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.
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
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
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:
tuck in your wings. They grow out from your shoulders like two fingers, like
hands. Learn to use them.
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:
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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