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.

Friday, 11 March 2011

"Material" by Ros Barber (Anvil, 2008)

It's in 5 sections (the last about cricket!) which I think's a good idea. The parts I liked most (for different reasons) were "Material", "Missing", and "Test Series". It kicks off with a poem called "Material" - a good choice because it's typical, likable, and introduces some key themes. It has 9 stanzas all having 8 lines except the 6th which has 9. It's mostly iambic. There's assonance or rhyme linking lines 2 and 4, and lines 6 and 8 of each stanza. There's a strong plot, leading from "My mother was the hanky queen" through "She bought her own; I never did" and other memories of those days of "friendly butchers" to "I raised neglected-looking kids,/the kind whose noses strangers clean" and "I miss material handkerchiefs,/ their soft and hidden history" to the final, "this is your material/ to do with, daughter, what you will."

Many of the subsequent poems are well-plotted too and could easily have become Flash or short stories. In "First Man Out" an old grandad who loved cricket dies at the wheel, no other car involved. The police remove the car radio from the wreck in case it's stolen, hand it to his daughter who "brought it home as if it were his ashes./As if you'd plug it in and find his voice" (p.83). Narrative's not ever-present though - "She Exists" begins

The scales still notice she exists.
Mornings slash their wrists
to sorry light
and tip her into numbers:
stones like castles,
pounds like fists.

which might be a mite over-dramatic even in the circumstances, but (particularly at the end) loses the narrative impetus and breaks into puns.

I liked "Bad Mother", "The Caretaker", "How to Leave the World that Worships Should". I didn't like "The Means". I can imagine some people not liking the straight-forward exploitation of cricket imagery in the final section. I guess lines like

You were an all-rounder. Now it's my turn.
Your early dismissal has brought me
to the crease in borrowed flannels

are ok if some of the characters in the poem would have thought that way.

The book brought to mind 3 issues

  • To tell the truth - There's little to stop readers identifying the persona with the poet. The Acknowledgements page ends with "Finally, apologies are due to all those individuals who find themselves incorporated as 'material' when they would have chosen otherwise". In "Millennium Eve" the persona's "almost thirty-six" (the back cover says the poet was born in 1964), and people are linking arms "to pull them from the quicksand of themselves". It ends with "The man you love, elsewhere, has kissed his wife". The next poem, "First Access", mentions people thrown downstairs by the hair, getting split lips, broken teeth. If one tries to piece the incidents and family tree together (using p.89, etc), there are no inconsistencies within the book. In "The Recovered", people "look as if they're functioning,/ as if they've hope". But by the end the third-person voice slips - "if they were fully better they'd ... not write poems in the dark./ And never need to finish this". I don't think you need to believe these poems, but if you treat them as all part of the same story-line they build into a powerful, multi-generational depiction of couples, separation, and the anxiety of paternal influence.
  • Without a net - The iambics are often insistent even when there's no end-rhyme. In general I like the sound of these pieces. Just occasionally a phrase snags, e.g. "The traffic's roar three floors below/mimicked the waves that thundered like a past/one cannot now atone for. Time was slow" (p.22). Without rhymes and iambics, what structures do poets fall back on? Plot perhaps, and some poems use that in the book. There are list poems (e.g. "What Blue Is") and several poems that repeat a key phrase several times, phrases like "She had to give him up"; "She's [not] like the people", "Or blue as", "Not any New Year". She's a poet who doesn't go in for sprawl.
  • Padding - How does a poet fills the gaps between the key events and phrases (phrases like "the chalklines where the body lies/for hours before we make it art" (p.62))? Some poets don't feel the need to. Others surround them with a reverberation chambre of white space or obscurity. Or one can provide detail and observation, even a B-story. I think form/metre encourages the filling-in of gaps rather than their removal. Some of the poems have a stanza near the middle that doesn't quite earn its keep ("No Wonder Caroline bites People" for example has a decent plot but goes on too long), and the endings can be predictable (e.g. "Sheds" ends "Inside, husbands twist and tighten,/ do and undo, tinker with things/ that aren't broken").

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