Meditations, Speculations, Fragments

YELP! by Liz Almond (94pp, £9.99, Arc )
The Tethers, Carrie Etter (64pp, £7.99, Seren)
The Solitary, Vuyelwa Carlin (72pp, £7.99, Seren)

Liz Almond's second collection YELP! (which oddly enough uses the word 'almond' in three poems) is a series of meditations, some of them verging on the austere. The opening poems explore the distractions and attractions of solitude:

     You must tear up the rulebook
     and scatter it leaf by leaf
     from the highest cliff. Petals, feathers.
          ('The Rulebook For Being Alone') -

before drawing the reader into more disturbing territory, via a sequence of higher-than-bird's-eye poems. Almond has had the clever idea of naming poems after satellites, and the resulting sequence of seven provides the most memorable images in this collection. In her satellite views of the world - mainly a swathe from the Middle East across to India - the vicious and vital co-exist. In 'Yamal 202', a rose harvest in Iran is explicitly but brilliantly compared to images of war:

     Not far away, some controlled explosions
     look like bunches of white roses
     thrown in an arc across the night ...

In the same way, the tension between the threat of surveillance and the simple usefulness of the mobile phone are brought together:

     Without the hated mast your phone
     can't ring a doctor in the dead of night
     when pain and peristaltic failure

     call from deep inside ...

It would be wrong to suggest that Almond is obsessed with pain: many of the poems here, which have a cool command of language and tone, and which travel easily from one continent to another, are about love and desire. But bring them all together in a single collection, and the eye is torn towards the intermittent images of suffering.

Carrie Etter's The Tethers (her first collection) is harder to get a bead on. Many of the poems here are essentially speculative, some of them quite hard to hold on to as they investigate the territory they have set out to explore. There are three poems, however, which are instantly appealing. One is a snapshot of a woman returning to a man she has divorced some years earlier, a man who is 'forced to apologise/ for the dirty sheets' and remembers 'which sister/ I like least and asks// how is she doing'. I laughed at the observation there, the way the misplaced and inconsequential remark says everything. Another is a spoof of the self-importance of literary magazines and the helpless self-importance of those who send their efforts into them. It's called 'The Review':

     Some neglected authors cannot stop thinking of The Review:
     they can recount the highlights of senior editors' resumés,
     and a simple 'Sorry' handwritten on the rejection slip
     gives them days of delight, even though they suspect
     a mere intern has so condescended. A mere intern!
     No one at The Review is mere. The janitor may know
     whose manuscript lingers on whose desk ...

But the best poem by far, really by far, is about Fanny Brawne wearing Keats' engagement ring throughout her (much later) marriage:

                              I am discreet -
     I clean it only when alone,
         rubbing the boxy beet

      red stone into a dark mirror.

Although I'd have liked to have seen more poems which showed such rhyming adroitness, there is no gainsaying the formal, rhythmic skill with which Etter composes her poems. Unlike Almond, whose poems stare hard into the essence of whatever she observes, Etter seems to prefer a state of indecision (which is fine):

     one night, last night, so long ago
          ('San Fernando Valley Love Song')

     If this is a love poem, that's because I am ready to love everybody
          ('Cult Of The Eye')

                                       ... the dark teen
     daughter of the standkeepers (so she seems)
     gazes in my direction, looks beyond me.
          ('Arizona 2002')

     I think I smell music, violin or tambourine. I think
     the horizon must be nearly gold, as close as it gets.
          ('Late Winter, Early Year')

The hesitations are absorbing, but sometimes the sense of the indefinite is slightly overwhelming.

Vuyelwa Carlin's The Solitary (her fourth collection) is dazzling, but not to be taken at one sitting, that's for sure. Her style is highly idiosyncratic - the punctuation alone is complex, ostentatious, almost vigorous (it occurred to me that it would be interesting to read her work without any punctuation whatever, and certainly, I think, without the explanatory, asterisked references, which are a bit distracting and might be better moved, Eliot-style, to the end).

There are several sections here - portraits of grandchildren, and of an autistic son; memories of her father; a sequence of women, many now dead, who had Alzheimer's, and with whom Carlin worked; poems about the perpetrators and victims of the Holocaust (a really striking poem about Ernst Kaltenbrunner, one of the Nuremberg defendants, and, like the others, photographed after execution); and a sonnet sequence, 'The Solitary', in which voices struggle with their religious convictions (or in which
a voice struggles: I couldn't be sure whether the voices were singular or multiple).

In almost all of these poems, however, there is a recurrent idea of the body being taken apart, and (sometimes) put back again. Whether looking at her growing grand-daughter or at a nonagenarian or at the world through the eyes of a solitary, Carlin sees bits and pieces, fragments and angles: 'baby bone-knolls... your clutch of cells, not quite dry,/ jarred' ('Magdalena at Two Years'); 'bundle of sticks, a marionette unstrung ...' ('Ellen, born 1908'); 'a scum of molecules ...' ('The Solitary'). I could fill this review with examples of the way Carlin senses the tentative manner in which the world and everybody in it hangs together. The effect of these poems, themselves fragmentary, dotted with question marks, made elliptical by colons and dashes, is of impressions crowding in on one another. I can't prove it, but it looks and feels as if there is a forest of consonants, far more of them than one would normally find. This density might be a weakness, were it not that Carlin's control of the language is startling (especially in the sonnet sequence).

While the language consists of clusters of sounds which the reader has to weld into sense, its mood is frequently interrogative, as if Carlin can't quite fathom what she sees, and needs to phrase her observations as questions. The questioning unsettles me a little, as perhaps it is meant to do. These poems are best taken one at a time. One of them, based on a Victorian photograph of a dead child with a Bible, is especially haunting -
     Bloodless, the little bowl of skull,
     its hanging of face -

     the unswirled purple
     slides down through unresisting valves -
     the upper veins are empty.
         ('Dead Child with a Bible')

- although I think the ones I'll return to are the poems about the old women, which memorise and canonise and humanise their predicament with wonderful sympathy.

          © Bill Greenwell 2009