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.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

"Missing the Eclipse" by Joan Hewitt (Cinnamon, 2008)

The poems come from London Magazine and anthologies. They may have been written over many years - there's an assortment of subject matter and styles. No received forms, though a few poems come close - "Unsolicited Information" has 3 4-line sentences then a 2-line sentence - it's a sonnet. Line-breaks are often very arbitrary, making poems like "Keeping Them Out" and "The Lost Ring Complains" rather obscure if one's serious about form. There are poems with a prose layout, poems with stanzas of different lengths, poems in 1.5 spacing with alternate lines indented, and many poems whose stanzas have the same number of lines. But I think the forms and contents could often be mix'n'matched and no one would notice - this variety is skin-deep. Seeing "Portuguese Blueprint" in a prose format only made me wonder why many of the others aren't presented similarly. "The Banner" is a hospice-based poem. Despite being ruthlessly 3 lines-per-stanza, the restrained imagery makes it more prosey than the surrounding pieces. The resulting "just-prose-cut-up" effect is unfortunate given the subject matter, but it's not the first time that a free-verse writer has shown a nostalgia for form when dealing with the theme of dying.

The book begins well with "Act" - the title a contrast with inaction but also authenticity. It starts "Every day it's up and out of the marriage-bed/ and its unfinished dreams, to leap straight on/ the horse's waiting back". The circus-related imagery continues, the horse perhaps representing the body, or routine. It's not just the narrator who lives this way - "The canvas brightens and the tent begins to fill/ with child-minders, neighbours, exchange students,/ asylum-seekers, and union reps:/ all in custom, working, or resting between acts". At the end there's time for a moment of self-attention - "tilting my chin as I do the splits/ or a sturdy one-legger on the horse's sweating back,/ one arm curved delicately in upon itself/ for me to admire its well-worked sinews"

"The poems in Missing the Eclipse unfold like short stories told by moonlight" writes Linda France on the back cover. Well, the moon is frequently mentioned, though so are houses, branches, dreams, the weather, and distant sounds. "Missing the Eclipse" (subtitled for Anna) begins "I'm lying on the bed that was your sister's, listening/ to trains ... the moon looks frenzied". In stanza 2 "I'm thinking of what you told me in the bar tonight:/ how you'd been unhappy in this house". Here's stanza 3

The moon is shining straight into my eyes.
Outside the Underground, screaming at each other
among the late-night shoppers, why didn't we
look up and see its strangeness in the sky?
Then you walked away in your black coat,
looking so like my father's sister Ann
at her father's funeral that I called after you.

So the moon returns. We learn about the discord between the daughter (Anna?) and the mother (the narrator). I misread "I called after you" as "I called you after" (i.e. I thought Anna was named after aunt Ann - the similarity of names is presumably significant). The final stanza begins "I wish that I could ring you and explain/ that I know what has been missed". The explanation is expressed in terms of the moon. We learn "That the dust and debris whirling round the earth/ shut off the sun, distorting any light/ which reached the moon". At the end the moon becomes a "she". "she's calmer now, although north of here,/ in Turnhouse, they say she turned brick red". "Turnhouse" is a suburb of Edinburgh, but the name is too conveniently significant for my tastes. I'm not sure I like the poem even if the moon imagery has been renovated.

I liked "Plotting", "Hamlet's Ex-Wife", "Block", "Morphine", "Double Exposure", "Portuguese Blueprint", "Unsolicited Information", and "White" - quite a few really. I thought "Act", "Her Sense of Line" and "Signs" were ok (though Sign's saving punchline took a long time in coming). I wasn't so keen on the poems on pages 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18, 19, 21, 24, 25, 28, 29, 44, 46, 47, 49, 52, and 56.

Reading the excellent "An interview" confirmed some of my impressions, and answered some of my queries

  • "I sent off the first poem ever to London Magazine. Alan Ross accepted it, and then two more, and then asked me for a book. This was, with hindsight, the worst thing to have happened, as I felt I didn’t need to send out to smaller magazines." - which explains the otherwise surprising fact that many these poems haven't been previously published
  • "I am an other-directed person" - Of the 45 poems, 6 begin with "You[r]" and several others are 2nd or 3rd person. But it's also true to say that 4 poems begin with "I", and "I" makes an appearance sooner or later in nearly all the poems. Reading the interview one could believe that "other-directness" also applies to her poetic influences - she seems to have met several well-known poets.
  • "Vicki Bertram, in 'Gendering Poetry' cites fear of offending family as one of the most frequent reasons for women publishing their first collections late. ... In the end, I included only one of those [pre-divorce] poems:'about' the negative effect of overwork on family life, 'Commuter Moon'" - I wouldn't have guessed what that poem was 'about'.
  • "the poems were spread over 14 years" - Ah. I told you so.
  • "when I transfer it to my PC and make further decisions on line-endings, influenced by the space around the poem. The ear is the dominant consideration. I want to 'score' it (a term learnt from a consummate performer of his own and others’ work, Bill Herbert) so that the reader knows how to read it aloud (as I hope they do, at least sub-vocally). I may choose a form e.g. a three line stanza of fifteen lines, later lose a line, and then re-do as two-liners. I have even found that, faced with the new fourteen lines, I’ve played around with a sonnet. If the "turn" comes around line 8, then I end up with a more metaphysical or intellectual poem; meatier and denser." - I wonder if those stanzas ruthlessly chopped to be all 3 lines long are really meant to be read out as if they were a line of sausages. It sounds to me that she considers Form as being visual (when first typeset), sonic, instructions for the reader, and an influence on the content (an aid when redrafting). All these are laudable uses, but also convenient get-out clauses. So no wonder I had trouble understanding the forms.
  • "Instead I’m using more half and full rhymes now, and making poems which I can memorise. So the extra free time in retirement is taken up with crafting" - I think there was always crafting, though it's interesting to see that her crafting is taking this direction. My pieces as often work the other way, finding people to populate the language.

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