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, 2 December 2013

"The Half Life of Fathers" by Vanessa Gebbie (Pighog Press, 2013)

Uncertainty about one's poetry isn't uncommon with poets who start by writing prose. I think there might be several reasons

  • If one has taught writers who thought they were brilliant (though they weren't), one becomes aware of the difficulties of self-evaluation when one's new to a genre.
  • Having seen some poetry praised that's beyond one's comprehension (Flarf or Prynne, perhaps), it's easy to doubt whether one's own stuff is really poetry. "But is it poetry?" is a common question nowadays. Partly this is a consequence of the overlap between prose and poetry being as great as it's ever been (prose writers can write what passes for poetry nowadays without realising it), and partly it's because poetry's experimental, straying beyond its previous boundaries.
  • Knowing that one's good at picking up new techniques, there's a fear that one's poetry might be all technique.
  • Even though one might be articulate when commenting on stories, one may be less in command of the critical apparatus needed to discuss poems. One might like poems without being able to say why, having to trust instinct.

What has that to do with this pamphlet? Well, in the past its author (published with Salt and Bloomsbury, and a multiple story-prize winner) has expressed such self-doubts. What remains of those doubts must surely be quenched by now. In the anonymous world of competitions, these poems have done well - there's a Troubadour winner, an Essex Poetry comp special commendation, and a "Vers Poets" finalist (and she's been shortlisted in Bridport competitions). She's published a novel and short stories about war veterans and war, so it's no surprise that about half the poems here concern those topics. About a quarter are about her father, and there are some about Wales. There's anaphora, a sapphic ode, and a piece of shaped poetry, though forms are otherwise absent. Styles vary from polyphonic through incantory to prosaic. Here's a selection

  • Them The wall, coolest in the heat.
    Him I made the gate, lads

    Them You made the gate
    Him There was no pain
  • Am the heron's hunchbacked flight
    Am the song of the tagged sea-eagle
    Am the roots of Ogham stones
  • Who, when our chimney caught fire, held me blanketed
    in the air to watch sparks against the night because
    they were beautiful. Who poured me
    a vodka on my wedding day to steady my nerves,
    and drank it himself

It starts with the recent Troubadour winner which is followed by themed sections mostly describing things past their prime - mines, theatres, but most of all people. My favourite piece is the title poem where the narrator's seeking the chinks of clarity in dementia. It's useful to know that her adoptive father (the only one she knew) died of Alzheimers - hence the title. I don't want spoil readers' appreciation by quoting from it. My mother died of Alzheimers, and I spent much of a night by my father's hospital bedside. All I can say is that the poem rings true to me without seeming at all manipulative. The poems about his language difficulties work well too.

"Ice Cream" is one of the poems where an anecdote reveals character, and hints at other issues. The narrator goes to buy an ice for Nan, coming back empty-handed "because it was too hot/ and from there to here was just too much". But before we reach that final explanation, we read that "Her man isn't framed on the front room wall./ She would visit no graves" which suggests that the final line refers to more than a child's unconvincing apology (it reminds me a little of WCW's plum apology).

In "The Piss Pot" Nan's collected the family's urine. Maybe the narrator's urine will

fall away from the rest, land apart on
polished boards, where mercury-like, it might remain while the rest sinks gently into the house

Maybe it helps to know that the poet was adopted early.

"Clouds" is more abstract; one of the pieces I was a mite puzzled by. It comprises 2 4-lined stanzas. The first begins "On still days" then offers some analogies. The second begins "On windy days" and offer more analogies, the clouds compared to "deceased samoyeds,/ milk unfurling in a glass of warm water, the way/ my father liked it, towards the end. Chubasco,/ churada, borea, borasco, brickfielder" which made me rush to look up words - "samoyeds" are a type of asian (or dog), and the words at the end are names of winds or storms in S. America, the Pacific, Australia, etc. The first stanza could just be a list of analogies (which would be fair enough). More is happening in stanza 2 - the sudden introduction of the father and international storms throws me a bit. After poems that showed the father's limited vocabulary, we have here the contrast of "milk in a glass" (father's viewpoint?) with multilingual storms (narrator's viewpoint). Hamlet tested Polonius by suggesting to him what clouds looked like. Here perhaps the narrator's testing herself.

"Seaside theatre, end of season" is After this piece in the Tate, though the piece (made of Aluminium) probably helped the poet more than it helps this reader. The poem mentions "The Tin Man" - the one who lacked a heart? The heart of the theatre lost? To crossworders there's a broken "heart" in the middle of "theatre", not a missing one.

"The passing of Ezekiel Parkes" is over 2 pages long. It begins well by describing his first sight of the ocean as a boy, but the description of the rest of his life (thirst in the trenches, etc) is for me marred by the way that references to the sea seem more schematic/linguistic than psychological - "proper sheets,/ cool, smooth,/ like waves breaking/ over his back ... the rolling fog of pay-day drink ... joined a rising sea,/ men flowing south ... a constant stream/ of mutilation ... A solid flood,/ crushing barrage,/ hard white breakers ... Ezekiel's sea bed -/ eighty feet beneath La Boiselle". He dies in chalk-walled trenches far from the black coal-mines he seemed destined for.

I prefer the ambition of "The specials - poem for seven voices" which is nearly 4 pages long - fragments of voices from the grave, someone whistling while mowing the graveyard, a crashed plane from which the pilot "inched like a snail/ in a trail of my own blood".

Other reviews

No comments:

Post a Comment