Observational Wizardry, Intimacy and Work
Salvation Jane, Greta Stoddart (60pp, £7.95, Anvil)
Supreme Being, Martha Kapos (62pp, £8.95, Enitharmon)
Strange Trades, Kristy Odelius (85pp, £8.95, Shearsman)
Return to Bayou Lacombe, Jan Villarrubia (64pp, £7.99, Cinnamon)
The Treekeeper's Tale, Pascale Petit (72pp, £7.99, Seren)
What does a poetry-reader want? This one, I know, is not going to be happy unless there is some observational wizardry - there must be moments when a word or an analogy will nail a place or an action. And I need a degree of intimacy in the speech: someone to talk to me about interesting things. I also need someone to make me work a little harder than I might do if this was prose. I don't mind hard reading; I like a challenge; and I like surprises.
Tone is everything in some of these new collections. In Salvation Jane, Greta Stoddart frequently strikes an uncertain note, hesitates, retracts, tries to define what is going on, but can't be sure. 'Maybe it's this orange lamp...', 'I don't know/ what it is to belong/ / to any such group/ or what to say', 'The river... has nowhere special to go/ but goes there all the same' - these kinds of phrases are recurrent, and are epitomised in the best poem here, 'Faithful':
It's still a mystery
to me that time I woke, my ankles flecked,
the dull bloom of a bruise, when all I recalled
of the night before was a good soak, a book.
As is this. Me, here, content
night after night to bed down with you
but turn to the window we keep shut fast -
the better to make a running jump, the break.
The tension between the safe and the precarious is what makes Salvation Jane work. Stoddart is also a nicely unostentatious formalist, whenever she wants to be: you don't notice her occasional rhyme-work, her echo-patterns, which is at it should be. And her quietly agitated writing contains some occasionally startling phrases, as in an image of swifts, 'fluid/ workmanlike, fixing rips in the sky'. Sometimes, her images can confuse - for instance, here is one of the stars:
how like the dead
they far and away outnumber us
who find ourselves under their
continual shining remove
but holed up, leaning in
like beggars round the one light.
I think the word 'remove' may be the problem (being under a remove is a slightly complex construction), but there are also too many plural nouns (stars, the dead, us/ ourselves) to make immediate sense of 'beggars'; and there is the distraction of the play on 'far and away', as there is the tangent about the dead outnumbering us. The 'one light' is, we realise suddenly, the television, and the simile has considerable power - but Stoddart is putting obstacles in the reader's way.
For the most part, however, Stoddart keeps her poetry clean and unfussy, leaving us to dwell on neat observations, many to do with new motherhood, as when (in 'At Play') she moves from observing the 'inscrutable law' of the havoc a toddler leaves in its wake, only to spot the child's 'first grasp of things. That hole/ you dug for the broken man.'
The controlled, understated passion of Stoddart is mirrored to some extent in Martha Kapos' Supreme Being. Kapos, like Stoddart, has a very sure control of rhythm, and uses this skill to take you on ruminative journeys, in which we need to concentrate to follow her thought-patterns. In many ways, the principal pleasure of reading Kapos is in following her process of imagination, rather than the subjects upon which it alights, always very delicately indeed. The fondness she has for light, sky and water sometimes creates a curious intensity which draws you away from what is seen towards how it is seen, and, at least on initial reading, gives the poems an odd but not off-putting absence of substance. This is particularly true of the defining (and most powerfully enigmatic) inclusion, 'Speculative Poem', which is one of the best poems about the random nature of creativity I've read, and which opens:
It starts with the only image
that shows up: a flat and featureless blue,
a sky as inattentive and remote
as if a door had slammed.
Not leaving aside that truly beautifully constructed image of the sky (we all write about sky, but that is astonishing, and comes after the pleasing ambiguity of 'shows up'), the poem goes on to move through imaginary rooms, mysterious figures, all almost pointlessly interesting. After diversions (and a wonderful description of water as 'scrawny'), Kapos concludes with a series of unanswerable questions. Why does one thing lead to another? Supreme Being contains poems which dive in and out of images of death, of motherhood, love, but the emphasis is always on the 'vacancy' from which these poems emerge, and on their 'trajectory' (a word used twice).
It is easy to give a sense of Kapos's sense of the void out of which meaning is constructed by cherry-picking her poems: 'you've never been/ so pure as this/ blank blue racing overhead'; 'What was the difference between all the words/ for water and the water itself?'; 'the mob of the senses'; 'A fresh twist of the plot, it was always/ taking shape on the next page'; 'The eye is speechless'; 'I'm writing from a distance impossible/ to imagine...' Perhaps it might be construed as a danger that Kapos always seems more interested in the art of questioning than in the act of observation. Supreme Being needs to be read several times, and this might tire an unambitious reader. But I loved it more each time I went back to it.
Harder still is Kristy Odelius's Strange Trades (her first full collection). But that's only if you try to read it logically. To get into an Odelius poem, you have to take off your skin, fold it over a chair, and let the imagery scrounge its way into your sinews. The language is startling, disconnected, itchy, wry, and discriminately indiscriminate. The landscapes they inhabit are minefields of allusion and illusion. In 'Interview', she asks
brain's cheap all-night
diner, aren't you flying?
Sporting your rare parure?
and immediately invites you to
Tell me I'm sutured, curled
up in the right angles of,
the propositions of, the riptide
of my pimp pas de trois.
So in these seven lines, we've been considering flying in diners in matching jewellery (had to look that one up), and to tell the speaker she is stitched, curled up in a 90 degree angle of a seductive cross-current which is like a flash ballet-movement (I am going for the most neutral version of 'pimp'). We can't read this except as an impressionistic rendition of 'Don't you feel good? Tell me I look good.'
And that's fine by me. Odelius loves testing the reader, and she is in total command of the sound-waves which move through her work, which is studded with diamonds, some of them crazy with energy and music - 'the ocean's/ backstitched locomotion'; 'there's so much time/ to make a glockenspiel of wall-paint/ and moccasins'; and, in perhaps the single almost-conventional poem here, an image of the sky to rival Kapos. The poem is 'Third-Grade', a half-ironic manual for young girls:
the sky will crack like a tray
of ice cubes and the clouds
shudder glory, glory.
If you like the idea of a carnival of experiment, an upbeat sequence of joy and desire, a screwball series of post-modern conversations, 'a dialect of desire', Odelius is for you. The only thing I don't like are the self-conscious titles, although I did like the madcap Shakespearean 'MY MISTER'S EYES ARE SOMETHING LIKE DIM SUM'.
Jan Villarrubia's Return To Bayou Lacombe is her first collection, and consists of a series of snapshots, in the main, from her life - either as a child in Louisiana, or, in the opening sequence, during the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. This is nicely naked autobiography, with Villarrubia playfully stitching together glimpses of the figures and visions of her family, friends and locations. Autobiographical poetry is always hard: but this looks outwards as well as inwards, and enjoys re-working tiny incidents. The strongest poem here is 'Hors D'Oeuvres', about going crabbing with her father, finding
hundreds of baby soft-shelled crabs
you called hors d'oeuvres.
That sweet, sweet night of hors d'oeuvres.
The right time of the tide and phase of the moon.
The right side of the right sandbar.
So proud to bring home
and that one sandy flounder
resembling the man in the moon.
Villarrubia has a sentimental streak, it's true, but she also has a laconic intimacy which prevents all but a few poems from being cloying. The post-Katrina poems ('postcards') which open the collection have an eye for the odder experiences of being displaced: 'The deaf cat left in the kitchen,/ dog on the screened porch,/ old woman with her pink, just-manicured nails./ They all sway and wave./ Her hair has come undone, undulates under water.'
Pascale Petit's latest collection, The Treekeeper's Tale, is really four short collections, which sometimes play off one another. The title and opening sequence invests redwood trees with sanctity, with myth, and although there are always phrases to please, I found this section almost too rich with imagery - with 'choirs of concentric colours', 'an infinite green fugue', 'the chalice of a sky-pool', 'upper storeys/ where birds sing hosannas'. It's as if Petit has become too caught up with the idea of nature as sacred: these opening poems blur repetitively into one. But the second section, 'Afterlives' is as good as anything Petit has written - startling realisations of other-wordly phenomena from across the planet. In fact, I would have been ready to recommend you buy this collection if it had consisted of 'Afterlives' alone.
What happens in 'Afterlives' is that Petit shifts from making myths of out of nature, and turns instead to realising the mythological properties of the sacred burial sites that archaeologists have uncovered, from France to Siberia. She animates the women she observes in these strange, elegant hidey-holes, and - and here is the difference from the first section - she brings her own passions to them. There are gorgeous, intense depictions:
Pull back the marten fur blanket to view my necklace
of carved camels.
Lift the blouse from my shoulder to find flesh
tattooed a deep midnight blue -
a frieze of deer-horses with blossoming horns.
and, in associated poems, some inspired by amazing moths, some daring sidelong metaphors:
He seemed to hang there in the air
in pyjamas of pearl and ash,
half a wedding-suit of rosefire...
as if you'd leapt out of yourself
and were heading upstream. For a moment
you hung there, half out of your skin,
your body lost in the shadows.
These extravagant poems, and those which follow - including some translations resulting from her travels to China - are painterly, exquisite, delirious, half-drunk on the sensational sights Petit has seen, real and surreal journeys into the ancient imagination of the world. The Treekeper's Tale has a kind of false start, but whips up a storm thereafter.
These five collections are disparate in style and content - to the extent, I think, that any reader might discard four of the five, but hold on to one with particular relish. For me, it would be Kapos. Hers were the poems which came back and back, inquisitively, into my head. It may be that what distinguishes her work is a certain spareness, which, when in company as here, reads as if it especially careful to say only what is absolutely necessary.
© Bill Greenwell 2009