I don't know whether it's me or the publishers, but increasingly I find that the first poem in a book acts as a prelude or even a tutorial. Here, the first poem, "After the Discovery of Linear Perspective", seems to use art as a visual aid to demonstrate poetry theory. It begins with "You gave us new places to hide". Theory has its disadvantages - " I miss their warmth: the maidens and saints twisted to press/ at the picture plane, all breathy frottage, and damp like flowers under glass". So what's the solution? "Come, technician, let us brush past the samey glamours of Joseph and Mary ... Let's inhale its new space, shout merely to gather echoes". The use of "brush" and "glamours" surely isn't accidental, and the use of theory to open up new possibilities for experience (rather than intellectualize feelings away) is a theme of the book.
She can make poetry out of material that most of us would pass by. Humidity and gaseous exchanges figure more than once (perhaps because she's lived in Hong Kong)
- "The Street of Dried Seafood Shops..." is in loosely rhymed couplets - a simile/metaphor-fest. At the end there's an attempt to make an overriding metaphor - "After a mile or so, I tell you, I was dry as a drill bit.// I dock at the Irish pub awash with happy hour,/ one more beery dog-fish in a bled-out harbour.". One can see how the poet might wish to turn a list into a narrative, but this ending begs questions. The "I tell you" is, I think, an attempt to make the poem sound conversational, the "you" different to the one earlier in the poem. Why dog-fish? Anything to do with the dog mentioned earlier? In the final line a wet fish in a dry harbour contrasts with the earlier dried fish, but to what purpose? "bled-out harbour" sounds womby, but I can't fit the poem around that idea.
- The poem after that, "The Dehumidifier", again makes the most out of uninspiring raw material. At the end the reservoir fills - "By Friday it's the usual story ... I ... pour away the absent week's wet harvest ... Once more I will myself to neither cry nor sweat: hereafter I may live as aridly as decency permits" - which makes me assume that the persona's female.
But "The Third Umpire" is more problematic. At the start I think there are allusions that I don't recognise - he "always was, his noonday elder brothers said,/ the piker in the pavilion, pale as milk./ Raspberry feathers ring his albino irises". Looking up online, I find that piker is "Australian/NZ - a person who withdraws from a plan, commitment". Cricket fan readers will know about "the master of instrument and replay ... where the stitched ball left a kiss on the glove shows as snow on Hotspot ... plays the delivery in dotted lines". Towards the end, I like how "Some nights he walks bare-chested onto the pitch and touches the square for some last warmth" but am more puzzled by "He can hardly believe it: that the crease belongs to the umpire and thus can be said to be partly his". The ending refers to the start "If his brothers had him thrown onto this grass furnace/ at noon, would his god really let him burn?". The ideas of judgement, body/mind, siblings, the contrast between being in the thick of it and being distant/technological are all there, but I feel I'm missing a key.
More generally, I like what she's trying to do, but sometimes I think she tries too hard, the imagery becoming ornamental. In "The Leaks: The Golf Hotel, Silloth" for example, there's "The next morning was a pulled pint full of light, and the sea flicked up the white undersides of its leaves" which I like, though it's already tending towards the Martian. But at the end there's "tip half a carton of Co-op milk into my borrowed rucksack, pour out half an hour scrubbing with shampoo and the hotel towel, only to mis-time the ebb tide of the first bus out" where the further pouring out (now of time) and the tide=bus comparison is over-cooked.
"Dove Cottage Ferns" reads like a list of comparisons and observations - "bulked to a galleon's massed rig of sail. Shrub-broad, they're bold as gunnera but feather-cut. From spring's straight-up vectors, they loosen and splay. I count out summer: arc, arabesque, parabola, catenary - a green apprenticeship of curve". I like that final phrase. Do the images knit into a poem? Does it help that I need to look up "gunnera"? The ending introduces another theme - "Flip to the frond's reverse: the future dried on like a code of dust ... I read a fern's microfiche, propagation an abacus clicking away at my ear". She has such a way with words that it's easy to be tempted forward by succulent images all the way through a poem without taking in the big picture. And anyway, what's wrong with imagery being at least in part ornamental?
My problem is that the strength or cryptic nature of an image can sometimes distract me from the poem as a whole. When I start having to engage my brain to decode a detailed image, it's hard to stop -
- "Prescription for a Middle-Aged Reader" speculates on having one contact lens for long-sightedness and another "for the fine print and the needle's slim traverse". The final 3 words cram a new idea in - local optimisation to the detriment of global effect.
- "Let the puddings boil dry in their baby clothes. Leave the tinsel coiled in snaky hibernation" (p.38) is far more striking than the rest of the poem
- "Water drains down the conifers' inner ladders" (p.49). Near the trunk, where there aren't many leaves, the horizontal branches look like rungs, the rain dripping from one to another?
- "Antidote" - "The fallen-forward mirror shows its brown-paper back/ and picture wire, a coffin to the alp shapes of its smash.// That hieroglyph is her next seven years lying there,/ spoiled to vinegar before they were even toasted in". Is "-forward" needed? It made me think too hard. The fragments are more cuniform than hieroglyph.
My favourites? Maybe "After the Discovery of Linear Perspective", "This is not a garden" and "The Imposters", though there's much else of interest too. I like her writing far more than that of some (currently) more famous poets.