Plastic Figures with Stable Feet


Anonymous Intruder, Ian Seed (78pp, 8.95, Shearsman)


First, a caveat: Mr Seed reviewed me right here at Stride a while back. I like Ian Seed - he was nice about me. And if you're worried that I might be rolling out the logs for Ian's Anonymous Intruder as a result (and I know I would be worried), I can tell you for nothing that if I hadn't liked the book I would have ignored it, felt guilty, and simply shuffled politely if I ever met him. So there. To summarise and move on: Mr Stride has asked me to review old Seedy's Anonymouse and as it happens I think it's pretty much the Biz.

Most first collections, however brilliant, have an aura of feeling their way about them, of trying to exhale new air from a deep intake of influences. That's not so much in evidence here. It might be more accurate to draw attention to the presence of guiding (or perhaps kindred) spirits and Calvino, Kafka, Lee Harwood and Harry Guest come to mind. But these, and I'm sure many other, influences seem to have been assimilated into a coherent and individual whole, which results in a book that feels carefully nurtured and crafted but that still retains a sense of freshness. Here's a bleeding chunk to start you off:

     Her cough kept me awake most of the night. Life melts away like a fable,
     leading to another dimension. Easier to have heartstrings tugged by the
     next stranger than to heal the situation as it is. I'm not tired, she said.
     The one great book was a star which put us to sleep and woke us at the
     same time.
          (From 'From Nowhere')

Now I know it wouldn't take a genius to work it out from the collection's title, but I thought I'd mention that Anonymous Intruder
is filled with glancing references, with strangers, and with instances of 'making strange'. As in the extract above, the same idea or artefact can produce multiple and sometimes contradictory effects (often depending on the angle from which you look at it). Landscapes, or thought-scapes, or even truisms are made new by, and for, the anonymous figures - that includes us, folks - who pass through them (which might be a metaphor for a certain kind of poetry too: crafty old Mr Seed):

     ...I find my friend again - his eyes are no longer used to me.
     He covers his mouth with his hand and measures the distance
     separating me from myself. I listen to him, seated

     on the side of the road. I do not doubt my existence,
     nor do I doubt it's personal. I repeat his questions,
     turn them over as if they were dusty jewels in my hands,
     look away at the thin line separating earth from sky
          (From 'Modulated Subtones')

But this collection is not just about making strange: Vaughan Williams said that his test for a new melody was whether it sounded both original and as if he'd known it all his life. I get this with Seed's poetry. I think I know the drill, I say to myself (Jethro Tull anyone?) - it's good poetry: honed and toned phrases, well crafted sentences and beautiful line-breaks. But when I stopped for a minute I realised that there's something going on in Anonymous Intruder
that's not exactly like anything I've read previously. The poems are for the most part on familiar (if de-familiarised) subjects, and look poem-like on the page, but the narrator's viewpoint seems skewed and thoroughly disentangled from the narrative itself, without sacrificing a sense of empathy with the general subject matter. It's a bit like eavesdropping in a pub on holiday: you don't know the protagonists but there's a sense of skewed familiarity haunting each overheard conversation:

     Still unsigned in the end
     it's so embarrassing it makes me
     shut up shop in February.

     We've plenty of good stories,
     but no voice or believable plan
     to grow up or shed light.
          (From 'Check Out Girls')

But there are other, edgier, poems too that dispense entirely with notions of the familiar. 'Notices' is a sequence of apparent collages (though I may be wrong) that have the cut gemstone quality of some of Prynne's later work. This sequence feels more assembled than 'written' but is still startlingly creative in its juxtapositions of superficially disconnected phrases and images that throw each other into relief:

     from shape of sails
     desires a story but first
     lock the breeze for pretty
     much its link passes
     or burns newly broken
     a friend north with fingers
     whose face beside the text
     dreams the melt of the other
     with smoke and heal

Were it not for the collection's explicit emphasis on angled viewpoints this sequence (the only one of its kind in the book) could jar, and I admit it did for me on first reading. But the more I've gone back to it, the more integrated the sequence seems with the book's overall thrust. The style is so utterly different from the rest of the collection that it requires a different kind of engagement, but different kinds of engagement are what Anonymous Intruder
is all about. To jar the reader into approaching poetry differently is just another technique Ian Seed uses to manipulate us into seeing afresh.

The first section of the book is made up for the most part of lineated verse, and the second two sections made up of prose poems. Overall, for me, the lineated section is perhaps the most successful. Seed has a real knack for the well pitched line-break:

     Meanwhile the days pass. It's snowy
     and foggy. If your father is an executioner,
     his face all lit up, how do you translate this
     into family terms? I reach out to you
     from forgotten wounds, I tell myself words
     I have never understood. At times
     some dead things overcome me. You

     or who? The surprise at finding myself...
          (From 'Two Old Heads')

This isn't to say that the prose poems are unsuccessful. Far from it: they are beautifully pitched and well-wrought. But I'd like it if some of their implied shaggy dogs were let off the leash to romp. For instance 'The wearisome old man insists on telling us his tale' in 'Long Buried' and I'd quite like to hear a bit of it. Occasional slightly out-of-focus generalisations can, on the few occasions they occur, make it hard to connect with the work. You feel you glance off them, which is in keeping with the overall sweep of the collection, but occasionally you're left shrugging and moving on, which I'm guessing is not the intention.

However, as far as I'm concerned, an occasional lack of (probably over (given my tastes)) imaginative discursiveness and a bit of real-time Harwood/Ashbery-style interruption is a very small price to pay for such focussed and intelligent writing. And I think this is a book which will appeal to readers across a very wide spectrum. There's enough in the way of process and play to keep the post-this-post-the-other-past-nothing crew happy, and enough clean, honest, damn fine observational writing for anyone of a quieter yen. In fact, I predict great things and maybe even a prize or two. So: nice one Mr Seed, Ian, Seedy - how long before the next?   
 
         Nathan Thompson 2009