Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

"With a zero at its heart" by Charles Lambert (The Friday Project, 2014)

24 themed chapters, each with 10 numbered paragraphs of exactly 120 words. Each chapter seems chronologically ordered (sometimes the final section of a chapter harks back to the start) but there's little attempt at continuity between paragraphs, nor are the paragraphs self-sufficient Flash. Themes and time are the warp and woof of an essentially 2D structure. It's not technically hard to do compared to more Oulipian constraints - the sections are the size of a postcard/diary-entry (my notebooks have many similar snippets), and the themed (rather than chronological) structure isn't so uncommon, especially in non-fiction books. David Lodge in his "The Art of Fiction" writes "Spatial Form (modernist poetics) gives unity to a literary work by a pattern of interconnected motifs that can only be perceived by 'reading over'", which is what readers need to do here. Despite appearances, it's not a book you can dip into if you want to get the most out of it.

There are other constraints at play though - episodes aren't stretched over two units if one doesn't suffice; each episode only has one chance. And there's little self-analysis or reference to other sections. Parents' deaths and his marriage are covered, but readers shouldn't expect cliff-hangers - they're not needed anyway; the quality of the prose will suffice. Readers can piece together longer strands if they wish - the gay strand weaves through from childhood (his girl friends) through Cambridge to Italy. Just occasionally scenes recur - "Money" (para 2), "Work" (para 2) and "Fear" (para 4) belong to the same thread.

Nothing contradicts the possibility that it's all true, though in an interview he writes "I did use material from my own life, although I sneaked across borders occasionally to poach an episode from other people’s lives if I felt it made sense, but the life that’s presented in the book isn’t mine, but ‘his’".

In an interview with Isabel Costello he writes "I’d written the first ten themes when my mother died, in June 2011, ... (It was important to me that I’d shared many of the earlier stories with my mother before she died, and seen her smile as her own memories were triggered by mine.) ... The second half of the book – a further 14 themes – grew out of these very different circumstances". I found "Theft" the funniest section. "Home" might be the best. Here are some of my favourite paragraphs -

  • From "Travel"
    The first flight he ever takes is to Milan. It is a charter flight; some of the seats face backwards, like a train, an arrangement he will never see again. The food is dreadful but exciting; the drink is free and plentiful. He has a sick bag, which he folds and slides into his pocket when no one is looking. He stands in the bathroom, too cramped to turn, and flushes the lavatory experimentally to see what will happen, if some bright hole will open up in the plane itself. He stares through the window and wonders if what he sees are the Alps or some artful film projected onto the walls of a hangar as big as the world.
  • From "Home"
    His first sense is smell. The smell of apples in an attic. But also sight, because what he can see in the darkness of his head is a floor, uneven, the russet and gold of apples, the whole floor covered with fruit. And then there is touch, as he places his shoe on the edge of this living, scented carpet and feels it move away and then give, with a crunch, beneath his weight. And so hearing is the fourth sense to be woken. He bends down and picks up the ruined apple, its glistening flesh, the bright black of the seeds against the white. He no longer wants to taste it. The fifth sense, he thinks, must be guilt.
  • From "Waiting" (sometimes things get weird)
    He is lying in bed, his hand in the hand of a woman on the floor beside him. Her cat is dead and she has needs he can only deflect. He should have left the country immediately after Christmas but he's been threatened by a man with a gun and his flat is being used illicitly by football fans who can see the stadium from his kitchen balcony. He still hasn't learned a word of the language that has purchase outside bars or restaurants. Refugees along the coast are waiting for homes to be provided, their children wrapped in knotted shawls. Everyone is singing fado and eating sausages flambés. He's been here long enough, he says, but she's fast asleep.
  • From "Correspondence"
    The letters are the hardest thing to deal with. They are squeezed into shoeboxes, or chocolate boxes, or have holes punched into their margins to be organised into lever arch files recycled from his father's office. Handwritten letters with lies in them, and half-lies, letters he remembers writing and letters penned by someone else, surely, and given to him to sign, his own deceitful conniving secretary. Himself, his grudging confidant. Postcards scribbled in foreign bars, their stamps steamed off and saved elsewhere, pictures of flowers and sepia castles like small sawtooth-edged tokens of love. And then there are those that meant everything, the truthful ones, the heartfelt ones, bundled in with the rest, indistinguishable in all ways from the rest.

And here are some shorter quotes -

  • "He's presented with three white mice in a plywood box, divided by a wall with a zero at its heart" (p.38)
  • "He's thrilled by the way he looks in photos, like a dissident in a gulag. He dreams about money the way other people dream about alien abductions" (p.54)
  • When he tells the art teacher he tried to do the homework (drawing shoes) but nothing inspired him - "His first lesson. I didn't ask for inspiration, his teacher says, clipping him round the ear, I asked for shoes" (p.63)
  • "He's known what he wants for as long as he can remember wanting. He is eight when the builders next door catch his eye. He stands, dry-mouthed, behind his bedroom curtains, watching the muscles move beneath their skin, praying for sun" (p.118)

Other reviews

  • James Smart (elegantly written and carries considerable emotional clout)
  • savidgereads (It is also a book very much about books, writing and the power of words and language. Through both the experimental form, showing us what words can do in varied and unusual ways and the fact that the prose is so short, sharp and beautifully pristine. ... It is of course also the story of a young man who becomes a writer and creator of stories themselves.)
  • alifeinbooks
  • Colin Stewart
  • Sue Sheard
  • Frank Babics (Our unnamed protagonist is revealed through flashes of memory, and from childhood memories and parental relations we move onto addiction and sexual experimentation, branching a wide array of emotion. While the book succeeds in maintaining its voice and rhythm, occasional moments of unevenness creep through via some weaker chapters, for instance “Danger” and “Colours.”)
  • Goodreads

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

"The Poets' Wives" by David Park (Bloomsbury, 2015)

3 novellas (though he calls it a novel) about the widows of Blake, Mandelstam and an imaginary 20th century Irish poet. The wives have differing attitudes to children and their husbands' affairs.

Blake's wife writes surprisingly well - "The city is slowly beginning to waken and we pass carts already heading to market heavy laden with goods and the drivers sit slumped over their reins as if barely awake, only jerking upright when a wheel hits a stone or the horse tries to stop and drink in one of the muddy puddles that strew the road" (p.12). They see a caged tiger then go to the sea where "he lifts the shingle in his hands and holds it as if it is the world's most valuable jewels and he stares at them so I do the same but cannot see what he sees and when I ask him he tells me we hold the whole world" (p.51). The section sounds too much like researched historical writing.

I preferred the Mandelstam piece (Stalinism, Writers Union, internal exile - nothing unexpected), though I'm unsure about the value of presenting the sections non-chronologically - 1939, 1936, 1947, 1952, 1934, 1950, 1939, 1956.

Lydia in the final section is less in awe of her husband - "Poetic license. Yes, that was what he based his life on, a license to be selfish, eternally happy taking the comforts of her labours in a frequently dull nine to five job while contributing little himself to the budget" (p.200). "Not that he had many bad reviews - it was all too incestuous for that, too much of a boys' club" (p.203), "It always pleased him to appear magnanimous ... And no one got more encouragement that those young women whose talents, however meagre, combined with prettiness" (p.203). Her section is mostly a third-person monologue about clearing their holiday cottage, then spreading his ashes with her two grown (childless, unmarried) children. She wonders whether she should have tried to be more independent. Unlike the other wives she doesn't look upon her husband's words as striving towards the expression of his true self - "she couldn't bring herself to understand how such perfect truth could spring from someone who was so frequently false" (p.214). She didn't think his famous 8 sonnets of grief following the death of their son matched her private suffering. Whereas Mandelstam's wife helped to preserve her husband's poems by memorizing them. Lydia wonders about burning the final works she finds in the cottage. At the end she tries to forge a new relationship with her two daughters. The section, like the book, is too long.

Other reviews

  • Alexander Harris (Guardian) (The Blakes and the Mandelstams staked their lives on the need to put feelings into books, but it is hard to compare Songs of Innocence with the indifferent poems of an invented poet. Switching from first-person to third-person, from one temporal complication to the next, The Poets' Wives demands more patience than it ever quite rewards.)
  • Holly Williams (The Independent) (Catherine is an impossibly wet blanket, afraid of everything (a tiger, the sea, Will’s desire), and sweetly bewildered by her husband’s mystical visions. Written in curiously punctuation-free sentences, this can read leaden, despite being the only section in the supposedly “immediate” first person present tense. ... Park’s imaginative recreation of the Mandelstams’ enduring love is often beautifully wrought.... But this could also be a gripping yarn, and it feels more like a miserable trudge ... [the last is] the most compelling section but ... If your final woman is imaginary – a curious choice anyway – must she be so bitter and hard done by? And if Park is trying to celebrate the stoic, quotidian, long-suffering partners, his attempts don’t quite convince.)
  • Culture Northern Ireland (This stunning novel conveys the poetry of its subjects through the prose poetry of David Park’s writing. It asks questions about the nature of genius, about the ethics of transmission in writing, about the price of preserving poetry in dangerous times. ... It considers the difference between writer and writing and whether a dishonest person can write truthful poetry. It will be of interest to the general reader as a good read, but to anyone with an interest in poetry it’s a book especially to be savoured.)
  • Kirkus reviews (The women’s stories follow the same pattern of early passion evolving into long years of travail and sacrifice. ... The language is gorgeous, the tone exquisitely highbrow, but the result is disappointingly dull.)

Saturday, 7 January 2017

"Mischief" by Fay Weldon (Head of Zeus, 2015)

Selected stories from The New Yorker, Cosmopolitan, The Times, etc. Her 4 page introduction begins with "During the four decades over which these stories were written the relationship between men and women in the West has changed out of all recognition. In the seventies women still endured the domestic tyranny of men, in the eighties we found our self-esteem, in the nineties we lifted our heads and looked about, and in the noughties - well, we went out to work. We had to". She adds

  • "These stories often read, I can see, more like concentrated mini novels than classic short stories"
  • "The Other Side always seems to hover over my work - alternative realities always threatening to break through"

Early stories feature pantomime male baddies (fault-finding, intolerant, and self-righteous) paired up with emotionally submissive heroines (with low self-esteem; women who run the house and have a job who are accused of being boring, moaning killjoys). When the wives rebel, friends (even women) side with the reasonable husband who has to put up with an apparently unstable wife. Later in the book a woman opts for a madness verdict in court, hoping for an easier sentence. Then there are some stories involving therapists - "I expect you're a feminist - I notice you're wearing a trouser suit - and like to think everything in this world is the man's fault. You want me to scream out tension and rage and terror and horror? I won't ... Talking will get us nowhere. I do love my husband" (p.119). At times this supposed madness hints at the supernatural.

Maybe some of the phrasing sounds like RomCom because that's the persona's way of thinking - "Edward's love made flowers bloom, made the house rich and warm, made water taste like wine" (p.6), "Still, it had been a good marriage as marriages go. And as marriages go, it went" (p.27), "Kim had been Kevin from Liverpool before seeing the light or at any rate the guru" (p.27). The style is paragraph-based, the final paragraphs often being the best. Some stories degenerate into lists of paragraphs describing who married/slept with/divorced whom, or lists of evidence of thoughtless.

  • "they has no washing machine, Edgar feeling, no doubt rightly, that domestic machinery was noisy, expensive, and not really, in the end, labour saving" (p.52)
  • "If Martha chose to go out to work - as was her perfect right, Martin allowed, even though it wasn't the best thing for the children, but that must be Martha's moral responsibility - Martha must surely pay her domestic stand-in. An evident truth, heard loud and clear and frequent in Martin's mouth and Martha's heart./ 'I expect you're right,' said Martha" (p.89)
  • "Martin rather likes his secretary. Diet. Martin admires slim legs and big bosoms. How to achieve them both? Impossible. But try, oh try, to be what you ought to be, not what you are" (p.93)

Stories written in the 1990s still have artist/writer husbands with women whose artistic talents have been underestimated. Infidelity continues to be rife. Film-makers become more common. The 2000s story "Smoking Chimneys" has a first-person female persona who's like one of the early male characters in drag - "People should not invite guests if they cannot house them adequately" (p.227); "People should not have children if they do not have the moral wherewithal to control them" (p.228). Now women rather than men are likely to leave their husband and kids for lovers. But Joseph and Marcelle in "Why Did She Do That?" are flashbacks to the 1970s.

I liked "Ind Aff or Out of Love in Sarajevo", the 4-page "Lily Bart's Hat Shop", and "Wasted Lives", the latter having passages that are unlike anything else in the book.

At the end there's a 130-page novella that could have been far shorter. The plot's interesting enough, veering into SF or witch-lit. The characters and traits are familiar.

Other reviews

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

"The Dark Horse" by Gerry Cambridge (Happenstance, 2016)

I like little literary magazines - see my article on England's literary magazines, 1985-2012 - and The Dark Horse is the magazine I'm currently most impressed by, so I looked forward to reading this book by that magazine's editor. The magazine began small (of Spectrum, a magazine he'd previously been involved with, he wrote "the magazine later progressed to staples", p.13), so he knew what he was letting himself in for - "Even today, an air of romance, faintly comic buffoonery and Dionysiac energy may still cling to a little magazine of any note" (p.11). It was in the early days of quality DTP, and e-mail wasn't used, which made transatlantic communications tedious.

He had early support from Dana Gioia - "I found New Formalism engaging because of its form and accessibility as a means of reaching a 'common reader' who had long given up an intelligent interest in poetry and its criticism due to the obscurities of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and other elements of the avant-garde" (p.17). Later, "what I had, some time before, begun to consider the tedium of much New Formalist writing was quietly phased out" (p.101). The US connection has continued though, bypassing London.

The magazine hasn't always appeared on time, but he's never compromised on quality. He writes excellent articles, reviews and poems, so he knows what to look for from contributors

  • Articles and interviews are carefully commissioned. He publishes pieces he might not entirely agree with - "I thought Brooks-Motl most interesting in her forbearance in attempting to comprehend particular poems and poetries I would have peremptorily dismissed, life being short enough" (p.137)
  • Reviews can be as long as articles. He emerged into a world where "[Ian] Hamilton had reviewed Philip [Hobsbaum]'s first book, The Place's Fault (1964) three times: 'once under his own name, once under a pseudonym, and once anonymously - and each time negatively.' Despite that, Philip '[bore] him no ill will'" (p.99). But the environment's changed since then - he points out that "The community expectation in contemporary poetry is that almost everything is good. Therefore, relatively small cavils can be taken as large criticisms" (p.154). Objective reviewing isn't easy, especially for insiders, so in The Dark Horse the same book has sometimes received 2 reviews. It does no harm to have US people reviewing UK books and v.v.
  • He points out various factors that enter into deciding which poems to print. "In an attempt not to be fooled, to have the highest standards, I brought to submissions a rather severe, truculent, almost begrudging sensibility ... It was: You say you're writing poetry? Okay. Convince me." (p.20). "At a certain point in a poet's reputation or fame, a poetry magazine needs the poet more than the poet needs the magazine" (p.57). He was on the look-out for neglected poets. Young Scottish poets get more of a look-in than they used to.

When editors meet, they often end up talking about money. Donations may need to be rejected, and even grants come with strings attached. It took a while for him to phone his grant-giving body's Literature Director to say 'I've decided my attitude towards applying for funding for the magazine has been holding it back. I'm going to apply for more money.' The reply was 'At last' (p.117).

Some editors also discuss typesetting. This book's illustrated, which adds much interest - all the covers are shown, the design for many of them discussed. The book's set primarily in Miller, a 'Scotch Roman' category of type. He admits that for the cover of issue 26 he replaced the 'RR' of Grafika by Rs from Hypatia Sans, stretched and thinned. And was the leading in issue 15 too generous? Decide for yourself. The index is over 8 pages long, so it's easy to find items of interest.

And editors chat about submitters (especially the excessive ones), subscribers and supporters. Many remain anonymous in this book, but you'll find Hecht, Heaney et al amongst the pages.

As well as learning about the magazine's growth we discover about the author. From decades as an auto-didact living in a caravan he's become a judge of the 2016 National Poetry Competition. His integrity and independence seem to have remained intact, but what about his poetry? "As I have got older, my taste both in reading poems and in what I aspire to write myself has tended away from the ludic towards a poetry stripped bare, even when written in persona, of affectation: a simplified writing of plain statement, but a simplicity achieved having passed through complexity, not halting before it" (p.131).

There's a typo on p.70 - "Hewas"

Other reviews

Saturday, 31 December 2016

"Town & country" by Kevin Barry (ed) (Faber, 2013)

I bought this commissioned anthology of stories in Dublin for €5. I liked Dermot Healy's story. Julian Gough is near-future SF, which makes a change. I liked Lisa McInerney’s story, which had this interesting sentence near the start - "It wasn't something she had to approach from different angles, like a nugget of truth suspended in a pyramid of excuses". I've seen Barry's "The Clancy Kid" before. It's good. Keith Ridgway's story had its moments. But I didn't much like the stories by Michael Harding, Andrew Meehan, Sheila Purdy, Mary Costello, Eimear Ryan, Neasa McHale or William Wall. Several stories feature writers.

Other reviews

  • Valerie O’Riordan (an anthology of specially commissioned works ... if this particular selection of stories represents the pinnacle of contemporary Irish short story writing, then I’d conclude that it’s not the greatest of outlooks ... What disappointed me overall, I guess, was ... a lack of experimentation. ... Greg Baxter’s ‘The Mark of Death’ is riddled with clichéd misogyny ... Pat McCabe rambling in full overly-elaborated and awkwardly adjectival style ... Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s ‘Joyride To Jupiter’ ... though it’s decently written, it’s a fairly predictable story, up to and including the ending. Mary Costello’s ‘Barcelona’ expertly captures the misery of a drifting couple on holidays ... Colin Barrett’s ‘The Clancy Kid’ has vicious energy, characters that pulse with life, and a linguistic verve that was massively refreshing ... Lisa McInerney’s story about a pair of teenage friends shopping was one of the most nuanced portraits of female friendship I’ve read in a long time)
  • James Smart (The collection doesn't quite match the bold introduction, in which Barry claims the Irish story has undergone a thrilling rebirth, but there are some fine highlights: Desmond Hogan's hallucinatory tale of Balkan immigrants is brutal and poetic, while Lisa McInerney sets girls' discussions about virginity in a shop, the unsaid bouncing between them)
  • Giles Newington (What remains, though, is emigration, the emigrant viewpoint and the strand of surrealism that goes with it. Although the playful self-reinventors in these stories are not downtrodden exiles, they are often dazed by displacement.)
  • Maureen Boyle (One of those in the book to whom the older category of ‘best’ would apply for me, and who always worked fluidly between fiction and memoir, is Des Hogan. Hogan – the consummate stylist and genius of his generation – makes nonsense of any idea that experimentation or mixing of genre is new in the short story.)

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

"Binocular vision" by Edith Pearlman (Pushkin Press, 2013)

She published her debut collection when she was 60, in 1996. This book contains nearly 450 pages of New and Selected stories (about 38 of them, the first published in 1977, the last in 2013) from Agni, Alaska Quarterly Review, Orion, etc. They're neatly written and don't conform to a predictable plot template, though they're all (except perhaps for "Self-reliance", which has a drug-induced fantasy) realist. There are several fat men, some female programmers, Jews, diamonds sewn into hems, central american settings, Godolphin, topology teachers, and old people striking up friendships with each other or the young. Stories tend to have at least one intelligent person - most often a precocious girl (though "Purim Night" has a precocious boy). In "Inbound" for example a bright little girl with her Down's younger sister are in a city with their parents. The prodigy becomes detached from the others. She and they work out strategies to meet up again.

The writing doesn't hang about. Here are some extracts -

  • It was raining. The wives had taken all the girls to a Betty Hutton movie. The MacKechnie boys grumbled quietly over the jigsaw puzzle. Boughs shifted and leaves rustled under the onslaught of rain. There was thunder in the distance and the hoot of ships. Without making a sound a figure pedaled down the strip of earth that was her own path, and onto the street. She wore no rain jacket, no hat. She lifted her wet head; she biked urgently toward the storm, as if it, at least, loved her. (p.55)
  • "Roland, I love you," she said, for the first time ever. And she did, she loved the whole silly mess of him: the effeminate softness of his shoulders, the loose flesh under his chin, the little eyes, the breath redolent of processed meats, the sparse eyebrows, the pudgy hands, the fondness for facts. Were these not things to love? Oh, and the kindness. He thrust, thrust ... "Ah," she said. And even in her pleasure, her witch's pleasure, she heard the stealthy opening of the door. She turned her head and met Ludwig's rodent gaze (p.168)
  • The Story
    "Predictable," said Judith da Costa.
    "Oh ... hopeful," said her husband, Justin, in his determinedly tolerant way.
    "Neither," said Harry Savitsky, not looking for trouble exactly; looking for engagement perhaps; really looking for the door, but the evening had just begun.
    Harry's wife, Lucienne, uncharacteristically said nothing. She was listening to the tune: a mournful bit from Liszt.
    What these four diners were evaluating was a violinist, partly his performance, partly his presence. The new restaurant - Harry and Lucienne had suggested it - called itself the Hussar, and presented piroshki and goulash in a Gypsy atmosphere. The chef was rumoured to be twenty-six years old.
  • When Laurette had gone, Nancy peeked again at her other letter. I love you, it still said. I consider that it's time we ... She stared at the flies for some minutes, during which Mrs. Hasken drifted onto the porch and sat down.
    "Would you like the glider, Mother?"
    "I don't think so." Her face was beautiful despite its extreme thinness. At fifty she had not yet turned gray. She was a woman who had worn hats, hummed tunes, laughed at radio wags. She had endured the illness and decay of the man she loved, and his dying. Alone, she's attended ballet recitals in drafty barns, clapped at graduations, and waited up for Nancy, lying sideways on a couch whose brocade carved a cruel pattern into her cheek.
    "Remember 'Glow-Worm'?" Nancy asked.
    "I don't think so. That pas de deux?"
    "Irma Fellowes pushed me across the stage like a broom."
    "Chubby Irma. She's married now."
    "How are you feeling?"
    "Fine!" Fingers flew to cheek. "Don't I look fine?"
    No. But Nancy had already spoken with their physician, a belly with a beard.
    "High blood pressure," he'd said. "Under control"
  • Hubert was sitting on a bench. She studied his pose. It was perfect: you could tear up the early drafts. The rounded shoulders confessed to loneliness - no son to inherit the business; beloved daughters turning toward husbands and children; wife always distracted ... Illness somewhere in the future, death, ten years, ten minutes, time was forever an accordion ... The back straightened; the thick shoulders squared themselves to take on whatever lay waiting.
    She loved him beyond measure. You might say that she had taken thirty years to arrive at this moment of retrojoy. Or you might say that the moment had occurred thirty years ago but had gone unnoticed.

I liked "Fidelity", "How to fall", "Jan Term", and "Aunt Telephone". "Mates" is too slight. "Rules" is Munroian - I like it. The newer stories are at least as good as the older ones, and have greater variety.

Other reviews

  • Mark Lawson (There are echoes of Updike in the rhythms and observations of that sentence, but such are the multitudes of subject matter, place and structures in this collection that Pearlman finally seems beyond compare. The traditional literary system has worked, though grievously slowly, in giving a genius of the short story her due.)
  • Roxana Robinson (Pearlman’s view of the world is large and compassionate, delivered through small, beautifully precise moments. Her characters inhabit terrain that all of us recognize, one defined by anxieties and longing, love and grief, loss and exultation. These quiet, elegant stories add something significant to the literary landscape)
  • Andrea J. Nolan

Saturday, 24 December 2016

"Instructions for making me" by Maria Taylor (Happenstance, 2016)

The Acknowledgments mention "The North", "New Walk", "The Interpreter's House", "Poems in Which", "The Manchester Review", "Ambit", "The Compass", "And Other Poems", "Magma", and a Penguin anthology - an impressive haul for 17 poems. Most of the poems contrast the real world with an imagined or dreamt alternative, the subject of interpretation usually being people.

When reading fiction we construct the imaginary characters from their behaviour. We use the same mechanism in real life when we meet people, deducing from external details an internal person (or soul). The opposite happens when we express ourselves - our pre-existing personality tries to express itself using details.

But of course it's not that simple. We role-play ("I'd like to be the woman next door/ with a walk that says I know where I'm going", p.7), dress up, use image consultants and CBT therapists. We might even help people to understand us better, show them how to read our moods, etc. And anyway, what is this "real self" beyond its expression? Is there more to it than meets the eye? Don't assume however that what you see is true. As the poet said of this pamphlet in her poetryspotlight interview, "Some of it’s still biographical, some of it’s surreal. Often it’s a mixture of both"

It's said that being slightly optimistic is more healthy and common than being realistic. I suspect that when poets are not being merely realistic, their way of being healthy is to err towards fancy rather than hope. In this collection, the poet shows several ways to resolve the resulting inaccuracies, thus showing us how to use our imagination to create her poetic persona -

  • An imaginative projection could be preparing the ground for a change. In "Jenny", various Jennys are listed. The 4th didn't exist. Then we read that "A boy called me Jenny ... I nodded and rode home with a different name", reality changing to match imagination.
  • In "My stranger" the (let's say female) persona has hung a painting in the entrance hall. She tries to convince visitors that it's her father by providing anecdotes, going so far as to claim it's a self-portrait. Finally we read that "Dad never lived to paint us all. What a terrible loss, visitors sigh. I lead them into a living room and whisper, Yes.". So perhaps there's regret that reality didn't match the story, but because it's the past, reality's more easily changed. She uses the new, improved father to cover cracks in her current life - changing one's past is a way of recreating oneself.
  • In "The Invisible Man" the persona's daughter is pushing an invisible man on a swing. The persona knows the man - she was stood up by him. She joins in with her daughter's make-believe - a shared, inherited hallucination is hardly a hallucination at all.
  • In "Hypothetical" the persona with surprising suddenness imagines being in bed with Daniel Craig, and her marriage falling apart. The poem ends with "I don't even like Daniel Craig, I tell the ceiling.", rejecting the what-if and returning to reality.

Suppose someone turns the tables, comparing you with an imagined/dreamt character? At the end of "Also-ran" we read "You can’t compete with the ones they dream about". But it's not the end of the world. In "The Horse" (one of several poems that mention horses) there's an over-riding theme of recovery, beginning with "Everyone says I should get back on the horse" and concluding with "Let me stay on".

"The Landfills of Heaven", "The Invisible Man", "Hypothetical", "Also-ran" and "Poem in which I lick motherhood" are online. I'll end by looking at that latter poem. What does "lick motherhood" mean? Succeed at it? Knock it into shape? Try it, like a lollipop? Or is it like a guitar lick? Here are the first 3 and last 3 lines, with notes -

  • "I have several children, all perfect, with tongues made of soap and PVA glue running through their veins" - Of course, a mother would say that her children are perfect. Soap is used to wash mouths of children who swear. Doing crafts with children is a parent's duty.
  • "My boys and girls benefit from eating the rainbow" - Whereas the first line's metaphors can be normalised, this second line is more stubbornly surreal. If you want, recall the nutritionists' suggestion that eating food with a range of colours increases the chance of eating a range of vitamins and minerals.
  • "I iron children twice daily. Creases are the devil's hoof print" - Perhaps the children have iron supplements twice a day. More likely there's always ironing to do. There's a hint that the children may also need disciplining, that imperfection is sinful, reflecting on the parents
  • ...
  • "Underneath my ribs is a complex weather system of sunshine and showers" - What is under a mother's ribs? A womb? Do sunshine and showers create rainbows?
  • "Heat rises from me and blows across the gulf stream of my carefully controlled temper" - The gulf stream is a path through the pathless ocean, a way to navigate through life
  • "Sometimes I am mist" - A pun on "missed". The first 3 lines all mentioned children. These last 3 don't mention them at all. The persona has become less central, more vague - an environment rather than a person.

Other reviews

  • Matthew Stewart (Taylor’s primary underlying technique and concern is the nature of self, the blending of identities, the interweaving of voices, the merging of fact and fiction through ever-shifting perspectives, never allowing the reader to rest on solid ground)
  • Charlotte Gann
  • Karen Powell