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, 16 July 2011

"Life Under Water" by Maura Dooley (Bloodaxe, 2008)

Symbols and internal references abound. It's the interconnection of these symbols that I'll focus on. It happens at the section level - the "four chambers" section begins with pieces explicitly then more generally about the heart. "Stent" for example ends with "Let's edit./Let's make one tidy, precise/amendment and leave the work/as it always was, perfect". It's about a heart (a stent is used to widen an artery) and thus could be about a relationship. The term 'stent' is also used in typesetting, hence the editing analogy.

More commonly, poems have an internal network of images -

  • "Moth trap" is 12 short lines. In the first stanza "We look to learn", enticing a moth "by a shaft of light". In the second stanza, a girl's "observing her own shadow", her past "a thread leading home,/ a rope to be cast off". The juxtaposed imagery works well.
  • "The Old Masters" is a page long poem about towers and languages - the New York skyscrapers built by a mix of immigrants; the Two Towers filled with people from many countries; Babel (as painted by Brueghel). At the end Brueghel's Icarus and the Two Towers come together with "a boy falling out of the sky". One can sometimes see methods more clearly when they don't quite work. The Icarus story, like the Babel one, is about pride, but it's not about multilingualism, though multilingualism/communication may help prevent future crises.
  • "Familiar Object Seen from an Unusual Angle" is 6 long lines. In the first stanza something looks like moon craters or rain on sand - a childhood memory. In the second stanza it's "cross-hatched stars on your hand growing older/ or the real things, sparkling still, as they cool,/ it's how they twinkle, how we wonder what they are" - back to childhood again. The space and age themes sustain this short piece well. It could perhaps be read as a credo.

Her forms aren't complex. She uses drop-down lines quite a lot. In "Remark" for example there's

and you laughed
                in a way
that made me
              stop and stare

these 2 lines formed part of an xaxa rhyme pattern (she rarely uses rhyme).

Her range runs from "May 2007" (a haiku) through many sonnet-length pieces, through "Strange Meeting" and "In which Paula loses an earring ..." (which both seem long for what they do) to the final poem, "The Source", which is over 7 pages long. I'm interested in how a poet who's good at short, tightly orchestrated pieces approaches long poems. The first line is "It is the breaking of the waters that begins it all", which is repeated 6 times. "What does it mean when a well runs dry?" appears 3 times. There are references to Moses, Genesis, Venice, limestone, London's underground streams, Narcissus, and Alice being drowned in her own tears. There are many water and mirror images:

  • "those are the depths/that the bucket cannot reach,/ the stone thrown down/ to no answering splash"
  • "the body, like the planet, being two-thirds liquid"
  • "So is the breaking of the waters/ like the breaking of that tiny flask,/ with its sacred essence,/ the four tears of the Blessed Virgin?"
  • "a healing holy well ... guiding first pilgrims then tourists to the famous spa of Hampstead"
  • "here at my door a window cleaner/ wants to refill his bucket of water"

ending with

  • "whose faith was as knowledge,/ an awakening, a promise,// a splash of cold water to the face"

I think there's too much about London's buried rivers - they've been used too often by others. As has much of the other imagery. I guess that's unavoidable, but the images feel as if they're the result of research/brainstorming to fill gaps in a pre-existing scheme.

"The Source" has a religious slant. "The Director's Cut" has a religious angle too - "Your art is the scent of woodsmoke at bitter dusk ... Your eye is the needle through which we all must slip ... and we do this again and again. We do this for you./ Then watch you make the untrue true/the true more true"

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