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, 1 April 2015

"Out of breath" by Noel Williams (Cinnamon, 2014)

These poems have appeared in dozens of magazines and have been successful in many competitions. There's a page of notes at the end. I see his name often in poetry contexts, and I agree with the back cover's comment that he's "long overdue for a debut collection".

I found the poems interesting in parts even when I wasn't sure I liked them as a whole. I couldn't read lazily through them. Often from the off there's thought-provoking imagery - "Her hand pursues the kite of him" (p.2); "So you quit the page for the garden/ which wears a streetlit kilt of rain" (p.24). "Planting Dorothy's garden" contains another example of compaction - "She trusts my arm around the soiled skirts of the lake to her window's unlit candle". When I try this type of writing, maximizing the impact of each sentence by making local substitutions while maintaining the narrative sense, editors have commented that I'm trying too hard. If that's a fault, I can imagine far worse ones. That said, nowadays I try to avoid writing in the style of that sentence - the extra connotations of "soiled skirt" and leading a lady to an unlit candle seem to distract rather than intensify. More fool me.

"Presumably butterflies" begins by continuing from the title - "have their own way of doing things". Then the imagery kicks in - butterflies are "scratches on the wind", they "carry fire into the wilderness like a church window hammered/ into splinters of sky". In stanza 3 the tone changes - "I found his camera under the fence where he fell ... he would dream that tortoiseshells were Lancasters". The final stanza successfully brings the themes together

In the wilderness, perhaps, something understood him.
He had his own way of doing things.
Clearing his bedside table into a bag
I found a Kodacolour of me, net in hand,
twelve years old, dust thick as pollen on the glass.

On p.15 he writes "Unpicked cherries shine like ideas", inversing the usual vehicle/tenor order. Often in the poems it seems to me that vehicle and tenor have a similar ontological status even if the order isn't overturned. I have to think too hard (and ultimately in vain) about some of the imagery. I suspect many readers will have less trouble than I did. I'd better give examples of where I stumbled, rather than attempt generalizations -

  • Diluting light, the lips of the doors of the ward
    slop open. A women without legs fumbles for her name.
    Like all her stories, it floats beyond her hands
    Are the lips diluting light? No. Doors open - can their edges/lips open too? And what does "diluting light" mean? It sounds rather poetical. Can a room become less bright because a door's been opened? I guess so, and after a while, I can accept this first sentence, but by then I'm far behind the pace. I think it's the presence of the objects that complicates things for me. I'm happier giving poetic license to floating stories, etc.
  • And the heat blazed back out of cornstalks and corrugated earth,
    off the barn and chestnuts, elms and oaks,
    smouldering up to that solder sky
    "corrugated earth" (like corduroyed fields) is an over-used phrase, and whether solder's hot or cold it's always grey isn't it? Shouldn't the sky be bright blue?
  • "An interlude under Vulcan" has a note at the end of the book saying "A statue of Vulcan stands on the dome of the Town Hall in Sheffield". I can't see what allusions to Vulcan are in the poem, so why not call the poem "Interlude outside Sheffield Town Hall"? The notes could instead be used to explain "the silver billiards/ of St Paul's".
  • Rooks settle over the melting path,
    sneer, chuckle in soft-focus
    chuckle in soft-focus? And paths have melted in the book before.
  • On valves you could warm your hands like a fireside

    their filaments caterpillar flame in a mahogany box
    solid as the knowledge of cornflakes, pressed sheets,

    Robin Hood Saturdays, a warm hearth in the morning.
    As valves cool their glow drains,
    voices decline,
    though sound stays faster than light.
    I understand "caterpillar flame" though it doesn't seem a particularly apt image (I'd prefer "pipe-cleaner glow"). I recall that a black-and-white Robin Hood TV series was on Saturday mornings long ago (he was riding through the glen in the theme tune), but that would be too obscure an allusion. I don't understand the final line - does "faster" mean "more permanently" here?
  • The wind breathes like a bass drum roped to the roof rack
    straining as you gunned it up the M6,
    to the blizzard screaming for your autograph
    The first image is striking, but I doubt whether the bass drum nor the wind made a regular breathing noise. "Can I have your autograph" doesn't sound like a blizzard to me
  • Instead you toss down one by one, her phrases
    cold as farthings, nothing coins,
    spinning into white noise until you can't tell
    if they're the glint of birds sniping or hooked fish
    or deceits from that voice beguiling as candlelight whose whisper won't drown
    I struggled to parse the first 2 lines before deciding that "nothing" is used as an adjective and "coins" as a noun. The scene is "High Force", a waterfall (hence the white noise). Can a voice have a whisper? What drowns what?
  • We picnic in their lee, under the Priory tower
    cracked against clouds like a parable
    Like a parable?
  • Rooks annotate scribbled trees (p.51)
    This works for me, though it's not the book's first instance of scribbling.

There's much variety of subject matter (the commonest being dead parents, people drifting beyond normality, wind, butterflies, oranges) and a variety of other traits. "On the verge of the M40" is a sonnet. "Daphne" is written in the 1st person as a [laurel] tree. "Camberwell Beauty" is about the persona visiting their flooded home (compare it with "England Underwater" by Christopher James). "Safe House" is about the only poem that uses puns, though I'm not convinced - "you left the door unhinged ... the floorboards need a fix ... the clock's alarmed". "Planting Dorothy's garden" has no line-breaks. Exceptionally, "A rose of broken stone" has no punctuation and "Another's Lilac" is ragged-left. I know what "BFPO" means, but that doesn't help me explain why that's the title of a poem.

I couldn't find any reviews online, which is a shame because I'd like to see what others think. I'm probably reading too much into the acknowledgements, but though he's had many successes, they haven't been with the biggest mags. His competition record is more impressive - maybe "trying too hard" works better in that context. I liked many of the poems ("Tying the kite", "Presumably butterflies", "Camberwell beauty", in particular) and had my curiosity aroused by several of the others.

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