Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Review: Interior with Sudden Joy by Brenda Shaughnessy

If you want different poetry, here it is.  Brenda Shaughnessy’s first collection, published in 1999, communicates the shock of writing something not written before.  It’s hard to describe her poems in prose.  This is how the book ends:

I am ever stunned,
seduced whistle-thin

& hot with home.  Breathless with
mercury, columbine.  Come, let us miss
another wintertime.

That’s from the title poem.  The poems are all interiors – set indoors, love poems, exploring states of mind and the psychology and practice of love and sex, pleasure and pain.  Many are addressed to a ‘you’, who (when anything) is female, but could be one or many – plot doesn’t signify.   The language, often contained / released by couplets or triplets, is lyrical, erotic, funny and highly baroque, and may get you looking up words.  ‘Jouissance’ begins like this –

        Your phantoms hang neatly from skyhooks
        ready to be veils, ready to disembody you.

And includes this passage:

        Electric to perishing, your more auxiliary lovers,
        like pralines or quaaludes, cannot touch you.

        No teasing or lockjaw. Caustic.  All of you, even shadow,
        must be bull’s-eye. Your shaggy, skeptical

        quasar has died the way Andromeda dies:
        so very late at night.  You are disenchanted.

Influences surely include Plath, Ashbery and O’Hara – and those are just the ones I know about and thought of.  Shaughnessy’s tone is both ecstatic and knowing.  She flings out strings of impossible associations.  These seem weirdly wonderful, often erotic:

What’s Uncanny

is the body’s wiry edge singed & dried,
touched at last by the curious

gloves of the question guard.

Sometimes they drown in their own eclecticism.  It’s as if there’s too much stuff in the writer’s head – from history, mythology, astronomy, wherever – all fighting to get into a poem.  Here’s a passage from ‘Arachnolescence’:

        I’ve won the tourniquet, I’ve devastated toddlers
        in the height of their podlike fashion, in their pink-naped
        heaven of Erasmus and his near-wife, Chlamydia.
        Give me five years, lovers, I will give you the ancient torture
        device constructed of kisses, in the glum transfusion
        of crisp, lichen climate with rectangular erotics.

To me, the last three lines of that really get something across; but their impact is lessened by the stuff in the first three.  Toddlers, Erasmus and chlamydia?  Am I missing something?  if it’s just a piss-take, I don’t really care – don’t find the language or content interesting. 

I love the simplicity of these opening lines from ‘Your Name on It’ –

Let this one clear square of thought be just
like a room you could come to in.

Where the poem goes after that subverts expectations, and seems easier to do, however vivid: 

Let this one clear square of thought be just
like a room you could come to in.  An attic room,
after you’ve swiveled over to the wrecked
corner of the champagne.  After you

hand-rolled cigarettes and ass and sold
your best midnight speech to a slick jack
of clubs.  For a stingy cut: a wet, bony

A few poems are on different themes, like ‘Lacquer’, which starts:

        I found my mother’s diary
        an indigo sac of silk and ink.
        I read it.  The words in Japanese
        but the characters as American
        as a girl of fashionable twelve
        bearing an amnesia so dense
        she could never drag it
        out into the yard.

This seems a deft way to describe the hidden difficulties of assimilation; this poem made me hope she’ll write more stuff like it.

I first read Interior with Sudden Joy about a year ago, and loved the way the weirdness of the language and associations got my synapses going, often misfiring pleasurably with half-understandings.

Reading it again now, maybe my expectations were too high.  There are places where I get glutted on words, and lost without being interested enough to enjoy it.  But then I come to another synapse-misfiring bit, like this opening of ‘Ever’:

Where, swift and wool in going?
Fell always wishing like this.

Shaughnessy says in an interview that the choice of writing poetry "seemed to offer the simultaneous and attractive possibility of being deeply understood and completely misunderstood”.  (From Princeton University’s website, where she teaches.)   This is a great quote, which illuminates the book.  Whatever understanding does come from reading the poems is not at the level of ordinary consciousness.

Interior with Sudden Joy, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 1999.  Costs £6 on Amazon UK.  Shaughnessy has a second collection, Human Dark with Sugar, 2008.  Both are in the London Poetry Library.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Are literary publications biased against women writers?

There’s been an animated discussion about this on the Magma blog, started by Rob Mackenzie.  It’s in reaction to some statistics from VIDA, an organisation that represents women in the literary arts, showing just how much more space men get in the literary pages of newspapers and magazines. 

This prompted me to do something I’ve been meaning to for ages – check the figures for the Guardian’s regular Saturday poetry reviews.  Why the Guardian Review rather than any other publication?   Because the Guardian on Saturday is the only newspaper I read regularly.  I am mildly addicted to the Review, but not the poetry stuff: why, year after year after year, do they review so few poetry collections by women?  Also because the Review (even if some people treat it as I treat the sport section) must expose far more people to poetry reviews than any poetry magazine could dream of.   

See here for the results which were… well, interesting.  Looking at the names of poets whose books have been reviewed since the beginning of 2010, these show that a much wider range of male poets got reviewed than female ones.  What does that say about the culture and attitudes of those who commission the reviews? 

The figures for female reviewers are also very poor.  Oh, and the poetry reviews themselves tend to consist largely of adjectival praise… you might describe this as Empathy Crit.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Review: Karen Solie, Pigeon

PigeonThe Canadian national tourist board might want to ban this book.  Pigeon is full of landscapes – industrial hinterland, degraded countryside – without a centre or purpose except to serve the needs of human consumption.   The internal landscapes mirror this with their existential angst, and the poems’ standpoint is sometimes rootless, aimless. 

At the same time there is an enormous energy and zest in many of the poems, plus a wide perspective and laconic humour.  Here’s the beginning of ‘Medicine Hat Calgary One-Way’:

        The bus is a wreck, and passengers
        respect that, a mild unease aboard
        this have-not province
        with its per-capita demographic representation
        of unfortunates, poor earners, procrastinators,
        the criminal element, hammering away
        at the dullest stretch of highway
        on earth.  Local industrial calamities,
        unmistakeable turquoise PVC of the deadly prairie
        waterslide, tractor-trailers, poorly tied
        private loads, all of it
        ill-used and ugly in early spring,
        though bright hawks balance on warming

The long words and piling-up of detail are typical.  Some of the detail is very vivid: in the title poem, one of the few short, lyrical pieces, the human brain is described as ‘three pounds soaking wet, / its attentions divided.’  Most poems are longish, and written in chunks of free verse, many with long lines, so when one flips through the pages the book looks solid.  But Solie can do short lines too:
The river is laden with suspended
particles of finely powdered
rockflour.  All colours
of the light spectrum are absorbed
but for what these particles

Presumably this passage from ‘Bow River Preludes’ describes waste from mining operations; she’s good on the detail of damaged environments.  Here’s some of the final part of the same poem: 
The river is older than the mountains folding
in heaves around it.  From here, everything follows
eastward in rational or irrational
arrangement.  Warmed by ingredients, fibrous,
acquiring odours of its passage, it mingles
with the Oldman and the Red Deer at the feet
of cities..

And here she is on the human aspect, from ‘Listening to The revelator’:
The loneliness composed on the road, after hours,
off-shift, out of it, or left behind, the vindictive
clairvoyance of local law enforcement…
                                              … making
the best of being stuck where you were,
in those rooms now creaking in a forest of outlived rooms
recalled as eras are recalled….

This poem ends:

Your life built on intervals
the way a chord is, on changes that alter you
by thirds, by fifths, in silences the progression climbs
to where each song ends, and the next begins.

That lyrical ending is all the more effective for being a surprise.  The poem is written in one block, which is fine, but I wonder whether it does justice to all the striking thoughts and images the poem contains.  It’s easy not to take half of them in. 

The ending is also an example of the sheer confidence of some of Solie’s statements.  There is a tension between this and the angst and rootlessness which works very well.  Here’s another ending, from ‘Dog Star’:

… an idea assembles, as does the darkness
in the east.  But it’s too late.
Because once again the part of the mind
called the heart appears on the threshold,
swinging its amnesias before it like a lantern.

Pigeon is a North American length, around 90 pages, split into five parts.  And this is a poet who needs to be re-read a lot.  It must be said that the book’s subject-matter can be depressing – the accumulation of poems about poverty of people’s lives and environment, the consequences of human actions.  But this is stuff that needs to be written about, and I admire her for addressing it so well, without making the reader feel told.  I keep finding more passages I’d like to quote.  Sometimes the energy slackens a bit, but then comes a passage like this:

        Worth leaving the highway for.  Gorgeous
        at sunset, really outstanding,
        the potato chip factory at the east end

        of Taber, which is a kind of town.
        It’s painted a bright and not entirely baffling
        turquoise, for who would want

        their snacks to issue from a dour scene?

Karen Solie was brought up on an industrial farm in Saskatchewan, which on the map is a vast swatch of prairie.  There’s an interview with her here, during which she reads a few poems from the book. 

Pigeon was published by Anansi in 2009, and won the Griffin Prize.  It’s in the Poetry Library (or will be, in the next few days when I’ve taken it back).  I was the first person to borrow it – hope it gets read a lot more.


Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Displacement again

How will this blog turn out?  Declarations of intent can be dangerous…  What I want to do most is write about poetry I’m reading, from TSE Prize contenders to stuff that’s not well known.  At the moment I’m reading John Haynes’ You, Karen Solie’s Pigeon and Modern and Normal, Philip Nikolayev’s Letters from Aldenderry and Sam Willetts’ New Light for the Old Dark, though this last one seems to have walked.  Maybe it’s that sort of book. 

I came across all of these in different ways – interesting how a book comes to be read, out of so many choices.  John Haynes because of his earlier book, Letter to Patience, in which I love his intertwining trains of thought – so vivid, and done with much skill and intelligence.  To write a book-length poem in terza rima is unusual, somewhat contrary to current poetry norms.  Surprisingly few people seem to have read it.  So much for winning the poetry part of the Costa Prize in 2006. 

Again, in You he’s attempted something very ambitious and unusual, though the less fluent rhyme royal form is less in his favour, and the book is maybe less accessible.  His TSE Festival Hall reading didn’t help much: his constructions can be hard to follow on the page, let alone by listening.  Very difficult, surely, to read out an extract from something long and complex – without all the changes in tone and form, the pauses and explanations one gets in a reading of several shorter poems.  I still wanted him to win, though.     
Karen Solie (Canadian) because she had two poems in the last Magma, one of which, ‘Once Pyrrho…’, seems to me mind-blowing in the way it mingles vast perspectives with detail.  She also writes in Magma about being inspired by Frank O’Hara.

Philip Nikolayev (Russian-American) because a friend recommended him as an innovative poet: sonnets embedded in prose poems. 

Sam Willetts because he was on the TSE Prize shortlist, and I enjoyed his reading at the Festival Hall a lot.  Of course if he’d been published by a small publisher instead of Cape, he’d never (well, it’s very unlikely) have got shortlisted.  

So none of them by chance.  If poetry sections in second-hand bookshops were better...  As well as You, my current, prose bedtime reading is Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg, a remarkable account of how she was accused in the Stalinist purges and spent years in a hard labour camp.  She is interesting on the psychology of collective madness.  I found it at a local bookshop (under fiction! as one might find Kafka under history) and stamped inside is GREENWICH LIBRARIES BOOKSALE.  Another kind of purge.  Lucky for me, not so lucky for holders of Greenwich library cards.  It must have been an old booksale; the fate of Greenwich libraries isn’t yet known.  But a bad omen.   

Anyway, I need to start adding links, pictures etc to this blog, so it looks less bare.  I will write about some of the books mentioned above.  I will try to post something at least once a week.

Now back to Al Tahrir Square, Cairo.