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 26 October 2016

"The Fetch" by Gregory Leadbetter (Nine Arches Press, 2016)

Poems from Poetry London, Poetry Review, Magma, Rialto, etc. His first degree was Law at Cambridge (irrationally perhaps, I prefer writers not to have a first degree in literature). It's tempting to thank his legal training for his control over long sentences, and his exploitation of sound effects is perhaps influenced by his reading of the Romantics. Iambics haunt many of the poems, and lines like "It brims from the lake/ where a dead fish floats/ white as a blind eye." are rich in repeated sounds. The poem that contains these lines , "Gloaming", ends in a way that shows another facet of his work: imagery - "Now I learn/ how the bats disappear/ through the door of the trees/ to return seconds later,/ though gone for years.". There are couplets (loosely rhymed sometimes), sonnets, and a villanelle (the result of doing an exercise he'd set his students). There are abba and abab rhyme patterns. The stanzas of "Misterioso" have abbcca, abcabc, abccba and abcacb rhymes. In "Sum", each line has an "I"; they're aligned down the centre of the page. 2.5 pages of mostly etymological notes help with the extensive vocabulary used.

One definition of "fetch" is "apparition" or "double". Entities of uncertain ontological status (the result of reflection, new selves raised from the dead, etc) appear in "Homo Divivus" for example, "The Departed", and "The Chase" - "I saw my reflection double and run". More generally, emergence could be a theme. In "The Leap" fish begin to leave water - "Something not yet thought/ wakes out to sea". Elsewhere there are dawning realisations, ghosts finding form, statues with some signs of life - "that trick in the flicker of a breath/ through flame that makes the livid/ brink of perfect stillness dance" (p.30).

Looking for roots of consciousness (or culture) in nature (or the past) in poems like "Doggerland" and "Misterioso", the persona often ends up confronting the self - "a séance in a mirror, face to face I see/ what the part of me that died has seen" (p.15); "there are no/ birds in this damned wood,/ and no path - only you" (p.59); "I saw/ that figure form itself from what I am/ in what was left of my reflection" (p.67). The path that wasn't found in the quote above appears in several other poems, including "a path I could not walk/ without stones in my pockets". This sounds more like the path Virginia Woolf took than Dante's "cammin di nostra vita". Perhaps it's a path that only those with an awareness of death can take. What separates the living from the dead? "True Story" addresses the issue, as does "My breath// condensed. I saw it slowly take/ the outline of a child, afraid/ of the dark of which it was made" (p.13), and "Gibbet Lane", home of "the teeming dark/ where the brain takes root" - "He breathes where the living lose their breath".

During the quest, observer and observed are prone to exchange body fluids - "I dry out my sweat, leave you the salt (p.12)"; "The year was bleeding across the sky" (p.23); "blood soaks through your stone eyes" (p.30); "she would lap at whatever saltwater/ leaked from me" (p.69). Notions of identity are queried too, in "The astronaut returns" (compare with "The Human Circadian Pacemaker" by K.J. Orr, where a returned astronaut has dementia-like problems). In "Sea change" the regression goes further, back through evolution until "Be still. Begin to feed from your beginning".

Though the self may be transient and emergent, there's a lot of timeless poetry - eyes, breath, love and locations in landscapes (rather than in cities) feature, provoking contemplation. The imagery can be dense even where the syntax is plain - e.g.

The bog is a beating fontanelle
at the place I cast a penny wish

where carr and fen leaches out
an orphaned head for the fallen sun

"carr" is fen woodland - the ground that gives underfoot. Later in the poem, the imagery returns

Soft and pulsing now,
drawn like water from a spawning well
it is the foundling head I bring

that thinks the wish that wishing
grows a thing through which
my tongue might leave its lair.

I'm a sucker for imagery like "The body sinks, one breath lighter./ Scales tip into the dark future/ with the weight of one bird, singing." (p.63) but wouldn't a lighter body rise rather than sink? That solitary singing bird is one of the book's flock of generic birds as well as particular species - magpie (p.11), heron, mallard (p.21), kestrel (p.23), swan (p.43), pelican (p.48), jackdaw (p.59), blackbird (p.60), grebe (p.64), peregrine (p.65), buzzard, cuckoo (p.68).

Comparing it with his earlier pamphlet The Body in the Well (Happenstance 2007, 5 of whose poems appear here) I feel there's more anecdote (aka life-experience) to ballast the metaphysical. I struggle with phrases like "it is our freedom to summon the fact/ between the flow of being and the state/ of becoming" (p.24). In contrast, the series about his father includes more grounded imagery like

  • "Back home, mirrors imagine me/ alive. I seek consolation/ in a splash of water - look up/ to see the face washed from me" (p.38)
  • "You are too still for mind to bear - so that/ I see your chest rise, only to catch on the fact/ that I have not, like a foot on a missing stair" (p.41)

and "Pumpkin" starts with "The black bloom of mould/ that crept through the eye/ of the carved head, between/ his death and funeral, within a week/ of the flame that gave the glow/ and shiver of life at Hallowe'en/ to shadows dying into smoke".

Sonic effects, sound bites, forms, love and death - what more could you ask for? A little leavening humour perhaps, though that might break the spell.

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