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, 17 January 2018

"Much Possessed" by John Foggin (Smith Doorstop, 2016)

The Acknowledgements mention more competitions (7, including a Plough Prize win) than magazines (6, including The North, The Interpreter's House, etc).

There are sequences connected by subject matter (e.g. Mallory) or by method. Endings fall into groups - e.g. the "who knows?" group "Who can say who they were", "who knows what happens next", "I don't know what to make of it", "why have we brought you these wild white flowers?", "and no-one knows what it means", "I do not know for a second the woman who stares back at me". All the same I had trouble tuning in to the styles. I got the impression early on that I couldn't work out the intention behind some of the poems. So in the hope of arriving at a greater understanding I made some notes

  • "While" - While a male angel and Adam aimlessly debate, the Eden apple's "acid sweetness filled the dark of [Eve's] soft mouth like a cushioned pearl". The phrase "cushioned pearl" makes me think of a pearl being presented on a little cushion. Perhaps the pearl-cushion is like the pip-pulp of the apple. Perhaps it's a pearl of wisdom. But anyway, I can't visualise the simile. Then "The acid just bided its time, slowly dissolving the pearl till nothing was left but the dark at the core, slaked ash". My knowledge of chemistry is very limited, but "slaked ash" confuses me - where did the ash come from? And I don't understand the fable overall. A feminist message?
  • "The Priest and the Ploughman go Skating" - "They have no language for not working. They want for the cold flags of a chapel ... or ... the red of the Fordson, sharp blue exhaust". Equating priest-hood and ploughing as more than mere professions, both preferring a "straight furrow"?
  • "Blended" doesn't use quote-marks (hence risking confusion between speech and narrative - but perhaps this confusion refers back to the title?) and yet uses line-breaks that look gratuitous to me. I think it would work better as prose.
  • "Richard before Bosworth" - a monologue with updated language but few surprises. So?
  • "A Pibroch for (MacCraig)" - even after the note I don't know why the piece is described as a Pibroch. And why end with "Still learning me your language" rather than "Still teaching me your language"?
  • "For the true naming of the world" - one needs to pass through a mythic stage (fair enough) before "stones and flowers might come to know themselves" (I don't know what that means). What does "true" mean in the title?
  • "In the Meantime" describes how Bede's sparrow "comes up against thatch ... beats its wings, it tastes a wind with the scent of rain, the thin smell of snow, of stars, and somehow it's out into the turbulence of everywhere, and who knows what happens next." - the sparrow exits limited life into ubiquity/eternity - the mystery of afterlife?
  • "Much Possessed" has a long set-up of three stanzas describing a taxidermist and her skills, then one about what she (unsurprisingly in this context) thinks of when looking at her hands.
  • "Bounty" ends with "Imagine a squirrel with a tail. Think of a rat" which is how I think of squirrels anyway. I've used the image in pieces before, though not as a punch-line.
  • I like the start of "Wren" ("God thought of the smallest coin/ he could make, and made the Wren/ to fit, neat as a thumb in a thimble,/ tail cocked like a flintlock trigger") but is the poem saying any more than "Why kill a Wren and her mid-winter song?"? It's not the only poem whose punch-line provides the insight that creatures great and small die even if they somehow don't deserve to.
  • Roy Marshall's opinion (see below) of ‘Whether it cared or not’ contrasts with mine. Perhaps I've read too little - or too much - theology.
  • I don't like "One Sunday" though I like the next poem, "Colouring In". I can easily imagine people having opposite preferences.
  • I don't get what the 39-line "First Pressing" is trying to do.
  • I get (and like) "Short back and sides" though - a conventional template and layout ably filled in.
  • I like "What the Owls Saw" (though not the usage of "fractals")
  • "A Proper Job" sags after the first stanza, which does a good job of introducing the plot and tone. The ending's good though. It would be good in prose too. What do the line-breaks add?
  • I didn't understand what the viewed episode was about in "A Dreadful Trade". And was the narrator blind? I think I'm missing an allusion or two. [Aha! Later I found King Lear Act 4, Scene 6. Edgar - "half way down/ Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!"]
  • It didn't dawn on me until I read Helena Nelson's review that "Myra" might be about Myra Hindley.
  • I didn't see anything beyond the surface in "Chimes", which makes me think I didn't get it.
  • The poeticisms in "Cold Comfort" (repetitions, line-breaks) do little to disguise that it's based on an all too familiar plot.
  • "St Ives/Porthmeor 1953" like the previous poem is a captured moment - a well observed anecdote. This time there's less of an attempt to poetize it. I like it
  • I liked "I made this box" (moreso after having read neighbouring poems). It's mostly a list poem, itemizing things to help someone "know the random loveliness of being alive" - "black branches snagged on the weir's rim", "a sheriff's badge". "I wondered if you'd find the answers or if I might understand the questions".
  • "A weak force" works well and is moving. It's about reactions (by a parent?) to a suicide by jumping off a tall building. The deceased is imagined as shutting their eyes as they jumped, because "when you did that the world// would go away the world/ would not see you". "I remember how you ran like a dream./ I remember how you laughed when I swore/ I would catch you". The parts that work best are prose.
  • I can't see how "Untrammelled" expects to work.
  • "Falling apart" is a sestina (with a missing line-break on p.77?) that doesn't work for me.
  • "Curtain call" flirts with prose. I like it. After pre-op - "all around, the extras,/ lighting crew and hangers-on,/ who idly watch you being made up and dressed/ while you fail to remember any lines for this part/ that you've never played"

Summarizing my jottings -

  • I like "Wren", "Colouring In", "Short back and sides", "A Proper Job", "St Ives/Porthmeor 1953", "I made this box", "A weak force", "Curtain call" - more poems than I'd often like in a book.
  • The poems I like are later in the book. I tend to read books from start to end, so early poems can provoke a reaction that colours my response to the rest of the book. Perhaps it's not that the later poems were better, but that I was in a better mood then. Or I'd learnt by then how better to appreciate the pieces.
  • I've a problem with descriptive pieces if I can't see an ulterior motive
  • I can easily miss allusions big and small.
  • I've a problem with dramatic monologues where the requirements of drama/performance drag the piece out

He makes many interesting points on "John Foggin- stocktaking", amongst them -

  • I took my cue from The world’s wife and worked away at ventriloqual monologues spoken by fallen angels. I like some of them, but no-one else seems to
  • It’s a long business, learning not to shy away from hard truths. Kim Moore has taught me that in her poems that deal with domestic violence in her lovely collection, The art of falling. And then, in March this year, in a residential she ran, she somehow ambushed me into writing a poem about my son’s suicide, direct, unmediated through games with myth and personae. It’s the poem I’ve waited all my life to write

He's been inspired by a variety of experiences, and has re-started writing poetry a few times, which has resulted in a collection of poems from different phases of life, based on different aesthetics. A mode of interpretation that works for one poem from one phase may not be applicable to the next.

Other reviews

  • Roy Marshall (I don’t really want to write an analysis of something I am still marvelling at. I just want to enjoy it! ... ‘Whether it cared or not’ and ‘A Dry Place’ are breath-taking challenges to theological dogma that are driven by a compassionate need to question what has been handed down.)
  • Helena Nelson (Nearly a quarter of the poems are dramatic monologues from characters as various as Lucifer, Richard III, Myra Hindley, and one of John Milton’s daughters. John Foggin is an excellent entertainer: there are numerous switches and changes of costume, as well as considerable skill in voice and technique)
  • Kim Moore (There’s ‘For the true naming of the world’ which is a beautiful poem which I think underneath is about writing ... Or ‘Colouring in’ which has the best ending to a poem I’ve read ... ‘A Weak Force.’ ... explores suicide, and the impact of suicide on those left behind. However, it is also a beautiful poem and as well as being about falling and leaving and death, it is also about love, and the nature of love. There is an urgency mixed with acceptance mixed with anger in this poem, which makes it utterly compelling.)

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