Three Sea-Winds and One Tattered Coat
Hangman's Acre, Janet Sutherland (89pp, Shearsman)
Barn Burned, Then, Michelle Taransky (72pp, $14.95, Omnidawn)
Flinch of Song, Jennifer Militello (64pp, $16.95, Tupelo)
Theory of Mind: New & Selected Poems, Bin Ramke (197pp, $16.95, Omnidawn)
It was Catherine Smith who was of the opinion that 'Janet Sutherland's poems are pared to the bone, visionary, untainted by sentiment, but always fully compassionate'. This new collection, Hangman's Acre, is no exception. The pieces cover much ground in content and, yes, some of that ground could so easily have slipped into sentimental drivel, but, instead, are competently and compassionately handled.
This handling is particularly apparent in the section chronicling the prelude to and aftermath of her mother's demise, the mother to whom the book is dedicated.
For example, in 'Ash' Sutherland goes head-on in facing the reality of what has become of the temporal form from whence she, herself, came. There's no pissing about with syrupy allusion nor maudlin reminiscence. ndeed, there's something vaguely and blackly humorous, yet still lovingly respectful, about the way she describes aspects of the occasion...
All that remains is dry
the rest is vaporised
Pulling grass and groundsel
free, we make the bed.
Is there a good way to do it?
Just face away from the wind.
Grit and substance falls
to earth, a finer grade suspends
in air. This is the place
for calcium phosphates...
It is this power of brief, yet profound, staccato-dappled description that permeates and gives strength to the collection, whatever the focus of her observations. Yet, where Smith goes on to describe Sutherland as 'one of our most accomplished nature poets' is to do her a disservice. If anything, her nature poems work less well than those where she has something more definite to grasp hold of and work with from the human world, whether that be relationships, histories, conditions or events. In some ways it's a pity to have felt the need to include these nature pieces, hovering dangerously close to vacuousness as they are, when there is so much quality elsewhere in her work. On occasion, as with 'in Battenville, Vermont', there's the sense of sketching new surroundings simply for the sake of recording having been there...
with small raised beds
herbs and onions
a lawn and
an apple tree
three blue pots
the naked path
across the swaybacked barn
a braided cloud
each of the edges
honed sharp by evening light
no one here
Thankfully, these momentary lapses are as few and far between as to be but a minor irritation when set against the likes of 'Metaphysical', 'Suvla Bay, Gallipoli 1915', 'Five things I saw before my mother died' and 'Cicatrice', each of which, along with several others, undeniably display the sensitivity, precision and insightfulness that epitomise Sutherland's work and which make this a collection very much worth reading.
And, as reading is where impressions are formed, it's considerably scary, middle-aged as I am, to find that, with Michelle Taransky's Barn Burned, Then, the notion is brought to mind that, the older one gets, the more conservative one's outlook becomes and that, therefore, the more conservative, the less one takes pleasure from the radical. However, in having been taken along this line of thought, I then realised that, with Taransky's work, the self-doubt and displeasure felt had little to do with radicalism. Radical it is not. If anything, its style merely pushes further at that American fashion for uninspiring and uninspired post-modernism that has already been done to death - the kind of style that relies on angular, disjointed, collaged gobbledygook to impress a readership willing, or gullible enough, to be taken in by its pretentiousness. And, sadly, when I say readership, I have to include the judging panel of the Omnidawn Poetry Prize which this collection has rather bizarrely been awarded.
No, pushing boundaries is one thing, and a necessary thing, but continue pushing and, eventually, the net result is a meaningless exercise that leaves nothing but wank-puddles to fill the space between the covers. It is self-indulgent cleverness, an in-joke where the only person laughing is the poet. Poetry is about communication, not about taking the most mundane premise and presenting it in the most obscure and ugly way one can.
In this case, taking a 17th century haiku by Masahide as its springboard into the present, that premise is one of the modern relationship between barns and banks as storehouses. But, and this is where it starts to get too clever for its own good, rather than the physical loss allowing for a view of the natural beauty of the moon and the opportunity for spiritual awakening, as per Masahide, the physical loss, itself, becomes a warning, as though we need one, as to what we stand to lose in a materialistic world reliant on coldly calculating financiers.
Now, shroud that in language that has been through a mincing machine several times, forwards and backwards, with no heed paid to even the most elementary rules of grammar, along with a few shovelfuls of awkward, if not genuinely mishandled poetic technique, and the whole thing becomes so cleverly lost up its own jacksy that it is ultimately rendered wholly unreadable.
So, really, although I'm all for making the reader do some of the work, I'd rather be down a salt-mine than have to labour my way through this one again. And, much as a quote or two is often the best way to give an idea as to the qualities of the work under review, to take any lines from their context within this collection would be to give credence to the incredibly dire. No, if you value your sanity, avoid Barn Burned, Then and, like me, pray Michelle Taransky comes to her senses soon, before any more judging panels are duped into believing this kind of work is worthy of laurels.
Now, with that out of the way, next up, in complete contrast, as chalk and cheese, comes Flinch of Song by Jennifer Militello from which, were it permissible, I would quote every word of every line of every page. Absolutely drenched in metaphor, simile, allusion and linguistic invention, tightly written without a word let waste its clout, and, quite frankly, dense with spell-binding beauty, Militello's work is also a poetry of loss, though, this time, not of the physical, but of lovers, of childhood, of family, of identity, of the mind, and of the weight and revelations of the freedom that results from those losses. Parts of the human body are absorbed into elements from nature, voices take on the sounds of rural and marine equivalences, snatches of urbanism reflect the flow of Life and all its struggles and heartbreaks.
...Add to me a long stretch of wetlands
and the dying off of birds. Invent me teeth to
bite with, scars to leave, the places you would maim
already in my eyes as atmospheres the edges
whisper, profiles I have let swan, all the children
you will later be made to believe in,
their lineless fists and brows of silver lakeness.
The gunshot, the cricket song, irises of steam.
[from 'Instructions to a Portraitist']
Without a trace of doubt, Militello is a truly worthy winner of the Tupelo Press/Crazyhorse First Book Award. The judging panel have, in this instance, got it spot on. What they have recognised is her sheer talent and, with their award, have hopefully given her the self-belief to continue to develop from a starting point that is already streets ahead of so many of her contemporaries.
And, with such talent spread before me, I find it difficult to resist sharing more of it with you, in essence to allow it to speak, as it does so eloquently, for itself. As I said, were it permissible... every word, every line, every page. But, with this option clearly and sadly not open to me, and knowing the following extracts will not suffice beyond being the most inadequate of tasters, I can only suggest... no, demand that you go and get hold of a copy before they're all gone. Don't think you'll be getting mine - it will not be appearing on Amazon Marketplace.
This loss is as librarian as the yards
of junked cars, upholstery gutted and windows
rough with forgetting. It's been an hourly collection
of years. and this cracked announcement
is the day ripping into a net of language that so often
tangles in itself. It's been days, and still
the sun drags its bad leg. Its spreading bruise
purples two entire rooms and whatever
they contain. When will I stop filling
my ear's pitcher with the words inside
the words? You have left me with a cathedral
of trees and no church to speak of...
[from 'The Conductor's Last Call Before Leaving']
Try passing for red, packing an unlit pipe for guidance,
leaving clear the failure to predict a world
in which each moment is a stoplight swinging in place.
[from 'Passing for Red']
When we ran, we consumed the way back
to be sure we would never return.
[from 'History of Siblings']
My grandmother took my hand beside
the shoreline's fuse a horse of flame burned
galloping down, the strength in her grip a darkening
which searched hungry and swallowed whole.
I felt her lengthened step extend past mine.
There was no stopping the world's leaving.
When you touched me I thought I heard
the wild crane of the rest of my life
shooting its loom, its labor, bitter but good.
I didn't know the white light was my white thigh
reflecting a sharpness of spurs. I didn't know
you lived by the wishes of your hands.
[from 'The Window Painted Shut']
...Her lips hisses,
a spill of starved machines, her adrenaline lips,
her barbed wire lips, in her one eye gravel
willowing, fracture, fronds of singe. The hours
like twelve tarnished interior birds. Countless
spores. Intravenous. My mother is sudden with bees.
The woman, meanwhile, is a sea-wind rising; the man
is only a tattered coat. Bright things are clipped
from themselves sharply, paltry cities, burned out light.
There are so many more pencil-marked quotes left to cover, yet I'm obliged by space, time and copyright laws to move on to the final collection of this quartet, Bin Ramke's latest weighty tome, Theory of Mind: New and Selected Poems.
And when I say weighty I'm not just talking about its 197 pages which, in itself is good to see in this day and age when the majority of poetry books come in at less than a hundred, but of its content which is, on the surface, deeply intellectual, if not downright academic, given its usage of references which read like a who's who of Western thought, including the likes of Mandeville, Lang, Lucretius, Donne, Empedocles, Broch, Aeneid, Mazur, Wittgenstein, Maeterlinck, Freud, Ovid, Galileo and many others, and that the title, itself, comes from Michael Arbib's 'The Mirror System Hypothesis. Linking Language to Theory of Mind'. Add to this that the listing of his previously published books, the majority of which have seen the light of day thanks to several university presses (where, it seems, dons have been jerking off to this stuff since 1978), and you, too, would be forgiven for thinking this work weighty.
Yet the truth is that, relatively quickly, the cynic within begins to question the value of doing so. In fact, the cynic within would be hard-pressed not to say that it smacks of the pretentiousness of name-dropping that, in regularly interrupting what is already an irritatingly disjointedness of flow, serves little purpose. After all, why throw in, seemingly willy-nilly, chunks of research from other men's minds? Why, when the research is done, collage your work with that research? It's all good and well doing the research and allowing it to flavour your own thought and processes, but simply to cut and paste it into the midst of a chaos of your own making is effectively counter-productive.
Wind does rise to break little limbs of these
occasional walkers, humans hoping themselves home.
None walk with the wind, all against. Aghast
Men and women provoke (invoking) the natural order: leaves fail,
trees fall, winds revise. Engaged as witness, she, smaller
than most, skirted the littered streets past
the storm, fell into a felicitous here where
Martin Heidegger who is dead once said:
"man is world-forming" and you know,
somebody had to; and he further said "the stone
is worldless" and he said "the animal is poor in world"
but Heidegger devotes his body to ideas...
[from 'Was it Fallen it was a Floating World']
the balloon is empty, or,
her dream lies
an empty thought-balloon
to indicate the past,
its pure O of elegance.
How to make Balloones, also the Morter Peece to discharge them...
Into this balloone you may put Rockets,
Serpents, Starres, Fiends, Petards.
Bate, Mysteries of Nature & Art, 1634
Any bursting a violence.
Inclined this way, the head is balloon-shaped
tightly filled with memory.
Equally, if not simply to create an impression of intellectualism, why pepper the whole collection with scientific and mathematical flotsam?
Let's have it so. A good story
(tolle lege, tolle lege spoken in a sing-song voice by
an unseen child from behind a wall, according to Augustine)
whose riper abundance deserves the world's
gaudy spring, whose tender Pity might never
die, a famine of the grave, fairest bright memories,
(from light's waste to sweet bright eyes
increase desire, self-substantial fuel -
gaudy the world, or else glutton: too cruel:
here are other names and things:
yellow ochre, ferric hydroxide
red ochre, Fe2O3, ferric oxide
heat yellow ochre and get red ochre
hydrate red ochre and get yellow
from the madder, a flower,
They named the rainbow Iris.
[from 'The Naming of Shadows and Colours']
the electron densities of the different isotopic forms
of liquid water have proved, so far, to be indistinguishable,
it is expected that the O-D bond length is shorter than that of O-H
due to its smaller asymmetric vibration and the smaller Bohr radius
of D relative to H. This gives rise to small differences in the size
and direction of the dipole moment between HDO and H2O,
which further confuses any analysis of the structure of water
containing mixed hydrogen isotopes.
Water has higher specific heat capacity than ice or steam
Steam is invisible - it is not the fluffy stuff...
[from 'Anomolies of Water']
No, for me, all this excess baggage does nothing other than distract from what may, otherwise, be a poetry of some merit, logically chaotic and grammatically inconsistent as it may be. Yet, perhaps it should be noted that this is another Omnidawn publication in which, like Taransky's work above, anything goes, as long as it creates that all-important intellectual impression. Having been previously unfamiliar with Omnidawn, I can only assume this kind of vacuous, pretentious twaddle is their house style and that, if so, it is a house that may best left to crumble and fall.
© John Mingay 2010