Three Part Inventions & other scored occasions by Tony Baker, £4.50, West House Books, 40 Crescent Road, Nether Edge, Sheffield. S7 1HN.
Poisons, their antidotes by Sean Bonney, £4.50, West House Books.
Implexures by Karen Mac Cormack, 75pp, £11.95, West House Books.
Possessions by Christine Kennedy, £3, The Cherry On The Top Press.
29 Vickers Road, Firth Park, Sheffield. S5 6UY.
Aria with Small Lights by Peter Riley, £3.50, West House Books.
from Taxonomy by Christine Stewart, £4.50, West House Books.
I'm going to divide these books up according to gender, not just because it is as useful an arbitrary divider as any, but because the difference is telling.
Peter Riley's Aria with Small Lights is, as it asserts, ‘a cul-de-sac’, interested in the closing off of possibilities. The solo voice poses and seeks to answer questions of self-identity (‘I wasn’t anyone’, ‘traces of my father / still hung about me’) and the meaning of the individual in the world (‘I can’t stand the silence, the sad / messages reaching no one at all’). Quite romantically, these ruminations take place as the narrator ‘walked one night’. The self-exploration is sometimes prompted by nature:
Big soft harmless toads, I suppose, in slow flight
from untoadiness. As I from the shadow of my father.
You from difference, as I from like.
Yet often the weight of the abstract thought is so heavy that it pulls away from the setting:
… as the fireflies call with their fire and
the slow toads with their patience and my life where
it comes full circle will call and call to you, What
can I bring to your lowly stall, from the endless pause
of fear? If I could bring the truth I would be a pain
in your side …
There is even a sense that the landscape is merely ornamentation, images to hang the narrator’s questions on. Natural images are unnaturally yoked together (mouse with toad), are overcome by ideas, and finally have nothing in common with them:
… like a mouse
in the wainscot or a toad on the road eat the same
bread in a different country and trade the same love
strife in a different light.
This separation of the narrator from the landscape, even while he’s in it, makes him ‘some kind of foreigner’ and ‘an unwelcome immigrant’. That’s partly due to the narrator’s inability to accept the modernisation of the land: the image of ‘a mobile phone’ sits awkwardly in a poem populated with pastoral images (mice, toads, fireflies). He can’t
… view the earth-flares with gladness or the
sky flares with resignation, or simply to stand there
in the mist the flames of distance on all sides and gain
from somewhere a willingness while the sun’s
in hiding, to let this darkness be.
If he could, it would be ‘a good thing’. As it is, the disengaged voice becomes self-indulgent, employing a rather antiquated poetic vocabulary, swollen with adjectives: ‘day’s tincture on the wane’, ‘tokens of mutual trust / gleam on earth’.
The form is interesting in terms of grand scale (9 line stanzas with roughly 10 syllables per line) concealing subtle innovation (the stanzas become 10 lines each toward the end, rhymes are too distant to be heard but help construct the poem). Yet the grandness of the form overcomes the attention to detail, lessens its impact. It is the voice that comes through strongest, giving the impression that the form is simply its platform. Equally, the refusal to admit the landscape keeps the images from being anything but contrived, used to prove a point. In the end, the form shuts out possibility totally in a couplet.
Riley presents the poem as a futile attempt to come to terms with himself through a landscape he can’t connect with – a ‘cul-de-sac’ – and that’s its point. But still, there is little to learn from it – it seems to be a personal working-out. And rightly, at the close, Riley makes that decision to leave it:
of 1965 are set in a nosegay and placed on the ground.
Turns and heads for home without a sound.
Tony Baker is certainly influenced by Riley. Three Part Inventions is concerned with the narrator’s involvement in landscape. Yet Three Part Inventions is much more accepting than Aria, and this creates an openness. Rather than rejecting the modernity, Barker uses as much of it as he can:
& Armani Easy
He’s comfortable with the landscape, even as it is modernised:
Into the folder marked ‘thrashings’ I twig
rarely if at all how future settings will flag
my messages’ priorities, jag back to foreground
the inevitable hungers that rig their little tents
against a niggard rain so these men
can get on with their work
The language connects Baker to the world (‘twig’ being both a thing on a tree and to understand). He is ‘marked’ by ‘thrashings’. The landscape with ‘little tents’ expresses his ‘hungers’ – the image forms and is formed by his rumination.
Baker composes with details, and celebrates their wealth – ‘Ken Hom’s Stir-Fry Cookery’ and ‘plastic bottles in a ditch’ are all material for poetry. Rather than an ideal, as Riley has, Baker puts himself in the landscape and records since he never had ‘an even half- / way useful city-map’. What is important is to record honestly – and lack of knowledge is no bar:
on a branch
it’s like as not
This means that everything is available to the poet – and for the reader. The accumulation of detail as it appears in the landscape is an attempt to create ‘a common / element in what on earth I think I’m doing’: common in the sense that the work is there for the reader to take part in; the language is colloquial and precise (the effect is quite camp: ‘Dear X … Quite so. Bang on the nail’). Indeed, Baker has said that his work is ‘available rather than accessible’. This is a very sociable poetry. Not surprisingly, his poems are formally generous. They vary from stanzas of equal length to prose pieces, quotations:
Eat / one / tok
hard place & a rock
barb / moot / daylights
It’s a generous poetry in that how the reader is allowed to construct the details. That’s not to say the form is not rigorous – it is. There are instances of repetition (‘Sad Rabbit’ turns up in another poem as ‘The rabbit went that-a-way – !’). There is taut use of metre – note the iambic structure of ‘along a line of flight’, where the vowels enact the process of taking off, from the slow ‘o’ in ‘along’ and ‘i’ in ‘line’ to the quick ‘i’ in ‘flight’. The poem ‘Parsley’ shows Baker’s great formal ability:
You speak amongst the sounds of things I hear no more.
Normally of course who’d ever guess the yachts
that sail the air – the snatched wakes
they navigate between. Ah Ric, we
is the strangest sea.
I listen to this room. It isn’t how it was before.
The first line is sentimental, which makes the second, with ‘yachts’ coming from nowhere, so surprising. Then, with the return of the ‘You’ of the first line, with ‘Ric’, the reader expects the ‘we’ to be completed by some sentimental nugget, following the line break. But the next line is also a new stanza, and surprises again with the distance between the text and expectation. The final line, while sentimental like the first, requires close watch since the reader expects to be deceived – and as such we have to accept that the ‘room’ really ‘isn’t how it was before’. The way such a small poem contains so many surprises and manages to make clichéd sentiment strange is great.
There is a variety of approach – from celebrations (‘Notes for a PR Job’) to elegy (‘Mutual Credit’), the opening, lengthy ‘Three Part Investigations’, which is formally innovative and wide-ranging, to the final ‘Parsley’, which is short and tightly focussed. The whole collection has an energy that makes the reading process vital.
Sean Bonney is more overtly political. His collection Poisons, their antidotes is made up in part of edited political speeches, as well as overheard conversations. The epigraph is from Jack Spicer:
The human crisis.’
The lines immediately preceding these (not quoted) read:
These is a sense that Bonney won’t offer ‘sympathy’ to the politicians and opinions he criticises. Indeed, having cut up their words, and offered them as poetry, there is little chance that he can address them at all. Which is what I find confusing about the book – it criticises, but for no reason. No alternatives are offered, and language itself is incapable of expressing anything but anger, is not an ‘antidote’. The language is often interesting – in striking juxtapositions, where a pleasant image is roughly abused:
use baby teeth. & fox jizz (use ming & turds . . .
make for violence
a wendy house –
press leaves in. yr thorn mouth. Flowers are.a load of shit
but these instances of playfulness don’t emerge from the wider destruction. Language is allowed to wallow without purpose:
(m cell is bare is
oh my my my
o ey m m m m m m m
The language is of consumerism, is deployed helplessly rather than re-invented:
overpriced (use your debit card to …….
glue rib to
If the intention is to expose the corruption of language, he is presenting it to the wrong people. And where there is an attempt to find a new vocabulary – or nouns at least (‘I with I had a word for / tideclamps’) – there is no attempt to make a new syntax or grammar. Bonney seems to believe that the antidote to ‘their’ poison is more poison. Hence the nastiness is very impressive: ‘FUCK LIKE A CANNIBAL’, ‘one more fuck pig’, ‘A FUCK-COLOURED PLUME’. Indeed, Bonney says ‘teach me new swearwords’. So while the poems have energy, plenty of innovative obscenity, it doesn’t seem to have purpose.
In contrast, Christine Stewart’s from Taxonomy celebrates language. Each page contains a title word with colon, followed by a small picture and a section in prose (see http://www.scc.rutgers.edu/however/v1_6_2001/current/vancouver/stewart.html for examples). She is clearly influenced by the Stein of Tender Buttons, and the collection is characterised by humour, as the prose is hardly a clarification of the title word, and the relation of picture to text is unclear. So for example:
Utopia is my sentence. It is not my sentence.
Taxonomy is concerned, as Stewart has said elsewhere, with the ‘Hysteria of Order’, which is a ‘kind of insanity’. The quotations by Francis Bacon (‘[M]en’s fair meditations’) and John Locke make clear that the drive to classify is a male obsession (which I find rather simplistic), while a quotation by Lissa Wolsak emphasises that the intellectual rigour in the process: ‘Implicate order is the ground of perception, but also the process of thought.’
In Taxonomy, Stewart creates her own order, which the reader is invited to make sense of. As we try to impose the prose ‘definitions’ on the title, the language opens up and becomes increasingly suggestive. The desire to catalogue is both mocked and indulged. Continually, the process of logical thought is thwarted, and words refuse to become explicable in the context. Stewart questions how meaning is constructed in language, and shows how language is contorted in order to mean. We are asked to look at language, and see it as a site of play rather than authoritative and denotative. And this is essentially what poetry is; or, as Stewart puts it, ‘Poetry is the site where language moves intentionally and headlong into itself.’ It is a pleasure to read the careful construction, where energy comes from the juxtaposition between the length of vowels and the length of sentences. Take this extract from ‘Genius:’:
Genius is difficult. Range is its sum.
the suddenly quick ‘is its’ seems to escape the plodding preceding words, but ‘sum’ brings it heavily back to ‘Genius’. It is followed by:
It immediately precedes: so soft and thin, with wire and tin.
The rhyme of ‘tin’ takes the reader back to ‘thin’, so the back-moving direction suggested by the vowel in ‘sum’ to ‘Genius’ is consolidated: the motion is one that ‘precedes’. This sense at the level of language, a logical ordering, is what gives the poems their tight structure, and drive.
Christine Kennedy is more interested in the distance between language and object, and also approaches it from a female standpoint. In Possessions, Kennedy takes the description of an object, re-orders the description, to make a new object in language – a kind of translation. The texts were generated through the sale of Kennedy’s jewellery; each person who bought an object wrote remarks about it, and these were made into the poems here. Just as the jewellery was an object with personal associations, so the poems are objects but re-made through personal responses. The effect is like watching light catch on a precious stone; it is illuminated, then goes out, and another facet comes to light. So for example:
derived best from
Impossible gift to loose the
store new and big hands gilt
Passage around haunted
this fascination I pass on to
articulated body and sold
woman called girl who is
made pale with Bought
Again, the words hold together due to their properties (‘made pale’) but Kennedy has allowed fragments of what seems to be the original text – composed in the language of information – to remain (‘I pass on to’), so there is a play between the language as object and language as a container of memory. Again , the emphasis is on process – over half of the text describes how the poems were written.
Karen Mac Kormack shares with Kennedy an interest in recording experiences – in her case, through biography. She has said that ‘The act of writing is simultaneously intensely personal and historically collective’. Implexures is an autobiographical work, mostly in prose sections, which explores Mac Cormack’s ancestors. Unlike Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, which has been said to be the biography of any girl, Implexures is much more specific. There is use of letters, photographs and reminiscences: ‘I remember years ago one of Peter’s sisters went for a trip to the West Indies’. This emphasises the importance of place in the make up of a person. As Mac Cormack writes, ‘But how one knows is equally crucial to what one knows in the inseparable when. Where is the locator.’ The ‘how’ one knows, is language:
Tarmac where rain recently stopped falling. Thin end of lollipop falls from a child’s hand. If it’s not night it doesn’t matter (but on this run it’s usual for arrival).
It is misleading to extract, because each section plays on the next; the parataxis between sentences is greater between paragraphs, and the play of one part against another is creative; the reader is left to construct the biography.
Though there is a kind of narrative, it is obscured as we are invited to get bogged down in playful sentences. To see how misleading language can be, try: ‘Because the Night played in the afternoon (of an eclipse).’ Language constantly disturbs the images is creates, foregrounding itself: ‘The windows open out, in, up, or not at all, on a garden, the street, the sea, a lake, river or desert, cobbled courtyard, mountains, sometimes hills, with or without curtains, a highway, motorway, freeway, other window’s occupants, deck.’ Rather than seeing these things through a window, if we were looking out of one right now, in the text, the mass of prepositions and images replace it; language is not a window. There is also use of what Marjorie Perloff calls hanging modifiers. Perloff speaks of lines in Frank O'Hara's poetry , which could either complete the line preceding, or begin the following line. Mac Cormack uses sentences instead of lines; so in the quotation above, the 'lollipop' could be linked with the 'tarmac', where it presumably falls, or with the idea that 'it's not right'- a mistake perhaps. This allows the sentences to be liquid, acting against the drive (especially in biography) to pin things down. Perhaps the main character here is language; Mac Cormack states that 'My Irish grandfather consistently misspelled "carachter" for "character".' Since the grandfather is Irish, the English language is clearly an active presence. As well as part of a person's make-up, language makes a person up, and is made up by them.
One interesting similarity these female writers have is that they emphasise the process of writing. The reader gets the impression that the poems are not considered important in their own right but rather as tools, a means to the end of exploring language. Each writer emphasises that their forms can be imposed upon anything and so is infinite - Stewart's books is from Taxonomy, suggesting there's more; Implexures ends with 'to be continued'; Kennedy refers to 'the further development of this project'. I like this focus, on the sharpening of perception and thinking, rather than presenting a poem as a complete thing to be admired. (Indeed, it is clear from the website I gave earlier that Stewart's poems have undergone considerable changes.) The focus on language liberates anything to be turned into poetry, rather than relying on what the poet considers to be a worthy image or sentiment (as Riley does). While Bonney is interested in the remains of a used language, these writers construct a new syntax. There is a worry with a form capable of taking anything, and that's the flattening of difference, rather than dealing with objects individually, pragmatically. Kennedy's work is so short that the possibility for difference to assert itself is not quite possible, and the structure seems rather authoritarian. Mac Cormack's structure is large enough for individual details to rise up, at odds with the context, questioning the structure, even as constrained by it.
© Thomas White 2004