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.

Monday, 15 June 2009

"Letters from Aldenderry" by Philip Nokolayev (Salt, 2006)

The 1st poem begins "Two eagles circled over Cambridge today,/a rare sight, lovely", ending with the suspicion that their hidden surveillance cameras were scanning the narrator's academic reading material. The narratives in this book frequently move through the 3D space of the natural world into poetry, continuing the pursuit through speculation back to the observed world without a change of pace, as if they were all the same medium. After that tight start though, I got the feeling that he spreads his gifts too thinly through the 122 pages - good ideas (e.g. in "A Plaint ...") overstay their welcome. "Title Disease" is fun, but 60 lines of it is a chronic illness.

The sense of gentle simmering is strongest in the prosey pieces. Having heard some chapters from autobiographies at local writers groups, I'm familiar with the genre that "Tendency towards Vagrancy" belongs to - clipped language used to recount an anecdote with if not a moral then at least foreshadowing. And there are pieces that, shorn of their line-breaks, have the shape of columnist articles - "Grizzly" begins "Every time I spill coffee all over my project, extinguish my cigarette in the watermelon or accidentally kick the wastebasket across our tiny home office, the wife call me 'my Russian grizzly'" and ends "No wonder I am an endangered species". Many poems have only a small proportion of lines that exploit line-breaks (for example, he likes ending a non-formalist piece on a rhyming couplet). What should be done with the other lines? Should they be written as prose? Here they're chopped into lines roughly the same length as the lines with significant breaks - a common if unconvincing ploy.

"A Life, in 500 Words or Less" is different again, beginning "word time thing look/ number sound people/ water call side/ work part place round" and carrying on that way for 4 pages.

Even within a single poem there can be aesthetic variety. "Nightcap" has 6 couplets (4 which rhyme) followed by 2 isolated lines with half-rhymes. There are neologisms too. All very playful - he's not restricted to received forms or vocabulary - but in the end what's it saying? That creativity isn't wasted if used to placate existential angst?

"Diotima's Lesson" is the first of over 30 embedded pieces that make the variety explicit typographically. In this case a bold, italic sonnet is embedded in prose-formatted text. You can read either piece, but you can't read all along all the lines to make a new poem. In some of these embedded poems, both poems share subject matter. Sometimes, as in "Odessa Herring 1983" there seems no connection.

To summarise - there's formal and free work, relaxed and tight work - something for many types of readers. It's unlikely that one reader will have the sensibilities to cope will all the styles here, and I have trouble getting to grips with several poems and many parts of poems, but Perloff writes that it's a "truly exciting collection" so who am I to argue?

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