Friday 13 December 2013

Review styles

When I write up a poetry book I try to avoid being impressionistic, and try to support my views with quotes or statistics. I don't often write an essay showing how the book in question relates to poetry at large. This makes the write-up less entertaining to read, and less quotable.

Here's the end of a review that I recently read.

In a postmodern world, there is an unapologetic desire to create a rich, mellifluous language within the spareness and anti-Romanticism of a post-modern world, one which can recalibrate the atavistic, almost Pantheistic presence of nature in a secular, degraded world. Again and again, these poems articulate what it is to work through pain and hardship, towards hard-won acceptance and the possibility of forgiveness:

"as the morning slips through
              my fingers like sand,
like love, and the tireless waves push on
                into their own futures, as I reach
      for a pen, struggling to transcribe
                   word by word, sentence by sentence,
               this fragile
                                             … yes"

The review (by Linda Rose Parkes from ink, sweat and tears) is of a book by Sue Hubbard. It's almost the opposite of the style I use, though it's a perfectly valid style. In themselves, the quoted phrases "slips through my fingers like sand", "tireless waves push on" and "struggling to transcribe ... this fragile ... yes" strike me as being un-ironized clichés. The indentation increases my feeling that the poet's twisting the poeticising dial to 11. So I was hoping that the review might explain the melodramatic layout and choice of imagery. However, the grandiose preceding paragraph makes the quoted poetry seem rather bathetic - the prose and poetry undermine each other. If the prose is all that can be said in defence of that poetry, then that poetry's not for me. And I'd be wary of reading more of the reviewer's prose.

Contrast that with the following by Jennifer K. Dick from "Tears in the fence" No.58, Winter 2013/14 (of Marilyn Hacker's translation of Habib Tengour)

Here, Hacker's masterful translation abilities and ear for the music of poetic excel, bringing across from the French into English such lyric gems as the quatrain that begins the poem on page 54

Go into exile far from my back
dark defense     to trace
curve    locate an embrace
beneath this high dry tree

Here, the central embracing rhymes (trace/embrace) marry the delicate finger tracing a line over the skin or a trail to the other or of return and the more ferocious clinging connection of the embrace as a body locates and grasps another under a tree. The poem continues to manoeuver between connection and loss, the language mirroring this struggle, distancing itself from and connecting with the reader as the poem continues:

marble spring like
losing your time confusing and

gnawing at yourself ephemeral

fluctuating in allegory
excessively lost

Wavering and weaving through unpunctuated space, the enjambment of these elliptic lines invite the reader to read and combine these words into various interchanging sentence fragments, fusing and separating them, 'excessively lost' and thus 'fluctuating' until, pages later, the poem will draw to a close with far more grounded 'he' and 'she'.

I can't see how the quoted quatrain is a "lyric gem", and "locate an embrace/ beneath this high dry tree" doesn't sound like a "more ferocious clinging connection" (it's the opposite of ferocious - I hear allusions to "left high and dry" or even a crucifiction scene) but at least the prose is trying to explain and justify the poet's choices, aware that readers like me might need help. I may not agree with the review, but it's useful. It made me go back and read Dick's poetry in a new light.

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