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, 19 March 2012

"Salaams" by Sally Festing (Happenstance, 2009)

I heard the poet perform on 18th March, 2012 at Leicester, where she professed a love of plants. After her reading of "Fire" (a sonnet), "Salaams in Jerusalem", and her singing of part of "Wallflowers", she mentioned to me that some people have found her work rather difficult in places, so I'll focus on that issue here. Difficulty is always relative of course. I wouldn't describe her work as difficult but I think her poems exhibit traits that some readers might struggle with.

The first poem, "Footsteps" is in terza rima. Here are the thoughts that came to me on a first reading. It starts

Imagine clearing the flat out after, he says
as the cell lumbers us up five stale
ciggy-smelling storeys

So, a narrator plus a male are going up in a lift. Lifts can feel like cells but why mention that now? Is this establishing the emotional setting - are the 2 in a restrictive relationship? If it's an enclosed lift then how come they can smell each storey? Maybe it's one of those old lifts where you pull a gate across. The next stanza is

Push bell. The doorway fills
with unmistakable strands
of gold - hair that spills

The reader's put on the spot by "unmistakable". Maybe it's the hair of someone the narrator knows. Or maybe the hair's well known from a fairy tale about a princess in a tower. Maybe it's one of those ribbony curtains that people hang in doorways. Stanza 4 is

We formalise her will. Outside, embalmed
churches, concrete, leaves, Dumb
and separate, we walk. She takes the lead,

So are the visitors a pair of solicitors? Or maybe "will" merely means "wishes". Are they just looking outside or does the scene change? In what sense are the churches (why the plural?) embalmed? Who is "dumb"? Does it mean more than "silent"? One presumes so, unless it's merely rhyme-driven. "Dumb" meaning "stupid" or "puzzled"? Who is "separate" - the two visitors? Does she lead the walk, or lead towards death? The poem ends with

... I'm not ready, he returns.
Imagine clearing a daughter's flat, the empty road.
Deaths come contrariwise.

He is always a step ahead.

"I'm not ready" suggests that the visitors might be relatives (children?) of the flat-owner. More likely they are imagining being relatives of such a person. Why hypothesize about a daughter? Why introduce the sudden image of an empty road ahead? And who is the "He" in the final line? Death? Why the added complication of "contrariwise"?

With the final line I'm led back to the title. Of course, poems needn't be accurate, unambiguous reports, but perhaps readers like to use the first poem of a book to orient themselves within a poet's world, and learn how to resolve uncertainties regarding character and subject. Who is the narrator? What is his/her association to the other characters? How significant (and to whom) is the religious theme? How many of these questions are relevant? Read the whole poem to get a better idea.

In the next poem, "Children on a Windy Mountain" are children being compared to flowers, or vice versa? For me it can be n/either way, but I imagine others might prefer a decision.

In the 4th poem, "Plums", Peter climbs into an apple tree, "thrusting his arms/ into a sunset of wands", and at the end "The flower is always in the kernel/ but the heart becomes what it is". The sudden changes of imagistic intensity and symbolic import might unsettle people who, if the pace were more even, might be happy with dense imagery. I'm alright with "The flower is always in the kernel". To me "the heart becomes what it is" could mean the same thing, so I'm unsure what distinction is being drawn.

"Stripping the Willow" also has a sudden shift of pace, a grit-in-the-oyster moment. In "Silver-sided airfish scatter/ the drive like Chinese carpets" a lot suddenly happens. What are the "Silver-sided airfish"? The leaves. What are they scattering? They're not scattering anything, the verb's intransitive. What are Chinese carpets like? I don't know. The poem begins by taking the title literally. Readers who don't know the other meaning of the phrase (an old Hebridean weaving dance) might be puzzled by the relevance of the later parts, though to me the 2 parts aren't connected to each other except by the title and the "dancing leaves".

I like some of "After quarrel, touch", but "The probe of a bendy toy that parts/ a dream of thistles./ A stolen tongue" throws me. "Picher of a Tabble" is one of the few poems where the subject matter might be hard to discern. I'd guess that a child with problems is being diagnosed through her painting. I didn't get most of "Head of Rye Grass ..." either. I'm unsure whose words are at the end of "Elderberries".

Allusions aren't a problem. Little's concealed except perhaps the meaning of the 'Eyes At Last' title. Of the 28 poems,10 mention flowers, 5 mention birds, 4 have allusions to artists (van Gogh, Warhol, Hopper and Richier), and 4 poems mention eggs.

As I said at the start, these poems aren't difficult - after all, at least a dozen of the poems have been previously published (in "Poetry Review", "Stand", etc). There are poems in forms, the rhymes and metre not remorseless. I most liked "Vincent's Flowers", "Automat", "Fire", "Saturday Morning" and "Pumpkins". There were none I disliked, though "Late Breakfast" and "Raised Beds" passed me by.

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