How to be a Dragonfly, Patricia Debney
[£7.95, Smith/Doorstop]


I went to a friend's house for dinner last week and - as I brought the first glass of sherry to my lips - he announced to the room, 'Before we begin, I would like to inform you all that I am emerging from a venerated tradition of Californian and Parisian cuisine which promises to reintroduce a new age of English gastronomy. Marie-Antoine Careme, Paul Bocuse, James Beard and now me: Steve.'

As it turned out, the main course was steak frites
with garlic butter - which, while perfectly substantial, was hardly the culinary revolution we had been promised. I mention this for very good reason.


Coming of age in the writings of decadent Europe, prose-poetry re-discovered its voice through modernist American literature. Many leading writers have championed prose poetry - Baudelaire, Stein, Kafka, Calvino, Holub, Atwood [No doubt Socrates, Blake and Jesus dabbled in it also] - and now, emerging from these traditions, Patricia Debney adds her own resonant voice, re-introducing this contemporary yet undervalued genre to the British literary scene.


Let me declare two things: 1. Writers don't often get much of a say in the blurb that goes on the back of their books. Overriding an editor's decision can involve throwing an enormous tantrum the like of which I imagine Debney is too mature and self-controlled to have thought appropriate. However, can we not agree that this is one of those situations where a bit of foot-stamping wouldn't have gone amiss? Is it not monumentally embarrassing? Like a well-meaning avuncular compere introducing you as the funniest thing on legs before you take to the stage with a vaguely amusing anecdote. Blurbs usually raise hopes a little higher than they might - but they don't have to load your reputation into the canon and shoot it up to the heavens. That's just waving a red flag in front of your critic. Moooooooo! [treads sand with hoof.]


2. I have a book of prose poems coming out later this month. Seeing as I am another small fish in a big pond, the reader may assume that I am lashing out at Debney's production values in order to make a case for myself
as 're-introducing this contemporary yet undervalued genre to the [cloth-eared] British literary scene.' In other words, I'm just jealous.

Which would be all very well if one swallows the stagnant assumption that the form needed
reintroduction. Even if you're silly enough to have avoided the prose work of Brits like Peter Redgrove, Lee Harwood and Geoffrey Hill, hands up who's never heard of Baudelaire? Italo Calvino? Kafka? Dude, their translations have never been out of print! You can buy them in Tescos! And the American Modernists? Hell, they even wrote in English! All I'm saying is: one doesn't sit down to write drawing only on one's countrymen. Perish the thought, in fact. And if you check the author biog, you'll find that Debney, although she took an MA at the University of East Anglia, is from Texas. So, should we apply the same logic, she's actually reintroducing this 'contemporary yet undervalued genre' to Texas. (Indeed, the careful reader will notice references to baseball within the text).

Personally, I would question the very notion that taking to your swivel chair one morning after a few cups of very good filter coffee and deciding, 'Hey, you know what? I'm gonna write a poem in the form of a paragraph!' is in any way brave
or radical (unless you happen to be getting shelled by soldiers who've only read Kipling's 'If...' at the time; but the conservative literary tastes of the military is another matter altogether). It certainly wasn't for me. But then I haven't had any bitchy reviews yet, so I guess I'll find out. People who live in grass houses shouldn't throw spears.

Let us be generous and take the most contemporary in the litany of genius as a point of reference. Margaret Atwood has written some fabulous prose poems, some of them  appearing in anthologies of flash-fiction (which, if you follow David Lehman's argument, is a lame, pejorative name for prose poetry). The piece which comes to my mind right now is called 'Bread' and is very fine indeed, hallucinatory in its visual resonance, haunting in its political intent. Point is: after a lauded, illustrious career in the fields of fiction and poetry, she doesn't look out of place on the list. Debney's petit poŹms en prose
gain little in Atwood's shadow - and are better compared to anything one might find in the Bloodaxe Being Alive anthology. Sweet, comforting, wry little confirmations that we are all special and wonderful, but without really saying how or why or why that's a good thing. I suspect that's our target audience: reintroducing the form to those who don't really read or especially like poetry anyway. Fair play. The title poem advises us on exactly how we might be dragonflies:

Never tuck in your wings. They grow out from your shoulders like two fingers, like hands. Learn to use them.

 

Let them, for instance, direct you in love: in the garden, under the apple tree in dappled shade; or above long brown grass, fast up the side of a hill. Or once, over a rocky valley, higher than you've ever been.

 

This is not especially bad writing. Dappled shade is pleasant, long brown grass is swishy, if not a little ugly, and everyone likes apples and love, right? But where is the resonance? Where does the idea - that we are all capable of being dragonflies - actually go? I am reminded of Grace Nichols's 'Don't be a Caterpillar, Be a Butterfly' - which takes a similar theme and puts it in the mouth of a charismatic preacher, the poem's point of view being that of the poet as a young girl. This adds a whole layer of contradiction, subtlety and, ultimately, pathos to the message. It makes it human - rather than something you'd find engraved on the side of a bong.

Elsewhere we find another trope: the under-researched barb against erudition. Cute philosophical insolence is the tone here - and Debney's 'Occam's Razor' is perhaps the best example I've ever come across:

Is this to suggest shaving off the edge of something, the fine hairs we don't register, the nape of the neck? Or how a blade is good for separating one thing from another carefully, into lines of soil, salt or sand?

 

Or is it all about not nicking the skin? After all: what you don't know can't hurt you, and if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Is it about not letting anything else in?


No. It's not. Look it up.

'Two Bugs' is likewise prosaic. When an ant bites you, 'The skin there is hardly pink, but the burn spreads like pins and needles, only worse.' Sigh. Pins and needles is a little cliché in the 'heightened', 'special', 'resonant' form of prose poetry, but it's the '...only worse' that places the sentence firmly in the Realm of the Boring. Don't get me wrong; How to be a Dragonfly
contains some great images - the crane's 'single wire leading down, like a beak dipping into water.'; the children who 'run out like pondskaters across the grass' - but apart from the occasional shaft of light, it's like making polite conversation with a wistful stranger on a bus. Here's the menu:


1. 'The roses were your pride and joy, the only flowers the neighbours noticed.' (from ‘Japanese Beetle’)


2. 'Later I retire to the sofa and television. There’s a German soap opera on, trying to teach me the language.' (from ‘Learning German’)


3. 'But of course, you are a delicate flower, no staid daffodil or trenchant dandelion.' (from ‘Welsh Poppy’)


4. 'It’s common knowledge you’re a chip off the old block... So it’s only a matter of time...' (from ‘Titan’)


5. 'We need to know you’re for real, not just some illusion, but bona fide one of a kind. After all, almost everything is made up of components...' (from ‘Prime Number 42’)


6. 'Easy to know we’re changed. It razes, leaves us standing, facing the other direction: what we thought was north is south, and the other way around.' (from ‘The Place Where Fire has Been.’)


7. 'We walk, hoping for a glimpse, a patch, of perfection.' (from ‘Bluebell Wood’)

 

The fourth section of the book comprises observations of various flowers, mostly very pretty and whimsical and all-very-well-if-you-like-that-sort-of-thing, until the sudden, excellent conclusion to 'Wisteria':

 

     I'll let it happen, let you run riot over the wall. Then I'll cut you back, hard.


For me, that constituted the first surprise of the collection - three pages before the end. That's what a prose poem should do - kick you up the arse a bit. Debney achieves this when she quits trying to dazzle us with profundity (through, frankly, hackneyed truisms) and writes in concrete detail. Check out 'August':

Here, the pots need water, dead flowers beheading, stiffened sheets unpegging. And the plums all down the driveway writhe with flies and wasps, their frantic buzzing reaching you like music swelling. The sun bakes, turns everything to dust.


That's great. That's fine. That's enough in itself. If a writer is to attempt anything more than that in a prose poem, they will need reserves of irony and self-awareness deeper than those exhibited here. Otherwise, for provocative moral guidance, profound analogies and parabolic subtlety, the interested reader might do well to stick to the Bible.

            © Luke Kennard 2005