Lent Reading

Holiday, Jennifer Firestone (88pp, £8.95, Shearsman)
Raag Leaves for Paresh Chakraborty, Andrew Brewerton (96pp, £8.95, Shearsman)
Let's Not Call It Consequence, Richard Deming (80pp, £8.95, Shearsman)
Jill Magi (80pp, £8.95, Shearsman)

This quartet of poetry will keep you busy until Easter. Holiday reads as a travel (/poetry-) notebook with an edge. Firestone offsets her experience of location with that of dislocation, as though her travels in Europe have provided her with the opportunity 'to vacation the hell / out of things'; to indulge in the tourist gaze while intently questioning it. The conventional docile traveller, who will

     Walk in twos        follow rhythm that is pre-designed
     share a cup think what others are thinking

is not what we get here: Firestone prefers to walk and work single file - even some of her pages here comprise columns of single words. Anyone who's done a contemporary grand tour will pick up glints of (especially Italian) art and architecture here. A Michelangelo sculpture blends spirituality and corporeality: 'Weight of body held by / gowns/stagger to this sorrow'. Firestone is uncomfortable with gendered assumptions ('Michelangelo/ despised painting / "fit for women" ') but I'm more interested in her ability to balance an interest in reading place and perspective with that of poetic process, of her own practice in reading and writing.

     To find the visionary line, perspective, draw it to any item
     and tell me about relation
     if sacrificed what will be offered

I must admit I found the language here variable - sometimes thinly pedestrian; at other times pleasingly surreal (a bite of croissant prefaces, at one point, a ripped tape uncurling from our narrator's chest). Is it possible or even laudable to fully communicate one's holiday experience - and by inference, one's poetic/artistic intention? ' Certain items a person cannot share,' comments Firestone. Yet she offers a wonderfully symbolic conclusion which evoked the whole elusive project: 'The yellow fish slipped through her fingers/ but the feel of water was on her skin'. Communication is fleeting and fails, yet something, even so, is conveyed.

A raag is, literally translated from the Sanskrit, a colour or mood: more often it's a series of five or more notes that form the basis of Indian Classical music. Having done my research, I enjoyed reading Andrew Brewerton's Raag Leaves...: they seem to resonate within the generous white space (left hand pages totally blank) allotted to each one. Composed of shifting phrases suspended within an eight line floating frame, the poems sing of fracture and refraction, the body and water. Here's a complete example:

     plunge pool     over the wrist slipt
     ice lit     noose of water     takes
     my hand away     streaming hand
     to mouth taken in     drinks in the hollow
     of its making     open gifts pour
     through thin     skin my emptying
     hands     flying white     
without haste
     and without rest

There's a Goethe quote in italics here, and indeed the poems are given a few notes and references at the end which are helpful in providing some further anchorage to the delicate cloth of language Brewerton weaves. Elegaic riffs to Douglas Oliver feature the second half of the book. 'in the verge / of here and there     Doug what are you / doing here     with your fair eyes     stolen / upon me'; I don't think knowledge of Oliver's work is necessary to sense the poignancy of a human being lost and gracefully merging into the light and shadow of lifted language. Graceful writing throughout - though anguish beyond the interior and personal is tangible too, particularly in the last poems, which have more of a sense of political injustice. These are intriguing poems, each offering an 'open wall / of light [that] pauses         all that we are'; well worth meditating on.

Let's Not Call It Consequence is a very strong volume. Deming's poetry has a fluency to it which belies at first its thematic jagged edges: lucid and allusive, it dwells in intense anxiety reflected by broken panes of glasses, stark lights, a desolate insufficiency of belief. Faith and meaning are sought for throughout each piece; it's what, Deming suggests, we're here to do:

     Okay, now say what you came here for:

     To stitch a crescent understanding.
                               The unleavened impressions,
     oily smear of doubt against a white hot bulb and then

     to ache, so to speak,
     is human.
                  ('A Fragment of Anything You Like')

Some of the lines in this collection warn against language or any attempt at articulation as too easy an option against the existential void: 'It would be easy / to caterwaul just to feel / the throat's architecture, as blood vessels / know then splay / along the artery's / inky channels' ( 'The Now is Day'). In this poem, sleep comes and unravels the edifice of consciousness. Yet for the restless and verbalising mind, the calling to speak / write remains, is perhaps all that remains in the postmodern ruins of religious faith:

                              ...all that's left is

                                                  the back and forth of fingers

                      over the loom to invent

         these dispersions. Such stammering hesitations of
                the definite - staccato,

These concerns pervade the volume: a profound distrust of speech, but a compulsion to return to it: perhaps that's one of the reasons we turn to poetry. 'Mise En Scene' is particularly powerful in this regard. A man falls to his death. 'How would you begin to describe/ it with words hollowed out by sound?' However you do it, the man has still fallen.  We are left with 'the terror of partial knowledge / only to begin / to begin again'.

I'm not sure I'm fully conveying the eloquence of this volume, nor its effortless echoes of Yeats, Eliot and others. These qualities make it a compelling read. 'In the event of an emergency / the book in front of you / can act as a consolation device' ('They Don't Build Ships Fast Enough to Carry it Away'). Here it's the consolation of language drafting a bleak philosophy.

Finally here, Torchwood (Torchwood! But unconnected to the TV programme) also has spiritual concerns; I particularly like the central section  'Religious Sonnets' which document the quirks and discomforts of growing up a Seventh Day Adventist. One poem shows Adventist founder Ellen Harmon hit by a stone thrown by a school friend. The narrator has no such jolt into (or out of) spiritual vision, but 'went abroad and contemplated culture and self, resulting in the unraveling, leading to apostasy' ('The Great Disappointment'). A mission remains, though, 'to be connected to something spiritual is the issue, having left the tradition'. To an extent, writing offers that pathway:

     Writing grafts onto a life,
     working itself out in the space provided,
     allowing for the litany as it is long and wide.
                  ('Life Sketches')

However the writer's words are offered from an 'un-pulpit'; there is no need for cohesive vision. And though 'Religious Sonnets' have a clear through-line and narrative, other sections of this book are more porous: slim lines tenuous in space, small epiphanies. I like 10/11, with its visual uplift set against a post 9/11 backdrop of caution:

     a flock
     circles until they split
     into two
     rollercoasters and
     back together at the bricked

         I'm not discontent this October
     despite the safety I was warned
     about in September

Magi acknowledges the intrinsic mimicry of writing and speaking: we all adopt voices and are open to misinterpretation: 'My flat speech in variously adopted professional tones. // Merger of you and me and take whatever you want' ('Relationships'). This is always a risk, but could also be a desired outcome, allowing us to receive our own meaning from the un-pulpit. Somewhere behind language and meaning perhaps, the poem shimmers: 'It is tender a map of what is not said' ('Thinking a Kite').
Torchwood is equally adept, in the flare of its various sections, at weaving and unravelling narrative language, doing both with good grace.

         © Sarah Law 2008