They Shall Take Up Serpents Smiling

Probably the most notable fact about Linda Lamus’s collection A Crater the Size of Calcutta is that it has made it to publication at all.  The poet Linda Lamus died in 2008 leaving a folder of drafts and the expressed wish that these should be published as a collection. It is a great credit to Carrie Etter, the book’s editor, and Mulfran Press, the book’s publisher, not only that they have fulfilled LL’s wish, but also made this interesting collection available.  Which to say the very least contains a more than a few compelling poems.  (The title of my blog refers to a photograph on the back of the book, showing the author holding snakes and smiling.  The image is not as far as I can tell available on-line.)

At its best LL’s poetry works at the border of fable and reality, in the quick world seen from the corner of the eye rather than weighty myth. The title poem is truly the best poem in the collection, creating a fantastic world that is tangible and linked to reality. There is longing and tension in the poem, that is beautifully hinged on a couple of evocative phrases: a crater the size of Calcutta and Black as Newgate’s Knocker.

Most of the poems are sketches of one sort or another, either of characters or places, in particular Asia and Eastern Europe. In these poems LL manages to inject some of the energy and mystery of fables into the everyday. In Tafan and Line-Painting Man humble characters are transformed by the distances and mysteries of their lives. Probably only in Madame Emilia and the Crocodile does LL move into the purely fantastical. It is a poem written in response to a linocut by Chris Pig, reproduced in the collection. Here the writing is compelling with a light erotic touch.

Many of the poems mix mystery and narrative tension to hold a reader, The Consul’s Dog and The Ice Pond are particular favourites of mine. There is a well realised villanelle Circus Days which is more reflective in tone than most of its kind. Walking to the College of Criminal Justice stands out for its energy and love of life. Towards the end of the book are the poems wrote in response to her final illness. These poems are simpler and more direct than the rest of the collection. LL manages to find some of the same characters on the ward that she has found in other places, and provides a disturbing account of some of the careless treatment she received. In the last four poems Bloodsuckers, My Shadow Is Full of Roses, Morphine Queen, and Pacakage I think I can feel the poet bringing her sensibility to her new situation. Pacakage the final poem is mysterious, compelling and touching, and can stand up against any of the other poems in the collection.


The Name Lived By

When writing my recent blog post about Stephen Payne’s recent collection I found myself unsure how I should refer to Stephen Payne.  When I started writing the most natural name to use was Stephen.  I do know him, and I am not setting myself up to write formal criticism.  Though this did not seem to do the poet justice.  After all there are a lot of Stephens in the world.  And it seems too pally, a potential reader might not trust my opinion.   

The convention is to use the writer under review by their surname, so I should refer to the author of Pattern Beyond Chance as Payne.  This would be more natural if I did not know the writer, and it is possible to mitigate my discomfort by mixing terms of reference: the author, the poet, the writer, etc..  But I am not sure the time for this form address has passed.  It dates for a time when a man gave his name as Ross, no one would think his name was Ross Jones, he would be Mr Ross, Dr Ross, Professor Ross or possibly the Earl of Ross.

This form off address also dates back to a time when the vast majority of people out in the world were men.  When women gave their names they would be giving their father or husbands name accompanied by the appropriate title.  As women entered the world more fully they were given the courtesy of being addressed and referred to in the same way.  I remember hearing a woman writer saying how strange she found it when she read her female friends’ obituaries, where they would be referred to by their surnames.  She had known them well, but not by that name, this was not the name by which they had lived their lives.

I find myself in a similar position.  I chose to use the writer’s whole name abbreviated as initials after the first use, for the sake of brevity.  Though I am not happy with this.  It has become something of a modern convention,  I receive a lot of correspondence addressed to David Foster-Morgan.  It gets the writer out of any difficulties in choosing a title, in particular the Miss, Mrs, Ms question, but seems awkward and unsatisfactory.

There are other traditions, the welsh tradition of linking a father’s name with the son as in Dafydd ap Gwilym, Dafydd the son of Gwilym.  Where father and son are recognised by the names they lived by.  On reflection I feel it is the given name that should be used, in our modern less formal, less dynastic age, this is the name lived by.

Stephen Payne: Pattern beyond Chance

I have known Stephen Payne’s poetry for some years, and come to admire its craft, reflection and generosity.  To encounter a poet’s work from readings, workshops, magazines and even a pamphlet is different from meeting it in a full collection. (SP has already published a pamphlet The Possibilities of Balance with Smiths Knoll.)

With a full collection the poet has a chance to create their own poetic world where each poem can support and inform the other, not have to stand directly alongside the other poetries.  It also simply has more space, I feel the poetic volume of a work increases exponentially with the works length, so a full collection shouts eight times louder than a pamphlet.

SP’s poetic world is in turn interested, keen to interest others, playful, well informed, and tender.  It is direct and personal with all of the poems in the collection coming from the poet’s life or work.  It is essential poetry, no persona poems or historical sequences here.  No struggling for the killer image or hunting through the Thesaurus either.  The writing is clear, metrical tending to free verse, sometimes employing syllabics and rhyme.

The star poem of the collection is Making a Living, it is quoted on the back cover with its great opening stanza.  Which contains the most striking anecdote from SP’s academic background, and also establishes the poet’s sensibility.  I will not give the story away, but there is a point where a young man is standing still, mounted on a bicycle in the middle of a velodrome while the crowd cheer a cycle race.  The crowd oblivious to the young man’s achievement.  In so many of the poems the poet observes but is always there doing his own thing too.  In Maths Teacher he approaches the conclusion to a mathematical proof with his teacher.  In Scientific Method he watches his daughter’s intellectual development, but guides her at the same time.  SP floats within his poems, giving them a level as he does so.

My personal favourite poems are In the Floating Temple and Feature. In the first poem SP pulls off something quite remarkable in using one reality to inform another completely different reality, while keeping both realities in focus.  It is an exercise in extended metaphor which translates the relationship between master and student in an oriental temple into a recognisable western reality, but in doing so brings the beauty of the temple setting with it.  Feature has a similar element where a woman overtakes herself, though I value this poem for its implied expression.  The poem creates a mood with a few details, a slight sadness which it transforms.

SP is clearly interested in rhyme.  I happen to know that at least some of his un-rhymed poems have rhymed in draft.  He uses rhyme effectively and with good judgment.  This can be seen in particular in the poems Imp of the Perverse and Infract that follow each other in the collection.  In the first the rhyme binds the poem together to make the experience of a passing train one whole.  In the second the rhyme halts the poem to encourage thought from a reader, and also to support the subject of the poem.

SP is also a good story teller in Guessing Game and The Kinds of Strangers, and one or two of the poems already mentioned, a reader is quickly thrown up in the air, left feeling a little uncomfortable, unsure what the relationships in the poem are, before the jeopardy is skilfully resolved.  In almost all the poems there is a smooth natural delivery, that holds a reader’s interest.

The collection does develop and for me the best poems are at the end.  In particular To: Linda, a tender eulogy for the poet Linda Chase, which is perfectly judged and encapsulates so many of the collections virtues. And in After the Tram Crash, which seems to allow the mystery of life to speak for its self.  I feel the final poem Pier might reflect the direction the poet wishes to go, ably combining the formal and discursive elements of the collection.

The collection is divided into four sections, though the poems are not on a theme, it gives a reader an extra context to read the poems, particularly rewarding on a second read. The title is a reference to scientific method, but after reading the collection I am inclined to think it applies to the poet’s view of the world as shown through his poetry.





Anxiety’s Arrow

The title of this blog post is derived from Martin Amis’s 1991 novel Time’s Arrow.  From what I remember the title and central metaphor of the novel is taken from Physics, the idea that there is no particular reason why cause and effect cannot be swapped around.  So a sequence of events could just have easily happened in reverse.

The reason this is on my mind is that I gave my first reading as a featured reader last Thursday.  Something I managed to get myself into something of a state about, the anxiety in question.  And although it went well, helped by a supportive and attentive audience.  I feel similar feelings of anxiety extending backwards in time now the event is over.  The source of these feels is probably an over developed desire not to let people down.  So my publisher will not regret publishing me, the audience is not bored or confused, and to do myself justice.

It was a learning experience.  The most important lesson being not to over prepare, and to take the chance of engaging with the audience.  I would like to enjoy reading, and have done in the past, at open-mic and group events.  Probably the worse thing I did in preparing was to read through my poem again, and again to the point I was starting to get tired of one or two of them.  Perhaps this is the lesson, that is a poem, or any piece of writing is good enough it can stand endless repetition.  Heaven and hell are the same for writers: reading your own work for all eternity.  But I do not think so.

In his novel Slaughter House Five Kurt Vonnegut has a similar but somewhat more consoling vision of time.  In which all of time exists together, we only appear to move through time because we take a particular path through an otherwise fixed reality.  The alien Tralfamadorians see the whole of time at once, and as result have less to be anxious about.


A Single Step

Well, I am sure that nobody is reading. I wonder how many blogs have started like that. I think in this case I can be reasonably sure. I started this setup an hour ago, which is not too bad as these things go.   Although I did have the idea that it would only take ten minutes, agonising over if I should hide my identity or register a domain via WordPress extended the process.

So why blog?  There are many cynical and true answers to that. I think the best answer is to extend the conversation. Poetry, most art really, is one half of a conversation. Poems must stand on their own, but do need help. Which can be witnessed by the lengthy introductions, spoilers perhaps, many poets give their work at readings.

The place to begin is at the beginning. Not an original thought I know.  I have already learned not to start four sentences in a row with I. The main function of this first text, is to be text for the purpose of testing the layout. Hopefully more interesting content will follow.