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, 16 January 2012

"Deep Field" by Philip Gross (Bloodaxe, 2011)

I have a folder where I keep poems I like. I have quite a few poems by Gross there - his stood out against other poems in magazines. I've not read a book of his before. "Deep Field" is less to do with "Composition by field" or "Deep Image" than astronomy (see Wikipedia's Hubble Deep Field page).

Loss of language is a tempting topic for poets to tackle, looking at the power of words, but also at situations when words aren't needed; dealing with the relationship between words, their meanings and the world - what happens when those bonds loosen.

Mimetic tools are available - confusion represented by jagged layout and loss of narrative; silence by encroaching white space. In this book some stanzas are right-aligned and some are shaped (into circles?). In "Mule", a line of each triplet is indented: line 1 of stanza 1, line 2 of stanza 2, line 3 of stanza 3, line 1 of stanza 4 and so on. There are many step-down lines. On p.24 the layout's almost like a chessboard where only the black squares are written on. On p.48 the text is a thick diagonal band running from top-left to mid-right. A few pieces are more random than that. Many have fairly regular left-aligned stanzas though, mostly couplets. On p.24 there might be prose. Line-breaks sometimes fracture negative words - "dis-/cohering", "a-/gainst", "dis-/embodiments", "mis-/placed".

When it's the poet's father who's losing language, these technical devices can be imbued with emotional content. It's a combination that should result in interesting poetry, though there's a risk of playing too many obvious tricks. As Peter Cushman's pointed out "The problem with mimetic [line-break] meaning is that we can easily make too much of it. Depending on the ingenuity of an individual reader, every enjambment can be interpreted mimetically". I found many of the line-breaks in this book hopeful, the indentation bizarre. Sometimes, as on p.11, the splattered layout seems to help a few ideas go a long way. This style of poetry doesn't break when it's off-form, it becomes diluted. Most of the time though, the content won through.

"Scry" is the first poem. It has a pattern - the stanza lengths are 2 1 3 1 2 1 3 1 3 1 2 1 3 1 2 1. The single-line stanzas are alternately indented by one tab or two. Phrases like "crosswords .... (the kind with no black squares,/ whose syntax I could scarcely guess at)" baffle me at a more mundane level - is the syntax really so hard? Syntax of the clues? Of the black squares? The thinginess of language is mimetically displayed in one-liners like "here's a word to peer into - scry" and "this crystal ball, this cryptic syllable". The persona's interest with etymology is contrasted with the polyglot father's aphasia, the father who's trying to go "from blankness into words" while the son, like a fortune teller, "reads the pauses/ in their questions". This focussing on the spaces recurs later -"The space                between                the words" (p.24) is where the father's sought, "'soul',/ that thing not in but in the space between" (p.29). In the Deep Field between the stars are more stars, whole galaxies.

"Scry" is one of 7 individual shorter poems. There's a longer poem "Vocable" and the rest of the book is a 3 part sequence called "Something Like The Sea". Some sections could stand alone. Others prop each other up, sharing material that could have been more concentrated. In part II at least, there's enough to go round and the balance of human and linguistic interest is more even. The journey isn't easy - part III ends with "never more sure// of the way than in the losing it" - in the Atlantic undertow near Polzeath, perhaps. The sea as a source of imagery and memories is an insistent presence in the book - "John, you are the sea/ I stare into"

In Part I on p.12 the father's sudden linguistic clarity shocks the son - "Me,/ I'm the boy who turns/at the call of a bird, that seemed to speak/a syllable,/ his name, in the darkening wood.". Later on the same page there's the usual comparison of communication problems being like hitting a window (often a bird doing so, but not here) - "beat/ against the glass which, being nothing,/ cannot (though it longs to) break". On p.13 we find the identity of the glass - the father says You are my window.

Sign and referent blur - "One day you woke to find that you'd lost barley". After the confusion, silence becomes a recurring theme, one that helps re-assess the past - "[TAB] and so I grew//bilingual in English and silence,/[TAB] grew a stammer/ [TAB] [TAB] that said something, too" (p.15).

I especially like "Mule", another individual poem.

Part II's "The small phrases are easy" succeeds for the same reasons that Oliver Sacks articles do. It's interesting to know that "you-know" survives after "The substantives, most of all the proper nouns, have gone" and that if you "ask a stammerer his name, he'll tense" because they're "pinned to one, one only, meaning". At about p.30 there are small poetry fragments, extended metaphors - the idea of tinnitus being like an "engine-room thrum" is extended to boats, and then the sound of one plane/ out scouring the sea lanes at first light, for survivors"; in another section the idea of conversation is compared to a chess game "branching from each single/ hard-deliberated syllable". I like these - the words have calmed down, left-aligned so that line-breaks are assumed ignorable rather than meaning-laden.

"Vocable" is in a baggy, forgiving format of 20 numbered sections. As usual, it's best to concentrate on content. Sections involve choking, "finding one's voice", leaving meanings out, controlling sheep dogs, the physics of breath, the breath of Him, the inexpressible. Section 17's the least necessary.

I can't find any reviews online.

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