'Of Daisy, did my dog die'

Forth A Raven, Christina Davis
[Alice James Books, 2006, ISBN 1882295579, 49pp]
A Diary of Altered Light: Poems, James Applewhite
[Louisiana State University Press, 2006, ISBN 080713127X, 64pp]

Everything about Christina Davis' excellent book happens on a small, human scale: 'As if there were just one / of each word, and the one / who used it, used it up' ('The Primer'). This is both the work's great strength and, paradoxically my only source of disappointment: there are just 43 pages of very short poems here, and I could have done with twice as many of them. The cover of the book shows a beautiful photo of a bird's nest filled with dice instead of eggs. It sums up how I feel about the book as a whole - I want a hundred such provocative and imaginative images, not the inevitable minimalist few. I know, minimalism demands the minimal, but when you're good at it, why pare it all back so much all the time?

These are all veiled compliments, I know, but this is really good work and I wish the writer would just let go a little bit more; free herself up. It's a very good first collection of its kind, from a new U.S. poet - go on, treat yourself to it - but it also might just be a little too finely wrought, and deliberated over, leaving me wondering how long it will be before there are another 43 pages of such poems. Japanese tea bowls are aesthetic ceramic objects of the fleeting moment: form, content, philosophy, warts, and all. I don't think tiny minimalist poems should be afraid of that either - it's part of the aesthetic. Don't overwork them.

Lest I become sidetracked into a 'size matters' review, I want to reiterate that the quality of the work is very high, and these are enjoyable poems to read. I've thought a lot about them, as well as hummed their lines in my head once th book has been put down. they have stayed with me - a mark of good poems surely. I have also recently been reading George Messo's new collection, Entrances, from Shearsman, which has a similar feel to Davis' Forth A Raven  - exquisite images, exquisite pacing, leaving time and space for the poetry to resonate imaginatively, musically, emotionally, intellectually. Both cut against current trends of expansiveness in contemporary poetry, and are all the more refreshing for that. They are serious-minded, brave books, with a finely-tuned ear to the cadences of mind and soul's music; how that is expressed in poetry. Davis' poems, however, are also the kind of work that you have to 'be into' to really appreciate: her short, enigmatic and aphoristic poems are very much of a kind. For me, that's great, because I tend to go for this sort of thing; others will doubtless find it too gnomic, too spare. Maybe even precious in places. That's just taste. But there are a few nervously angst poems here about death - the last six in the book take us from modernist isolation to the inevitable demise: 'The hair, the skin: it goes by so briefly the body'. It's beautifully done that; but definitely done before. Offsetting the weight of all this mortality is an interesting use of humour, so that Death (big D) becomes death (small d, with smiles), which is much more successful -

     What is the name of our death.
     Is it really stroke or rope, really fever or falling?

     I would like to say,
     My grandmother died of Lillian.
     My grandfather of Anthony.
     Anita of herself, and Nell of herself.
     Of Daisy, did my dog die. And of blades, the grass.

     We go forth in the name we lived.
     I will die of Christina.
     I was so called.
          ('The Calling', in entirety)

There's wit and personality in these lines, as well as an individual aesthetic and a clear control of materials.

There is also an almost Eastern European estrangement in may of these poems: 'I wanted to be a tree / and myself-seeing-the-tree, // a bird and myself-being-the-bird. //
O creatures-in-law...' (from 'Nostalgia for the Infinite'), that sometimes becomes surreal, 'In Bird, I speak brokenly. Hiss and flail and never learn. // And the swan will never mouth / the noun for bread, the declension of crumb. Though I could stop // its migration with a crumb' (from The Sadness of the Lingua Franca'). There's a welcome animistic world stirring behind the incantatory magic of these carefully selected words. I like the work for that: its philosophical bravery and restlessness; its continual questioning and unusual perspectives that make those questions ring in new ways. Yet if I tire of it anywhere, it is also in the focus on the words, and their heavy epistemological orthodoxy at the expense of more interesting ontological and spiritual questions, as well as formal questions - what resources can the minimal poem offer us both formally and in terms of content, other than all that time and space and the inevitability of the ever-present staring void? To what other, equally pressing human matters, can such minimalist humour be applied? It doesn't all have to be existential. Yet it hardly seems fair to criticise a very good first book of poems for having ideas that question the nature of what we can know - for me, it's just that the poems are too grounded in that epistemological doubt, before the inevitable death.

James Applewhite has produced another version of that which Mimi Khalvati achieved some years ago with her collection Entries on Light (Carcanet) - the 'momentary registration of light on the world around, and on the world withinÓ (Kelly Cherry, blurb). The idea, like most others, is nothing new, it must therefore obviously be in the treatment that the interest lies. Interestingly, both Khalvati and Applewhite adopt formal strategies: but, whilst I found Khalvati's formalism liberating, Applewhite's simply gets in the way. His is a finely crafted collection of poems, but overly academic, ponderous, and sometimes archaic in both treatment and language.

If that sounds entirely negative, which I don't intend, these poems are also sometimes charming and insightful, written with maturity, humanity, and a quiet acceptance of individual and collective responsibilities and fates. But they are rarely moving or exciting in their thought patterns or language- use, unlike Christina Davis' for example. The weight of Applewhite's formality makes his a desk-bound, chair-bound, study-bound kind of poetry, even as it struggles to deal with outdoor locations, nature in its manifold appearances, love, loss, the big themes of the universe etc.  Davis', in contrast, definitely goes with you out there into the world.

Applewhite employs the quatrain for most of his book, and exhausts the few potential rhyme schemes it offers, from monorhyme, through enveloped, and framed forms of the possible schemes. Once that limited job is done, it's done, and little more remains. Added to that are the endless repetitions of image: crape myrtle trees, the grandson, entropy, family relationships, Christ, the cross, and an unattractive use of scientific terminology and nomenclature that might lend the poems academic weight, but which clang like pan-lids: 'By inverse square of their distance, / gravitationally attracted masses enact / both Newton's constructs'. We know! Stop lecturing your reader! Combined with the knowing religiosity that manifests itself as a mannered 'not-knowing', these are poems that endlessly straightjacket us into perceiving or thinking in received ways - there really is very little room for a reader in work of this nature.

In the few poems in which he alters this formal strategy and produces stanzas of varying length to other ends, or writes poems in single stanzas (more like a block of blank verse), we find welcome relief from the monotony of his phrase, his line, his stanza and his argument. They also pull him away from what is often a bizarre syntax forced by the ordinance of the rhyme scheme and the measure. Poems like 'Against an Ocean Horizon', 'The Jewish Cemetery and Museum', 'Invisible Fence' and 'Soul Clearing' are the best in the book, whilst the touching humanity and universality of 'Family Reunion' is honest and direct, if not a little sentimentally consolatory: 'The hand // that catches the two-year-old from falling, / when the wooden rocking horse rears, / is everyone's'.

But more often than not, I found myself surprised by the sheer ugliness of the phrasing in this book:

     Cedars on the opposite shore raise iron
            filigree against porcelain sky, sun
     yellowing poplars. Small birds flicker
            as suddenly a pileated woodpecker,

     clapping black-white wing over
             water, swings upside-down
     where vines cage his crest, a red fire
            among berries he beaks. Again

The image here, I find interesting; its treatment is bizarrely ugly. The twists in the syntax, for such naturalistic imagery, are strangely inappropriate and forced. I watch the ups and downs of the jagged elbows of these lines, and see a novice violinist scraping a bow over the strings. It also sounds like that and, unfortunately, occurs in many of the poems gathered here.

There is also, for me, an off-putting neo-Larkinism to much of this work:

    People take you for granted,
     aging, the way you once counted
     on your own body. Isn't it a pity?
     Actually, you don't feel any.

I'm afraid this has all been done before, done much better, and with more interesting and satisfying results.

       © Andy Brown 2006