The Prose Poem is Alive and Well!

The Scented Fox,
Laynie Browne (114pp, $ 14, Wave Books)
Linda Black (102pp, 8.95/$15. Shearsman Books)
Lyn Hejinian (150pp, $15.95. Omnidawn)

Here are three books which confirm the prose poem is alive and well, even if you won't find many prose poems in your local Waterstone's.

I must confess that I initially found The Scented Fox
hard to review. Usually when I am sent a book, I read through it slowly over a few days, let it soak in, and then go back and make notes in pencil next to the poems themselves. However, with Laynie Browne's poems I found myself going into a trance each time I returned to them. I was lost and wandering in a kind of alternative universe, in a way I associate with the work of, say, Rosmarie Waldrop.

The Scented Fox
is made up of a series of prose poems (and a few lineated poems, too) which combine a fragmented, fairy-tale language with more abstract, conceptual phrasings. The effect is immediately both puzzling and beautiful, enticing you in again and again. Let me quote a few lines to show what I mean:

     So we speak of penetration as towers, a blue building withered in snow.
          (From 'Letter III')

     She was confused when he asked if she would prefer to pass the night
     in the forest, or to pass through the forest at night, or to pass the
     forest entirely. Her dress of white silk embroidered in gold had caught
     along the scenery. Her boots of blue satin appeared muddy. Must the
     forest be a part of the sentence she asked. Of course it must, he
     answered, since no one has entered the tale except those who enter
          (From 'The Forest at Night')

     The spiders seem absent leaving only these webs and working quickly.
     I did not mean to startle this arrangement.
          (From 'Letter V'.)

Browne uses certain archetypal motifs, such as 'the travelling crystal', to weave a harmony between her broken narratives. She is not afraid to take risks and use archaic language when it suits her purposes, almost as if she wishes to bind her readers in an ancient spell. She continually punctures our expectations, yet is able to take us with her every time. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in how language  can be both disturbing and beautiful at the same time.

Linda Black's prose poems are far more rooted in contemporary, everyday reality. One can see this with a glance at the titles: 'Advice to Lodgers', 'There's a telephone (667478)', 'House Mite', 'Hints and Tips', 'Door', and so on. It is the so-called ordinary, familiar objects which show us what our lives and our relationships are really all about. Black examines these with a deadpan humour, and in a language which can be all the more moving because of its coolness and concision. Black has the ability to summon up a relationship in just a few words, for example in the prose poem 'Nothing Discarded':

     Not a broken iron, a dried up paint pot. Socks and pants ironed. Each piece of clothing neatly folded in a plastic bag. Boxes and boxes of her unworn shoes I gave away.

I'm trying hard to wear my new boots.

At the same time there is a celebratory quality in her attention to small things, as if it is these alone which can reveal to us the true meaning of our lives. Here is a prose poem to a 'House Mite':

All the usual accompaniments; tinkling bell, voluminous ears... my clothes are specially made (I know a little mouse). I have my favourite places - the rhubarb patch, the folds of a handkerchief. Your house is my palace. Wherever you go so do I. I dodge and follow. I climb sash cords; unpick hems, mix salt and sugar. I pray for you.

The book's sections are interspersed with Black's own superb drawings, which humorously and horrifyingly combine the domestic with the nightmarish - a sort of Goya let loose on a family in suburbia. They reinforce the idea that there are lots of other, chaotic lives we lead alongside the tidy one we try to present to the world.  The ordinary can quickly be turned upside down, your 'mother locked in a jar of ginger', your father remembered with 'six fingers, a hooked nose and one eye [...] a dewdrop and a pack of Woodbines.' 

is Linda Black's first full-length collection - a talent to watch out for! 

Lyn Hejinian's book of prose and lineated poems is in a sense more purely conceptual. It is actually two books in one. Circus is a kind of novel or anti-novel and can be both thought-provoking and witty:

     We are sentimental because we have a sense of time, Quindlan says,
     we have a sense of time because we only take in so much of the
     world, we attend and withdraw, attend and withdraw, and that
     withdrawing is the tick we hear, the shutter clicking [...] rank

'Chapter 1', 'Chapter 2' and 'Chapter 3' are repeated in endless combinations, as if the story has to keep beginning again. And there are other chapters such as 'Chapter Around', 'Chapter Aside' and 'Chapter to See'.

I have to admit that I had problems staying with this. After a few pages, it all started to feel a little hollow and one-dimensional, however brilliant it is in patches. In a quotation on the back, Circus
is compared to the work of Gertrude Stein, but for me, in this book at any rate, Hejinian simply does not have the ear of Stein.

The second book, Saga
, is a poem sequence which uses a journey by sea as a metaphor for life, love, literature, all those things which remain important to us. Here, instead of the prose poem, Hejinian uses lines of varying lengths which both urge us forward and interrupt us at the same time. Hejinian has that capacity to convey an idea and in the same breath move us with her lyricism:

                                      [...] I remember
     Patches of my own adolescence as I catch glimpses
     Of patches of turbulence the wind is picking up, tearing
     At the surface of the sea
     But in those days my imagination drew thick forests
     Into which I would dash
     Into a secret future
     Between trees, walking the forest floor on the outer edges of my feet -
     Silent, invisible, an infinite process of disappearing.

In many ways, this book looks back to the Romantic poets. It doesn't always work for me. At times, abstract nouns are piled up and Hejinian slips into the overly-prosaic (at least when compared to the high moments in the poem):

                  [...] A glance into the distance
     Raises these doubts and I take shyness, pity, suspense
     And pride as signs of aesthetic well-being
     For which I can't account, the sea absorbs
     Our inexplicable feelings.

Nevertheless, Hejinian's voice remains a vital one in contemporary poetry.

              Ian Seed 2009