ANYTHING THE LANDLORD TOUCHES by Emma Lew
[80pp, £8.95, Shearsman Books, 58 Velwell Road, Exeter EX4 4LD]
THIS ONE TREE
by Katie Peterson
[98pp, $14.00, New Issues, Western Michigan University, 1903 W. Michigan Ave., Kalamazoo, MI 49008-5331]
A FAREWELL TO EVERYTHING
by Ilma Rakusa
trans. Andrew Shields and Andrew Winnard
[101pp, £9.95, Shearsman Books]
BURNING THE HEARTWOOD
by Janet Sutherland
[86pp, £8.95, Shearsman Books]


The weather moves fast in Emma Lew's Anything the Landlord Touches. The moon appears fourteen times, usually memorably, usually changing as it passes overhead. Suns rise and set, it's midnight again, clouds form and dissolve in an instant.

Not wholly distinct from the changing skies are the changing characters, like this pair for example:

                      her lies
     were her own to tell,
     and everyone who knew him

     knew that one of the great
     events of his life had
     occurred at the Place de

     Pyramides, when, like clouds
     worn down by a summer,
     their paths crossed. Charm

     went with a sympathy for
     ruin, meaning a woman
     who lisps slightly, gifts

      snatched up, impulsively
     taking the wheel of the car.

          [from 'Fugue of the deal']

The cast of characters, enormous and transitory, are all in motion, riding somewhere, perhaps buffeted by their own violence. And perhaps like clouds they sometimes bleed into each other, so that when in another poem we're standing beside a revolutionary agitator, suddenly there's the lisp again:

     All our lives we have hated white moonlight.
     All our lives we have been hating, as we learn
     to hate here, tonight, on the ramparts, where
     the sentries, the snipers, crave a strong moon.
     We have gone through the streets, lisping
     our words, hearts full of vicious light,
     and always the stars above us that way,
     and small children bearing the sonorous names.
          [from 'Pocket Constellations']

All of these characters are busy, but the stories don't completely come into focus. What we get is a vast mutter of passion, like stacks of unread plays by M. Hugo. You can almost hear him:

     There's parish in the spittle of an angry man
          [from 'Flourish']

That would be 'Paris', I suppose? Lew is an Australian poet (this book, her second, was published there in 2003) but the locations of its rabble are often European. I like to think of the poem 'Fine Weather of the Siege' as Paris in 1870; but since its properties include both musketry and petroleum, it's clear that these scŹnes historiques
do not point to stable locales but are dreams of actions that roll with the skies:

                      the children

     particularly remonstrating with
     hunger, and words fell blindly

     out of mouths onto bare earth.
     The sun set like a guillotine,

     bricking up the cellar windows,
     and the moon grew grave,

     artillery horses clattering up its
     steep ascents.

Who else do we have? Slaves, seducers, tycoons, penitents, entomologists, people who limp, riders across the desert, ghosts, businessmen, philosophers, fathers, concubines, camp-followers.  No-one is just someone, everyone's in trouble, and a word often used to describe them is 'fast'. The poems are surcharged with the detritus of narrative, the only person who seems to be completely absent is Emma Lew herself.

There's so much narrative material that I think the book would amply repay reading just for its adventures; say, on a blowy winter night beside the fire; you would then enjoy the way that some themes (the open air, war-time, hotel assignations) seep in from nearby poems and create the effect of a group of chapters. But I'm sure that the narratives are not really the point; they are veils blowing across the sky but these poems have another kind of interest which is more abstract and delighted, perhaps exemplified by the gleams cast by some of the oblique titles, e.g. 'Rice' and 'Plantain'.  Or consider 'Fugue of the deal', and how the shadowy lovers make a pattern of echoes; in fact, they animate the form of the poem. This quote continues from the earlier one:

     She was all she had to be

     by being, and the voice
     in which he called out to her   
     was her own, calling himself

     back in the same frantic
     phrases of estrangement,
     the same tones of entrapment,
     as smoke.

I think this is at least as much about fugue as about the deal. Or if you want to get analytical, something like this: the waves of action and psyche that underlie music and passion. But it's better not to be analytical.

The book also contains three pantoums. Not a form that I've ever felt like attending to before (not even Ashbery's), but Lew's poems develop a curious feature of the form: that you can also read it from the bottom up and if you do you get a sort of echo-poem, a cousin of the top-down version. I could swear that Lew first composed these poems the other way around and then reversed the line order. Anyhow, they are very fascinating constructions, like those toy snakes made out of wood and ribbon that turn inside out as you play with them. As with the other poems, one begins to understand that the action and the account that can be made of it are inseparable, slithering out together from the same egg.


 

This One Tree is Katie Peterson's first collection. It has pleased an impressive range of other poets (Donald Revell, Fanny Howe, Dan Chiasson...); more than enough, in fact, to make me feel suspicious. The fruits of this suspicion are that I no longer think the collection half so imposing as it first seemed that it was going to be; on the other hand, the things I do like, now doubly put to the question, I like more positively. 

The poems
look deceptively plain, their vocabulary spare and simple, their  pictures empty of detail. Three times out of four, when I've picked up the book, nothing's really happened; and in some of the longer pieces that emerge in the book's later sections, I don't think there's much that's ever going to happen.

But after all, those arid readings of good poetry are hardly an unusual event for me. It's only the fourth time that matters; it requires, perhaps, an off-guard state of receptivity, perhaps a willingness to completely discount the subject or to drop my other expectations of what you should look for. This is difficult to illustrate without quoting a whole poem, so I hope the publishers will forgive me:

     Job

     Sound of a rake,
     many-pronged, dozened
     across the crisp dark.
     Go towards it now.
     Ask the old man
     (true he might laugh)
     what you can do,
     here, what accomplish?
     He might refuse you.
     This world comes alone,
     take it that way.
     Piles to make.
     That's not your job.
     Light them on fire.
     Light the whole hillside.
     What of the rake?
     So soundly steeped,
     ear in this darkness
     wherever it moves,
     to empty trees:
     rake in the branches.

All of the poems in the first section are like this, in dimeters. The first three lines might appeal to an older sensibility as 'capturing' the sound of the rake; one could dwell on the hidden criss-cross in the third line, but the point, I take it, is the inadequacy of this attempt; no sound of the mouth really sounds like a rake, it lacks the sense of outsideness; you need the feel of open space around you first, and how will an onomatopoeia give you what even a good hi-fi can't give you? This poem is full of prickles and frustration; for a moment the rake is not a sound coming to the ear, but a rake across the ear (ouch); finally it clangs inappropriately in leafless branches. The prickles show like beads of blood in the weird syntax of 'Light them on fire', or the archaism of 'here, what accomplish?'; this is not about establishing the patina of a voice. Darkness, we think, ought to attune the ear and make it more open to sounds, but Peterson's images, of drowning ('steeped') and of a moving and therefore muffling darkness, suggest an ear  being dulled out and rejected ('That's not your job'). While the poem's lyrical engine is a thirst for communication, its method of via negativa
responds with a different draught to the expected one; necessarily oblique, electrical, conceptually distinct from the false promise of onomatopoeia.

That's one reading, but it's understandable that Peterson has managed to engage such a broad range of supporters because she's reluctant to give things up. This is the end of another poem:

Backtrack of experience
against the grain of philosophy,
     loving the world and leaving it alone––
          [from 'Backtrack']

Those are lines that will be greeted with relief by some for seeming to tap the pretensions of 'philosophy' on the nose with a rapturous assertion of humble (but really philosophically superior) 'experience'. And I don't think this reading is wrong, I think the poem does propose to keep it floating there. But I also think that the contrary position is proposed, for example by the italics and the broken ending. This image of backtracking against the grain, as in a kind of woodwork that is difficult and ungrateful and sometimes correct, compels the poem's experience of weather and body to reside in conceptual dubiety and this is simultaneously great and actually not good.

At its best this reluctance to give things up produces poems that intrigue by paradoxical effects. Thus the poem beginning 'Church bells at the same time as sirens' (its title is 'The Tree', but lots of the poems have this title) is organized about its centre, a sad little childhood narrative about a tree house, but a quite different kind of poetry is active at the peripheries which kicks off other sorts of trouble and play until you can't even hold them apart.

A good many of the poems develop this kind of dynamism, indeed most of them in the first three sections, and they read very well (even best of all) as places where you can discover fragments. For example, this evening I found in one of them this, which I felt free to take off and enjoy on its own:

     There was no tree where we came from.
     There were only the hillside grasses (these

     never needed names), the faint
     cry of the towhee, the comforts of science fiction.

The formal, close but uncrowded arrangement of the fricatives and parentheses is itself an essay about the comforts and empty comforts of the grass.


 

Ilma Rakusa is a noted translator, cultural commentator and academic. She is of Hungarian/Slovenian parentage but her poems are in German. A Farewell to Everything is a translation by Andrew Shields and Andrew Winnard of the 1997 collection Ein Strich durch alles. I think this literally means 'A stroke through everything' – the pen-stroke of a dissatisfied author.  But in English the word stroke has too many other meanings so the obvious translation didn't work out. Translating poetry is a frustrating business. I'm inclined to think that quite a lot of the work's original impact must have gone the same way as the title because I felt quite disappointed with it. 

It's a sequence of 90 nine-line poems that look like unpunctuated notebook jottings and express, in large part, a straightforward heartache, her lover departed for the other side of the world. It's good to hear someone prepared to say what they're feeling:

             and he is alone
     she alone not a pair
     nightmare for all time

or to say (of children swimming in the moor pond)

     the others brown and
     arms held high
     and bubbles in the water
     sunbeaten joy like
     the uphill paths heading back

but (in English at least) too many of the poems don't seem to do enough with their passion and collapse into trifling observation:

     In the train just dozing off
     when the horizon tips inward
     this sandhill yellow and huge
     African it towers up
     behind the tracks of a
     provincial station vastly different
     Where am I? and deep red a
     bulldozer enters the picture
     to take down the illusion

Sometimes the observation turns elliptical and the words begin to do more work, and these are the poems that interested me most:

     If the oak is an ash it returns
     home turns the slim
     wand – sound wand – in wind
     and shadow falls into the bath
     the ornamental forms swim
     on the grass tin zinc
     subsides and in the boughs
     the fifths flow both brass
     and bamboo druidically

The contradictions in an oak being an ash or in bamboo being druidic make the poem swirl restlessly, we begin to experience the bathtub as a sonar space, both resonance and vacuum like the interval of the fifth.

There are perhaps a dozen poems like this but not enough to build momentum and though the sequence is easy to read through it's in a deeper sense wearying. But passion always burns. It gives poems an energy of intention and it may be that this is a book that will jump out at me when it's hung around on the shelves for a few years.

No such reservation applies to Janet Sutherland's Burning the Heartwood.
Nothing here is likely to spring out at a later date; what Sutherland has to give, she gives immediately. This is 'Hearth', the first poem in the book:

     The hiss of flame before earth

     Sometimes the ear listens
     without thought

    Unbuttoning the heart
    we hear rain
    from a wet coat
    leaping and cracking
    on stone

It's a lovely poem, and you just take it to your heart and memory: exegesis is unnecessary, it could never go deep enough anyway.

Only a handful of the poems that follow match up to that opener, and they are  all nearly as short ('In my father's store room', 'Crumble'). This is really not a satisfying book at all and the rest, the bulk of it, is made up of poems that didn't need to be written called things like 'The Reckless Sleeper (René Magritte)' and 'In the House of the Terracotta Warriors' with an explanatory note at the end; or naive writing like

     ascending the cliff steps we talk of other days
     your calm voice strengthens in a time of need
     solid you rest me in a pool of words
     and save me drowning
           [from 'The road to the beach']

that it's disconcerting to see in a book.   

I'm not sure I understand where the audience for this book live, but I suspect they would be a lot less interested in Poetry than you and me and a lot more interested in 'trees like ragged lace / along the horizon' and 'unclothed / creamy downs' and 'tussocks of strong grass'. But if the whole book was like that I think I would be enthusiastic too.


          © Michael Peverett 2006