Books for the Dead

Do the verses that poets write truly live after them, or do they start to fade with the poet’s last breath, persisting only as memories, echoes, or marks on paper. Once the author, the poem’s final arbiter, has gone do they exist like the text of Gilgamesh waiting for future translators to decode them, give them a proxy afterlife.  Reading the recently published collection A Crater the Size of Calcutta by Linda Lamus and The Ivy Hides the Fig-Ripe Duchess the 2011 collection by Ellie Evans who died in 2012, made me consider if there a fundamental difference between a poem written by a living poet and one written by a poet who has since died.

Single poems can probably survive more easily than bodies of work. That is to say the poems life and afterlife are similar.  A poet’s one or two best poems, anthology pieces possibly, or poems that fit their time or fashion well. The body of work raises more questions, possible contradictions, which there is no one left to answer. This points to where a poem’s meaning resides, the poet has one view, the reader or listener another, a translator a third, an editor a fourth, and so on. These meanings overlap, diverge, and any of those involved can choose to change their mind at any time. Except, of course, the dead.

Reputations come and go.  The going, usually by neglect, goes gradually and unannounced.  The coming, by definition, a more public event. Two poets that have recently come back are Lynette Roberts and Rosemary Tonks. Both had substantial reputations for part of their lifetimes, and faded at least in part because they moved away from poetry.  In their cases their deaths cleared access to major work that the poets themselves had made difficult in one way or another. In the case of Linda Lamus and Ellie Evans death was an obstacle, both writers had the conventional desire that their work should be known, but could not be there to see it through.

In the case of Lynette Roberts and Rosemary Tonks their poetry has gone through, or is going through, the purgatory that select few writers’ work endures, on the way to come out as literature.  There are many established literary pigeonholes for them to be popped into.  In the case of more recently dead writers their literary timeline is still uncharted.  What a reader is left with is ordinary grief, either because the reader knew them or has come to join those who know them trough their work. It is the kind of grief made up of one sided conversations and of an awareness of what might have been.

So I feel there is a difference between reading the word of a living writer, an established writer dead for a generation, and one who has recently died.  If a reader chooses to immerse themselves in such work they will find a challenging solitude, like sitting at the end of a play waiting for someone to applaud.

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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.