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, 24 February 2018

"In these days of prohibition" by Caroline Bird (Carcanet, 2017)

Poems from PN Review, Poetry Magazine, Poetry Review, The Rialto, etc. She said this in an interview - “I started this book 10 years ago even though I have had four books out in between. I ended up in a rehab facility in the Arizona desert. ... I ended up there for the reason most people do, which is that I was an addict and didn’t like myself enough." Oh no, I thought, not another addiction book. But this wasn't dashed out as therapy. It's a delayed selection, tracking a recovery. The first piece is sonnet-shaped, more info-dump than poem. "Patient intake questionnaire" is far better. I liked "Sentinel of anything" too. My favourite's the untypical "Eye contact". "The Moment" is the weakest.

I liked the earlier books of hers that I've read. I'm less sure about this one. When she strays into Melissa Lee-Houghton territory she looks a bit tame. When she writes Flash/mini-fiction (e.g. "Stephanie", "Beatification") she has tough competition. I'll home in on the poems on pages 39-44 as examples of the variation

  • "Adultery for atheists" - a page long, left-aligned into a 5cm wide column. Gimmicky lay-out and not much of a poem
  • "Ms Casanova on life support" - 2 pages of long-lined triplets. Again, the line/stanza-breaks are baffling, but this time the text is interesting, the patient feigning coma while bedside visitors sacrifice so much
  • "Aesop's Hare in the celebrity big brother house" - Begins well, with "I did not snooze underneath that damn tree./ I blacked out". Triplets again - a page of them this time, with the first and last lines rhyming.
  • "Self Storage" - A neat idea, and the execution begins well with "Here at Self Storage, we hold your secrets/ so you don't have to. Each steel locker is alarmed/ with a personalised code - perhaps an anniversary". 4 triplets then a couplet - I can see no pattern, but I guess it qualifies as a sonnet. Two poems later there's the contrasting "Public Resources" which begins with "There is a place called The Open/ where brave people put things"

She likes starting with a metaphor that extends into an analogy or even an allegory. I'm not sure all the extensions work - the resulting poem can feel sparse. "A toddler creates thunder by dancing on a manhole" seems to have developed from the observation mentioned in the title and has developed much as prose would. It's 2 pages long with only a few images, e.g. "Toddlers always dance like marionettes, their brains still learning the strings". In the final poem, "I want to marvel at the woman/ who ducks when she drives under bridges/ as if her body is the car ... as if she isn't in a car as all ... no car seat either, squatting on space like a lost figurine once glued to a ting bench on a train-set platform ... This blonde star in her car made of atoms, revving on a wish" which seems promising.

Other reviews

  • Dave Coates (In ‘A Surreal Joke’, the speaker’s defence against the assumption that surrealism and comedy may be read and positioned as antithetical to ‘truth’ or ‘seriousness’ seems like an assertion that it is possible to write truthfully without granting the reader access to one’s private reality. ... there’s a majestic work of beauty like ‘Beatification’ ... Though the book’s three sections aren’t explicitly tied to any one theme, there are dominant notes in each; where the first seems mostly concerned with mental wellbeing, the second explores romantic intimacy, though guilt and the unreliability of the perceiving self are present in both ... Though a few poems, particularly in this last section, don’t have the same emotional fizz as the best in the book (several of which I haven’t discussed here; a good half dozen are straight on my dream-anthology longlist), when a poem’s dramatic argument is not quite up to Bird’s usual standard it is still buoyed by dynamic associative play, a serious glee in its weird logical leaps.)
  • Annie Muir (My favourite poems in the collection are the ones where Bird uses her comic sensibility to get somewhere sincere. [e.g.] ‘Beatification’ ... Even in some of the joke-poems that seem throwaway there are moments of simple clarity)

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