The Weird Authentic


City West, Catherine Walsh (82pp, 8.50, Shearsman)
Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists, A. Rawlings (90 pp, Coach House Books)
Practice, Restraint, Laura Sims (99pp, Fence Books)


Three weird sisters in wayward linguistic practice here. The review title is a quote from Sims; Walsh in City West speaks of a 'sudden incursion of / magical substance/ (from?)' which I find in all of the collections, bubbling away, transforming the ordinary. If you're looking for the simple lyric, this probably isn't your thing. Though you could always gaze in and see what emerges.

Catherine Walsh is the most previously published of the poets, and her continued work here is daring, and possibly dares the reader the most. She is a poet of fragmentation, of philosophy amidst domesticity; of alliterative wordplay [vice versa / ( viscera I'] and of the typographical/guttural utterance. Text is scattered freely over the page, lively and spontaneous: 'eem ah / amm  eh /  oh  yes'. Her phrases ripple out, organically, like individual thumbprints:  'whorls/ calling many common images into place'; I like that idea of the whorl-like spiral, a creative track which best describes this poetry. It is a poetry of curves and cycles too - 'cycling on through amalgamations' as Walsh writes. A lot of
City West feels like a day in the (domestic) life, with all the washing, babies, radio soundbites, push chairs and emergent perception this entails:

     [pummelled sleeping Niall's head burrowing]

     all un / reasonable humans
     engaging social activities
     common amongst species

     watching helicopters circling
     small estates sprawling
     Dublin flickering

In amongst the sprawling and flickering and other present participles (indeed the text is a gerund party in some sections) are insights, stabs of poetic recollection-in-medias-res ('through out quotidian'): of capturing life while it happens: 'it's being in doing and in doing while / duration it is being in span'. Welsh plays at the fluid boundaries of identity - how and where should her text and herself be punctuated?: 'should one place be better to stop / than another... Look! I start I exist I/  finish!' The quotation is succeeded by a section of telegrammatic (if I may) text, studded with 'stops', before it takes off into playful enquiry again. This writing is not 'graceful': but it is clever, engaging, and alive.


Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists is a gorgeous poetic conceit. It's beautifully produced, a kind of pocket-sized textual flicker book, with some lovely illustrations too. Its subject is sleep, its different stages and parasomnias, viscerally evoked using the language of lepidoptery in quite astonishing experimental configurations. It is textbook of 'Sleepidoptera',  as Rawlings coins. The process of sleep starts with a hypnotic hush: 'a hoosh a ha / a hoosh a ha...'; then we're swept into a glistening, semi-submerged awareness of self and body. Desires, disorders, the deep soundings of the unconscious all woven into a 'hyperlove sleepspell'; crazily, elegantly traced onto the page. Thorax/cervix; Uvula /vulva. There are many metamorphoses in this literary cocoon where words and body soften and fold onto each other.

It's difficult, as with Walsh's volume, to give a sense of Rawlings' use of layout, very varied as it is in 'Wide Slumber'. Some sections are lineated, some solid squares of text, stubs of refrain linked by zzz's of snoring. 'Bruxism' (teeth grinding) generates a series of concrete poems; blocks of clamped-down language, fizzing bubbles of lettering rising from them as the reader looks down. 'Sleep spindles' are more delicate: 'habit of holding/ shoulder blades / as wings / when at rest'; 'Somnambulism' has lines of poetry walking across the page: 'feel a fraction of fracture through floor beat wing pulse porous flake frail common footman'. Talk in your sleep? Try a (Joycean) somniloquy: 'or a norming butterpillar in th ravening nd when we grow tired we miss our lungs nd sonic gossamer: afling aflong.' I rather loved the glossary at the end of the book too, mingling, as does the text, its specialist lexicons.

'Let the body do as the body does,' a concluding phrase suggests:
Wide Slumber has an imaginative balance between verbal crafting and linguistic freedom in its observation of our dreaming, our biologies, our brief, iridescent life spans.


Finally, in Practice, Restraint, Laura Sims has achieved a poetry of minimalist poise. There is a spare elegance in these sequences that I really like: the collection has an apt title. The book comprises a number of shorter sequence-length 'books': bank book, war book, paperback book to conclude. Each poem is slow and sculptural, individual lines floating - sinking down - slowly through the mind: 'This is the glassed in city / these are its gates. //  This tiny hand / is the gatekeeper's wife / in a gesture of solace / unlikely, unlikely, / the sound of her voice' ('Platitude'). Smallness is a key here, slivers of narrative having unsettling resonances. This poem is situated 'underwater'. And indeed water, the state of being under water, is a feature of many of the poems, as well as of the cover illustration. We are all small figures, moving, unreachable, through a deep blue element, with only these poems for solace. Here is 'Bank Three' in its entirety:

     I am new

     I left my dress
     In the film

      A body of water

And here in 'Bank Nineteen', the nature of water (and the waterlogged body) is to sway, absorb: 'My water weight / Shifts/ To include / What the horde assumes'. The writing has a haunting quality, symbolic rather than metaphorical. I can't translate it into a meaning, a life lesson, a plan. But it is cool and resonant and compelling. This continues into the later poems, their ghosts of stories incommunicable, but their ability to remain in the memory remarkable. In some places I was reminded of Plath, of the chilling scenario of 'Edge': 'The small beauty queen / on her deathbead / Or bathtub / Candied in permanent drag', in Sims' ' "Hold Me Closer Than That" ' for instance. But the strange elusive gravity is all Sims' own, and well worth holding your hand out for.

                  Sarah Law 2007