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, 27 February 2016

"Conquest" by Zoe Brigley (Bloodaxe, 2012)

In the first 5 poems, there's absolutism at the volta ("at last", line -9 of poem 1; "not even", line -3 of poem 2; "never-told", line -6 of poem 3; "Nothing", line -5 of poem 4; "never", line -5 of poem 5) which may not be statistically significant, but fits the feeling I get.

In "Behind the Looking Glass" after hints of domestic violence, "she realised at last that not even love could justify this, that no affection could, not ever. Still, in the glass, she sees her own mouth, opening and closing and silent as a fish", which doesn't sound like a new idea. In "Passage", "the first man she knew/ was a storm that stopped her voyage dead in unknown waters. Later, she was the captain issuing feeble orders/ and going down bravely with the ship" which again uses standard imagery. Towards the end "she sits on the quayside with the basking fishwives;/ they watch the ladies go by with the protection of cloisters,/ those women who are never to sail out of harbour". The next poem, "Diptych for a Pear Tree", follows this up - "On a quest to find you, after journeys by sea,/ sickened by waves and cursed by sailors,/ I find myself a nun in a silent oratory".

I don't know quite what to make of poems like "The Fir Tree Prisoner" - pre-Freudian, but beyond that, what? It's headed by a quote from Wuthering Heights in a section where poems hover between past and present. I quite liked "Glyph" which lost me towards the end. "My Spinalonga Passion" kept my interest and became my favourite poem. "Infertility" more directly tackles an issue already alluded to, but adds little to what others have written. "The Guide" is weak. "The Myth of the Unicorn" puzzled me. "The Face in the Mirror" combines some previous imagery - "When I close a door to him, he finds a window/ and what does it matter: one more break-in, another wreck/ of a promise? I have been his mirror all this time/ and he gazes into me as if to find himself out". "Full Moon, Full Bloom" begins with "One slow summer, years ago, the electricity plant/ collapsed to blackness at the wane of day/ and I sat with a battery torch while the sun wrecked/ itself on the far hills and plunged into night-time", whose ornate diction puzzles me.

Much of the book is influenced by form, though it's not always obvious. "The Love of a Husband" starts with "Because when she shuts a door, he opens a window", and ends with "Because when she shuts a window, he opens a door". "Because" begins the other (often mundane) lines. "Night-sea Journey" is a villanelle. The notes say that she twice "uses a variation on the double sestina form", and that "Arches" is a cut-up poem. In her blog she wordles the book. She writes that "repeated words like ‘garden,’ ‘window,’ ‘long,’ ‘flower,’ ‘never,’ and ‘dreams’ feature prominently in Conquest. I have always liked repetition in poetry: the sense that in reading an entire book you are circling round and round the same ideas. I think that’s why I chose to use the sestina form twice in this new book." She points out that in her sestina form, "each stanza has fourteen lines like a sonnet, and fourteen repeated words". Some of these stanzas are prose poems, and the repeated words aren't always at the line endings.

Within the forms she shows she can do conventional imagery - "my baby died like a whale onland/ in the dull, persistent light of the sonograph" (p.36) or "American dreams are ill-fitting shoes that fatten/ your heel to a blister. They appear as a figure/ that you try to greet from a long way off; to your call,/ lost in the din of the city, he never answers anything" (p.41). But (irrationally) I get the feeling that the forms (and moral obligations of residencies, etc) were triggers without which several of these pieces wouldn't have existed.

Other reviews

  • Peter DeVille (The problem of the significance of a good proportion of the poems is that the poet’s finger weighs a tad too heavily on the balance)
  • Nia Davies -(there is ... a patchiness which I noticed throughout the collection ... experiences are nearly always told from this one perspective – of a woman in peril. I came to suspect this straight-looking narrative viewpoint. ... The pained voice and the tales of mistreated women return in a whole sequence in the last section, The Lady and the Unicorn. By this point I felt weary of reading about another genteel lady trapped in a man’s world surrounded by totemic objects and with all her ‘faith in pleasure wrecked’ ... Poems like ‘Farming Florida’, ‘Love and the Orchid’ and ‘Pennsylvania Winter’ do contain some of the flaws mentioned earlier but they were also some of my favourites. They show Brigley’s unique flair for a rich weave of intertextual language and narrative. Her striking symbols and talismans act as way-marking breadcrumbs, guiding you through this exotically illuminated storybook of poems.)

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