Upbeat and Downbeat

Rough Cradle, Betsy Sholl (80pp, $15.95, Alice James Books)
Winter Tenor
, Kevin Goodan (48pp, $15.95, Alice James Books)

Betsy Scholl's poems are visual and fast-moving, the whole book shot through with vivid imagery. The poems often dazzle - often leave you wondering what they were about, how they got you to where you are.

They're not poems which develop in straight lines. One characteristic  of how these poems work is that what they tell you about and where they're going is not where they start. 'In-flight' takes us on an aeroplane

     ...abstracted from our lives

     like the contents of our bags
          the airport x-ray exposed
     as gray filmy shapes, ghosts of things

     we thought we couldn't do without.

and straight into a changed reality via an airline magazine's photographs of another culture - where we're abandoned, even if we are still buckling our seatbelts. 'In What Furnace' is about a memory of the writer's horse - if the poem can be said to be 'about' where it gets to. On the way, it's also been 'about' her daughter, William Blake, her daughter's horse ... and somewhere along the way I was so dazzled by the gorgeousness of the writing I lost the links between them. Her 'own first horse' isn't just gone, but

     gone now, as so much is gone, as coal sheen
     goes to ash flake, to clinker of black lace,

     gone, but still glowing in night-sweat dreams

When the horse returns to the poem, I'm still entangled in that black lace.

Slippage happens on a larger scale in the title poem. The first section wonderfully evokes driving a small boat with an outboard

                                      ...when we hit the inlet
     we'd idle back so fast our own wake almost swamped us
     sinking us down into water's rough cradle.

The second section of the poem tells of weeks of jury duty - and again what took place is so well evoked; the writer heard

     angles, odds, all the old frauds, turn into syrupy sludge,
     clogged-up engine voice with its futile cough and sob.

How this second section relates to the first (that 'engine voice' is a clever surface link) and then to the third, which is a re-telling of Jonah's story, exercised three us over a long lunch until we eventually came to see the poem as focusing on talk and judgement - rather on the sea, which had so completely engaged us in the opening section.

Rough Cradle, like all Alice James Books, is beautifully produced. Kevin Goodan's more recent Winter Tenor is even more so, still elegantly typeset but now with cover flaps too. Page design is important to this book: short pieces sit well on the page (only one runs over) and there's no ambiguity about which pieces are lineated and which are prose poems. This is a present tense / present moment collection written out of the experience of farm work. No poem is titled: the reader too passes from one moment to the next, not knowing what is to come. Several pieces break off at the end. (There is a contents list though, naming first lines.) I'll quote one of the shortest poems in full, to give a flavour of the writing:

     Came blizzard came lambs stillborn
     Came ravens cawing from pine
     Snow hazarding every breath shadows
     Lost their balance fled a lantern
     Lighted but light is lost
     In whiteness the stamping ewes
     Coo around dark stains
     Every direction overwhelmed bodies
     Iced-up cawing

This is typical of the impressionistic, condensed and highly visual writing. The cover quotes the poem which opens 'White days, a passion for winter birds / Cached in every elm, each goat / With its bell in the pasture / As wind tolls through the landscape.' We are in that moment with the writer.

But the poem I've quoted above is also typical in its focus on death, whether it's bleak weather or not. In the poem that opens 'The first sturdy bee begins', it may be 'March seventy degrees', and four lambs are born; even so

     And one is in the recycling bin
     Dying. The ivy didn't
     Survive the last hard cold spell.

A ewe is 'kicked to death by mares'; there are 'drying tufts / of a rabbit chosen by a hawk'; a 'bloating heifer' is carted 'To the bone-pit by the river'; there is 'Pigeon blood drying on the shit-spreader'. And so many lines of the lineated pieces seem to have a falling cadence.

In the prose poem 'I rise to sound of labour...' he says 'There are things I remember that brought me here, things I wanted to learn' but Kevin Goodan's experience of farming is thoroughly wintry, one of death and blood - even in poems written in summer. So much so, that between readings I turned to other American farmer-poets (Bob Arnold, Wendell Berry) to redress the balance. And that drew my attention to how solitary is the life that Kevin Goodan describes - though he does, in 'Toward night...', 'gaze into the kitchen of the next farmhouse and watch the man with a bad leg hobble from sink to table and feed his mother with a spoon'.

The winter of the book is essentially the writer's own entrapment in winter, '...the ricket fence / That keeps this heart from the others.' (That word 'ricket' is working hard.) A brief reference to 'you with your miscarriage' in 'Even so, what hardships are bred' may provide a context for the tenor of the book, one whose mood is sustained with remarkable consistency across all the pieces.

     © Jane Routh 2009