Tuesday 20 September 2011

The Probabilities of Balance by Stephen Payne

This pamphlet was published by Smiths Knoll magazine last year.  It arrived free with the magazine for subscribers.  There’s something very nice about getting free poetry like that - maybe it has something to do with the quality of the Smiths Knoll brand…   Anyway, I really liked the pamphlet.  I’ve been trying to work out why.  A lot of the poems look at things from an unusual angle.  There are, in the world at large, quite a few poems about parents becoming forgetful.  In ‘Given Name’, Stephen Payne uses his own name to get, in four lines, from this: 

Too many in my year at school and one
I couldn’t stand.

to this:

But only since it started to slip her mind
have I held close this common given name:
imagining her sounding it against

In ‘Dyslexia’, the narrator tries to explain the condition to an eight year old:

How to lift from everything we know
a clutch of truths by which he’ll be consoled. 

It’s only six lines long, and ends: 

        Hard to answer no
when he asks quietly, Are you the same? 

I love the conciseness of these two moving poems, and the way ‘Dyslexia’ slips into being metaphysical - a characteristic of several poems in the book.  Payne has a concise descriptive gift too.  ‘Guitar’ starts: 

It’s part of the furniture,
slumped open-mouthed against a wall,
sleeping off the party. 

He runs his poems with skill: placing of words and line breaks, use of rhyme and rhythm, movement through each poem.  As good as the performer in ‘Unicyclist’, the poem that gives The Probabilities of Balance its title.  His endings are all perfect - he makes ending a poem look easy. The whole book conveys pleasure at the possibilities of form.   In ‘The River Swimmer’, the rhythm and rhyme scheme become more regular as the poem develops.  Hard to pull off, but it works here as it mirrors the action in the poem (which you can read at Payne’s page on poetrypf).  The swimmer pushes himself to take risks, testing his feelings about what they symbolise:

He slips his ring and watches as it falls,
dives steeply into an amber blur to fetch.
Or fail - a sudden panic of remorse
until a glint of gold, his fingers stretch. 

There are only 23 poems, a nice small number.  No fillers, though ‘At Carlton’ and ‘Overheard’, both anecdotal poems, rise above the commonplace less than others.  

Maybe I like what the poems are not.  Their tone is modest and not knowing, with the exception perhaps of ‘Guessing Game’, the opening poem, which I liked less although it’s clever, graphic and works on several levels.  The knowingness makes it seem more like other people’s poems.   

Rereading the pamphlet just now, a couple of poems made me laugh out loud in delight.  ‘The Career Academic’ begins: 

Enthusiasm for peptides
provides only limited protection
from loneliness
or lust.  His recent embrace

of online dating
is no more
than a rational response
to circumstance…

You can buy the pamphlet to discover how that contrast gets resolved, or not; to laugh (and not-quite-cry) at ‘Maths Teacher’; and to read ‘In My Dreams’, four perfect lines of bittersweet fantasy about a teenage son.   

The Probabilities of Balance is well produced - plain, with a section of the familiar Smiths Knoll chart on the front.  No blurb, which is good.  We are told that Payne is Professor of Human-Centric Systems (computer science) at Bath.  What a great title for a poet-scientist. 

[Declaration, or rather question: is it incestuous to praise a pamphlet published by a magazine one’s had poems in?  Too bad, if so.  This pamphlet could have come from outer space and I’d have liked it just as much.]        

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The Poetry Society AGM - nearly a week ago now - did its work, and elected what should be an excellent board.  Good luck to them - they have got a lot to do.  PoSoc is apparently considered to be financially viable until around the end of the year, but not beyond that unless the current, delayed Arts Council grant is paid. 
From stgilesonline.org

The meeting was rather surreal - St Giles’ Church off Charing Cross Road is a lovely place to sit and sip a glass of wine, but the acoustics were terrible.  Apparently the sound system wasn't working.  I was sitting near the back and couldn’t hear well, especially not the questioners and only one of the poets who were called to entertain us while the votes were being recounted (four times).  You’d think a society of poets would know about voice projection.  There were some eccentric exchanges, including one worthy of Kafka or Beckett - about when an AGM is not an AGM.  Baroque in Hackney has a good account.  When I lost the thread, I traced with my fingers the gold fluting of one of the wooden columns holding up the gallery. 

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