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.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

"Byssus" by Jen Hadfield (Picador, 2014)

The format's squarer than usual to cope with the layout of some of the poems. There's much variety of layout even amongst the first few poems -

  • p.1 - short lines, all but one left-aligned.
  • p.2 - prose layout
  • p.3-4 - little clusters of words scattered across the pages (maybe like cockles in a cockle-bed). p.4 has 26 words (6 of them "smile"), 8 hyphens and manages to use all the edges of the page.
  • p.5-6 - 5 4-lined stanzas (roughly rectangular)
  • p.7-8 - 4 sections. 3 use a prose format, one has scattered phrases. In one place the word "to" is split by the right margin

It's a shame that the parsimony with words didn't extend to white space. The layouts don't work for me; they remind me of old student mags - freedom without responsibility. "Smiles learnt in the cockle-beds" (p.3-4) is a waste of space. Why is "We climb the hill..." 5 4-lined stanzas rather than 5 2-lined stanzas, or a couple of paragraphs? If "Saturday Morning" (which starts well with "It's always false spring somewhere and most of all in your brain with its painful thaws") can survive without flabby line-breaks, so can many of the other poems. I like "Lichen", but the 17 line-breaks let down the 34 words, one of which, "prunk", I sought for in vain in the glossary of Shetland words at the back of the book.

"The White Goods" is appropriately rectangular, spaces added between words. On p.19 there's a rash of words split by line-breaks - slow//er ... dow/n ... friend/ly ... brok/en ... con/nsternations ... thems/elves. Is "connsternations" a typo? Is "elves" significant? p.20 is "after Ian Hamilton Finlay", insufficient excuse for being all upper case with words broken across lines.

I prefer when she leaves the words to get on with things themselves. I like

  • "Sparrows'-wings like shuffled cards and Mexican chirps we can't spell in our language. The sharp, white breeze is Mexican, but if I tried to describe the smell of the air, I'd have to hood the vowels with hyphens, the gods being in the vowels. Are you hereabouts in your stocking feet? Look at the state of me. Various pietà attitudes: head rolling like an erratic; knees shoved up to the sun's stove. Trying to be everywhere at once. The smell of burning cedar and there are no cedars" (p.8)
  • "Reap the high pith/ which sweeps the meek/ along - // mangroves of sunday/ and tortoiseshell, the bog's/ blithe nymph" (p.13)
  • "the mackerel fillets in their oily lamé" (p.15)
  • Forget the day's eye.
    The bog's an erogenous zone
    baroqued by a million Gaudis -
    wave upon wave of zany
    nano-blooms proffering
    their tender meat-and-two-
    veg to the air.
  • "Ringing unanswered on the cliff,/ like an old black bakelite/ phone, the raven." (p.58)

Some of the imagery puzzles me - the italics below are my comments

3. Golf-course
Trundling a tameness, (tameness? golf bag = tame pet??)
spraying their pocked roe, (the golf-balls)

unpursing it from tender caddies as if to split it (unpursing, yes, but 'from tender caddies'?)
with the stick and spray it with the milt (stick=club, but what's the milt?)

Is "The Finns" worth 2 pages? There aren't many words, and nearly half of those are a quote. "The Puffballs" hogs 3 pages -

  • 1st page: 3 font sizes used in 7 bracketed fragments
  • 2nd page: a big blob of text then scattered syllables
  • 3rd page: 22 scattered letters, some combined into words

There's an expressed frustration with language but I don't think that the solution is to flout typographic convention. Here's part of "In Memoriam"

Loving language is wide
and shallow: sooks, polches
and wistens it.

Already I can only noun
about its shores and surfaces

nym the brinks of this squilly thing

where congregates stuff
that can be likened:

stiff hands like ginger root

Dialect? Phonetic? Lewis Carrollism? All 3? Is a difficult concept being expressed in the most compact way possible, examples being embedded into the description? Things can only be named (in "I can only noun", "noun" becoming a verb), and even then there needs to be a coming together of things that can be compared ("stuff that can be likened ... congregates"). "nym" might mean the verb "name", "brinks" (as in 'on the brink') might mean the edges, the extremes - which is all that language can register.

"The Plinky-Boat" (I don't know why the hyphen's there) is about the 'Plinky Boat' - according to this is at Belmont - Constructed as a music project at Baltasound Junior High School, the 'plinky boat' is and [sic] old Shetland yoal that has been converted into a giant xylophone (or, more strictly speaking, a metalophone). The poem's prefaced by a quote from Gaspar Galaz - "the present is a fine line [...] a puff of air would destroy it". The poem says "I don't know what it is/ about this place that things/ metaflower so readily/ into their present selves". The ending is

scales of thin light
swarm over the pipes
from the boys' headtorches.
Perhaps we heard seals
broaching in the harbour
as they answered the girls
' handclapping game -
I doubt they moaned
in their haunted wise -
here was everything -
words lost, as I'm trying
to say, their echo, that
yodel into past and future.
The poem wouldn't exist,
but we couldn't stay.

Detaching the apostrophe of "girls'" from the word seems pointlessly bizarre. It's not clear to me that any of the line-breaks are needed. I like the different ways the girls and boys react. I can't parse the passage that starts "I doubt". I presume the precarious poem/present is to do with the epigraph, but what has the epigraph to do with the boat?

In contrast, the next poem "Your were running ..." goes down easily.

With "The Asterism" I have trouble making worthwhile connections between the title, the epigraph ("a mystery, and a waste of pain" - Anne Dillard) and the text. There's much flower imagery in the poem, but what has that to do with the title? Online I found more of the quote - "Cruelty is a mystery, and the waste of pain. But if we describe a world to compass these things, a world that is a long, brute game, then we bump against another mystery: the inrush of power and light ... there seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous." It helps to know that cruelty's involved, and that the beauty of the natural world's a counter-balance. Why was this elided? It's just one example of how the text could have been made more user-friendly without compromising artistic integrity.

As with her previous book, there's enough fresh use of language to merit reading the book, but there's also more to make me suspicious.

Other reviews

  • Matthew Sterling (New Statesman) (The verse is constantly breaking out into linguistic delight that exceeds literal meaning (several poems make use of the printed page in the tradition of concrete poetry. For this reason, the book will not always be easy going for readers who like poems to be tethered to clear sense. But the rewards are more than worth the difficulties)
  • Davepoems (Byssus is an odd, highly readable, lexically pleasurable book. ... a kind of difficult book to get a grip on, many of the pieces employ a kind of absurdist register ... Whether you enjoy the book might hinge on how well you negotiate occasional cutesiness)
  • Frith Taylor


  1. Prunk isn't a Shetland dialect word as far as I know. Try the Urban Dictionary instead - I think it's a neologism for splendid, fine, that sort of thing.

    1. Thanks. I'm afraid my sons have been no help to me regarding youth culture and urban language.