I’ve spent the past week avoiding this in the hope that the need to write about the above might go away. The reason for this procrastination is twofold-
- this is a kind of poetry that I’m not familiar with and don’t know how to ‘place’;
- I find the apparent themes to be too challenging for comfort.
I am aware that the North Anerican poetry market / discourse / shop has a number of less than useful labels for a bewildering gaggle of poetic tendencies which I can’t be bothered to get my brain around because they appear to be less than useful- the placing of Barbara Guest as a member of the Language faction springs to mind as do many others. These three poems may fit snugly into a recognised type but this eludes me and I don’t intend trying to find out.
With regard to themes, I need to state that I spent too many years of my early career in the business of safeguarding children (usually from members of their family) and this experience has led me to question whether it is appropriate / fitting / responsible / helpful to write imaginatively about the bad things that can happen to children. I’m not suggesting that all work of this type does more harm than good but I don’t think that the confessional poems of Sylvia Plath or Robert Lowell have been in any way beneficial.
Bad things happen to children and adults behave badly in all three of these poems which are also linked by an almost elegaic cadence. This means that I should be against them, that I should be able to walk away from them and read something else (and the is some very good stuff in this issue) but I can’t because of the amount of talent that’s on display. I’m increasingly coming round to the Jonathan Meades view that the only school that matters is the school of talent and my definition of talent is anything that I wish I’d done myself (talent) or anything that is so good that I know I’d never be able to match it (extreme talent). I’m not suggesting this as a universally applicable tendency but it works for me because it’s something I recognise and don’t need to rationalise. For example, I really do wish that I’d thought of placing Black Beauty in Baghdad as a central feature of a poem about American foreign policy but I know that I’ll never be able to write something like Book V of the Faerie Queen, Book II of Paradise Lost, The Anathemata, Celan’s Aschenglorie, and most things by Hill and Prynne all of which are examples of extreme talent.
Leaving the social work anxieties aside, these three poems contain many flourishes and conceits that I’m jealous of, that manage to be both intelligent and original. The other rather glib observation is that all three seem to start from a point of chaos and work towards (but never quite reach) a point of coherence or sense. With most innovative poetry, this usually occurs in the opposite direction (with a few notable exceptions).
There are some parts of this material that I can recognise as accomplished but nevertheless have qualms about what they appear to ‘say’. One of the more obvious of these is the bell around the brother’s neck which is contasted obliquely with his sister’s mouth which her mother fills with grapes. The bell can make a noise which may or may not alert others to the brother’s plight where as the girl is silenced by the actions of her ostensibly indulgent mother after which the brother dies. This quite remarkable passage also throws up a number of questions that don’t appear to be resolved:
- did the brother’s question cause his death or was he going to die anyway?
- does the evil eye carry just the ordinary meaning or are we meant to think of the Bataille novel too?
- is the position of the eye under the sheets intended to infer that it’s powers are diminished or is there some other significance that I’m missing?
- what (precisely) are the limits of her lips and why do they mingle to rather than with?
All three poems have touches that are dangerously brilliant but some feel to me as if they’re trying too hard. Let’s start with the brilliant:
- we would press the bleeding tissue on our horses faces / and mystify the names of the children in front of their pretty mothers;
- our mother died a virgin my eyelids are still black after the rain;
- and we would receive silence from god’s glands / and spread it on our faces; i feed my brothers with my own gleaming body and myself with dusty semaphores;
- I ran to the lake with my knees uselessly wet / people with torn eyes mostly walk around at night / shirley spat rain under my skirt;
- these love bites your family jewelries my son;
- sometimes i urinate rain even though i am not a catholic;
- you see me now as I was in your garden twenty years ago, as long as it is pretty he said;
- ‘I love pudding’ – me too, he cum; / those noises are insects tickling the mold on your tits / vinegar was injected in the cells, then a foxtrot;
The list grew as I was going down the page, some of this is really very accomplished and I wish I’d written most of it. There are bits that hold it back by too much effort, the backwards words and anagrams is tedious, the figure of the guinea pig doesn’t ‘work’, the ‘salomon’ conceit seems fairly pointless, the are either too few or too many mis-spellings.
So, I don’t think I’ll get this stuff out of my system any time soon and I’m stil not sure of the taste that’s currently in my mouth but I think I might be a little less disturbed / challenged and this may not be a Bad Thing.