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.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

"Me and the Dead" by Katy Evans-Bush (Salt 2008)

"Mid-Atlantic pearl" is a clichéd though accurate description of this London-based American. She's a metropolitan poet - cafés, fashions, streets, "sophistication" - exhibiting no overt intellectualism yet wary of appearing simplistic. Never "light", only knowingly "Lite"; when she writes short poems they're sonnet-tidy in a Donaghy way. I have to read her poems slowly - no easy rides, no sequences that one can settle into, none of the middle-eighting that one sees in established writers' collections.

I open with trepidation books written by people I know, but here "The Only Reader" on p.1 was enough to dispel anxieties. The poem sounds nice - never a bad thing - but has symbolic underpinning. Over-reductively you could say it compares the act of reading with watching the flight of a passing goose - a "book" is never "yours". A wide range of styles follows this one, but let me first pursue the use of symbols further, because several poem simplify down to juxtaposed symbols rather than a central theme. Given the acknowledged influence of Michael Donaghy it's no surprise that there are pieces like "Our Passion" that sound rather like philosophical arguments employing symbolic reasoning. The symbolism's perhaps more masked in poems like "As the Sun Sends the Sequins on my handbag Scattering". As a train goes over an old bridge a woman rests her head on someone (for sake of argument a man) who starts talking about the river and geology. Sunlight begins to reflect over him from her sequinned handbag. Looking out, she notices a movement in the water, a fin maybe, signifying hope, potential. Here the concepts of "inner" and "outer" are juggled, the 2 people internalising the external world in different ways, reacting differently to the other's attempts to shift attention and make connections between themselves and between inner/outer.

I described her as a metropolitan poet because whereas Nature is used as a source of Symbols, a sauvignon's just a sauvignon. Cole Swensen wrote that "a poem is the city of language just as prose is its countryside. Prose extends laterally filling the page's horizon unimpeded, while poetry is marked by dense verticality, by layerings of meaning and sound. Cities and poetry also share compression, heterogeneity, juxtaposition". In the city, the rough and the smooth rub shoulders as in "East Ten"

You can't get more than five feet in this gaff
without running into some bleedin' tosser
Trevor used to do the rounds with.

(but don't get the wrong idea; the balancing epigraph is after Catullus X). If you like juxtaposition, try "Moose: an Adventure in Real Time", with "mouse", "moose", "Morse" and "morose" guesting in the 4 stanzas. Fancy some rhyme? Visit "The Cathedral"

Bells, like voices, open round and clear.
Like life they'll paralyse you with their din.
Like steel cables they tense and draw you in.
They ring what you don't think you want to hear.

(though most of this heterogeneous poem doesn't rhyme) or rattle the loosely rhymed couplets of "The Brass Doorknob".

The pages are packed - maybe 60 pages of text! It's almost unfair to single poems out, but I particularly admired "Across the Lake", "Imitating Life", "Me and the Dead", "This is Happening" and the playful "A Crack in the Feeling". I didn't so much like "I See the Hudson River, the Hudson River Sees Me", "Abney Park Cemetery", "Or Something" or "The Electrical Paradox". The latter two deal with jargon and knowledge domains that seem alien to the persona who either quotes verbatim or riffs without comprehension - fair enough, but not to my taste.

And the dead? In "The Cathedral" the link with history's impersonal. Elsewhere she communicates by teleporting back using photographs, swimming pools, or a voice on a phone. An exception is "Me and the Dead" where despite the "you" character looking at photos, reading letters and fingering houses, such contact's not enough - "Your past's a rag-bag of scraps". What is "you"? Ghosts haunting houses? The bereaved? A past self? In stanza 3, "I" appears, who "worried that you were unhappy" and who "saw only the future", finally realises that "you were an assemblage of fragments" - an allusion to an earlier mentioned Tate Modern piece, but also to the rag-bag. Like layers in a dig, each generation ends up as fragments for the next to build exhibits with - something to remember them by.

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