Title) and other reviews
Here and the Water, Sarah Coles
(59pp, £7.99, Gomer)
Red Arcadia, Mark Scroggins (82pp,
The Voice Thrower, Tim Allen (81pp,
Without, Maxine Chernoff (82pp,
Misadventure, Richard Meier (50pp,
Sarah Coles' debut collection,
Here and the Water (Gomer), is a
promising first showing. The content is immersed in Welsh nature, where you
would expect to find this many instances of birds and water; but you would
also be surprised by how large of a role ghosts appear as forces in the
Coles' free verse writing is at its best when using this haunted and haunting
landscape to feed into her narrator's personal thoughts. 'Herd', for
instance, interrupts the reader:
where you now stand or sit;
to bring attention to a herd passing over the 'white bones / of their kin'.
The importance of nature coexisting with the people of these poems, alive or
dead, is evoked without having to be forceful.
Compared to the poems that engage the narrator's life intimately ('Evie' and
'Visiting Hours'), the ones that deal predominantly with the natural world
('Cwm Ivy to Whiteford Point' and 'Pleuronectiform') verge on 'vague and
muted', to use one of the poet's phrases.
These are few and far between, however, and the collection as a whole is a
genuine success that excites expectations for a strong second effort.
Three Shearsman authors are familiar with second efforts and much more. The
first, Mark Scroggins, has released his third collection: Red Arcadia. Scroggins, a leader in Zukofsky scholarship, exhibits
no intention of using the poem as a vehicle for traditional narrative
clarity. Scroggins' poem, as you would expect, is an object or a poem of
'damage', as he calls it in the final piece ('Damage Poem'). Each object is a
challenge both for the reader and for the narrator, who often reminds himself
of something mid-poem:
the men breathed, it has been estimated,
has by the
third day circulated through
hundred pairs of lungs. Lunges.
Those challenges are enriched, though, by Scroggins' intertextuality, which
spans centuries and countries. This is certainly not a book to be taken on
holiday. It is one to be dissected.
Tim Allen's The Voice Thrower might not stand up to dissection very well, because it
reads like a post-millennium Finnegans Wake. What makes it even more interesting is that the form of
this book-length poem remains in 333 quatrains, combining formal restrictions
with linguistic torture. Dialect, online acronyms, backwards words and more
all fill in the lines of The Voice Thrower, whose title is all too appropriate. Everything,
including classic rock and Macintosh, is thrown together into a narrative
than can be picked up at almost any point to read a quatrain in isolation. If
Joyce posed a question about language and how it builds identity in his last
book, Tim Allen has built upon that work with his latest.
Lastly (from Shearsman), Maxine Chernoff's Without brings together over 60 poems that are without something
('[without a listener]', '[without kindness]' and even '[without without]').
The main thing that these poems are without, in fact, is punctuation.
Chernoff employs an incredibly short line length combined with an almost
complete lack of punctuation (there are the occasional apostrophes and
dashes). On the one hand, this makes it possible to sit down and read Without cover-to-cover. However, when I went back to poems I had
read silently and fluidly, they sounded much different read aloud:
This was because the punctuation (and often the layered meaning) was built
into the poems themselves, but it was not visible on first glance. At times,
I got completely lost in the style and had trouble connecting the title to
the poem. Other poems were spot-on, and Chernoff's take on her society, while
critical (the oil trade), was much less bleak or melancholic than the book's
title would suggest.
While much of the Shearsman
titles' enjoyability comes from their forms and styles, Richard Meier's
Misadventure (Picador) is more
content-propelled. I realize that it's still early on in the year, but I
would expect Misadventure to make an
appearance on the Forward shortlist for best first collection. It certainly
deserves that kind of recognition.
Meier's poetry is interesting, heartfelt and sometimes hilarious while never
losing credibility in any way. The title poem and the long poem, 'Building
Matilda', are poem-length masterworks in showing how to get the most out of a
good topic. The poetry isn't dense or challenging, but only because it
doesn't need to be.
'Three weeks to go' (my joint-favorite piece with 'Canute explains') might be
the single best use of the metaphysical conceit ever. The narrator tells of
an episode in which he saw a blind woman with a guide dog while visiting a
burial ground. The dog was let loose and the narrator speaks to his lover:
know, I am a tethered,
man. But the way that dog danced -
that's how I
feel about marrying you.
It's hard to imagine a better debut collection from the winner of the Picador
Poetry Prize 2010. Under the guidance of Don Paterson, Meier has produced a
must-own book. If he's looking for areas of improvement, there are some
places where lines get a little wordy ('And yet, for all that...' in 'For a
bridge suicide'), which is difficult to avoid in this kind of casual style
(Picador-mate Billy Collins seems to be most successful at it). But this
would just be nitpicking at best. Misadventure is, plain and simple, a debut collection of the highest