Involvement and Alienation


Justified Sonnets, James McLaughlin
(78pp; 8.00, Knives Forks and Spoons Press)


In our most artful poetry, form and content are united in expression. This is something James McLaughlin accomplishes brilliantly in Justified Sonnets. In the Sonnets, McLaughlin uses spaces along with forward, back and vertical slashes in place of punctuation and conjunctions. The slashes and spaces establish the rhythm of the language by both joining and separating the fragments of text, which admirably expresses the theme of the work: engagement and separation. The Sonnets graphically illustrate both our involvement in the natural world and our alienation from it - states of being we experience simultaneously as part of the human condition.

The seventy-two pieces in this collection pay nominal homage to the traditional sonnet form, being of fourteen lines each, but the standard syllable count per line and the rhyme scheme have been abandoned, replaced by short lines fully justified between narrow margins giving us thin rectangles of text reminiscent of building bricks, doorways, picture frames or tombstones. But the narrowness of the margins gives form to a greater vision, both in theme and language. It is a very human book, only peripherally concerned with lofty philosophical questions, more intent on a practical understanding of a man's place in the world, of coming to terms with mortality, hope, loss and failed relationships. All this is cast in study of the individual's involvement in the natural world.

Nature figures large in the Sonnets
, described in language as lush as a summer afternoon - not flowery, but with imbued with sensual beauty. The natural world is a seductive dreamlike experience of blue, pink, gold, apricot, white, lavender, cherry, lemon. The vision here is not romanticized or sentimental; it is concrete in its reality and the hardships of life.

Language figures large in the Sonnets as well. Language is the meeting place of the eternal world of nature and the mortal world of mankind. But not every day conversational language, more a symbolic language of the psyche, 'normal   language converted    \ as this stream here |         images and ideas | the mind communicated    to the centre of consciousness'. The stream of consciousness is the same as the mountain stream, the stream that runs through dendritic undergrowth, the dribble of stream struggling on dry Earth that flows through the poems. McLaughlin particularly writes about punctuation, the structural part of language that gives form to our perception of the natural world. Except for a few '?', there is no punctuation in the Sonnets
and rarely any capital letters. With the fractured syntax and hanging articles, we are presented with an unsettling language that viscerally conveys our tenuous connection to reality.

The poems could be characterized as the interplay of the Symbolist world of timeless sensual beauty, as represented in Stephane Mallarme's L'apres-midi d'un faune (Afternoon of a Faun
): '...you know, my passion, how / each pomegranate, purple now / and fully ripened, bursts - and hums / with bees; and our blood, taking fire / from her who will possess it, flows / for the timeless swarm of all desire', and the Decadent world, trapped in the entropy of time, decaying, dying, ceasing, so forcefully evoked by Charles Baudelaire in Une Charogne (A Carcass): 'At a turn in the path a foul carcass /On a gravel strewn bed, // Its legs raised in the air, like a lustful woman, / Burning and dripping with poisons, / Displayed in a shameless, nonchalant way / Its belly, swollen with gases.' But for McLaughlin, this seems to be a false dichotomy, for the natural world is humanized: vines love, the sky loves and needs, water longs, branches are merciless - the whole riot of nature is alive with emotion and memory.
While nature is humanized, humanity is not naturalized. We are doomed to death and loss. The best we can hope for is an active witnessing, 'an official witness  \  an    active        part |'. What becomes clear as we read through the collection is that the natural world is symbolic of our ill-defined emotional reality; 'symbols /  such as trees and flowers   \  scent   /sound\  touch and    taste |' - '|    symbol  distorts     all form  of   the        specific   \   ...    to be   alive in |  the earth   is   handed    over to accuracy  and water  | truthful as representation \    inaccurate'. What separates us from immersion in the sensual world is our feeling of loss. Loss is a peculiarly human state. While occasionally devolving into bitterness, 'arrows were stabbed through      hearts /  and      all that/ bastard/  shit' - 'oh just cut   the   moon    in   two   /      let me fucking die', McLaughlin is clear that we are not victims of an insensitive world, but that we bring loss on ourselves through indecision, wrong choices and poor communication.
The theme of communication brings us once more back to language as the hinge our relationship with the natural world. Language becomes 'another substance' that melds our internal and external realities, '| intersections  \ junctures \the complete joining of one thing with   another \'. Through language the distinction between the natural world and the human is blurred, '|   away off I hear a swallow \or is it a distraught fiend  |' and being human is embedded in nature. But our sense of loss renders understanding of the world impossible, leaving us ultimately unable to connect, 'existence can be always nearly |   nearly   \          just  so|'. Nature is impervious to human suffering and our concerns are insignificant, 'is it always so important to be right  \ these wetlands for example make little of it   /   nor that mad   crow'. To be human is to be alone in the world with our pain. It's fascinating to read the collection and see how McLaughlin uses the 'substance' of language to both weave together and force apart the various aspects of our being.

With dazzling verbal acrobatics, McLaughlin leaps through a range of emotion from despair through hope to renewal, eventually finding the self in nature, 'it was the first time he felt an elation \   that point of fear between isolation and ecstasy \ that    point between delight and      bliss  |  release those clouds    - let the rain fall           |', although a self shattered by loss, a self of 'splintered shards', 'a small piece left or broken'. The sense of melancholy displacement that pervades the text is summed up in the last line, 'am      I     to  be  a  simple pipe  that  carries   liquid   from a   tap         '. The failure to truly encounter the world is unresolved and we are left feeling oddly isolated, questioning where we belong.

Justified Sonnets
is a satisfying read that both challenges and enlightens. A collection to be returned to again and again to fully appreciate its dramatic range and depth. Highly recommended.

     John C. Goodman 2013