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.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

"hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica" by Matt Merritt (Nine Arches Press, 2010)

It's a fat book - p.112 pages, c.90 of them with poetry on them. It's sensibly organised into 3 sections: Uchronie (Misc?), Maps & Legends (places and history?) and Goose Summer (nature poems?). In the gaps are poems on the glass harmonica theme. The book begins with a quote - "The harmonica excessively stimulates the nerves ... if you are feeling melancholy, you should not play it". The related poems deal with its otherworldly sound, glass, light, and empty vessels - themes whose imagery pervades other poems too.

As I read through the poems, scribbling on my bookmark, I found that I was making a lot of notes - the average level is good and there are enough ideas to go round: few "so what" poems.

"English Literature" begins

Pens pause one last time,
above the gaping permafrost
of the page

while outside
swifts are scribbling furiously
upon the thinning haze

ending with "One chance" -in exams and life. That's one type of poem - juxtapositions united by a punchline. There are also list poems - "1984" is a list of bathetic observations, but good observations, the fears predicted by the novel have become "what/ Malcolm Marshall could do to an unprotected skull/ on a late-season flyer". There's rhyme - "Dreams From The Anchor Church" is all end-rhyme, "Halcyon", in couplets, has something like a "xa xa xa bb cb cx cx" end-rhyme scheme. "Troglodyte" nearly has a regular rhyme scheme. The stanzas of "Request Hour .. " all begin with "For [those/all]". "Leland's New Year Gift ..." mostly has stanzas beginning "The past". "Farewell, fantastic Venus" (stanzas beginning with "Farewell") isn't for me though, nor is "Treaty House" or "Stanislav Petrov".

The formalism trend is less strong than the prose one - "The American version" is prose laid out as tercets, but that's maybe the point. "Dio Boia" would more naturally be presented as 2 prose paragraphs I think. "Worst Case Scenario" uses indenting and in-line space. For the most part, the less the line-breaks matter, the more ruthlessly regular the line-breaks - most poems are same-size-boxes style. In poems like "Zugunruhe" where lines are short this leads to over-preciousness, phrases like "before we notice anything" not deserving to be a couplet.

Longer poems are usually collections of smaller ones. "from Tesserae" fuses past and present, years concertina'd - "For years, The Charlotte,/ sweat forming stalactites from the ceiling, ears bunged/ with the sound of the suburbs. Five years at a desk,/ an autumn at the Infirmary, and a bar on Braunstone Gate,/ its name changing every eighteen months." Were it Iain Sinclair writing about London, all those line-breaks would disappear.

Content-wise, most poems have something going for them.

  • Ending - I guessed that "Zugunruhe" was something to do with migration before I found out that it was the restlessness that caged birds show at the same time as their free compatriots start to migrate. It ends (anthropomorphically, I guess) "Hopeless// creatures of habit/ bound to the same great circuit,// tracing memories they didn't know/ they had until the moment// they started to relive them."
  • Imagery - "Dotterel" begins "Morning found me out. An alloy sun picked out flints/ spackling the heavy clay. Braille of worm-casts/ and rune text of the first birds' wanderings." "Fantasia for Glass Harmonica" begins "In the warm, loose embrace of a slow summer/ twilight, the wine-puddled drowse/ through some winter afternoon, the crystal flutes// of the city's skyline fill to brimming/ with pale, living gold" - It's "poetic" in a way that I can imagine some people being suspicious of. More generally there's lots of sky imagery, many metaphors about light, and many birds - which given his bio is no surprize.
  • Idea - "Drinking With Godberd" and "Warning Against Using these Poems As A Map" are based on good ideas, but don't have a prize-winning panache. "Winterbourne", (about a stream that appears after years, thus explaining the layout of the path and fields) could have done more.
  • Shape - "Yellowhammers" begins "Snow brings them in off the fields". Then we told that one was last seen crashing into a window, recovering in time to evade the cat. But no, actually the last time was when a swarm appeared on the "day you died". Finally we're told that "Snow brings them in off the fields. That's all".

The strengths are of various types. However, there were no poems where everything quite came together for me - no knock-outs. It's an even (consistently interesting) collection. "Truth Or Consequences" perhaps stands out the most. It's the poem that was initially hardest for me. I can't see how the title fits in. It begins with "Down from the high ground at last" and ends with "Good to be back on the level again." So far so good. The rest is a struggle. The guiding context, I think, is driving through a one-street USA city in a desert. Film crews misread "Motel" as "Metaphor"? Alien abduction? I like the imagery, though the poem's construction seems differently motivated to the rest of the collection: "Leave the desert// as a tidemark in the hot tub, and ask yourself this -/ Exactly how long was I in there? / Meanwhile, out on the abstract plain,/no mothership over the mesa// but an answer with your name on it/heading for the hole in your head."

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