We Sentence Things

 

Capildeo-218x348

The Greek myths are never far from Vahni Capildeo’s collection Venus as a Bear (Carcanet). Although only directly mentioned once or twice, they sit behind the poems just out of sight, particularly the Ovid myths, because as the title suggests, this is a book of metamorphoses. Objects, animals, places and people become ‘other’ through language; but the ‘other’ they become is both entirely unexpected and not always easy to see.
More than in any collection I’ve read, this is one whose language is a tool for transformation, a means by which things are revealed in unhooking them from their traditional physical or metaphorical descriptions: we are shown things clearly and newly because Capildeo’s language works to bring them out of themselves. For example, we might find the complex shapes and light effects of eighteenth century cut glass in thirteen lines of Chomskyanly unlikely sentences, or the human body dissected in nine poems which border on concrete poetry and yet are not complete representations – there is a piece of a hip here, a suggested belly-button there, a clavicle perhaps?
There are certainly demands made of the reader who wants to find the clarity on offer. We should not expect meanings to be dangled in front of us for the picking; rather, and in the spirit of the book, meaning here is for the unpicking, the taking-apart, the un-piecing – and this is where the metamorphoses takes place because it is in the un-piecing of one thing that an accompanying piecing-together of another happens. We might need a dictionary or an encyclopaedia now and then, but what results is something new, and also something that was in the original all along, unseen.
The body is central to this collection, or rather bodies, because it is bodies’ proximity to one another and the flux between them that concerns Capildeo. Language is, as I say, a tool for transformation, but it is also the ‘matter’ or ‘material’ through which the flux occurs both between the bodies represented in the poems and between the poet and the reader (as is our nature: “we sentence things” says the speaker in “Moss, For Maya”, transforming an existing verb and verbing an existing noun). Throughout the collection, this exchange and interchange is reflected in part-rhymes (“impose/roses/clothes”), rhythmic echoes (“confusable with barnacles”) and almost-anagrams (“my enteared heart/my enearthed heart”). The words’ play with each other, their transfer of symbol, their passing-across of meaning and connotation creates a surreal and sometimes abstract imagery that could inspire multiple understandings, and which require not only imagination but also a willingness to engage from the reader.
Capildeo makes engagement easier for us in one way, and that is through the humour that is present throughout the collection. This is most often a low-key humour that suggests the tender bond between human and animal (“aesthetic chest-sitter”, “oink-oink-kiss”, “funny fuzzy     valuable wedges”), it sometimes comes through neologisms (“petcitement”), sometimes through punning (“my gods have changed their storey”) and occasionally in anger (“A great bull is shitting on my street. Let him have quiet enjoyment”).
The poet’s journey through Iceland, Britain and the Caribbean, where these poems were written, is another aspect of the movement, transfer, migration of meaning across and though bodies: land is a physical body, countries are political bodies perhaps, and the sea is a body of water.
Readers will have their own favourite poems of course, the ones which ‘work’ best for them (and the ones they ‘work’ best for) – my own is “Seastairway”, which is an evocation of rolling, tempestuous northern seas, whose relentlessness is expressed with the constant repetition of “sea” in various existing and invented compound nouns, and whose turbulence comes through in the indenting of lines and stanzas and the positioning of lines next to one another, as though inviting two voices so that their senses overlap the way waves overlap and overlay one another. But the poem is simultaneously a portrait (though I’m not sure that’s the right word) of the poet’s emotions, caught in a relationship with which she must “put up and shut up” i.e. put up with and shut up about. The corruption of the clichéd idiom denotes perhaps a clichéd or over-common situation, but also hints at a sense of threat and/or violence from the other half of the relationship (I assume male, but I may be wrong. ‘Put up or shut up’ is a phrase I associate with John Major, which brings in a masculine and political dimension that may or may not be intended). The speaker finds safety finally in the “seaport” of herself – or perhaps a lover: “I found/me, lady, right at your side”. The wanderer has arrived on land, a new body. She has either found someone new or become something new; whichever may be the case, there is, as throughout the collection, metamorphosis. Even the source of inspiration, the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Wanderer” slips into and out of another one, “The Seafarer”, while the chosen epigraph, “ofer waþema gebind”, can be translated (according to the online versions I found) in at least two different ways: “over the frozen waves” or “over the binding of the waves”. Is the speaker frozen, or bound? Or both, as they are related, but with very different connotations? The poem’s meaning is not fixed but what is to be found here will greatly reward the reader who spends time with it.

The book is bursting with ideas, every line bringing something new to puzzle, excite, amuse and delight. Even the titles themselves often look like mini-poems (“They (May Forget (Their Names (If Let Out)))”, “Leaves/Feuillles/Falls”). And this brings me back to the title of the collection, which is as multi-layered as everything else in the book, Venus as a Bear being inspired by both a visit to the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich and, it seems, the song “Venus as a Boy” by Bjork. “He believes in a beauty” sang Bjork about her aphrodisiacal/Keatsian muse: “For they believed in duty” echoes the speaker here, about the mysteriously fanatical and well-spoken “cabin boys”. And as I look at the title, I find the final two letters of the two nouns are an anagram of URSA…so the language, as ever, is moulding and melding with the subject. Am I getting carried away, or is Capildeo, already in the title, “sentencing” Venus and Bjork’s Boy to ‘Beariness’ and all that goes with it? And I cannot resist finishing with one further question (because they keep on coming!): is Capildeo’s Venus a hairy goddess or a bald bear? This is not flippant. We know the speaker of at least one of the poems states amusingly “I choose to sing to the hairless”, which to me makes it seem unlikely that the feminine hairlessness of Venus would be transmogrified into beary-hairiness. So, what do we make of a bear divested of its fur? And where does The Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” come into it, if at all? I’ll leave that one with you. Suffice to say that this is poetry to make you re-examine the way you read poetry, and there is little in poetry more exciting than that.

American Breakdown

american road

American Breakdown

(A Love Song)

It’s all about the road. That’s what they told

themselves: they said

                        one, where you are right now

is never enough, and two, a mystery’s a hell-

uva lot more attractive than a fact;

                                                                but it’s not

about the road at all (collection, please it’s not

all about the road)

and now we’re stuck out here in a yep a prison

of a Cadillac, and cicada interference is battling

with the night, and the country-music-station

drawl is slung low by our knees like a sleeping

rattlesnake, and our own faces are peering back

in at us – ours but different, distorted –

from three closed blocks of window (yez’m)

the nightmares of history are coming to get’em

and they’re scared of the cop-lights,

a girl and a boy and someone else back-seat

it’s not personal, (Number One) Sonny

we’re all in here now and I’m funny        how?

bursting but locked in to one fatal narrative

where a vast orange dawn with a yellow fringe

sets it all on fire,
a quien no sabe sun,

the concrete wall of a dead engine

The Dream…

                  pecked leather in the mornin

shatters into a black night of stars

stripped of all                                meanin

like,        Oh (say)          My (can)               God (you)

these honored dead                            Dances

With Ten Bears               (smiley face)

the good days of hunting are over

                                                         after all

tomorrow is           and           (smiley face)

                                                 I have            I have a

 

 

Why aren’t we happy that poetry is popular?

Capture

A couple of interesting and thoughtful blogs I’ve come across recently (via Matthew Stewart’s useful hub for all things poetry at Rogue Strands) have expressed some disquiet about the current state of the ‘poetry world’. These concerns are reasonable if not exactly new (as the blog writers acknowledge). Is poetry today too competition-focused? Is it too dictated by a central establishment? Is it too driven by the cult of personality and the desire for renown?
At the The Cat Flap, Richie McCaffery asks whether poetry is becoming essentially undemocratic, with those who play the festival-networking/self-promotion game rising to the top and as a result much good poetry going unnoticed. Helena Nelson at Happenstance points out that competitions look for ‘winners’ as opposed to good poems. Writing a poem for a competition encourages us to write the kind of poem that we think will get noticed by the judge rather than the kind we might naturally want to write (one that has “space to be its own good self” in Nelson’s lovely phrase).

In relation to this last point, it’s worth saying that every time we write a poem with a view to getting it published we are trying to write ‘the kind of poem’ we think a certain editor will look favourably on; in fact, magazines and publishers explicitly advise us to buy from them to see what sort of poetry is most likely to stand a chance of publication. This is, perhaps, an offer to see if there happens to be a lucky match, but it is also a statement to the effect of: “if you want to be published in this magazine, you will need to change your writing style to fit in with what we publish”.
There is nothing wrong with this of course, but it is also no surprise that as a result a lot of writers attempt to write in a way that will get them published in magazines, just as they will change their style to win competitions.
Poetry competitions and festivals and magazines and books exist as part of the system of commerce we all live by. Poetry is, like it or not, about winners and losers: if you win the competition it means someone else does not; if you get published in a magazine it means someone else does not (Nelson herself makes the same point in her blog). This can pretty much be said of all art at all times, at least since art was first commodified. Michelangelo would never have painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel if he had not won the contract, etc. It is just an extension of the basic producer-consumer agreement: I like what you have produced so I’ll look for more of it and even pay for it if necessary, I don’t like what s/he has produced so I’ll give their work a wide berth.
The poetry industry is…wait for it…an industry.

But having said that, it is also true that poetry (all art) can and does also exist within ‘the system’. Pockets of it are able to survive, thrive even, protected sometimes by their smallness and lack of popularity, sometimes perhaps by their lack of quality. Just as up and down the country amateur artists produce huge numbers of unsung sketches, water-colours and even full-scale paintings, so amateur poets scribble in their notebooks, save on their c:drives and post on their unread blog pages. Of course, any that are noticed and deemed good enough may well end up as part of ‘the system’ but not all. Are we a nation of poets desperate for recognition and stifled by jealousy of those chosen few whose talents are recognised by a central London coterie? We’ll probably never know, because all those poets who are inclined to get on with it quietly are doing just that. The ones who enter the competitions and struggle for publication are the ones who crave glory (and I count myself slightly sheepishly amongst them), but we don’t know much about the others. There may be an army of unambitious, uncompetitive poets out there. The next Emily Dickinson may be somewhere quietly among them (and she may not, ours will not be the generation to decide).

You don’t have to look far before you find these little pockets of poetry “hiding inside the system”. Take for example Kevin Bateman, a surrealist poet from Dublin I came across recently, who organises small scale performances in various areas of natural beauty. He invites seven or eight poets to read with him and he broadcasts on Periscope and then publishes on YouTube. These are joyful and joyfully amateurish performances – in fact their very strength is their unrehearsed quality and the fact that they locate the poems amongst trees, on cliff tops and halfway up hills rather than in the more sterile but supposedly intellectual atmosphere of a bookshop or with the self-consciously arty-trendy backdrop of a cellar stage. Kevin and the poets who perform with him exist happily and creatively nestled within the whirling chaos of competitions and networking that surrounds them. The space they and others like them are creating is artistically and culturally important precisely because it avoids (however much the poets themselves may want to get published ultimately) the rush and the push for central establishment acceptance.
This feels very democratic to me.
Very different, but also democratic by its nature, is the website footballpoets.org, which is an enormous repository of verse written for the sole purpose of expressing delight in football. The poetry here is written by anyone who chooses to submit, with (as far as I can tell) no vetting for quality at all. Judging the quality of the work in poetic terms would be missing the point; football comes first, and the language is put to its service, not the other way round. There is nothing here that would win a poetry competition, but also nothing that would particularly want to. On the other hand, if any of these poems were to be adopted and chanted by fans on the terraces, or quoted by a football manager after a game, I imagine that would be a prize worth winning. It is one of the few places I have come across poetry genuinely moving away from its middle-class home.
In Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry, Robert Pinsky makes a point of distinguishing between poetry as an art form (as which he says it will always be important to the individual) and poetry as a form of entertainment (as which it will always be at best marginal). I agree with Richie McCaffery that the distinction between print and performance poetry is largely a false one (although poetry in performance is clearly different to poetry read in the head) and Pinsky’s antithesis seems similarly dubious. This perception of duality forms the basis of the vague but common illusion that one set of poets (the performers) are democrats, jobbing entertainers who somehow represent the proletariat, while the others (the silent readers) are the snobbish elite gobbing poetic pearls from their ivory tower. I like to think poets can be all these things at once. But Pinsky’s wider point is that poetry itself is essentially democratic because it allows the inner world of the individual to link with the outer world of the landscape through the primal sounds of grunt and echo, and through metaphor link the psychological with the political. I can’t find anything to disagree with in this, and it might actually help to explain why so many people seem to feel aggrieved and concerned when poetry shows the outward signs of becoming popular: something we consider sacred to our inner selves is being profaned; something which on one level is deeply ‘ours’ is, on another, being manhandled by someone else.

It occurs to me that there are two ways of approaching the poetry industry and its associated battles for individual recognition and popularity: a) enjoy them, or (b) ignore them. Poetry, like so many things, is something we do to make us feel special; but it can do this in many ways, getting published or winning a competition are just two. One of the reasons I like poets like David Jones is not because I claim to understand The Anathemata any better than anyone else, but because I know it’s never going to be very popular and so reading it gives me that tingle of doing something just a little bit different from the crowd; and so, I briefly can allow myself to believe that I am different. This is part of what attracted me to poetry in the first place, and probably why, despite the thrust of my argument above, I am one of the many who, while yearning for recognition, feel the same awkwardness with the idea of competitions and festivals and national poetry days: they feel a little herd-like. When I got into this I thought it was just me and Auden; where did all these people come from?
Better just get used to it I suppose.

Clarity & Obscurity in Now We Can Talk Openly about Men 

downing_street_1921 (2)

The characters Martina Evans has created in her 74-poem-long sequence of dramatic monologues Now We Can Talk Openly about Men (Carcanet) (actually two sequences of 39 and 35 poems), feel so real that it comes as a bit of a surprise not to be able to google Kitty and Flora Donovan, Babe Cronin and Eileen Murphy and find out more about them on Irish history websites. Although based around the factual killing of a British sergeant at Mallow Barracks, County Cork, in 1920 and subsequent military reprisals, the story/stories are entirely fictional. But somehow Evans has turned these short poems (only a couple cross over onto a second page) into what feel like primary sources of data about the characters and their time; Bernard O’Donoghue calls the book a “remarkable document” in the blurb on the back cover for a good reason, the poems have the feeling of authenticity and legitimacy that the word suggests). Her ability to replicate on the page colloquial Irish rhythms and phrasing has been commented on before (John McAuliffe has called the style “talky, jumpy, gothic”), and it draws the reader in from the beginning of the first poem:

I was in a weakness. I couldn’t stand up,
leant back against the wall like a drunkard.
Was that Himself I’d seen on the back
of a Crossley tender on Main Street?

Here it is not just the use of the sobriquet ‘Himself’ with all its connotations of indignant but ingrained respect for ‘the man of the house’, but also the second line, which is a participle clause to the second-half of the first, using the spondee leant back to evoke strongly not only an Irish cadence, but a female Irish cadence of the middle-twentieth century (I don’t claim to be an authority on female Irish cadences of the middle-twentieth century so I stand ready to be corrected, but this is how it sounds to me). Such careful attention to the narrating characters’ voices is maintained throughout.

It is in part the very believability of the authentic-sounding voices of Mallow seamstress Kitty Donovan in the first sequence and former stenographer from Dublin Babe Cronin in the second that creates a sort of ‘narrative veil’ over the real central characters of the story: Kitty’s strong-willed daughter Flora Donovan and, even more so, the rebellious and impetuous Eileen Murphy (who is also the link between the two sequences). Rather than reading poems about women in the Irish War for Independence, we feel we are witnessing the period of the war through them. But the veil is also generational because we are in effect looking at the younger characters through the eyes of the older – Kitty is Flora’s mother who has an increasing addiction to laudanum, and Babe (also with an increasing dependence, on whiskey), is an older resident of a Dublin hotel who is in love with – or at least infatuated by – the younger Eileen. The older women’s addictions are another gauze between the reader and the younger characters and the action of the piece.

Each poem is, in a sense, akin to a chapter of a novel, and there is narrative drive both within the poems and between them, but as they are poems, i.e. stand-alone entities and in this sense equally analogous to paintings, they serve as much as windows onto moments, thoughts, memories and feelings as narrative blocks. As the chronology of events progresses, each poem, each line, builds on our impression of Kitty’s and Babe’s mental states (or their memory of their mental states), so we emerge with the two older women’s psychologies fore-fronted and emphasised (the extravagant use of colour in the first sequence and monochromatic second add significantly to the difference between the two women here) and all the actual events are filtered through this. In short, cultural history and folk memory are the currency of these ‘documents’, as opposed to the history of statistics and other written records.

All this goes to making the already enigmatic title, Now We Can Talk Openly about Men, even more abstruse: these poems are not, primarily, about men; and very little in them is talked about openly; even what is discussed in direct terms is hidden behind this ‘narrative veil’. In fact, the men who are directly involved with the action are almost always either not actually there (Himself), masked (the Tans who attack Eileen), or dressed in a disguise (Donnacha); alternatively, they are (like Mr Bloom and Captain Galway) only briefly sketched in character. Little open talking here. Is the title ironic then? In part it is, I think; but there is more going on that that. Occasionally men are seen clearly and almost demonically (Himself’s “red eyes” in that first poem; the Tan as Eileen rips off his mask and shouts “I’ll identify you in court!”) and these moments are often marked by direct speech, also something which seems to pull them clear of the above-mentioned obscuring veil. In the final poem, and dying in bed from consumption, Eileen says “Mrs Donovan taught/me darning & fancy darning. I could/do the Peacock’s Eye but all I darned was/men’s socks & they were always on the run.” At the end of her life Eileen seems to find a melancholy clarity within her half-delirium (conjured by that blurred and dreamy repetition of “darning & fancy darning”) as she recognises her relative importance to the men and women in her life, and the difference in how capable they thought her – how much they valued her. She is, at last, speaking openly about men – and in doing so it is disappointment she is expressing.

The title was apparently a phrase used by Evans’ mother after the poet’s difficult divorce, and thereafter it served as a ten-syllable phrase to get this extraordinary work of art (mostly decasyllabic, or thereabouts) underway. So it is, on top of everything else, a practical departure point for a work that will I imagine be discussed and written about for a long time to come.

After writing the above, I discover that Eileen Murphy was the name of Evans’ cat who featured in a well-known (although not by me until now) earlier poem “The Day my Cat Spoke to Me”. On my original reading I had not considered the surreal, psychological angle of the poem as an exploration of Evans’ own inner-world. Having recently read and written about, Sophie Collins’ criticism of male critics’ inability to allow women credit for creating art free of their own autobiography in Who Is Mary Sue? I resist this reading. But I will enjoy returning to Evans’ book to think more about it.

Now We Can Talk Openly about Men is published by Carcanet, and is available here.

12 Observations on translations of Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi

 

a monkey at the window

What can I write in response to the beautiful 2016 collection of translations from the Arabic of Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi, A Monkey at the Window (Bloodaxe)? What might be useful? What might be interesting from someone with no more knowledge of or insight into Arabic or Sudanese culture, history and religion than anyone else?

Should a reviewer pause before reviewing a translation? Well, this is my first; and I do pause, briefly. It’s not that I don’t read poems in translation much, I do; and of course I feel I’m as entitled to have reactions to them as anyone else. But to review them, and publish on a blog? Am I qualified?

There is a Philip Larkin quote from The Paris Review, which comes over these days as pretty xenophobic:

“I don’t see how one can ever know a foreign language well enough to make reading poems in it worthwhile. Foreigners’ ideas of good English poems are dreadfully crude . . . But deep down I think foreign languages irrelevant. If that glass thing over there is a window, then it isn’t a fenster or a fenêtre or whatever.”

Although hemmed in by the prejudices of his day, Larkin was making a good point. Isn’t it true that you must have a fairly profound understanding of a language before you can enter into its poetry, either as reader or writer? And doesn’t reading a translation just present you with the same problem at one step removed? Yes and no.

The problem – if it is a problem – can be overcome to an extent firstly by the teamwork between the writer and the translator (or translators, literal and final), who work together towards a text which is more than any one of them could produce alone; and, secondly by the understanding that the word translation does not mean “exact copy into a different language”, rather “new piece of work inspired by a previously existing one which happened to be in another language”.

But Larkin’s point can be extended, I think, to include a ‘foreign’ culture as well as just another language. I feel this sometimes when I hear rap – I understand the words, but do I really understand what’s going on beneath the words? On the other hand, perhaps if you follow this road in the direction logic takes it, you must also include work by those of other regions, cities, classes, genders…every body is a foreign body, after all.

And besides, Carol Rumens wrote this 2007 article in The Guardian which convinces me that translations are in fact worth the effort. The only crime, for reviewer as well as translator, is to ignore the fact and nature of the translation.


Anyway, brief pause over and my urge to ruminate being the same for poems in translation as any other poems, I present not a review exactly but 12 observations on this almost exhaustingly lovely collection:

1.

I quoted Auden recently in this blog: “Poetry makes nothing happen”. Now, I read these lines in Sarah Maguire’s and Sabry Hafez’s translation of ‘Theatre’:

Write
to set the world ablaze
so poetry quickens in your hands
and inflames you with desire

I think about these two poets and what must be their very different experiences of life that led them to have such polar views of what poetry can do. Suddenly Auden appears rather lazy and dismissive.

2.

The literal translations on the PtC website (an amazing resource) make me wonder whether the final translation above adds a political dimension which is not there in the original (transcribed as “I write/so that the world lights up in you”); but it also makes me consider the conversations between Maguire, Hafez and Al-Raddi that must have led to the final version. What has the final translation mined from the Arabic that the literal translation was not able to express, I wonder.

3.

As I read these translations and I look for meaning, almost blindly feeling around for sense and significance, I feel like the poems are asking me to forget for a moment as much as I know. They are lights onto a different world of understanding from the one I exist in.

4.

The original Arabic is set out on the left-hand page with the translations on the right; so English readers begin towards the middle and move further to the right, while Arabic speakers who also begin towards the middle, move further to the left. But at the line endings both readers’ eyes return towards the middle, together.

The Arabic and the English reader go on their separate journeys, but they come home to the same place. Is the ultimate aim of translation? It feels too simple. The ghost of Larkin stirs.

5.

Each poem and its translation could be friends leaning against one another, facing outwards and poised for attack from an enemy circling the page. Or they could be duellists about to march their paces, turn, and shoot. Or lovers, sleeping – we do after all make odd shapes with our bodies in our sleep.

Or they could just be Rorschach blots.

6.

I’m aware of seeing the two versions of the same poem with different parts of my brain.

7.

The English looks solid, calm, to my trained eye.
The Arabic looks as though its quivering, straining to be free, to my untrained eye.

8.

The body of a bird in your mouth
breathing songs.
Raw light spills from your eyes,
utterly naked.

These lines of Al-Raddi’s (the first from ‘A Body’), translated by Sarah Maguire and Atef Alshaer, demand attention. If you take a moment, you can feel the scratchy, feathery, beaky bird inside the soft flesh of your mouth; you can feel the warmth of its breath against the inside of your lips causing them to open and allowing the song to escape. That’s the mouth, then there are the eyes. If I block out Cyclops from the X-Men, I suddenly see that something terrifying is happening: by ‘looking’ you are giving to the world not taking from it, and by giving you are exposing yourself entirely. The words ‘raw’, ‘spill’ and ‘utterly’ are the translators’ I notice, but they heighten the lines to an emotional level which I have to assume is equalled or surpassed by the original.
The rest of the poem demands equal attention.

9.

I am not usually aware of needing to rest between poems, but with these I am.

10.

I think again about (8) above, then about (5) and (6). On the right, my cynical western atheism; on the left Al-Raddi’s Sudanese Sufi mysticism. These poems are taking me into the crevasse, the inside of the spine, between the two.

11.

And a violet blossomed fiercely in the bosom of the sky

These words (from ‘A Star’) are a negotiation between Al-Raddi, Mark Ford, Hafiz Kheir and…here’s the revelation…me. And they’ll remain a negotiation.

What they are negotiating is not Arabic or English but an understanding to which both languages lead.

12.

When I return to ‘A Body’, the image of the X-Men’s Cyclops again invades my brain, and I resent this elbowing-in of my own culture as I try and open my Self to Al-Raddi’s. It happens again in ‘Traces of an Unknown Woman’:

The end of a tribe is a tribe.

Here, against my will and denting my pride, I hear The Who singing ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’: “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss”.

The snob in me wishes my cultural references were more cerebral.


A Monkey at the Window is published by Bloodaxe and is available here.

Words in Your Ear

monet waterlilies

In some poems the speaker feels closer to you than in others. I’m not sure why. It may have as much to do with the reader as the speaker, but it’s also something about the poet’s ‘voice’ I think: their approach to rhyme, choice of syntax, sense of rhythm, even the subject matter. The speaker’s mouth just seems closer to your ear and gives you – even without hearing the work read out – a stronger sense of a character standing there behind the poem. This is not a dramatic character but a personality – either the poet’s own or their creation’s – which fully inhabits the words. Some of Simon Armitage’s poetry has this quality I think, and Sharon Olds’, in a very different way, often has it too. Paul Stephenson’s Selfie with Waterlilies (Paper Swans) is a pamphlet of such poems, although I’m not suggesting it bears any other similarities to either of these two poets’ work.
Stephenson takes a more-than-usual delight in language, and this comes through in all sorts of ways: his use of internal and half-rhyme, imaginative repetition, knowingly deployed cliché, shaped poems, punning and other word-play; and it seems to me that he uses this delight as a distancing mechanism, a way of stepping back from the objects of his poems in order to take a clearer look. Perhaps it is this stepping back that brings him a step closer to us. It’s a technique similar to that employed by comedians who use humour to dissect and analyse the world; but Stephenson’s aim is not to amuse, although there are funny poems like ‘The Apprentice’, which memorably teases barrow-boy-cum-millionaire Alan Sugar by ending every line of an open letter to him with the word beetroot. His main purpose here is I think to use language as a distorting lens which emphasises features that might otherwise be missed, features of his parents and their infirmities, his childhood, and his relationship with continental Europe, Russia and Turkey. And of course, the sense of delight in language works in particular contrast to the sadness of the poems which deal with death in the family.
There is a lot of travel in these poems. The speaker takes a taxi across the Bosphorus in ‘Turkish Delight’, before travelling home to see a dying relative (whom we assume to be this father from subsequent poems, though interestingly this is never directly said); he takes a trip in a car with his family only for his father to refuse to get out when they arrive (‘Where are we going?’); he drives down the sleepily repeated “motorways of France” (‘Autoroutes’); he blurs weather and security at Houston Airport (‘Going through’); and finally he has fun with airline safety instructions by putting them into an imperfect online translator: “So listen hard, belt up and fear the worst safely” (‘Waistcoat of Life’). These poems not only reflect a globalised twenty-first century, they also create a sense of personal dislocation, a jitteriness, an inability, perhaps, to settle down; here the speaker’s movement in the world reflects a life thrown into turmoil by death. But the travel in these poems is juxtaposed starkly with the stillness of poems like ‘Womb’ (a sonnet of single word images surrealistically building a portrait of a child in the womb), and ‘Selfie with Waterlilies’ (a double page of two waterlily shapes made up of phrases beginning with a self-centred me). So, at the heart of the pamphlet there is both movement and stasis; maybe it’s the reality of the former and the yearning for the latter. For me, the speaker feels tired in the ‘still’ poems, like the tiredness we all feel when we experience inescapable grief. Stephenson knows that there are times when grammar, punctuation and syntax should keep a firm hold of a poem, and other times (as in ‘My Father’s Food’) when the imagery can take over and lead the mechanics of the language.
‘Deathflake’, perhaps more than any other poem, carries the speaker’s playfulness somewhere darker, using the simple but effective idea of transposing the words “death” and “snow” in various phrases, clichés and collocations, creating new, unusual and sometimes unsettling images (“He snowed heavily in his sleep/Death White. Snow duty.”). There are hints too, I think, towards problems of both physical and mental health in the family of these poems, and disillusionment along with the love, a bitterness which is vaguely alluded to throughout and then begins to head towards some kind of catharsis in the final poem (‘Appeasement’), which picks up the /athe/ sound in “swathe” and plays with it almost like a kitten with a ball of string before the speaker finally changes tone and addresses his family directly: “Mother, father, brother,/you know I don’t loathe you/though indeed at times I’ve seethed”.
Because family and the speaker’s youth play such central roles, it also feels like there is more to be said than was possible in twenty-three poems, as though we are reading a selection of stories from a much longer text. There are unanswered but intriguing questions at the end of this enjoyable and thought-provoking pamphlet, and I hope we’ll soon get to read a full collection from Stephenson for some answers to those questions. He has, with this pamphlet and its predecessor The Days That Followed Paris, begun the process of creating a strong poetic voice which knows both what it wants to say and how it wants to say it; and because it has this quality of proximity to the reader (this reader anyway), it feels like a voice to return to and hear again.

Selfie with Waterlilies is published by Paper Swans Press and is available here.

The painting above is a detail of Water Lilies by Claude Monet, National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo.

To Helen Dunmore

hlen dunmore

I came to your work very late
and had no reason to expect

that it would be waiting.
We might say the sun

had already gone down,
and it’s true your back was turned.

Would I have been embarrassed
to admit your last collection

was all I’d read?
We have to start somewhere

I suppose, there are no rules
of metaphor to follow.

I choose for you to smile as
you are writing now.

Let’s count backwards together
and one by one

return to your juvenilia.
Then I’ll see where I am.