Fragility in Shadow
Valerie Laws, All That Lives, Red Squirrel, £6.99, ISBN 9781906700430;
Omar Sabbagh, Waxed Mahogany, Agenda, £9.99, ISBN 9781908527011;
Todd Swift, When All My Disappointments Came at Once, Tightrope, £12.50, ISBN 9781926639451;
Ghassan Zaqtan, trans. Fady Joudah, Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, and Other Poems, Yale, £18.99, ISBN 9780300173161
All four of these collections relate, in some measure, an autobiographical response to loss – whether of life, memory, identity or health – but their modes of expression could hardly be more diverse.
Valerie Laws draws largely on narrative to reflect on her parents’ illnesses and deaths, followed by a sequence on dissection. Humorous poems on dating lighten the mood with varying success. The opening poems on her mother’s dementia are moving, but quite prose-like, and it was only by the fifth poem, ‘The Incredible Shrinking Brain’, that I got a sense of a poetic (as opposed to storytelling) intelligence. The words of the poem’s first section are gradually removed in six subsequent versions so that surviving phrases and encroaching white space mirror the onset of dementia. In the final section, only a single word, “gone”, remains.
Laws’s residencies in pathology and neuroscience research units have produced some fine work. ‘A Litter of Moons’ presents foetal specimens in a pathology museum. In contrast to “cute” film aliens:
we dropped into your world to gasps
and screams, at how nature riffs
on your forked symmetry, your skin
with its certainty of inside, outside.
The voice becomes tragic as it addresses the viewer (and reader) and confesses it hadn’t realised “how you’d fear us, flinch / from our delicate, audacious difference”. Laws doesn’t flinch from lurid, eerily fascinating description, but the poems which work best also find a new angle on human anxieties and fears, such as the tense ‘Rat Brain: Waving Not Drowning’ in which a sliver of rat brain continues unconsciously to emit waves and “each / Tide of waves newly detected, washes us closer / To what we don’t yet know.”
Omar Sabbagh’s first two collections centred on desire, identity, metaphysics, and family past and present. Waxed Mahogany develops these themes. It is highly stylised work, frequently combining end-rhyme with fragmented confessional utterance and Muldoonian sonic gymnastics. Sabbagh’s vocabulary is rich and his tone elevated, as in ‘A Horse, A Horse’:
There’s something awry in the corner of the room –
As though a fountain slides bluely through to a sea’s choppy dream,
As though kindness were a lucid idiom
for the acid scream
Of cliff-like crag, its shriek, and the ocean-deep obscene.
What seems most awry here is the overwriting: “acid scream”, “ocean-deep obscene” and the “crimson wings less chorus or cue” of the following stanza undermine any subtle sense of mystery that may otherwise have been generated. Sabbagh has a great ear for word-music, but this intoxication can lead him to settle for some dubious constructions. It also can generate delightful collisions, such as in ‘His Eyebrows’, when “the arch pen”
Is what this world-whole masque – a roughness – demands.
Like bran. Brawn. Born. Borne. Eyebrows: nut-brown.
I admired Sabbagh’s intensity and ambition but questioned whether he was articulating much of significance. His “livid amps of hurt” (‘No Church’) too often seemed veiled in insubstantial prolixity.
The title of Todd Swift’s seventh collection, When All My Disappointments Came at Once, might seem melodramatic, but sterility, depression and esophagitis are enough to take their toll on anyone. The resulting poems pave a via negativa through times when sources of hope seem absent. In ‘God has left us like a girl’, a girl walks by, “leaving us alone to pray / that tomorrow, again, she will / deign to, lightly, reappear.” Swift’s manipulation of rhythm here is impressive. With “again” and the heavy, infinitive-splitting “lightly”, he transforms an otherwise wistful hope into something akin to desperation.
In ‘After riding the escalator back’, Swift is in a mall, returning a broken watch, accompanied by his wife “who loves me and worries for // the sorrow that ticks away / inside the case of my self-schism.” The kindness of the watch merchant also makes an impression on him, but Swift still sees himself as
a cog that clicks
upon another toothed gear
stymied again, under the magnifying
glass, still unable to be pried free.
That is a tragically perfect image for depression. The poem flits gracefully between narrative, metaphor and commentary. Swift makes it look easy here and in a number of strong poems such as ‘Song in a Time of Inflation’, ‘Sonnet’ and ‘Slieve Donard’ in which a faint lighthouse is “a comic smudge of hope / pressed like an insect // into the book of night”, a stark image from this powerful and painfully honest odyssey through brokenness, love and recovery.
Ghassan Zaqtan is a Palestinian writer who explores familiar themes of memory and absence in entirely unfamiliar ways. Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me, and Other Poems houses a complete collection from 2008 and selections from 1998 and 2003. Fady Joudah’s translations from Arabic read well as poems in English – complexly fragmented, suggestive and vivid.
In the 1998 selection, Luring the Mountain, the dead dance in the grass “as if they were the garden’s motive / or its meditation” (‘The Dead in the Garden’). Zaqtan is determined not to draw simplistic conclusions from suffering, as he angrily makes clear in ‘The Islands’:
like a stabbed horse
while the poets lean over seductive wisdom
pick it out of the commoners’ death.
Biography in Charcoal, the 2003 selection, specifically addresses personal and collective exile, loss and violence. In ‘An Enemy Comes Down the Hill’, the generic “enemy” becomes
fragility in shadow,
the Jewish man with a long mustache
who resembles the dead Arabs here.
No longer a faceless threat, then, but a fragile human being like oneself. Like one’s dead.
In 2008’s Like a Straw Bird it Follows Me, Zaqtan explores what he calls a “whirling in my head” (‘Alone and the River Follows Me’): a litany of scattered things that might provide pretexts for making sense of loss and memory, and for why a poet might find it necessary to write about them. He carries narratives like luggage and can’t abandon them because
Something wrong happened there at the starting line
a minor error that accumulates its dark with the patience
and perseverance of the dead. (‘As If He Were She’)
Words and phrases link poems and ideas together, not as mere language games but as ever-deepening resonance. With each reading, I found myself struck by echoes I’d missed before, and I am unable to do this wonderful book justice in the space available here. It is rich, exciting, vital, humane work that puts everything else I’ve read this year in the shade.
Rob A. Mackenzie lives in Edinburgh. His last publication was the pamphlet Fleck and the Bank (Salt, 2012). His second full collection, The Good News, will be published by Salt in 2013.
Published in The Poetry Review, 101:2, Summer 2011. © The author & The Poetry Review, www.poetrysociety.org.uk
Anna Woodford, Birdhouse, Salt, £9.99, ISBN 978184471788;
Nii Ayikwei Parkes, The Makings of You, Peepal Tree Press, £8.99, ISBN 9781845231590;
Hilary Menos, Berg, Seren, £7.99, ISBN 9781854115089;
Omar Sabbagh, My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint, Cinnamon Press, £7.99,ISBN 9781907090196
If first novels are usually autobiographical, so are most first poetry collections. In Birdhouse, Anna Woodford goes back in her family history to when her grandmother connected with the unlikely man she married, an Austrian Jewish refugee whose parents had been killed by the Nazis and who somehow made his way to Britain and into her life:
She unwrapped the rest of his life like a boiled sweet from her handbag,
removed his name – the German name that meant
he couldn’t open doors for her –
called him Richard, name for a man she might have married.
Though this is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Woodford clearly loved her grandparents and seems to accept this complete renovation of her grandfather as life-affirming, rather than a travesty.
Many of the poems, particularly those about her family past and present – her parents, partner, children – her love lyrics and her elegies, are tender and yet spare. Like some other contemporary poets who were educated at strict Roman Catholic schools (Martina Evans and Angela Kirby come to mind), Woodford confronts the world anew, retaining a spiritual connection but devoid of catachised guilt. The twelve-line title poem in which she describes a clitoral orgasm is sheer bliss. It begins:
You fiddle with the catch
between my legs until my mouth
springs open and I am
crowing like an everyday bird that has
entered the heights of the aviary.
As ‘Birdhouse’ is the first poem in the book, it would seem a hard act to follow for its intensity, accuracy and – yes – its beauty. Yet, while not all the poems rise to that level of ebullience, Anna Woodford’s perfect pitch, control of suspense and capacity for surprise are everywhere in working order.
Nii Ayikwei Parkes also draws on his personal history in his first collection, The Makings of You, but his approach is more reserved. He seems to have taken the advice credited to his father in the short sequence ‘One Against Three’, and applied it to his poetry: “Reticence, / he said, is the best kind of defence”. We don’t know whether the lesson a boy has learnt in yoga class does, in fact, win the day:
steel yourself and wait. I exhale,
feel my blood pump – ferric and vital
as the expression of a standpipe,
then wait for the first boy to strike.
Parkes’s poetry is cool and unhurried, as in the charming sequence, ‘The Cut’, which tells the story of two Sierra Leonese children, nine and ten years old, walking along a dangerous old railway line to visit the grandfather they’ve never met:
We could be seen from the air, I’m sure,
but who would dare fly so close to the sun
when even the earth felt like a lick of fire?
A day when the benign insane, abandoned
to wander in circles tangled as their hair,
knew not to emerge from the shade. Determined,
we sweated in the glare, consuming the quota
of shallow breaths to get us round the bend
Balancing narrative and verse, the poet draws the reader into his poetry with the story-teller’s ‘what-happens-next?’ A fine example of this is ‘Background’, about losing a girlfriend to another man, which ends in a gentle wistfulness: “I saw you wipe your red lips off his lower lip, the day I went home / wiser and stood by my open window, looking over Bedford fields, / while the riddled curtain you loved to grasp danced like a ghost.” However, Parkes moves beyond the personal into African history in the long couplet sequence ‘The Ballast Series’: “Our planked fathers drowned simply / because weight is whatever we keep inside.” He has lived on three continents and in the West Indies, known both poverty and comfort. His poetry is sophisticated, eloquent and wise.
According to the biographical note on the cover of Berg, Hilary Menos runs an organic farm in Devon. One would expect earthy poems, and there are some, including ‘Judgement’, where Menos nails the specific jobs of men at an abattoir in five quatrains. She casts the slaughterers as angels:
Danny angles his saw. His halo is blinding today.
The tattoos on his arms leap like blue flames.
and ends the poem, crushingly, “If you want blood, / there is blood. If you want men, / here are men.” But Menos has a light side, too. ‘Siberian Sherbet’ starts with mysterious “orange snow” falling on Eastern Europe, and the usual fudged (ooh!) explanation by a Russian official. Then “The Steppe looked like Frozen Mango Pudding. / The village of Pudinskoye had been Tangoed.” And so forth... In ‘Bernard Manning Plays Totnes Civic Hall’ the chicken king laughs (all the way to the bank) at outraged protests. And the listed ingredients in a prepared ‘Tiramisu’ become a found poem. It works.
This is grown-up verse, able to take on the world. In ‘Face of America’ Menos uses a form she seems to favour: two stanzas of six lines each. In the first she describes Marilyn Monroe – “They had to sew her into the dress it was that tight”, it begins – but then in the second stanza the poem opens out:
Every now and then beauty steps forward.
On a shell, a chariot, a podium. Rolled up in a rug.
And for one brief moment time itself steps back.
Venus, Helen, Cleopatra... Anywhere, any era. That is the breadth of Hilary Menos’s vision. But then we are brought back to specifics – and that poster:
Then there’s the fall, the war, the telephone call,
the men in suits with white powder, dusting for prints
and, up on a billboard, the face of America, smiling.
My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint by Omar Sabbagh is, as its title suggests, largely autobiographical. A British poet of Lebanese extraction, his verse takes us into emotional realms that English speaking writers seldom enter. Quoting Theodor Adorno, Samuel Beckett and Paracelsus among others (a page of Adorno’s Minima Moralia prefaces the collection), Sabbagh dedicates the book to his father with a poem called, ‘A Father’s Love’. The final stanza reads:
Let me remember him, immemorial
as ringed time in a tree;
let the echoes of his voice remind me
the whole way home
of where home is;
and as my eyes turn to glass
I’ll lift them up to a father’s love.
A poem titled ‘Infidelity’ is inscribed to his mother; presumably the ‘I’ is meant to be her:
I told you a thousand times
And then blew it to you with a final twist,
Wrenched the winds from my guts, flexed my lips
And horrified you with the scaling din of it.
[. . .]
You would not listen, you could not hear.
And when later you talked of caring
I thought of another, less stubborn ear.
This is strong stuff, honest and daring. A philosophical poem, ‘Hunger For The Object Far From Home’ explores the concept of family – “Family is not obedience, a blindness of rigor, mortal to the end. / Family, mine, is the way one’s life bends / Out of perspective” – and then goes on to consider “Beirut – call it home – is the blue judgement seat”. A song, apparently for a child, is inspired by a paragraph in Ermanno Bencivenga’s Hegel’s Dialectical Logic. The book’s final thirty pages are mostly devoted to love poems, underlining Omar Sabbagh’s bona fides as an English romantic poet. Modern, post-modern, whatever, he trenchantly belongs in that canon.
Leah Fritz’s Whatever Sends the Music Into Time will be published by Salmon Press in April 2012.
Published in The Poetry Review, 101:2, Summer 2011. © The author & The Poetry Review, www.poetrysociety.org.uk