Thursday, 28 February 2008

Simon Turner - My Unfinished Reviews

One of the reasons I find myself so impatient with book reviewing in the broadsheets, aside from the increasingly conservative decisions being made behind the scenes as to what gets reviewed to begin with, is the restriction of the form. There is only so much one can do, only so far one can go, within the framework of the traditional review, in experimenting with form. The blogosphere, on the other hand, represents a totally free space, and if this sometimes results in show-boating and self-indulgence - Gists & Piths can certainly be found guilty on both those fronts on occasion - it is more often the case that the same freedom opens up the reviewer to greater critical independence and rigour than the mainstream press can allow for. So, with that in mind, and in tribute to Marcel Benabou (and latterly George Steiner) I want to inaugurate a new(ish) form of review: a compilation of unfinished - for various reasons - scraps and fragments, which on their own amount to very little, but which compiled make up an interesting stop-gap article until I can muster the energy to create something more substantial. Enjoy.

1. John Burnside, Gift Songs (Cape, 2007)

A difficult one, this: I've been a fan of Burnside's work for a long time, since I first read his poetry in the Morley-Hulse-Kennedy edited Bloodaxe volume The New Poetry in college. The review of his most recent collection remains unfinished due to the fact that I proved incapable of making my mind up about it. On the one hand, he is an immensely accomplished stylist, and there are many wonderful lines and images here. But I also worry that his work feels as though it has been composed on auto-pilot: so many of the phrases - and subsequently, so many of the poetic effects - in this book comprise a variation on the formula 'an x of y', for example: 'the salt of distance', 'the music of midsummer's eve', 'the lull of gospel', 'the perfection of shadows', the shimmer of eyes'. Granted, it might well be unfair to take the isolated elements as indicative of the collection as a whole, but the minutiae of a poet's technique can often give us an insight into their more expansive qualities. The jury's still out on this one.

2. Three from Shearsman: Spencer Selby, Twist of Address; Peter Larkin, Leaves of Field; Isobel Thrilling, The Language Creatures (all 2007).

A difficult review to finish if only because of the wildly variant technique and quality on display here. I knew Spencer Selby best as the curator of Selby's List, an invaluable resource for finding avant poetry on the web, and this was my first encounter with his poetry, and I thoroughly enjoyed it: loosely language-centred, there is also a narrative joy to be found in certain of the poems here, such as the 'Cycle Synopsis' sequence, which upon first reading have the same disorientating effect of David Lynch's later work (Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire), revolving as the poems do around disturbing and paradoxical circular narratives from which there is no escape for the reader. Reminiscent, too, of JG Ballard and Donald Barthelme, though I am less sure why. Elsewhere, his poems demand and reward close attention; indeed, if the poems have a subject, it is precisely the close attention to language, and language's mutability, which the collection cries out for the reader to enact.

Larkin's work is language-centred in a different way: dense blocks of text which seem to mirror the impenetrable foliage of a climactic forest (the space of nature is often Larkin's subject, though this does not mean his work falls into a Romantic category). I must admit to finding Larkin's work 'difficult', but it is not without its pleasures: "Like threads of leaf-sepals seem incisions, in the tree of deep ruts of twining licence. A canopy no longer super-exposable once what it gives as shelter is stood up under, plantation station out tall in swirl." Out of the swirl of colliding registers and vocabulary emerges one fact: a sensuality of language which, if we put aside the complexities of meaning for one moment, really makes the poetry come alive in the mouth. There are no easy points of entry into Larkin's work - it is all of one part, really, and his chosen form is the same dense prose-stanza that dominates here (reading his work alongside Ron Silliman's landmark essay The New Sentence may help to clarify the reading process) - but I would recommend him without caveats. Just don't expect an easy ride.

Isobel Thrilling's poetry, meanwhile, is all too easy on the reader, and seems very much at odds with the usual rigorous editorial standards at Shearsman, and whilst there are pleasures to be found here - a clarity of expression, a deft hand when it comes to arresting images - the poems feel to neat, too polite, for my liking. In addition, I wasn't at all keen on Thrilling's tendency to close her poems with semi-moralistic statements ('We are all pieces of amber, / the universe remade running through our veins'; 'whatever our / composition, we are prisms of rain') that tend to close off any element of self-volition on the part of the reader: all the work of interpretation is done for us. That said, I think there are moments here where it becomes apparent that there is something of real value in Thrilling's poetry, but it exists in only nascent form as yet, and needs a more expansive space to develop, which the poems here do not offer.

3. Charles Johnson, The Feather-List Extracts (Five Seasons Press, 2005)

There are a number of reasons I never got around to completing this review, which can be summarised as follows:

1. When I began, I had just completed a review of David Hart's Running Out, also published by Five Seasons Press, and was worried that Gists & Piths might appear like a publicity wing of that publisher.

2. This was compounded by the fact that David Hart edited and wrote the introduction to this collection, and Johnson, like Hart and like myself, was originally from Birmingham. To avoid accusations of Brummie chauvinism, I thought it best to hold on to the review until we were better established.

3. I had, prior to beginning the review in earnest, received a (very lovely and apologetic) rejection note from Johnson, who edits Obsessed With Pipework and Flarestack Press, and was worried that I might not be able to maintain enough critical distance in my account of his collection.

4. 2005 was quite a while ago: to write a review in 2007 / 2008 felt a little belated.

So, personal reasoning aside, what did I think of the collection? Overall, it had the feel of being somewhat cobbled together, though this is as much a result of the editorial process as Johnson's own writing: the poems were gathered from far and wide, rather than written with a single collection in mind. That said, so many slim volumes are so neat and tidy, so written to order, that the slightly anarchic quality of The Feather-List Extracts is refreshing. Inevitably, the collection is somewhat of a mixed bag: some of the poems are very successful, some less so,but the poems I enjoyed I enjoyed immensely. 'Hints for Travellers' shows all of Johnson's greatest strengths - simplicity, lack of pretension, a keen eye for detail - to their best advantage:

I drove an unfenced road
open to the grail
as a wide flower is open
to the idea of summer rain ...

If the diction recalled Edward Thomas or Robert Frost, that brilliant image at the heart of the opening stanza is all Johnson's own, and all the more effective for being revealed in such simple language. Elsewhere, Johnson is not afraid to experiment, the strange final section, 'Indices', tantalisingly suggesting a whole alternative career as a card-carrying experimentalist, quite at odds with the quieter poet Johnson shows himself to be throughout the remainder of the collection. We need more poets like Johnson: writers uninterested in aesthetic fashions, or the various style wars that seem to be wrecking the poetry community at present. And if it doesn't all succeed, so what? Just leave it and go on to the next thing.

4. Sarah Maguire, The Pomegranates of Kandahar (Chatto & Windus, 2007)

I have friends who are slightly at odds with me on this one, and can't quite work out why I like Maguire's work. I plan to give no robust defence here of my personal taste. Suffice it to say that I enjoy her poetry immensely, and here is one reason why, from 'The Physic Garden':

Look, even in July,
the leaves of the
are learning to yellow:

lemon and gold
leavening the green.


As good a place to end as any, I suppose: until next time. Don't have nightmares.


Jane Holland said...

If that quotation from Maguire is supposed to tell us, with no further comment, why you enjoy her work, I have to point out that it doesn't. Not for me, anyway. My simple reaction to that quotation is: 'Yes? And?'

I'm amused by the 'x of y' thing you mention in the Burnside review. I know precisely what you mean. It's become a fad in certain circles. Still a beautiful thing, in the right hands, but how few those hands really are. Burnside may be one of the beautiful in that respect though - I admire his work whilst not being a total fan - but these things are hard to judge without the benefit of hindsight.

The 'x of y', in other words.

James Midgley said...

Burnside really does increasingly write to a formula, it seems.

and surely this is how

and maybe this is how

once, in my x year

once, in x place

random object, random object, conclusion object.

(eg: the sullen gift of everyday events: / the promise of rain, a footfall, the dread of belonging.)

And as you pick up on -- the 'savage machinery of grace' and all that stuff (plus the above two phrases).

& throw in some rough iambs to underpin the whole thing, of course.

I found Gift Songs to be pretty indulgent stuff (and Burnside always has that air of self-indulgence, really). Asylum Dance is, for me, his best book. The Light Trap felt padded. I enjoyed The Good Neighbour immensely but am currently dissecting it for a dissertation, so it's lost some charm... Still it's interesting to see how much more vibrant and willing to experiment (particularly with that voice of his) his earlier collections like The Hoop, Common Knowledge and Feast Days are.

Gists & Piths said...


You're right, there probably needs to be more on the Maguire portion of the not-quite review, but I'd run out of coffee by then, in fairness. I may return to it at a later date: hopefully it'll be more convincing by then! I do recommend her work, though; there's a collection called The Florists at Midnight, which is a sort of selected of poems from her first two collections that's a good place to start.

As to the 'x and y' thing, yes, beautiful in small doses I think, but across a whole collection it begins to smack of an automated mode of writing. I often find I want something other than beauty, some kind of rigour, or even the kind of violence you get in Hughes or early Hill. Gentility never really cut it for me.

Charles said...

Don't know quite what led me to Google my own book title...but thanks, Simon, for your kind comments. Your third reason made me smile - you certainly seem to have found the critical distance. to get on with that alternative career?