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, 4 May 2016

"Notes relating to an idea of blue" by David HW Grubb (Shearsman, 2011)

Poems from Poetry Review, Smiths Knoll, Shearsman, The North, Interpreter's House, Ambit, etc. I've liked his poems that I've seen in magazines, and have wondered why he's not better known. This is the first book of his that I've read. There are over 110 pages of poetry, and he's written dozens of other books. And the pages are quite packed - lines are usually long, often with prose line-breaks though on p.101 there's this uncharacteristic paragraph - "this empty/ kettle,/ dirty plate,/ cold/ seat,/ dry/ closing?".

I noticed that he frequently uses a scaffolding of repeated phrases (e.g. "I think I forgot to tell you" p.12; "We don't do" p.15; "And it is a ... tiger" p.41; "I am looking after my father" p.49; "A whistling woman" p.77) to hold together mixed-register lists. The first, title poem illustrates the mix - there's "The lupin rising like a saxophone seeking jazz", mundane talk about a dead hedgehog then a penultimate paragraph of "We write these things down so that we might find meanings and sometimes we do not tell anybody, especially those we love".

An image can be spread across several poems - e.g. there's a dead horse episode -

  • "When we brought the dead horse down from the top field we had to use ropes and the tractor and six men. We stood around drinking cold tea and there were stories. And all the time I thought of the horse's head beneath the sacking and the early morning light that was still inside it" p.12
  • "always a man in the top field" p.14
  • "men with ropes" p.17
  • "There were horses here once;/ they owned the top field" p.18
  • "Taking the dead horse down from the field/ late in the afternoon took six men and two boys/ and bottles of cold tea ... It took ropes and chains ... its head was still full of morning" p.19
  • "when the horse died in the glebeland there were six men who came with ropes and chains to drag it away" p.63

It's almost as if the poems were overlapping drafts, or a single long piece with leitmotifs. He repeats "angels", recently becoming a ghost, "gates", "nettles", birds (especially dead owls), trees (especially ancient ones), "pianos", making stories, and "meaning" too. The repeated use of certain symbols lends an off-the-shelf, assembled feel to his heightened passages. While other poets use the moon to invoke mystery, he falls back on his dictionary of symbols, sending in the clowns, or grass, or children. Every so often he soars - e.g. "I waited for you by the summer house/ as another blue day became words// and then I went back and got on/ with my death.// It was like eating rain at first and then/ I met Chagall and he painted a motorcycle// which took us everywhere" (p.21) though I have doubts about passages like -

  • "These are the eyes of a woman who has witnessed the bearded Albanian nuns/ as they went out each dawn seeking the nests of silver blue unicorns" (p.54)
  • "Here we are at the Pitt Rivers looking into a cask/ of invisible years and lost babies and there is a man swallowing Hitler/ and a gallery of eyes" (p.50)

"Light" is spiritual - "the moments of sudden light when stillness pearls/ and we settle for the fact that we exist within essential mysteries" p.51. "Stars" are a convenient short-hand too - "I noticed his wine glass was full of stars" p.11; "with their glasses half filled with wine half filled with stars" p.76. After the heightened moments, there's often a falling back to his symbols of the non-spiritual - "in the barn we waited for the ordinary to/ return, the collapse of the miraculous, an end/ to angels, the sound of a tractor, gulls yawping" p.47.

When the writing goes wrong - p.32, p.34, p.59 for example - it falls flat, splatters. Some poems just seem to be shuffling the ideas of other poems, especially towards their end - "Fear of clowns" mentions horses, clowns (fair enough) then yet again , nettles and stars. "Memory" ends with stock imagery - "And now I expect memory will more and more/ become what we tell our children/ about sunsets and the gaps in the photograph album/ and why you have to be careful with stories about owls". Even when it goes right, readers may need to do some editing on the poet's behalf. Were he a songwriter I might say that he comes up with catchy melodies ("The discovery of a love letter that you never posted" p.44) and interesting, less mainstream phrases ("Beethoven rocking in the silence of his own notations" p.44), then bundles these phrases together in various combinations, hoping for the best. That method will work for a while, and the results will be distinguishable from more mainstream texts. Sometimes there'll be a fortuitous combination of ingredients, but there's more to constructing a song than that, and less can be more. I sometimes get the feeling he could jog along for ages and pages. As in athletics, even increasing the intensity by a little can drastically reduce endurance, and might reduce the frequency of idle speculation like "Then there come these days when what you would wish for/ slides away into another life; some other space that may not in/ fact exist; but then that is so with many of our hours and ways" p.122.

Had I read a pamphlet's worth of my favourite poems from this book, I think I would have been impressed. It's not really fair to mark him down for including so many extra pieces. After all, in Art it's common to exhibit works that share imagery (guitars and bottles for example). On an album of songs however, melodies and lyrics wouldn't be shared. I like "Ice", "On the Seventh Day", "A Short Guide", "A snowman", "The colours of music", "Ghost dancing etc", and "Where the sea and the sky seem to meet". I would have liked "The Owl Wife Speaks" more had I not read several of its ideas before in other poems. I didn't think any of the "Saint Francis" poems merited inclusion. There's a typo on p.87 - "the house made if ice".

Other reviews

He has been published by Stride, Salt and Shearsman. He was 3rd in the 2006 National Poetry Competition, and a winner in the 2012 Book and Pamphlet Competition. His writing has been praised by John Fowles, D.M. Thomas, Ronald Blythe, Selima Hill, Adrian Mitchell, Peter Redgrove, John Silkin and John Burnside, though online I found no reviews, only extracts -

  • 'His poems, often growing out of his work in conflict zones or areas of extreme poverty, are suffused with political accountability. Combine this with a less than conventional syntax and a talent for rendering physical qualities with authenticity and you have something special.' - Tim Liardet
  • 'Imagism and ‘the moment’ lie at the heart of these fragmentary sequences, though narrative always feels possible, even insistent. A reminder that poetry might be extracted from everywhere and anything. And that every poem, no matter how brief, is ‘a small story.’' - Simon Armitage

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