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, 26 September 2015

"The Shark Cage" by Laura Seymour (Cinnamon, 2015)

Poems from Orbis, Ambit, Envoi, and there's a 3rd prize Ledbury poem.

"The National Grid" has the clarity of a Magritte, and the strangeness of one too. I like it. I struggle more with

The window cushions
fold their elbows.

(though it becomes a little clearer later), and

I want the rock that sloshes with water
from the poles of Mars.
Liquid that was charmed
to splitting needles like a startled hare,

This latter is especially flummoxing. There are no notes, so I looked up "Gryphaea" - it's a genus of extinct oysters. I can understand in some sense (but not in others) the first 2 lines. Why "sloshes with" rather than the more correct "is sloshed by"? Lines 3 and 4 pile difficulty upon difficulty. Is "splitting" a verb or an adjective? In what sense "like a startled hare", and why a hare rather than the more common rabbit - to pun on "hair"? What does it have to do with the phrase from "The National Grid" - "Her hair is a fistful of knitting needles"? I think there's a theory that water arrived on Earth in comets or meteorites, so perhaps this passage alludes to water-laden meteorites from Mars streaking across the sky. While I'm at it, why the line-breaks? 10/5/5/10 syllabics? Not after these lines.

"May Day" begins "We wrap our gunpowder in cartoons". Fireworks? In stanza 3 gunpowder returns - "We progress from a matchstick/ to a clunky oxtail fuse,/ from powder scraped from cap-guns/ to salt-petre, nitre, magnesium for colour". But I can't see what all his has to do with the rest of the poem.

"Sheltered housing" begins "The estate agents carved their soles/ into cows' hooves/ when they carried my grandparents away". Again, the syntactic ambiguity adds cognitive load to an already challenging sentence. What object was "carved"?

  • Did the agents shape their soles into the shape of hooves
  • or, like carving a name on a hoof, do they carve their sole onto to hooves?

The pun on "sole" doesn't seem accidental, yet isn't effective. Are they devil's hooves? Ah,

  • 4 pages back there's "Gryphaea" - the fossils are known as Devil's toenails
  • 2 pages back there's "My devil's feet ... my own feet grow shaggy, my toes fuse, nails curl"
  • 1 page back there's "I paw the carpet with boar's spattering hooves"

So what's going on? It's as if related imagery been randomly shared out between a few poems. The continuation of "Sheltered housing" may seem just as obscure, but I'm much happier with it - "I hand out leaflets with descriptions: / 'Man. My face,/ floating on his neck/ like a printed erratum slip pasted/ over a better word.'// 'Woman. Every time she bites/ an apple my mouth fills/ with pixellated fruit'." (but why is that final period inside the quotemarks when the previous quote ended differently, punctuation-wise?)

The first section, entitled "The Shark Cage" and commencing with a poem of the same name, ends with "The sea is a cage of ferrets,/ squirming, completely red/ beneath you." strengthening the conjecture that there's organisation at the section level, between poems.

The second section, "Carol", begins with "Carol" whose 2nd stanza follows on from a discussion of someone's previous bodies. It begins

I see at one time she was a piece of quartz
in the path I trod daily.

which is fair enough. It continues

In another an unscratchable snake

In another what? Path, I presume. And is "unscratchable" alluding to the earlier quartz? Let's read on

swiping throbbing fangs

So is the snake stealing or hitting the fangs? And can fangs throb? Let's continue

a metre from my neck
in a train station.

So it wasn't a path, because stations don't have paths. That said, one's path through life could take one through all sorts of stations. I'm confused on more than one level.

I like "By appointment only" but not "X" or "Boadicea Scents Hugo Boss". "My Past Life 1: My Leg, 1907" has a plot - a husband (the poem's from his PoV) dies on the shore after a heavy night. His wife collects his bodyparts for 6 years in a bag, then buries it. Then "After she dies, I spend a century/ watching my leg float towards Greenland".

The "(Imagined) Homecomings" section begins with "Mick Dresses as a Zebra", which I like. p.39 has another cage - a conjurer makes it (and the strong man inside) disappear, which may have a significance beyond this poem. The 3 stanzas of "God" begin successively with "The whole research team", "What is the force", and "My father,/ the reason for atoms" as if 3 theories are being advanced. "Visitation" could be a thinly masked tale of what happens if you don't take the meds (or in this case, the plantain juice). Stanza 2 of "Winter Post" is Felliniesque - "An upturned whale in the wood/ tilts side to side,/ lit orange with arm-linked silhouettes./ Cinnamon, sherry, nutmeg,/ artichoke, plums, wine/ served in its belly to the crack of clarinets". Crack of clarinets? If "Parsley Tea" is "just" about a drink-induced abortion, it doesn't really do enough.

"Maria" is a the final section. "Ermines" and "Cheetah" are linear tales. "Cutting Chips"'s final stanza is "Lobsters lumber gently across/ the kitchen. I kill them for my father/ as he tears neon antennae,/ leading straight to the government,/ from his oldest potatoes". Don't expect the earlier stanzas to provide the justification for this. "The Laughing Gas Party" ends with "Maria is crying and crying, her cheeks/ aching with mirth", whose obviousness contrasts with stanza 3's "Anther takes an umbrella made/ of stomach skin and flies/ to the lemonade moon.". I wonder if "Anther" should be "Another" or "Anthea". I like the image at the start of "Dee" - "Bags of your clothes huddle in the cellar/ like backs before an execution" and the one that concludes "His Difficulty with Jigsaws" - "He has lost/ a piece of the sky."

The style (actually several surrealist styles from lucid fables to wild, cluttered imagery) of the poems isn't really to my taste, though the poems are interesting enough even to an outsider like me. I think too many of the poems have disposable parts (e.g. the first stanza of p.22) or parts that in themselves do nothing for me, nor can I see what they connect to beyond the poem or book.

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