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, 7 June 2014

"X" by Vona Groarke (Gallery Books, 2014)

These poems, written I presume in the last 5 years, have appeared in an impressive haul of magazines: "Boston Review", "The Dark Horse", "The Kenyon Review", "Poetry London", "PN Review", "Poetry Review", "Yale Review", etc. I enjoy reading her books - there's much for a reader like me to chew over, little that I can say "so what?" about. Here's the first half of the first poem, "A Pocket Mirror"

The day the first snowdrop in my winter garden insists
in its own insistent way that the promise I buried
last September would finally come to light, I wake
to the hoops the woodpigeon puts himself through.
Either that or to bells, bells on a loop, going over
and over the selfsame crucial news as yesterday.

The first 3 lines are a mouthful, insisting so hard that eventually the snowdrop is pushed towards being only a symbol. And why bother with "winter"? In what sense "hoops" - the kind one jumps through, or a variant of "whoops", the bird putting himself through a noisy set of exercises? Are the bells on a loop the kind of church bells mounted on an iron wheel in Italy, etc? Or is "loop" being used in music-recording sense? The 2nd stanza comprises 3 questions relating (I think) to what and why the poet is recording in this way, how words/self relate to the world. Though I don't understand several elements of this poem in isolation or combination, the whole means more to me than the parts, which might come to mean more still the more I read them. The downside is that in some poems it sounds like she's stooping to N+7ing or assembling random phrases. There's a fine line between "making the reader work hard" and "bluffing".

The next poem, "The White Year", continues the winter quest, the self-interrogation - "in the winter garden,/ the beautifully managed trees/ toy with shadows of themselves" and "My whole body has to find a way/ to be in possession of itself// like a shop selling only white things". There are poeticisms - "I do not imagine it simple to strip/ from any given afternoon/ the intentions of the day" though the following's more effective - "It may well be possible to separate/ into a fiction of forgetfulness,/ the accomplished house". Later in the book there's a related poem called "The White Garden" and another garden-related poetism, a flowery way to say a poetry cliché - "gardens that forget themselves/ for whole months at a time/ only to turn out their box of tricks/ at the first tilt of new light" (p.56)

The 3rd poem, "X", might have begun as a brainstorm - "I may begin to fold myself/ along four even lines/ into the centre of those days ... as crosshairs train on a blank page ... as the blades of a bedroom ceiling fan/ come to // a perfectly obvious stop". The poem's motifs recur throughout the book.

The book's 4th poem, "Aubade", lacks line-breaks. It starts by gathering some images I've already quoted - "That was yesterday. Innumerable blues seeped away into a night of shadow where shadow ought to be. They spun it out, fingers strumming the gloss of another evening on my own. I thought it would be more: something to pass, as church bells do, for love."

Here's the start and end of "The Front Door" - "The sky inside my head grows out/ of a single cell of blue ... the bright blue door opening into what/ I think I know. Everything else is an eye/ of daylight through which is streaming/ time and again, what happens next". "sky", "blue", "door" and "happens" are amongst the book's most common words.

I read the following beginning a few times

Though scooped with my printed fingers
and lined with remnants of ink

the furrow's trench-like depression
knows nothing, or almost nothing,

of the barrow's burial mound.

In isolation, l.3 looks rather silly, and l.5 looks wrong too - after all, the barrow is the mound. I presume that the barrow was created from the earth dug from the trench. The trench seems associated with a work of literature, with depression, knowing almost nothing of the celebration of death that brought it into being.

I read the following a few times too

All to play for. Yesterday the rain kept hinting
it had something else to say. Today is a garden
with clothes on the line that smell of childhood
and the kind of endings that fold themselves
into tiny squares within arm's reach of the sea.

I've mixed feeling about this. I suspect she can easily generate poetic-sounding phrases like the 2nd sentence here, by starting with a plain sentence and performing a simple substitution - compare it with "a page turning in darkness/ as if it had something to say" (p.71). The 3rd sentence is far less simple. The hinting rain leads to hints of the sea, the still slightly damp washing smells like the distant sea, and the "X"-related folding theme returns.

The "X" symbolism reverberates throughout the book - phrases like "The night is required to fold itself up/ into squares that get smaller and smaller/ the more I notice them" (p.18) make more sense in context. The "X" themes aren't the only recurring ones - there's lots of shadows and bells, "happening", "itself"/"themselves" (as a substitute for self-consciousness). doors and "sky". In successive poems there's "your own two children/ will be waiting there" and "The children will be waiting for you". On p.27 there's "turning/ ourselves, our very selves, shamelessly, inside out" and on p.30 "the night that popped itself inside out". On p.31 there's "the silver box/ I hadn't bought at the market stall" and on p.32 there's "a purple box/ washed up on the rock". I'm unconvinced by some of the imagery though

  • "The front door holds its breath.// All this happens, is happening/ without me, in much the same way/ as the cowslips make sense/ of their borrowed pot" (p.46-7)
  • "The Road" is about a road any child, even an unhappy one, could draw, ending with "That is a road I would find myself on,/ if only as a stone in the middle,/ the way love is: correct, plausible,/ willful; awfully sure of itself". I can imagine love being those things. I have more trouble with the "I = stone = love" connection. Is love an obstacle, something to be kicked away?
  • "a sky// the colour of middle age" (p.88)

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