Confusion is not a Crime

Optic Verve,
Catherine Walsh (130pp, 9.95, Shearsman)

On first 'flick through' of Optic Verve I felt excited  - very excited - it just looked so experimental -  which always gets me going. I like something new - something different, something removed  from the shaggy dogs and arthritic cats. On first scan - for the second time: I could see lots of experimental stuff: pages of narrative, chopped up big poems and chopped up small poems and all sorts of thing in between. Then I'm informed by the blurb that its 'one long poem by Catherine Walsh - Ireland's most radical 'experimental poet' - I become even more intrigued. And Catherine also designed her own cover.

As a poet I'm keenly interested in a poem's construction: I like to see how others go about their composition.

The off centred language of the first few poems drew me in - its almost like a sort of talking backwards:

                ask will or must stay mind                
                none may lost it at most              
                mean by likeness ways miss for more
                nearly what time which what can
                establish for more seeds all can be
                for which only need must be
                always on think is its clear
                for outwardly to regular
                useless call change in can think
                or ever yet well evening of tall ...
                        [Page 11]

They say that ever sentence needs a verb and here we have verb train crash: the first line is made up of: Verb/Verb/ Conjunction /Verb/Verb/Noun; and the second line: Pronoun/ Verb/ Verb/ Pronoun/ Preposition/ Pronoun.

It's this lack of nouns which produce the 'staccato - ness' - this and the juxtaposition of syntax, tense and anything else that looks like grammar. 'I'm lovin it'. Like a radio wave being broken up whilst someone is speaking. The grammar conditioned mind needs something 'real' to hang onto, and when this is missing i.e. the nouns, then the brain flounders and begins to limp from one word to another hoping that sense will come to its aid - but it doesn't - at least not for a few pages.

Peter Larkin in abaxial forests and spaces comes to me. Like going through Larkin's intense woods looking for a clearing. The brain begins to filter hanging onto anything that resembles meaning. Disturbance and confusion give way to something approaching hallucination. The mind is being manipulated and exclusion comes in. The poet is restraining us from meaning but is substituting it with something almost mystical.

The torment eases at page 21, when we arrive at a whole page of prose - which I am a little uncertain of:

         To find oneself constantly in kitchen. Bathrooms too. It does seem
         to predicate a sort of liking. Affinity is too strong a description,
         acceptance too passive, fondness to sentimental. Familiarity states
         the case without evoking anything of the complicated responses

Here the poet lets us back in. I feel disappointed. Keep them out I shout its none of your business. Confusion is not a crime.

We are let into a domestic world of kitchens and bathrooms; Catherine talks about her 'maternal granny'; she has flash backs to the past: going to town in a pony and trap and so on. I'm seeing Harold Bloom in 'his' kitchen frying kidneys in a spitting pan. I'm feeling the work of that master of stream excluding his reader in an illiterate French printing room.

After the prose, the poems begin again. And they become bigger and bolder taking up the page and running in all directions. The abstract is filling the space with images sights sounds and all in a confident Joycean stream. The poems become more and more assured, as the author of seven books finds her footing - almost 'gallous' as a Glaswegian might say:

          A picture of a portrait, Charlotte. Of Charlotte, a picture. A portrait,
          Charlotte. A of a; a Charlotte of a portrait. Charlotte of a picture.
          Charlotte of a picture of a portrait/
                     [Page 31]

By now the poet and the reader are in the same hallucinatory world. The poet is experimenting with words and minds and the reader is on the receiving end. And its not gimmick or intellectualism its experimental craft - none of your:

                           Poetry's bad when words
                           Round turned are to
                           Rhyme fix to the

Optic Verve is a work of abstract art in a poetic sense. Poetry is catching up with the real world of abstract - is that an oxymoron. A big heavy bruiser of a work of art. A lying on your back for years scratching Adam's toes. Yet art - excellent art that is experienced in language, image, sound, nuance, memory. Catherine vortexes the imagination and pulls convention screaming over the barbed wire syntax and denial, where only miracles can breath. The mind is taken hold of and stretched, manipulated and left exhausted.


           James McLaughlin 2010