Well-Pruned


How to Catch a Falling Knife
, Daniel Johnson
(60pp, $15.95, Alice James Books)
Back of a Vast,
Mark Goodwin (90pp, 8.95, Shearsman)


Very different writers, yet Daniel Johnson and Mark Goodwin must both be grateful to their publishers for beautifully made books. Shearsman Books has set complex spaces and breaks for Mark Goodwin with coherence and elegance. Alice James Books has been generous with white pages and smoke-doodle-pages echoing the cover image as spacers between sections, to slow down the reading in Daniel Johnson's collection.

The writing in the latter's spare, and the selection's honed down, too: How to Catch a Falling Knife
is a slim book - three dozen poems. There's a curiously English-mainstream feel to some of the subject matter (poems of childhood memories and relationship) although the writing (and the titles!) immediately place them elsewhere. A couple of poems lodged their images in my mind after a single reading. You can hear the pace in 'Lightweight Champion of the World' which opens with and then deflects attention away from the gloves in question:

     Same year I asked for boxing gloves,
     Boom Boom Mancini killed a man,
     a Korean boxer in yellow trunks
     who went down twice in the twelfth
     and didn't get up. I got the gloves anyway,

and by the time the speaker raises those gloves above his head, you realise quite how young is the child, the poem a delicate study of bravado. On the facing page is 'My Father, the Small Town Sadist', the title laid bare in the first stanza:

     is whistling his way to the dump.
     A tin pail of teeth hangs
     from the handlebars of his bike.

One of the notes at the end of the book explains the father was a dentist - though these three lines make that clear enough on their own, even before the cut from this description to the inhabited anecdote that follows, with the childhood memory of laughing 'mouth / open wide and my head thrown back'.

Poems for the most part written in plain language with short lines throw into relief excursions into other forms like 'Steel Valley Songbook, Volume I', a list poem about his childhood home town of Salem Ohio. 'Praise dead end signs pepperd with buckshot' it opens, moving on to deliver a list-within-a-list

     Praise the closed mill.
     Praise the abandoned strip mine.
     Praise the sign that reads DANGER DO NOT WADE, SWIM, OR FISH
          HERE!  Praise, in jeans shorts and ripped concert T-shirts, the girls who
          swim anyway.
     Praise the jackknife, gainer, cannonball, psycho, Zeeko and belly flop.

Elsewhere the longer lines are tender ones: 'Look after this child, cowlicked and burred, at least out of the corner of your eye. Selah
' in 'Prayer for the Collector of Small Animal Skulls' which watches over a solitary child going about his own business outdoors. But it's the short-line, stripped-down poem with an edgy overtone that's more typical, the 'To catch a falling knife / you have to double-doubt / the knife' of the title poem - writing that you sense has taken a great deal of work to arrive at it's final form.


Mark Goodwin asks his readers to join in the work. His poems for the most part are of wild landscapes such as Scotland and the Cornish coast - though the 'rurban' (I like that) outskirts of Sheffield are here too - so there are additional pleasures of recognition if you know these areas. He's stripped away syntax and broken up the ordinary flow of words. A random dip to illustrate what I mean: a line on page 19:

     scale wisps     ers soft granite out    crops ancest     or

But the place to follow the writing process is in the middle of the book, in a generous poem sequence, 'Moor on Paper Underfoot'. Section #2 is more or less straightforward writing. We're on the Peak District map, and Mark Goodwin's a climber:

     the place boulderers call The Secret Garden
     full of hand-hold fruits & blooms for feet
     all eroded from compacted particles
     washed down from what was aeons later named Greenland
     a playing place with cream black-striped filaments of birch
     trembling as a fabric of weathers directs their performing

The previous section has this same material (I'll not repeat it all) re-lineated and slightly fractured into:

     a playing place with cream black
     -striped filaments of birch trem

     bling as a fabric of weather directs
     their performing Burbage

'Moor Map End Gleans', using roughly a word from each line, renders this section:

          ...call hand all part
     what Scotland black trem directs Burbage'

and the first section of 'Moor Map End Gleans #2' pulls out from the same materials:

     Garden feet particles     Greenland
     birch performing smudged finger

By the end of this sequence the experience of the mapped area is distilled right down to 'close grass between countour ear'.

If you're still with me, you've been moving in and out of this word-map of 'the place boulderers call The Secret Garden'. Mark Goodwin writes on the assumption that there's more to language than meets the eye, and that can take us into the 'more' of landcapes: the more of this you read, the more you have a sense of exploring the land, and considering the 'scape' of landscape. Of a tresp     ass in Chat    sworth's frost, he writes

     edge of silence sli     cing fairy     tales as
     hun     ched oaks reach     to     wards our

     shapes by being     totally still we     re
     lish our in     tru    sion through our minds

     and a painting     our brains do     to ground
     to make     land scape's e     scapes

                                                                                   [from 'A Worth']

What we're reading is not semantic breaks in words, but words broken along fracture lines which are the accidents of orthography. (These are poems which you couldn't translate; they'd have to be versioned with a similar process in another language.) I'm at a disadvantage not having heard Mark Goodwin read; my own reading, of course, hesitates and halts as I struggle to get the right sounds. So I've found it difficult to see this 'painting'; needing so much attention simply to be able to speak the broken words aloud, I lose sight of what 'our brains do     to ground'. But the more I read, the more I'm getting there. If you read that last extract again, as well as what is on the page you might also pick up 'sing fairy', 'true', 'shunt through our minds'. Further on in this piece, a stag turns his head 'moment     arily'. A Good     win, I'd say.

      Jane Routh 2010