Looking for Icarus, Roselle Angwin
[102 pp, £7.99, Bluechrome]
The sheer bulk of this collection (sixty poems, some five or six pages long) highlights what for me are the weaknesses in what could potentially be a strong book. Angwin is without doubt an acute observer of the natural world. There is a rich sensuousness to her language and description that is spot on. She can also provide tight, carefully constructed poems that make a point. However, she hides some of this quality stuff in a morass of sloppy writing that reads like notebook jottings that should have been drafted out.
It is unfortunate for the collection that the opening poem 'West'- a sequence of prose poems inspired by the Southwest coast - provides just this kind of a mishmash of good and bad poetry. Note in the following lines in 'St Ives' how she starts by breaking one of the basic rules of good writing, to show not tell, but then improves as she provides vivid, precise detail:
Today, paradise. Synaesthesia: everything is everything else.
Sensory overload; no space for emotion. Sea-light. Lichen-roofed
houses, Island chapel, soft gold sand, parabolas of mussels.
Herring gull stalled in the air above you, yellow eyes scanning.
The above would be so much stronger if the first line and a half had been cut. One minute she provides bland or clichˇd lines: 'the sea lapping and lapping', 'it'll run through our fingers like sand' and the next a clever image like 'dinosaur-egg-rocks' or sharp-edged description: 'Hard frost tightens the furrows. / Against the still landscape a harlequin of pheasants'.
It is only when one picks out the quality poems that one sees what a misleading impression that opening prose poem gives, for there is some wonderful stuff here. 'Zennor' is a tight poem that succeeds in achieving a genuine expression of communion with nature in way that failed to get beyond platitudes in 'West':
And so, after so long, what was it
calling, that pulled me west
to this glass-blue day
at the edge of the land?
And you're there, the flame
of you, amber against the sky's
wide window, against heathered
granite headlands, and a moment
constellates, floods the yard between us,
gathers to itself the day's light
fists into the force
that will uncoil us into a great shout
and fling us, whether we will it
or not, across
this wide, dark river
from which there's no return.
There is crispness, cohesion and a clever merging of the literal and metaphorical in this poem. Take for example the way the 'glass-blue day' suggests both the abstract and the concrete and is then set against the physical 'edge of the land' to show some kind of union with nature such as Angwin fails to convey in all the verbiage of 'West'. In the second verse 'flame of you' is perhaps too much but 'sky's/ wide window has lovely simplicity to it, its alliteration and assonance contributing to the spaciousness and momentum that draws the reader further into the poem. This momentum - reminiscent of Marvell's 'To His Coy Mistress' - continues throughout and is brought to a satisfying climax as we see the moment personified by way of a build up verbs to be finally flung 'across/this wide, dark river'.
Another strong poem is 'Magdalen':
Your stare this thing out, taking the sting
of it, knowing what is true.
What gods love makes of us all.
Ah. Not for anything deny
the sweetness at the heart, the way
it came through honey.
Forgive them, for they know not
what they do. And you
will hold your own truth.
Be silent. I have nothing to say.
It's a story for him and you alone,
and you will not show it
to those who do not care for truths.
You have always lived outside these bounds.
So you do what you have always done:
Hold your counsel, keep your tongue.
Stare them out. Feel
the sting of the first stone.
This poem works on a number of levels. There is the pared down language for starters. Single syllable words dominate and they contribute to the plain, defiant tone of the poem. There are a series of parallels between Christ and Magdalen. We see them as individuals not prepared to compromise personal beliefs. Driven by love, honesty, truth and the absence of hypocrisy they both opt for silence in the face of their shared persecution. Cohesion is achieved by way of a pattern of stark imperatives that are particularly plain and forceful in the final verse, not to mention its cracking concluding line.
In general I found Angwin's crafted poems to be much stronger than her prose poems or the more experimental forms, and there is no shortage of such poems in the book. To any prospective reader I would suggest they start in the middle of the book and work outwards, or stop at any page that has something verging on traditional stanza breaks. Flick to the back of the book and once more we are back to some dreadful hackneyed lines, such as the last verse of 'Meditation' - made all the more dreadful by the weighted pauses of the lay-out:
and then only silence
Angwin needs someone to be really strict with her, but in end we must blame the publisher. Having now having had the chance to read a number of books by Bluechrome I have found they frequently suffer from this kind of overload. If they asked their writers to pare their work down to their forty best poems or at least got them to cut back the weaker lines in some of the poems the final books would be a lot stronger. With Bluechrome frequently less could be so much more.
© Belinda Cooke 2006