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, 19 August 2017

"Drawing a Diagram" by Rosemary Badcoe (Kelsay Press, 2017)

Poems from Oxford Poetry, The Interpreter's House, Under the Radar, Magma, etc.

Section I ("The Wiring Plan" - connections?) has much about science, especially its ability to help us sense greater scales of time and distance, showing how the heavens are implicated our little decisions, putting us into perspective -

  • "The long view fades to the blue of half-remembered, a future we feel we know but can't recall" (p.17)
  • "Remoteness" includes a frog, merging galaxies, then "I" and "you", and a "lacewing by which you (and the frog) are suddenly transfixed"
  • When using Google to find the Chinese restaurant, "we map our satellites against [stars'] constant spin" (p.24)
  • In "Earth-bound" "we ... carve our immortality in bus shelters and benches ... like leverets we're born in shallow scrapes ... We sling the stones that burst the lighted panes"
  • In "Arm's Length", "when we near the end ... no one will give a fig// that once my fingers stretched for yours while we were each/ sleeping with another"
  • "Curiosity" - "First you photograph yourself"
  • "Bats" - "Bats quiver/ round a belfry when the bells are gone"

It's a mode I've tried. Indeed, I suspect we might have been stimulated by the same articles. In 2013 I wrote about bats - "bats flap fingers, not arms, and won't cause a distant storm. Simple rain confuses their echoes". In 2015 I wrote a poem called "To celebrate its Marsiversary, Curiosity took a selfie".

Some of the poems execute a familiar template well -

  • "Soundings" is a "circle of life poem" with an evolutionary twist - it starts with a clearly defined whale, then honey fungus whose individuals are hard to disentangle, then viruses who are on the life/non-life edge. But once primitive life-forms could distinguish light for dark, eyes developed, and wonder too - about whales.
  • There's a "what if we were animals" poem - "My Arguments/ for consciousness in cephalopods/ won't prevent you from slicing and frying" states the narrator on p.34, comparing the "you" to a squid - "the subtle mutation of hands/ to hectocotyli, honed only to harness/ the female". In the end though, there must have been one argument too many - "I write you a note, and like a squid/ use the ink to depart".
  • "It must be science" is a "truth stranger than myth" poem

These poems don't depend on the reader giving the poet the benefit of the doubt - what you see is what you get, though you may have to look more than once. 'They muddy the water, to make it seem deep', wrote Nietzsche. There's no muddy water in this section.

Section II's entitled "The Director's Cut" - when aesthetics conquers commercialism? I like "Please Hold" (another punny title). "Carpentry at Midnight" gives pause for thought. The 1st stanza has 2.5 lines then a line-feed and 1.5 lines. Subsequent stanzas are 1.5+2.5, 1.5+2.5, 2.5+1.5, 1.5+2.5. I could imagine the pieces of the poem forming a carpenter's finger joint. It begins with

You live in lumber hammered from forests
inside my head. I lie, eyes closed, listen
to the silence
                    recite the playbill. It says
tonight you are a man dressed in linen

hauling a handcart through the streets.

So the shadowy worlds of drama (Mother Courage? Unlikely) and dream combine. Is the lumber a coffin for the linen-wrapped man? Later there are "model moons ... carved with tiny landing sites", and "there is ... no ritual that finds you with me as I wake. When bedtime falls in this reality I too am absent". "Sometimes I carve you as a graven image". After the unreality, we're encouraged to get real again - "The day you lift-off from beside me, real arms/ curled round real rockets". Finally we return to worshipped graven images and the stage - "I kneel, draw exits on a varnished backdrop". Imaginary exits? "Luck" didn't appeal to me. "Elementary Catastrophe Theory" shows that maths still plays a role beyond the first section.

Section III ("The Last Act") mentions wakes, loss and morphine, though it's not altogether gloomy. It kicks off with "Happy Enough" that ends with "sometimes when I'm dancing it's not/ to keep the beat but because my feet/ are burning where they touch the ground". "Drowning Doesn't Look Like Drowning" also ends with imagery I wish I'd thought of - "already treading/ some internal stair; climbing a ladder/ that isn't there". I like "Remind Me" - "When I forget you, ... Call up the Coastguard and say my name with yours".

The poems don't delve down into the sonic or written foundations of language. Rhyme is rare, though iambics sometimes start pumping. There's little word-play, except puns in titles or punch-lines. Words never decompose into their constituent letters. However those reliable words aren't used to depict a reliable, anecdotable reality from which a moral can be drawn. Reality shifts. Take for example "Adrift" , where "you" are "like a skylark", and "I gripped your ankle like an anchor". So who is adrift? Both of them? "I tried to remember the solid places ... why did we why did we oh so casually let everything go". Perhaps there's a clue in "now you stand bemused at the window/ with your airgun" - a confused, aging parent? But the continuation makes that unlikely - "as if I were a pigeon ... and I thought this is not our first confusion but it's enough to make an ostrich mad, and then there would be two of us mad, birdbrain and gunbrain". Finally "all I can do is lay down words like a raft". Reliable rafts can stop you drowning, but where they take you is beyond your control.

"adrift" and "drift" appear often in her work. So does sand. Permanence is an abiding theme, tying in with the science theme - "Ideal" suggests that perfection is "cold and true"; "Preserving" and "Origami'd" show the passing of time despite efforts to resist. Even our senses aren't to be trusted - in "One Down" it's suggested (and psychology supports the claim) that expectation and assumptions add to what we've perceived when we recall, in this case "the newspaper, the final crossword done".

In the final poem, "The Last Act", the narrator suddenly appears in the final stanza, "reading the plot in retrospect,/ watching for signs of Fortinbras/ or men who shake their beards and say/ we shall not see her like again". Hamlet says “I shall not look upon his like again” about his father, to Horatio in Act 1, Scene 2. According to Wikipedia, Fortinbras (crown prince of Norway), "also serves as a parallel to Hamlet in many ways", but I can't put the pieces together.

All in all, a readable collection with very few fillers. The consistently assured quality means that few poems stand out, though "Please Hold" has a prize-winning feel to it.

Other reviews

  • J. R. Solonche (controlled, disciplined, nuanced, subtle, yet full to bursting with feeling)
  • Aoife Lyall (meticulous and multifaceted, creatively engaging with intricate scientific concepts and theories from utterly original and thoroughly satisfying perspectives)

No comments:

Post a Comment