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:
elsewhere packs a vertigo,
side you cannot
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
poet, sometimes said to be lying,
know it is more like dying.
[from 'Report From the
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:
saw some bears at the top of a waterfall.
Good, good - I love bears. tell me some more.
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
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.
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?
and then one of them
mouth to let a fish dive into it. That was the part
that made me
think of my own headlong leaps and dives
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
streaking, nearly colliding
(She had a
husband who all but left,
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
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
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:
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:
I'll be your
Oh, I permeate,
Can you, this once,
Observe me as
spell on what
You call your
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
walking home through the park from a party,
I'd resisted mentioning the birthday -
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.
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
see love again.'
The lagoon to
the cut was thick and brown
loved, or if.'
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
want. The first fish-hook, the first bait
time you hear a woodchuck being its name
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:
things that don't make sense
planes were delayed and so they crashed.'
starlings flock around
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.
loves the way Satan
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.
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
in its deep beige couplets
like that...like Call us all It
Thou It. 'Sky
to Spirit! Call us all It!'
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.
survive without a plan?
invention. Unfaithfulness can.
On my right
hand the sun warms my pen.
The poets of my generation
peck at the egg of the sky.
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.