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.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

"Empire of dirt" by Thomas Stewart (Red Squirrel Press, 2018)

Empire of dirt
The poems (from "And other poems" etc.) share a pool of imagery as can be seen from the sample in this table. There are symbols of nature (flowers, moon, petals, trees, sky), and symbols of self (house, heart, blood). There's cultivated nature (gardens) and relatives close to the self (mothers, fathers). Added to that list are the transcendent lyricism of "moon" and "song". It's a group of symbols not so different to what Helen Ivory used in "The Breakfast Machine" (window, mirror, house, wall, room, sky, night, moon, mice, bird). Each poem helps elucidate some symbols, so readers can build up a symbol dictionary as they read this collection - the poems help each other.

Mediating between nature and self are doors (being knocked) and windows (there's lots of looking). There's a split between inner and outer ("I don't want to see outside") mediated by birds, moths, and bees. Integration and transformation is rare - foxes on heads don't work, nor do bees in beards, though in "real boy" a Pinocchio character begins to change (regress?) into a tree.

At times, integration with nature is a symbol for social integration - other boys in changing rooms or toilets. In "And Then The Flowers Came" when the narrator has cut him/herself off from the rest of the world, the last thing to get through are flowers - perhaps they represent beauty.

The title's in the lyrics of "Hurt", a bleak "Nine inch nails" piece that Johnny Cash famously covered. It's a low-tech world (Grindr's mentioned, satisfying an instinct). It's a tough world - people/things are red, dead, cracked or broken. Are there seeds of hope? No. If you eat them they might grow inside you - mummy said so. And in "Sunflowers" the seeds fare little better.

The style is such that the symbols can carry the argument at the expense of some realism - the symbols aren't always embedded. E.g. in "Miscarriages" "I killed a bird once. ... I took it out into the garden and buried it, ... I went back into the house to find red petals in the flour. ... The doctors said I could have had a sister, that’s why mum threw up every morning. The doctors said, we need to call your father, son, I said, go for it, he’s probably out back with the bird". Why red petals in the flour? Is the pun on "flower" accidental? Is the father buried in the garden? Has the memory of the father been buried by the son?

On occasion I found myself trying to break the code rather than appreciate the poem. In "the moon created a blurry light enough to see the men who wore foxes on their heads destroy my mother’s garden" I wondered whether the men were sly or red-headed. I wondered what the (old fashioned?) moon equated to. Why mother's garden? In the western tradition gardens are nature subordinated by humans. In the middle east, gardens are more likely heaven. So?

The commonest narrative pattern is to break/ignore something then try to connect with (or look at, or use) it hoping to learn.

  • I dug my hands inside the animal, pulled out things it wouldn’t need. I scattered them around it, ornaments to demonstrate how it came to be. When I was done, I looked into its eyes and reflecting back at me were only my own.
  • I look in the mirror and see a stranger looking back,

Another pattern is to write oneself onto the world -

  • when you’re lost in the woods, with blood on your hands, paint poems in the bark of trees and sing to the ravens
  • send me to the forest to a dark wood, to a land of fallen leaves, to a cold cave where I can scrawl my dreams in blood and the sap of a tree,

Or to ask the world for help -

  • I always wanted you to tell me a truth (moths)
  • it wanted to tell me sweet nothings and important truths (rain)

I don't feel I understand all the poems (e.g. "Skull"). Elsewhere I'm unsure about parts of poems. For instance, in "Conkers", the narrator recalls 3 suicides. Before that it begins with "When I smashed the conkers and laid them out, when I felt their broken pieces and gathered them up, when I smelt the vinegar of their cracked shells" - touch and smell. At the end "I could smell the conkers in the feathers of the pillow, I could hear their song in my dreams, I could feel them broken yet protruding through the springs of the mattress.". This ending has smell, hearing and touch. I can't help feeling that there's a conscious design here that I'm missing. Also towards the end of "real boy" (my favourite poem) there's "displaying my chest, made of wood, my bushy hair and eyebrows falling falling past my chipped teeth" - which uncharacteristically has wordplay - several puns alluding to wood - "chest", "bushy", "chipped", preparation for the ending where he grows leaves - turning into a tree like Daphne? Here, as elsewhere ("wooden bricks", "wooden bed", etc) there's a significance attached to "wood" (the substance) that escapes me.

I suspect the pamphlet will divide readers. Some won't like the resistance to closure (should they reread the poem if they don't "get it"?). Some will find the elemental symbols intrinsically poetic. Others might think think them evasive rather than illuminating. As I discuss on Reality and Symbols I rather old-fashionedly like situations where (say) a symbolic apple doubles as a real apple. I think common symbols like flowers and windows have to work harder than original ones. That said, the restricted palette of symbols is put to several uses here, and their effects accumulate. There are no easy rides. And it's refreshing to read a book that doesn't have uniformly rectangular stanzas!

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