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‘IT PROBABLY HAS TO DO WITH DIVERSITY’

for silver see blue
by Glenn Storhaug, 64pp, £7.95, West House Books, 40 Crescent Road, Nether Edge, Sheffield S7 1HN & Five Seasons Press, 41 Green Street, Hereford, HR1 2QH

This is a lovely book ­ as I’d expect from a joint publication by West House Books and Five Seasons Press. It opens properly; it’s good in the hand, good on the eye (meticulous attention to detail); great cover picture ­ and even the author’s picture is a painting not a photo. There’s only one small thing that disappoints me: a couple of black-and white reproductions, probably from colour images, which on this mat paper are so flat as to be dull. I’d rather have done without them.

But it’s the book everyone would love to have written, freewheeling perfectly on to the page. The book is one poem, with some titled sections, opening and closing with an image of cymbals. ‘A meditation on colour’ as the blurb has it. It also considers journeys, mountains, the sea, a ship, love, Knossos, nature…

At the top of a page (and nothing is at the top of a page by accident in a book like this), after his main themes have been floated, Storhaug writes:

        if there is any point it probably has to do with diversity, the
        choice as close to infinite as makes no difference, comparing
        one selection with another, one scratch, stick, stave with another,
        forged/foreign coins jamming the appliance—otherwise cant
        or song of the earth cantata, every beak busy with lyric alarm
                 (p23)

which tells us something of how he weaves the poem together, slipping between selections, between the sound and the look of words as well as the logic, stopping us in our tracks by switching into a foreign language, all the while ‘busy with lyric alarm’.

Take Venus. As Aphrodite, she ‘shakes / salt water / from her hair / settles in / on Mt Olympus’. (The ‘Table des Matières’ has it that this is against shaving the mons Veneris.) Read another three pages and ‘Venus in Transit’ opens with a ‘slow sweep against star chart’. Astrology? but these are the sweeping arms of a ship’s radar scanner which a few pages further on swing round and round like sycamore keys in the wind ­ though the writing has too much finesse to draw its comparisons so crudely:

        (lest sweep of the beam
        sow sterile seed
        vessels in port
        disable all scanners)

        abled at sea
        parabolic
        wings
        revolve
        resolving
        incoherent
        scatter
       to steer
        by astrology

Venus, you see, is also a ship. ‘Day Crossing’ and ‘Night Crossing’ are printed over a bleached-out photograph of the good ship Venus with, yes, radar antennae over her bridge. The second stanza of ‘Day Crossing’ is typical of some of the lyric passages:

        sun flash
        on pearl wave
        curls away
        from the prow

‘pearl’ echoing the significant pearl of the opening mediation, ‘lost and found // in the device of a dream.’

I’m entranced by the shipping sections from the colours of the sea to the thud of the engines. ‘Travails of Aphrodite’ accounts for the history of the ship: ‘Gross tonnage 5406 / … / Laid up Norway September 1939. /Seized by Germans 1940. / Converted for war purposes at the Neptunbwerft’ until her final breaking at Faslane in 1968.

It’s the section ‘Night Crossing’ that introduces the book’s title, with its final stanza:

        the Greeks
        never polished
        their silver

and probably neither, if you read the ‘Table des Matières’ again, did the Minoans ­ so blue may be a code for silver in their wall paintings. Which leads us in the end to the discovery of another Venus in the section ‘Knossos, Chaucer and You’, discovered as a Knossos wall painting at the turn of the century and named ‘La Parisienne’ by archaeologists:

        …words unearthed…
        how they stongen were
        unto the herte
when they
        saw her first
        after 3,000 years (à peu près)

I’ve been looking at the maritime imagery. I could write a couple of pages about imagery from the natural world. Another reviewer would give you the mountains (the word written vertically not being so high as the word fell
on page 13). In ‘Oxygen: First Ascent’ Storhaug’s a climber too: ‘face against rock face / wet smell of granite’. A painter would certainly go for the colours which suffuse every page of the book; words are colour-coded and played with, as they are here with ‘maroon’:

        [the painter’s maroons
        explode to mean signals
        report about chestnuts
        explain about colour
        confusion of cannon
        and clearly explaining
        how maroons exploding
        sound like cannon reporting

Words are handled as if they are physical objects, live things. He turns them inside out:

        ‘global’ preferred [Latin globus
]
        for the name of the summit; [Greek air
ra]
        ‘earth’
        too radical?

(Yes, it is also as contemporary as this; published in May, it refers to 12th April in Baghdad: ‘Free World marines casting out Satan / save every memo at his Ministry of Oil.)

I’m aware of Storhaug-as-printer right through this book; you can’t not be: each page has been so carefully set. But he reminds you deliberately, too:

START OF FOURTH SIGNATURE
AND STILL NOT SITTING STILL

(He started out, remember, meditating.) He often laughs at himself like this, wondering ­ that Table again ­ ‘Does hand-setting of metal type cure logorrhoea?’ This book is not set in metal but with

        laughter as leaning against the machine
        as keys tap into bedrock
        free silicon skies
        grind up bytes of stars

So when I gather together all these ‘bytes of stars’, what do I have? I’m not sure. Each time I read the book, I discover connections, enjoy something new. It’s slippery, doubling back on itself and changing tack. I don’t know whether I’ll end up properly grasping what Storhaug is doing ­ yet I’ll give it a good few more evenings: it’s exhilarating that someone’s made a book like this.

       
        © Jane Routh 2003