Scattered Seeds and a Spread Map

Bird Book, Laura Walker (80pp, 8.95, Shearsman)
The Perforated Map, Elena Rivera (103 pp, 8.95, Shearsman)

Laura Walker's third collection furthers her interest in nature, landscape and relationship through various methods of language experiment. Her debut, Rimertown/an atlas was a poetic 'mapping' of the poet's hometown through interwoven strands, including prose poems and fragmented narratives. Her last, Swarm Lure sprang from marginalia found in a used copy of Joyce's Ulysses, as well as quotations from the text itself, language generated from online translation, and poems inspired by English and Italian bee keeping terms.

Bird Book again has a premise which is at once lyrical and experimental, combining intellectual interest with vast, refreshing space for contemplation. A dialogue between minimal lyric and found text, each piece takes its name and parts of its language from an entry in the Field Guide to the Birds of North America. This juxtaposition of disparate language materials allows for a blend of bird and human life, so that each resonates as one. Fragments are scattered across the page like seeds over a bird table, white space treated as the air-filled distance between them.

In so few words, 'Barn Swallow' evokes a landscape, a journey from past to future, and a walk home from the wilderness:

           corresponding tenses

                             the light still on

far barn

Each poem has portions in italics. Their overall effect is to cut through the piece (and the
peace) like sudden human footsteps through a silent landscape. They're a jarring but inherent part of the scene, and allow Walker to do away with metaphor. 'Common Nighthawk' paints a haunting picture of a meeting between male and female. Human or bird is unimportant, a false dichotomy; only backdrop and relationship matter ('dark' and 'slatted' imply a nest under the roof, or even a bed). 'Booming in the night' might be taken as erotic, a mating call, or boisterous and out of place. Either way, the italics carry the sense that tranquillity is being disturbed:

     she came from the east

      dark       slatted

him booming in the night

Language collaborations can feel over-complex, 'difficult', being a kind of surrealism: forcing disparate texts into another strict, artificial framework. Not here. Words are trusted to chime almost in isolation, certainly without support from complex formal scaffolding. They meld and clash for the purpose of contemplation, not confusion; evocation, not intellectual riddle-solving. Where they sometimes feel slightly overly-poetic, part of me wonders if that's just my insecurity in being lost in so much interpretive space.

Most of these poems are so spare, some readers may find them short on linguistic; however, poetry was always about what goes unsaid, perhaps over and above what is. Here, what's left to the reader is refreshing. We're not being asked to unscramble a Rubik's cube. Walker's craft is in providing
just enough of the right words, a skeleton that might become a story if we are attentive. In his 'Ars Poetica', Macleish wrote, 'A poem should not mean / but be.' If these poems mean, it's because words can embody meaning if the reader wants. They refuse to describe. Like seeds, they don't embody an overt message. For the birds, for us, they embody tactility, taste and nourishment. No review could fully capture that in prose, but thanks to Walker, thanks to Shearsman, we have it here in poetry.

A disclaimer: I'm slightly tired of poetry about language. Poetry is always about language. A poem enacts its own aesthetics. If these are flagged up, wrestled with in the work itself, the result had better be interesting in other ways, or it risks being a kind of poetic washing of dirty laundry in public. Writing about writing can be done well - when coupled with wit, for instance (see Luke Kennard and the Salt anthology of 'manifestos' Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh, to which Kennard contributed). But it can make poems feel self-indulgent, with little to offer the reader who isn't engaged in the craft.

That prejudice out the way, Mexico City-born Elena Rivera's third collection concerns language not for its own sake, but as the means to plot a course through the world. As we travel, we communicate with our surroundings in order to make sense of experience. Language is our map and compass. Not
too abstract then, and fitting for a poet who has also won prizes as a translator.

Rivera kicks off with her own 'Ars Poetica', which begins at the 'moment' when the poem - after 'washing face and hands', as before a religious ritual - 'slips / away, forgotten / by our 'progress.'' That's a tall order.

     I am drawn to explore aspects,
     features of the seen / heard,

     which limp still catch light,
     colors, twigs of hope.

The lack of punctuation in the line 'which limp still catch light' creates a smudged syntax, hinting at the breaking-down of objective interpretation. 'Twigs of hope' couples an image with an abstraction (breaking Pound's dictum to avoid 'such an expression as
'dim lands of peace'), hinting at the wish for some linguistic anarchy. I'm not sold on 'I am drawn to explore' (that's an assumption I'd make without needing to be told) but I'm intrigued.

The second poem in nine sections, 'Disturbances in the Ocean of Air' is one of my favourites. One of its threads is childhood memory: 'and then who knows? Perhaps we will // be taken in hand by certain memories, / as if by angels.' It makes use of air, sky and flight metaphor to continue the thread of journey, and follows on from 'Ars Poetica' in that emotional growth is couched in terms of language itself:

     Across the border
     soft sadness feathers

     A blue way
     an icy improvisation

'The border' might separate countries, but also pages. 'Feathers' can be read as a verb, similar in a sense to Hopkins' 'fathers-forth'. The 'blue way' is the child's path, and the 'icy improvisation' is her transport: language. The poet is working with slippery abstractions, but I'm able to make connections.

As we go on, 'We Will Be Served' this:

     It's true that fury burns boredom
     fills the gaps with story and emotion

It could be the poet's fury being referred to here, or it could be the reader's. I'm not furious. Neither am I bored, but I've yet to be convinced. Some of the poem's most effective lines - even if they are questions around poetry - are interesting because they're also psycho-geographic, grounded in an imagined place. ('Overhead. Thought planes' implies a sky outside and above the words.) They also have movement (even if 'Turn the page, keep moving' is slightly too unsubtle):

     Listen to the words as a lyricist would;
     is it enough? Turn the page, keep moving,

     Overhead. Thought planes.

The poem's short list of 'objects 'left behind when someone goes / away or dies' ('Clowns, masks, broken dolls, disaster') might be fragments of memory (delivered, as they are, in reported speech) or they might just be words delighting in themselves. It doesn't matter: the last two lines imply a desire for words, as we travel, to be emptied of received context and meaning:

     'saved' from identifying, and empty -
     'spared' we say, boredom's terrible tray.

Though there has been the occasional minimal poem dotted around so far, language is most fragmented in the final sequence, simply called 'The Perforated Map.' It begins with the same words the collection started with, except that their reappearance makes them harder to ignore, reinstating their importance as a key to unlock the entire collection. Language represents both a landscape to chart and an itinerant community, a church. The lyrical 'I' has been brought to her knees by 'this large / Bittersweet / pull' to embark on this pilgrimage to find her place in it:


     on my knees

     this large



The blurb asks: 'What message is there for the poet/the reader? That is what is at stake in these poems, finding the word, the specific word, to illuminate the way, the experience of life, this moment, this time, this period in history.' I had my suspicions that the blurb's own struggle to find 'the specific word' might find its way into the poems; and it does, where abstractions, gerunds and present participles are occasionally too prominent - particularly in more fragmented or minimal pieces - or poems aren't entirely sure what they're saying, and revel in that confusion. As such, I was more taken by some of the narrative-driven, imagistic poems than those wrestling with poetry, narrative, autobiography and language as elusive, abstract concepts. But this journey has no destination, no dead ends, only questions. The answers will depend on our aesthetics and prejudices, which are - as Rivera perfectly demonstrates - nothing if not constantly evolving.

         Mark Burnhope 2011