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.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

"Shaler's Fish" by Helen Macdonald (etruscan books, 2001)

Some of these poems come from Cambridge Conference of Contemporary Poetry collections. I went to some CCCP festivals. I think my interest in getting this book dates from those times. I've heard it mentioned since, positively. There's a quote at the start from 1917 explaining that someone called Shaler was given a fish by his teacher with instructions to study it but not talk to anyone about it, or read anything about fishes until his teacher gave him permission. So maybe I should silently read the book without recourse to help. The first poem, "Taxonomy", begins

Wren. Full song. No subsong. Call of alarm, spreketh & ought
damage the eyes with its form, small body, tail pricked up & beak like a hair

trailed through briars

I'm stuck already. There are no notes. I glance ahead in the book. The style's much the same. Shall I ditch the book?

Fortunately Edmund Hardy has bothered to help readers out, explaining "subsong", etc. By the way, spreketh is an "archaic third-person singular simple present indicative form of speak". "&" is here used instead of "and", though later in the same poem it's not. I wonder why. Later we're told that

which script goes is unrecognised by this one, is pulled by the ear
in anger the line at fault is under and inwardly drear as a bridge in winter

reared up inotherwise to seal the eyes through darkness, the bridge speaks
it does not speak, the starlings speak that steal the speech of men, uc antea

One interpretation is that the script (the poem's storyline?) is unrecognised. Sound effects draw the reader along, over lines that otherwise might be boring. The connections only partly succeed, chirping replacing oration. What is "uc antea"? When I googled, the 2nd entry was for "Ucan tea". Shame there aren't notes. Each phrase can be variously interpreted. Too many diverse interpretations can put some readers off. There might be a common factor or at least a dominant theme. Titles can often be a useful clue. Again Edmund Hardy comes to my aid. I guess it's a matter of balance - if you make a poem too obvious you risk being too accessible and mainstream for CCCP. You might also take away the pleasure readers get by having to work. Too obscure, and you risk readers not understanding or appreciating the poem, or thinking you're deeper than you really are.

Of course, there are other, more generous interpretations than the ones above. The poem's not a Rorschach Test. Indeed, a feature (by no means unique) of the pieces is the fusion of effects. As well as resistance to paraphrase there's internal rhyme - "ear/drear" and "seal/steal" - and the "the starlings ... men" phrase is iambic pentameter. Grammar is standard in a "colorless ideas" way, and scattered through the poems are words that might once have belonged to the same sentence. This (plus the sound effects that bind distant words together, plus the regularity of layout) casts a spell of integration and order.

I skip a few pages. "Small Hours" is closest to being the standard "disrupted lyric" (maybe should I say that it "gestures towards the lyric")

The sky isn't blue not thinking
for days thinking for you
they say the best is, yet
              to get near it
requires such fabric of years
a splint of mild lightness that is not
light at all that is all there is to love

One can almost undo the disruption, reverse back to accessibility by restoring the punctuation and missing words, replacing "for" by "of", reviewing the line-breaks, etc. What does the disruption add? Maybe there's not enough? How about throwing in some Latin, or randomly using "i.e." instead of "that is"?

I'll hold onto the book, but won't read any more for now. It's not minimalist - the vocabulary and sound is often rich. I might grow to like it. Currently it brings to mind 2 things I've read -

  • "I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her, 'I love you madly', because he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say 'as Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly.' At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly that it is no longer possible to speak innocently, he will nevertheless have said what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her, but he loves her in an age of lost innocence" (Eco, "Postmodernism, Irony, the Enjoyable")
  • In "The Poetry Circus" (Readers Digest), Stanton A. Coblentz takes a simple sentence and then substitutes words fairly randomly until it no longer sounds trite - indeed it sounds deep. He points out that clever-sounding obfuscation, like sentimentality, is suspiciously easy to do, and avoidance of the trite doesn't necessarily produce good poetry. But we all know that.
Andrew Duncan makes some attempt to explain her approach, studying one of her poems in detail.

Other reviews

Some of the texts below seem as hard to understand as the poems

  • Fiona Moore
  • Andrew Duncan (Jacket) (a wave of expectancy has been quivering up and down certain streets in Cambridge ever since ‘Tuist’ was published in Angel Exhaust in 1993)
  • Edmund Hardy
  • Shearsman Books (This is an absolutely wonderful book ... something startlingly new and original, which demands to be read, and taken seriously)

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