YELP! by Liz Almond (94pp, £9.99, Arc )
The Tethers, Carrie Etter
(64pp, £7.99, Seren)
The Solitary, Vuyelwa Carlin
(72pp, £7.99, Seren)
Liz Almond's second collection YELP! (which oddly enough uses the word 'almond' in
three poems) is a series of meditations, some of them verging on the austere.
The opening poems explore the distractions and attractions of solitude:
You must tear
up the rulebook
it leaf by leaf
highest cliff. Petals, feathers.
Rulebook For Being Alone') -
before drawing the reader into more disturbing territory, via a sequence of
higher-than-bird's-eye poems. Almond has had the clever idea of naming poems
after satellites, and the resulting sequence of seven provides the most
memorable images in this collection. In her satellite views of the world -
mainly a swathe from the Middle East across to India - the vicious and vital
co-exist. In 'Yamal 202', a rose harvest in Iran is explicitly but brilliantly
compared to images of war:
Not far away,
some controlled explosions
bunches of white roses
thrown in an
arc across the night ...
In the same way, the tension between the threat of surveillance and the
simple usefulness of the mobile phone are brought together:
hated mast your phone
can't ring a
doctor in the dead of night
when pain and
deep inside ...
It would be wrong to suggest that Almond is obsessed with pain: many of the
poems here, which have a cool command of language and tone, and which travel
easily from one continent to another, are about love and desire. But bring
them all together in a single collection, and the eye is torn towards the
intermittent images of suffering.
Carrie Etter's The Tethers (her first collection) is harder to get a bead on. Many of the poems
here are essentially speculative, some of them quite hard to hold on to as
they investigate the territory they have set out to explore. There are three
poems, however, which are instantly appealing. One is a snapshot of a woman
returning to a man she has divorced some years earlier, a man who is 'forced
to apologise/ for the dirty sheets' and remembers 'which sister/ I like least
and asks// how is she doing'. I laughed at the observation there, the way the
misplaced and inconsequential remark says everything. Another is a spoof of
the self-importance of literary magazines and the helpless self-importance of
those who send their efforts into them. It's called 'The Review':
neglected authors cannot stop thinking of The Review:
recount the highlights of senior editors' resumés,
and a simple
'Sorry' handwritten on the rejection slip
days of delight, even though they suspect
a mere intern
has so condescended. A mere intern!
No one at The
Review is mere. The janitor may know
manuscript lingers on whose desk ...
But the best poem by far, really by far, is about Fanny Brawne wearing Keats'
engagement ring throughout her (much later) marriage:
I am discreet -
I clean it
only when alone,
rubbing the boxy
stone into a dark mirror.
Although I'd have liked to have seen more poems which showed such rhyming
adroitness, there is no gainsaying the formal, rhythmic skill with which
Etter composes her poems. Unlike Almond, whose poems stare hard into the
essence of whatever she observes, Etter seems to prefer a state of indecision
(which is fine):
last night, so long ago
Fernando Valley Love Song')
If this is a
love poem, that's because I am ready to love everybody
the dark teen
the standkeepers (so she seems)
gazes in my
direction, looks beyond me.
I think I
smell music, violin or tambourine. I think
must be nearly gold, as close as it gets.
Winter, Early Year')
The hesitations are absorbing, but sometimes the sense of the indefinite is
Vuyelwa Carlin's The Solitary (her fourth collection) is dazzling, but not to be
taken at one sitting, that's for sure. Her style is highly idiosyncratic -
the punctuation alone is complex, ostentatious, almost vigorous (it occurred
to me that it would be interesting to read her work without any punctuation
whatever, and certainly, I think, without the explanatory, asterisked
references, which are a bit distracting and might be better moved,
Eliot-style, to the end).
There are several sections here - portraits of grandchildren, and of an
autistic son; memories of her father; a sequence of women, many now dead, who
had Alzheimer's, and with whom Carlin worked; poems about the perpetrators
and victims of the Holocaust (a really striking poem about Ernst
Kaltenbrunner, one of the Nuremberg defendants, and, like the others,
photographed after execution); and a sonnet sequence, 'The Solitary', in
which voices struggle with their religious convictions (or in which a voice struggles: I couldn't be sure whether the
voices were singular or multiple).
In almost all of these poems, however, there is a recurrent idea of the body
being taken apart, and (sometimes) put back again. Whether looking at her
growing grand-daughter or at a nonagenarian or at the world through the eyes
of a solitary, Carlin sees bits and pieces, fragments and angles: 'baby bone-knolls...
your clutch of cells, not quite dry,/ jarred' ('Magdalena at Two Years');
'bundle of sticks, a marionette unstrung ...' ('Ellen, born 1908'); 'a scum of
molecules ...' ('The Solitary'). I could fill this review with examples of the
way Carlin senses the tentative manner in which the world and everybody in it
hangs together. The effect of these poems, themselves fragmentary, dotted
with question marks, made elliptical by colons and dashes, is of impressions
crowding in on one another. I can't prove it, but it looks and feels as if
there is a forest of consonants, far more of them than one would normally
find. This density might be a weakness, were it not that Carlin's control of
the language is startling (especially in the sonnet sequence).
While the language consists of clusters of sounds which the reader has to
weld into sense, its mood is frequently interrogative, as if Carlin can't
quite fathom what she sees, and needs to phrase her observations as
questions. The questioning unsettles me a little, as perhaps it is meant to
do. These poems are best taken one at a time. One of them, based on a
Victorian photograph of a dead child with a Bible, is especially haunting -
the little bowl of skull,
of face -
through unresisting valves -
veins are empty.
with a Bible')
- although I think the ones I'll return to are the poems about the old women,
which memorise and canonise and humanise their predicament with wonderful