetitions with variations are de rigeur
; the LIST is, perhaps, one of the prose poem's defining features.

Added to all of this, the prose poem admits multiple discourses - prose poems include some/all/none of the above and blend them with the redemptive languages of spirituality and religion; the secular languages of science; the hermeneutic languages of literary discourse; the quotidian discourse of the streets; the psychoanalytic languages of dream, nightmare, the subconscious, and darkly charged erotic desires, and much more. In short, anything pretty much goes.

Claire Bateman can do all of the above in her prose poems - with knobs on.  She's a proficient and, sometimes, wonderful exponent of the form. This is without doubt an inventive book. But crikey! if I have to read one more book with a LIST in every single poem, on every single page, in virtually every single paragraph, I'll... I'll... I'll dedicate the rest of my reading and writing time to haiku! Please don't mistake me - there are parts of this book which are absolutely delightful; but it is, overall, monotonous and, above all, a triumph of style over content. For all their urbanity, playfulness and great humour I was, by the end, just itching for a poem that didn't approach me dressed up in the oh-so-ironic and challenging costume of a philosopher disguised as a clown. To be frank, these are the sort of inventions that answer the creative writing tutor's perpetual questions:
'...yes, and what IS
the most unusual and inventive way into this subject matter; why not choose an interesting point of view; or a device: begin every stanza with the same 3 rhetorical words; use a different part of the body as a focus for each stanza; make a list of X, Y or Z; write about your childhood dolls' house from the point of view of the dolls; make another list; extemporize on jewelley clasps, buttons and other items of haberdashery, one per stanza; turn the poem into a set of instructions; or a recipe; or customer information leaflets; how about using a telephone conversation, or those irritation direct marketing phone calls we all get at night whilst trying to relax with our families and friends after a hard day's work in the office; try telling your story by focusing on what's not said, rather than what is; give us multiple external points of view onto your main character, even from characters who aren't in the story; why not examine the concept of 'gold' from the angles of jewellery, sweet wrappers, childbirth, vegetables, heirlooms, photography; or why not write some more lists?' And then some.
You can, doubtless, pick up on my irritations. About which I now feel guilty, because I do like some of these pieces; particularly when the writer drops all her self-conscious dressing up and just gets on with the business of dealing with some subject matter, for example:

     And the tree that falls in a forest where no one hears -
     does it not leave a singular stain
     of suffering & birdsong?

or the little scene in  the dolls' house between,
           
     the little man with his spreading sideburns, his widow's peak & his
      historical sense of injury, & the little woman with her diamond
     teardrop      earrings & secret Swedenborgian leanings.'

How interesting to read in 'Clasps' a direct domestic/political analogy in the accusations against these necessary items,
           
     Don't trust them: like heretics or fifth columnists, they could, at any
     moment, turn.'

I was genuinely gripped by the long piece 'The Pale Dress' in which a pale dress 'left for dead in an alley' is taken in by a sisterhood of nuns, only to have their whole universe overturned by the influence of this pernicious vestment, whose absence (after being walled up in a cubicle of the nunnery like an anchorite herself!) plagues them and drives them to forlorn wanderings on the highways and byways of existence. This was a brilliant piece of micro-fiction. As brilliant were the somnolent explorations of chronically inattentive fathers in the verse poem 'Climatology'. For me, Bateman is at her best here, or with the other small philosophic observations such as,

     Babyhood
... That state of simultaneous humiliation & decadence from
     which full recovery is not possible.'

or

     I suspect it's not falling that people fear, it's rising into a blue that
     breaks open without mercy & without anesthesia.'

The final verse poem 'To a Sky' continues and develops these existential wonderings quite sublimely,


     You couldn't yet distinguish
     [...] between the voice crying in the wilderness
     & the wilderness wandering inside the voice.

But Bateman is at her worst when she relies on the poor pun of a character mistaking someone's 'psychic' for their 'sidekick'; or with her incurable desire to turn most sentences, and then everything else, into a list. When a writer can really deliver the moving, the profound, and the witty with a fresh ear and eye, it is a pity that they rely so heavily on the effects of style and device rather than letting the quality of their writing carry the weight for them. Not everything needs dressing up to make it appear in its best light. As Dylan famously sang, 'Even the President of the United States sometimes has to stand naked.'

            Andy Brown 2005