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, 2 April 2016

"Plenty-fish" by Sarah James (Nine Arches Press, 2015)

Poems from "The Rialto", "Under the Radar", "Tears in the Fence", "Magma" etc. I like their variety of content and technique - "Still the Apple" can be read as from an apple's point-of-view - a new one on me, and it works. "Cactus Ballgown" is an imperative poem - every book should have one. "Cutting to the Bone" begins by describing inherited knives, then considering self-harm, which like the family heirlooms could be a form of discovery. "Shells" begins with sea-shells, then more symbolic shells - ones that both protect and trap - then their lack. "Let's Remember" begins "The therapist urges, then instructs me, to view my life/ as if from above, events pegged out on a line, housewifely,/ as though drying will smooth creases". "Looking Back In Fragments" has a potentially interesting fusion of text and notes. It might be the best poem in the book. I like "Some Prayer" as well, and "Endurance".

The family poems on p.33-40 deal with sorting through old, unused baby-clothes, being out-teched by kids, the supposed superiority of "real" contact, and dead goldfish - issues that have all been dealt with in too similar ways before, both in poetry and prose.

I was puzzled by several phrases elsewhere. In situations where the narrator's puzzled by tech (p.33-34, say) the language simplifies. Similarly where the reader might be puzzled it would be helpful to the reader for the language to be simpler too. The surface complications tend to arise where the poem itself isn't trying to be ambitious. I seem to have more trouble with the poems that use terms from science. I think I'm trying to read too much into the wrong things, and elsewhere missing the point.

  • The middle stanzas of "Walking under Water" is "Clouds empty their cache:/ a tip-tap, tap-tip binary/ on thinly-clothed bones' tissue skin". The technology terms suddenly introduced here disappear just as quickly, and that 3rd line's a mite verbose. In the end, not much is said. In "This Holy Shrine" too, the words try to kick life into an otherwise too quiet poem - there's "tempers stumble", "stubbed silence" and "glazed dumbness" - ornamental poetisms or compressed imagery? I'm unsure.
  • In "Wired Flesh" "The multi-socket on our lounge carpet/ is a charged bomb of white plastic;/ fuse-leads snaking.// My son rushes in, plants small explosions of love on my cheeks". In which sense is the multi-socket a charged bomb? It doesn't even work as a visual image. And why symbolically connect that bomb with the small explosions of kisses?
  • "Small Deceptions" has "a different blend of Hertz*", the * footnote being "Specific frequencies of light reflected by an object trigger specific cones and rods in the eye. This determines which colours our brain perceives", whose relevance escapes me. If that is worth footnoting however, then surely "spectral light" is too. Elsewhere in the book footnotes aren't used conventionally, so maybe this footnote is playful.
  • "And When" begins with "Blue lights sequence incessantly -/ LED-blips strung at life's corners", which manages both to use too many words and miss out useful ones. Xmas decorations? A hospital? Eye problems? It later has "My neoned retina stitched from strange/ fragments of nucleus, unstranded". Why "neoned retina"? What is "fragments of nucleus"? My guess is that "unstranded" alludes to DNA. Then there's "To each their own abstractions/ in tissue, these encoded failings". "encoded failings" suggests DNA again. It ends with "no swerving from the neon blip/ that now crushes towards me.". We had "LED-blips" earlier. Why have we gone from plural blips to singular, from LED to neon? In what sense can't one swerve to avoid being crushed? When driving? When fate becomes inescapable?
  • Given the length of the "in the Ointment" footnote I wonder whether the poem's worth the bother.
  • In "Van Gogh's Other Mistress" what does "vanilla sunflowers on her tongue" mean? Perhaps "vanilla" means "standard"? Perhaps "sunflowers" is a verb? I didn't understand the end of "The Hummingbird Case" though the poem began simply and pleasantly enough.
  • In "Bewitching" there's "In place of old ways, everything tested,/ proved, explained. Except how stars/ speed away from us faster than gravity/ should allow, while the lit-up castle/ projects its own constellations". Is so much really explained? In what way does the castle project its constellations? Like a planetarium? The footnote says "Currently, the universe's rate of expansion is accelerating when laws of gravity should mean it is decelerating". If the image needs so much explanation, why bother with it?
  • "Endurance" has some good images relating to dandelions ("steady its unbalanced mass against winds/ and raindrops' Cossack dances ... Asterisks fall at our feet ... defiant stars on stilts,/ striking up at the sky"), but rather than use "Taraxacum" and have a footnote to explain that it means "dandelion", why not just use "dandelion", or change the title?

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