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.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

"Reservoir voices" by Brendan Kennelly (Bloodaxe, 2009)

85 pages of poetry, sometimes with more than one poem a page. Nearly every piece (an exception is "Out", which begins "I'm out" but is in the voice of a released prisoner) is from the first-person point of view of an object or abstract noun mentioned in the title - e.g.

  • "Shadow" - "Anyone may see me,/ nobody can touch me./ When the branch dances, so do I ..."
  • "System" - "Some guys know how to use me ..."
  • "Paper" - "I was a forest once ..."
  • "Daring" - "It seems I go where I should not go ..."

Workshoppy? It's certainly a risk, and the starts of the poems aren't their best parts. At least there's a variety of form if not voice. There are some 4-liners and some that are longer than a page. Sometimes there's regular end-rhyme. The default is to use triplets (sometimes terza rima).

Some pieces (even longer ones like "Prayer" and "Hug") are light, with sections like this -

listening is an art
some folk close their eyes
opening up their hearts
to separate truth from lies
(p.35)

Others are prosy musings. Here and there are interesting sections.

Other reviews

  • Patricia McCarthy (A unique facility Kennelly has always had is to create poems which are accessible to uneducated, non-literary readers, yet which also speak to those well-versed in poetry at the deepest metaphorical levels. ... Along with Rilke, another forefather of the poet is Samuel Beckett)

Saturday, 17 June 2017

"Tenth of December" by George Saunders (Bloomsbury, 2013)

Here's the start of the first story, "Victory Lap"

Three days shy of her fifteenth birthday, Alison Pope paused at the top of the stairs.
Say the staircase was marble. Say she descended and all heads turned. Where was {special one}? Approaching now, bowing slightly, he exclaimed, How can so much grace be contained in one small package? Oops. He he said small package? And just stood there?

We are inside Alison's fantasising mind (on p.7 there's "Was she special? Did she consider herself special? Oh, gosh, she didn't know"). On p.10 the PoV switches to Kyle Boot. 3rd person. He has a rule-making, point-tallying father. He sees someone with a knife trying to abduct Alison. On p.18 the PoV switches to the abductor. On p.21 we're back to Kyle, deciding whether to intercede. p.23 returns us to the abductor. Kyle knocks the abductor out. On p.25, from Alison's PoV, she watches as Kyle's poised to deliver a killing blow to the abductor. Dare she intercede?

Sticks" is about a page long, about a father's quirk.

"Puppy" continues the parenting theme - "When Bo got older, it would be different. Then he'd need his freedom. But now he just needed not to get killed" (p.35), thinks the mother. "when you said you were going to do a thing and didn't do it, that was how kids got into drugs" (p.36) thinks the father. A mother called Marie visits someone's house with her kids to look at an advertised puppy. The kids want it, but she notices a boy (Bo, we deduce) chained to a tree in the yard, drinking from a dog's bowl.

In "Escape for Spiderhead" criminals join a drugs test to get out of prison, using Verbaluce™, VeriTalk™, Chatease™, Darkenfloxx™, Vivistif™, etc to see if Love is real. Jeff, the main character, kills himself and becomes omniscient. That story, and "Exhortation" (a management pep-talk) and "Al Roosten" (Al becomes guilty about the envy he acted upon at a charity auction) don't work for me.

"The Semplica Girl Diaries" is in the form of a journal. A father, having gone to a rich friend's party, decides for the sake of his children that he should do better. He wins a lottery prize and splashes out on her daughter's birthday party by buying a string of 4 Semplica Girls - immigrants - to decorate the garden. The younger daughter frees them, resulting in possible financial ruin.

In "Home" a war-vet visits his ma as the bailiffs arrive. He's envious of his sibling's and remarried ex's homes. He struggles to contain his anger.

"My Chivalric Fiasco" - the boss of a place that sets up period recreations (imitation pigs, fake snow that had to be vacuumed up afterwards) promotes 2 people (Ted, the main character, and Martha) to pay for their silence. Ted has KnightLyfe® to help him play his new role, after which the language goes Disney-medieval - "Ted, I swear to God, quoth he. Put a sock in it or I will flush you down the shitter so fast" (p.211).

"Tenth of December", the title story, is online. It throws us into a strange context. Here's paragraph 2

Today’s assignation: walk to pond, ascertain beaver dam. Likely he would be detained. By that species that lived amongst the old rock wall. They were small but, upon emerging, assumed certain proportions. And gave chase. This was just their methodology. His aplomb threw them loops. He knew that. And revelled it. He would turn, level the pellet gun, intone: Are you aware of the usage of this human implement?

Blam!

They were Netherworlders. Or Nethers.

These aliens speak Disney-Cockney. But are they aliens? One of them, Eber, is trying to kill himself by walking coatless into the cold wildness - "This was too much. He hadn’t cried after the surgeries or during the chemo, but he felt like crying now ... This incredible opportunity to end things with dignity was right in his hands. ... All he had to do was stay put. I will fight no more forever. Concentrate on the beauty of the pond, the beauty of the woods, the beauty you are returning to, the beauty that is everywhere as far as you can—". A kid, trying to save him, falls through the ice. Eber saves him without him realising. The boy stumbles home, then remembering the old man, begins to return to the ice. Eber sees him - "The kid came out of the kitchen, lost in Eber’s big coat, pajama pants pooling around his feet with the boots now off. He took Eber’s bloody hand gently. Said he was sorry. Sorry for being such a dope in the woods. Sorry for running off. He’d just been out of it. Kind of scared and all.". Eber ends up more content with life.

I think the title story's the best in the book. I also like "Victory Lap", "Sticks", "Home", and "My Chivalric Fiasco" too.

Other reviews

  • Tom Cox
  • Gregory Cowles (Class anxiety is everywhere here. ... By tapping into the running interior monologues of his hopeful, fragile characters, Saunders creates a signature voice that’s simultaneously baroque and demotic — a trick he pulls off by recognizing just how florid our ordinary thoughts can be, how grandiose and delusional and self-­serving)
  • Joel Lovell (The characters speak in a strange new language — a kind of heightened bureaucratese, or a passively received vernacular that is built around self-improvement clich├ęs ... “The Semplica Girl Diaries” [] took him more than a dozen years to write ... “Semplica Girls” is a perfect illustration of the point where Saunders the technically experimental wizard and Saunders the guy whose heart exists outside of his body converge. It’s science fiction of the highest order.)
  • Leyla Sanai
  • Michael Shaub

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

"Falling awake" by Alice Oswald (Cape, 2016)

The first poem, "A short story of falling" is neat and likeable, beginning with

It is the story of the falling rain
to turn into a leaf and fall again

it is the secret of a summer shower
to steal the light and hide it in a flower

ending with

which is the story of the falling rain
that rises to the light and falls again

which continues the cyclic theme of the book's title. Better still is the 2nd poem, "Swan".

A rotted swan
is hurrying away from the plane-crash of her wings
...
getting panicky up out of her clothes
...
climbing out of her own cockpit

and lifting away and bending back for another look
at the clean china serving-dish of a breast bone
...
it is snowing there
and the bride has just set out
to walk to her wedding

ending with a tolling bell. I thought at first it was about a swan taking off, seeing its broken reflection. Then I thought it was the soul of a swan leaving its body. Then the wedding imagery kicks in, followed by hints of death. It's my favourite poem at the moment.

"Shadow" is also fairly straightforward - that falls at dusk/ out of the blue to the earth ... being dragged along crippled over things as if broken winged ... with the flesh parachute of a human opening above it ... my own impersonal pronoun/ crumpled under me like a dead body ... hour by hour more shade leaks out

Several poems are in standard forms: "Fox" is 5 short-lined xaxa quatrains; "Two voices" is 2 stanzas of 7 rhymed iambic pentameter couplets, etc.

At her best she's effective both at small and large scales. Here's some small-scale imagery -

  • this is how the wind works hard at thinking/ this is what speaks when no one speaks (p.10)
  • I notice the fatigue of flowers/ weighed down by light (p.11)
  • Here is the sensation of watching the dawn break above the tree line: it makes me shiver like a dead/ soldier returning his empty clothes/ to his bride but she’s married/ someone else ("Tithonus")

But I struggle with many of the longer poems. I can't believe that "Dunt: a poem for a dried-up river" is very good. This is 20% of "Alongside beans"

      covering first one place

and then another

and after a while another place

      and then another place

            and another

                  and another

which I don't get. In another poem it takes a third of a page to say "and then another thing and then another". I can see something about time as continuous becoming vs time as sequence, but it doesn't pass the call-my-bluff test. I got little from the second half of the book, which starts after a black page (night) at 4.17am. It's a long piece called "Tithonus" (printed mostly on the right-hand-side of unnumbered pages) that ends 46 minutes later at dawn. I noticed in the reviews that the later Beckett's mentioned, and I can see why - the repeated phrases and fragmented lyricism for the spoken voice. And the spirit of Jory Graham hovers.

Other reviews

  • Kate Kellaway (an astonishing book of beauty, intensity and poise – a revelation)
  • Fiona Sampson
  • Dave (The last of these three couplets [in the 1st poem] feels almost too neat, leaning heavily on its rhetorical power to convey two relatively loud abstractions for a poem (and a collection) that finds its meaning almost entirely in the concrete, observable world. That such a noticeable exception to the rule appears in the opening poem seems significant)
  • Charlotte Runcie (There's a case to be made that she is our greatest living poet.)
  • Theophilus Kwek
  • Dan Chiasson (“Swan,” perched on the cusp between myth and mechanics, is a kindred performance, a poem about grace and its tendency to hide when we seek it. With its mercurial line and widely variable pacing, the poem acts as a covert defense of poetry, a chrysalis capacious enough for a swan. ... Her nature poems tend to be revisions of earlier poems on the same subjects: ... Ted Hughes’s “The Thought Fox” stalks Oswald’s “Fox.” This isn’t simply influence or homage, though Oswald is generous about crediting her forebears. The deeper urge is to collaborate with the dead)
  • Laurie Smith (In every case the poem develops into a meditation on the life of nature and sometimes on death (a rotting swan, a dead badger, dying flies) with an intensity of focus and originality of language like no other poet writing today or ever.)
  • Roger Cox
  • Phil Brown (this latest collection is the fullest integration of Oswald’s twin wellsprings of inspiration - the natural world and the canon ... The sequence itself follows Beckett’s trope of demonstrating despair and boredom by inducing it in the reader so that, as we read Tithonus’ final words - ‘may I stop please’ - we may well share his sentiment.)
  • Pierre Antoine Zahnd (As a whole, the reception attending Oswald’s new volume Falling Awake, which has been unanimously positive, has lacked critical nuance. ... From ‘Vertigo’: ... The diction is loaded with unspecific, abstract terms that carry little momentum, and fails to retain much dynamism as a result. Poetry, after all, needs to be engaging if it is to produce an emotional or intellectual response, and these lines feel vague and flat in this regard. ... The weakest aspect of Oswald’s language is its reliance on image, simile, and personification, without ensuring that each figure has been earned, justified, by the text. ... An odd tendency of the book is to start developing a quieter, more stable metaphor and then pit it against a jarring simile ... The poems occasionally culminate in writing that feels limp and nonchalant. ... It is rare to read a collection in which a poet with such obvious skill leaves you with the impression of clumsiness; ultimately the book is one of the most uneven poetry collections I know of.)
  • Robert Baker (Drawn to popular forms such as the ballad, Oswald understands a poem to be first of all a “sound-map,” a shape of sound in air. ... Almost all the poems of Falling Awake are entirely without punctuation)
  • Lucy Mercer (Through a philosophical route then, I will quickly attempt to cover how Oswald has boldly approached time in Falling Awake via a two-part of methodology, which I have termed ballast and dropping. ... So, ballast. The first section of Falling Awake comprises of a number of poems that are mostly close observations of the movements of immediate (‘natural’) and universal objects )

Saturday, 10 June 2017

"ARTEMISpoetry (Issue 16, May 2016)"

A 64-page A4 bi-annual journal of women's writing with poetry by Katherine Gallagher, Penelope Shuttle, Isobel Thrilling, Myra Schneider, Ilse Pedler, Moniza Alvi, etc. There's information, interviews and many reviews.

It's published by Second Light Publications, the publishing arm of Second Light network (full membership available for women over 40; associate membership available for women 30-40). It's perhaps the age restriction as much as the gender that affects the content.

In an interview, Myra Schneider writes "cliques dominate the poetry scene and work that's 'fashionable' is often overpraised while many good poets are undervalued. ... such attention as the media gives to poetry is often to work which is clever, abstruse or poor". She doesn't mention the names of these over-praised people. A shame. Later, we read that "I write about the natural world and the environment which greatly concerns me, childhood, relationships, and I feature myth and history". Reading this magazine I think she's not alone in these pre-occupations, which are usually understated. Decent poems, all the same.

Here's all the (potentially) adverse criticism that I could find in the reviews. Note how they're often tempered

  • there are few nuances and little space for alternative interpretations
  • Just occasionally I thought a closing, rounding-off observation detracted from the poem as a whole ... But these are very small criticisms
  • So many of these poems are direct, honest, up-beat with some touches of ruefulness and irony
  • her poems are sometimes a little over-extended
  • This collection may seem in some respects 'straight-down-the-middle' but thoughtfulness and the occasional sharp insight make these poems worthwhile
  • a somewhat dense and hermetic style of writing which takes some getting used to ... the meaning here and there is a shade clotted. The poems are not always released into the lyric freedom which would suit some of the subject matter ... [She] probes and - of course - cannot always resolve big issues. She sometimes used poetic devices, including personification, with a slightly heavy hand. But overall these poems are alive, engaging and interesting
  • These poems approach the world from an acute angle and so risk having little direct appeal to some readers. But modern taste favours poems that are more oblique ... I found some poems over-detailed ... and the subject matter of some poems seemed inconsequential ... But this poet has strengths. ... Some of these poems are a little too contrived and self-consciously 'off-centre'. There, too, little direct feeling to suit a more old-fashioned taste. These are, however, the pet faults and inverted attractions of today

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

"Stations of the Boar" by Kevin Mills (Cinnamon Press, 2016)

A 17 page pamphlet, "Re-reading Lifris' Life of Saint Cadoc (c.1086)". According to the back cover these poems "interrogate how the presence of the past constructs a nearly hallucinatory sense of what it might mean to be Welsh". I'm struggling with the content and expression. Here's the start of "Prints"

I'll raise, perhaps, a chap-
el here for Finnian whose faith

could harness forest harts and
keep our book uninjured by the

pelting

The syllable count for all the lines of the poem is 6,8, 7,8, 6,8, 6,5, 6,5. I can't see much of a pattern there. Perhaps the idea of raising a chap is why the first line's broken. It's iambic, but some lines have more than 3 beats.

The final poem ends with a flurry of line-breaks - "The angel says I// must forgive you./       Enough for now.// May the land/ rise to meet/ you."

Saturday, 3 June 2017

"Truffle Beds" by Katherine Pierpoint (Faber and Faber, 1995)

Poems from The New Yorker, The Rialto, etc. I'll focus on the imagery. The first poem, "The Twist in the River", has "If this place were a person, it would be making up a paper hat while humming ... And the river runs through its own fingers, careless". The water theme continues in "Going Swimmingly" where "you", the swimmer, is "Plaiting yourself into the water,/ Ploughing an intricate, soft turtle-track along the undersurface,/ Each stroke a silver link in the chain that melts behind you".

In "Steeplejack" a snail is Feeling everything with its moist eye-tips,/ Its shell a hardened whirlpool/ Of concentration". Later in the poem there's what could be another analogy for writing - "The job starts with/ The moment of looking./ Send your eye up the spire/ To hook to the top./ Lash your gaze to the weathercock's spurs/ And unreel a rope back to the brain./ Assess the sides for footholds./ Take only tools you trust ... Think flat, move one thought at a time./ Use your breathing like another limb."

Most of the pieces establish a setting before riffing into imagery. "Plumbline" is less clear, more concerned with pinning down a feeling than a place or moment - "This body of loved music leans close in, to breathe directly in your nostrils;/ A bullish mass, viewed from below, underlines the summer sky./ It unclasps a fluid pouch of a bassline". After some bovine imagery there's an anecdote about making perfect butter curls, then we're back to music and the sea. In contrast, "Beach Scene with Small Figures" is a picture - "Walking the easy, open beach,/ Through the coastline's gappy, disarming smile,/ Turning on the currents of an idling mind,/ Slow human flotsam, no hurry;"

In "Combustion Engine" I wonder whether the images obscure the effect. The next poem's bravely called "Answers on a Postcard", which is partly on the theme of migration instinct - "Each animal a gasping red-eyed sack, drunk on instinct,/ Slung over a set of four legs that, rocking, run and run and run/ To press the ancient, desert rock-hard, burning forehead against that soft horizon,/ Smooth and cool as a saint's ascending foot.". The metaphors and similes can become rather over-Martian though - "The tough oilsleek diving board stands dark as a pithead crane,/ A pointing steel gundog straining for the falling star./ Room for another flea on its back./ A long black tongue is ready for your feet" ("Diving Board").

Cherry-picking from other poems there's

  • "We look on [cats];/ and remain, like children on the stairs at a dinner party,/ Acknowledged by that other world,/ Yet uninvited" (p.35)
  • "The tracks tweeze the last thin train away,/ Wipe it on the rim, and lose it" (p.43)
  • "The water is to swimmer as a kiss/ Placed on a closed but moving eye./ And swimmer is to water/ As a ghost to a claiming room" (p.47)
  • "Nights are the breaths in an idiot's anecdote,/ Forgotten opening of doors between remembered rooms" (p.49).

What's impressive about the better poems in this book is that the imagery isn't tacked on - the poems are made of imagery, through-composed, with many long lines and full pages. Swimming is popular.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

"la donna di Glasgow" by Denise Mina (TEADUE, 2002)

The original title was 'Garnethill'.

Maureen, the main character (a body was found in her flat), has a friend, Benny, who initially helps her make deductions from the clues, and her brother Liam is a drug-dealer who knows a bit about how the crime/police system works. She tries to solve the crime herself, following various leads.

She's a victim of incest and her mother's an alcoholic. She's had a mental breakdown.

My first hunch was that the killer was the neighbour, Jim Maliano. The more people accused Maureen of being the killer, the more I began to believe it. Then I thought that Douglas might have been running a call-girl service.

I like the incidental detail - gestures and body language; descriptions of rooms. Having smokers talking to each other helps the author to break up dialogue with descriptions of gestures. The light relief of the dentures in the "Columbo" chapter works well. The ending's not entirely convincing at a plot level, but it's tidy. Acid slips into the plot.

Sometimes we slip outside the point-of-view. In chapter 16 we're told that Maureen didn't notice she was being tailed, and other section end with the information that someone's being unknowingly tailed. In chapter 21 we enter Frank's mind for a few sentences. In chapter 27 the receptionist's PoV becomes visible. And Angus' hallucinations would only be known to Angus. It works ok.

On p.187 there's a typo - "mattta".