POLAR by Dobby
Gibson, 68pp, $13,95,
Alice James Books, 238 Main Street, Farmington, Maine
DRAWING OF A SWAN BEFORE MEMORY
by Laynie Browne,
59pp, $16.95, University of Georgia Press, 330 Research Drive, Athens,
LEDGER by Susan
Wheeler, 82pp, $14,
University of Iowa Press, 100 Kuhl House, Iowa City, Iowa
All three of
these American writers have won competitions, awards or fellowships. What I
wonder straight off is whether they would have received such acclaim had they
been British. I know it's an idle sort of speculation since there are far
fewer British awards to be won anyway, but I still want to say I doubt it.
They're too far from the mainstream books of our predictable shortlists -
predictable, that is, by the publicity that gets them there in the first
Take Polar by Dobby
Gibson, who has a 'Poetry Fellowship from the McKnight Foundation'. His book
won the 2004 Beatrice Hawley Award. (I looked this up - a publishing
collective's open publication award plus $2000 for a poet at any stage of
her/his career, so a good deal, this one.) Many of the poems are page-long
blocks of quirky trains of meandering, conversational thought and association
striving for humour. They bring Dean Young's writing (Ready-Made Bouquet, Stride 2005) to mind - though Young's
seems more multi-coloured. (In fact Dean Young must be something of a hero,
as he both praises Polar
on the back cover and is thanked in the acknowledgments.)
Here's a sample, randomly chosen where the book fell open, the first third of
the 'Receiving Line':
those religions think
aren't that much closer to God,
he would rather the occasional cross
jab into the
nape of His floofy mattress
these phone poles,
they are in such an obvious worship
another, like athletes.
even the slowest atheists
this week has
been track and field,
slo-mo over an enormous precipice of thaw:
luncheon-meat cold, and even winter rain
anything new, but it hurls itself
at us like a
lawn's snow into a kind of tapioca
suddenly, is it groceries we're after?
Not all of the poems hurtle and leap like this. 'From This Year's
Indispensable Guide for Every One of Us' is both slower paced and more
serious; 'and when I did finally close my eyes / I saw the dead / as they see
us now'. The central section 'Solstice' is 13 x 14 liners in couplets.
Sections are, alas, separated by a page of snowflake forms, but if I can get
over that, I can see I could quite get into this one.
Laynie Browne's Drawing of a Swan Before Memory may take more getting into. She's the
winner of the Contemporary Poetry Series Competition (University of Georgia
Press) and three times winner of the Gertrude Stein Award in Innovative
American Poetry. Here are short, lyric, abstract considerations in prose
poems. The 'before memory' of the title forewarns you of the difficulty
Browne engages with: how to write of experience before memory exists, that
is, before there is a separation of I / you in the child, and before
language. Here is how she sets about it, in the first piece of 'The Emergence
eyes - containing water - become expression, or color.
They cloud in
changing - though the change is never marked, it may
The cloud is
His hand is
this first finding - pulling a hand in and out of a living channel.
betokens him all color. He passes through color - setting each
Readers with babies will stay with this, I think. The book has seven
sections, of which the 'The Emergence of Memory' is the central one.
Individual poems don't have titles, just numbers within each thematic
grouping. The final group, written in small blocks, is 'White' - white with
possible reference to light, to paper-folding, to milk; its number 6 is short
enough to quote in full:
Glue the folded house to the
A carefully tuned beam ren-
ders an opaque material trans-
parent to a second.
Her smooth calmness was
rounded him. Clothed his
apprehension in milk.
I'm full of
admiration for writers who can develop a theme throughout a whole volume.
Susan Wheeler does this too, in Ledger - though quite differently. Let's see, there's a quite a
list here of what Wheeler's won. This particular book won The Iowa Poetry
Prize. (It begins to look as though most poetry presses offer prizes.) It is
a book of poems in all manner of forms, about economy. Let the flyer
explain: 'Ledger places an
individual's crisis of spirituality and personal stewardship , or management
of her resources, against the backdrop of a culture that has focussed its
"economy" on financial gain and has misspent its own tangible and intangible
resources.' It's a book you have to think about - some of the sources listed
at the back are economic or cultural texts - but the crisis is certainly
And it's another book in
sections, the first, 'Proper Return' investigates childhood wants and demands
in (relatively) straightforward poems: a child enters, say, 'Ye Olde Trading
Post' of the poem 'Roanoke and Wampumpeag':
Low radio, woman propped with The Making of the President
Open in her hands. The child calculates the thieving odds. Balks.
'Short Shrift', 'Surfeit', 'Money and God', 'Depleted Stocks', 'The Debtor in
the Convex Mirror' - these are the other sections in the book. The narrative
here is kaleidoscopic and fragmented, as is the form. This passage towards
the end of section 3 of 'Money and God' will show you what I mean:
the silo of another moneylender opened,
wheat now snakes
A third, awakened by his
servant, found Lucifer
and two steeds black before his mill -
merchants of the future, sellers of time -
every buy high, a
seller's low. You were beside me in the
ol - al - and then You weren't. Vamoosed like a loan shark
after collect. Denominational oligopsony. Brother Luke
double entry. Hermes' fluidity. And so I left.
That 'capitol' above, with the OL struck out and AL next to it, is typical of
a heightened attention to things economic, enacting within the language the
way that the market dominates American culture. Definitely not the sort of
book that we'd see as a winner, here.
Which makes me wonder, conversely, perversely, how well Carol Ann Duffy's
would have done over there.
© Jane Routh