Bewilderment and Wonder

I don’t envy literary editors in the shrinking print industry, no siree. Here is another review of poetry which was commissioned by a magazine, paid for and then fell victim to the passage of time, space constraints, job changes and other mysteries. Perhaps it was just spiked because it lacked verve? It’s a very hard call, writing about three dense and clever collections within a limit of 300 words… I think perhaps I held my fire too cautiously when I re-read this now. Oh well, what do you think? I’m willing to call this review an honourable failure. Fail again, fail better, as Beckett said…

Gathering Evidence Caoilinn Hughes VUP $28

The Limits Alice Miller AUP $24.99

Horse with Hat Marty Smith VUP $30

In densely packed poems bristling with knowledge, Hughes’s first collection shows a gift for delineating the empirical while simultaneously winnowing metaphorical value from it. Praised elsewhere for her precision, Hughes seems to me also a richly allusive poet. The span of her vocabulary, her ease with abstractions, metonymy, near-neologisms and heightened poetic rhetoric — (e.g. the “luciferean abdomen” of a firefly) — show a poet who both layers and layers, and tries to burrow ever deeper into her material, to really isolate its inner workings.

The book holds everything from an impish look at a game of Scrabble to narratives of scientific experiment and discovery. These in turn range from humanity’s first successful effort to begin and arrest a nuclear reaction, to the legal case taken up by the family of Henrietta Lacks, whose cervical cancer cells were cultivated without her permission into the ‘immortal’ HeLa line.

Hughes’s work manages to seem both compendious and yet compressed; each piece pulls in considerable, closely observed data, and yet avoids the prosey feel of Wikipedia entries, with spry, punning, psychologically apt metaphors, or the frequent tang of prosody: ‘slipping into the bullring of incandescence’; ‘launching Glory Bes/into the gluey hives and trenches of her head’; ‘plays chess with the evening’s reticence’.

Alice Miller’s book acts as a cool ‘mental palate’ cleanser if read immediately after the Hughes. The Limits pushes for new archetypes through old. One poem, “Antarctica II”, reiterates ‘This is what we used to call a fairy tale’ — a gloss that could apply to many of the delicately wrought poems here. They read like fragments of cautionary tales, of psychodramas spun from love and fear, aspirations and disappointments. The poems offer intense, dreamlike evocations of mood and relationship dynamics through crisp, clean, yet elliptical and elusive phrasing. Each line is like a single drop of water sending out sonic and visual ripples, rather than the joyously hyperactive torrent of facts and analysis in the Hughes.

There is often a sense with Miller’s work that the reader’s version of the subject of the poem can only inch towards a partial translation from the eerie, haunting language of dream, which itself is a translation of the unspoken or inarticulate in the daily. The poems carry the psychological ‘fragrance’ of new foundation myths; of recent —or near-future — cultural crises whittled back down into the primal nouns of body, earth, apple, skin, fire, ocean. The slightly apocalyptic tremor along the skin of some of the poems can either return us to crises of the past (as in ‘After Battle’) or project us into eerie fusions of the now and the any-moment-now. There are the landscapes and mindscapes of city, trucks, forests, ATMS, border-crossings and terror that suggests a beleaguered present-day Europe; there are two ‘Waiata’ that seem to ventriloquise 19th century settler variations upon, or infusions, of the Maori form; ‘Ocean’ has idealism, fear and ecological crisis lapping at its edges: “point to lands that reach beyond the myth/but soon the water’s pouring up the hills/because we cannot map the ocean still”.

Good at finding metaphor and image for the nebulous, the inchoate, the shift and slide of emotional response to the relatively removed or abstract, Miller’s work embodies the idea that a poem should leave the world both a little more illuminated and a little more mysterious at its close. This reminds me of the surrealism of Michael Harlow in its sense of what we might call the accurate strangeness not just of language, but also of the workings of the subconscious.

The tonal range in Marty Smith’s Horse with Hat is, I think, the widest of all three collections reviewed here. This is alternately comic, wry, downbeat, vernacular, lyrical: yet it is also at times dark, plangent and moving in its use of narratives distilled from extended family relationships. The collection gathers small yet vivid dramatic moments from the routines of farm work and a lost pre-digital world, where the children remember that “TV arrived like a Martian” (‘reception’) and ‘You only made phone calls if someone was sick or dead or married’ (as one typically long and cheekily, tartly inverted title has it).

With its imagery of “quicksilver silvery birds” and “eel thoughts” that “slide along our sides” (‘A mile here, a mile there’) the poems are gorgeously evocative of landscape and the sensation of, say, early dawn on the farm – where one natural observation infuses another with both physicality and emotion: “those horses talk to themselves/low, and tender as the fat wetness of roses” (‘dawn horses’).

The collection builds up the sense of how the vulnerable, sensitive child still sits inside the adult, and the animal or primal lingers inside the human. ‘Creature’ is a compellingly simple poem about the fusion between self and animal;

“I make the glorious mouth./It is a heart-blossom red I choose./I leave teeth marks.[….] The sun in my lungs/I put my tail up and go.”

Other poems slide into the animal voice, showing how close contact with working animals deeply influences the child’s sense of identity, time, imagination and land. The book also runs its fingers over the history of civilisation’s relationship with the horse (‘Lot 165’). It’s impressive to realise how much ground is covered in what is also a tightly themed collection. From Crusaders to gambling nuns and the fiery, unpredictable character of the poet’s returned serviceman father, the book dips in and out of the human use of horses, and the strange attractions and repulsions of family.

The father’s character bristles on the page with frustration, fury, and yet love; the poems weave and bob with the sense of complex individuals, and tangled, ingrown, or estranged relationships. All the while, the long contrail of war trauma chokes the family atmosphere.

Brendan O’Brien’s illustrations for the book are a dreamlike bricolage, with tumbled perspective and collisions of genre (Biblical engravings, coloured cigarette cards). The air of bewilderment and wonder, and of bizarre within the familiar, plays deft visual accompaniment to the poetry’s side-winding snippets of family feud and rural life.

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