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.

Saturday, 11 November 2006

"The Sea Cabinet" by Caitriona O'Reilly (Bloodaxe, 2006)

Michael Longley described her 1st collection as "formally versatile". I wonder what he thinks about this collection? Here are the statistics

2 line stanzas9
3 line stanzas6
4 line stanzas4
5 line stanzas2
6 line stanzas3
8 line stanzas1
10 line stanzas1
1 rectangular stanza6

In addition there's one poem in blank verse, one using a ABBCCA rhyme scheme, one piece in terza rima, and one using a prose format. 5 poems use indenting to make each stanza into a particular shape. Except for the odd poem like "Persona" I can see no connection between the content and what some might call the forms. Any intentional effect they might have is swamped by the random ones. "Organic Form" poets might consider the forms insincere. I don't think they're very reader-friendly - indeed, they're rather misleading. Imagine a book where the poems are in various colours. Readers who aren't colour-blind might wonder why particular poems are red, since in all other respects they look like the blue poems. Should they investigate further, or merely assume that the poet picked up the pen nearest to them at the time?

To illustrate some of my other problems I need go no further than the start of the first poem, Poliomyelitis - I'll leave you to decide where, if anywhere, the line-breaks are.

The pool at the centre of the broken-tiled room was once a swimming pool for local boys with boils on the neck and chilblained knees. Their old joints murmur like the sea's gradual encroachment on the choked-up gorge of nineteen-fifties nobless oblige: grass sprouts from the rafters of the Big House now, like hairs from a pensioner's nose.

The first sentence isn't especially stylish - of course, it would be ok in a novel. I don't know whose old joints are being described (the rafters? the local 'boys'?). I don't get the analogy that follows, and don't understand the nobless oblige: bit. After that we have over-used nose-hairs, this time being compared to grass for some reason (Martian?). The mixture of styles/transparency is not in itself a problem, but in combination with other centrifugal forces, I'm lost.

The title sequence is interesting. Here's the start of each part

I The Ship
Below the just-set sun and the Polar stars
a mist appears and scrolls about the graves
that stand like canted yards of anchored fleets
or tumble home, their forms declined and bitten now
Blank verse, though the 2nd 'the' in the 1st line sounds strange to my ear.
II The Mermaid
Between the imaginary iceberg and the skeletal whale
is the stuffed and mounted mermaid in her case,
the crudely-stitched seam between skin and scale
Terza rima.
III The Esquimaux
Their plaster heads keep company in the cabinet,
as if to witness that home is a relative term.
His lower lip's flatness, the sombre planes
of his skull's gradual dome
shows a resolute teenager's warrior calm
6 5-lined verses that are at times very prosey. Lines 2 and 5 might rhyme here (they rhyme in verses 1-5). Lines 4 and 5 might rhyme too (they do in verses 1,2, and 4).
IV The Unicorn
The true Unicorn is not the white horse of legend,
coaxed by the droplets staining a virgin's blue bodice
A single rectangle
V The Whale
The twenty-ninth letter of the arabic alphabet
is nun which means 'a whale'. 'A fall, a fall'

is what the Arctic whalers called, meaning
'a whale'. God rested the Earth on an angel's

shoulders, the angel on a rock, the rock on a bull

2-line stanzas.

The content's interesting in a "QI" sort of way. The poet clearly understands that a variety of forms is available, but I don't understand what leads her to choose one poetic format over another when so often there's a prose-format alternative.

These visual hiccups aside, I like parts of several poems, especially those where she keeps extended metaphors on the go - "The Maze", "Duets", etc. Taken in isolation though some phrases sound inflated to me, and not in a persona-revealing way: "And the light - it fills my eye-vessels to overflowing, shifting the rods and cones of their ravenous geometry" ("Diffraction") and there's imagery I don't get. In "To the Muse" for example, a river "perpetually grazes its heels against the castle battlements". This sounds odd to me, and odder still as an analogy to a couple's encounters. Perhaps there's a figure of speech I'm unaware of, akin to 'dragging your heels'? Later "[the Muse] kicked [its] heels in St Canice's churchyard", but I don't think these heels are the key to the earlier image. The poem ends with "brought the masonry of childhood definitely tumbling, confirming even my worst imaginings." which for me doesn't bring a dead cliché back to life. "Bempton Cliffs" begin with another used phrase - "The blank-faced gun emplacements stare out to sea."

In conclusion, there's too much alien aesthetics on display for me like the book. What looks to me like visual gimmickry, obscurity and dressed-up cliché are to others (including some illustrious judges) expressiveness, imagination and demotic irony.

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