Sharp Enough?

This Sharpening
, Ellendore Watson
[$16, Tupelo Press, Vermont]

I've been thinking a lot about concrete imagery. When I go to writing workshops, and in moments when I teach them, I find concrete imagery being highly recommended. And sometimes, I think: What about imagination? What about the poet's right to be convoluted? What about the reader's role to work for their insights? I don't think that this is necessarily the case. Concrete imagery can often be where the greatest insights are discovered. There is a way to use a simple image in a poem; to give it density, to explore the limits of its possibilities. This is where, is you have any chance of doing so, you may move your reader. Ellendore Watson seems to do a little of the oblique, and a little of the concrete. In 'Rib(cage)', for example, we get concrete images but they are complicated by their loose, tangential relation to each other. The first few lines:

     There's a way not to say this. His father did "x"
     and didn't do "y". His mother was a creamy influence,

     but then she went and died. All grown up, he was still
     a smudge of a boy, no way to be a locomotive. He cut

     the lace off the apron and put it on. He woke up married
     and took it off. He traded the wife for a free-love painter.

He must be exhausted. I know I am. The cynicism doesn't help. It works to reinforce the idea that something very specific feels like it should be happening here and yet the poem is all evasion. A life, in the act of being summed-up, is doomed. And yet this does not happen in a sharp, punchy manner, but rather with a feeling of that strange 'creaminess' alluded to in the first line. Perhaps this is deliberate, but the evasiveness of the poem juxtaposed against the odd moments of surreal non-specificity (as in the 'locomotive') don't constitute for me the kind of conflict that provides energy. Its effect is somehow deadening.

However, I cheered up considerably because I found much more to admire. This work is what you might call sassy, it has a rhythm, its own attitude and a springy pace. This is particularly striking when Watson concentrates on specificities, as in 'Another Something', where the speaker is cut by glass from a trash-bag:

                                          ...sink deep into my leg
     real easy, mingling its juices with mine, activating the body's
     big words and little soldiers.

This is a quirky, memorable poem which ends with an exchange with a doctor about tanning and sun-damage: 'It's called a rush to dubious / beauty, called another something lurking in the body's dark.' Here is a poem which exploits its everyday and very concrete image - that of the body damaged and infiltrated - to the full. As such it is able to open out at the end, unpretentiously suggesting the transition of the girl into adulthood with all its attendant complications arising from the body.

I like it less when I am presented with unconnected lists of images, as in 'Sunday Morning', which is basically a summary of the newspapers, and more when real craft has woven the images into a narrative, as in 'Not a Sweater' with its beautiful negations:

     An unmarriage is not a sweater in half
     unraveled or sheared in two not half
     of anything not husk or shed thing
     or artefact behind glass or in the rubbish
     not at the bottom of the sea calling out

There is real longing here, present in the poem's exploration of language in its attempt to understand what may be ultimately unknowable. That might be one thing poetry is for.

         Abi Curtis 2007