(Without a Title) and other reviews

Here and the Water
, Sarah Coles (59pp, 7.99, Gomer)
Red Arcadia
, Mark Scroggins (82pp, 8.95, Shearsman)
The Voice Thrower
, Tim Allen (81pp, 8.95, Shearsman)
, Maxine Chernoff (82pp, 8.95, Shearsman)
, Richard Meier (50pp, 9.99, Picador)


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 poems.

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:

     Know that where you now stand or sit;
     where you whittle away
     the fading Sunday light...

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 air the men breathed, it has been estimated,
     has by the third day circulated through
     some two hundred pairs of lungs. Lunges.
           ['Goldfinches' 2]

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:

     Wenders' angels
     smile in
     the belfry
     gaze at
     time and
     meaning's pose
     twisting on
     a rope
     of air
     she leads
     to love
     if love
     is falling
     I'll lose
     my wings
     for you
     he says...
          ['[without immortality]']

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:

     ...As you know, I am a tethered,
     youthless 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 standard.

     Sean Colletti 2012