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 30 August 2017

"Terms and Conditions" by Tania Hershman (Nine Arches Press, 2017)

Poems from "The Rialto", "Under the Radar", "BBC Radio 3", etc. Certain "New Scientist" articles are acknowledged as providing inspiration. The book's in 3 sections with broad themes - "data collection" (observing), "warranties & disclaimers" (miss/interpreting), and "privacy policy" (personal responses). I liked several poems near the start, e.g. "Advice for the traveller" and "What do we do when the water rises", the latter an extended metaphor introduced by the title. The body of the poem's all about fire ants' collective response to water. Starting at p.22 (mostly in the middle section) there's a clutch of poems that I had some trouble with, for various reasons -

  • They make a good point (or have a good image), but the rest of the poem doesn't provide enough support - p.22, p.36 (which uses very short lines, some indented), p.48, p.50 (double-spaced, gappy)
  • They seem slow, or don't make enough of a point, though they sometimes use double-spaced short lines, or other typesetting FX - p.24, p.28, p.33, p.38, p.46, p.61 (makes a worthy point, but is it worth a page to say?)
  • They puzzle me - p.34 (My understanding of the poem is that corals were thought by scientists to be damaged by acidic water, yet they do ok if the acidity is caused by themselves. An analogy is made between this and the assumptions made by the persona missing "you". I like that, but what are the "questions"?), p.35, p.37

After about p.50 I start liking most of the poems again ("Body", "Getting away with it", etc). Interestingly, "What is it that fills us" appears in a slightly extended version in her recent prose collection "Some of us glow more than others" (Unthank Books). "What the choreographer knows about flight" feels like prose. This isn't meant as an aesthetic judgement. Roughly I'd suggest to reader-friendly writers that -

  1. If the line-breaks (or come to that other features/words) are doing little or nothing, leave them out, especially if there's a risk that they might look like an attempt to divert attention from content
  2. If the context might make readers skim over a text that would reward careful reading, it might be worth adding line-breaks as a hint that a different reading strategy is recommended. In this situation a common ploy is to make each stanza into a similarly sized rectangle to show that the particular positioning of the line-breaks doesn't much matter.

"What the choreographer ..." doesn't require exposure to the linguistic substrate, nor does it use any features that characterise poetry. So what are the line-breaks for?

Contrasting techniques are in evidence. "Happiness" is one of the most approachable pieces, which should go down well with audiences - happiness is compared to paint (industrial scale, not artists' little tubes). In contrast, "What we don't know we do not know" is very much a page poem. Some poems have no word-play, but "After you go" has ample - "forks" could be utensils or decisions; "I wipe counters" could allude to kitchen surfaces or resetting dials to zero; "love" could be emotion or zero. There's frequent use of rhetorical repetition. On p.62 for example, "I am the bird at the bottom" appears 4 times (28 words out of 88), an instance that works for me.

Seeking trends in such a varied book is a mug's game, so I'll suggest that gravity has an influence. There's a lot of weight, falling, catching, slipping and sagging. There are goings on under birds, cows, and Pompeii. Bird imagery representing freedom of a sort is frequent in her prose book, but not very common here.

Favourites that I've not already singled out include "Interview with a wind turbine", "Mirrors must not be", and "Pompeii" (except for the indents), and there are many appealing lines/ideas.

Other reviews

  • Bidisha (Whether in prose or free verse, Hershman’s writing combines a clear style and witty observations with sinister, often symbolic plot developments ... the poems in Terms and Conditions read not as plaintive first-person confessionals but as fresh, almost journalistic pieces, full of humour and brisk observation.)
  • James Roderick Burns (Hershman is never content to settle simply for quality, the arresting phrase or abiding image; always there comes a deeper questing, a probing, even ... The book overall is a tour de force of uncertainty, explored. I)
  • Peter Raynard
  • Matthew Stewart (Once more, line endings are key to an understanding of this poem ... Tania Hershman’s first full collection is characterised by the deft way she works through her relationship with life, always implicating and involving the reader in that process. By acknowledging that life is packed with tensions and opposites, by accepting and embracing their juxtaposition and coexistence, she’s able to renegotiate her own terms and conditions)

1 comment:

  1. Dear Tim

    If Bidisha believes that this book is worth reading, then it probably is.

    Best wishes from Simon R Gladdish