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.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

"Brought to Light" by Jem Poster (Bloodaxe, 2001)

Some initial observations -

  • He likes step-down lines - he uses them to start a new paragraph without leaving a short line. And yet, many of these otherwise rectangular poems have a single short line - e.g. "Sparrowhawk", "Plenty", "Familiar", "The Given"
  • Birds get many mentions, and are central to several poems - blackbird, vulture, choughs, gulls, plovers, quail, redwings, geese, osprey, buzzard, chaffinch, kingfisher, goldfinches
  • He likes to end poems with sentences that have lists of clauses - "Plenty", "Offerings", etc.
  • There's lots of light, dreams, leafmould and bedsheets. There are at least 5 mentions of meadows. Crops and grasses are common - "sigh of grasses", "dry whisper of uncropped maize", "the hush as the shaken grasses settled", "dry grasses stir".
  • Several poems (e.g "Now") try to expand a moment, sometimes using birds to support the image. In "Sparrowhawk" "it's on that instant of suspension the whole thing centres". "Kingfisher" comprises "I might have spoken ( ... ) but I let it pass", the lines in the parentheses (the bulk of the poem) describing a passing bird. In "The Given" a memory is rummaged through until something's found, a memento if nothing else - "Yes,/ goldfinches. This/ is the given".
  • A few poems describe attempts to accurately recover a memory, or a person from the past suddenly appears: "Thirty years on, the scene's as clear as any/ from that phase" (p.31); "What was there to remember?" (p.35);"I hadn't thought of you for months; but there you were" (p.56); "I thought it was you, but it doesn't matter. Whoever/ was with me then will remember" (p.58); "So little to help me place it. I feel the garden/ can't have been ours, though my father's there beside me" (p.61). Some poems record multiple attempts - a third of the way through "Again" we read that "there's something/ I've not accounted for, a faint vibration/ subtle but too insistent to ignore./ I'll/ start again ", and at the end "He'll have to start again". "Offerings" ends with "the words/ tried and found wanting and tried again; again".

Several of the pieces have plots that could work in prose. "The Collectors" and "Incident" are face-to-face in the book. Both won "Cardiff International" prizes. The first has lively language, but the second's a thoughtful anecdote (perhaps an allegory - people maybe praying on a boat as it drifts hopelessly away), as is "Conjurors". Here, as in most places, line-breaks aren't often significant, and the language is patchily prosaic, making the line-breaks disruptive -

  • "I step inside, breathing again the tainted/ heat of the corridor, the subtle/ ammoniac presence gathering in my throat" (p.17)
  • "The engine overheats. I ignore the warning/ flickering on the dashboard as we climb/ clear of the valley. Less easy to ignore/ the bickering kids, your stifled/ anger as you guide us through the web/ of dusty lanes, one finger tracing/ our progress on the map" (p.20)
  • "The organisation was superb. The delegates/ were - to a man - my type, and from the outset/ I wanted to be part of things. The firm/ was paying, and though the schedule seemed/ perhaps a little light, I soon/ stopped fretting about such details" (p.24)
  • "I struggled upward/ breathless, bewildered, to find myself at last/ on an outcrop high above the valley./ Nothing/ had prepared me for that giddy confrontation/ with sunlit space" (p.28).

Interiors - even lives - are explored using a similar method. In "Vacant Possession", the persona enters "the lounge. Or bedroom ... a sofa draped with sheets", sees the "debris of a concluded journey" - old photographs, a butterfly collection. Beyond the room where perhaps the previous occupant (a relative? the past?) died there are "grasses seething with undiscovered life".

This isn't a woodland dreamscape of clearings and revelation. There's no hacking through - the undergrowth's trampled down in the course of walking, thus bringing some old detail to light, something worth taking home and adding to a collection even if it's not what you came for. In "The Collectors" there are "the Victorian collectors/ out at the margins of the recorded world, equipped/ with rifles, nets and notebooks, taking the measure/ of their own astonishment" who reach "Beyond the threshold/ the intolerable light" (of the here and now?). The final "Crop Circles" could also be read as a credo - though we know crop circles are hoaxes,

still the people gather
in fields at dawn, breathing the irreducible
fragrance of broken wheatstalks, lost for words

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