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.

Saturday 24 November 2012

"Loudness" by Judy Brown (Seren, 2011)

The book's been shortlisted for the Forward and Aldebugh prizes, and poems have been in the Guardian, etc. Nevertheless online reviews are hard to find, which is a shame, because there's a lot that's worth reading in this book.

There's a style of poetry that begins with prose to set the scene (often using observation), then some backstory is provided, then the emotional payload's delivered followed sometimes by a hint about the future. A few of these poems have those ingredients but there the resemblance ends. These are through-composed pieces. The sentences aren't a simple sequence; at each decision point they twist rather than stick. The gaps between them are hidden hinges.

Some certainty is often provided early on - a precise location, or an ostensible topic. The titles are tempting - "The Ex-Angel", "The End of the Rainbow" (a visit to a Personal Stylist), "The Helicopter Visions" (flying over London), "Spontaneous Combustion", "The Blackmailer's Wife Reads History and Considers the Nature of Guilt", "Letter to my Optician". But there are puzzles.

  • "The Cheese Room" seems to be about an all-you-can-eat cheese buffet costing 5 pounds. The persona "strips/ soaks a sari in buttermilk, wraps herself up/ and goes in" the room in the corner walled by glass. At the end of the page-long poem she "curls up on the floor. She's happy/ to wait, passive like milk, for the birth,/ for the journey from death into food". So this is how she sees her next stage of personal development?
  • In "The Swap" the narrator (a woman, let's say) overhears a man curse the sunset. She knows how he feels because she used to talk into a silent phone, somehow hoping that someone on the other side of the world would be listening. Actually, she didn't talk, she "whispered out of pure shame". But what does the final "Now, let me pass" mean? That the overheard man blocked her way? That the memory was hindering her progress?

Neither sound or spelling feature strongly in these poems, and the line-breaks seem arbitrary. Instead, the language is image-rich. On the first 3 pages there's "the glassblowing slowness of its fall", "weeds starfished in the turf" and an optician's "ziggurat of dwindling capitals". In the 4th poem, "Marbles", "the grip of the glass held a twist// of iris, a fluke of coloured muscle/ in North Sea blue, as cold as holidays./ It looked like an eye gone bad, locked up/ in glass, like the dust that's left in reactors// at shutdown.". "P45" (paperwork you get on leaving a UK job) is nearly all imagery, inter-related by the theme of machines. In "The Guest" a dressing table "is glass over dark veneer". Imagery takes over when the persona sees her reflection - "I've thrown my pale mask/ into a pit of brown water./ She holds me under, a swollen/ low moon, lying at anchor". Sometimes I wondered whether the image-fecondity was helping a piece survive, whether the language had to be souped up to justify the content - "I labour open-mouthed through the siesta hours/ to earn a coated tongue" (p.40).

I liked "The Supertanker" - "Did I never launch my life at all?". I wasn't keen on "The Strop". "On Vacating a Flat ...", "In the Darkroom" and "Freefall" have a decent punchlines but not much else. "The Students" is too much of a list. "A Woman Assumes Invisibility Aboard HMS Belfast" is mostly travelogue.

At times I wondered whether the parts were more than the whole. Here are some extracts from "The Students"

We all yearned for goose-down, that vegan winter,
while the wheeled gas fires spiked votives in yellow

and turquoise from their blue cylinders, There's something
about the mouthful of animal fat, we said, running the pulses'

sea-swish back and forth in their tall jars. I loved nothing [...]

We caught a rainbow in the washbasin [...]

I'd have snogged anyone then, mouth as raw
as broccoli [...]

the travellers' caravans
scattered in the carpark behind. On Saturday nights, we watch

fires burning on the tarmac, [...]

In the kitchen borlotti beans jig behind glass,
each dried scrap a song to attract the attentions of water

The first line (as often in this collection) introduces a theme - desire for flesh, for simple comforts. Bonfires, goose-flesh and "anyone" are preferable to heaters and borlotti beans. There's a network of symbolism: water, colours, rainbows - freedom constrained (rainbows in sinks; travellers in car-parks; staying on on Saturday night). Carefully constructed, but perhaps overly schematic. "raw as broccoli"?!

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