SHORT REVIEWS OF RECENT TITLES


Gabriel Gudding, Rhode Island Notebook
(Dalkey Archive Press, 2007, ISBN 13: 978-1-56478-479-7, $12.50)


Over two years Gabriel Gudding drove several times from his home in Illinois to Rhode Island where his wife and daughter lived (although over the course of the book his wife becomes his ex-wife). Each round trip was over 1,000 miles. On each trip he kept a notebook, and wrote--apparently while driving, using a board resting on his lap and a map-light. One of the most surprising things for me is that although clearly endangering the lives of himself and others as he clocks up the miles, sometimes describing himself driving over ice, or aquaplaning through heavy rain, he does not once crash. Nor does he seem to have been pulled over by the traffic police, or scolded by other drivers. Anyway, the 436 pages of this remarkable book have the feel of a genuine written-on-the-move notebook, although no doubt Gudding revised and perhaps interpolated some of the passages. In Britain, I have occasionally seen people reading a map or a small book as they drive, if in a very slow-moving traffic jam. I have never seen anyone writing a book. In America I have driven an automatic car, which was somewhat less hard work, but I still needed my hands and my eyes at most points. Myself, I have used a Dictaphone on occasion while driving, and occasionally, when it was legal, used a mobile phone. Because I too have made long trips to see a daughter with whom I was not living. I used to regularly drive from Oxford, and then from London, to a small village near Sheffield where my daughter lived. The round trip was about 300 miles, driving mostly on the M1. So I know something of what Gudding is writing about here. There is the sheer exhaustion of the process: by the time you reach your child you often feel garbled, messed up, almost unable to talk sense. And that's after only a quarter of Gudding's journey.

The impetus behind a book like this must be from the sense of frustration at consuming one's useful waking hours in an activity as mechanical but attention-depleting as driving. The extent of my creative production in those many hours of driving, once a fortnight, over several years, to see Madeleine, was almost nil: a few words shouted into a dictaphone over the roar of the engine. It never occurred to me that I could use that time to write; but then perhaps if I had tried, I would have crashed and died, and killed other people as well. So before I praise this book I want to register my disquiet: it is one thing to endanger your own life, but do not endanger the lives of others! Very few books of poetry are worth a life. Nor should this trend of book-writing while driving be encouraged. If you must write on the move, get a train, a Greyhound, or whatever they have over there.

Having said this, I can now record that this book is one of the best works of poetry I have seen for many years. It is a proper length; it takes its subject seriously. It takes a form, the notebook, and compromises very little, or only at the end, on one that form should be. Whether the book is a real representation of an actual notebook, or pure fiction, is perhaps then immaterial. There is no attempt to present poetry as a polished, distant act. It is here with what you are thinking. It encapsulates the long, solitary car journey like no other book. Nothing is omitted: farts, erections, stops to refuel and urinate, notes on bumper-stickers, signage, mileage and fuel efficiency, thoughts on politics, the radio, various quotes which may come from listening to audiotapes or NPR. Overall, the loops of a developing relationship with a young daughter, and a decaying relationship with her mother. Sometimes the humour is puerile and obvious (e.g. changing the name of the country, Turkey, to chicken; a certain irritating tweeness of expression such as 'to urinate my pee'), but this is an effect of the boredom of driving alone. Driving such a long distance, you get bored with yourself.

     Very icy. Must not jerk wheel.

     840 m no longer icy. Black Women
     were first entertained in the White
     House by Theodore Roosevelt.

     Can't see a damn thing out there,
     Ohio reduced to the hwy, the
     headlight cone, high        sodium
     lights, Wild ices have perched upon
     the armor of the road

     Thank You for Visiting Ohio
                  850.0 M 9:24 PM EST
     What is the deal w/ Indiana and
     billboards? Again the tugging
     of the scrotum: It is a delicate
     skin. Thank you, God, for pens.

At other times the writer's mind goes off on great loops of strange and grotesque humour that last for pages: this was written as the Iraq war was just starting, his sense of impotence is conveyed in attacks on Bush and his family. Nancy Reagan in one great riff transmutes into a predatory eagle following his journey. There is an adventurousness here, which is opened up by the looseness of the notebook form. Of course, many other poets have chosen to present their poetry as a 'notebook', with varying degrees of rawness; I think very few would present an actual word for word transcription of a whole notebook. The notebook for these many writers is a convention for getting away from the demands for a finished product. Interesting to look at Lowell, who also wrote a lot about his daughter in Notebook (Faber, 1970): 'For/ the hundredth time, I slice through fog, and round/ the village with my headlights on the ground'. Lowell was a formalist, using the sonnet form and clearly working over these poems a lot. Gudding is more interested in the notebook itself as form: notation, immediacy, thought. What they have in common is the sense that a human relationship with a child cannot be closed, so the open notebook form gives a sense of the provisionality and improvisedness of the father-daughter thing.

Whitman is often evoked, but Gudding does not have the expansiveness and generosity of Whitman, or indeed of the Beats. His notebookese impressionism reminds me more of Coleridge in his notebooks, and also of Peter Manson's recent Adjunct, an Undigest. Inward-looking, amused and annoyed by the elemebnts of the outside wortld that come between the writer and desire. Distance, its song. There is a sense that one reaction to the overload of sensory information we pass through on one journey is simply to notate: let the reader interpret for us. The writer after all is simply a medium. I am glad that I have read Gudding's transcriptions of what was before him. Not only because I have been there as well.

If the book has a weak point, it is that it tries to end the book on a certain note. It tells part of a narrative of deterioration and divorce, followed by a sense of depression. Obviously, these relationships will continue after the period that the notebook recounts. Gudding seems to feel a need for narrative closure towards the end, and does this by retreating into a kind of Buddhist quietism in which pain and loss is subsumed in yogic meditation (and he enjoins his daughter to do the same). This struck the only false note in the book (although it is probably as 'true' as the rest). But this is largely a brave, honest book. Anyone who has sat in a car for long enough to get bored will respond to this.



Audacia Dangereyes,
Islandverse
(stone age type, 2007)


I enjoyed this 103 page book of strange inward poems in which each line seems discrete and relates to the whole of the poem in ways which are hard to pin down, so to quote one in full:

     Flexible

     hair was the only paradise
     her handshake opened my mouth
     I was affected watching that smack machine
     screw just like this force of course
     letter drifted down from the sky whistling
     spasm as the last farm fell
     the pain opened my jaw-radio
     pillows steal society without women
     mother myth rewritten

hard to know what happens here: a child thinking? but something sexual operating? each line a separate thought? But it doesn't seem to matter, if you like thinking about words and sentences and are open to the impressions a small fragment of language can give, then this book is for you.



Michael Peters, Vaast Bin; n Ephemerisi
(Calamari Press, 2007, 978-0-9798080-0-5 $13)


This combination of visuals and epic space combined with heavy use of neologisms and occasional opacity reminded me of William Blake. A Bin is a repository for what is considered useless, but is also a dialect form of the participle of the verb be, as in (to quote) a having biiiin (from section 1/2: pages are not numbered, the sections are numbered up to 353, but it is not a complete sequence, there are many gaps in the numbering, suggesting a much greater poem; and each section number is prefixed with a 1, suggesting also that this is the first in a sequence) Just as the amount that we need to dispose of is vast, so is the past. Peters plays games with the philosophic and other potentialities of language when warped to (usually) just this side of comprehensibility:

      swaminathiiin black night about a storm
      seen sun seam'd-in in a starless dark stall,
      a topography of black var leopards operand
      in their lairs above, liiions knit-in seethings
      about:blank--rhythmic gossamer repeal
      pulsing distances.
            (1/4)

but sometimes approaching moments of great clarity, which makes the process of reading this, pay off immensely:

     Listen to the stars sizzling--
         these are the rivets in the cymbal's dome (1/197)


I enjoyed most of this but as with Blake it was a little heavy-going at times, there is a feeling of a large system of symbols being deployed, words like
noth are repeated throughout, unlike in the Dangereyes book, I don't think we are encouraged to relax and swim in these poems. Some kind of glossary or key would have been welcome. But the more one reads, the more it seems to make sense: it is like some book from the future, about 100 years, when the language has changed quite a lot. Imagine an Edwardian struggling to read say Berrigan's sonnets, or even a newspaper from 2007; that is where you are in this book, reader.



Peter Hay and Geoff Sawers,
A Thames Bestiary
(Two Rivers Press, 2007, ISBN 978-1-901677-50-8, 7.00)


This 72-page book of Thames wildlife succeeds both as a poem sequence and a collaboration. Just as the late Peter Hay's illustrations depict each animal in a different style--a style somehow particular and appropriate or even ludicrously inappropriate to each animal--each of Geoff Sawers' poems or quotations tries to find a different way in to each animal, sometimes elliptical, often playing on the conventions of the field guide, the local history,  or the encyclopaedia. Often these entries are short, as in Banded Damselfly:

     hammerhead sharps
     ziggurat sickles
     busy as cars

at other times, the entries can stretch to a few pages, but they are never dull. Not limited to the necessity of being poems,, they play with their status as either captions to illustrations or just pieces of information:

     Ducks in winter form Parliaments on open water,
     especially gravel pits, gossiping, factioning,
     nattering and plotting, but all of this is ultimately
     pointless. Come spring they will fly north again,
     and forget everything they planned. Who really
     cares about holiday friends?

Many of them add cheeky asides to the well of local folklore. A book much more than the sum of its parts. Recommended for anyone who lives within singing distance of the Thames.

    Giles Goodland 2007