Monday, 10 March 2008

"It is all so obvious"

Isobel Norris reviews Snow Negatives by Enda Coyle-Greene (Dedalus Press, 2007)
This is the sort of collection one imagines critics raving about for giving us a glimpse of the everyday or an insight into common or garden thoughts and emotions. In fact, the collection won the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 2006, and the judges declared that the collection put the world we live in under pressure, that Coyle-Greene’s poetry was ‘strong, sure, and totally trustworthy’. But Snow Negatives falls far short of expectations.

The first poem ‘Road Sign’ tells us about mistaking a baby fox beside the motorway for a cat. Well, great. Cool. Nice moment. But the poem doesn’t give us anything beyond that. It doesn’t claw out any emotion, it doesn’t put a new spin on the world around us; it is simply a short and somewhat dull anecdote, broken up by curiously placed line breaks.

And sadly the collection begins as it intends to go on. That is, blandly. The title poem, ‘Snow Negatives’ shows us, as the title may suggest, a series of snapshots, such as:


The cathedral swells to fill
the rear–view mirror,
a pillar of salt.
On the left a petrol station
is a brazen light; on the right,
trees dip their silver heads
and shiver.

But Coyle-Greene doesn’t go beyond the snapshot. She doesn’t explore the picture; she doesn’t offer us a view, an opinion, a sense of why the cathedral in the mirror is important enough to write a poem about. She doesn’t even explore the words themselves – her language is bland. By this point in the collection, I’m beginning to think that Coyle-Greene’s idea of poetry is a photograph with line breaks.

Another issue the collection has is that some of the most engaging lines are ones Coyle-Greene has stolen from elsewhere, for example in ‘Witches’, she borrows a line of Caroline Lamb’s infamous assessment of Byron:

As it was, we were fools,
unkissed by the lights
bright smile of the sun,
only happy when sad,
aching for boys
who were mad, bad,
dangerous to know.

Some of whom were poets.’

It’s okay to borrow the odd words and lines here and there, but Coyle-Greene repeats them exactly, without offering her own take on the mad, bad, dangerous to know poet-boy species. When you’re quote-poaching, you really need to put your own spin on things, because otherwise you’re just repeating what’s already been said by someone rather more original than you.

On the other hand, when Coyle-Greene writes more formally, her poems become instantly stronger. For instance, the series of modern sonnets, ‘In Latin, to the lake’, stand out in the collection because of the subtle couplets at the end of each sonnet, and because the sonnet form itself has forced Coyle-Greene to cut her work down to fourteen lines. She has had to club her good lines together rather than break them up with fuzzy meanderings. As a result, ‘In Latin, to the lake’ boasts some lines that sound fantastic when spoken aloud, such as:

a field in almost-dark, the lake, its face
ice-cauled and scraped – like happiness, heart-shaped.

It seems strange that Coyle-Greene doesn’t write in form more often – with her subtle rhymes, the sonnet in particular really works for her in a way that her free verse doesn’t. It actually seems quite hard to believe that the poet behind:

… my pen became a cage
that held you in and only let you go
like a skim of stones on water, grey
as air, in air a trace above the flow.

is the same person who wrote the dull and lifeless observations on the other pages.

Another ‘condensed’ poem is ‘Hope’, which is probably the best in the entire collection. As in ‘In Latin, to the lake’, Coyle-Greene abandons her excessive line breaks. She also doesn’t clog up the poem with what can only be described as ‘fluff’, as she does throughout the rest of her collection. She wraps the poem up with a neat little almost-couplet:

Oscillating, she assumes the shape, skin-
slipping to a place where she can wait.

The half rhyme in ‘shape’ and ‘wait’ offers us a sense of finality and completes the poem neatly and succinctly.

Elsewhere, Coyle-Greene seems to have an issue with knowing when to stop. Often, a poem jumps out as being intriguing and innovative, but then you turn the page and find it goes on. An example of this is ‘Pineforest’, which, on my first reading, struck me as being her best poem, by a long shot, with neat little lines like:

There is an obscenity involved
in such honesty, an exposure of souls
in the looped Ls, in the Os
closed tighter than his arm
around her shoulder in the photograph.

She goes on to say:

It is black and white.
It is all so obvious.

These lines are striking because Coyle-Greene has said exactly what she has to in order to suggest to us what is going on. At this point, she has not spelled out the situation or explained the unnecessary. It is sharp, it is mysterious, and it is moving.

And then we turn the page. And oh. It goes on. It really doesn’t need to go on. She’s already put it to us, she’s told us it’s so obvious – so do we really need to go through the next two stanzas? Really?

Snow Negatives as a collection forces us to consider what makes a poem a poem. I’ve been trying to draft a mental checklist while reading, and I reckon that for something to be poetry, it needs to do at least some of the following things. Firstly, it should use language well – it needs to sound interesting, or look interesting on the page. It also needs to bring something to our attention or cast a new light of something we can already see. It needs to give us an emotion, a sense of the atmosphere it wants to create. Very simply, it needs to be more than just a snapshot.

When Coyle-Greene writes formally, the form tightens and condenses her language and her poems work well. But too often her poems seem like bland snapshots. They remain as negatives – under-developed.

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