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.

Friday, 15 June 2012

"The Pomegranates of Kandahar" by Sarah Maguire (Chatto and Windus, 2007)

Her "Split Milk" collection put me off reading her. I can't recall why. In this book I see quite a lot to like, though there's also familiar imagery and a weakness for adjectives that are familiarly surprising. Light ebbs and bruises as it so often does in poetry. Sky and water receive similar treatment. This imagery quite often appears at crucial moments - the beginning or ending for example. Straightforward prose sentences are purpled up - "A tattered coat of wild clouds flails across the sky". Oxymorons are hammered home with line-breaks.

The layout is in general rather melodramatic. She writes in couplets that are have either short lines or long lines; triplets that often contain a short (one word) line; numbered sections; stepped lines; centred quadrains; quadrains. "A village of Water" has 5 14-lined stanzas. "The Water Diviner" alternates 7- and 8-lined stanzas. Coil has 3 stanzas: 2 lines, 1 line, 2 line. Stanza-length-wise she could hardly be more disciplined. What effects does this constraint produce? It's unclear what it does to the writing, but for the reader it means a lot of scanning and page-turning. Here's about half a page of "Passages" - The swallows/ left weeks ago,/ with no notice:// one afternoon/ the skies/ were abandoned:// lack/ takes them southwards./ And in the formal garden,// the last hybrid roses/ flare rose-pink and/ salmon and mauve, // but the sap's on the turn./ And the earth is balanced,/ day equalling night:// and is equally/ unbalanced/ as rumours are pierced// into news. After this: winter.. Four colons help enforce the discipline.

Here are some examples of her use of water, loss, light, sky and more light.

The Thames at Greenwich is a beaten platinum ribbon
coiling through the city, unspooling to the teeming sea.
Someone is burning
the last leaves of autumn.

The veil of sharp musk
unfurls through the shrubbery,

the sweet aroma of loss
stinging tears from my eyes.
while the lighthouse of Tarifa blinks

and beckons,
unrolling its brilliant pavement across the pitiless Straits.
        not one wisp of cirrus

can mar the lapis lazuli dome
    cupped over this dry bowl of hills, 
       pastel hills folded in stillness. (p.19)
        This is the work of love -
    the testing of harmonies
        through the risk

of dissonance, trying again as the hands fall apart,
    taking on silence
        when the afternoon fades -
    practice and grace,
        as light ebbs away before tea. (p.26)

I can imagine some readers especially liking these extracts. I like part of the final extract, but to me she's patchy even within individual poems, having lapses of judgement and ambition. Here's the start of "In Passing"

I cannot now remember
     how I came to be waiting
           on a bench in a car park

at the back of a station
     in the suburbs of Philadelphia
           twenty-six years ago (p.27)

Here at least we have one cognitive unit per line (a rationale for line-breaks, I suppose), but it's not a hard read (except on the eye). It ends

boxcar after boxcar after boxcar
      furiously intimate, close enough to touch:
              the whiplash of turbulence,

the aftershock of silence.

This ending rich in oxymoron is better than the rest of the poem, but doesn't for me justify its "dust motes/ thronging the limp damp air", etc. At times, the problem may just be a lack of editing. In

The balanced simplicity of a singlecelled cell,
busy with its business

in absolute silence

I can handle "busy with its business", but a "singlecelled cell"?

And yet, if you go beyond the tics and mannerisms you can see poetry emerge, even in the quotes above. The title poem compares a pomegranate to a fragment landmine - "Tease each jellied cell/from its white fur of membrane// till a city explodes in your mouth/ Harvest of goodness,/harvest of blood". "A village of water" is prosey and slow, yet contains "Once the carpets that we wove/ cast a deep lake of rainbows/ across the floor of the mosque./ Now God has spilt us a mirror/ that, like us, ascends to paradise, slowly.". "Aden" takes 2 pages of dwarf lines to tell us what a power-cut's like when it's hot - enough material for a paragraph (which is how I dealt with a similar event in India). I like the sentiment of "Total Eclipse". I struggle with "We are pilgrims seeking portents through the prisms of science./ Earthbound: the sucking clay soil doubles my boots" but the next line is "Eclipsed: abandoned. The unpredicted has finished my heart.". There's cloud so "No revelation: just absolute darkness at half-past noon".

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