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 December 2015

"Later Selected Poems" by Sheenagh Pugh (Seren, 2009)

Over 150 pages of poetry chosen from 5 books (1993-2005).

The essence of her poems can't often be pinned down to single sound-bite, but sometimes amongst the elevated, descriptive language there are stepping stones, outcrops of significance, to navigate by.

There are several "Life as a journey" poems

  • Here's the start and end of the 5 page "Climbing Hermaness", with some detail in between -
    "At the end of all things/ there is a flower meadow ... There is a great longing/ to go no further ... But most go on ... So they start upward, watched/ by the incurious cattle/ on the beach, munching blue gentians/ that taste of salt ... The path is not, at first,/ steep ... Guidebook words/ put things in their place. Ahead,/ the child with sparkling hair/ touches a silver finger/ to his mouth, tasting the wonder ... It is a hut/ on the edge of sight/ you have to make for ... There is a coldness/ of mist, sun-pierced; it swirls/ below you, blanking out/ the world ... The old voyagers/ would have set sail,/ hearts thudding,/ for the edge, but you know/ there are no edges. ... there is no insight, no knowledge/ to take back ... What lives here is for itself: it must stay, when you go down/ the only way you can"
    Here we see the sanctity of nature and insights of children as we continue the journey of life - I've used similar tricks (and could have used many of the phrases verbatim) in The Big Climb, but that's a story. "What If This Road" is a similar template.
  • In "Under Way" a male leaves the island where's spent much time. He's on a ferry to the mainland. At the end, looking back, he sees "the scattering wake no longer reached so far, he could follow the line back to the white gleam; it was still there, but only because he knew it was"
  • "Far Places" adds a generational twist - "So he made it, in the end, to the top of the west ridge, half an hour longer by the road, while his sons went straight up ... every distant, high, uncommon place is getting further, harder, more effort for the same prize ... And his throat clamps with grief for the far places, snapshots in a frame, dim memories, a shard of silver rock turned in the hand. The glint isn't the same out of the sun; you never get it back"

"The Silver Kite" also has a symbolic armature that's quite an effective prose paraphrase - "Coming back from Kwik-Save ... he sees the silver kite ... He misses his turning, neck cricked, following. It dances ahead, teasing him through that grid of shabby terraces ... A man could lose himself in sameness ... There was a woman once, who passed him with an echo of scent, and he tracked the bright wake of her hair ... He is starting to feel lost; he aches with looking. It will hurt to turn his back, to let it go, but he is such a man".

There are some aspects of her poetry that I don't get. Clearly she has a winning formula, and in some cases I sympathize with her supposed intent even if I can't applaud the execution.

  • Researched sequences - I don't get "Five Voices", "Voices in Mousa Broch", "The Arctic Circle" or "Lady Franklin's Man". I don't understand why such sequences are written - the risk of research dominating poetry, and of bloat, are too great. I got the feeling that sometimes the poems were repeated attempts to versify the same subject matter (in the way that "The Fiddler Willie Hunter" and "This Basement Room" are 2 stabs at the same topic, with shared imagery)
  • Line-breaks - To me, the book has hundreds of useless line-breaks. In the sequences especially, where content takes even greater precedence over language, the line-breaks look gratuitous.
  • Genre - I'm ok with the idea of poetry being a broad church. I do poem-essays and light verse. But "Lockerbie Butter" is a none too original article. "Best Jesus in Show" is more fun, but still an article. They're both a few line-breaks away from being nearly ready to publish as prose.
  • Idea and development - When I used the idea behind "The Beautiful Lie" knowing that others had used it before, I didn't linger. Here the development takes a full page, adding little. In quite a few poems I liked the premise but not the sagging exposition. Ideas that I'd use as a sub-plot stanza here take centre stage. "The Pursuit of Happiness" for example has a good idea. Here's the start and end - "But he only said/ you had a right to chase it:/ he never mentioned// catching it up./ Like that coyote,/ forever in pursuit// of the road-runner .... And if you caught it,/ if you ever did,/ wouldn't it taste stringy,// all muscle and disappointment,/ and what would you do/ with the rest of your life?" It's the middle and all those line-breaks that seems wasteful. A page later, "The Extra" replicates the pattern and proportions. In "Sandman" is there a dead body in the sand? No, it's a sand-sculpture of a father by kids too old for castles. The narrator disappears after the first stanza of a rather long poem where things are spelt out, only to make the briefest of returns. I'm not keen on obscurity, but these poems lean too far the other way for my liking.

"The Time Is Now", "Two Retired Spymasters", "Frost Greyface", "The Frozen", "The Tormented censor", "The City of Empty Rooms", "Pause: Rewind", "Crossing the Bridge", "Making Contact", "Going to Liverpool", and "Buying Vinyl" seem very slight (padding for a collection, but this is a Selected!). "Envying Owen Beattie" is good. I liked "Missing Scenes", "Sandman" and "The Last Wolf in Scotland" too.

Other reviews

  • Frances Spurrier (Pugh shares with Carol Ann Duffy a genius for deceptively simple poetry so that the handling of technique, of metre, rhyme and half rhyme, passes almost unnoticed)

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