Contingencies of Light

Ready Made Bouquets, Robin Lindsay Wilson [78pp, £7.99, Cinnamon]
You Are Here, Simon Turner [102pp, £7.99, Heaventree]

Two contrasting collections here: one making a virtue of simplicity, the other impressing by vivacious linguistic accomplishment, and some lovely lyrical work too. To an extent, both make a notable use of refrain within poems and (Turner) within sequences; both too draw on established art and writing with a mixture of homage and allusion. But I can't pretend that poetics or vision are particularly similar: so much the better for the contemporary poetry world.

To look first at Wilson's 'Ready Made Bouquets', the first thing I noticed was an almost total absence of punctuation: lineation is regular, unsurprising in terms of layout, relying on unadorned language to convey its poetic glimpse. In some cases I thought this worked extremely well, particularly in poems such as 'In the Presence of Horses' which is based on a Hokusai woodblock print. Lines are precise and limpid, echoing their artistic inspiration and offering haiku-like resonance from the everyday: 'I should have a son' says the old man,

     I would teach him
     how to wash a horse

     my friend whistles
     to pass the time

     we walk the horse
     until her tail is dry

     the hill grass is dying gold
     the waterfall is mercury

This is lovely poetry, lightly elegiac and image rich, and Wilson's style is just right. Look out too for poems such as 'Time-Lapse Bouquets', where the quasi-Yeatsian phrases are astute and rhyme-bound for memorability: 'Your hand is shaking./Your eyes close.//I find beauty/in the wilting rose.'

Art plays a large part in many of the pieces here, and I had recourse to Google Images to help make sense of one or two of them - perhaps a bit tricky, relying too much on reader proactivity like this? Others are just nicely drawn from those immediately accessible human experiences you may not even have registered before: that arm gone numb behind a loved one's back 'but not enough / to be a stranger's arm…and this is love/ in Scotland - / this dumb arm / not waking you' ('Love without Comfort'). I liked the element of discomfort, emotional as well as physical, that this poem contains. Where I had less satisfaction was in the poems that were, if anything, trying too hard to make things alright, without any subtlety of syntax to add counterpoint. 'Loch Fyne', for instance, where reading about 'the eternal heart beneath these waves/ where the abyss sighs our souls back home' felt a bit embarrassing - too much explanation deflating the image. So too with some of the structured poems - refrains are great, but I prefer them with a bit more surprise and permutation than is often the case here, and techniques such as going through the senses in 'Belonging' ('smell my smell', 'listen to my listening' etc) also felt too formulaic and needing more of a twist. Contrast this to the 'exit strategy of instant sinew/ And shank bone-breath' from the forest  in 'Out of Order' where the phrasing is far more visceral - I'd like more of this condensed imagistic work from the impressively prolific Wilson, in future volumes.

'You Are Here' has an unlettered front cover, which I thought gimmicky. However the rest of the volume more than made up for it in terms of scope, strength of voice(s) and sheer verbal panache, as Turner shows himself equally at home in the naturalistic (and nature-inspired) lyric as in more avant-garde and process-oriented work. The first section showcases nature poems with the poetic luxuriance of early Heaney. But even here a self-reflexive wryness surprises, as in the first instalment of 'Storm Journal':

     Watching the storm from the bathroom window,
     rain-blasts gusting in, and the holly
     shaking its leaves with every batter of water.
     I thought, “The tough green tongues quake
     in their multiples,” but it was nonsense.

This playfulness, enquiring into the purpose of writing anything at all, persists. 'Why write? These things/ are so much themselves -' ('Geographies'): Turner's poetic combination of acute observation with self-mocking insight pretty much provide the answer in itself: writing is more various than you'd think and enormously enjoyable too. Variations are in fact quite a theme: the sequence 'Mancando' ('variations on a lost poem') is clever and witty and poignant by turns: here's my favourite version of the nine:

     The music that you play
     has opened many windows in me;
     I am, in fact, a city
     of open windows, windows
     in the sunlight, through which
     thousands of tiny birds fly
     in and out, constantly.

This second section of 'You Are Here' is ludic and poetically allusive throughout - anagrammatic version of Wallace Stevens' 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird' included. There are cut ups and permutations; conceptualism predominates, though not emtirely. Next, 'Brummagen' is indebted to Roy Fisher, but nonetheless has some gorgeous original images in its verbal Midlands cityscape. I particularly liked the paradoxical analogy of well-earned urban epiphanies to when 'standing in the backyard, exhaling shot-glassfuls of steam, you wait for the moon to reveal itself from behind a scurl of cloud - full and cream as a reptile's egg, a Guinness crown'. Then there's 'Municipal Amenities' another clever and allusive section, to conclude.

This is, all in all, a very accomplished and entertaining volume. Phrases are eloquently turned, and sometimes revisited to be turned inside out and upside down, 'displaying silver undersides / to the discriminate eye'. ('The Ginko Tree in August' - and the title of this review is a quote from this poem also). If I had one criticism (the blank front cover aside) it would be that sometimes the one-poem permutations such as a couple from the 'Municipal Amenities' sequence are too much, too frequently, and feel rather like reading the same technique applied to yet another phrase. I don't think there's much point, either, in repeating a poem in its entirety later on 'like a CD on shuffle' (to quote the back cover) just because that's what readers tend to do with poetry collections anyway - gain a sense of the book's drift through a 'dipping in' strategy. And I also wanted, in a kind of unreconstructed way, something simpler occasionally, some stronger still point in this glittering sphere of a poetic world. I got closest to my wish in 'Bat Watching: Summer: Second Night' which closes with:

     a passenger jet blinks its landing lights,
     it's pushing through the humped clouds of
     dusk, and the night's first star's pulsing
     high above it, billions of years ago -

Something steady, and simple, and slow. There: perhaps these two collections do go together after all.

                  © Sarah Law 2008.