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Review in Under the Radar 16: Mark Rutter’s ‘Bashō in Acadia’; Siegfried Baber’s ‘When Love Came To The Cartoon Kid’

Mark Rutter’s Bashō in Acadia; Siegfried Baber’s When Love Came To The Cartoon Kid

(First appeared in Under the Radar 16.)

I like attempts at defining a poem, the wilder the better. A current favourite is Jack Underwood’s “good poems are like the thoughts of awful tennis players between points”.  Another I came across recently, attributed to Paul Muldoon, is that poems are “bridges whose destination is themselves”, a phrase which, like the car in a film finding its bridge incomplete, teeters and groans on the edge of cod profundity. Finally, whilst writing this Emily Berry pointed me towards “a poem is an egg with a horse in it,” apparently the surrealist wisdom of an eight year old. In turn, these definitions suggest the dramatic predicament of a poem’s speaker, the poem’s wilful (and sometimes obtuse) self-referentiality, and the surprise and joy of language’s sneaky break from reality. But all of these definitions appeal in their refusal to be reduced, in deferring the answer sideways into something equally in need of explanation. In this little aphoristic genre, in all the best attempts at saying what a poem is, it seems it is too tempting to define a poem poetically, by a demonstration of how a poem feels rather than by description of what one is or does. Perhaps we’ll only ever grasp poetry with poetry, which is a wonderful and a disheartening idea with which to be writing a review.

For Mark Rutter in Bashō in Acadia, his pamphlet with Flarestack Poets, a poem is a dead racoon or snake, found beside the road; a poem is a flying heron or a buried ploughshare or a coyote’s howl at 2am. The discovery, experience and contemplation of these things, the thickening of the natural world into words, occupies much of the pamphlet, grounded quite firmly in Maine. (Acadia, we are told, is a National Park on an island off the coast of Maine.) On the evidence of the pamphlet, Rutter is the sort of poet who finds all their best subjects on long circuitous walks.

The title poem, ‘Bashō in Acadia’, starts with ‘spiderfloss’ drifting without knowing ‘where it’s going’, a movement like that of the speaker in the poem, whose actions run through the poem in glimpses — eating ‘roadside fast food’, climbing ‘the peak behind [their] trailer’ – rather than in a consistent narrative. The focus, as throughout the pamphlet, is on the world and the images it provides, rather than on the thinking, feeling human moving through. The poem, in its final stanza, then ends as follows:

I think back on my stumbling life, struggling
over words about flowers and birds.
Now that autumn is half over
each evening brings changes to the maple.

In the abrupt turn from the first to the second sentence, from ‘back’ to ‘now’, the poem moves outward from the subjective to apparently objective, spurning internal reflection in favour of an external world which suggests some greater resonance. The second sentence implicitly comments on the first as a sort of poetic growth: the lines in themselves represent the poet moving from ‘struggling/over words about flowers and birds’ – the jaunty rhythm suggesting a past immaturity – to a more confident, gentle depiction of the surrounding world. And whilst we can eagerly read too much into poets’ hints towards their own poetics, this movement, this eschewal of the directly expressive for the symbolic, appears to recur in the pamphlet as a whole.

As implied in the title, Rutter explores Japanese influences in the pamphlet, Matsuo Bashō being considered the master of haiku. In the historical tradition, haiku poems were written collaboratively, with poets competing over the dexterity with which they could link their lines onto those preceding them. We can see these linkages at work in the stanza mentioned above, but also in the movement throughout the poems, as the speaker progresses image by image, thought by thought, rather than by story or argument. This influence appears most strikingly in the poem ‘Snakes’, which (I’m told) uses the haibun form, combining prose and haiku. The poem ends:

Later we return home and find an emerald green snake half-coiled
on the driveway. Its scales are so small it looks almost dusted, like
a butterfly’s wings. Close up the scales are metallic, and shimmer
in the light: the snake travels in an illuminated skin, I think, it is its
own cathedral. But blood beads two points along the spine — we
must have run it over in our car this morning. The car, that most
unfeeling of all exoskeletons, so that we killed this character from
the forest’s alphabet, this graceful cursive from the cosmic script,
and knew it not.

with a twig she scrapes moss
from her grandfather’s name
letter by letter

The final three lines are a sort of separate poem that nevertheless carries images through from the previous lines: here, the idea of the tactile shape of a letter, and perhaps something of grief and remembrance. These implicit points of contact and comparison demonstrate a lot of what is skilful in Rutter’s work, as the resonances between images gently provoke the reader towards exploring themselves, giving the poems plenty of space.

Another perceptible influence, perhaps inescapably, is Ted Hughes. Rutter’s ‘Iron Maiden’ in particular, with its ‘bloodclot sun’ and ‘the crows’ chainsaw-laughter’, suggests Hughes’ Crow. However, more broadly, Rutter’s writing of nature, in the evocation of, for instance, a flying heron as a “feathered skeleton”, carries some of the sense of horror in nature’s inhumanity and ultimately inexpressible, intangible weirdness that makes Hughes’ writing so powerful (and so frequently imitated).  In ‘Dead Seal On Its Back In The Reeds’, Rutter writes of the seal as a ‘black eraser’ and of the crows feeding on it as ‘inkpots / that work in reverse […]sucking all the words back to their one black egg.’ This anti-verbal quality of the brute facts of existence, the resistant ‘un-wordiness’ of the world, is the constant undercurrent to the pamphlet, the challenge against which all the poems struggle.  Although writing about nature, in particular on roadkill and storms, is somewhat unoriginal (especially after Hughes), this is perhaps why it remains a compelling subject.

If for Rutter a poem is dead racoon, for Siegfried Baber a poem is skinning a rabbit, as the speaker does in ‘Rabbit’. As similar as these two appear, the crucial difference is the verb, in the action being done. For Rutter, the main opening word of any poem is a noun: ‘spiderfloss’, ‘Racoon’, ‘the woods’, the ‘sunset sea’ (to take the first four poems). For Baber, in his debut pamphlet When Love Came to the Cartoon Kid, it’s a verb; poems start: ‘This is how we did it,’ ‘we buried her’, ‘I gave you’, ‘I’ve swapped’, ‘When love came’. The poems are strung around a story.

‘Rabbit’ is the strongest poem of the pamphlet. (Perhaps all poets should try killing and gutting, for the material.) The description is evocative – the ‘overalls/of brown fur’, the ‘compact machinery of muscle’ – but the important focus is the story through it. The speaker’s sister finds the business a ‘piece of cake’, whereas the speaker trembles holding ‘the small blade’ and needs their father to ‘guide [them] through/every motion.’ When, the butchering is complete, the speaker adds ‘we salvaged what was good’, referring both to the edible parts of his rabbit and to the pretext that the act exploring family relationships.  The poem ends:

But what I failed to notice that night
as I scrubbed our kitchen table clean
now seems obvious, pieced back together

by these steady, untrembling hands.

The ‘piecing back together’ enacts the gutting in reverse but also evokes the act of writing, how a poem can be a contemplative, transformative machine of itself, and can, like magic, piece things back together. Like the egg with a horse in it, the memory, transformed into a poem by ‘steady, untrembling hands’, hatches a new insight, a meaning that, teasingly, the speaker refuses, or is perhaps unable, to say. This is the difference from Rutter, in that we sense that this extra element, this idea that ‘now seems obvious’, has nothing to do with the rabbit at all, and everything to do with the speaker’s relationships with father and sister.

Elsewhere, Baber’s poems look for a similar poignancy, either in memories from a speaker’s past or in monologues from other perspectives, always trying to convert the act (like the skinning of a rabbit) into something more meaningful. Unfortunately, this search for a pretext for the poem can feel forced. There is a writing exercise quality to how many of the poems explore whimsical scenarios, in little ‘what ifs’: ‘Texas Boy At The Funeral Of His Mother’ imagines a funeral in impossible heat (for instance, ‘The pastor’s head evaporated.’); ‘Crisis On Infinite Earths’ imagines superwoman in miserable, domestic middle-age; ‘Shit Street Nativity’ imagines, quite uncomfortably, the nativity on Jeremy Kyle. A lot of these poems then spend their time trying to do justice to the concept, trying to get a ‘so what’ out of a ‘what if’. A lot of these poems are very able performances that seem, even so, somehow predetermined.

And this is, in the end, the overall impression of When Love Came to the Cartoon Kid: it is remarkably accomplished but ultimately remarkably indistinct. The poems read as if a good poem is one that comfortably hides itself amongst other good Poems. The trouble with writing in a familiar mode is that the reader spends most of their time thinking of the poets who do it better. Baber’s work, for me, particularly resembles the clever work of London-based poets associated with Faber, as in the aforementioned Berry and Underwood: Baber’s ‘A Few Phobias’, with repeated ‘Fear of”s’, is a little reminiscent of Berry’s ‘Some Fears’ in Dear Boy, and elsewhere Baber’s poems feel like Underwood in Happiness, right down to the trope of the bisected spherical food (in ‘The Melon’). It isn’t uncommon, especially in a debut pamphlet, for influences and parallels to be obvious, and often the original poets are simply those who are better at picking their influences.  Certainly a poem should be working in close dialogue with its contemporaries (and the first test failed by most amateur poets is that they’re not). But often the most interesting work comes via a sort of leapfrogging over immediate contemporaries to something farther, even if one has to first know where others are to hop them. For Baber, it’ll be worth seeing what can be done beyond this pamphlet.

In some ways here we reach the self-referentiality with which we started. To mistreat Gertrude Stein, a poem is a poem is a poem is a poem, in that poetry works mostly by its relationship to other, earlier ones. Perhaps, to risk increasing tautology, we define poetry with poetry as its only through other poems that we understand it. How does this strange short-circuit even so manage to say something of the world or of ourselves, of racoons or rabbits? With these two pamphlets, we have two enjoyable attempts at this. I suppose in the end the attempt is everything, ‘For us, there is only the trying.’