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, 11 June 2016

"Better than god" by Peter Porter (Picador, 2009)

Poems from Ambit, TLS, Staple, Spectator, Warwick Review, etc.

"The Apprentice's Sorcerer" (7 6-lined stanzas) has features that anti-Formalists will dislike. At the LHC "Scientists seek to animate the soul/ Of everything that's classified as Life". More generally,

Each innovator served an inner voice
Superbly iterating sounds of Truth,
some from a lifetime's wisdom, some from youth,
And none believing they had any choice -
But who among these bristling handers-down
Of the Aurora of New Birth knew verb from proper noun

What do those final words mean? Knew process from product? Knew "becoming" from materialism? Anyway, finally,

The love which moves the sun and the other stars
Is syntax-negligent, and may never parse

which is beyond me. Does it just mean that love can't be analysed? Plotwise I prefer "We do Not Write the Way We Are" (5 7-lined stanzas). Mother said to the narrator "you start out rhyming, she declared,/ but go your own way into dread/ with bed sores and bad words". But the narrator discovers that "in those dreams she willed me have/ I dug around her missing grave - / now write that up, she said." In the final stanza

a circumstantial Truth
without the vanity of proof
is mixing in my double mind
with darkness lining up behind.
an unfree kind of Free Trade Zone,
a Fascist rule insisting words
report to me alone.

"Whereof We Cannot Speak" continues the theme of investigating/challenging the world using language. Studying the human species

Under the microscope it seems
to be covered in odd parasites
called words, and like the pigeon must
talk to walk, nodding at dreams.

The poem ends saying

subversive rhyme suggests that herds

Of metaphors with sharper beak
tear at the silence of unease:
a philosopher feels on his cheek
the tears whereof he cannot speak.

"tear" and "tears" must be more than coincidence - metaphors make suffering palpable?

Poems like "Because We Can" and "The Dead Have Plans" don't have much of a message, and don't convey that message interestingly. I don't see the point of them, though of course I could be missing something - quite a few things, perhaps. He's an idea-dropper and theory-dropper in the way that others are name-droppers, but at his worst he wrote doggerel with long words. I think I understand the science allusions in "Strontium to Mendeleyev" but that doesn't help. I even understand most of "Vita Somnium Breve" which includes "a poet who basked/ In the Avant-Garde's gestural playing/ And ended, a case of self-slaying?// Where love broke her words into pain/ French Theorists looked on in vain/ And Cambridge kept turning its back,/ Its sneers rising stack upon stack,/ The death-current now filled her head,/ The Lethe in spate through her bed,/ What else but take Verse out of pawn/ And leave Barthes and Tel Quel forlorn.// Poor Veronica".

"River Quatrains" begins with "You never step in the same same river twice/ Although it looks just as it did before. Only a perfect stillness will suffice/ To keep Narcissus seeing what he saw", which isn't improved by what follows it. "Young Mothers in the Square" ends "The curved/ Blades of their death swing round/ Like frisbees looping to the ground/ Where everything is burgeoning,/ A rose, a laptop, someone's bling", which seems a rather tame ending.

Is there a daisy chain of links between poems? p.24 mentions Scottie, p.26 has "beam-me-up". p.27 and p.28 mention top shelves. Maybe the links continue.

All in all, it needn't have been nearly 80 pages long. I like "The Downside" and "By whose permission do these angels serve?". I'd like more poems like "Ranunculus Which My Father Called a Poppy".

Other reviews

  • Fiona Sampson - (Peter Porter is at the height of his powers)
  • Michael Glover - (Like Auden, but without the silliness)
  • Martin Duwell - (To say that a book is brilliant, funny and entertaining is not the same as saying that it is particularly easy, though. But the one thing that you can say of the difficulties in Porter’s work is that they don’t derive from an a priori aesthetic theory: you don’t have to go away and “get something up”, you just need to read the poems very carefully)
  • Jonathan Gharraie

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