Laura Walker's third collection furthers her interest in
nature, landscape and relationship through various methods of language
experiment. Her debut, Rimertown/an atlas
was a poetic 'mapping' of the poet's hometown through interwoven strands,
including prose poems and fragmented narratives. Her last, Swarm
Lure sprang from marginalia found in a
used copy of Joyce's Ulysses,
as well as quotations from the text itself, language generated from online
translation, and poems inspired by English and Italian bee keeping terms.
Bird Book again has a premise
which is at once lyrical and experimental, combining intellectual interest
with vast, refreshing space for contemplation. A dialogue between minimal
lyric and found text, each piece takes its name and parts of its language
from an entry in the Field Guide to the Birds of North America. This juxtaposition of disparate language
materials allows for a blend of bird and human life, so that each resonates
as one. Fragments are scattered across the page like seeds over a bird table,
white space treated as the air-filled distance between them.
In so few words, 'Barn Swallow' evokes a landscape, a journey from past to
future, and a walk home from the wilderness:
the light still on
Each poem has portions in italics. Their overall effect is to cut through the
piece (and the peace) like
sudden human footsteps through a silent landscape. They're a jarring but
inherent part of the scene, and allow Walker to do away with metaphor.
'Common Nighthawk' paints a haunting picture of a meeting between male and
female. Human or bird is
unimportant, a false dichotomy; only backdrop and relationship matter ('dark'
and 'slatted' imply a nest under the roof, or even a bed). 'Booming in the
night' might be taken as erotic, a mating call, or boisterous and out of
place. Either way, the italics carry the sense that tranquillity is being
she came from
him booming in the night
Language collaborations can feel over-complex, 'difficult', being a kind of
surrealism: forcing disparate texts into another strict, artificial
framework. Not here. Words are trusted to chime almost in isolation,
certainly without support from complex formal scaffolding. They meld and clash
for the purpose of contemplation, not confusion; evocation, not intellectual
riddle-solving. Where they sometimes feel slightly overly-poetic, part of me
wonders if that's just my insecurity in being lost in so much interpretive
Most of these poems are so spare, some readers may find them short on
linguistic; however, poetry was always about what goes unsaid, perhaps over
and above what is. Here, what's left to the reader is refreshing. We're not
being asked to unscramble a Rubik's cube. Walker's craft is in providing just
enough of the right words, a skeleton
that might become a story if we are attentive. In his 'Ars Poetica', Macleish
wrote, 'A poem should not mean / but be.' If these poems mean, it's because words can embody meaning if the reader wants. They refuse to
describe. Like seeds, they don't embody an overt message. For the birds, for
us, they embody tactility, taste and nourishment. No review could fully
capture that in prose, but thanks to Walker, thanks to Shearsman, we have it
here in poetry.
A disclaimer: I'm slightly tired of poetry about language.
Poetry is always about language. A
poem enacts its own aesthetics. If these are flagged up, wrestled with in the
work itself, the result had better be interesting in other ways, or it risks
being a kind of poetic washing of dirty laundry in public. Writing about
writing can be done well - when coupled with wit, for instance (see Luke
Kennard and the Salt anthology of 'manifestos' Troubles Swapped for
Something Fresh, to which Kennard contributed).
But it can make poems feel self-indulgent, with little to offer the reader
who isn't engaged in the craft.
That prejudice out the way, Mexico City-born Elena Rivera's third collection
concerns language not for its own sake, but as the means to plot a course
through the world. As we travel, we communicate with our surroundings in
order to make sense of experience. Language is our map and compass. Not too
abstract then, and fitting for a poet who
has also won prizes as a translator.
Rivera kicks off with her own 'Ars Poetica', which begins at the 'moment'
when the poem - after 'washing face and hands', as before a religious ritual
- 'slips / away, forgotten / by our 'progress.'' That's a tall order.
I am drawn to
the seen / heard,
still catch light,
The lack of punctuation in the line 'which limp still catch light' creates a
smudged syntax, hinting at the breaking-down of objective interpretation.
'Twigs of hope' couples an image with an abstraction (breaking Pound's dictum
to avoid 'such an expression as 'dim lands of peace'), hinting at the wish for some linguistic anarchy.
I'm not sold on 'I am drawn to explore' (that's an assumption I'd make
without needing to be told) but I'm intrigued.
The second poem in nine sections, 'Disturbances in the Ocean of Air' is one
of my favourites. One of its threads is childhood memory: 'and then who
knows? Perhaps we will // be taken in hand by certain memories, / as if by angels.'
It makes use of air, sky and flight metaphor to continue the thread of
journey, and follows on from 'Ars Poetica' in that emotional growth is
couched in terms of language itself:
A blue way
an icy improvisation
'The border' might separate countries, but also pages. 'Feathers' can be read
as a verb, similar in a sense to Hopkins' 'fathers-forth'. The 'blue way' is
the child's path, and the 'icy improvisation' is her transport: language. The
poet is working with slippery abstractions, but I'm able to make connections.
As we go on, 'We Will Be Served' this:
that fury burns boredom
gaps with story and emotion
It could be the poet's fury being referred to here, or it could be the
reader's. I'm not furious. Neither am I bored, but I've yet to be convinced.
Some of the poem's most effective lines - even if they are questions around poetry - are interesting because
they're also psycho-geographic, grounded in an imagined place. ('Overhead.
Thought planes' implies a sky outside and above the words.) They also have
movement (even if 'Turn the page, keep moving' is slightly too unsubtle):
Listen to the
words as a lyricist would;
is it enough?
Turn the page, keep moving,
The poem's short list of 'objects 'left behind when someone goes / away or
dies' ('Clowns, masks, broken dolls, disaster') might be fragments of memory
(delivered, as they are, in reported speech) or they might just be words
delighting in themselves. It doesn't matter: the last two lines imply a
desire for words, as we travel, to be emptied of received context and
identifying, and empty -
say, boredom's terrible tray.
Though there has been the occasional minimal poem dotted around so far,
language is most fragmented in the final sequence, simply called 'The
Perforated Map.' It begins with the same words the collection started with,
except that their reappearance makes them harder to ignore, reinstating their
importance as a key to unlock the entire collection. Language represents both
a landscape to chart and an itinerant community, a church. The lyrical 'I'
has been brought to her knees by 'this large / Bittersweet / pull' to embark
on this pilgrimage to find her place in it:
on my knees
The blurb asks: 'What message is there for the poet/the reader? That is what
is at stake in these poems, finding the word, the specific word, to
illuminate the way, the experience of life, this moment, this time, this
period in history.' I had my suspicions that the blurb's own struggle to find
'the specific word' might find its way into the poems; and it does, where abstractions,
gerunds and present participles are occasionally too prominent - particularly
in more fragmented or minimal pieces - or poems aren't entirely sure what
they're saying, and revel in that confusion. As such, I was more taken by
some of the narrative-driven, imagistic poems than those wrestling with
poetry, narrative, autobiography and language as elusive, abstract concepts.
But this journey has no destination, no dead ends, only questions. The
answers will depend on our aesthetics and prejudices, which are - as Rivera
perfectly demonstrates - nothing if not constantly evolving.
© Mark Burnhope