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.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

"Broken Sleep" by Sally Read (Bloodaxe, 2009)

The blurb says "Intimate and truthful ... startlingly honest ... unflinching ... Direct, searing and very, very truthful ... defines herself by her risks". In "Envoi" Ann Drysdale wrote "These poems are a joy; they are for thousands of mothers who will whisper 'yes' over and over again...". Perhaps that blurb's for such readers. I don't see daring (though by the sound of it her previous books may have been so). The veracity doesn't matter to me. As for poetic truth, well yes, I guess there's some of that, but I don't see why mothers should be especially gifted in detecting it.

The first part of the book deals with a common topic - becoming a mother, taking us from the first realisation of pregnancy through ultrasound to toddling. The book steers clear of the much of the standard imagery employed in these circumstances. Glass, windows, and mirrors are involved in the parents' attempts to see and feel

  • "a man whose hands fall through glass/ as he reaches into a mirror" (p.18)
  • "windows/ solidifying against the pond" (p.19) (windows steaming up so she couldn't see the pond)
  • "I watch them/ through glass" (p.20) (of oranges)

and water's used in imagery

  • "her fingers/splay like pond-weed … she glances sleep/as a crane-fly glances/water", p.24
  • "she observes/ blandly the splintered jetty/strutting off into nothing, as though/ she weren't quite here still", p.28
  • "At seven months you sit on cold tiles/ and don't keel over. You've found/ the ground like a sail-boat at low tide,/ dragged to mudflats. You're puzzled;// a sailor stepping onto a dock, dizzy ... and I sweep/ you onto the ballast of my shoulder", p.31

There's an abundance of light and bones too, of situations where two becomes one - "cabin so black I couldn't know/ my open eyes from closed" (p.11); "The sea is white as the sky" (p.16).

The second part is more wide-ranging, and contains the poems I like less - "Marticide" and "Her hands".

Overall I think I like what she's trying to do. Motherhood isn't the easiest subject to write interestingly about. I like several of the poems - e.g. "Song", about why a parent might sing to a child who'll forget every word. At times I had a wood-for-trees problem, a sense that the poet's trying too hard. When the language risks becoming functional (the grammar is that of prose, so the risk's ever-present) she sometimes strains to make each word poetic, or shovels in more line-breaks. The result can be the middle stanza of this extract

but instead of smashing
at the impact of water (that gives,

but not briskly
enough), was caught

in the snagging,
perfect arms of a tree.

I begin to lose trust in poets when they begin to scatter line-breaks around - "the certain darkness of a wardrobe" gets the full treatment in the following (perhaps the somewhat clichéd "bulb=embryo" idea provoked a reaction)

It was a rite,
to pack the bulbs in peat

and hide them in the certain

of a wardrobe
among clean towels

and naked pipes

17 of the poems are in couplets, accentuating the problem. I'm not keen on

You are like

those nascent flowers
gearing up to loose

their endless scent.

The jerkiness is diluted, not eliminated, when she chooses other patterns (11 of the poems are in quadrains). And when the images appear, they can pile up. The following includes a "net=thin hair" analogy (which I like), a "seamstress=net mender" analogy (too obvious) and a butcher analogy that's harder to visualise, though I think it's effective.

After the blood test

she walks to the harbour, where turquoise
and green fishnets lie piled, all
with the cloudy weightlessness of white
hair. Each morning the fishermen sort
them, glasses at the nose's tip,
as a seamstress might shuffle fabric,
or a butcher garner the rebellious guts
of a cow

The imagery's sometimes too busy for me - "Since/the raw lights of birth/ dragged her from dark/ muck to brute cleanliness// she's ignited with wakefulness" p.24. I had trouble understanding a few images

  • "Peony" ends with "the exhaustion of promise - blasé/ as the neck of a woman out of love".
  • "You were a blue cross on white,/ so small you'd shrivel on the numerals of my palm"
  • "he'll board the bus/ sifting my silence,/ my reluctance/ to bear witness,// as I busily notate/ his blood's music,/ usher in the next man,/ my lungs abrupt// with small-talk,/and shut my eyes/to the stethoscope again/ like a child with a shell", p.43. The narrator imagines what the previous patient's doing as the next arrives. The final image is broadly familiar, and easy to like, but why "my lungs abrupt"?

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