GONGS GALORE


POLAR
by Dobby Gibson, 68pp, $13,95, Alice James Books, 238 Main Street, Farmington, Maine
DRAWING OF A SWAN BEFORE MEMORY
by Laynie Browne, 59pp, $16.95, University of Georgia Press, 330 Research Drive, Athens, Georgia
LEDGER
by Susan Wheeler, 82pp, $14, University of Iowa Press, 100 Kuhl House, Iowa City, Iowa


All three of these American writers have won competitions, awards or fellowships. What I wonder straight off is whether they would have received such acclaim had they been British. I know it's an idle sort of speculation since there are far fewer British awards to be won anyway, but I still want to say I doubt it. They're too far from the mainstream books of our predictable shortlists - predictable, that is, by the publicity that gets them there in the first place.

Take Polar
by Dobby Gibson, who has a 'Poetry Fellowship from the McKnight Foundation'. His book won the 2004 Beatrice Hawley Award. (I looked this up - a publishing collective's open publication award plus $2000 for a poet at any stage of her/his career, so a good deal, this one.) Many of the poems are page-long blocks of quirky trains of meandering, conversational thought and association striving for humour. They bring Dean Young's writing (Ready-Made Bouquet, Stride 2005) to mind - though Young's seems more multi-coloured. (In fact Dean Young must be something of a hero, as he both praises Polar on the back cover and is thanked in the acknowledgments.)

Here's a sample, randomly chosen where the book fell open, the first third of the 'Receiving Line':

     Despite what those religions think
     steeples aren't that much closer to God,
     though surely he would rather the occasional cross
     jab into the nape of His floofy mattress
     than all these phone poles,
     arranged as they are in such an obvious worship
     of one another, like athletes.
     Probably for even the slowest atheists
     this week has been track and field,
     a vault slo-mo over an enormous precipice of thaw:
     it's luncheon-meat cold, and even winter rain
     isn't anything new, but it hurls itself
     at us like a smashed chandelier,
     pocks the lawn's snow into a kind of tapioca
     and now, suddenly, is it groceries we're after?

Not all of the poems hurtle and leap like this. 'From This Year's Indispensable Guide for Every One of Us' is both slower paced and more serious; 'and when I did finally close my eyes / I saw the dead / as they see us now'. The central section 'Solstice' is 13 x 14 liners in couplets. Sections are, alas, separated by a page of snowflake forms, but if I can get over that, I can see I could quite get into this one.

Laynie Browne's Drawing of a Swan Before Memory
may take more getting into. She's the winner of the Contemporary Poetry Series Competition (University of Georgia Press) and three times winner of the Gertrude Stein Award in Innovative American Poetry. Here are short, lyric, abstract considerations in prose poems. The 'before memory' of the title forewarns you of the difficulty Browne engages with: how to write of experience before memory exists, that is, before there is a separation of I / you in the child, and before language. Here is how she sets about it, in the first piece of 'The Emergence of Memory':

     His unset eyes - containing water - become expression, or color.
     They cloud in changing - though the change is never marked, it may   
     eventually be seen.

     The cloud is green

     His hand is light

     He watches this first finding - pulling a hand in and out of a living channel.
     His newness betokens him all color. He passes through color - setting each
     resonance for light.

Readers with babies will stay with this, I think. The book has seven sections, of which the 'The Emergence of Memory' is the central one. Individual poems don't have titles, just numbers within each thematic grouping. The final group, written in small blocks, is 'White' - white with possible reference to light, to paper-folding, to milk; its number 6 is short enough to quote in full:

                Glue the folded house to the
                background paper.

                A carefully tuned beam ren-
                ders an opaque material trans-
                parent to a second.

                Her smooth calmness was
                white. Approached and sur-
                rounded him. Clothed his
                apprehension in milk.


I'm full of admiration for writers who can develop a theme throughout a whole volume. Susan Wheeler does this too, in Ledger - though quite differently. Let's see, there's a quite a list here of what Wheeler's won. This particular book won The Iowa Poetry Prize. (It begins to look as though most poetry presses offer prizes.) It is a book of poems in all manner of forms, about economy. Let the flyer explain:  'Ledger places an individual's crisis of spirituality and personal stewardship , or management of her resources, against the backdrop of a culture that has focussed its "economy" on financial gain and has misspent its own tangible and intangible resources.' It's a book you have to think about - some of the sources listed at the back are economic or cultural texts - but the crisis is certainly sustained.

And it's another  book in sections, the first, 'Proper Return' investigates childhood wants and demands in (relatively) straightforward poems: a child enters, say, 'Ye Olde Trading Post' of the poem 'Roanoke and Wampumpeag':

Low radio, woman propped with The Making of the President

Open in her hands. The child calculates the thieving odds. Balks.

'Short Shrift', 'Surfeit', 'Money and God', 'Depleted Stocks', 'The Debtor in the Convex Mirror' - these are the other sections in the book. The narrative here is kaleidoscopic and fragmented, as is the form. This passage towards the end of section 3 of 'Money and God' will show you what I mean:

                                                    the silo of another moneylender opened,
           its wheat now snakes

                                                                      A third, awakened by his
            servant, found Lucifer
                                                    and two steeds black before his mill -
                                     
                                                                merchants of the future, sellers of time
-


           for every buy high
, a seller's low. You were beside me in the
           capitol - al - and then You weren't. Vamoosed like a loan shark
           after collect. Denominational oligopsony. Brother Luke
           and the double entry. Hermes' fluidity. And so I left.

That 'capitol' above, with the OL struck out and AL next to it, is typical of a heightened attention to things economic, enacting within the language the way that the market dominates American culture. Definitely not the sort of book that we'd see as a winner, here.

Which makes me wonder, conversely, perversely, how well Carol Ann Duffy's acclaimed Rapture
would have done over there.

     Jane Routh 2006