It's a Hard Rain's Gonna Fall, but There's a Hitch...
Rain, Jon Woodward (74 pp, $14.00, Wave Books, USA)
The Last Place on Earth, Peter Sansom (50pp, £8.95, Carcanet)
Hitch, Matthew Holmes (96pp, $13.95, Nightwood Editions, Canada)
I find Jon Woodward's second collection really hard to write about. It's not that it's a difficult book, it's just that it's brilliant: I'm so excited my hands are shaking - really, and that sometimes makes my brain shake too. So I'll try to stick to the point, be objective, that sort of thing (but it really is fucking brilliant, and if you've any sense at all you'll rush out and buy it). Here goes:
Rain is thematically adventurous, driven by its subtle narrative of a natural force's physical and psychological effects in a largely urban environment. Because this theme is handled dextrously, and with great delicacy, the book feels simultaneously intimate and expansive. Each poem lasts a page and is usually comprised of 3 or 4 unpunctuated stanzas - Don't switch off! Yeah, you! You know who you are! This poetry is much better than you think -
the stairs will require explanation
require rain cascading down them
you sit on a chair
rain sits down beside you
she finds out about you
[from 'the stairs will require explanation']
See? Relax. There's a point to all this. Rain's pretty flexible, right? Individual drops fall, then blend into puddles, streams, rivers, oceans etc. and steam back to rain again. And that's what we've got here: lines to stanzas, stanzas to poems,
explanation will require an extent
sitting on a stair your
body becomes a stair droplets
fall like bodies climbing down
the extent will require a
[from 'the stairs will require explanation']
then one poem to the next; indeed some elide so convincingly that sections of the book can almost be read as off-beat continuous narrative. And it's all done with a scintillating surface shimmer (do you get migraines? Well, it's like a migraine eye-shimmer would be if migraines were fantastically enjoyable, and instead of gut-wrenching headaches and deep depression the shimmer pre-empted a spell of radiant mental health and bodily euphoria). Once you've tuned in to Jon Woodward's rhythms you're not made to work too hard unless you want to, which isn't to say these poems are shallow, or that they fail to give the reader the opportunity to make syntactical decisions which effect the way each poem can be read: they don't, and they're far from shallow; it's simply that they're immediately rewarding for the internal ear, and perfectly tuned to the contrapuntal musical textures of thought-rhythms - well, mine anyway. I have asked other people and they seem to agree but may just be trying to get rid of me.
Another plus is that many of these poems are funny, which isn't to say they're not serious (see, I told you: shaky); whatever else, they're seriously imaginative and never lapse into clichŽd thought or language:
in a terrible
accident I hope you're not
in a coma at the
hospital hope you just blew
me off guess I'm going
back to sleep but if
but if that isn't the
phone ringing hello oh Donald
Sutherland I was just watching
one of your movies what
say that again she's okay
oh Donald that's good news
hey you're a terrific actor
you could play a mean
God oh really I didn't
['in a terrible']
This is gentle, beautifully-observed, black and white realism tinged with surreal colours (mostly green and purple pastel variants I imagine, if you're synaesthetically minded, with an occasional shocking splash of bright red). But there's also a deep seam of grief running through this collection. The death of 'Patrick', whether a real person or a composite character I don't know, weaves in and out of these poems, and a section of the book is named after him. His death is seen as something ongoing, mirroring the titular rain; it is not something final to be overcome and elegised in the past tense but is a constant nagging in the narrator's mind, to be worried at and skirted round but never pinned down.
he explains how this man
deliberately attempted to wall off
all of his anxieties by
singing about the sunshine it
couldn't possibly work I tried
[from 'a grown man the singer]
But however strong the sense of something lost, the sense of something recoverable is stronger. The liquid beauty of the writing, the occasional bubble-bursting bawdiness, and the present tense in which 'Patrick' can still exist, make even this tragic aspect of the book more a celebration than a commemoration:
guy at a gas station
walked up to the car
began cleaning the windshield saying
as he did so Sic
Transit Gloria Patrick goes Sic
Transit my Chowder Shitting Ass
[from 'although I didn't once fear]
Peter Sansom is much more than a competent poet and Carcanet is a great press, so you have to ask: what happened? I'm afraid The Last Place on Earth does neither credit. Indeed, at under 50 pages, I'm reminded of Dylan Moran's Bernard Black recommending a book to a potential customer: ÒIt's dreadful but it's quite short.Ó That's not entirely fair, but this is pretty lazy post-movement stuff:
Mam bought us whites and later matching caps
delighted to find just the thing in Skegness,
and we must have looked prats. Still, our first serves
went in, the topspin backhands put on weight,
and every smash and drop-shot was two fingers
to exams around the corner, that long wet summer.
[from 'Anyone for Tennis']
It's just so damned stereotypically looking-back-through-sub-Larkin-tinted-glasses-English - all un-ambitious description without imagination (pyro-linguistic or narrative), and what music there is sounds like borrowed records. For the most part this collection evokes quasi-Georgian sentiments pepped up with infelicitous pop-culture references. What possible potency this cocktail might possess is too often deflated by incongruously flat rhythms, which the writers to whom Sansom seems, perhaps, to hark back would never (even old Davies, Gibson, Squire & co.), or at least not often, have let pass:
I live in your heart, biding my time.
Talk with me in a rhyme
or waiting-room paperback.
I bring out the Barry Manilow in you.
In contrast with the perfect tonal judgement Jon Woodward exhibits by including Donald Sutherland in the poem quoted above, a touch which invokes a subtle melancholy humour, Sansom's use of celebrity-as-byword clunks dreadfully and serves no real purpose. Romantic? Sentimental? Large-nosed? Is that what he's getting at? Is the poem deliberately bad? Certainly it's not noticeably so much more clunky than others in this collection as to be clear parody. Here's the opening and end of 'Born again bikers':
top of the range and all the leathers, at their age,
instead of an affair or throwing up the job,
off they go unwinding miles of moonlight road,
travelling in hope, tip-toeing icy bends...
... good luck to them. Haven't I after all
taken up piano.
This kind of ending, the pat tie-up line, is used in pretty much every poem in this collection; it becomes wearing, sometimes spoiling otherwise quite beautiful poems. Why do so many poets insist on this sort of false closure? And surely here it should be the piano.
I can confidently predict that there's nothing in this collection that will challenge you, and little that would offend a stereotypical grandmother (mine wasn't offended in the slightest, but she is dead). Even if that sounds like your thing, if you've not read Peter Sansom before then do yourself (and him) a favour: read one of his other books first.
Hitch is another sort of beast altogether. For a start, you can't read any of Matthew Holmes' other collections because this is his first. But that's not a problem. Hitch is plenty good enough. This is how he handles old bikers, in 'Piazza del Nettuno':
If you were my gypsy
electric rock motorcycle guitar leather bicepped
and I were your uncomfortable daughter
I would cobblestone dance on our way through Bologna,
draw a crowd around us (speakers
on tripods, kickstand steady)...
There you go. That's how you do free verse: not a limp or redundant phrase in sight and nothing to break the natural rhythms of the language, and at least an oodle of imagination to boot. This kind of open stepping-into-character narration can, as in this startlingly good debut, produce poems that read every bit as 'sincerely' (don't really like that word but can't think of a better one right now) as those crafted by the carefully developed voice of any 'lyric I'.
But there's much more to this collection. It's intellectually challenging (there is a sequence of prose-poems based on scientific theories) yet also profoundly playful. For example, the title sequence is made up of a series of drawings of knots, with a poem illustrating each, some emotionally, some intellectually, some amusingly. Here's 'Fig. 5: Mooring' (I'm afraid reproducing the knot here is beyond me: go find an old sea-dog if not knowing is going to ruin your day):
the half-hitch is used for mooring
the round turn two half-hitch being/ standard
but still, you ask, isn't a two half-hitch / a hitch?
and there it is
Each of these knot poems creates a kind of imagist aphorism which you can look at from different angles, like a sculpture, and - depending on how you interpret the line-breaks, dashes, slashes and punctuation - appreciate in different lights. Or perhaps, more appropriately, you pull at different strands and the poem unravels in new ways. But there are constants: as is obvious here, the other meanings of hitch - as in marriage or technical - are never far from the surface. The metaphor of the relationship as a knot that can be tied, or untied, in a multitude of different ways has been used many times before (R.D. Laing is the first user to spring to mind) but seldom with such dexterity and nimble-fingeredness. But Matthew Holmes is more than just a playful intellectual; he can also write exquisitely tender lyrics. I don't normally like quoting a whole poem (I know I already have; that was different, OK? It was sort of part of a sequence. It's my story and I'm sticking to it), but I'm going to give you the whole of 'To Beth, Sleeping' because it is so lovely, and so simple, it might just improve your quality of life.
the sky this weekend, the sky
and its blackberries dropping into your palm
at the moment that you put it there, your neck
stiff with driving is why I read to you
tonight until I could hear you breathing
in the morning I will stand outside
and wash your windows, the vertical lines of rain
stained through screening
that hold the yellow of the street lamps to them
while you sleep
Matthew Holmes is something of an all-rounder and Hitch demonstrates his skill in a variety of styles and forms. In fact, if I have any quibble about this collection it's that there's maybe a little too much variety, which can lead to (this) reader-jumpiness. Actually, that's probably, and normally, a good thing in my book. Maybe it's reading Hitch alongside Jon Woodward's even more assured and tremendously cohesive collection that has made me think like that.
© Nathan Thompson 2007