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, 6 July 2013

"Pretty" by Ahren Warner (Picador, 2013)

Each of the first 20 poems is inspired by a different Parisian arrondissement. Another limitation is that all but one of them has a one word title. Also there's an alternation of long and short lines, the short lines indented as if they might be extensions of the previous lines. Quirky but regular layouts are attention-seeking, and could even be a diversionary tactic. Here's one poem's start

grandfather would never buy a poppy, would never give
  a penny
to the Legion, served his time in Burma, Sumatra,
a little box of photographs I remember from the days
he popped his clogs

Those line-breaks (the title included) follow the self-imposed rule, but I can't see any other reason for them. Remove them, and what do you have?

After the Paris poems are some unnumbered poems. "Blancmange" (2-lined stanzas except for the final line) begins with 2 related observations

  • bald men still finger their "long-lost hair". At the end of the first sentence there's "they consoling them", whose referents could be "the bald", "fingers", "hair", "each digit", or "their follicles". I think it mostly means "their fingers consoling the follicles"
  • the narrator seeks his fontanel in his (long?) hair, and presses down.

Then the poem turns briefly self-conscious before another image is introduced. Here's the end

How I'd hope    for 'The End'       to turn
on more         than an egg-shell metaphor:

the moist surprise            of blancmange
fissuring                    as it tends to

          when you stick it    with a fork.

So instead of the poem ending with a "thin-hard" image, we end with a "thick-soft" one, almost as if the poem fissured (along those otherwise gratuitous intra-line gaps) once subjected to critical pressure. Each image is well observed and expressed but how do they inter-relate? With 3 images, there's always the issue of how much separation (conceptually and on the page) there should be. In this case there's no spatial separation. Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis is a common conceptual pattern to use. Here we have BALD-HAIRY. In the 3rd image, the skin of the blancmange (I think of it as being pink) might be likened to the skin on the top of the head in the 1st image, and the fracturing of the blancmange like the delving in the 2nd image, but it's a strange final line - "stick a fork in it" would be more normal. Why use a fork with blancmange anyway? And why have "as it tends to" in the penultimate line? Because the phenomenon's been commonly observed by the narrator? To make the poem sounds more conversational?

"Paean pro Magna Societate" is another poem that uses full justification with big gaps between some words. Rosmarie Waldrop wrote "I try to place the margin, the emptiness inside the text. I cultivate cuts, discontinuity, leaps, shifts of reference, etc. 'Gap gardening,' I have called it". In the "Paean ..." poem the gaps sometimes replace commas. I don't know about the other gaps though. The following phrase is printed with 4 line-breaks and 7 gaps - "I too have been quite the Marxian standing on grim Garden Town high-streets waving leaflets banners the odd catchy slogan".

p.42 might be in rhyming couplets. p.48 seems self-indulgent. Later there are "thirteen poems hovering between a collage, translation and performance" of an Antonin Artaud poem. I prefer those.

Alan Brownjohn writes on the back cover "it is immediately clear that something different is going on". Carol Rumens writes that he "rows his own coracle". I think he's becoming ever more estranged from the common reader. The scattered French and Latin words are fair enough, I suppose. I can sometimes see a point in them but they make the persona sound tiresome, studenty ("Our first ascent, two crépuscules/ before -/ our first night here - having taken the bus,/ the RER// from a hotel nord des Batignolles, where now we'd know/ not to venture/ after crépuscule") (p.29). Those and the layouts suffice to make me suspicious, even ignoring the content. In the few poems that I think I'm beginning to understand, there seem to be unnecessary obstacles.

So I'm not as keen on him as others are, though I find some short phrases appealing. I think his advocates and I might at least agree that he's becoming more of a poet's poet.

Other reviews

  • Gareth Prior (Nobody likes a vocab poser or a namedropper, but Warner is neither of these thing ... The reason Warner can weave wonderful poetry out of allusion and complexity, where some other poets fail, is because he does it congruently. His poems are not accessorized with allusions but built from them. Their occasional difficulty is justified because they couldn’t exist without it, and because they more than pay back any effort the reader has to make.)

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