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.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

"The Men from Praga" by Anne Berkeley (Salt, 2009)

The first poem "Hold-all (Aircrew)" is fine. Checking the acknowledgements reveals that it was an Arvon prizewinner. Good - our watches are synchronised. Journeying on we meet a few poems that have overlapping imagery and short first-person "C-A Duffy" sentences. To me the poems dilute each other rather than support. The title and content of "Revesby" remind me of dreams, though when the neighbouring poems are read, it's more narrative-driven than it first appears. I like "Bunker" too, though I wonder about all that white space. I wasn't so keen on "Nav Rad" or on "Coordinates" which eponimously ends this first section.

It didn't really dawn on me until I read the back cover that the childhood games in this section relate to the wargames and stand-offs of the largely absent grown-ups. Makes sense though, of course. What I did notice is how the rules of Right and Wrong develop. The childhood "you're not supposed to say bike", "We always covered up our poo with leaves" and "No Ballgames on the Parterre" co-exist with the adult world's mutual annihilation, and cellars are hell. On p.21 there's "Was I smacked? I expect so" - i.e. the adult narrator, thinking back, doesn't recall any incidents but remembers the climate of moral enforcement.

Section 2 is entitled "Trajectories". Like the 1st section it begins well (the TLS this time!). Then there is a mix of poems I don't quite understand combined with enviable poems like "River", "Accident", "Taking the Air", "Vacant Possession" and "Nils Takes a Breather". The poems I can't appreciate defeat me in a variety of ways, and for the most part look carefully written - I think other people might well like them ("Matthew Crampton" is one of the few poems in the book that just seem flat to me. "Boots" and "Thirsty" aren't far behind). So what are my problems?

  • "Baudelaire's Pipe" is 6 versions of a poem - ok on-line, but space is valuable in a book.
  • "One Way of Listening to Windchimes" joins the list of homages to "13 ways ..." (my favorite is Reading(?)'s Blackboard one). About half the verses work - the format inevitably involves padding.
  • "The Cambridge Metro" is prose that's currently unpublishable as prose, so it's been rigorously re-formatted into 4-lined stanzas.
  • "A Change in the Weather" is too obscure for me.

Throughout, nothing is carelessly slack, and several types of poetic effect are employed - "Yellow Sun, Green Grass" mentions "Bomb" 14 times ("My backyard" has less successful repetition); "The Boasts of Jim McKay" begins with "Wyatt Earp/ longest burp/ furthest hitter/ best spitter". Other poems have short lines, but many don't, and other poems use contrasting diction - "googled", etc. Something for everyone - unless you like jokey sonnets.

All in all, one of those rare book which has more than a pamphlet's worth of decent poems. The issue isn't so much which are good and which bad, but which match the reader's tastes, and which don't ... yet.

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