This is the day’s third attempt to do this and I’ve decided to cut top the quick rather than strolling digressively around the houses.
I am gripped and compulsed by ‘Slow Light’ which is a sequence of four poems by the singular Neil Pattison. I’m told that this is a minority position but I’m of the view that this piece of work is one of the most grown up and full on poems that it has been my privilege to read and I’m now going to try and explain why.
Before this entirely floundering attempt at clarity, I need to disclose that I am in possession of a paragraph or so from Neil that gives some background to the work in question. I have not yet read this paragraph, I may never read this paragraph.
Slow Light as Full On Poetry.
‘Full on’ is a technical term that probably requires a degree of qualification. When applied to the innovative faction of poetry, the term denotes work that refuses to compromise, that shows minimal interest in being of assistance to the reader, that just doesn’t do the dramatic flourish. It can be argued, for example, that Prynne’s ‘Sub Songs’ marks a bit of a lean away from the full on and towards the flourish. ‘Dionysus Crucified’ and ‘Stress Position’ both contain large amounts of readerly assistance and lashings of flourish and therefore cannot be considered to be full on.
It was the full on nature of these poems that first drew me in as in:
the branches feebly ripening, banded. Spines
unfold as, movable, suns inlet solutions of landscape,
savouring limit so warmly that to a fixed wing
you fled over
I’ll get on to the meaning/obscurity thing later but now I want to draw attention to the nature of the ‘voice’ which is clearly saying what needs to be said and the phrasing which is striking (‘a fixed wing / you fled over’, ‘suns inlet solutions of landscape’) but also concerned only with being precise rather than working for effect. The other aspect about the absence of compromise is that you recognise quite quickly those poems that are going to draw you in and hold your attention for a number of months. In my case this only applies to full on poems that are compelling in other ways- there are many poems that refuse to compromise that I casn’t be bothered with.
>Slow Light as Grown Up Poetry
This also requires a degree of explanation. There are poems that take ‘easy’ positions on complex subjects, there are poets who stubbornly cling on to a distinctly adolescent world view and there are poets who want to show off. These are not grown up. Examples of grown up work would include most of Paradise Lost, Shakespeare’s Sonnets and David Jones’ The Anathemata and R S Thomas’ late poems.
‘Slow Light’ is grown up because it avoids easy options and seems determined to set out an angry and urgent view of how things are:
Meant in this wood, in
this stone. Winter and block, as means
of operation, as
means of exchange
That you must disown now
has no purchase :
I think we can argue about the means of exchange / no purchase thing but I think it’s clear that we’re meant to think rather than to be impressed.
Slow Light as obscure poetry.
I think the above examples might indicate that this sequence inhabits the more ‘difficult’ end of the poetic spectrum in that it isn’t entirely clear what is being referred to and that there’s a degree of ambiguity which indicates a number of meanings/intentions.
When I wrote about Neal’s earlier work last year, I expressed some concern about the obscurity of one of the references but I’m not too sure that I’m still bothered by this. I’d also like to draw a distinction between the difficult and the obscure. The latter occurs when a reference is used that may not be familiar (Geoffrey Hill and Bradwardine, Simon Jarvis and Origen, Simon Jarvis and Adorno’s ‘real’ name etc. etc.) whereas difficulty occurs when the structure and use of language combine to make meaning or intention less than apparent. Of course, poems can be both obscure and difficult, the four poems that I’ve just read from Hill’s forthcoming collection would appear to fall into this category.
One of my least favourite obscurities is the unattributed use of the foreign phrase mainly because of its obvious elitism. I have to report that ‘Slow Light’ does contain one German phrase but it is attributed to Melanchthon and is relatively straightforward to translate. It could be argued that Melanchthon is a relatively obscure figure but we can at least check out the circumstance in which his remark may have been made.
The difficulty with this particular sequence is on at least two levels, some of the phrases are strange in themselves and there isn’t an obvious progression from one phrase to the next:
as you went out, becoming small in the country
speeding, glazed in : Pace ballots on
into the entrails
new white speed will index in her blood :
(I’ve tried to keep the spacing accurate in the first and second lines, throughout the sequence, there is a space between the end of a word and the colon.)
I freely confess to not yet having a clear understanding with regard to either subject or meaning and that I’m still trying to get all four poems into my brain at once (they’re all quite short) and have thus far found the repeats on infancy and hands more than enough to be concerned about. What I do know is that, as with Prynne, there’s more than enough here to keep me gripped and involved for the foreseeable future.
Odd Poetry, Strange Poetry
I am an acknowledged fan of the odd and can fully appreciate that oddness has an important place in poetry (the inclusion of Black Beauty in ‘Stress Position’, Simon Jarvis’ excessive interest in the details of the British road network, Geoffrey Hill’s pale imitations of bad stand-up comedians etc) but the strange is another matter as it leads to questions rather than feelings of indulgent amusement. There’s a lot of the strange in ‘Slow Light’ and this is probably what makes it compelling. “Gloze edging flouresces”, “cored / optic of pure courting is” “in weaning light that house break” are a small sample of just how strange the sequence is and I find this daangerously involving.
I’m told that not many people like ‘Slow Light’ and I readily accept that it may not be to everyone’s taste but I for one believe that it is by far the best thing that Neil has done and that it makes a significant contribution to poetry.
The use of colons and semi colons like : this is : annoying and more than a little mannered for my taste- Hill has started doing something similar which is also annoying, as if | wasn’t bad enough.
‘Slow Light was first published in 2008 in ‘Pilot’ 2 (a magazine edited by Matt Chambers at SUNY andI understand that it will be included Mountain Press in Neil’s ‘The Green Book’ collection in the reasonably near future- I intend to write about a least one other excellent poem from this before then.