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, 23 January 2016

"First Things When" by Robert Rehder (Carcanet, 2009)

The first section of 13 poems is called "Snow". The poems have partly-interchangable imagery and are all in couplets (flicking through, I realised he's wedded to couplets throughout the book). Here we have many of the standard themes that are related to snow in poetry. I liked the first poem, "In Media Res", though I thought the content was spread rather thinly - does "On the fruit trees/ You cannot distinguish// The blossom/ From the snow" really need 5 lines? On p.20 "Every tree is a fruit tree". On p.4 the snow is like a "Piano with no black keys" and on p.5 "The snow turns the page./ The familiar disappears". On p.18 "Things disappear - The price of renewal". There are "white words" on p.17, "White on White" on p.21. Does the overlapping, intensify the experience? Or do diminishing returns take over? Do the white-space frames help focus the reader's attention on detail, or make the text over-precious?

The 2nd section, "Back in the USA", begins "Here we are, on my old stamping grounds,/ The whole family,// Me Caroline and Katherine,/ Enjoying the excitement// Of shopping after dark at K-mart/ And hearing people talk about internet" which leads on to interesting enough material, but not many words per page. "Farmers' Market" begins with "What do you do when you meet a rhubarb pie/ And it says "Smile" on it?// There I am in the farmers' market,/ Minding my own business,// And there's this pie, communicating. I didn't want to be rude,// But that's the kind of thing that pisses me off./ You don't always know how to respond.// I have the good old American reaction:/ Kick it in the face". It's the style of anecdote-based stand-up. The final punchline is "I had fewer problems with 'Good Morning'/ And 'I Love You'// On the blackberry,/ At least, it wasn't telling me what to do.". As humour goes, it probably wouldn't satisfy an audience for long. A poetry audience might welcome the relaxed tone, the lack of artifice, the way that poetic matter is communicated without the need for poeticisms. But is there enough poetic matter to compensate? And what about all/ those/ line-breaks? Comics can add surrealism, observation and sadness while being funnier than this. I like "Star Wars" though the succeeding poem overlaps it. Passages like "That's the wonderful thing/ About Cultural Studies,// You stop thinking/ And have all these great ideas." (p.47) and "Nostalgia is our response to loss./ I'm really not up for any new drama.// Where is Aeschylus now that we need him?/ My life is difficult enough" (p.49) aren't good enough for me, even mediated through a persona.

"Yellow" is the best of a bad bunch that comprises the "The World Elsewhere" section. There's a joke - "At least when it's hot in Iowa// You're in Iowa" (p.56).

The final section, "And What Should I Do in Illyria", ends with "The city is delicately balanced/ Upon the lagoon,// permanently at risk./ Words, empty museums". It involves Venice, using some ideas from the poem before it, and other familiar ideas. Were one of these two poems not his, he'd have been done for copying.

Other reviews

  • Charles Bainbridge (Guardian) (Rehder's writing darts across the page in restless couplets weaving the anecdotal and the aphoristic with self-parodying immediacy ... A sense of comedy pervades, although the self-referential tone can at times seem false)
  • John Clegg (For such a funny book, First Things When is startlingly bleak. Rehder’s theme is vacancy – physical, cultural and mental – and he rides it with a mixture of bemusement and anger. ... First Things When is curt and savage and hilarious)

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