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 30 December 2015

"Pattern beyond Chance" by Stephen Payne (Happenstance, 2015)

Poems from Magma, New Walk, The Dark Horse, The Poetry Review, The Rialto, etc. There are 4 sections - "Design", "Word", "Mind", and "Time". These are topics that I try to tackle, so parts of this write-up are as much about me as the book under review.


It begins with a quote - "everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones". I thought we might be in the realm of emergent features, evolutionary psychology, and the blind watchmaker. Actually it's as much about the disparity between the general/statistical view and the particular instance.

  • The 1st poem, "The Science of the Artificial", is an indication of the shape of things to come, leaving little to chance - 4 4-lined stanzas with abab rhyme scheme about taking a dog for the usual walk to the river. Does the dog follow the beaten path, or did he make the path? The dog's a retriever, bred for a purpose he's never fulfilled. He's just "another head to scratch", the first head being the puzzled narrator's. Those paths turn up later in "The Kinds of Stranger", the itchiness/attention issue recurs in "bite", and the chicken/egg idea re-appears later too.
  • The 2nd poem, "Making a Living", concerns a man who makes money by holding the world record for balancing on a bicycle - another example of thwarted design. The narrator's suggestion to the man that "The Guinness Book of Records/ makes it hard to keep his feet on the ground" goes over the man's head. The narrator wonders how he'd cope in the same situation. Such wondering is how some people make a living.
  • I recall the 3rd poem ("The Fractal Library") from his pamphlet. I still like it. It's loosely terza rima, beginning with "He drifts in silence around the cliffs of language" which introduces the bookcase=cliff analogy and the notion of coast (which has a dimensionality between 1 and 2) where 2 elements meet. The poem ends "How long/ this coast where curiosity meets knowledge?". It depends how closely you look.

"The Scientific Method" contains the book's title and further clues - "What matters is the tendency, the pattern/ beyond chance, which calls for an explanation/ ... the exceptions/ helping to find the best theory,/ and how this is my favourite part of the process". The section ends with "Insight", hinting that progress might nevertheless happen in the blink of an eye.


This section considers various word/world mismatches. When we say "Men are taller than women" we're being imprecise, but in context people know what we mean. However "Poetry is deeper than prose" is more challenging. I tend towards the pragmatic, bottom-up approach to language, the Wittgensteinian "use is meaning" idea of words. Though I understand little about Deconstructionism I think it tries to expose the hidden binaries in our usage, how language can make us think differently. "The No-move move" (in the Design section) and "Language and Thought" both consider the implications of giving a name to the absence of something.

Just as a sculptor using wood might let the grain and knots influence the design, I think it's interesting to see where words, left to their own devices, make paths. An example is "Lover" where all but the final line contain the title - e.g. "halo very". Rhyme too can lead poets to use words they wouldn't normally use.

To save you looking up "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo" (from "Mimesis", which reports on reality replicating language), I'll point out that it's a sentence using the verb "buffalo" meaning "to bully". The repetition on the surface masks deep structure, the sentence meaning "Bison from Buffalo, which bison from Buffalo bully, themselves bully bison from Buffalo." I tried the same kind of thing once with nested, verb-terminated phrases -

Exploring the Past
Just to see if I could, I dreamt that I dreamt that
a fabled land whose lovesick King whose ancient forest
whose mighty oaks whose greenest leaves
fell, fell, fell, fell, fell.

He, like I, is tempted by the reasoning behind etymology. Compare his "Seahorse" with my "Butterflies"

Hippocampus, it's obvious
why you were given your name
but I would prefer Sea Knight,
after the chess piece.

The horse/hippo business
draws altogether
too much attention
to your lack of substance
Why are they different
in each language? Because
invaders didn't bring them.

Because they're poetic -
a Russian witch's spirit,
a stealer of butter, or onomatopoeic ...

"Given name" looks at (I think) the poet's name - "Too readily misspelled".

In "Secondhand" the narrator visits a bookshop in a strange town - "Here are the pleasures of a ritual/ that allows variation ... a find can trigger a search, re-search:/ that unravelling and mapping of the mind's network/ onto the geometry of the display". Knowledge is stored more in a nexus of interrelationships, (adaptable structures) than in words and definitions.


The initial quote starts with "If the organism carries a 'small-scale model' of external reality and of its own possible actions within its head".

"Guessing Game" includes a few opportunities for the reader along with the protagonists to guess. In "Bite" the narrator wonders how to deal with a skin irritation - "Scratching is asking for trouble/ and not-thinking is unthinkable/ so I think hard about the itch/ trying to push it to the edge of my self". Attention and consciousness go together. In "Feature", a crowd exiting a cinema "blink at the mannequins" before making a decision. The narrator notices the shadow and reflections of a woman as much as the woman herself. Then a young couple "separate/ to step either side of a puddle,/ then reach out their hands like dancers". "Equinox" is neat, using the "Life=seasons" trope.

I like "Infarct". Here's the ending along with a poem of mine -

When oxygen is compromised
an idea can expire,
like a canary in a mine.

Here at the pithead of your eyes,
where darkness spills out into light,
I'm leaning, listening for signs -
birdsong, the drum of caged flight
Crow's nests

Autumn's X-ray reveals them,
the trees suddenly old,
the crows gone, spreading.
Now you want to hide away there,
sleepless nights alone waiting

for the first sight of land,
the darkness flapping
so close to you, so huge.

Both poems involve darkness, waiting for signs, bird imagery, medical crisis, and irregular end-rhyme.

In this section I expected something more overtly tackling its opening quote. I've written a poem that alludes to Searle's thought experiment.


Here's part of the quote that begins this section - "Spatial and temporal order thus appears to be almost completely interchangeable in cerebral action". This brings to mind the memory palace (method of loci), though that's not directly alluded to here. Instead there's interaction of past (processed - a pattern; a map) and present (raw - chance), and several journeys linking them.

"A life in a day" begins rather like the earlier "Statistical Inference" but to a different end - the narrator squeezing thousands of lives into her/his own, then bookending her/his life between a memory and a flashforward to dusk.

"Chronology of the heart in two and a half rhymes" begins by quoting Aristotle, discrediting him, then resurrecting him. Compare my "Eyes" poem (which flopped at a recent workshop)

Sight is to eyes as soul is to the body - Aristotle

They glowed like pleading searchlights for centuries
until soul retreated deeper leaving sunlight to hit dust
and flowers whose scent now takes the shortest way;
two synapses to become a memory.
while in a distant Pixar studio,
optimized ray-tracing programs work back
from eyes to objects to light sources.


"Chronology of the heart in two and a half rhymes"
In the fourth century BC, Aristotle declared it the seat
of reason and the source of body heat
Twentieth-century science discovered the 'heart-
brain' ... Back to the start,
circle complete, a neurocardiological repeat
of Aristotle'a thinking heart.

"Tardis" is rather prosey. Like several other pieces, it has a context switch just when the narrator's attention might naturally drift (i.e. juxtaposing is given psychological justification). Retreating to her/his bedroom after a row in July, the narrator notices how tidy the neighbour's garden is. It's covered in snow - a set for Dr Who. The narrator watches the TV crew organise the actors as if they were "toy soldiers" (no real conflict). As they keep repeating the same scene s/he recalls a schoolboy friend whose rucksack (which they nicknamed 'The Tardis') always seemed to contain what people needed. What impressed the narrator most though "was how he managed to get everything back in". The tidiness of the snow is artificial. One suspects the row might not be easy to tidy up either.

The final poem, "Pier", begins "Beyond the waterfront parade/ of small concerns". Sometimes a pier is just a pier, but like "concerns", the title might be a pun. In the final stanza the narrator admits that it might be vain (or in vain) to keep up appearances, but "it's what I've come here for./ I'll walk the pier's full length and take/ the air toward my father's shore", thus concluding the book with a further reference to time.


Let's first wring what we can from the title. Pattern tends to be static (maybe spatial), while chance is more to do with time and outcomes. Though they're both steeped in theory, strange things can happen once humans are involved. We seek narratives, see constellations rather than stars. Spurious patterns bait conspiracy theorists, and wish-fulfillment or poor understanding of probability affects our hopes. How often need something happen before we give up thinking it's just luck? In the upper-cased title on the cover, the letters P E N A N E are in black, and A T T R C H C in grey. Go figure.

About a third of the poems are in a form - often a known one (there are 2 sonnets for example), sometimes in a nonce form - e.g. "Chronology of the heart in two and a half rhymes". The 4th line of the 6-lined stanzas of "Pier" is indented by a character-width, but otherwise space-management is conventional.

There's much about making the familiar analysable, the rituals of the everyday seen as accumulated pattern topped by chance - folded maps; long walks. There are no thought-experiments. We rarely lose sight of reality, of the raw material though not many poems fall into the "observation -> interpretation/moral" template. Nor is there much untouched nature - canals and gardens predominate over rivers and wilderness. There are hints in some final lines that the incidents of the poem are more personal or serious than they appear, though the tone is conversational, helpful and friendly rather than confessional. It's not a collection that has a competition winner or two then chaff - if you like some of the poems I think you'll like many of them. I only struggled seeing the value of the poems on p.20 and p.51 ("uncrushable" doesn't save it). I didn't get the proverb on p.39. At the end of the book I felt some unrealised expectations, but these expectations were self-generated, a consequence of reading the author's bio -

  • I'd have liked to have seen him let rip once in a while, just to see what might happen if he risked being accused of obscurity, or if he started a poem where a previous one finished, feeling no duty to return to the world of experience in the final line.
  • There are mentions of team-work - "every marriage needs a packer and a carrier" ("Plato"); "Even our quarrels are a joint production" ("Collaboration"). But to me the reader/writer collaboration offers more opportunities. I see no harm in writers being explicit about their awareness of the reader/writer negotiation as a poem's read. I think more writers (or at least tutors) should read books like Mind, Brain and Narrative" by Anthony J. Sanford and Catherine Emmott otherwise they'll be like geese flying in a formation they don't understand.

The page numbers mentioned in the otherwise useful notes are wrong (but only in the paperback version, apparently).

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