Sparse Soul

Chocolate Che
, Damian Furniss (102pp, 8.95, Shearsman)
Seoul Bus Poems
, Jim Goar (57pp, 7.50, Reality Street)

In this highly enjoyable volume, Damian Furniss travels the world writing about his experiences and recording observations. There are poems from Cuba in the fiftieth year of the revolution, amongst the dead and dying in India, through the Americas and in Europe 'on the trail of soldiers, artists and monks'.

Furniss's verse is tight throughout, with nothing extraneous, nothing wasted. For example, in the poem 'If Art Was a Car': 'If art was a car, I'd take this line for a spin / ...just because I can - / that would be a day, a day worth living.'

Immediately, I'm seeing a Kerouac moment unfurling before me. Again, this tautness of language is shown in 'Che in Disguise':

     Plucked bald as a yam,
    Grey streaked in the minge
    That remains of his mane.'

I can imagine, in my head, the poem being read by William Burroughs in that throaty, Southern drawl of his.

There is an easy, atmospheric sense to the Cuba poems in this volume slow, lounging, sassy. Look at this from 'See That My Bones Are Kept Clean':

     When I'm gone, do not moan
     On my long, unbroken bones
     But chink your ringed fingers
     On tumblers well slung
     With slugs of darkest rum..

There's an easy natural pressure (not a force) at rhyme here, and the words slip over the tongue just like that rum must have done.

'Bee Movie' is, again, a close, tight poem full of space and clever rhymes (both end- and mid-line) that masterfully exploit order and form. Got to know the rules to break the rules ask Picasso.

     Edith -
     A pigtail-threaded hat,
     Face like a shaven cat,
     Eyes of charcoal, burning.

     Elva -
     Lean as a guinea pig,
     More skirts than a whirligig,
     Scarlet poncho, twirling.

And speaking of the artist himself, in '9 + 1 = Picasso', IV Furniss pulls Wordsworth right into the 21st century: 'Art is the child of a man / And a mountain of men.'

Furniss can be earthy, sexual without pretence of cloakedness, and has the skill and the confidence to carry it off successfully, such as in 'House of the Genius', III:

     A rabbit, skinned and stewed,
     is a gift, or pigeon, well-plucked;

     pets are loved to be killed,
     and friends like you to be fucked.

You can imagine sitting around with Furniss, perhaps even sipping a mint tea in the Petit Socco in Tangier, around the corner from Burroughs's old room, and him pulling the glass away from his lips momentarily to pronounce 'You cannot lose a cat / As you can lose a mind - / They just go missing..' ('Found Lost Sign').

Well, I can.

A poem such as 'Old Iron' explores the past: journeys, origins and beginings; exquisite, tailored -

     The sunburnt moor of Zennor
     The last flag of shore he saw.

     On his tod against the waves
     To bank the world's last cod

The more one reads this book, the more it divides into its three sections. The middle section is titled My White Ghosts
and I think it's the most successful, the most complete, though that isn't a judgment on the rest of the book.

There are some points where Goar's and Furniss's books cross - and one of these is my mention of a zen quality - and subject matter - to some of the language. In this book's 'Darshan with Dalai Lama' Furniss draws on a zen koan; if you meet the buddha on the road, kill him. 'I am here to kill the Dalai Lama.'

The idea is to strip everything down; to begin again from the ground up. Or as the sufis say: Die before you die.
As if to demonstrate his zen sensibility, Furniss quotes the explorer, traveller and zen monk Peter Matthiessen at one point.

He explores death sensitively and with great maturity in the poem 'The Great British Cemetery':

     Some went to rest with children still eggs inside them, others with
     children beside them, ten in a dozen, baptised by fever of dead in

And in 'Holi at Nirmal Hriday' there is this inescapable (well, for Calcutta) meld of death and politics:

     For a moment I unlearn my politics,
     see a man empty his lungs onto his bed,
     kneel beside him and rub his chest.

But a joining of the two with the poet firmly in control and in attendance. And again, I'm going to have to say it, a confidence that can in poets only come from experience and a thorough slog through a lifetime of writing towards... completion. A realisation, almost an awakening.

Furniss understands Calcutta at this essential level, for example (in 'New Life in Hospice') when describing the discovery of a rats' nest. I see this as a metaphor for Calcutta's poor. It's a beautiful poem, redolent of (in my mind) Seamus Heaney's Blackberries
through its images; its metaphors. The rats in Furniss's Calcutta are the squashed, vivid fruit in Heaney's: straining, strained.

     We found a rats' nest:
     stirring balls of pink baldness,
     glued eyes still blind as pennies.


    even vermin are sacred
    to the dying.

It represents a poet in control of his craft, his art. In fact, as does this entire volume, which I enjoyed immensely on so many levels.

The poems in Jim Goar's book were written in Seoul, South Korea over a few years, and all of them flow into one another, largely without punctuation or individual titles, to form what is as a whole a glorious example of sparse language and observations.

Due to the lack of titles, I will refer to poems by their page number in this edition.

The sparseness of Goar's verse is no better introduced than on p.11: '...all motives in the rain / like chameleon skin blossom'

Goar also skirts around absurdity
, and from experience I can attest to Asia's knack of presenting Ionesco-like bouts of such a condition whilst on the road there. Page 13:

     So what if bald turkeys stole your wedding dress
     My darling
     You look nice in that hospital gown

He also looks at suicide at the end of this same poem:

     And get off the ledge
     You'll kill the dirt if you fall

This seems to hint at a zen-like approach to his travels and condition whilst travelling.

There are in the book what read like forced rhymes and such instances spoil the sense of space; the looseness (in a good way) of Goar's writing. For example, on p.19:

     ...nothing of the sort
     ever does
     in the rain
     what it feigns
     in the sun

though I might be mistaken, and re-reading this again now I can see that on its own I might be tempted to give the poet the benefit of the doubt. In fact, another instance of what I saw as forced rhyme even adds to the overall impression, such as on p.23:

     Nouns hang
     from globes outside
     my window.

     the wall. a name
     was white again.

I liked the way, later on (p.38) that all these themes I've spoken of - sparseness, absurdity, confidence even to test new ground from within near-empty space - come together in a single couplet: 'There is no connection / between tomatoes and poets'

I read the book in a crowded place; kids running around, shouting, playing. Seoul Bus Poems
brought me down, back, to a calmer personal space. It transported me back to a bus in Sumatra with a pig in a sack on my lap, with Elvis gyrating his rhinestone-clad hips on a television screen.

         John Gimblett 2010