What the Au Pair Didn't Nick



QWERTY by Paul Groves, 64pp, £7.99, Seren Books

POLYNOMIALS AND POLLEN by Jay Wright, 121pp, $12.95, Dalkey Archive Press

ALPHABETS OF ELSEWHERE by Tim Keane, 80pp, £7.99, Cinnamon Press

ON SPEC by Tyrone Williams, 160pp, $14.95, Omnidawn Publishing

TENDRIL by Bin Ramke, 117pp, $14.95, Omnidawn Publishing



Since the day I realised that Dylan Thomas's clever shapes on the page were not always such great poems - I was twelve; several days would go by before I read Frank O'Hara describing Thomas performing his poems as 'all that Welsh spit' - I've never really understood the reasoning behind

laying out a poem
with everything centred
so it looks
more interesting than it is
unless of course
that's the point
it's a dull poem
but look
I did something
with it

Surely 'form' should have some connection with content. And once you leave the left margin where, quite frankly, most ordinary little poems might as well stay, centring (now the technology does it for you and you don't have to struggle with the typewriter) is about as lazy as form gets. Paul Groves resorts to this damned trickery four of five times in 'Qwerty'; granted, 'Belsen Funeral Urn' is in the shape (2-dimensional, naturally) of a funeral urn, which a ten-year old might regard as nifty (if they know what a funeral urn is) but otherwise I don't see the point. Neither, if it comes to that, and having nothing to do with shape but everything to do with wasting my time, do I see the point of a poem about a fly in a hospital ward. Why is it with poems I so often don't see the point?

As it happens, Dylan Thomas is the subject of one of the poems in Groves's book, but the connection goes nowhere relevant or fruitful here so I'm not following it. Groves has apparently won countless poetry competitions and has also, if the acknowledgements page is to be believed (and I'm sure people sometimes invent some of that stuff), been in so many magazines I am almost in awe. Almost, but not quite. The only reason I can remember some of the poems in the book is because they annoyed me so much, or would have annoyed me if I was still prone to poetry annoyance.

I can just hear audiences at the poetry prize-giving events murmur their appreciation and sadness at hearing the one about the construction worker falling off the half-built Chrysler Building. Listen: they're chuckling at the one about the careful woman driver who mollycoddles her car, and one or two smart guys are trying to figure out if there's a metaphor lurking in there or not. After chuckling at that one they'll be in stitches at the one about how nowadays too many women write poems, then they'll be pulled up short by the TLS poetry competition winner which is moving only because it's the sort of perfectly constructed well-made poem about the kind of common sentiment you can't fault but which is so run-of-the-mill that trying to fault it would be almost worth the effort. I'd quote, as if a quote would explain my offhandedness and boredom, but I've lost the book. I think the au pair has nicked it.

The au pair nicks loads of things, but I'm tempted to give her as a parting gift (the deportation order has just arrived) Jay Wright's 'Polynomials and Pollen' if only because she'll go crazy trying to figure out what polynomials are. I tried to find out by looking on the internet, and I'm still suffering from the headaches it gave me. It doesn't really matter. And skipping light-foot past the difficulty of its title one comes to the difficulty of the book itself. It's about as far from the poetry world of Paul Groves as one would wish to go on a Saturday afternoon with the sun shining everywhere except actually into the room in which one sits. It's the difficulty of a beauty that seems intent on keeping the ordinary mortal at arm's length.

Wright is a pretty big player on the scholarly side of American poetry, but I wouldn't pretend to know much more than that about his work. 'Polynomials and Pollen' is conceived as a 'masterwork', which sounds incredibly pompous but really only means that the book is one long discrete work rather than a collection of little poems. Here's a taster from the first page (page 3):

The fothergilla major
an acceptable
device for spring
The poet
measures his anxiety
in the glabrous leaf,
or the conspicuous white of May.
So much is dream
of orange yellow autumn
so much is the inconspicuous
nerve rending of solitude
where the garden begins, or ends
- the shrub teaching
the exhilaration of retreat,
perhaps a rest,
perhaps the deciduous
invention of time.
Paul Groves, eat your heart out. Of course, I don't really know what these lines mean, and I'm not overly enamoured of the kind of poem that in the first line makes me wonder what on earth a fothergilla major is and also makes me wonder (albeit for a nanosecond) whether not knowing what a fothergilla major is constitutes a significant failure on my part, but there is something fragile and beautiful about these lines that renders me more than happy to turn the page and hang in there. It's worth doing. I mean, you can do a lot with the deciduous invention of time once you've decided what it is or could be. The main problem I have with this book is that for every passage of opaque beauty there is a passage of sheer bloody-minded 'I know lots of words that you're going to have to look up' kind of poetry, and it can get a bit wearing. Like, I don't know what a 'khorodidaskolos' is, so when the poet tells me that his khorodidaskolos has tuned the act that perfectly reveals his tongue-tied ambivalence when the chorus calls his name, well -

there is, I admit, a fascinating blend of the concrete and the abstract in this poetry, and it all sounds wonderfully meaningful. Much of it is a pleasure to read even when, and perhaps even because, meaning is as elusive as meaning can be, but where meaning may be problematic one has the music, and music may well be the meaning, or part of it, if you get my drift. Maybe 'it lives only in its deciduous ambiguity.' And perhaps the au pair will work it out on the plane home.

She'd be able to work out Tim Keane's 'Alphabets of Elsewhere' because there's nothing tricky about it at all. I was initially attracted by the opening poem - 'Painting Daybreak' - and its roller-coasting and somewhat eclectic bubbly list of things tangible and intangible which are there at the poet's daybreak and that he will (yes) 'paint'. It's kind of ok, but a few pages and a few poems of varied quality later (one, about a past schoolteacher of the poet, is perhaps supposed to be prose; it's difficult to tell) a poem begins with the couplet

Born at odds with the actual,
I'm a sworn enemy of the real

and I'm well into not particularly liking the personality I'm reading. I know that reading poetry is hardly to do with whether or not you think you might or might not like the poet as a person, and it's daft to dislike someone you only know through having read their poems for half an hour, but the world's not a fair place and I don't care. To read Keane on the same afternoon as Jay Wright is akin to bolting down a load of Sunny D straight after a quality liqueur. (Forgive me, it's been a difficult week.) At best he could do with a decent editor. At worst, he's the kind of poet who proclaims his poet-ness by turning the ordinary (which can very well look after itself and doesn't require tampering with) into what, according to the au pair, they call in her homeland 'reading uphill':

After the rain, a teaspoon you held over
your lips caught July & hid the tuck
& dimple of your grin. In velo
under leaf-
shadow by the Bois, we broke to fruit
halves. Your face bloomed with freckles.

Maybe you quite like this sort of stuff, in which case this might be one to pop on to your wish list. I had to slam on some loud music to clear my head after I'd read the last couple of lines in the book:

I am bound on a journey without end
& can no longer bear the song of the cuckoo.

Tyrone Williams, in 'On Spec', maps the social space of language with an unflinching ear: tracing the networks of unintended associations trailing behind words from different registers and plotting the vectors at which disparate planes of idiom and vernacular intersect. Are you still with me? I should've put quotation marks around that piece of critical gibberish because I copied it off the back of the book. Imagine they're there, because I can't go back. I'm on a roll. The au pair just told me in her faltering tones that the only thing that matters in a work of art is that it should be interesting and connect in some human and emotional way. I stopped myself from pointing out that's actually two things, and went away into my corner and pondered her wisdom from another country. And I took Tyrone Williams's book with me, because I'm fed up of looking at its somewhat boring cover and if I'm going to write about it then probably I should open it.

The thing about what some people call innovative poetry and other people dismiss as unreadable baloney is that, when push comes to shove, my take on what constitutes innovation and what constitutes baloney is that you're sometimes not sure which it is even when you've read the stuff, and all you can be sure of is how you feel during and after reading. Did you smile? Did you have momentary flashes of insight? Were you lost at sea? Did you afterwards dash and play The Pixies' 'Where Is My Mind?' just because the words 'where is my mind?' were exactly what you needed at that moment? Did you smile, ever?

These days I try my best not to dismiss a poetry that I can't get any kind of a handle on as baloney. I just have to say it leaves me cold, and move on. So, Tyrone Williams's 'On Spec' leaves me stone cold, and I'm going to move on in a minute or two. But before I do that, I feel obliged to mention that we already know that language does certain things, and we've known about those things for a long time. We may choose to ignore the things we know, and that is probably not good, but they remain not new, and I rather favour poetry that tells me something I don't know in a lively and interesting and engaging way rather than the opposite of all those things. So, a poetry that is all about connotations and denotations and the racial ideologies inherent within the ways 'texts' work and intersect is, perhaps, not going to surprise us with anything new. Tyrone Williams's stab at it has such a tremendous purpose urging the weighty project on that it risks being weighed down by its own sense of seriousness and importance. I could be wrong, of course. It's been known.

(NB No, I'm not quoting from the book. Why not? Take a look inside a copy and tell me how to choose which chunk to quote. It's impossible.

Oh okay - here's the stuff off page 89 which is short and called 'Waving Back With The Life Preserver'……

2 x I do =
h minus/plus h
'parallel lines that meet'
pearl necktie
perforated wristband
parole ankle bracelet (langue State)
pool (pocket or drain)
hello -
Munch? Monk?


Moving on:

to Bin Ramke's 'Tendril' which (the au pair has just pointed out to me and which I now notice for the first time) is from the same publisher as Tyrone Williams's book. I actually first looked at Ramke's book about three months before the other things reviewed here arrived and it's been hanging around, and it's a pleasant good fortune that I've left it to last and picked it up again straight after Williams's book, because it provides a rather nice complement and contrast to it. The first time I looked into it at Easter (I was in China, sat at a beach café drinking coffee and watching Russians sunbathing; don't ask) I scribbled a couple of first reactions in a notepad and still have those notes. They said 'this is language i.e. words and what they not only 'mean' but also 'mean'. He could've written that. It's like the brain query intellectual exercise of trying to explain why one is here, and somehow sometimes making marks like his mother is what it is and means (page 30)' and 'I like this because I don't understand what it means but it's words we are'. It was very hot and I was a little distracted by the Russians but at least I wrote something. Maybe I should've thrown away the notes, but actually it's an interesting if inarticulate first reaction quite the opposite of that prompted by Williams's book, though both books are very concerned with language as something of 'a subject'. But where Williams is concerned with language as a political subject, Ramke is taken by the way in which whatever it is we have, we have through words. They're 'things', with histories (etymology) and usages and beauties and endless links. Tendrils, get it?

On page 30, if you were wondering why I made a note of it and mentioned the poet's mother, is the 2nd page of the poem 'Gregg Shorthand Dictionary', which is worth quoting in part. It centres around the poet's mother as shorthand typist:

On birthdays, when I called, I imagined
the lines forming, the quick strokes
not of her actual hands but of the hands
in her head she imagines as my voice.
Turning conversation into verse, returning

like drawing. It needs a pencil carved to particular
pointedness, a degree of sharpness. She practiced
sixty years in the privacy of her own caprice.
(from Old French pincel
, from a diminutive of Latin peniculus
diminutive of penis)

It's worth quoting because here are the primary concerns of Ramke's work: the personal and interpersonal, the thingness and life of words, and the way each of these elements combined goes some way to, if not explain the complexities of our lives, at least shed at times a little light on it all. One of the things I like about this poetry is how the poems include other lives, as in 'Sad Houses':

If some small mind among mountains asserts
a self (any self will do) and makes a home of height,
then it says
a self out of hope and fair weather.

But weather is where we, in the end, live, and nothing
will do but bend to it.....

but the writing itself is always edgy, challenging, and, as in this concluding stanza of 'Tea Party', substantial enough to be both beautiful and rewarding of return.

What is broken, what is whole, is
if you can touch it it will break. If it can touch you
it is whole. If it is it is, isn't it, or: we met
over tea on a veranda, looking out over - not
at each other, there was a landscape - looking out
over the steeply declined land and there
was a ribboned gleam below, of course, the course
of a simple river gleaming in the last of the lingering
sun, the kind of setting poems arise from, like mist
missed from the river which, in spite of its shimmer
is less river than rivulet, riven by land, the dirt declining
into, dissolving in, solving into itself. We resolved
never to taste that river, that water, water that was
has been so solved, so used to dissolve the lingering
issues of mist like a little landscape watched we did
didn't we, not each other but the little sun going we
watched sitting as we were side by side touching
(we cannot recall possibly our shoulders touched)
each the other, the warmth of the warmer one
draining into the cold or colder flesh of the other,
but we cannot recall and we no longer break.

© Martin Stannard, 2008