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, 22 March 2014

"The Sun Bathers" by Roy Marshall (Shoestring, 2013)

About a quarter of the poems come from his earlier pamphlet, Gopagilla. Of the 10 not reprinted I miss "Egg". The Gioconda poem from the pamphlet is now part of a sequence.

Someone said to me that this poet "only has one style, but he uses it well". People make the same comment about Arsenal. At least 22 of these poems have been published in anthologies and magazines, but the real test is whether the poems survive being read en masse in a book. I think they do. He doesn't always write the same way; there are variations of content-source and style that feel like natural, promising developments. That said, many of his poems are based on life-events written in a lucid style. This has risks, especially if poems don't quite work -

  • People nowadays seem to feel they've not fully experienced something unless they take a photograph. I worry that poets do a similar thing - writing up big events from duty rather than necessity. This isn't an issue that should worry readers generally, but with from-the-heart poems, such impressions matter more. This book avoids those problems.
  • When content or language fall short, it may lead to schmaltz or prosiness. No schmaltz in this book, but there are moments when I worry that the language flags.
  • Using one's own memory hoard may lead to running out of material. Doesn't seem a problem yet.
  • If the reader's jolted out of the poem, the spell's broken. In "Floodplains" for example, there's "How quickly landscapes are erased,/ wind-throbbed fences become mute veins". I can understand how the submerged fences become quiet, but how do they become veins? By the time I've worked it out, the poem's left me behind.
  • When the poems depend on delivering an emotional payload, the rest of the poem might appear as mere set-up. "Floodplains" for example could have been line 5 + the final stanza, retaining the landscape thread. What are the pros and cons of "Student" being line 1 + stanza 2? Once doubt is sown in the reader's mind by one poem, other poems become vulnerable.

That he avoids these pitfalls as often as he does is due to his control of tone and pacing. When poems do fail, it's not through pretension or over-ambition, it's more the result of a shallow slide into so-whatness. Another point in his favour is that he doesn't use flashy layouts, or make them more flashy the plainer the language (though I think "Relic" and "Season Rings" come close to this). Most of the time I ignore the stanza- and line-breaks. Indeed, "The Arrivals" looks rather like my attempts at short Flash - tightly written with coupled imagery. I can imagine "Southbank" beginning a story that soon jerks into flashback before ending back in the present.

It's mostly accessible poetry, poetry that even non-poetry readers might not object to. Some people may need to web-search for "Ray Davies" (p.33) but it's largely allusion-free too. Only one poem has notes. One poems that had notes in the pamphlet has lost them here. At a reading of his that I attended, he pointed out that the style of "Da Vinci Packs for Pavia" is meant to emulate the way da Vinci's drawings are sometimes a mish-mash of text and image - useful to know.

"Arm Wrestling with Nonno" (note: Nonno is Italian for "grandad") could have been one of the pitfall-ridden poems - the easy pathos of the once-heroic grandfather becoming so weak; the clichéd idea of adults letting children win. What I think saves it is the economy. In 4 short stanzas there are many period/location details, and the initial boasting of the mother about her father's strength is transformed at the end to the persona's (almost boastful) pride in being the grandfather's apparent favourite. The "It was my face that brought light to his pale eyes" mirrors the end of "Cimetero" 3 pages later - "next year, behind polished glass, the face I'd know". Poems like "Dying Arts" work because they move fast through a sequence of images, from "As the last window cleaner born during the age of whistling" to "the gaze of children who sat silent and still their eyes reflecting England through the window of a train".

I like the poems that I liked in the pamphlet ("Dandytime", "Inheritance", "Records on the Bones") plus "Dying Arts", "Student", "Night Shift", and "Lives of Poets". "Career Advice" is fun. "National Service" (also in the pamphlet) and "Chestnut Mares" are too slight. p.43 surprized me by using end-rhyme, and it's a list, a structure he doesn't use much (p.7, p.18 and p.59 excepted). The non-realism of "The Catch" surprized me too.

A couple of observations -

  • There's a sudden clump of poems that end with a time-switch or telling realisation - "But I know the source; it was you of course, it was the two of us, smoking" (p.47); "and I'm back in the woods, winter dusk" (p.49); "I remember the police car ..." (p.50); "It's what I remember whenever north wind meets wet skin" (p.54); "After all this time I recognise boredom, unchanged" (p.56).
  • Space travel features surprizingly often. I'm old enough to recall the first moon landing, but he's not. The moon's brought down to earth in "The possible fates of Wren's globe". In "Flight Path" a plane's silhouette against the moon is imagined as shadow; a projection of hope.

Is "famer" on p.10 meant to be "farmer"? Is "it's" on p.21 supposed to be "its"?

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  1. Tim, you say 'Space travel features surprising often' . I can only find two poems with space travel in them. I was born in1966 and my early years were spent in California where I watched moon landings on TV. The Apollo programme ended in the early 70's, I think, by which time I'd drawn and coloured in a few hundred rockets. I wasn't around at the time of Da Vinci, however. Best wishes, Roy

  2. 2 moon flights and an orbiting satellite I'd say, and some non-romantic moons elsewhere. Few mentions, but more than I expected (my youngest brother for example showed no interest in old rockets). Perhaps the US influence has something to do with it.