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, 8 December 2018

"A brief history of diaries" by Alexandra Johnson (Hesperus Press, 2011)

From Pepys to Blogs, via travel diaries, war diaries, and writers' diaries.

  • 'What is a diary as a rule?' wondered Ellen Terry. 'A document useful to the person who keeps it, dull to the contemporary who reads it, invaluable to the student, centuries afterwards' (p.13)
  • 'As a lady adjusts her dress before a mirror, a man adjusts his character by looking at his journal,' Boswell mused. (p.32)
  • It is a strange thing that in sea voyages, where there is nothing to be seen but sky and sea, men should make diaries, but in land travel, wherein so much is to be observed, for the most part they omit it - Francis Bacon (p.35)
  • From courtship in 1862 to Tolstoy's death in 1910, their lives were defined by diaries. A year into marriage, Tolstoy decided they should share theirs. For forty two years, they read, wrote in and commented on the other's diaries ... While Tolstoy's diary is sparse when writing his two masterpieces, Sonya's nearly doubles (p.56)
  • By the time of her arrest, Anne [Frank] had rewritten nearly two-thirds of her diary (p.76)
  • On 23 January 2010 Pope Benedict XVI urged priests: ... 'to proclaim the Gospel by employing ... blogs' (p.89)
  • Pepys' diaries weren't deciphered until 1825 (p.100)

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

"Granta 85 (Spring 2004)" by Ian Jack (ed)

Jackie Kay, TC Boyle, Jonathan Tel, Anne Enright, etc.

There's an essay/memoir feel even with the pieces that could be fictional.

"A religious conversation" looks too easy to write. "Alive, alive-oh!" is is too ordinary re subject matter - the final paragraph's the most interesting part. "Eight Pieces for the left hand" doesn't grab me. "The lives of Brian" worked whether or not it's true. "You go when you can no longer stay" seems rather ordinary though it's short and entertaining enough. "The Surgery of last resort" is nothing much. Except for maybe 2 photos, "Good father" is nothing much either. "Tiger's Ghost" was better. "White men's boats" is a piece of history that might interest some people. Would "Femme fatale" ever had been published if T.Corahessan Boyle and Professor Kinsey weren't connected with it? "Put not thy trust in chariots" was disappointing. "Protestant boy" managed to portray interesting characters while giving some histirical/sociological detail. "Shaft" was reasonable enough - sensibly short.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

"The double life of clocks" by Helen Ivory (Bloodaxe, 2002)

A page-turner, with enough high-points to make up for the inevitable dips. I like how the book begins, with "Meow" (Me. Ow?), the persona thinking she's a cat in human form. The alter-ego theme's continued less successfully for a few poems (the idea of "Pacemaker" appeals, but the poem's too long). It's as if a Creative Writing class has been given a model to follow and these are the results. Here are some first lines - "I am bath water" (p.22), "When I was a goldfish" (p.32), "If I was my boyfriend" (p.43), "I am a tiger" (p.54), "In a former life I was an athlete" (p.56), "I am God today" (p.57). The outcomes vary. The bathwater poem ends with "You will try to pull the plug/ but it would be too late;/ for you'd carry/ the whole ocean of me,/ slowly ebbing at your shoes". The erstwhile athlete in the final line says "In a former life I was a doctor" though identity isn't always so long-lasting - "Brittle weightlessness takes me beyond gravity to a place where it's possible to forget who I am" (p.46). The sounds/sights nobody else can hear/see might increase the sense of individuality, but at a cost. Houses and people are vulnerable to the weather. There are ghosts, people not being noticed. Even trees have identity issues - "The trees have forgotten how to be trees" (p.26). Later in the book, "Her skin is made of mirrors, and she camouflages herself" (p.70), which may be progress.

Amongst a few flat poems, "Orangeness of Oranges" contains an interesting surprise. The book recovers with "Spin cycle", though I feel nowadays that poem might be Flash. There's another sag near the middle of the book, "Her Big Day" one of the low points. "Chicken by moonlight" seems a rather laboured analogy. She's a phrase-maker, which helps keep some of the poems afloat - e.g. "The sky is pulled down to meet the land/ like a blind on a dirty window" (p.23). The plots can be interesting too. The final poem begins with "When, like a ravening wolf, fire ate everything in sight, turning crops into charcoal and air into poison, all the pregnant women of the land gave birth to fireflies". After years of barrenness, there's rain - "If [a drop] fell in the arms of a woman, it became a new baby smelling of dew ... The women ... crushed by the weight of the hundreds they were trying to catch".

Typo on p.27 - "the house shock so much" - "shook"? Typo on p.75 "it's eyes".

Other reviews

  • Sarah Law (There are plenty of fairy-tale qualities to Ivory’s work, but the biggest darkness and dangers by far are either psychological or plain inexplicable in the simple man-made language she uses. ... Ivory’s writing is at its best when she captures the ambiguities of (female) desire through dense, illogical narratives that recount mysteries.)

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

"The yellow wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Virago, 2008)

First published in 1892. A single 25 page story recounts in first person the narrator in recovery slipping (again?) into madness. Busy, sensible husband John always knows better. The submissive wife ends up thinking there are women in the wallpaper. She tries to free them, thinks she's one of them, crawling. Her husband enters the room - Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!.

The final few pages in particular have survived the test of time. Reviews mention Poe. The more recent reviews pick up on its criticism of rest cures and male/female roles, the autobiographical element.

Other reviews

Saturday, 24 November 2018

"Blues in sedici" by Stefano Benni (Feltrinelli, 2008)

First published in 2008. Inspired by an incident where a father in a videobar of low repute used himself as a human shield to save his son from a bullet. The poems are in two sections ("movements"), the 8 poem titles of the first section being re-used in the second in a different order and sometimes modified ("the blind soothsayer" is not longer blind, etc). In the second poem the father's in his kitchen - just a normal day. The killer walks to the videobar, passing a newsagents kiosk where newspapers are blown like dry leaves. The games feature death. He sees on another man his own face as it might be in 20 years time and shoots. In the final poem the father's looking back on his life, remembering playing football with his son, the shadow of a bicycle on the other side of the river.

The Italian's simple - it's a performance piece sometimes accompanied by music. The poems are in the poetrified voices of the titular protagonists - "I want a city that isn't only signs. I like the silence that separates words, not that which comes after sirens and shots" says Lisa (my translation)

Other reviews

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

"Faber New Poets 13" by Elaine Beckett (Faber and Faber, 2016)

I liked the first poem "Melting" more on a second reading - how various water-related details sketched the beginning of a friendship. I wasn't impressed by "Norfolk Winter '72", "The Woman Who Cries", "Dreaming of the Professor Who Gave Me the Sack" or "How on Earth Would We Have Managed" (about ghosts?). I liked "Killer Whale", perhaps because I read it as Flash. I can't see that "Hollywood Hotel" is worth writing. Even if it is, why all the line-breaks? So I think I'm missing something.

Other reviews

  • Sean O'Brien (laconic, undeceived ... She works in a vein that many readers will recognise, at times recalling Hugo Williams in her patient orchestration of apparently “ordinary” language which she makes memorable by sentence construction and a good ear. ... Not all the poems here are so successful. “Dreaming of the Professor Who Gave Me the Sack” is almost there, but ends with a repetition that should have been ironed out. Yet Beckett’s unselfconscious alertness is appealing.)
  • uncomfortable contemporary truths are again skilfully rendered in ‘How on Earth Would We Have Managed’, which has the quality of a found piece that utilises the authenticating elements of its voices to evoke the chilling thisness of the refugee crisis. It doesn’t always land on the spot, however: the latter poem doesn’t need its second half and the near industry standard dislocation that ends ‘Killer Whale’ feels a trifle clunky - Martin Malone (Interpreter's House)

Saturday, 17 November 2018

"Faber New Poets 15" by Sam Buchan-Watts (Faber and Faber, 2016)

Poems from Poetry London, Ambit, etc. At least 4 are laid out as prose. Here's an extract from one of them - "I regret the many potholes in the road, each with a downwards view of the water, and how I freewheeled on through an air moody with bugs, assuming always that you'd be there to meet me on the other side, a point at which we can take in both views" (p.3). I don't get it. "Moon" is ok, though wordy. Here are few more quotes and comments

  • "A hall lamp mistakenly read as a home life/ from the end of the drive by someone else's dad,/ returning the boy home from a birthday party" (p.6) - here as elsewhere a good phrase is wasted by the poem it's in.
  • "[The Plastic Sacks] rest without tension, raised a smidgen/ like the gossamer fur of soya beans,/ a sleep shirt slipping from a girl's chest;/ ominous as B-movie graveyard mist" (p.8). I don't know what this is about other than being a list of distinctly sub-Martian comparisons.
  • "it's not until we quiet again that we clock the car we're in is not in fact the thing we thought was moving" - this sounds inelegant, especially given that it's an ending. Perhaps its supposed to be, coming from a poem called "Car Game Logic"
  • "There is a choice photo stashed in my wallet,/ its creased folds powdery with friction; his profile/ is divine against a backdrop of swirling marble blue". This comes from The Dogs, a Guardian poem of the week. Unsurprisingly, Carol Rumens can see more in it that I can. She writes that "his sometimes teasing diction and detailed imagery suggest he has taken lessons in technique from senior virtuosi like John Ashbery." He's a "sceptical, serious, versatile writer, alert to the uses of ellipticism ... an accomplished phrase-maker."

Rumens' mention of Ashbery and ellipticism are a perhaps clue to why I struggle with many of these pieces. I feel I could put together some good poems by scavenging from this pamphlet.

Other reviews

  • Sean O'Brien (a poet of wit, deploying it in a war of attrition against apathy ... The challenge Buchan-Watts offers himself is to ensure that his sense of watchful disconnection doesn’t solidify into an attitude. )
  • he has a knack for the poem as prose-vignette – a dangerous task, since it risks collapsing into a case of the young poet looking at stuff. Yet here are several successful pieces in the tradition of Woolf’s shorts or Stein’s early prose poetry, particularly his ‘study of two lamps and a painting’. ‘The Days go Just Like that’ and the following poem (the same title, held within quotation marks) are the best achieved in this collection, (Laura McCormick Kilbride, Cambridge Quarterly)
  • something of a bravura display of style, control and range … ‘Car Game Logic’ is hugely impressive and ‘The Plastic Sacks’ artfully communicates its vague sense of threat hidden in the open view of daily ephemera and fuelled by society’s neurotic over-sensitivity to its own dirt and self-generated waste. … Only rarely does the verse over-balance. ‘Cowcium’, for example, veers a bit too close to the emptier end of the Me-Thinking-Cleverly school for my taste Martin Malone (Interpreter's House)