Writing the Loved World

Horses Where the Answers Should Have Been. New and Selected Poems, Chase Twitchell (253pp, 9.95, Bloodaxe)
, Darragh Breen (69pp, no price, November Press)
Shape of Time
, Doris Kareva (140pp, no price, Arc)

Describing a moment in her embattled American childhood, Chase Twitchell writes 'that's when I first wandered off / into the white pastures on my own / with nothing but a spiky quiver of words / and an urgent question' ('Math Trauma'). It's what she's still doing - the white pastures have become the Appalachian landscape where she now lives, the poems ask the questions. Twichell describes her landscape in precise and beautiful detail ('yarrow's coarse lace', 'sky-coloured chicory flowers', 'a twig of orange leaves' ; she's also afraid for it, and with the fearlessness of Cormac McCarthy's dystopian novel The Road, she writes about a future 'after the loved world dies', of the planet with its 'lacerated wilderness' and 'dark plumes trailing the highway's / diesel moan'.

This is far more than a book of 'nature poems', though - the urban is dissected  too (in 'the Hudson's starved and beaten ghost', for example in 'The Whirlpool', and there are gritty poems about a childhood with its 'circus of semen and murder', with Twichell 'slumming in the ghost-lands / of memory', as she puts it.
Twichell also writes self-deprecatingly about her life as a Zen Buddhist, ('I like distraction,' she says in 'Sayonara Marijuana Mon Amour',  'I must not want to be fully enlightened', and raises questions about how to 'be in the moment' and to write about it. In 'Clouds and water' she apologises:

     Sorry, these words are just
     the sound of shovel hitting ledge.
     Who wouldn't rather listen
     to the ins and outs of wind
     the freezing and thawing of water...

Elsewhere she writes of how 'language smudges and erases', and how when she describes something  'it's only the husks of their names / that I've gathered and paralyzed' ('Makeshifts). But luckily for her readers, Twichell goes on trying to do this impossible thing and doing it breathtakingly well. This fat selected and new is full of exploratory, ambitious poems from a poet who's travelled a long way with her 'spiky quiver of words'.


The Irish poet Darragh Breen's second collection is seeped in recurring images of sea, ice, moon (a Victorian glass toy) and inhabited by dogs, pigs, horses, crows and whales, all viscerally and precisely described. In 'Pig Tales', for example:

     We pulled back the still-trembling fleshy ear
     of the freshly slaughtered pig
     to reveal the smooth moon
     that lay beneath.

Even the landscape is animal here with 'a bat-swarm of dead leaves' or 'clouds the colour of whale flesh' and a poem entitled 'Pieta' is about a an 'udder-heavy' cow and her dead calf.

The book's tour de force
is its long central poem, 'The Asylum of the Soul', which draws unforced parallels between Irish emigrant ships on their way across the Atlantic and earlier slave ships: 'Mere patches of / humanity on ships of bark, / mere morsels fasting on / Sailors Biscuits and whale bait', for example.  Even when those who survive reach land it's to 'No Irish' signs, the 'almshouse / shadows' of Staten Island or the 'Typhus province of ice-bound / Canada.'This is powerful, political poem that demands to be read aloud.

Elsewhere there are strong poems about 'Goya as a wolf'' ('He wants this light, to devour it, / to feel its warmth within his ribs') and Francis Bacon's crucifixion paintings, with the artist visiting an abattoir ('the rivers split / from an atlas-worth of veins that / he would sculpt into the clotted jellyfish forms...').
This is a dense, rich book of poems, with its surreal prose poems and original images ('the faint oranged-reds / glimpsed in the bog pools / of an emptied Connemara lanscape / as the dark sod / eats the sun') all revelling in language.  Only the final love lyrics feel a bit flat in comparison to the violence and energy elsewhere, and the book isn't done any favours by its drab grey cover - Breen deserves something much more eyecatching to draw readers in to his strange and potent poetry.  

After these two poets, Doris Kareva's Shape of Time, translated from Estonian, seems somewhat bloodless and abstracted. Kareva trained as a philologist, and these sequences of short untitled poems often explore ideas about language: 'The blood of language roars in a verb' she writes, and  'see / language burst, proud and frenzied, / ancient, awful, and fresh, / into unbelievable blossoms' .Yet there's a sense in which her poetry is 'showing not telling' these facts about language; typically and abstrusely she writes of  'the letters of a wordless word' and occasionally her aphoristic lines verge into new-ageish blandness: 'He who belongs in the universe  / shares with everyone' (61) or 'Whoever has learned to love / has learned to die'. Kareva's poetry is probably more meaty in the original, though: the dual translation shows long compound words in the Estonian which, when they occasionally get translated as one word ('painstone', 'mudpuddle', 'firesmoky'), add energy to the poems.

Amongst the abstractions, Kareva's concrete images stand out powerfully -
a seaside house as 'a ship just landed', 'the thoughtful taste of wild thyme', 'the light in the groves' yellow copse' all give a sense of her northern landscape, and occasionally she alludes to her country's past: 'I am chilled by history. / All borders are cages.' These are intellectually ambitious poems, whose structure with its riffs and repetitions nods towards music, but they lack the gutsy vitality of Breen and Twichell whose poems make the 'loved world' so physical and sensual.

      Elizabeth Burns 2010