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, 17 May 2010

"A Fold in the Map" by Isobel Dixon (Salt, 2007)

  • "A Fold in the Map ... was also excellent. ... it needs to be read in one go and it really rewards the reader if you read it like a novel from start to finish. Isobel Dixon's a real talent I believe, and these poems are highly impressive for their emotional truth, and the elan and love with which she writes about her father. You end up liking the poet a lot after reading this book, which is too rare an event in poetry", David Morley.
  • "What characterises Dixon's poetry most poignantly is its accessibility, which should not be mistaken for simplicity", Karina Magdalena Szczrek.

It's in 2 pamphlet-sized, themed parts, the first about childhood and displacement, the second about her father's death. There's a feeling that the words don't matter, that the line-breaks don't matter, and that the stanza breaks are paragraph breaks. Perhaps she's reclaiming the terrain that prose stole from verse. But for me the imagery sometimes looks like adornment, a localised effect detached from the layers below and above.

  • "Christmas Beetles" begins with "Outside, the afternoon is ringing,/ ringing, massed cicadas singing out/ their silly news. The hot/ brown garden's loud/ with all their gossipmongering.// The insect grapevine - shrill bush telephone - incessant beetle headlines". Ok, so we get the message. Perhaps the incessant metaphor symbolises the incessant heat. All the same, "grapevine" is unfortunate.
  • "Weather Eye" begins with "In summer when the Christmas beetles/ filled each day with thin brass shrilling,/ heat would wake you, lapping at the sheet" and later has "while on the stove the pressure cooker chugged/ in tandem with the steamy day" ... "Then if the temperature had dropped enough/ the stays were loosened and the house undressed/ for night" ... then in the final paragraph we have "These chill machines/ don't do it half as true, the loving regulation/ of the burning days.". They're all decent images in their way until you pick at them (what is the chugging in tandem with?) and try to connect the images together (was the heat dry and burning, or humid?)

But perhaps this is all deliberate because elsewhere she can co-ordinate imagery - "Gemini" has if anything too much co-ordination: "sea-horse girls", "silt", "hull", "sewage", "wider sea", "adrift", "tadpole", "salty soup", "waves", "pacific". "buoy me". "plain sailing".

The imagery isn't meant to be striking. I like "The phone is a cruel mouthpiece,/ pain's propaganda tool. A megaphone/ for our confusion, for the rest/ only delivering half." ("Tear") but I've heard something much like the following before: "The clear 'good morning' from your smiling face/ settling among us like a dove" ("Crossing"). When there's too much accessibility, it's compensated by a bigger finish: "(I Want) Something to Show for It" strolls towards the final single-lined stanza "I am the sea come to swallow the pier". Standard imagery and events are more common in the second section. Grief's not easy to write about, so I guess it's impressive that several of the poems in the second section work at all, but the book's too long, and nothing in the second section quite matches the poignancy of the cover images.

I think her strength is the plotting. Students write essays about "Plenty" and many of the other pieces have the shape of a "personal essay", thematic images rising gently into view as readers stroll along towards a moral. For example "Foreshadow" (which I like) begins "I set myself this task:/ walk home from school on shadows -". After an interesting selection of shadows we end with "Didn't she understand// that once you've set out on your odyssey/ you're bound to it, rules you cannot break?". "The Skinning" might be laid out as ragged-right prose. "Kudu Watch" and many of the other pieces (especially those with 3-line stanzas) might as well be formatted as prose.

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