Recent reading, October 2005

Holly Iglesias' Boxing Inside the Box: Women's Prose Poetry [$16, Quale Press] is one of those books so written that it is almost impossible to criticise. Iglesias' contention is that prose poetry is dominated by male writers, who have made the genre formulaic and phallocentric, leaving no space for inventive women writers to write how they would like to about what they want to. How Iglesias wants to write is in a mishmash [collage would be too kind a word] of brief fragments, quotes and asides which she appears to think somehow make an argument. It doesn't, it's a sprawling, messy, slight volume; it's argument deserves better than this unshaped conglomeration which relies on secondhand thinking to not make it's point. [Of course, as a male, wanting things in my neat boxes, I don't know nuffink...]

The one thing I do agree with is Iglesias' critique of the Russell Edson type of prose poetry: gnomic squibs of cod-surrealism. There's a fair bit of that in
Models of the Universe: an anthology of the prose poem [$25, Oberlin College Press], but I have to say that even so it's the best anthology of the prose poem I've yet come across. Kicking off with Aloysius Bertrand, Ivan Turgenev, Baudelaire and Mallarmé, the book wends its way across the last two centuries to today, via a fantastic and often original mix of authors. There are lots of names I don't know at all, and others I do – such as Patchen – who all too often get missed out from prose poem lists. With lots of space and lots of work included Models of the Universe is a delight and a great scholarly reference point.

Models... has been out a while, as have some of the other Oberlin titles by Vasko Popa, Yannis Ritsos and Novica Tadic I've bought; more recent is a fantastic Selected Poems by Eugenio Montale [$19.95] which gathers up translations by Jonathan Galassi, Charles Wright and David Young. I like Montale's work a lot, but it hasn't always been served well in translation – especially in some of the clunking academic editions I've picked up in the past [although nothing comes close to the hideous awfulness of Jeremy Reed's 'versions' which Bloodaxe put out a long time ago]. Here Montale's work still reads as poetry, yet is in a natural English/American which renders it both highly readable and memorable.

As is Michael Palmer's new book, Company of Moths [$16.95, New Directions]. Palmer has always been both readable and experimental, but here his work has slid towards an intriguing awkward lyricism with a superb lightness of touch. There's an edgy soft surrealism in the way he sees things, the characters he creates, such as the character in 'Untitled (July 2000)':

     The painter with no memory
     paints the very thing

     before him, this corner and its web,
     this clock with its hands

     frozen at five, neither day nor night.

whose paintings turn out to be 'each one the same'.

Elsewhere birds and stars and trees and memories populate these gentle, accomplished and musical poems. Palmer is at the peak of his powers here.

I was hoping I could say the same about Carol Ann Duffy's new book
Rapture which has also been hailed by some critics as a mature masterpiece. After the jokey slightness of The World's Wife I have been waiting for something that builds on the superb first three volumes of her work; Rapture isn't it. In fact I find the book so awkward with it's self-confessional angst and clunky with archaisms and dripping emotion that I can't believe someone - a friend? her editor? - didn't take her aside and say 'Look, we know you're upset, and that poetry can be great therapy, but these poems are awful. Put them in the drawer and get on with something else.' There are occasional glimmers of good writing in here – 'Grief' is a wonderful poem which starts with 'Grief, your gift, unwrapped, / my empty hands made heavy...' and goes on to reveal grief as 'love's spinster twin' – but in the main this is whining, self-indulgent confessional poetry in search of metaphor and epiphany. I really hope this poet can get back on track soon.

Rapture made me cross and disappointed, I simply don't know what to do with the likes of anthologies such as 101 Poems about Childhood which Michael Donaghy has edited for Faber [£12.99]. It's got some great poems in, it covers all the bases, as the blurb says, 'from nostalgia to expressions of love for children, from the celebration of birth to the mourning of childhood death – childhood's psychology, its pleasures and terrors, and the loss of innocence', but apart from putting it on the toilet bookshelf to be dipped into every now and then, I can't imagine who or what it's for. It's a gift book, a poetry book for people who don't like poetry or normally read it. A marketing exercise so that a big press can prove to itself that poetry still sells.

Ann Lauterbach is also with a big press, Penguin USA in fact, and Hum deserves to sell in its thousands, with the full weight of the publicity department behind it. It won't of course, but I can wish. Like Palmer, Lauterbach has moved from outright experimentation with all its awkwardness, difficulty and distancing toward a more lyrical, but just as intriguing and 'new', poetry, full of rich, dense language and exquisite, exciting metaphors, allusions, illusions and music. My favourites are the field poems, spread across the pages here, particularly the piece for/about Gerhard Richter's paintings, where one can see and feel the stretch and slide, the smears and substance of the paint across the canvas. There are more listlike poems, conversational poems, and more formal poems full of repeats and echoes; everywhere language jumps out and surprises you. 'Reverence for that dust' starts 'Victory'; 'A thousand minutes came out of the tottering state' she writes of Mahler; 'and so we come to the credentials of the moon' in 'Topos'.

But Lauterbach not only writes superb books of poems, she writes about 'the poetics of experience' too.
The Night Sky [$29.95, hbck, Viking] gathers essays and introductions together for the first time and should be made compulsory reading for all would-be poets. Best, for me, is 'As (it) Is: Towards a Poetics of the Whole Fragment' which does exactly what it says it does, and I have found useful both personally and with groups of students; and also the title sequence, seven wide-ranging essays on the very nature of writing, language and experience itself. This isn't dry academic writing, nor self-indulgent musings, this is cutting-edge poetics, a writer at the height of her powers proposing and arguing with herself [and the reader] about the possibilities of language, about how and why she and we write. As she says at the end of 'What is the Grass', '...simple questions have multiple, complex answers.' Here are some of them.

          © Rupert Loydell 2005