Daffodils, Spices and Fugues


Twenty Four Preludes & Fugues on Dimitri Shostakovick,
Joanna Boulter
(78pp, 7.99, Arc)
The Peacock Room, Ruth Leader (80pp, 7.99, Cinnamon Press)
The Drier the Brighter
, Judy Kendall (64pp, 7.99, Cinnamon Press)

The poets under review are risk-takers and, though one may applaud the ambition, there often remains a gap between ambition and achievement. I am of the opinion that 'a good idea for' a poem seldom turns into the genuine article, the risk being that an element of the voulu, keeps getting in the way. What desperately wants to be poetry can turn out to feel somewhat cerebral and at worst end up sounding like an experiment or an exercise. Joanna Boulter admits in her Author's Preface that reading a review of a book about the life of the Russian composer Shostakovich caught her imagination 'as a possible subject for poetry'. She then looked to the composer's piano work, his Op. 87 homage to Bach, as a way of structuring her work. This, she says, 'gave me my format'. Her 'project' is hugely ambitious but inevitably fraught with risk. It requires the writer to compose 'a set of twenty preludes and fugues...in words - the preludes in free or invented forms, and the fugues in any strict poetic form, in the first person, as the voice of Shostakovich himself'. The first risk is in matching Shostakovich's masterwork 'in words'; the second is finding cogent literary equivalents for the fugues (are sestinas the answer?); the third is in ventriloquising the composer himself; and finally a fourth is to take on the immensity of the horrors of life in twentieth-century Russsia. As well as enormous skill, it needs a proper humility to address subjects poetry seems such an inadequate vehicle for. I am not questioning the seriousness of intention motivating the writing of these poems; what I am saying is that the gap between ambition and achievement mentioned earlier is a real one: the writer must inevitably be content with degrees of failure. There is still controversy surrounding the life and real thinking of Shostakovich: Boulter's putting words in his mouth makes me uneasy and feels like a dangerous form of special pleading. She may have been taken over by the composer, with his undeniable problems of artistic freedom within a repressive regime, but she hasn't become him: the words she gives him are her words:
            I am a falling star, forced from its orbit.
            I had my place in the cosmology,
            but Lucifer-like I'm declining from it.
            And turbulent influences prophesy
            disjointed seasons.
                   [from 'Fuga Enharmonica']
This sort of writing distances rather than illuminates. As someone who admires the music of Shostakovich, I wanted to like this 'novella in an impressive variety of verse forms' (David Morley on the back cover), as a homage to the composer, in the way his Op. 87 is his homage to Bach, but I'm afraid, though honest and ambitious, it wasn't quite ambitious enough.


The poems in Ruth Leader's The Peacock Room have their setting in Thailand where she was born and brought up; and a sense of the exotic is part of the experience of reading. However I wish she had thought of appending a glossary for words like 'kwai', 'ong', 'sawan', 'jakagee' and so on. In my view anything that interrupts the flow of reading and takes you back to the previous line - even if you then 'get' what you'd missed - cannot be good. On top of this and part of the same problem, where did she get the idea that with portmanteau words you put the hyphen at the beginning of a line? For example
            We would feed them on sugar
            -cane and egg bananas
                      [from 'Pet Beetles']
where the natural way of reading is 'feed them on sugar'. Or, again, in poem called Krungthepmahanakorn
                        hook star
            -fruit from the branches with a make
            -shift bamboo pole.
The only purpose in things like this has to be functional, necessary to the experience the poem seeks to create in the reader. I cannot see it here.
That said, this is a pleasantly readable collection of quiet poems, an almost childlike recreation of the sounds, tastes and smells of a world that hasn't to my knowledge much appeared in English poetry.

Judy Kendall's The Brighter The Drier enjoys being playfully ambitious, experimental and is perhaps the most precisely worded poet of the three...though for the life of me I can't see any reason for starting a line or a poem with a comma. (Is there something editorially weird going on at Cinnamon?) The poems have a crystalline quality. Take '5 am':
            these cold skies
            cheating the dawn,
            these bits of tree,
            blocks of houses too close to houses,
            shrouded people, shrinking in the weather.
It is nicely observed and has the quality of is-ness
or there-ness you find in haiku. This is perfectly done in a poem called the verge:
            bright yellow daffodils
            running down the bank
            not quite falling
            the stream
I have waited a long time to find a poet who really understands the spirit
of haiku, that sudden caught-off-guard realisation of the fact of something. This poem runs you down the bank and you suddenly see water.
Philip Gross is right when he says on the back cover that Edward Thomas is a presiding spirit in this book - that same gentle but acute way of perceiving and embracing landscape:

            Sheep, stiles, hedgerow, lane, rough
            squares of field, grass, stone wall,
            wire, discarded tufts of fleece.
                       [from 'Travelling']
Walking, watching, recording, sometimes with serious intent, sometimes playfully, but always with the right words, carefully chosen. The poems feel alive.
                          Matt Simpson 2007