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, 31 August 2011

"Confer" by Ahren Warner (Bloodaxe, 2011)

I've seen this 25 year-old's name around in ones-to-watch anthologies. This book's shortlisted for the Forward's Best First Collection prize. To me, "confer" means to endow something with an honour or meaning, or to discuss without revealing details. In the title poem 2 misfiled paint catalogues are found on a bookcase - "Crown" between Catullus and Celan; "Dulux" between Donaghy and Donne. "Glosses, Mattes and Silks spill over, fill the book I find" (the book might have been the misfiled "Confer") "the just-off alphabetical ... prop with which to strut the bonds of personality. Contradiction in coherence expresses the force of desire"

I don't sense contradictions in this book. There's little that forces a transcending synthesis, only amalgams of allusions and languages, a consistency of register, and avoidance of scientific/technical references. Let's start at the beginning

  • "Jardin du Luxembourg" begins "Here, all parks are masculine, grammatically so". Stanza 2 begins "Even the flowers, here, are masculine". Then there are observations about men and women's fashions, ending with "sérénité, the gender of which/ I've had neither the time, nor desire, to look up." The conceptual structure's traditional as is the visual arrangement (4 rectangular stanzas). Centering the poem on a linguistic feature (rather than "nostalgia", say) is less common but far from unusual.
  • "La brisure" - philosophical musing about a tolling bell and repetition: whether each instant replaces or accumulates the past; whether we exist in a state of endless becoming. The couplets follow an aBaB rhyme-scheme that corresponds to the argument - a whole that contains gaps, or loosely related bits? Lines have internal gaps to make them all the same length. Neat.
  • "Hasard" is more freewheeling than the previous poems, though the play of concepts could easily be re-cast into a sonnet-like piece with more navigational aids. It starts with an allusion to a TV ad (I think. About toilet paper, I seem to recall) that features a dandelion. We're told not to fall for it. Then we're told about an individual seed in a fissure of concrete, and "those beds of chance -/in which/ we have landed, taken root". Except for the final couplet the stanzas are 4-lined, with a long/short/short/long shape.
  • "About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters" suggests that the old masters weren't so good with breasts.

This is the acceptable face of innovation, maybe, though only later do the subject matter and combinations of concepts approach novelty. There's method in the madness, freedom of association wedded to form. There's lots of language-dropping: 9 French titles, 6 Italian, and 5 Greek. Even the English titles aren't easy - "Dactylogram ...", "Pictogramme", "Engram", etc. In "Re:", Greek and English words rhyme, as do English and French ones (there are several sonnets). And when you think you've identified the language (e.g. Italian) and have looked up the word (e.g. "legare", the title of 2 poems) you still might be none the wiser as to the purpose. "legare" means "to join up", contrasting with "La brisure" which means "The fragment" but it also might be a place and a film.

I think the playfulness goes too far sometimes. Here's the start of a poem

Girl with ridiculous earrings     why do you bother
to slap the boy    we all assume is your boyfriend
and is lolling over       that bus seat       shouting

Is the title "Dionysus"? And why the funny gaps in what is an otherwise straightforward stanza? Sometimes they replace commas, sometimes not. Here's the start of another poem

Whoso list to hunt...
In "poetical" discourse, the communication
of the existential possibilities of one's state
-of-mind can become an aim in itself...
this amounts to a disclosing of existence,
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time

As the hoplites sobbed Thalatta! to the sea,
we read of them in Xenophon, or Ulysses

Here a difficult title (see the book's "Notes" for details) and a quote by Heidegger is followed by more allusions. Needless difficulty or youthful exuberance? I suppose if you have a Ph.D in philosophy, and live some of the year in Paris this kind of stuff comes easily.

Over a dozen poems are rectangular with internal gaps. Of prose poems, Rosmarie Waldrop wrote "I try to place the margin, the emptiness inside the text. I cultivate cuts, discontinuity, leaps, shifts of reference, etc. 'Gap gardening,' I have called it". I guess this is Warner's game. I got used to it, but don't share his amour of the rectangle.

"Cuneiform" shows a different typographic quirk. It's in paragraphs. The first isn't indented (fine), but the last is indented half as much as the other indented ones.

As for allusions, my guess is that "Carolina" is the most dense - it begins by thanking a dozen or so bands/song-writers. The book's "Notes" (over a page of them, nevertheless incomplete) suggest that the poem's a collage of quotes (the Moody Blues did the same with Beatles lyrics). I liked it. "Elysium"'s allusion-heavy too. Sporadically witty, it'll keep scholar busy for a while.

He can be straightforward though - here's 2/3s of "Grimsby" - "An old dock town/ where the last sailor is long drowned/ and the boats rot, creaking// like gravel-throated cancer patients" whose only obscurity is the layout. "Engram"'s straightforward enough (though more contorted than it needs to be) and "November" is if anything too flat. If "Metro" (with its Pound allusion) isn't ordinary, then only the last 2 lines save it.

With "Homage to E3" I felt I was beginning to tune in, to become acclimatised to the gimmicks and occasional excesses - the technique performed a modernist cleansing of the tongue, a reformulation of diction.

... a retinal twitch.     And the day still     black ink bled grey
the excess running to clot in the gutter   with socks    render

There's much to like in the book, though there's some suspicious-looking glister too.

Other reviews

No comments:

Post a Comment