Reflecting and Transcending

Limits of Control, Steve Spence (76pp, 8.99, Penned in the Margins)
Thought Disorder
, Joshua Jones (84pp, 6.00, The Knives Forks and Spoons Press)
Divining for Starters
, Carrie Etter (85pp, Shearsman)

I direct the following to myself as much as to anyone else:

given that for what seems a very long time we (by which I mean some poets and their readers) have been reading and writing about the uncertainties of our times and the challenging predicament we find ourselves in, wouldn't it be refreshing to read not something that reflected those times and that predicament but something that transcended them? Something that didn't make us feel what we already feel (that is, tell us what we already know) but something that made us sense other possibilities? Something that heightened our awareness of more than only the mundane?

On the other hand, of course, one can argue that the very act of making poems, the creative act of writing a writing that reflects what we have, is in itself a way of standing up against it and holding out the hope of something other. You can argue that.

Anyway, it's just a thought. And now to business:

Steve Spence's Limits of Control
is pretty interesting. It's a collection of prose poems, and about 75% of the lines  I mean sentences are killers or almost-killers you'd wish you'd written or, given that most of them are "found" or lifted or whatever the correct term is then perhaps you can only wish that you'd found them first. I remain endlessly fascinated by the processes of collage/montage or whatever. By which I mean, it's not as easy as it looks. Take 'Do you want to earn and learn?'

     Of all weather phenomena clouds are surely
     the most interesting. He grew vague when
     questioned about the details of battle yet his
     oratory is still recalled with awe today by those
     who were around to hear it. Sharp black jackets
     are teamed with retro-lace knickers and knee-
     length shorts. The scale of the problem means
     that green technology is unlikely to be enough.
     Clearly, our mission to persuade the world to
     look up and notice the clouds is far from over.
     Omnipotence may survive only in fairy tales, in
     childhood, in neurosis and in dreams yet death
     squads roam the streets with impunity. You must
     have a proven track record within a similar role.

Let's take this sentence by sentence just for the sake of it. Clouds appear continually throughout the book, so their presence here (on page 46) is understandable. At least half of the next sentence comes from a newspaper article (don't ask me how I know; I just know) and the following sentence, with minor amendments, comes I think from the same edition of the same paper. The "green" sentence is again part of a recurring theme, as reference to an oil-spill occurs throughout the book. As for the mission and the clouds, I suspect this is the author tampering with something else found. The first half of the next sentence sounds like it's lifted from an article (fairytales and neuroses are often linked, for sure) and, last but not least, the final sentence is one of many throughout the book that appear to come from a job application form or job description or something of the sort.

One could do the same exercise with any of the pieces in the book and come up with much the same result. And where this kind of autopsy gets us is questionable, I guess, except that quite how the poet makes the choices that are made is endlessly fascinating, I think. I already said that. But of course it's not the mechanics one should be thinking about when reading. I have to be perfectly honest and say I found myself tiring after a while. Perhaps trying to read a lot of what are basically uniformly structured poems in one sitting is not a great idea: however "readable" in tone and texture the individual poems may be, a certain monotony creeps in if one goes for the marathon read. But one wants to keep in mind the recurring motifs and themes, perhaps, and dipping in and just reading one or two at a time may or may not work so well because those recurrences contribute to the whole thing. The book also raised the question I posed at the beginning of all this, because the back cover tells us that it "speaks to the challenging predicament we find ourselves in." It may well do. It may very well do. But we already know what that predicament is, don't we?

Speaking of challenging predicaments, my friend Bruce browsed through Joshua Jones's Thought Disorder one day while I was struggling to uncork a bottle of Great Wall red wine. He asked me what I thought about poems where the first thing you get from them is that the writer went to university and probably studied literature, and the second thing you get from them is a strong desire to ask why occasionally in some poems you get               gaps              between words that don't seem to achieve much either in the way of affecting the pace, or the rhythm, or any meaning. Suddenly I had three challenging predicaments on my hands: a recalcitrant cork, and two questions I couldn't readily answer.

Well, I uncorked the wine and a few days later (it was a very big bottle) had a look at Thought Disorder
for myself. Enthusiasms on the back cover almost touting Jones as the next big thing didn't put me in the best frame of mind, I must admit. Poetry world is getting to be like reading the music pages in The Guardian: there's a next big thing every week, it seems. But this isn't Jones's fault, I guess, and I'm probably getting a little cynical as I approach the age of senility. So what about these poems?

Reader, I tried. I'll admit I didn't get off to a very good start. Perhaps I wasn't in the right frame of mind and Bruce's questions had got me off on the wrong foot. And perhaps reviewers are not supposed to admit such things, but I got fed up after a few pages and threw the book on the floor and went off in search of something more palatable. (I'm in the middle of re-reading Tristram Shandy
, so I didn't have far to look.) When I returned in what I feel (or felt) was a much more accommodating frame of mind, it was to soon discover at least one thing that had I'm sure contributed to my disquiet on my first attempt. I haven't actually done a physical count, but the most frequent (= overused) word in the book must be "like".

Towards the end of the opening poem (a one page poem stretched by the use of gaps and white space over four pages, by the way) we have "the pain of rays/ like shattered glass/ in  my eyes" followed quickly by "spots of colour/ like bad memories      spilled/ on the backs of my eyelids". A few lines later, "the wind is like a forest stripped of its greenery." Now, I'm as fond of similes as the next man, but let's move on: a couple of pages later we have a question mark dangling like a poisonous snake, darkness crawling like a bug over everything, a heart beating like fists assaulting a door, and all those are in the same poem within a few lines of one another. That was when I set out on a simile hunt. They weren't hard to find, but if I were to list them all you'd soon lose interest. Perhaps all I'm really saying here is that sometimes poets need editors to point some things out to them. It doesn't help matters that too often the device seems to have been used more for a (would-be) startling or bewildering effect than out of exactitude. (Is that the right word?) "She rolled her eyes like a bowling ball hammering home a strike...." almost made me laugh, though I'm not sure that was the effect intended.

But putting all of that to one side .....

Bruce said one more thing. He said here's a guy who wants
to be a poet. I felt that was a little ungenerous but I wound up agreeing with him. But as always when my entire take on a book seems so negative I leave it a week or two then go back to it and see if another attempt reveals anything new, or if I really am a miserable and blinkered bastard. But all I gleaned the next time was a clearer perception of the book's failings, I'm afraid. The problems begin with the peculiar notion of a camera clinging to a guy's neck on the first page, which seems to me a very poor way of expressing the fact that he has a camera slung round his neck, and then move on to "an alleyway glance" (whatever that is) a page or two later. By the time I stumbled across "my eyelids felt like hands squeezing a spike between themselves" I was losing it, and I actually think there is some downright bad writing here. These poems are trying too hard. In a poem called "Sins" the poet is "screaming Neutral Milk Hotel lyrics", but all I could think on reading that line was that if the poems here were as interesting as Jeff Mangum's lyrics we might be on to something. But they're not.

(I have an awful feeling you've just read my take on the next Simon Armitage. You can remind me about it at my funeral, if you're there. I will be.)

Carrie Etter's Divining for Starters is in quite another league. Another world. For one thing, if Bruce read this he would not be asking questions about gaps. Etter has gaps, spaces and unfinished sentences and you know immediately why they're there and what they're doing. This is a poetry of elegance and grace, of things spoken and unspoken, the known and almost known and the intuited, and it's quite stunning. I don't know exactly what it all means, but it's stunning and unforgettable nevertheless, which is something like what poetry should be, isn't it?

Take 'Divining for Starters (36)':

     in the death-wish, in the end of beginnings
     the river placid with cold, oh I know winter
     the broken stalks, a field of parched stumps
     what volition's in seasons, in renewal
     the wind at its coarsening, at the mill
      into the core, whose arrested depth
     the hard ache of it, into or against which
     or wait, the dull grievous wait

There is so much to admire here. Oh, I don't mean admire: that sounds awful. But it's so good. It's the kind of writing that evokes, rather than tells, but it also somehow tells at the same time. It's rich with associations and connections and what I was looking for earlier: possibilities. I don't necessarily expect constant positives ("the dull grievous wait" is hardly a positive) but there is a constant positive in not being told everything and being allowed space in which to breathe and think. The juxtaposition of "death-wish" and "the end of beginnings" is a slightly complex starting point, but we also soon know more or less where we are: a river, broken stalks, a field, a mill. The language is at once sharp and casual: "oh I know winter"; "what volition's in seasons". And the whole is stark and spare through the economy of Etter's language, in what she leaves out as much as what she puts in. Plus, of course, there is a beautiful poise here, a balance one can actually see as each line is divided in half by the simplest of means: a comma.

"Leaving out" is one of Etter's main strategies, but it never threatens to become either boring or predictable. Instead, in poems like the three "Poems for Two Voices" each too long to quote here, because one would really need to quote a poem in its entirety one is not so much driven to try and fill in the gaps with either a narrative or a concocted context as taken to a place where part of you is in this world and another part is in a realm of thinking experience that you don't recognize as thinking until you come out of it. This is not so much blowing the top of your head off as reminding you that you've got one.

            Martin Stannard, 2011