A Sense of Celebration

, Jaime Robles (Shearsman)

The first thing to be said about this intriguing book is how wonderfully designed it is, from the elegant cover design - image and typography beautifully balanced - to the textual layout. Rarely would I advocate the use of such small type (it can't be more than 8 point) but it's crisp and perfectly legible, even to my failing eyesight, and looks wonderful on the page. A triumph of design - functional and unfussily elegant.

The poetry itself is largely based around the artefacts from the Hoxne treasure, a late Roman archaeological hoard from Suffolk, now based in the British Museum. What's impressive about the writing, apart from its elegance, is the interrelation between description and evocation, so there is a sort of oblique narrative going on here which deals with memory, a sense of loss and of the beauty of 'the artefact' itself, a melding of the past and the present. Prose blocks relate to open-field poetry and a more traditional use of verse form but there's an integrity to the entire work which is satisfying and makes for a very good read:


     Gold flickering the wrist, vein and artery: bordered, buoyant.
     Hinge of hand, jaw - molten crisscross congealed: vowel-sailing,
     a tattered venetian blind: unloosed. She summons, unlocking
     the gate, herding the heart: impatient, restless. Every escape
     lost in the river's rising lineaments: tree, fading mist. Warbler
     rushing across earth, departure a whirlpool. Lips amend the nostril's breath,
     and the outward thrust of words turn earward - hissing,
     sizzling touch and trill. Indwelling the disk of nail the blink of eye
          (from 'Four Matching Gold Bangles')

There's a sense of an emerging quest in the opening section White Swan, where we get:

     I was busy with the details of a bracelet lost many years ago
     on a street filled with people walking north and south.

which merges the teeming present with the archaic past in a visual encapsulation which is wonderfully succinct yet intriguingly suggestive. Robles combines a spare and yet lush lyricism with a hinting at myth and ritual which is attractive, mysterious and yet perennially human, if that isn't too ripe a clichˇ.

     And you?

     Love, too, is distant and fatal, requiring coins for the ferryman.
     A viaticum of words carefully saved -

     placed on the tongue.
          (from 'White Swan')

The relation between the act of art and the product itself is something which Robles plays with throughout the text, though her playfulness has its serious side. There's a section in
White Swan which describes the making of marbled paper, an activity which combines chance with pattern-making, a process which I can well remember experimenting with - intense, frustrating yet very satisfying when you come up with a positive result:

     And the planet veers through space, resembles an afternoon in Los Angeles,
     when we fashioned marbled paper on the patio:
     black, gray, red and gold tangled
     on the face of the pan's water, oily and unmixable,
     baffled until combed into pattern.

     Our fingertips stained, disappearing into the swirl-patterned surface.

     Decorative paper, good for nothing but wrapping the pages of a book.

     Swans glide by, their paddling feet invisible.
          (from 'White Swan)'

The richness of the Roman hoard is more than matched by the richness of the writing itself but this is poetry which has no 'fat' or over-ornamentation. The relation between the artefacts in question with human concerns is both clear and yet intriguing:

     Though carefully packed they were nothing more
     than extraneous. The precious stones prized
     from the rings and gone

     'There is no misfortune in the world equal to separation'

     distance measuring absence

          (from 'Trove')

Perhaps the act of working with materials from the far past enables us to better speculate on the nature of loss itself, between parent and child, between lovers, and to contemplate the nature of desire in a cooler yet not disengaged fashion.

The final poem
Red Boat contains the following lines:

     Clouds mass and flow,
     the gaps between them opening faster than the words you speak

     My history is folded into a square of page and colored with childhood ink -
     its black faded to brown, a seepage away from shadow
     and into time's contours -

The book being written becomes part of the hoard, a meditation on mortality and on life itself, its strangeness and mystery. Yet there's a real sense of celebration here, amid the sadness and sense of loss, filled with beauty and with sensuousness. This is an impressive collection, beautifully structured, taut and pared down yet lyrically rich in its exactness.

              © Steve Spence 2013