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.

Friday, 3 November 2006

"Reel" by George Szirtes (Bloodaxe, 2004)

I sometimes moan about how expensive and thin some poetry books are. This £8.95 book is 136 pages long, with few short lines or short poems, so you get about 4 times more words for your money than with some other books. There's a wide range of subject matter. Dip in anywhere and you shouldn't be disappointed - there's history (both personal and public), people (self and others), and (in "First Things First") inaminate objects - "Piano", "Stove", etc.

The book starts with "Flesh: An early family history" - pages of terza rima

What hope for rhyme when even childhood calls
On fiction for an echo and completes
Itself in myths, processions, carnivals,

Displays that billow down mysterious streets?
The city is unfixed, its formal maps
Are mere mnenomics [sic] where each shape repeats

As you can see, the material isn't Retro. Then "The Dream Hotel" is mostly a sonnet sequence. After that the forms vary - "Elephant" is a sestina, "Mnemon" uses rime riche. in the excellent "Minotaur in the Metro" (part of perhaps my favorite section, "The Morpheus Annotations") the words at the end of the first 15 lines are used in reverse order to end the next 15 lines.

Forms are sometimes used to overcome writer's block, yet justified as a structuring device. In this book poems sometimes start slowly, without an insistent rhythm. Here are some examples (I've removed the line-breaks but have left the original upper-case in so that you can work out where any end-rhymes are).

Tenderly they attached the rings to the lintel Of the door and set the swing into motion With the child firmly in it. They were gentle As they pushed, with proper parental caution.
It is November and snowing, like something out of Tolstoy, Here at the railway station where a woman wearing a muff Is waiting on the platform, while thousands of faces Swim in and out of focus with suitcases and bundles
("Eclogue: At the station")
Despite the heavy snow she is almost skipping Down the moonlit street. The children clutch Their parents' hands. High up, eaves are dripping Icicles. No cars. No people. Not very much Of anything at this time. Silence. It is two In the morning in the New Year
("Despite the heavy snow she is almost skipping")
Everywhere in the city, gangs of labourers are digging up brown fields where banks and shops once stood in a lost quarter of mirages full of phantom metro stations, bus stops, news-stands and fast-food outlets.

Stanza 1 of "Terre Verte" nags my post-Poe anti-long-poem sensibilities, and yet it's not a long poem. "Turquoise", a 10-sonnet sequence, has some good lines and ends well, but has stretch-marks.

It's useful to have changes of pace and intensity, and it's fun sometimes to lull the reader into a false sense of security, but I can't escape the feeling that there's if not padding at least gratuitous form. It reminds me in places of through-composed opera - sing-song conversation filling the gaps between the big numbers. These doubts aside, however, the formal fluency isn't at the cost of content - ideas abound. It helps that the forms are metrically loose (though tightly rhymed). The last 2 or 3 poems (and "Tent") are free-ish verse, even a little playful.

So you get your money's worth of ideas and good phrases. The excess packaging is thrown in free.

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