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 20 September 2014

"Bright Travellers" by Fiona Benson (Cape, 2014)

A tightly organised collection whose sections begin with an introductory poem, the poems within sections sometimes carefully ordered.

Cactus may have a thick skin, but wound it and you'll see its soft heart. And once a lifetime it flowers. This is the plot of the first introductory poem. How does the poem transcend that familiar template? I'm not sure it does, though it's interesting to see how the poet tries because the same tricks may be used in later poems

  • The poem's the first of the book, not only a prelude to the first section but maybe to the whole book. It needn't be a good poem if its job is to emcee the other poems (the poet's poems may be the cactus's flowers mentioned in the poem).
  • The title is "Caveat", and the poem begins "But consider the cactus". What is the poem a caveat to? We're encouraged to read on.
  • It comprises 4 stanzas of 3 nearly equal-lengthed lines in an attempt to make it look "poetic". The downside is that it also exposes the text of the 3rd stanza as weak.
  • It's not just flowers but a "halo of flowers" - introducing religious undertones, but less fortunately also bringing to mind "the halo effect".

Layout clearly matters to her. "Sprig of Almond Blossom in a glass" has 4 stanzas, each with the same bizarre indentation pattern. "Emmaus" has 4 centred 3-line stanzas. It has 9 lines of notes at the end of the book, including Bible quotes that "seemed to resonate with the way the elemental world might perceive humans - brief mortals, here then gone" (p.69). She can write densely, in way that doesn't require notes - for example, "Devonport" begins "Holstered in the Tamar/ the low-slung bolts/ of submarines come home". "High Meadow Path", about walking the dog, ends with

There is our house. My work in pieces on the desk.
Dog has vectored rabbit spoor and will not wait;
the slipped jewels of rain and grass-seed spray
from her coat as she drags me up above
the level of the cloud-break. Pigeons scare
then wheel away while we still stand,
faltered by the light, landlocked, hide-bound.

I sometimes had trouble following her. "Cave bear" doesn't look promising until the final stanza - "the cub is dead./ You show your teeth/ as the massive slab/ of your heart/ gives way". "Pine cone" begins "Look at the long/ wooden petals/ of the cone,// each splayed latch/ keeled like a boat/ and riderless". The breaks are odd (why does "of the cone" merit a line to itself?) but it's the "keeled like a boat/ and riderless" which puzzles me. Stanza 3 has "I hold the damp weight/ of the cone in my palm". Again, the short lines draw attention to bloat. An alternative wording is "the cone's damp weight in my palm". "Small Mercies" has a prosaic section about a cricket - "and once I'd gone down/ to the garden/ and tipped it out on the grass/ it looked a little stunned/ and wheeled round and round/ like the misguided needle/ of a drunken compass". The lineation doesn't do the poem any favours - why make "to the garden" a line?

Poems like "Repairs" stretch (with the help of short lines) an idea to fill a page. It's partly this stretching, this poeticing, that makes "Council Offices" and "Cradle Cap" less affecting than they might otherwise be. In "Sheep" the narrator notices a sheep's "three dead lambs// knotted in a plastic bag./ crows have pecked out her arse". Later we learn that the narrator has miscarried. The poem ends with another biblical reference - "Yet once it was done I got up,/ gathered my bedding/ and walked", which dices with melodrama. I was impressed by "River, Second Miscarriage" though. It has the brutality of "Sheep" - "a wet clump/ the specialist extracts/ with a speculum and forceps// so I can run on, raked clean" - but here the imagery sounds less contrived, with more observation and opening-up of perspectives - "detritus snagged/ in the river's curve ... You knew you'd find me/ at the river's mouth".

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