The Poet is Working

What to do with a review that was commissioned, accepted graciously, nay, with warmest of compliments even, paid for, but then had to wait so long in the magazine’s print queue that it had to be dropped as now past its use-by date? Blog it! Because when is good poetry obsolete? Not ever, I hear you all cry through the fibres of the cyberneverland! I’m too lazy to go hawking it around other magazines now, and risk being turned down like the wandering cookie-salespersons who visit office blocks at Christmas time. So here it is: free content! Don’t ever say I don’t do anything for you, cruel world.

Review of Janet Charman’s At the White Coast AUP
and Kerrin P Sharpe’s Three Days in a Wishing Well VUP

The title At the White Coast seems to prepare us for weather and tides: either wild South Pacific shores, or Dover’s white cliffs. Yet the book’s preoccupation is with the land-locked: the often desperately constrained lives of London’s urban population.

Charman’s poetry is known for its alertness to gender politics and complex domestic intimacies. Here, these concerns fuse, as she captures the physical and psychological deprivations of numerous social work cases. Although interspersed with love and travel poems, overall the collection is an unblenching, realist file of case studies exposing inequality, prejudice, violence and impoverishment.

If social work itself tries to innoculate against, and repair, the distress and disconnection in lives in crisis, so too do Charman’s poems. They hoard up details of colleagues’ and clients’ circumstances: trying to find order by winnowing out empathy from judgement, distrust from acceptance, as they glance along the personal histories of grossly under-prepared young mothers; the frail elderly; teenage runaways; abuse victims; immigrants, prostitutes, thieves and alcoholics.

Several poems use a terse, abbreviated style, echoing the local demotic, pooling the ironies and the knife-turns of the unsaid. The book expresses quiet incredulity, restrained sorrow (and sometimes, reluctant amusement) at the oppressions, depredations, and trickery encountered. The poem ‘the changing bag’, for example, shows an ‘at risk’ couple where even the most elementary human currency — language — has run out. The mother “has yet to be convinced/that babies want you to talk to them/or anyone” and the couple “still don’t really use words with each other”. It ends with a sardonic political jibe, intensified through single-word lines and assonance: “with a nanny/perhaps/they/could/manage”.

As Charman layers the portraits of how people manipulate and control each other, submit or struggle, her unease mushrooms. The narrator feels pushed into brutalism by institutional processes:

Miss Oatenshow
i’ve become
a monster
i don’t believe in making people
do things they don’t want to

but you did
she said
as if that is the beginning and the end of it

(‘Theatre Girls Club’)

Some slightly unusual patterning of syntax, changes to standard punctuation, and subject switches are occasionally irritating, but they seek to transcribe uncertainty, and to embody, at the level of style, the shift of focus from the ‘norm’, to the under-represented.

A crude comparison: if Charman is a poet of revolution, Sharpe is one of reverie. Some of Sharpe’s poems do travel with a critical eye into specific political and historical decades. Yet usually there is a powerful sense of the surrealist’s belief that authencity lies in a fusion of the life of dreams with the tangible, concrete, external world.

Reading Sharpe’s spare, elliptical lines reminds me of Manhire’s wryness, and frequently, of Michael Harlow’s tender surrealism. Take this:

in honey valley
each spoon flies
back to the hive

birds in a state of grace
convert letters from the village
to envelopes of wishbone
(‘washing his name with stone’)

Or this:

in the crown of a pear tree
the blackbird reads
a shipping invoice

(‘the embalmer’s son’)

Such phrasing brings to mind the tale André Breton retells in his surrealist manifesto: every evening, before sleep, Sant Pol-Roux posted a notice on his door that read ‘The poet is working’. Sharpe submerges the relations between events, and actions or responses, as dreams sometimes do. She lets literal and figurative slide around with the cloudy elusiveness of someone trying to recall someone else’s memory of a perhaps partially imagined past.

There is something very restful about this book, with its moons and stones, monks and honey, ponies and snow. Its comic élan, delicate melancholy and subdued music sit us down beside water — estuary and wishing well — let us dandle our toes, and hum to us quietly, goofily, about topics fanciful and factual: a fish on wheels/writes a folk song…

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One Response to The Poet is Working

  1. Pingback: I say let’s invent, cultivate and nourish new ways to talk and write about poetry — Emma Neale raises a question | NZ Poetry Shelf

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