The main impression I got from reading Arudhathi Subramaniam’s When God Is a Traveller was a powerful sensibility. The relatively young Indian poet has an undeniable ability to express a peaceful human angst. Through her lines, emotional necessities serenely emerge, whether that is the “need to know wise men / weep like little boys” (Subramaniam 23) or “the need / to consume, / belong, be loved.” (36) In a poem like “Transplant”, she reaches a peak in representation of human uncertainty in a candid botanic allegory, interrupted by a seemingly casual thought in which the reader feels the enduring doubt of a woman who has reached maturity: “You’d think it would get clearer with time. / It doesn’t” (40).
But all of this sensibility could do with a little trimming, and I must admit that at a certain point my attention turned from the emotion on the page to the poor choice of titles. In a poem like “The Way You Arrive”, nothing is gained from the repetition of the title in the last line; if anything, it sounds overexplained, especially as it is such a short poem. I am not sure whether it would be better to remove the last line or the title (and Subramanian often gives the impression of an obsessive need to title all of her poems) but I am sure that the poem would profit from the elimination of one of those.
A clearer example would be the poem “I Speak for Those with Orange Lunch Boxes”, which starts with the lines “I speak for those / with orange lunch boxes,” goes on brilliantly for fifteen lines, and then ends with “Those with orange lunch boxes. / I speak for them” (27). I am obviously not accusing the poet of plain carelessness — I do understand the potential expressiveness of repetition — I just fail to see it in Subramaniam’s poetry. And in this case it becomes even more disconcerting because the poem itself has quality: it seems to be resuscitating a Whitmanian desire to be everyone’s voice (to “contain multitudes”, if you will), although limited by a postmodern necessity of fragmentation (a century and a half does not pass without leaving its mark, Borges would say).
I do not mean to say that all of her titles are bad: “Where the Script Ends” is a poem whose meaning is achieved much more perfectly through its title. A couple walking at night in Venice might sound like an overused theme, but Subramanian explores the superfluousness of language during a peaceful moment between a man and a woman, and the “script” in the title is charged with an artificiality which accounts for the feeling of comfort when it finally gets abandoned.
Comfort is present from the beginning in the previous poem, also about two people on a tour of an Italian city. “You and I that day in Florence” is dedicated to Gayatri (the poet Gayatri Majumdar, I would assume), and expresses the immense peace and satisfaction felt by “two [fellow] poets in the mood / to get lost” (42). As the two women stroll through the cobbled streets, they seem to remain in a state of pleasurable silence, a silence which was meaningful enough to survive over a decade in the poet’s memory (it was, we learn, an “autumn day in the year 2000”). A pleasant hint of humour is sensed when she says “We asked for just one man // (and there were many) / who looked like Al Pacino”. But soon the smile turns into nostalgia with the reflection that a day in the past ends up “in a page from the library books // of our childhood” (43). A beautiful memory, finely passed on to the reader.
All in all, When God is a Traveller is an elegant collection, remarkably expressive of the surviving delicacy kept intact inside the inhabitant of a hectic metropolis. With a bit more careful chiseling, it could have been a masterpiece.
The themes which alternate between childhood and mortality give Louise Glück’s poems in Faithful and Virtuous Night a tasteful sense of cycle. We hear the voice of a woman who, in her fear of approaching death, is constantly visited by her childhood memories, which include dead relatives. After stating that her “story begins very simply; I could speak and I was happy” and immediately realising that any simplicity is an illusion, the poet tells us: “If it is so difficult to begin, imagine what it will be to end” (Glück 8). In this circular tension between beginning and end, the childhood images that emerge are beautifully expressed:
I listened to the various sounds of the birds we fed,
the tribes of insects hatching, the small ones
creeping along the windowsills, and overhead
my aunt’s sewing machine drilling
holes in a pile of dresses — (10)
Given its length and the fact that it shares its title with the book, I think it is safe to say that this is meant to be the main poem in the collection. The only discomfort I felt while reading it presented itself in the second-to-last stanza (that is, after nine pages): “And so time passed: I became / a boy like my brother, later / a man” (17). A boy? A man? Did I miss something? Perhaps I was meant to have gathered the speaker’s sex from the “sheets printed with colored sailboats” (8) at the beginning, but as there is a brother with whom a bed is shared, I completely ignored this nautical indication. These feelings and memories seem so highly personal that Glück appears to have a hard time creating a convincing male persona.
This problem returns occasionally in the book (“Midnight” being an example in which the reappearance of the brother and the aunt do not make up for the femaleness of the voice), but “A Foreshortened Journey” is a formidable exception. One third of the poems in the collection are written in prose, and most of them consist of very short narratives which add to the feeling of a fragmented, if consistent, narrative one gets when running through the collection. Like most prose poems in the book, “A Foreshortened Journey” sounds very much like a Kafkaesque parable at the beginning, but then ends in a much more fulfilling manner, in tone with the other pieces of the kind (except perhaps “Forbidden Music”). And when the narrating voice says to himself “You must get up, my lad” (47), it sounds perfectly natural.
This “lad” is found lying on stairs by a little girl and her grandmother; the former thinks he is dead, the latter knows he is not. Despite the old woman’s warning, her granddaughter whispers “the Hebrew prayer for the dead” in the man’s ear, and explains: “When you hear this again, perhaps the words will be less intimidating, if you remember how you first heard them, in the voice of a little girl” (48). This parable does not need an exact interpretation to be powerful.
In fact, “Parable” is the title of the first poem, which also draws on the need to prepare for death, “First divesting ourselves of worldly goods, as St. Francis teaches, / in order that our souls not be distracted / by gain and loss” (3). It depicts a metaphorical group of people who seem to spend their whole lives “preparing to begin a journey”, at first divided into those who thought they needed a purpose and those who thought a purpose meant “limitation or constriction”, and finally reunited, placidly accepting the reality of the preparation (not of death) as that which they had predicted. Not only is this poem a deep reflexion on the theme, it also works very well as an opening text for the collection, starting from the title. The allegorical way of speaking of death as a journey will be picked up again in poems like “Aboriginal Landscape” and “Utopia”, in which the recurrent image of a train helps sustain a great sense of connection amongst all the works in the book.
Other than the above-mentioned insufficiency in male personas and an occasional clichéd image (e.g. “your voice is sand scattered in wind” on p. 33), I was positively impressed by Glück’s writing, and quite curious about her previous works. The author’s capacity to weave an invisible yarn which connects the poems is remarkable, and so is her ability to reconcile themes like death and childhood, making them bloom naturally out of each other.
The first poem in Fiona Benson’s Bright Travellers, which is isolated in the book as an introductory piece, contains a powerful metaphor for what one should expect from the collection. Not only that: the title “Caveat”, Latin for “beware”, warns the reader that by reading through Benson’s poetry s/he may find disarming delicacy and sensibility in unexpected places. The poet’s description of a cactus with a “thick hide / and parched aspect” which “harbour a moist heart,” prepares us for the sensibility which emerges from her rigid poetry, just like a “halo of flowers” blooms out of the cactus’ “armoury of barbs” (Benson 1). By rigid I do not mean stiff: she simply addresses subjects in which you would be surprised to find beauty. And yet Benson is capable of elegantly dealing with things like the execution of an 80-year-old woman accused of witchcraft, a mother bear with a dead cub centuries ago, miscarriages and Van Gogh’s self-mutilation.
One thing that should be said is that Bright Travellers is not an easy book. Most of its poems require several readings before we can feel their meaning slowly building up in us. That is the case with “Rougemont”, which profits not only from being read more than once, but also from a little research. Rougemont Castle is where the last accused witches were killed in England, and Temperance Lloyd, to whom the poem is dedicated, was one of them. In her “Notes & Acknowledgements,” the poet herself explains that Temperance “is believed to have been around eighty years old” (69) at the time. The hanging of an elderly person for such a reason might strike us brutally, and yet Benson is capable of turning her look from the cruelty, thus finding a moment of glory in the old woman’s terrible fate. The poem begins with the modern observer’s decision: “Next time I’ll walk the old cart route to the drop”. In her refusal to go all the way to where this violent act took place, the poet fixes her gaze on what happened just before it: “but you are pleased overall / to be looked at, riding in this cart, when all / your life you’ve been invisible and walked” (9). Such sensitivity is also wise, as it postpones the horror of an execution (or death, in a broader sense) and spends time on the pleasure of what precedes it.
The sequence of poems “Love-Letter to Vincent” seems to follow a similar logic, ignoring anachronism and death, and thus positioning the poet as Van Gogh’s contemporary. And all the barriers seem in fact to be overcome by poetry, since one gets the feeling that the poetic persona not only knew Van Gogh, but also had a highly sexual, passionate relationship with him. Even the painter’s mental illness comes across as an added suffering which a woman must resist in order to be with him. All of the poems in “Love-Letter to Vincent” have titles which match those of Van Gogh’s paintings, such as “Portrait with a Bandaged Ear”, which, like the picture from which it gets its title, coincides with the high point of the painter’s madness. In the poem, Van Gogh is addressed three times in the same way: “You show up at my door.” And three times he is allowed inside the house: “and I let you in and I let you in and I let you in —” (24). He enters the house saying “chérie” and then, after a nap, walks off shouting “whore, whore, whore” but the narrating persona remains movingly faithful (to the man? to his art?), and ends the poem by saying “I want you strong and well. Please stay” (25).
The effort demanded by the book pays off. Bright Travellers may contain complex elements and even lack poetic independence, in that its poems might not always be functional on their own without research, very specific knowledge, or the author’s explanations at the end of the collection. Nevertheless, I felt that, after one overcomes this initial obstacle, Benson’s poetry is quite fluent and genuinely enjoyable.
This set of reviews relies on my not being familiar with either what the poets have published before or what has been written about them. And yet I can clearly see that Hugo Williams’ I Knew the Bride is the work of a poet who, having reached his definite maturity, is no longer disturbed by insecurities that may distract younger poets. Comfortable with references both to Greek mythology and to popular culture, his transparently presented poems range from deep nostalgic feelings seasoned with a bit of humour to the highest peaks of irony about the poet’s life and death.
The title poem is dedicated to the poet’s sister, who died in 2004. Nick Lowe’s song “I Knew the Bride When She Used to Rock ‘n’ Roll” was mentioned by Williams, we learn, in his speech on his sister’s wedding day — a reference to her dancing for her older brothers when she was a child. In a move that can only be accomplished by a very experienced poet, the reference to popular culture, to a rather merry song which could hardly be associated with the death of a loved one, gives the sad poem a touch of lightness. The very first lines refer to childhood memories: “You had to go to bed ahead of us / even then, while your two older brothers / grabbed another hour downstairs” (Williams 23). But “going to bed” cannot be limited to the literal sense of the words, as we see a few stanzas later:
You fought a five-year war
with that foul thing
which deals in hope and fear,
two against one,
like the two brothers who tormented you.
It wouldn’t be long
till you had to go to bed. (25)
The idea of death has now beautifully substituted the signified of the expression.
While this moving homage to his sister contains a rather straightforward display of feelings, the earnestness changes into irony as the topic of Williams’ poems shifts from the other to the self. The series of poems “Now That I’ve Forgotten Brighton” contains a great deal of self-irony in the portrait of a breakup. The poem “So Long” starts with the line “Now that I’ve forgotten Brighton” and then describes in detail other things that the poet “can’t remember” (19). This irony comes as a conclusion to the series of poems with gloomy memories and sad lines such as “but whatever happens we’ll go on / seeing each other, won’t we?” (15) or “In a difficult dream / I was allowed to touch her hair” (17). In its final lines, the last poem of the series also adds meaning to a powerful title: “I’m confident / nothing remains of that weekend / save this old theatre-club programme, / so long it has to be folded” (19, my emphasis). The length of a piece of paper, the length of a relationship and a goodbye at the end are all elegantly condensed in a simple expression.
Yet another shift is in store for the reader of I Knew the Bride. Whereas the irony in most of the book is directed to the poet’s life, the last series of poems “From the Dialysis Ward” turns its grin towards his death. Comments range from being asked how he is every time he arrives at the hospital for his dialysis to a platonic love for a nurse who is a master in the art of painless needling: “Did she have to take a needling test / like other mortals? / Or did they let her in / for being one of the angels?” (54). Williams’ irony reaches its peak in “A Recommendation” where the poet affirms he would “recommend dialysis / to anyone looking for a break / in their daily routine” (57) and adds:
The beauty of dialysis
is that it saves you the trouble
of planning too far ahead,
of working out what you’re going to do
with your afternoons. (57)
The reader of I Knew the Bride must be prepared to sigh with sadness and smile with joy about the same stanza, sometimes even about the same line. As an experienced, confident poet, Williams produces very pleasurable poems, which are marked by a superficial lightness that reveals something deeper, yet smiles at it as if it were equally unimportant.
A considerably heavier collection is Michael Longley’s The Stairwell, even though, for its remarkable balance, I would not call it heavy. It contains a number of interesting similarities to William’s I Knew the Bride: they are both the works of mature poets, and a significant part of each is dedicated to a dead sibling; in Longley’s case, a twin. Yet the differences between the works are more interesting, and one of the features which cause The Stairwell not to be so light is a preference for Greek mythology (as opposed to Williams’ references to popular culture) when writing about death.
This collection is divided in two parts, each perfectly wrapped by images and topics which give them a sense of unity. It begins with the poem that gives the book its title. The first line prepares us for the prevalence of death we will encounter in the whole collection: “I have been thinking about the music for my funeral — ” (Longley 3). The poem then narrates how a woman calls the poet into a stairwell and shows him the perfect acoustics of the place by whistling war songs “As though for my father, who could also whistle them” (3). Longley’s father, we learn, fought in the First World War. And though this woman who whistles happily does not seem to be aware of the sadness of the songs, the poet gently stops her in the last two lines: “I hold the banister. I touch your arm. Listen, Lucy, / There are songbirds circling high up in the stairwell” (3). In these lines, the eternal sound of birds is what remains once war sounds have been silenced.
From then on, birds are almost omnipresent in the first part of the book, and most of the times they have a strange connection with death, a relation of opposition and attachment. In “Deathbed”, for instance, the poet imagines himself dying in a house where birds can fly in freely for a snack: “I’ll leave the window open for my soul-birds” (4). In another poem, a lapwing is found dead in its nest next to intact eggs; in “Waterbirds”, geese and swans seem to call out from the Iliad, in an attempt to remind the poet of Emily’s death (to whom the poem is dedicated) while he was reading the book. There is no question that, in the struggle between the lightness of bird images and the heaviness of death, the latter wins, but this tension is part of what gives Longley’s poems their beauty. In other moments, even not relying on birds, he is also capable of giving us a rare moment of pure lightness, as is the case in “Padlocks”, when two lovers “try to avoid treading on / amorous shield-bugs” (23):
With bridal sheets — tipsy gods
We walk hand in hand slowly
To protect from our clumsiness
Love-making on this April day —
bugs connected bum to bum. (23)
The second part, dedicated to Longley’s dead twin brother, is where Greek mythology replaces bird imagery. “The Twins” presents the conjoined Moliones, mythological characters who are also depicted in the cover of the book, as a representation of Michael Longley and his twin, Peter. But before that, a number of other poems equate the poet and his brother to Achilles and Patroclus. In “The Apparition,” Patroclus tells Achilles: “Bury me quickly, please, and let me through Death’s / gates.” The latter replies: “Patroclus, dear brother, I shall do as you ask: / I’ll see to the arrangements for your funeral” (51). Achilles then attempts to embrace his brother-in-arms, only to find out, heartbroken, that he was a hallucination. The last lines reveal, movingly, how personal this mythological reference is to the poet: “Did I imagine him? / He looked so much like himself, a double, a twin” (51).
Longley’s collection is the work of a sculptor who gives his work perfection by chiselling its parallel sections in order to establish tension in a stable whole. With images of birds contrasting with death on one side, and Greek mythology attached to contemporary feelings on the other, The Stairwell is a highly balanced book, which lets us know almost immediately the greatness of the poet we have before us.
Just like Michael Longley, Kevin Powers has also been considered a “war poet.” But there are at least three generations between Longley’s father, who fought in the First World War, and Powers, who is an Iraq War veteran. Although Longley does not support the idea of war at any moment in his poetry, one can tell that he is talking about what might have been one of the last wars to be romanticised. There are no songs about the Iraq War, and in Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, we get a first-hand account of the brutality of human conflict.
The very title of the collection implies that a moment of peace is a rare thing for a soldier in Iraq. So does the brevity of the poem which has the same title:
I tell her I love her like not killing
or ten minutes of sleep
beneath the low rooftop wall
on which my rifle rests.
I tell her how Private Bartle says, offhand,
that war is just us
making little pieces of metal
pass through each other. (Powers 5)
Three loves are expressed in the first stanza: for a woman, the addressee of his letter, for a rare moment of rest and for the absence of an action. These three loves are presented as equal and structured in a powerful parallel: for the soldier, “not killing” happens about as rarely as his precious moments of sleep and is as present as the woman he never sees. The last stanza does more than accuse other soldiers of a nonchalant attitude towards the ones they kill and the danger of being killed: it is also an attempt to justify this view, as it is their only choice.
All this violence, despite Private Bartle’s childish rationalisation about it, can only lead to trauma. A man who has to “decide / between dying and shooting a little boy” (8) cannot but expect severe psychological consequences, and that is what is described in the following poems. In “Independence Day” the sounds of a carillon trigger a panic reaction in the speaker: “And the ringing I / did not hear next did not come from the building’s bells, / but from the sound / of each ignited shell / that boxed my ears with its beginning” (14). The conscience of trauma is rather solid in the poet’s mind, as we see in the poem “Meditation on a Main Supply Home.” Here, the speaker compares himself to other veterans who have been physically mutilated in other wars, and concludes: “I am home and whole, so to speak” (23, my emphasis). The last words, of course, refer to his own psychological mutilation, one which may not be apparent, but which still causes a great deal of suffering.
In what I consider to be the climax of the collection, trauma and the very idea of war are overcome by literature itself. “Improvised Explosive Device”, the longest poem in the collection, is a repetition of conditional clauses that mean, in varying ways, “if this poem were a bomb.” An epigraph taken from the Army Times adds to the effect of the text by describing the devastating power of an explosive device which would not leave any survivors within a 25-meter radius. After 5 pages of explaining what would happen to the reader if the poem were explosive, the last stanza says:
If this poem had wires coming out of it,
you wouldn’t read it.
If these words were made of metal
they could kill us all. But these
are only words. Go on,
they are safe to fold and put into your pocket.
Even better, they are safe
to be forgotten. (32)
The words in the poem can be forgotten; the war cannot.
Such oppositions draw on the harmlessness of art in comparison to violence, and reaffirm the dangers of forgetting an unnecessary war and repeating past mistakes in the future. But more importantly, in the last lines we see the impossibility, for a traumatised soldier, of forgetting the war. No poet wants people to forget his words, but the fact that these can be forgotten without harmful consequences is a touching advantage of literature, and an expressive example of the strength of Kevin Power’s poetry.
Representation of trauma in poetry is also a theme in Pascale Petit’s Fauverie. Reading through the poems, one can understand a line of events varying in clarity which happened in the poet’s life. Rather explicitly in most poems, Petit and her father spent most of their lives distanced from each other until his imminent death caused an attempt at reconnection, as we learn from the letter mentioned in the first poem: “I know you must be surprised […] / but I will die soon and want to make contact” (Petit 7, original emphasis). What is somewhat blurred is the traumatic experience which caused the separation in the first place, although occasional glimpses of sexual abuse are visible. At first, isolated images scratch the surface of the traumatic event, like “my father’s tongue / wet on my neck” (8) in “Black Jaguar at Twilight,” but then the poem “Lord of The Night” narrates how the father “crept into the storeroom — / right up to my camp-bed.” The narration continues in a more symbolic manner:
Then he released a hummingbird.
The air vibrated,
I saw colours I had no name for
and a long needle-beak
that he pierced through my tongue
to keep my quiet. (30)
In a moving effort to describe the source of her trauma the poet seems to remember also the birth of her incapacity to speak about it.
At the beginning, the poem “Portrait of My Father as a Bird Fancier” prepares us for such bird images. It shows an adult who still thinks with a child’s selectivity, choosing to overlook her father’s cruelty to animals (and possibly to herself), in order to focus on the kind side of the man: “The one a nightingale serenades / just because he’s in pain — that’s / the father I choose, not the man / who thrusts red-hot prongs in their eyes / so their songs will carry for miles” (9). An intricate set of feelings governs Petit’s view of her father, feelings which are far more complex than just daughterly love or hate for the man who stained her childhood. By choosing to believe that “My father’s nightingale will pine for him when he dies,” despite the pain inflicted by the man on the bird, the speaker also implies that the death of her father is by no means welcomed as any kind of justice.
In “Pâté de Foie Gras,” animal cruelty is again associated with the poet’s father. Here, the vivid descriptions of the conditions in the duck farms visited by the speaker are powerful enough to make you skip a meal. When such descriptions are not directly associated with the father image, they are related to the poet’s childhood city, Paris, which in turn is associated with her father. For instance, four poems in the book are entitled “Grenelle Market,” and they contain scenes of dismembered and disemboweled animals exposed in the streets of Paris. A few pages later, the father image appears again in the poem “Notre-Dame Father Speaks”: “Quarry father / stroller of the necropolis, / caretaker of the quai Saint-Michel, / resident of Les Argonautes hotel, / my gargoyle eyes see the insides of things” (35). This haunting presence is recurrent in her poems.
As a collection of poems, this book has some powerful passages and moving moments, especially those focused on dealing with the death of a person who awakens such complicated feelings in the speaker. Towards the end, a funeral is mentioned, and the last line is enough to summarise a great deal of what the poet reaches through her poetry: “I proclaimed peace after bloodshed” (66). It is definitely a highly personal, cathartic moment in the poetry of Pascale Petit. However, by comparison with other works shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot prize, works in which only a part or a few poems are reserved for the mourning of a family member, it might come across as a little repetitive, as it did to me. The effect of Fauverie seems to exemplify that one theme is no longer enough for a contemporary poetry collection.
Pointing out a unifying theme in All One Breath, by John Burnside, can be somewhat harder. Time would be my suggestion, and yet the reader sometimes goes through quite a few poems that, at least superficially, seem to have nothing to do with it. But themes of vanity, childhood and, of course, death are also present in most of the book’s poems, themes which are all relatable, more or less obviously, to time.
The poem “A Rival” is an impressive comment on vanity, as it describes a man who stares at his lover’s reflection and, at a first moment, confesses that he has a preference for the mirror image. But then the poem takes an interesting turn, as he realises that the reflection is clearly much more interested in the flesh-and-bone woman than in him:
Sometimes I think if she and I were free,
she’d tell me secrets you and I could never share;
though, now I come to think of it, I swear
I’ve caught her giving you such private looks
as lovers do, when no one else can see
and then I’ve turned away, for all our sakes,
because it’s clear she’d rather you than me. (Burnside 12)
The serious playfulness with which the poet unfolds two characters into three is representative of the intelligence of most of the collection.
Although rhyme is present in only a handful of poems, and when it is there, it tends to be rather irregular, like in the above excerpt, it still is noteworthy that, out of the ten collections shortlisted for the prize, only one or two contain a significant amount of rhymes. This sparseness is all the more remarkable since the effects achieved by rhyming in this book have such pleasant effects, precisely because of its irregularity. The poem “Tommy McGhee, Corby Works, 1981”, about a man’s last day in the ironstone mine where he worked for almost 30 years before being laid off, contains these unexpected rhymes:
He’d thought he would be glad
to say goodbye;
but that last shift, walking away
with the cold flask and rolled-up newspaper
tucked in his coat,
he turned to the sudden black
where the ovens had been:
wet slag, and the frost on the tracks
and the last sacks of by-product
shipped out to beet-farms
and landfill. (47)
More than somewhat disconcerting rhymes, the passage above is also powerful because of rhythm, which is another strong feature of Burnside’s collection, peaking in these remarkable lines:
I keep myself busy. The native
birdlife calls from the stones
and hedgerows, chiffchaff
and starling, dunnock, the elegant
wren by the wall and the usual
flash mob of crows at the gate, all flutter and strut
where something has died
in the wheels of a passing car (77)
The abundance of monosyllables and the frequency of onomatopoeic words give the reader the unique illusion of hearing the images described in the poem.
Other than form, All One Breath is also satisfying in content; as mentioned before, the topic of time is approached in many different manners throughout the collection, such as the memories of a grandmother; a traditional contemplation of death, in which the speaker realises “that there’s no forever” (33); a man in a hotel room who, with every car that passes, gets startled by the possibility that it might be a certain woman who, we gather, has died in a car crash; and, more subtly, the growth into adulthood of a younger sister who vanished at the age of three, causing great distress in the family, until she was brought back, safe and sound, by the teary-eyed “local bully, suddenly finding himself heroic” (46). All in all, Burnside’s collection is an impressive work, with an abundance of accurate epigraphs which provide a pleasant key to the reading of many poems and a number of poems that survive in the reader’s mind long after we are done with the book.
Ruth Padel’s erudition, one notices after a few poems, allows her insights into the three greatest contemporary religions, as well as a solid commentary on classic Greek literature. The word poetry derives from the ancient Greek word “ποιώ (poio)”, which means “to make”, and that is the kind of artistic making, as a protection against war and intolerance, subtly referred to in the collection — from the title, Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth, to the last line in the book, “Making is our defence against the dark” (Padel 53).
Religious conflict is addressed in one of the longest poems in the collection, “A Guide to the Church of Nativity in Time of Siege.” A silent visitor gets a tour of the Christian church in Bethlehem. As we learn from the notes at the end of the book, the siege mentioned in the title took place in 2002, when Israel Defence Forces invaded the city in search of Palestinian militants. The poem gives voice to a local tourist guide who does not seem to be completely familiar with the English language. In the practiced speech about the details of the church, a few references to the situation appear: “Did you bring water? Medicine? Food?” (14). The guide, who knows by heart most of the conflicts that have taken place in the region, mentions the recent change in the treatment given to the temple in the course of the centuries, and confesses his pessimism for the future of the church:
Every time till now our white small town
was crush to powder-stone, the church survived.
That’s all I meant to say. Everyone let it be.
Never siege before. […]
If you return, it may be all you see
is tinsel among rubble, heaven rolled back
like mourning cloth on a market stall
as if the Child we honour were stillborn,
and all the darnels of the Bible. (17-18)
The poem reflects rather peacefully on the increasing dangers military power represents to historical places.
The equally peaceful retelling of the story of Christ’s crucifixion, “Seven Words and an Earthquake” manages to render him more human — and less godlike — than in the scripture. It is one of the few poems that does not depend on the annotation at the end of the book to be understood, mainly because the story of Jesus is widely known. In one of the seven poems which compose this group, “Need,” Christ is presented as knowing precisely what kind of treatment he will get from the Roman soldiers if, from the cross, he tells them that he is thirsty. Nevertheless, this is exactly what he does: “The heart, submersed // struggles to shift sluggish thickening red cells / but the dehydrated tissues won’t stop sending / stimuli to the brain till you gasp it out. I thirst”(29). By making Christ’s flesh-and-bone body so decisive in the scene, Padel portraits the mortal part of his being as the stronger one.
Other than religion, the poet seems to have a remarkable knowledge of Greek literature, as seen in the poem “As I Flick the Remote in the Gulf I Think of an Ancient Greek Playwright.” The first lines are from a play by Euripides, in her translation, and the connection she draws between the excerpt and the American “war on terror” is intelligent in more ways than one: “You’re imagining, as you hike, a new god, // […] entering every city: twin-towered, barbarian, Greek. But this is March 2006” (34). The connection between an event and a playwright so distant in time stresses both how contemporary the ancient Greeks can be and how anachronistic a war in the 21st century is.
One thing, however, struck me as a general flaw in Padel’s collection: the apparent need of an explanation that most of the poems have. The book contains nineteen poems, twelve of each are explained in the “Notes” session. Some of the explained poems work well without the comment, but most of them do not. I have found notes which explain poems in other works reviewed here, but no collection seemed to me so dependent on the notes as Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth. While some texts might gain with an explanation, a significant number of Padel’s notes seem to precede the poems as indispensable tools for comprehension.
A session with explanatory notes at the end of the collections appears to be a trend in contemporary poetry. David Harsent’s Fire Songs is no exception: about half of the book’s poems are referred to under “Acknowledgments and Notes” (Harsent 65). In contrast to other collections, however, most of these explanations are by no means necessary to the comprehension of the texts. In fact, if there is a flaw to be found in Harsent’s notes, it is that they are unnecessary and sometimes redundant. Yet, as opposed to the need for comments, they do not affect in any way the poetic value of his lines.
Saying that notes are not needed does not mean that Harsent’s poems are easy to understand. On the contrary, his dense, fragmentary writing often causes the reader to go through the poem quite a few times before comprehension is reached. But the experience may not take so long to be gratifying: the careful word choice accounts for immediate beauty, for a harmony of sounds which are pleasurable long before one taps into their meaning:
She comes in as Columbina, comes in as Lady M, comes in
as the Rank Stupendous, all hips and lips and painted skin, comes in
as someone he knows he knows, comes in wearing her life-
mask, tip of the tongue, gleam of a tooth, glad eye, her shrilly laugh
knocking back off the walls… (19)
Other than acoustic pleasure, Fire Songs is enjoyable for the way in which it constructs unity through fragmentation. “Fire:” is the title of four poems, which have different subtitles. The first one is “a song for Mistress Askew.” Anne Askew was burned at the stake in 1546, accused of heresy. In the poem, the dreadful images of the woman’s last minutes seem to come to the poet as he watches a more innocent fire burn. Every few lines an interruption takes place, following the less than satisfying explanation “NOTEBOOK” (3). While the Elizabethan English in the obscure lines matches that of the epigraph, which is a quote of Johan Bale, it sometimes refers to the condemned woman as “She”, sometimes as “I”, which allows us to assume that we are dealing with different notebooks: “She bell’d but speke no worde and sylence alwayes her gift” (3) and “Then the byshopp sayd, I shuld be brente” (4).
Other notebooks punctuate the other “Fire” poems, some of them in modern English. In “love songs and descants” a different narration takes place as we slowly understand that the poem is about a man burning memories of a woman. “Fire: end-scenes and outtakes,” one of the most impressive pieces in the collection, floats vaguely between post-apocalyptic fiction and an eerie apocalyptic prophecy. Its last line — also from a notebook, and at this point it is impossible to keep track — echoes the imaginary words of Anne Askew in the first poem: “it will be fire, it will be fire, it will be fire…” (41).
Mentioning the echoes and polyvalent elements of the “Fire” sequence in David Harsent’s work is but listing a few examples of how well-structured and unified this fragmentary book is. Equally elegant instances could be pointed out in the “Tinnitus” poems and in the recurrence of fools and rats throughout the collection. While most poems contain a beauty in and of themselves, the range of connections between them, varying in subtlety, struck me as the poet’s greatest achievement. To name a couple which are less obvious but equally effective, in “M.A.D. 1971 (Rat-run)” the fear of a Mutually Assured Destruction “after the infinite rapture of the megaton strike” (60) during the Cold War relates to the apocalypse-by-fire imagined in the other poem; in “Pain”, the ekphrastic images give way to a very personal suffering, a “Pain of what’s incurable, pain of what’s broken, pain of the missing limb” (61), which takes us back to the sorrowful moment in which the speaker burns “letters, cuttings, poems, diaries, notebooks” (29) which he associates to a lost partner.
Fire Songs may not appeal to someone who prefers an easy read, but the more patient readers can expect their efforts to be rewarded. Overall a very impressive work, by a poet who has achieved admirable elegance in the careful, conscious way he deals with aesthetic creation.
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Burnside, John. All One Breath. London: Random House, 2014. Print.
Glück, Louise. Faithful and Virtuous Night. Manchester: Carcanet, 2014. Print.
Harsent, David. Fire Songs. London: Faber & Faber, 2014. Print.
Longley, Michael. The Stairwell. Random House, 2014. Print.
Padel, Ruth. Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth. London: Chatto & Windus, 2014. Print.
Petite, Pascale. Fauverie. Bridgend: Seren, 2014. Print.
Powers, Kevin. Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting. London: Sceptre, 2014. Print.
Subramaniam, Arundhathi. When God Is a Traveller. Hexham: Bloodaxe Books, 2014. Print.
Williams, Hugo. I Knew the Bride. London: Faber & Faber, 2014. Print.