Voices and Interpretations    
    
    
Root,
Linda Black (77pp, 8.95. Shearsman)    
    

With its emphasis on the strangeness of every day objects, its coolness and concision, and its deadpan humour, Root bears a strong family resemblance to Linda Black's first collection of prose poems, Inventory. However, Root also reads more as a kind of autobiographical whole. Here I should emphasise 'kind of' - the book is made up of separate prose poems, most of them less than half a page long; the 'narrative voice' describes and relates from a third person perspective; and as Linda Black herself has said the 'she' might be 'her' (the author) or it might not be. The starting point for this collection's exploration is the desire to navigate, and in some way to bring together under one roof, all those multiple selves, present and past, that we inhabit in our daily lives. Or rather, which inhabit us, which come out to taunt and haunt us just when we think everything is in order. And here as readers we feel ourselves to be walking on very thin ice, for beneath these selves it is not as if there is some core self sending the other selves out into the world. 'They can't all be her, can they?' Black asks with astonishment (from 'She counts the children'). All we have, all we are, is these multiple identities, beneath which lies only something we cannot know. This is not a case of having some kind of 'multiple-personality disorder'; this is the universe we live in but that we have to shut out in order to be able to get out of bed and function. This is the universe that Linda Black bravely and yet unassumingly investigates. It can at times be a terrifying experience: 'And now the flames are catching, racing, burning back, through the years and through the houses and it is more than she can bear' (from 'On a cold night').    
    
The book is divided into four sections: Conception
, Procreation, Exposure and Emergence. There is, then, a kind of timeline, a natural progression, around which the different selves coagulate and emerge. Yet from the beginning, we are given a sense of the fragility of this, of the things we are attached to coming to an end, of the past as memory which is both ever-present and yet fleeting, which we want to escape and hang onto at the same time.  All this is achieved not through recourse to philosophical language (though this does come into it too, with a light touch), but through a focus on the most ordinary details, for example in the poem 'She liked the space on the landing':    
    
Where the stairs turned as if it were extra, a place in which she might pause leaning her back against the wall, where the sun might shine as on the lawn at her grandparents' house, briefly; the lawn she had wished for her children to run on in abandon. When she sees a photo of the children she thinks, how familiar, how familiar these children in their clothes and their faces, as though she could open a door and see them standing there with their faces and their little feet.    
    
The desire to understand past selves and their link to the present often fills the narrator with ambivalent longing. The poignancy of moments like these is achieved through focus on a single image, such as learning to tie one's shoe laces in a bow (something which sparked off my memories of my own as I read it):     
    
Struggle and pleasure. How much she wanted to tie that shoelace. And then she could. Now she is misleading. She wants to get back to the bow. The flat, transitional bow. She could go downstairs right now, rummage and find it, but she doesn't want to. It isn't about a bow then [...]    
                   (from 'A bow will do')    
    
Relationships, and the link between present and past, can be summed up wonderfully in a single sentence, as in this short prose poem 'Hot water bottle':     
    
When she unscrews the stopper and pours in the hot water, squeezing out the air before she screws it back, she thinks of her thin little father doing the same for her.     
    
The last section of the book opens out more to other family members, some of whom return to memory 'uninvited' at awkward moments. There is a dark humour here as Black takes a wry look at the different, contradictory stories that we tell each other - or don't tell each other but which are still very much present in our family lives:    
    
     Her grandfather returns to tell her a story except he doesn't
. The
     story he tells her doesn't
she was told wasn't was told her by
     her uncle except he couldn't have
. This is that story not.    
            (from 'The story nobody told her')    
    
The one difficulty I had sometimes with this collection is that I felt I wanted to know just a little more, as if the narrator were dangling things tantalisingly in front of me, only to withdraw them before I could get even a glimpse of them. Shameful secrets are sometimes hinted at, for example the possibility of sexual abuse, but are not really confronted in any way that would render them convincing. Perhaps they belong to the 'unsayable', but then that too could be made clearer. Or perhaps I am missing something here?    
    
In any case, Linda Black's Root
is a collection which has intrigued and moved me. It has left me hungry for more. I look forward with great anticipation to her next book.     
    
            Ian Seed, 2011