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, 8 October 2008

"Weighing the Air" by Peter Howard (Arrowhead Press, 2008)

An apt title. Several of the poems in this book are science-related - successful albeit demanding. All too often so-called science poetry merely name-drops some technical terms. Sometimes these terms are wilfully taken out of context ("imaginary numbers", "charm" etc) for comic effect - playing with words, not knowing what they mean. Obscure science/math text is sometimes presented as a found poem - worth doing, but not hard to do. Howard certainly knows his stuff, and is at home with the strange overlap of computer jargon and everyday language. The invisible is given weight. He does maths too - he's written a poem called "eπi=-1" (I've done e+1=0). He's also written several poems that I won't now be able to write.

The patron saint of these poems' style is perhaps Henry Reed (he of "Naming of Parts"). In Reed's poem, blocks of factual matter are juxtaposed with lyrical, day-dreaming associations. In Howard's poems the mixture comes in various proportions. "The Distillation of Ink" is factual until the final stanza (almost a loss of nerve). "68000 Mornings" has intermingling registers, but unless you know about microprocessors you'll miss out on the fun. The 1st part of "How I didn't get laid at King's Lynn" is factual. The 2nd part uses the same phrases in a different order to produce surrealism. "Algorithm" is my favourite of the hybrid poems - its dream logic and incantory repetition are powerful.

The poems are amusing and entertaining, never far from the rhythms and twists of speech. To parallel the idea of using of science until the reader sees the poetic weight in it is the idea of using realism until it becomes (almost without the reader sensing the transition) strange. Only "Precautions for Handling and Disposal of Dead Bodies" is strange throughout, sense hinted by non-words. On page 23 the letter 'a' is replaced by "tyre-iron" - e.g. "Wh tyre-iron t could you use tyre-iron brick for?" - which is mysterious.

The book has a generous 84 pages of poetry ("Good Luck, Mr Gorsky" is missing from the contents page!) but I think it could have been rather shorter - p.62-68 and p.51-54 are quieter sections, for example. Many of the poems have 3-line stanzas. I can't really see why. The 4-lined ones are mostly stanza-stopped, but the 3-liners seem much more arbitrarily arranged. "Good Luck, Mr Gorsky" is in rhyming couplets. There's a neat sonnet and a sestina. There are also several list poems that end with a thoughtful line. "The Yromem", "Good Luck, Mr Gorsky" and "The Uses of Mown Grass" , and "No Sign" persevere with the same idea, sometimes to diminishing effects. Another theme is that of objects - car parks, computer parts - becoming sentient.

So that's some of the book's content. What's (non-pejoratively) missing? There are no families, no age-gaps: 3's a crowd, a chorus to generate mood. No-one's ill. No-one dies or is born in this steady state of history-less people. We don't have a chance to empathise with anyone. Has the science displaced emotion? I think it's rather that the human condition is conveyed through Kafkaesque work situations and persona-free, language-laden voices. It works for me.

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