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, 5 September 2015

"The Illuminated World" by Jemma Borg (Eyewear, 2014)

Poems from Agenda, MsLexia, The Oxford Magazine, Poetry London, Poetry Review, Stand, etc. She has a Ph.D in evolutionary genetics. The shortest poem's roughly sonnet length. Many are far longer than that - "Can I only tell you about the rain?" is 4 pages long, and "A Summer Diary" is even longer. If some of the poems fail, it's not through lack of ambition.

The book begins with a few science/math pieces. I followed "How it is with the circle" until

What does a circle become if you puncture it?
All lines and roads and scars. Did Euclid
consider this? Arcs rejoining to make circlets

"The mathematician" begins and ends thus -

From his window, he could see snow falling as the fractals
he couldn't see but which he relied on being there
There were some things
of which he could be certain. The rest was love

"Chromatography" and "Ghazal" seem mistitled to me. Both are list poems, the first describing violet in various ways ("It is the shade of a bruise ... at the edges of a rainbow, ... If it could, it would wear robes of roses.// It would not be itself at all"), the second describing animals in a zoo ("The gorilla holds his old man's wisdom/ in his hands, in his dried-riverbed skin"). Both have a little list-transcending ending.

I liked "A short treatise on a squid". I liked "The cave's art" too, though it resorts to "interesting" indentation - a shame because the content's interesting, ending by comparing caves with cathedrals

         what is the weight and grain

of marble is not clearest in the quarry
         - not in that wound - but in the temples
the mind will come to make, so as to cover

         the wild rose of its loneliness

"The long river" has the awkward line-breaks and indents as well. This time though, the content doesn't compensate. She sometimes sounds as if she's speaking in riddles in order to avoid unheightened language. "You carry lateness rather than decide" (p.19) for example includes a rather arbitrary substitution, as if trying to be too poetic. And here's a description of (I presume) looking at Saturn in a telescope - "Tilted by an hour, it drops - lens by lens - / to arrive at my eye and light, directly, my mind:/ I see it! The distance between us is nothing!". I presume that it hasn't taken an hour to tilt, but that the tilt is as much as an hour's segment on a clock. I presume that the planet hasn't fallen but that the light passes through more than one lens. And I wonder how intertextual that final line's supposed to be - later in the poem there's "I wake to find nothing asleep", and the succeeding poem concludes with "The distances between us are growing". By now I'm beginning to think that following such leads will be a wild goose chase.

At times the rhetoric begins to sound hollow. The layouts don't help to encourage readers to trust that there's a purpose to it all. "A century of ravens in flight" is in 6 stanzas of 4 nearly-equal length lines. It begins with "You were right: it was a century of ravens/ in flight, a thousand crosses revealing/ nothing of the graves chalking the mud/ in the intricacies of daylight, nothing// of the grief dividing the breathless black/ of night or the stench of hair behind/ the mirror's image". "intricacies of daylight" sounds precious. What is the "stench of hair"? Isn't "behind/ the mirror's image" rather overdoing it?

"Meditations on the apology" has 5 unenjambed stanzas of 3 nearly-equal length lines. Lots of eyes, then the idea that errors and beauty might go together - "the error was seductive ... Doesn't disease love a rose? The body is an ornament of error". Then another riddle - "It corrupts a little more each day, like a word/ whispered ear to ear and its spine softly ruined". Answer? Chinese whispers, which another poet has compared to DNA mutation during cell division.

"A summer diary" begins "Arrow to my heart, arrow to my belly" (3 pages earlier there's "An arrow point flew into my belly"). The imagery describes fertility treatment - egg extraction and embedding. I find some of the imagery and wording distracting ("knock and counterknock"?) but it mostly works, and when it works, it's effective. The next poem, "The boat" , is about miscarriage and is more moving - on the scan can be seen something "like an upturned boat/ not yet sunk, but full, sodden". Finally, "When is it you cannot be born into?/ Everywhere, I look for signs/ and see them. // They hang like flags to the mast of this world."

"At the solstice" shows her at her most relentlessly figurative

Fog hangs on the hillside like an unslept night.
In fields, horses appear and disappear
         like sounds imprisoned in a storm.

The frost crackles gently.

Only half the bulbs in the sky are working
         and even the moon has failed
in its arguments about love.

See how the bareness of the trees
         makes the sky into a broken vase.

I guess it's inevitable with such a style that the imagery's going to be rather hit'n'miss. Here for example, the final image has been used by me and others before - one of my old poems has "Lost for words, the sky seeps through cracks in glued porcelain, or more simply, dead, brittle elm branches that would love to sway in storms for old time’s sake". And the indents aren't line continuations, so what are they?

There's a snippet of science in the final poem, though it's not entirely successful - "As hydrogen with hydrogen/ takes oxygen's hand in its own/ and shapes from those courtesies// the soft machines of clouds, the bolts of summer rain, let's make again/ a sacredness from the bared world" (p.66).

Nothing's boring, though there are poems that feel as if they're dutifully written on commission. "Relic" is about the discovery of background radiation, but that's about it. "An entry on flint" (about Grimes Graves) has odd indentation and doesn't get far. "Engines of the travelling earth" is an overly grandoise title. I didn't like "Drawing the ladder", "The lover of Amazonian catfish" or "Song". "Goodnight in Bethnal Green" is perhaps the kind of poem that has to be written. At least this instance is good of its type.

All in all, a book that's well worth a read.

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