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, 23 May 2011

"Perfect Blue" by Kona MacPhee (Bloodaxe, 2010)

About a third of the poems are end-rhymed, and several others are metred in some way, with the elevated diction traditionally associated with sonnets. Patterns abound. "The short answer" has all the conceptual form of a sonnet though it's a 5x3. "Newsbites" is a villanelle. "Smallpox" is 5 5-lined stanzas, in a abcde pattern. "The problem of bees" is loosely xaxa, with "west" ending a line in stanza 1, "north" ending a line in stanza 2, and so on for "east" and "south". 'the timid heart' plays a similar trick with the seasons.

The first poem, "Iubilate" is syllabic and iambic. High above the shoppers in a mall, with shop displays "like sideshow mirrors/ to proffer different selves", somebody's cleaned one perspex tile to reveal "the endless perfect blue" that no shopper notices. As an introductory poem it works well. We're led from plastic bags in line 1 to the book's title in the final 2 words.

The next poem, "The invention of the electric chair", again brackets an iambic journey from the initial line's mundanity - "All the slow purposes that make a tree/were in you once" - to the final lines' spiritual "those drooping limbs surrended to your arms;/ that smoking moment held: a Pietà."

"Addiction" is adjective-heavy, ending with

Across the clear-skied coldness of the town,
a starched cathedral cancels its assurances;
the pinned moon suffers on its pointed spire

"A year in the back country" was the first poem I was unsure about. The next poem, "Self-portrait ..." seemed light. Starting with "Autumn evening blues" there's a block of poems that I didn't like so much, though there's variety enough. In "The malfunction" I wondered if there was some form-induced padding

My watch had gained the knack of losing time,
not every day, or even every week,
but now and then a gout of minutes gone,
a sudden gush, a splash, a spill, a leak.

and I couldn't get into the list poems where there was repetition: 'the timid heart' and "View from a window". "The detour", "Dysentery", "Fen train" and "Paranoia" seemed overlong to me. For a tight-writer, gaining volume can be a problem.

The final poem, "Marchmont Road", ends with

Stop it. No moment must encore
itself in some pert metaphor

Suspend that distanced commentary.
Take a deep breath. Now be here. Be.

Metaphors are circumspectly used elsewhere too, questioned and replaced

  • "Wild night's morning" describes a crow with a damaged wing, down but not out - "the metaphor/ in his ruined grace/ not a sundered abbey/ but a boxer's face"
  • "To a young daughter" starts with the ugly-duckling metaphor, then wonders if the mountain hare, rather than swan, is a more apt metaphor - an identity that "preserves/ her only self, that soon the world/ must answer her with with snow" (perhaps my favourite ending)

Foes of formalism point out how the constraints limit choice and increase padding, how speech rhythms are smothered, how the diction becomes constrained (heightened) too, how the reader becomes seduced by the dumdeedum rhythm and certainty of the rhyming couplet, how closure becomes ruthless. Of course, there's an obverse to each of these points. I think her sonnet-length, formalist-influenced pieces are fine examples of fused form and content, of content elegantly supported by sound. The more she strays from such pieces, the less sure I become, though there are several exceptions - Typhoid" for example is an interesting departure, made more interesting still by the notes. And I can see that others might like the pieces that don't excite me - nothing's bland. I might not be shifting aesthetic frames fast enough.

As usual, I have unanswered questions on finishing a book. This time my luck's in. In the Introduction to her free Perfect Blue Companion she writes that "an engaging and informative preamble, delivered in an honest and open way, gives new readers a reason to trust" - which I agree with. For similar reasons I think the early poems in a book are important, and the early poems here are especially good. She writes that she's not "trying to 'explain' [her poems] in some tedious line-by-line dissection" and that the commentary (the aforementioned "distanced commentary"?) is "explicitly intended to provide a handhold, a stepping stone, a small reason-to-trust for readers new to poetry."

I think it's a fine idea. Some of the commentaries are more peripheral than others, but part of the trust-making involves getting to know the poet as well as the words. Here are some notes about the notes

  • "Addiction" - there's not much about drug addiction in the poem, though there's a lot of grime. The notes talk more widely about squalour and offer a setting - which was useful. I think it was worth pointing out that "manumitted" (p.12) means "released from slavery".
  • "Wild night's morning" - worth noting that rood" (p.14) isn't a typo for "rook"
  • "A year in the back country" - Not "Black country"? (around Birmingham?). I'd have liked to know more about the relationship between the characters. How many people are away? Was the cabin ever on a ship? What's a "stoop"? For me, the poem doesn't delve as deeply as the notes suggest
  • For "Justice", "Wildwar" and "Exit hymn", I was hoping for more than a confirmation that they were list poems.
  • "The problem of the bees" - I hadn't been sure whether bees were causing a problem, or whether the "bumblebee's enigma" was that it could fly at all. It was useful to know that "This poem makes playful reference to the fiddling we're doing while Rome might be burning: self-importance (the writers), grandiosity (the scientists) and creative stagnation (the artist)"
  • "The Book of Diseases" - "In the nearly 4 years since 'Tails' had come out in 2004, I'd written almost nothing, and I'd long resigned myself to the fact that I'd never write another book". Ah. Illogical I know, but I rather distrust commissioned work and themed series - they cause things to be written that wouldn't normally be written - anti-writers-block devices.
  • "Pleurisy" - the comments are interesting, but don't deal with the poem, which goes on a bit.
  • "Depression" doesn't match the description for me
  • "Influenza" - I was hoping that I'd missed something in this poem that would explain its length. The commentary is a defence of SF
  • "Plague" - this commentary (perhaps the most interesting of them all) homes in usefully on several phrases.

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