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.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

"White Sheets" by Beverley Bie Brahic (CB editions, 2012)

There are poems from London Magazine, PN Review, Poetry (Chicago), The Southern Review, TLS, etc. 4 good prose poems are "(after Francis Ponge)". Several artists are invoked (Goya, Qi Bashi, Poussin, Chardin, Carpaccio, Bellini, cave art), frequently because the persona is looking at their work (in Italy, or on a postcard). Mary and the annunciation are common subjects. Eve gets 5 mentions - in art, in literature, and as a "Carol-Anne Duffy" style of updated character in "Eve to Her Daughters". Other writers and works mentioned include Stendhal, a trio sonata, "Still Life with Peaches" and "Mother & Child by some minor artist". I suspect I've missed many allusions.

The poems benefit from being read together because a network of internal allusions is generated - father as heron/angler; mother as Eve/garden - and deer? Fruit (in life and art) figures widely. And yet, all this interlinking doesn't weigh the poems down.

"White Sheets" is the title of the book, the first section, and the first poem - empty pages, waiting for something; a symbol of innocence, virginity. The poem's sub-title is "Airstrike hits wedding party - breaking news". The poem brings together death and a frozen moment - 2 common themes. It starts with a woman standing by an empty laundry basket. Towards the end of the poem we read that "The world is beautiful,/ she thinks, or feels, as deer/ sense something coming". The poem ends with the laundry basket suspended in her arms before she knows what's going to happen. In other poems too, moments of surprise or anticipation are described - in "Carpaccio's Dog", "You were startled to find trees in Venice", and there's shock in the various annunciation scenes.

"Ancient History" is in 3 parts spread across 4 pages. It begins "Sixty years after D-day, in a week/ of sunshine and occasional rain,/ my quiet father died". The persona "stared out a dusty window/ past some fruit from the garden". Then in part II we're told about modern medical practice during war, then there's a quote from Pericles - "heroes have the whole earth for their tombs". In part III "I rest my book on its spine;/ stir the apricots I purchased for jam". We get more about Athenians, their rituals of mourning. Then finally

How solid the world of the Athenians - I think -
watching fruit bubble
in the hand-me-down preserving kettle -

you'd think this had all happened yesterday

"Reunion: J-school, Class of 19-" seemed a mite chatty.

Entitling a poem "On the Pathetic Fallacy" is taking a chance, especially when the subject's as common as a bird hitting a window. What's more, it's a sparrow trying to fly through a room. The poem's a page long. Here are the highlights. "A bird bangs your window ... Reader .. It's a real bird ... Bigger than a sparrow, with a black hood ... Why does [it] keep thrashing at the pane? ... Reflection, rival or a mate ... Wave your arms, Reader, shout! No good. You're trapped behind glass .... why should it ever stop?"

Section 2's entitled "Hortus not Conclusus", which I had to look up. "Hortus Conclusus" means "enclosed garden" which has come to be symbolic of the Virgin Mary, especially in art. "The Dome Web" is a list of descriptions of a spider's web, using strange indenting - stanzas 1 and 2 are the same pattern but 3 and 4 are unique. "In My Mother's House" has irregular moments too, but the plot's straightforward, and so is the ending - probably too much so

Mother, did I
get everything wrong? And
    what of love - that word
we've never learned to say

Indeed, if I can fault the book it's not because it's too intellectual, but that sometimes she tackles a common subject by using a common template, adding personalised details, but keeping a standard ending. "The Same Complex System ..." doesn't add up to much either, even granted its hints about mortality.

Section 3 is "In my Mother's Garden". In "Still Life with Peaches" a painting's technique can't be faulted except that the fruit looks "hard, unforgiving -/ like apples". 5 3-lined stanzas, the syllable count 4-8/9-3. There's an allusion to WCW's plums and, I assume, to Eden. "Mother Weeding" ends with a cascade of word-association whose purpose I can't discern

Rue splatters the kitchen
window. Sea thrift. Spindrift.
Spendthrift? No - the sea
is a frugal housewife. The sea
recycles everything.

"Private Property" (about selling mother's house) ends with "EVERYTHING/ MUST GO", an ending I rejected as too obvious when writing a recent poem. "Poem in Which I Pack You a Few Things for the Hospital" doesn't surprise, though the sentiments are well-expressed - "I weep with the sound off as I was taught" - and it ends well.

I shower, no one hears
the water tank emptying. Years
since I said my prayers - what
are these words that come unasked
to stammer at the knees of speech -

whose hand
taking the book, putting out the light?

I didn't get "The Down Syndrome Child". The final poem, "PS: Book of Eve" draws several threads together, beginning "about the snake: it was beautiful" then "A garden snake, harmless therefore", then memories of a great-uncle, a Granddad, a bright beach, then finally

I will never forget
how it took me in, then
sashayed off
into the rough
where the berries hung

Fruit again - no longer being made into jam or captured in a still-life but returned to the wild - or at least the wild part of the garden.

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