Poets in landscapes (and vice versa)

An Ordinary Dog
, Gregory Woods (134pp, 9.95, Carcanet Press)
The Body is a Little Gilded Cage
, Kristina Marie Darling (60pp, $12.95, Gold Wake Press)
Sweet Torture of Breathing
, Lorna Thorpe (88pp, 8.99, Arc Publications)
The Bond
, Maitreyabandhu (32pp, 5, Smith/Doorstop Books)
Love's Loose Ends
, David Tait (28pp, 5, Smith/Doorstep Books)
, David Pollard (24pp, 4.95, Perdika)
The colour of love
, Jonathan Steffen (32pp, 3.50, Acumen Publications)
, Roselle Angwin (90pp, 8.95, Shearsman Books)
Cadastral map
, Jill Magi (112pp, 8.95, Shearsman Books)


The Protean nature of Gregory Woods' poetic gifts is well displayed here in An Ordinary Dog, with its variety of forms and voices. A formidably accomplished formalist when he wants to be, Woods will use humour to make profoundly serious points, and use flashes of wit to leaven (and slip home) the serious. One of the most memorable poems takes issue with a somewhat dismissive review in London Magazine (urging Woods to take a holiday from gay and lesbian themes in favour of a few poems about trees or fly-fishing); soon these recommended sylvan settings are a backdrop to erotic mayhem and the squelch of a critical evisceration. Other works include sonnets and rhyming tours-de-force (including two pieces built on homophonic couplets):

     The shell-shocked soldier, home from war (once bitten
     Twice shy) can't stand the booming of the bittern.
             (from 'Echo's echoes')

This may not work in Scotland - and several deconstruct/reconstruct the themes of the great French men of letters with exhilarating acuity:

     Whatever I'm waiting for,
     it's definitely nothing
     mundane or ordinary.
              (from 'Scenes from Gautier')

I could go on indefinitely if space allowed - there's variety, depth and wit in abundance, and Woods surely merits the wider readership that publication by Carcanet brings. The sheer inventiveness and the linguistic resourcefulness are a joy. Dogs - it's a bit of a red herring... except that, like the dog in the poem referred to, a book of poems wilfully trots off to make its own way in the world. This one deserves to thrive.

'Now the night has been opened like a box of exotic blue canaries & I'm brushing feathers from my long dark sleeves'. Kristina Marie Darling's The Body is a Little Gilded Cage
is assembled from elements that are hardly unfamiliar in Postmodernist (or indeed post-Postmodernist) writing - the prose poem chunks, the notes to absent texts, the poetry scattered sparsely over a page. The prose poems are however vignettes of nocturnal metropolitan dream-life that 'take liberties' with the correspondence of the Imagist poet HD; the notes and footnotes refer elliptically to these and to other, shadowy, histories and esoteric knowledge-domains; the correspondence and the fragments break all these up gradually into effects like the after-images of fireworks. The whole assemblage is, I found, rather dazzling, combining wit, sensuality, precision and an wry acceptance of the elusivess of meaning, above all the meaning of self.

Lorna Thorpe's poetry has a facility for the clinching final line, the stylish dismount which might pall as a manoueuvre were it any less accomplished in practice. The collection moves from mental to physical illness, then to the mental and physical engagements (and tribulations) of love. Expressed with a tough, sometimes sardonic directness, the collection describes a trajectory from darkness to light which inevitably has less powerful things to say about the brighter end of the spectrum, if only because fire and meltdown tend to have the best tunes:

     Last to go is the halo
     which she carries hooped
     like a bag over her arm
     as dented and bruised
     as the wheel of a stock car.
             (from 'Fallen angel')

Smith/Doorstep pamphlets have a distinctive format - the single colour wrapper cover, the unemphatic font - which (in the examples I've seen) sets the scene for an unflashy, accessible content. This is a kind of writing that can drift into the banal or unexceptional, that can make you wonder what the pressure was to write it in the first place, but the editors of this imprint have by and large avoided these pitfalls. In The Bond
, Maitreyabhandu shows a quiet scrupulosity in building an atmosphere and a sense of the waverings of memory through an accumulation of finely-observed detail. The verse forms favoured (typically employing a long, conversational line) eschew innovation in favour of  a timelessness that works well in an absorbing treatment of childhood recollected and adulthood experienced.

     He stops for a moment in the shadow of a tree,
     catches his breath, then hammers in a post.
     It points at something too far away to see.
           (from 'Signpost')

David Tait's Love's Loose Ends
is also taken up with memories, loss and the inscrutability of people loved, this time a retrospect from the uncertain ground beyond the end of a relationship. The spaces in the sparse lines, lines somewhat cool in tone, seem at first to build a kind of membrane to keep the reader out, but very soon the effort demanded by the concision and poise pays off. A melancholy that has nothing to do with sentimentality suffuses these poems and the courage of confronting these moments and writing about them without obscurity or evasion - rather with a wry tenderness - is the lasting impression.

     I start to see hearts everywhere:

     the envied wealth of playing cards, a roughly
     chopped lettuce; and once in the lakes
     a boulder stopped me dead.

     We cover these richnesses:

     that flare in our chests like Chinese lanterns,
     drop as bells through churches.
           (from 'Heart')

Perdika has a well-deserved reputation as a sparing publisher of well-produced and innovative pamphlets; David Pollard, with his nuanced, sparse and intense testimony from the bedside of a life coming to an end, fits very well into the series. 17 of the poems are addressed to the woman whose life is ebbing; the 18th underscores the death by talking of her in the third person for the first time. Pared of all punctuation, shifting subtly from one impression or memory to another, the poems repay, and even demand, a number of re-readings:

     and hope still rises
     easy as mackerel
     to the line that drops
     an introspection
     down the waters
     to the arteries of what
     you were and now no longer
          (from '8')

The Colour of Love
employs a knowingly paint-by-numbers approach to the really rather well-worn conceit that love fills the world with colours. Indeed, the exact colours are specified: 'I shall forgive you your Rose Madder moments,/ Your Prussian Blue moods and your Vandyke Brown studies'. As the quote shows, Jonathan Stephen has some fun with the concept and pursues it (across nearly 30 poems) with a light-hearted thoroughness that doesn't altogether avoid dipping the brush in Sentimental Pink or Humdrum Magnolia. But then, they said the same about the Mersey Poets in the late 60s  - and I can imagine a selection of the poems (whose meaning is never in doubt for a moment and whose wit is at its best inventively agile) going down well in performance.

Those of you already in possession of a smattering of Tibetan or the vocabulary of transcendence will know that 'bardo' signifies a transitional or liminal state (Latin has its uses too). Roselle Angwin's 'Zen take on psychogeography' examines just what it is we discover in the contours of place, how much we bring along with us, how much inner and outer landscapes and weathers interpenetrate and rock into some kind of equilibrium. The poems, many formally prose poems, are captivating and in places breath-taking, calm yet displaying a palette of emotional colours, always subtle and open to the world. Here are the connections between landscape and memory, landscape and belief, landscape and identity - one to read and re-read, to recalibrate the senses before getting out into the world again:

     water sutra

     just a slight thickening
     of the molecules that
     make up water

     the seal
     is almost more wave
     than matter

At the crinklier end of psychogeography, Jill Magi asks: 'is traditional writing in nature a cadastral map?' Such maps plot ownership, a particular superimposition of the individual shadow on the apparent neutrality of landscape, and the metaphors of map-making and colonisation, the appropriation of related texts, give the collection a unity and power. As maps of possession edit out the extraneous, so (Magi contends) nature writing narrows the focus, writing white when it comes to the lives lived in landscapes (here, New Jersey, Kentucky and Vermont) across time, omitting socio-political issues, economic struggles and despoilations. Sampling a variety of texts from oral archives, diaries, big utility reports, songs and first person impressions interspersed with photos of notebook entries, Magi restores the hard-bitten lives, the vanished peoples and perspectives:

     geography of hope      we simply
     need it even if we never do

     more than drive to its edge
     and look in

     for reassuring      America
     tough as an Indian

     this is the way to
     learn the grammar of the

     wild invisible ...
          (from 'Cadastral map')

                  Alasdair Paterson 2012