A Table of Content by Dorothea Tanning
[83pp, unpriced, Greywolf Press]
On the Ground
by Fanny Howe
[64pp,unpriced, Greywolf Press, 2402 University Avenue, Suite 203, St. Paul, Minnesota 55114]


Dorothea Tanning's paintings are fascinating and well executed, but the most valuable thing I got from A Table of Content was another entry ('phlox') on my list of words that crop up unfeasibly regularly in poetry which should never be heard again (it joins 'tendrils'). Oh, yeah, and also I started drawing the 'copyright' sign in the margin as shorthand for 'cliche' - which is really useful when reviewing a book full of 'the whitest of lies'; animals whom 'would answer' if they 'could'; 'black as sin'; 'trapped in the millennium'; 'oozing like lava'; 'web-sited spider's; and in which 'glue thickens like a plot'. Oh, sure, maybe you think that's really clever. Whatever. Buy the book - see if I care.

When a friend, bored by my moaning, picked up this collection and began, idly, to page through it, she soon exclaimed there is no sense that this stuff was actually written by someone
- no voice. Indeed, for the most part A Table of Content reads like it was created by a Microsoft poetry tool where you enter the relevant fields and then hit buttons for themes and metaphors and subtext. Someone really ought to build one of those.

From the first poem:

     that being elsewhere packs a vertigo,
     a tightrope side you cannot
     pass up, another way
     to show

     how not to break your pretty neck...

There's something horrid about 'break your pretty neck' - something dull, petulant and ironic; the bitter, no-surprises tone of 'highly-commended' poetry. Sean O'Brien, in his 2004 round-up (for which read: 'review of one Faber and two Bloodaxe books') called this kind of thing 'sentimental and opinionated' and I think that sums up an awful lot of awful work. See this couplet:

     Painter and poet, sometimes said to be lying,
     Agonisingly know it is more like dying.
               [from 'Report From the Field']

A worn-out sentiment, clumsily phrased. However, Tanning's titles are often superb: 'Pursued, I Ran Into the Barn'; 'Minor Incident at the Intersection'; 'Bridge, Moon, Professor, Shoes' are all wonderful - and are all let-down by startlingly mediocre poems beneath.  Sometimes they begin strongly:

     Yesterday I saw some bears at the top of a waterfall.

Good, good - I love bears. tell me some more.

     They were watching salmon leap up from the cascade.

Hmm. I guess that's what bears do. Carry on.

     It was on television and, moreover, part of an ad.

HUH? You mean the bears I've just given my precious time and mental energy to visualising are bears that you saw on TV? Ooh, this had better be going somewhere, Tanning.

     [Description of bears and fish on TV]

America is full of real bears. Why not go out and look for some real bears? Better yet: don't and say you did. We'll be none the wiser and all the happier. That's the great thing about poetry, right?

                                                   ...Now and then one of them
     opened its mouth to let a fish dive into it. That was the part

     that made me think of my own headlong leaps and dives
     when I thought there would be no mouths to receive me.

Yeah, except you're watching this on TV and, moreover, it's a car advert and, quite apart from whatever headlong leaps and dives you've made (and are not going to tell us about, although I'm sure they were just as brave as the salmons') all I'm left with is a desire to test-drive the new Honda Accord. There's something so depressing about using a TV commercial as a mise en scŹne - and somehow the guilelessness of the piece just makes it bleaker. I think I'll go and do my laundry for a couple of hours, maybe stand outside the laundrette smoking a cigarette I don't even want.

*

It's not that I dislike the idiosyncratic current of thought - hell, I live for idiosyncratic currents of thought - but in A Table of Content
it's more of a free-associated melange and, above all, the components are bland. 'Awake at Fifteen', nominally about lying awake at night at the age of fifteen, throws in:

     it's Zeno, streaking, nearly colliding
     with Venus, warm-hearted planet.
     (She had a husband who all but left,
     her lovingkindness too much for him).

Addressing the planets (or, say, the Greek gods, the major philosophers, biblical figures, Shakespeare, etc.) in a self-consciously overfamiliar tone has become quite hackneyed, no? I swear if I read another unmetred passage about Plato going shopping or some altogether anachronistic slur against Odysseus's wife, I'll bludgeon myself with my Dictionary of Phrase and Fable
. The idea that there persists something relevant (let alone irreverent) about such superfluous pastiche must only exist for 1. try-hard evangelist preachers and 2. people who don't read much poetry (which, if the prevalence of this stuff is anything to go by, includes an alarming number of poets). It's like the worst of Robert Lowell fed through a Wendy Coping machine. What's more, 'lovingkindness' is a lousy portmanteau (or typeau?) - leaving me even less inclined to go easy on the concept.

Boredom lurks on every page. Take this dream:

     I walked on that bridge of spider silk
     with the moon beside me like a friend.

I don't lay claim to any extrasensory powers, but I swear I knew exactly what Tanning's dream was going to be before I read that. Perhaps, once again, this was on TV and, moreover part of an ad. I've just looked out the window to check that the moon really exists and it does and it's quite lovely this evening.

Elsewhere resides my favourite poetic vice (in my own work as much as that of others): hilarious self-importance. 'Minor Incident at the Intersection' leaps off the page with:

     This morning's paste defines itself as rain,
     tells me to stay at home. I wish I could.

Yeah, rain sucks. Helps plants grow, though. And at least you don't have to spend every day adding up receipts on an Excel spreadsheet. That's even worse than rain. Boy, I could tell you some stories.

And then 'Rain of Blood, Aix-en-Provence' is one of those believe-it-or-not, zany-but-true historical poems we've all written in forgettable poetry workshops. Red rain falls from the sky, the peasants assume it's an omen, but the poet - happy, enlightened poet - knows that the rain-of-blood in question is actually bird-droppings coloured by berries, here rendered as 'Scarlet tears of miraculous shit' - which is among the ugliest lines ever.  First, while it may be shit and, indeed, scarlet, the precipitation is not tears. It just isn't. And, while the image is already overbalancing on the prolixity tight-rope, we get a sardonic 'miraculous' thrown in - which is almost unbearable.

I remember picking up a volume of Paul Auster's poetry and finding it a little like a Saturday Night Live parody of Beat culture. But he had nothing to touch this:

     Try my orgiastic seed
     To actuate your dreams.
     I'll be your bride.

     Breathe me! Oh, I permeate,
     Inebriate. I suffocate.
     Can you, this once,

     Observe me as my weed
     Casts its spell on what
     You call your soul?

Go on then, just this once. You can almost feel the beret closing around your temples.  But then it turns out to be about a bee getting trapped in one of those bee-eating flowers, and I'm like, geeze, how disappointing.

'Secret' is the most indicative poem in the whole collection, beginning:

     On one of those birthdays of which I've had so many
      I was walking home through the park from a party,

     pleased that I'd resisted mentioning the birthday -
     why hear congratulations for doing nothing but live?

Sure, but while we're self-interrogating: why smugly withhold the information, feel smug about it on your way home and then write a smug poem about it? To hear congratulations for being superior to the poor saps who celebrate having done 'nothing but live'? Because, frankly, I'm with them. Happy birthday.

*


Fanny Howe is a really good poet. Her work is funny, enigmatic and engaging, eschewing the obvious. On the Ground, her twenty-somethingth collection, comprises ten long poems each engaging with the perceived chasm between the personal and the political - with some startling results.

     The men in a barge took his clothes away

     The children cried, they understood
     'You won't see love again.'

     The lagoon to the cut was thick and brown
     and someone sang

     'Your heart was split
     You didn't know
     Who you loved, or if.'

     The barge drifted south with artillery on it
              [from 'The World Bank']

She has a straightforward imagistic facility that carries you into her terrain - like a good photograph guiding the eye. And I love the fact that of all the phrases one imagines the men in the barge shouting, the one which the children comprehend is the almost humorously dramatic, 'You won't see love again.'  It's bleakly amusing - I laughed and then felt sad. And that's good.

Howe is a politically engaged writer, but she interrogates economics as inseparable from our moral, spiritual and quotidian lives - which is pretty neat. Her symbolism is second-order rather than first. E.g. she never uses lame short-hand like the corporate identity of a bank to stand in for the bank itself - as if that simple codification equals satire. Her metonymy is densely structured and altogether more subversive.

     Wish on the first worm of the year
     and all other firsts as ways to get
     what you want. The first fish-hook, the first bait

     The first time you hear a woodchuck being its name

     When the president wakes up, it always asks
     What am I doing here? Where's that man?

It's funny - and it has the intellectual, expansive assurance of an experienced and wise writer - a writer accustomed to drawing no line between the internal and the external life (again, truly subversive. If they could, governments would close down poets like Howe faster than philosophy faculties). She also writes towards a particular morality. Evil is located in euphemism and the easy, distorted explanation:

     Satan says things that don't make sense
     like 'The planes were delayed and so they crashed.'

     Now muddy starlings flock around
     the salt-sad lagoons

The physical detail works so well: the fact that the starlings are muddy
places them so clearly in the mind of the reader. Satan appears consistently in On the Ground - serving a different function each time. ('We are stamping on the bosom of Satan, boot-boot'.)  On occasion his reoccurrence lends Howe's verse a quality of playful erudition reminiscent of James Tate.

     Everyone loves the way Satan
     mixes water with his syntax

I'm a sucker for that kind of thing.

You can't count the number of good poems about the World Trade Centre attacks on one hand - but that's because there aren't any. They run from the dangerously sentimental to the stupidly political and often leave you wondering why, after all the rolling news coverage and constant comment and analysis, the poet thought their two cents was worth adding to the clamour. Nevertheless, Howe's '9/11' engages with this hydra and, unlike much of such writing, you feel that she actually had
to write it.

     The first person is an existentialist

     like trash in the groin of the sand dunes
     like a brown cardboard home beside a dam.

The poem descends into contorted fragments, calling for an end to the figure-of-speech in rendering atrocity palatable:

     like a split cult a joke of coke New York
     like Mexico in its deep beige couplets

     like this, like that...like Call us all It
     Thou It. 'Sky to Spirit! Call us all It!'

     The third person is a materialist.

'Kneeling Bus', the long poem that concludes On the Ground
, is one of the best. When she writes about writing it is not with postmodern histrionics, but as an act central to her life - and why pretend otherwise?

     Truth is very passive, even weak.
     Who can survive without a plan?

     Or an invention. Unfaithfulness can.

     On my right hand the sun warms my pen.


    The poets of my generation

     and younger peck at the egg of the sky.
     Blue shell, blue shell let all be well outside!


Through its confidence and ambition, Howe's work demands re-reading; her writing is complex and lyrical and falls upon the current political climate without sacrificing its art. It is a quality that places her furlongs ahead of poets who still think the easy incongruity of form (traditional and therefore in need of parody) vs. content (quotidian/contemporary and therefore relevant) is still radical.

      © Luke Kennard 2004