(This first appeared in Under the Radar issue 9.)
Whilst I watch the clouds come along on fronts, I can’t decide whether to say that emotion lives on the edge of thought or that thought lives on the edge of emotion, but either way all poetry is closely involved with this problem. The three pamphlets which I have been reading contain poems that it is interesting to think of as responses, whether their speakers are responding to a book, the sight of their lover with someone else, or the death of a cloned ibex. How we in turn then respond is perhaps too complicated, but it is enough to say that we as readers are closely attuned to these responses, as we are, in some way, taking part in the same action, feeling the same pressures of thought and emotion. To dramatise and direct these pressures is no easy business, and it is interesting to see how Caleb Klaces, Kirsten Irving and Adrian Buckner, in their different ways, attempt it.
The sixteen poems of All Safe All Well are intelligent and gently humane, in a style which is distinct and deceptively artful. The main locus of Klaces’ style is the sentence. Mostly they are conspicuously long; all fifty three lines of ‘Vapours’, for instance, are one sentence, and elsewhere they generally stretch over several lines. Klaces also experiments with short sentences, as in the opening poem ‘Painting over Aya Sofia’ the longest sentence is a line, and in the first part of ‘Cheering the relief boat’ they are rarely longer than five words. Short sentences emphasise the essential building blocks first: the nouns very loudly and then the verbs and the adjectives. Long sentences, on the other hand, emphasise the links: the prepositions (which are, after all, the most commonly used words in the English language). The links in sentences allow for argument and for logic (or the lack thereof), and it is from these that we can learn and respond to how the speaker thinks. (The emotional charge possible is show by how the most affecting sentence in ‘My line’ is: “Because.”) Typically, these links form trajectories which run parabolically around the subject of the poems, often curling back to return to the point at which they began. As if drawn by a compass, they are constantly aware of their invisible “fix’d foot” even as they trace around it. This can be seen clearly in ‘This the real place’, where the speaker coyly talks in small circles around sex, with this silence made more obvious by the compensatory copia around it:
Below the mossy chapel on the headland on an indiscreet
ledge rock grass rabbit droppings sheer edge to the sea
we did it to embarrass the satellites since there is no God
to embarrass though not that in mind when we said
neither of us saying what for we would if the sun came out
go there: all purposes secondary to no purpose at all.
This action can be seen in miniature in “what for we would if the sun came out/go there”, as “go there”, the heart of the phrase, is withheld, even over a line-break, as the syntax puts everything it can before it and then adds an extra “if the sun came out” to push it back even more.
In the strongest poems of the pamphlet, such as ‘Vapours’ and ‘My line’, we are turned by allusion and association in breathless movement “through the vast profunditie obscure”. It is very difficult to write indirectly like this and still produce a successful poem, and it is testament to Klaces’ ability that this is his most powerful style. Whilst these poems start and end on their main subject – the assault on a nightclub toilet attendant in ‘Vapours’ and the speaker’s ageing father in ‘My line’ – they arrive with much more than they left with by virtue of the journey. As in ‘This the real place’, the radius of these circuits comes from a reluctance to speak about the direct subject of the poems, but the arc travelled is, in some way, also transformative and comforting. In ‘How we now scare ourselves’, the speaker reassures his father (but really himself, and maybe also us) that “connections make us hardier”. Just as prepositions are the seat of subjectivity, these links are what hold our private worlds together, and so poetry is best placed to explore the comfort and the fragility of these connections. It is like the “plastic dustpan” in ‘Knowing in order’ that the speaker is “using to stoke the fire/and to protect myself from it.”
The paper of the pages of Kirsten Irving’s pamphlet What To Do is slightly green. This is teasingly suggestive of how Kirsten Irving appears to be interested in speakers whose outlook is skewed, desperate or sickened. As implied by the title, What To Do generally presents the moment in which they wonder precisely that, and this dilemma tends to be accompanied, especially in the first half of the pamphlet, with a riddling, hyperactive surface to the poems.
Irving is a poet of tremendous energy, which hits you straight in the first stanza of the first poem, ‘No matter’:
There’s Cat singing, Here she comes now,
flanking you like Benvolio
and there’s an elbow in your side.
You want a banner three feet wide
saying THE END and WOE.
There’s a frantic stretch of reference from Cat Stevens to Shakespeare, as the poem moves with the panic of a speaker who thinks they “should hide” but is also irresistibly attached to the voyeuristically erotic sight of their lover with another person, and so is caught between these contradictory impulses. When Irving’s energy and wildness meets her knack for evoking character and place economically, the results are quite explosive; to quote a few lines of ‘Ants’:
and you offer her a lift
knowing the afternoon is annexed
and she’s itching in grey polyester,
thumbs through school sleeves,
backpack rammed with stupid, stupid books.
And you grin and offer her the bag of ants.
The collision between the recognisable character of the schoolgirl and the surreal “bag of ants” is electric, and the poem rides this energy to the end.
There is a danger, with this sort of intoxicating energy, of a poem riddling for the sake of it, where a frantic surface can conceal a simple idea. (What To Do can occasionally be accused of this; for example, in ‘The knowledge’, which is an otherwise clever poem, a discus is referred to as a “blunt shuriken”, which seems a bit like using metaphor in the same way that one livens up prose using a thesaurus.) Sometimes Irving does seem a little too attached to the surface, as ‘Laura’, in which each line ends on a word with only L and R as consonants, and ‘Bluebeard’s Photo Album’, in which almost every line is just two syllables, are poems which are threatened by strictures of form. However, any doubts about this short-attention-span poetry are expelled by the second half of the pamphlet, which consists of two series of four poems, relating to mental illness from Irving’s distinctly unconventional viewpoints.
The first of these series, ‘Recreation period’, explores the conceit of characters from classical mythology being inmates of an asylum, and the second, ‘Casenotes’, looks at the stages of treatment and recovery of a madman. In these Irving has pushed the riddling down into in the story of the poems. Accordingly, the surface of these poems is calmer. ‘Recreation period’ provides considerable depth and complexity, best encapsulated in its opening sentence: “Leda won’t come to the park.” Similarly, ‘Casenotes’ provides the same ambiguous blend of dark comedy and pathos which makes for a compelling close to a twisting and twisted selection of poems. Its third part, the only from the perspective of a madman, ends brilliantly on:
And yes, she’s my mother
and it’s my mother
and the stars are my fucking mother.
When reading What To Do it sometimes feels like one needs to come up for fresh air. Kirsten Irving is definitely a talented and forceful writer and What To Do shows this clearly. Her forthcoming collection with Salt is something to be even more excited about.
Adrian Buckner’s Bed Time Reading is a smaller than the A5 size of the previous two pamphlets, and has only fifteen pages of poems. There is something suitable in this, as Buckner’s poetry is much quieter and more understated than the younger poets. He is, in particular, a great contrast to Irving, as he writes directly and calmly from a speaker who is presumably close to the poet himself about the experience of normal life. Bed Time Reading, as the title suggests, is mostly about books, and the particular books whose spines grace the cover. Buckner lists these books at the back, and it is with a certain cold apprehension that I realised I had not read any of them. That said, only two of the poems are greatly involved in with the books which make up the poems’ titles, and Buckner puts notes to allusions at the back, and so (I hope) knowledge of the books is not a requisite for enjoyment of the poems.
Buckner’s poetry is generally straightforward. Exemplary of his style is the middle stanza of the ultimate poem, ‘Morning Postscript Mrs Dalloway’:
To read you I need the sun
that promises to stay all day
to light and hold a sentence
till the deep afternoon.
The trouble with writing simply and directly is that it forgoes the opportunity for a lot of extra breadth. It also means that any special significance is fragile and easily lost. The work is given to possible symbolic load-bearers in the poem, such as “the sun” above, but it doesn’t always seem as if they are willing to carry much. Buckner does sometimes succeed in producing greater significance out of few materials, such as in the closing lines – the conventional place for the symbolic pay-off – of the first poem, ‘Anna Karenina’:
So I turn on my side, wondering about
the books that couple keep of themselves,
the bold of early markings, the fading
pages, the confident quiet of years.
More often than not, however, either his lines do not stand up to the responsibility placed upon them, such as the end of ‘Late Auden’ (“[…]you wouldn’t care/that I don’t understand all your words,//unfussed that I don’t spring out of bed/to find the dictionary//that waits for me tomorrow/in another room.”), or spread a little idea too far and too thinly, such as ‘Tess of the d’Ubervilles’ and its repetition of the line “Tess hangs”.
It is interesting that perhaps the most beguiling effect of these poems comes when he treats the simple source matter with such uncomplicated reverence that one cannot help but be impressed by their strange gravity. This can be seen at its peak in the start of ‘If This is a Man. The Truce’:
Walk downstairs with soft tread, listen
to the boiling of the water, make a gift
of the cup
Dress yourself with soft patience, listen
to the sound of each button finding
It does not help that Buckner has drawn the circumference of the pamphlet’s “little world”(‘Test Match Diary 1953’) very tightly. With few materials, Adrian Buckner is aiming at the most delicate of effects in his poems, and has taken on a difficult task for himself. It is very easy for a reader to be interested in sex and madmen’s neuroses, but it is harder to make something new and absorbing in writing simply about lying in bed, travelling by train and reading books. I am not sure that Buckner, for the most part, succeeds.