Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Searching for Closure - a Re-Review by Nathan Thompson

Stretch of Closures by Claire Crowther, Shearsman Books, 2007

What follows is sort of narcissistic, not in the sense that it assumes that anybody takes any notice of poetry reviews, but that it implies that anyone might have taken notice of one that I wrote over a year ago now. I hope this is forgivable under the circumstances: basically I want to hold up my hands and admit I was at least a little bit wrong.

One of the advantages of the internet is its permanence and its accessibility. One of the disadvantages of the internet is its permanence and its accessibility. For example, over on Stride magazine I wrote a brief review of Claire Crowther’s Stretch of Closures which, whilst by no means damning, could have been perceived to be an example of faint praise par excellence. I know this because a couple of readers have told me so. The review is also pretty badly written and shows obvious signs of hurry. People haven’t mentioned that, maybe because they’re too nice. But it’s there for good, or until the internet implodes. And I don’t like that review, or even agree with it (Martian? – I must have been having some sort of ‘moment’). So I’m grateful to the team at G+P for allowing me the, pretty definitely self-indulgent, chance to set the record straight. And I hope this doesn’t just read like the attempts of a once-near-Catholic to partially cure his guilty insomnia.

Since writing the earlier review I’ve spent a great deal of time with Claire Crowther’s work (it’s clear from re-reading that review that I can hardly have skimmed it (strange, as I clearly had read the other two books discussed there) – I’ve learned my lesson now), and the more time I spend with it the more intriguing it becomes. The poems are, on one level, masterpieces of clarity, in the sense that they are invariably carefully and precisely written. But in Stretch of Closures, however clear the mode of expression, that which is expressed remains just of reach, giving the reader his or her own space in which to reflect and contribute:

The wind pulls the hair of young pines.
Above their heads, dinosaur footprints.
[from ‘Piave’]

The grace, and calm sense of collusion with the obtuse in this poem, is reminiscent of John Ashbery at his best. And yet there’s never the sense of anything arch or knowing in Claire Crowther’s writing that such curious juxtapositions as the above often carry with them. Here the imagery seems an excursion into the subconscious better to understand the conscious; an extension of the unreachable dream-world of the past into the present; and an examination of personal fossils and experiences that in retrospect take on the aspect of things unknown. And, to extend this idea, bringing one thing into proximity with another seems to be one of the themes in this collection. Compassion and understanding are to the fore and language is used generously and lyrically to create the give and take between reader, written, and writer that is, to me anyway, essential to poetic communication:

The sea rolled itself into a sweat
down our faces as if the tide
had suddenly thought of us as inlets

[from ‘City of Turns’]

And I like too the forays into the informal, such as the humour in the repetition at the beginning of ‘Moods’:

Once I had a motorway of hair,
long, black, stood up to stresses well.
You trafficked it, your fingers heavy, light.
I closed it once or twice against the terrors
you get with hair.

There’s a hint of New York-style familiarity and ‘making strange’ here that gels well with the slightly dangerous-sounding narrative voice (on the subject of ‘voice’, the earlier review had a really insulting and patronising tone, don’t you think? – if I were Claire Crowther it would have made me spit). And there are overtones of menace, or at least fear, throughout this book; a sense of ‘looking for gravity’ (to quote from ‘Stairborne’) in both senses. But thankfully the narrative voice avoids the temptation to recede into tight-eyed Plath-style steeliness, despite a degree of crossover in its subject matter – for instance in ‘Motorway Bridges’, which covers genocide, women killed by their partners, and overtones of the occult.

The prose poems have a different diction on the whole, and sail deliciously close to ‘purple prose’ in their rhythms and piles of imagery without ever yawing over into quasi-19th-Century French extravagance:

My shoes are pocked with mud. Roller skates flicker ball bearings like dynamos in my hand. Do I see more than my mind which is sure that fledglings cry almost soundlessly from a nest, that a marble lies hidden, glass budded in a scald of nettles inside the paling?

[from ‘Abscond’]

What can you say to that but: fuck, yeah!? There’s a daring and panache to the prose poems in this book that you don’t normally find in English prose poetry (Luke Kennard’s and Annie Clarkson’s work being the obvious exceptions) and it’s exciting to live with a writer on the edge of technique like this.

So why are the views in this review so different? I guess, although at the time I didn’t realise it, I wasn’t ready to be reviewing a book simultaneously so raw and so technically proficient: maybe I couldn’t get my head around the possibility of marrying the two – I think I was still reading Lee Harwood without finding irony, and Philip Larkin finding only irony.

And also, I don’t think I read it very thoroughly. It’s easy when you start out reviewing to adopt a kind of all-encompassing ‘knowing’ tone and use it to blast through your own ignorance. I think this was the first book I found that totally eluded that kind of one-style-fits-all approach, which, and I should have realised it at the time, probably means it’s a pretty interesting book and one I should have left someone else to review.
Anyway, I’ve now owned three copies of this book, having given the previous two to friends in pubs when talking excitedly to non-contemporary-poetry types about the fact that there is lots of exciting work out there by new British writers if you only know where to look for it. And this book is a very good place to start looking. I hope there’s much more to come from Claire Crowther. She’s one of the most exciting writers around right now, and as first collections go this one’s a blinder. It’s a shame it has taken me so long to say it. So buy three copies and give two to your friends, that’s my advice.
Nathan Thompson grew up in Cornwall and studied at the University of Exeter, where he later lectured part-time in musicology. After brief stints in Cardiff and Herefordshire he now lives in Jersey. Examples of his work can be found online at Great Works, Gists and Piths, Shadowtrain and Stride magazine. His first collection, the arboretum towards the beginning, is just out, published by Shearsman.


Tom said...

I think this is an excellent, humble and wise piece. This is exactly what the internet should be providing - space not only for commentary, but also for commentary on commentary. Nice one!

It's also made me want this book. Which is one purpose, at least, of a positive review.


Roddy said...

Claire is close to finishing her second book - which I've been pleased to have a preview of, and even do some work on. I think it's even better than the first. It's really interesting to speak to her about her compositional methods. She enjoys lacing layers of meaning into poems in a way that works - I often feel double meanings and ambiguities go over the heads of even very smart readers, but it's a strong facet of her work.

Emily Hasler said...

I will also buy this book I think.

I was wondering, have the editors ever changed their minds in a big way about a poet/collection/poem?


P.S. I think I might have seen you on campus the other day Simon, in the arts centre, but my eyesight is really very bad and I never wear my glasses, so I wasn't sure. In which case, I'm sorry I did not say hello.

Claire said...

I must thank you Nathan for this rereview. I don't think I've ever come across one before, certainly not of a first collection. I accept that my poetry rewards time given by a reader and I can only be grateful when any reader bothers. But, conversely, I want to write poetry that doesn't go away once it's read, that stays and displays more and more facets at the back of the reader's mind. I am deeply pleased that some of the poems did that job for you, Nathan, and it's admirable that you've spoken up. Thanks again.

Carrie Etter said...

Disappointed in Thompson's previous review of Stretch of Closures, I'm impressed with his courage to post a re-review here. Post-Roddy, I worked closely with Claire on the new book, The Clockwork Gift, and can say it's an impressive step forward in her work.

Nathan Thompson said...

Hi Claire,

As I say, I'm only sorry I didn't have the understanding to see your book's many great qualities the first time around and that I didn't give it the time and consideration it deserved. I don't really think I've done it justice here either, in terms of interpretation and detailed analysis. But it's one of those books you just have to read and re-read and I hope I've at least encouraged some people to do that.

It's very gracious of you to comment and I hope that the offence I may have caused by my earlier piece is alleviated at least a little.

I very much look forward to 'The Clockwork Gift' (a fantastic title by the way).

All best wishes,


Roddy said...

Will all other poets who would like a re-review of one of their books form an orderly queue here or hereabouts and name the reviewer in question!

The Editors said...

It's great to see so many comments: what Gists and Piths clearly needs is more celebrity reviewers! Emily, in answer to your question, yes, I've had a lot of cnahges of heart, but they've sadly swung towards the negative, whereby writers I've once loved have gradually come to show their flaws and limitations. If enough people ask, I may name names, but for now I'm planning on being polite.

Roddy, I've not been reviewed enough to help you in your request, and both reviews in question were very favourable, so I've no complaints. Besides, I'm just grateful if anyone reads me at all, whether they like my work or not. I may change my tune when I'm older and more hardbitten, mind...

Simon, Gists and Piths

The Editors said...

I too have had cnahges of heart, but not since I quit caffeine.

George, G&P

Jane Holland said...

Can I have a pre-review of Camper Van Blues, please? As a pre-emptive strike against unfair reviewing, with the celebrity reviewer apologising in advance for the hatchet job he/she is planning to give my book.

And for the record, nobody worked with me on this new book, well-known or otherwise. (Pound wasn't available, much to my chagrin.) So, whatever happens, it's all my own fault.

The Editors said...

Jane: Perhaps you should send us a review of your own book then?

You're kind of a celebrity (one appearance on Start the Week is probably worth more cultural capital than getting voted out of the Big Brother house in week 2 these days). And you'd get to respond in advance to all the possible negative comments you can imagine people throwing at it/you.

It'd be like Eminem at the end of 8 Mile. Sort of.

Jane Holland said...

Review my own book? Now, what would Cyril Connolly have done in this position?

Hold on while I push this pram to one side ...