The Captain's Swallow, Andrew Waterman
[58pp, £9.95, Carcanet]
Lifted, Bill Manhire
[79pp, £9.95, Carcanet]
I found neither
of these books stimulating. But I discovered what for me is a new critical
point. Andrew Waterman's poetry appears from this volume to be a poetry that
does not benefit from being shown in extenso. It is often argued - especially in the world of the small
magazine and the weekly - that it does not do justice to a poet to
print only one or two poems by him or her. My familiarity with Waterman's
poetry has been through seeing the occasional poem only. And like the
Japanese flower arranging idea that flowers appear best singly, I feel this
is true of this poet: his work is seen to best effect presented in that way.
In The Captain's Swallow the poet endeavours to paint a portrait of Sicily where, we are told,
he makes 'prolonged stays'. And I can very much sympathize with his desire to
create a poetry of place. But the trouble is that despite a clearly conscious
effort to gather up anecdotes about the locals whom he knows in Sicily - be they
Sicilians or ex-pat Anglo-Saxons - and mix them with detailed but not often
very lyrical description of place, the result is not good. That he has tried
too hard to capture the place, the atmosphere and its people, shows up in a
poem like 'Roast Lamb'. This consists of twenty, four-lined stanzas, of which
this is the fourth:
congregates among bougainvillea, eating
hear in that hybrid accent
I've come to
recognize, 'Y'know what I mizz mose
back here in
Stromboli? Izz rose limb.'
The poem is a gallimaufry of overheard snippets of mispronounced English like
'The kikken is kikkin in the kikken' which is given as a 'Capitano' trying to
pronounce 'The chicken is,' and adding a twist all his own, 'cooking in my kitchen!' So the origins of this
poem which finishes, 'Roast lamb,' I murmur: these things / that I miss most
when I am back in England.' is a singularly banal moment of poor
pronunciation. The end, too, confuses because the poet appears to be saying
one of the things he misses most when in England is also roast lamb. This, of
course, may be attempted irony meaning that roast lamb is one of the things
he gives a 'miss' to: but the
reader can't be sure. But, to be fair to the poet, I may be missing the point. Is it perhaps
that Waterman is trying to indicate that just as the Aussie tourist liked
only Australian roast lamb, the poet when home in England misses Sicilian
roast lamb? But, whatever, this poem - like a number in the book - consists of
little more than a pot-pourri of cafe table observations made when resting from bouts of strenuous
sight-seeing on foot. Poetry can be a bit too 'touristy' at times, no matter
how long one stays in a place.
book Lifted I found
harder to get any sort of handle on at all. A poem early in the book is
'Across Brooklyn', which I quote in full:
This is the
street where they still make coffins:
workshops, side by side.
I pass them
with my daughter on our walk to the river.
seeking the bridge itself,
famous, much-reported view?
A few planks
and nails lie around,
and each of
the entrances seems to darken.
Far back, out
of sight, someone is whistling.
suppose, we do walk a little faster.
There is a
faint noise of hammering, too.
The very inconsequential, bored tone 'Are we seeking the bridge itself, / or
the famous, much-reported view?' (Well, if you, Mr Manhire, don't know where
you are going, what chance has the reader?'); '...each of the entrances seems (my italics) to darken' (does it darken
or not?); and 'Yes, I suppose, we do walk a little faster.' He supposes they do? Do they walk faster or don't
they? If ever there was a good example of a 'so what? poem' it is this one.
Even the language is nothing more than prosaic, prose-like and unexceptional.
If one of the basic criteria for judging a poem is the requirement to achieve
freshness of expression, then this fails utterly. Neither in what it is
saying, nor in the way it is saying it, is it in the least bit interesting.
On the facing page to that poem is another that, until the very last line,
consists of nothing but a description of a ladder lying on its side. The very
last line changes the absolute objectivism of the poem by the introduction of
what Ruskin termed 'the pathetic fallacy': 'Nevertheless, it longs to be
lifted'. But despite what I saying against Manhire's poems, I was attracted
by 'Death of a Poet' about Charles Causley: a poem employing appropriately
the sort of ballad quatrains Causley was so fond of. I think Mahire is of
Cornish origin. And the book ends with a poem simply entitled 'Kevin' which
is sufficiently attractive for the publisher to have quoted from it on the
Lastly, this New Zealand poet - apparently much feted at home - spent some
time on a fellowship in Menton, Kathleen Mansfield's other country. I know
the C™te myself, but was less excited by those Manhire poems reflecting that
tourist trap even than Andrew Waterman's Sicilian lucubrations. Both of these
poets have spent much time in academia, and it shows. Every academic essay
has to be sprinkled on the page with a solution of caution: 'Yes, I suppose,
we do walk a little faster.' Reading such lines I think of Pope and... and
Swear now critic, or forever hold thy peace. I'll hold my peace.
© William Oxley 2007