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, 4 February 2013

"The Malarkey" by Helen Dunmore (Bloodaxe, 2012)

Barely a poem lacks repetition. A common ploy is to repeat the first line at the start of the final stanza, or halfway though the poem, or both.

10 Come out now and stand beside me 3
14 the water is wide where we stand 4
15 I owned a woman once so high-coloured 2
29 Pressed in the soil's black web 2
30All you who .. awake ... the dark of the night2
31Blue against blue, blue into deeper blue2
41O feverish instrument3
42says how beautiful2
43through the ... lock gates2
50he wears4
54I am the captainess of laundry3
63The kingdom of the dead is like 3

Several of these repeated lines are repeated in the title too. But that's not all. The first 3 lines of the 14-line "Harbinger" are repeated at the end. The first 3 lines of "Lemon tree in November" are nearly repeated at the end, and one of the lines is repeated in "Bildad". In "The Captainness of Laundry" well over half of the lines are duplicates.

Add to that variations - e.g. in stanza 1 of "Agapanthus above Porthmeor" there's "and the flower here, touchable,/ a blue that gathers to it/ the sky, the sea" and at the end there's "flower-filled sureness./ Love is here, touchable,/ gathering our lives to it". In a poem called "Longman English Series" it says

In Notes, Lawrence is mildly taken to task
for the way his repetitions can degenerate

which is tempting fate a bit. It feels to me as if when she runs out of inspiration or doesn't know how to end a piece, she resorts to repetition. Sometimes it works - and would work more often if the poems were read in isolation. In the poems that succeed for me ("I Heard You Sing in the Dark", "The Deciphering" and "The Filament" ), and in the title poem, rather than repeat she returns to the context (rather than words) of the earlier lines, offering new facets.

I like how "Boatman" ends

You say there is no boatman
there was never any boatman

and I say, hold tight to my hand
for the water is wide where we stand

and I like "The Snowfield". Not so hot are "I owned a woman once", "At Ease", "Visible and Invisible" (a little idea bloated to double its natural length), "The Last Heartbeat" and "The Old Mastery".

"Playing her pieces" has 5 4-lined stanzas, all the first lines with the same end-rhyme, but otherwise she uses little rhyme. There are 2 6-page pieces of prose, both about poets - nothing that could be mistaken for a poem. A single page of prose about a boat is more apt.

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