This is Padrika Tarrant’s third book, Fates of the Animals, following Broken Things (Salt 2007) and The Knife Drawer (Salt 2011), also published by Salt, the alkaline in Cromer’s cliffs, comes this book of very short stories that live in a mixing bowl of clipped fairy tales, fag butt fables and the animals associated with them, the barking of the dog is relentless as choking. Tales of hyacinth girls expanding on Eliot, love stories of daughters of reputable figures and angels with Kleptomania. It is at turns delicate, creepy and always with a wink to the camera knowing that there’s diamonds in the stone cold ground beneath the ink. Through it all there is a sense of a unifying force, like the Marvel comics universe, and Tarrant is Stan Lee. Excelsior true believers!
I’m going to focus on two shorts here, as I could write a whole book about Tarrant’s world, but we are fools to the word limit. The book begins with The Music of the Foxes, a Hughes-esque tale with traits of Crow.
There is a strange relationship between humans and foxes, in their cries in the night, like a babe that’s been snatched, a child crying in the alley at midnight. No wonder that the fox is thought to have served as a witches familiar, even as the form into which a witch transform. Perhaps that anxiety goes back to the goddess Hecate, fond of the black she-dog, indeed the core of a foxes being, to humans, is otherworldly, and this is echoed in Tarrant’s first line:
When all the world was bald, flat path, the vixen trotted its length like the grin of a god.
The music of the foxes is considered as one word filled with pins;
Shak. The noise that a fox makes when she sings is a Shak, shrill and high; sharp at its core, rich as Ribena.
Rich as Ribena? Ribena isn’t particularly rich, it’s sugar that stains the lips and makes the throat sore. Why not rich as claret? Simple really, it wouldn’t sound right. The language flies with music.
In the last passage we see that the vixen has formed the earth and the old oil paint melancholy of jealousy of creator and created, the son eclipses the father and on it goes. The world is made in the vixen’s wake, roads are laid behind her and the detritus of the earth, bus tickets and cars, follow.
Shak! Spoke the vixen, streaming her song down her back behind the flow of her tail, and everything in the world shone pale and black and red, just as glorious and cruel and full of jealous beauty as can be.
I imagine that all sounds of the world are animated with the vixen’s final unheard Shak, it’s there in the paint.
The Little Boy Who Lied is woven with ethereal materials; the decreasing glow of a flash bulb’s element, yellowing paper, attic dust and memory’s flimsy grasp of a person’s past lives – Trapped between the film and the cardboard, the cracks and the tea stains and the gelatine-silver years, there is a sepia child in a sailor suit
This short leaves a copper taste of The Shining at the back of your eyes, you could turn around the corner and encounter the mangled Grady twins, you feel the urgency of a missing child. A disembodied child searching for eyes to see through – But the eyes; he squeezed his fingers tight against the palm of his hand. He wanted the eyes. They had sharp edges and were drawing blood inside his hot fist.
One could happily wallow in the deep imagery of Tarrant’s prose: They searched a long time for Amelia, lifting bedcovers as gingerly as grave-robbers
Tarrant’s book of stories claps in blacked rooms, has a smile as wide as the Ripper’s blade, prowls in midnight back alleys until the threadbare structure of the world’s bones has some meat. It’s not jaded, it has wonder, she would stop to gain knowledge of leaves ballet dancing down in a purple sky, and that’s a rarity nowadays in this cynical world of austerity and celebrity. They could even be read to children as bedtime stories, and that is the greatest compliment I think I could give.
Order your copy of Fates of the Animals, published by Salt, here: https://www.saltpublishing.com/products/fates-of-the-animals-9781907773587?variant=3892849793
Reading Kiriti Sengupta’s translations of Bibhas Roy Chowdhury’s poems is an exercise in self-introspection. It’s a journey that allows one to have experiences of translation, trans-literation and finally, trans-creation. For all functions of attempted translations are, in effect, a concatenation of all of these three modes. It is a kind of self-introspection because one discovers layers of embedded meanings of the poet’s self (here, selves) as well as relate them to one’s personal experiences. Reading Roy Chowdhury’s poems that smell of his thought-ridden soul – his anguished response to the holocaust of the Partition (in Bhatiyali), his painful awareness of a poet’s predicament in today’s society and refusal to conform to pre-conditioned roles (in Bibhas) or his interpretation of relationships as an intimate experience such as those of water-droplets caressing the body while bathing (as in Ashram) – all these arouse us, his readers, as it possibly did Kiriti, to the intense thrill of a life beyond … of a life where every moment encompasses a myriad lives, some colored as dark as pain, and some as mysterious as evening rain. Sengupta’s bold attempts have not only succeeded in unraveling some layers of meaning Roy Chowdhury’s poems contain in themselves, but also compressed some meanings of his own in the process of reading, re-interpreting, translating and trans-creating some poems.
Why does one write poems? What dis-ease prompts him or her to trans-literate his or her thoughts? While penning down the thoughts, does a poet think about his intended readers? Is his or her act of writing a conscious artistry or is it something more organic? As a trans-literator of thoughts, as a person with poetic inclinations myself, I feel that just as no symphony is designed for the listener or no painting for the viewer, no poem is also written keeping in mind who would read them, and as such the poet is under no compulsion to cater to his or her readers, or explain him or her to them. A translator who attempts to translate a poem from one language to another, however, treads a more risky slippery terrain. Why does he translate – not a story or an essay but a poem or poetry? He is not imparting information encoded in the poems in another tongue, or merely trying to make available the essence of the poetry in another language, possibly for a broader audience. Most importantly, if the translator is not a poet himself or herself, the translated work merely becomes an inaccurate testament of an inessential content. The translatability of a work connects the original with the translated text, which obviously comes later than the original. In many ways, the translator’s work is problematized because the vitality of a work in its original can never be reproduced in the translated work, ostensibly because the original and the translated work are two individual entities. However, the translated work has a life of its own, a vitality and life of its own, and in a way, also enriches the after-life of the original. Walter Benjamin in an introduction to a Baudelaire translation in 1923 spoke of an investigation to grasp the genuine relationship between an original and a translation; it was his view that ‘no translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original.’ He believed – as most translators would, that words with fixed meaning can undergo a maturing process, and that in the renewal of life a poem undergoes in its translation, the original too undergoes a change.
I must admit that I am not very sure about either Roy Chowdhury or Sengupta’s personal connect with the humungous tragedy that the Partition of India unfolded, and my own responses are mediated through my grandmother’s narratives of her painful brush with history. Almost seventy years after the event, we still experience the intensity of the horror in every cricket match or diplomatic tightrope-walk with our neighboring country. In a book I recently edited on the Partition of India (Rethinking the Partition of India: Historical & Literary Perspectives, Avenel Publishers), I noticed how people’s responses to the Partition still perceive it as living, throbbing with pain and oozing tears that taste of blood. Roy Chowdhury’s Bhatiyali is a poignant response not just of a soul scarred by history, but also of an ardent wordsmith, a lover of dreams whose dreams know they are breaking apart. To translate these emotions to a language intricately associated with those who engineered this butchery of men and dreams needs a lot of conviction and courage. Sengupta wrote:
An eye in my heart … in the eyes of courageous Bengalis
Countless patriot camps along the alphabet list
So many broken banks … several lightning … much cyclone
Dream filled hearts and melodious Bengali tone.
Somewhere, the Bengali lust for the language in Roy Chowdhury’s lines has been transformed to the Bengali lust for courage in Sengupta’s lines, which I feel is also correct and possibly a post-modern evaluation of the quintessential Bengali lust for both language and courage, as we are the only people in the world who bled and died for our maatri-bhasha (mother tongue)!
Sengupta’s rendering of Bibhas as Illumined Expression is very close to my heart. The stark refusal of the poetic self to register pain or insult or suffering on the canvas of poetry, and even more aggressive denial of any attempt to trade one’s poetic expressions in a few re-gurgitated praises or accolades (‘Aami toh noi mugddhotaay kena’) is as much Roy Chowdhury’s as Sengupta’s own. The translated line “I have been the future-poem/ of much insult, and devastation…” rings of a rebellious voice, which keeps resonating in the mind long after the actual reading experience. In a way, this constitutes the after-life of a translation perhaps.
The English poet, John Keats, had talked about the concept of ‘negative capability’ in relation to the poetic self’s capability of ‘becoming’ what it perceived in Nature, negating the subjectivity of the self that perceived. In conversation with Sengupta, I discovered how close to Keatsian Romanticism was Roy Chowdhury’s “Jakhon ekla laagey, /Shunyo pokar kaachey jaai/boli, Utthey esho…aamar pata ti khao” became “Come here, eat my leaves,” and the fervent plea “Why couldn’t I become much lonelier?” The human desperation to be one with Nature is so touching, so personal that it almost resonates with the universal cry for oneness.
The anchor to our being in the social matrix is our family. The loving yet inquisitive probe into familial affections as evinced in the original poems is maintained in the translated works as well, as is evident in poems such as Birth Of A Legend, Ma And Her Eldest Son, or my favorite True And False For My Father. The mother as rain and the father remaining engrossed in monsoon is the tribute both poets pay to the almost elemental connection we have with the pillars of our lives. The words from languages of the original and the translated tongue are not interchangeable, but the foreignness of English is hardly noticed when one reads “Mysterious rain arrived after a few days, but Ma never returned” bringing out the pathos Roy Chowdhury’s lines also reverberate with.
Bibhas Roy Chowdhury, whom I do not know personally, has been ascribed to be a private person who shies away from publicity, by the translator himself. Sengupta, on the other hand, is a media-savvy person. Possibly, somewhere in the translations, therefore, the intensely private emotions recorded in Roy Chowdhury’s poems get transmitted in the glaring glamourous arena of public attention that comes naturally for English poems. The acceptance of a poem like Lunatic in the United States as Sengupta informed me possibly is an index to this fact – its distinctly Eliotian preoccupation with metaphysical imagery and a ruthless honesty of expression must have enamored a readership who enjoyed an aftertaste in a Bengali poem that came filtered through an English idiom, much after Eliot. The modernist trend that he (Eliot) pioneered has left an indelible print on our collective unconscious, and may have touched sensitive personalities like Bibhas Roy Chowdhury and Kiriti Sengupta alike. As a reader, I do not presume to evaluate either the original or the translation – the fidelity to the original and freedom to be original both have, I believe trans-created the original poems. So, it’s actually, reading the translation that leads to a revelation of the original. It speaks volumes about the creative fecundity of both – the original poet and the translator or trans-creator of his works.
Dr. Rumpa Das is the Associate Professor and Head of the Department of English in Maheshtala College, Calcutta. With her research interests in Women’s, Post-colonial and Media Studies, she has bundles of publications to her credit.Read More
Jacqueline Saphra’s most recent collection with The Emma Press is the result of an inspiring and eye-catching collaboration between the author and award-winning visual artist, Mark Andrew Webber. The successful pair have won the 2015 Saboteur awards for best collaboration and also share the award with composer Benjamin Tassie, who created a soundscape for the poems to produce what Saphra describes as ‘haunting miniatures.’ Grant-funded live performances are underway. Together with the book’s use of the prose poem form (and Saphra is still one of the rare author’s in the UK to use the form exclusively in a collection), this book is travelling and transcending boundaries, gathering increasing recognition in its path.
‘Haunting miniatures’ is exactly how I would describe Saphra’s prose poems – their box-like shapes containing the unnerving recollections of a child’s upbringing, told from a child’s perspective, but using a language that moves with eerie fluidity between adult and child. Webber’s linocut of a female figure in a womb-like position on the front cover, a red moon in the background, gets to the heart of the book’s point of view with its clearly lit explorations of power and vulnerability; namely blurred boundaries between the roles of parent and child. The prose poems and accompanying images unfurl like scenes in a play, the author’s background in writing plays for stage and screen apparent here. The atmosphere of the poems is further created by the tension between the tight justified margins of the prose poem’s form and the extremely carefully chosen handful of words to describe the chaos and mess derived naturally from being brought up by a series of parents and step-parents. Their eccentricities are perhaps harmless in public, but less so at home for a child, particularly when home is consistently sacrificed for work:
‘…. Our house was filled
with cookers, stethoscopes, fridges, small
hammers and secretaries taking dictation.
I sat quietly on an ink blotter while
Mother plaited my hair and father
listened to my heart.
The author is perfectly disciplined in her rendition of this hectic and at times disturbing childhood and at no point allows that experience to rattle or over-emotionalise her prose. Humour is also evident, but used wisely and the measured tone of the narrator’s voice and unfussy density of her style (in keeping with the prose poem) is brilliantly pitched against the meetings and clashes between disorder and control throughout her upbringing.
The book is full of strangely tender moments between parent and child, all of which are presented with an almost objective clarity and unemotional distance. Saphra manages to balance the narrative consistently between poignancy and hindsight, most effectively through the choreography of objects and people; their dance is a finely tuned masterpiece of her following them and they being led by her. The objects are used artfully as mouthpieces for what isn’t said:
‘My mother began to throw pots. The
walls of the kitchen were studded with small scraps of clay
… The pots would not shape up… Pouring water at mealtimes
From one of my mother’s jugs became a daily trial of nerve.’
The slips between who is adult and who is child are paramount, particularly when it comes to language; at a dinner party, this betrayal of trust and language is pointedly recalled:
My second stepmother understood about
words. She liked some of mine so much
She often kept the best ones for herself.
Once I caught her pulling a whole string
of them out of her sleeve at a dinner party
but I didn’t let on.
Saphra cuts tirelessly to the quick and the book is full of surprising and unusual examples of such sliding and absent boundaries: a stepmother wanders carpetless corridors during the winter in only gloves and slippers, forgetting herself and answering the door to the postman. In another, her father uses his stethoscope to listen to her mother’s nervous heart and brain, placing the instrument in hot water and telling her ‘to think, think hard.’ In another, the examples become memorably surreal: ‘My mother shrank to the size of a small potted plant….There were no buttons left on our shirts. Dust lay in drifts on the skirting boards; my mother was too small to keep up with the housework.’
Our interest in reading about the language and actions of adults through the experience and point of view of a child is timeless. To have this communicated to us through Saphra’s witty eye for detail and skilled and economical use and understanding of the prose poem’s call for density, clarity and ordinary surrealism is a privilege. To have this further communicated to us through illustration and music is a celebration; poetry is here, healthily talking not only to other poets, but to other disciplines and making the most of them all.
If I Lay on my Back I saw Nothing but Naked Women by Jacqueline Saphra (Emma Press, 2014) is available here
Going through Healing Waters Floating Lamps, a selection of poems by Kiriti Sengupta made me remember few lines of Tocqueville (1835):
“In democracies it is by no means the case that all who cultivate literature have received a literary education, and most of those who have some belles-lettres are engaged in professions that only allow them to taste occasionally and by stealth the pleasures of the mind. Accustomed to the struggle, the crosses, and the monotony of practical life, poets require strong and rapid emotions, startling passages, truths or errors brilliant enough to rouse them up and to plunge them at once, as if by violence, into the midst of the subject.”
Why have I entertained these sentences is because the poet is a doctor by profession and going through his poems there is a feeling of well balanced liberation from the clutches of the laws of poetry. What emerges are encounters with the self, prodding the self to respond and contemplate.
This sleek volume with small poems are double-layered. First there is the observation with the five senses, the reality, we are comfortable with and then a second reading leads to another reality beyond words and sounds, smell and touch, where the ‘I’ withers to be at one with all.
The first poem in the volume “Beyond The Eyes” (mark the title) prepares the reader for other words, other lines on next pages of the book. It prepares us for an unknown universe, a space of different representations where the smell of infinity lingers.
I reach the sky
While I draw a circle in the water
Looking at the image
I take a dip
These lines invite the reader to take a dip in the water to create a world of their own. Water flows and so each pattern is replaced by another circle or oblong. In fact, transient. So is our material world.
As the poems progress the feeling of awareness snowballs into an all pervasive consciousness, an inner knowledge, attaining harmony with the outer world. Kiriti pushes us, prods us in each of his poems to listen, observe and be attentive to ourselves. The poet believes in living here and now in enjoying the world that encircles us and participating in the experience of the present. This is very much reflected in his poem titled “Celluloid.”
…I was hesitant, you know,
I never said goodbye
Signs are private, and I keep my eyes open.
Round the clock.
As the collection winds its way down the path of aloneness, a journey with the self, a certain certitude emerge – like putting faith in ordinary things and not accepting old mental program and rejecting external manipulation.
…The word “denser” does not
Necessarily mean thicker… (“Secure A River”)
Also in “Color Code”:
They said you were black
They knew they were white
And I said
This has been the Nelson Mandela patch.
The poems in Healing Waters Floating Lamps are to be read slowly, to ponder and think. Take for instance the poem on Varanasi. The title is the key. Here the poet does not name the poem Evening in Varanasi. He writes “Evening Varanasi”. As if Varanasi is a being, a symbol of spirituality. The mystic soul of India. Its body the meditating ground for those in search of oneness.
Have you seen the floating lamps in the river?
Water here is not the fire-extinguisher, but
The flames ascend through water
Prayers reach the meditating Lord
Both Bhagirath and Prometheus bought down river Ganga and Fire, respectively, from the heavens to bless mankind. So they are both images of life and all that is divine in the human. They are life-givers and mind-openers. The floating lamps are a reminder of this ephemeral world, which is floating and changing. Only mindfulness is real and that opens the door of super consciousness or God (Prayers reach the meditating Lord).
Again the poet very subtly plays with the theme of eternity in his poem “Memorandum Of Understanding”. Age is a human perception and we cannot bottle air in ancient and medieval, modern and post-modern bottles.
Air and age are linked
Kiriti’s poems are a montage of responses to the everyday philosophy that runs subterranean in the orient. These experiences are common to all men. But the poet remembers them and give them form through words without frills. The poems are short and deeply suggestive, unlocking hidden areas of the self and not simply illustrating an object or an event. What is interesting that there are many ways of reading his poems. They are not restricted. They are like one long abstract painting, inviting the readers to come up with their own meaning, thereby making them participate in the poem. So as readers they are also writing. Perhaps, after reading Kiriti’s poetry the reader would turn to love and compassion in these days of online shopping, virtual friends and emotions in the shapes of smilies.
Sharmila Ray went to Presidency College and Calcutta University where she majored in History, did her Ph.D. on Durga and governance and subsequently joined City College, Kolkata under Calcutta University where she is now an Associate Professor and Head of the Department of History. She writes in English and has authored six books of poetry, most recently With Salt And Brine (Yeti Publishers, Calicut 2013). She has experimented her poems with Sarod (Indian string instrument) and the result is a CD— Journey Through Poetry And Music. Her poems are available in a CD- Hello. Her poems, short stories and non fictional essays have appeared in various national and international magazines and journals.
Note: this review first appeared in print and online in the Lost Coast Review, published by Avignon Press, California: http://www.lostcoastreview.com/healing-waters-floating-lampsRead More
Marc Woodward is a musician, which is tangible in A Fright of Jays. With controlled rhythm and sense of pacing, many of the pieces here carry you along with them. There are stories of moonlight and wildlife in the strange, small wildernesses of the South West. In its strongest passages, the relationship with the landscape is both brutal and beautiful – hints of the sublime and the realistic one finds in Jack Clemo or Ted Hughes. The proliferation of foxes, owls and rabbits clearly marks a sympathy with the latter, as does the unflinching description of finishing off a life in ‘Eel Catching’.
The convincingness of the stories is greatest when they are simplest. The myth of ‘The Bowman’s Lament’ is full of memorable images – ‘The air stepped sideways, / shivering at the brush of fletching as the shaft / flew past and rush on up to the white moon’. The sustained, precise gentleness of ‘Revival’, about saving a lizard ‘stunned to stupor by the late March chill’ is remarkable. It’s also no coincidence that these poems are the most formally controlled (both sonnets), avoiding the occasional bagginess of some longer pieces.
‘Beyond Broadwoodwidger’, for example, is spooky and physical, capturing the chill of being stranded in deep countryside at night. So easily lost ‘on these shapeless acres’, the night encloses you, soft and inescapable: ‘You hear the weight of condensation / on a vast ocean of bending blades’. The beautiful sensory wash of the poem is undercut a little by its more overtly dramatic gestures, which reach for bigger effects than the poem needs; restraint produces the more genuine images. Contrast, in ‘Beyond Broadwoodwidger’, the stretch of ‘Here there is nothing to save you. / If you lie down now, this wet ditch / may be your decomposing place’ in this poem with the tenderness of the ending of ‘Revival’: ‘I felt her move, / faintly, as she responded to the heat’.
My favourites in this collection make the poet palpably ‘present’, speaking quietly and directly. The most effective is ‘The Nightshades at the Church House Inn’, which opens with a group of musicians grabbing a smoke between sets – ‘I’m here not for the nicotine / but the camaraderie. / The cupped hands, click of lighters, / the lighting off from one another:’ This is the least rhythmically orderly poem – the musician taking a break? – but is also unselfconscious and full of details. Like all these poems, it’s great to read aloud, but here we get closest to the poet’s natural voice, it seems. The final lines highlight the best parts of the collection. They most clearly reveal the poet as quietly contrarian observer, letting the weight of the exact word do the work: ‘I pick up my mandolin – a warm brown shade: / ‘Cremona’ if it was a fiddle. ‘Tobacco’ mandolinists say.’
Mike Rose-Steel is editor for Spindlebox press, and founded the Exegesis writing collective. He researches on Wittgenstein and poetics. Recent poetry collections include Paraphernalium and Drawing Over is Drawing Under.
Order your copy of Marc Woodward’s chapbook A Fright of Jays, published Maquette Press, hereRead More
NJ Hynes’ debut collection won the inaugural Live Canon First Collection Prize and was published in 2014. Full disclosure: I too have been in Live Canon anthologies and contributed to their installation Health Tips For The Year Ahead in 2012, but have not met her personally.
She writes poems that are in turns regular and free, dipping in and out of form with assured ease. At the heart of this collection are the six eponymous sonnets: written mostly in iambic pentameters, each numbered and progressing into increasingly tighter rhyme schemes as the narrative circles from a chillingly dispassionate third-person:
‘Her first appointment is at half past four.’ (TDoEP 1)
into first person immediacy and dismay:
‘Why did I let him? How could I be blind
to his intention, the treatment’s steady creep
along my pillow, eating away at you?’ (TDoEP 6)
The six-poem cycle is the poetic equivalent of The Matrix meets Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, implying a futuristic technology that induces a virtual reality preferable to your current real one. Sometimes there is a glitch in the system, as in TDoEP 3:
‘wait, when did that stout man arrive?
The simulation didn’t mention him:
… Someone selected Touch
the Holy Face of Him and our orders crossed.
Now they have my ants and I their god.’
In String Theory for Emily Dickinson, she riffs on Dickinson’s distinctive style (and particularly the subject matter of Because I Could Not Stop For Death) in an impressively accurate way, neatly incorporating subatomic theoretical physics into three perfectly controlled stanzas:
‘I’ll fill my bait box with dark matter,
Cast small nets to sea –
I’ll know if strings are stronger when
We meet infinity.’
There is simplicity to be found in some of her less obviously structured poems. For instance, Offshore Liquidity shimmers with internal rhymes and deft use of alliteration. If one were to bandy the term ‘sonnet’ about with ease, one might call it a sonnet. There are certainly fourteen lines, ending with a rhyming couplet. But this is a wholly modern take on the form, and I reserve a reader’s right to enjoy the playful imagery without worrying about the kind of dry analysis that put us all off poetry at school. It may be that this collection wears its considerable learning very lightly indeed, to magical effect.
‘Some days I prefer the gentle
lap lapping of the sea,
not the one hand clapping
of a stream over a boulder
but the precise dipping
of a cat’s tidy tongue,
a sipping so melodic
and consistent you forget
that something so insistent
easily gets out of hand, and
don’t notice as the water curls
around your striped canvas chair,
lifting it up – the only dry land
now a distant line of silent sand.’
A couple of poems explore music. A Multiple Bar Rest meditates on how unplayed, wrapped up instruments might feel, who ‘can’t remember their initials or family names’, but ends confessing ‘how nice it is, really, not to have an audience.’ In Recital, there is almost a synesthete’s imagination of how music might manifest itself: ‘the notes … form ice crystals / that will surely melt at my touch / if they stop spinning long enough.’
Subjects jump. The vast scale of a world is a few pages away from a poem observing a single orange. Ode to a Flat Earth fires up with the provocative ‘I’m bored by infinity.’ Twelve lines later, Hynes has conjured dragons, waterfalls, day-trippers and pilgrims, ending with a fierce yearning for definition: ‘ … I might see the finite edge of things, / a life held to a world that refuses to curve.’ On Shaftesbury Avenue compresses our gaze onto an orange and its charmed, temporary survival on a busy road: ‘ … for a moment / the world rolled over it without harm – / the longer it lasted, the more I believed.’
The Department of Emotional Projections is, refreshingly, a collection rather than a book of linked poems which seems in vogue today, and probably easier to sell. You can dip into a collection: most of the poems are independent beings that can answer your mood. I love its variety and scope, and the feeling of being well-travelled by the end. An impressive debut indeed.
Isabel Rogers’ work has been published in various places including Poetry Wales, Mslexia and Under the Radar. She won the 2014 Cardiff International Poetry Competition.
Order your copy of NJ Hynes’ The Department of Emotional Projections here
Writers of reviews often know more about an author than can be adduced directly from the book. This is often due to the author’s known oevre and career, or to previous discussions that have taken place in the literary arena. But sometimes one’s knowledge has been less widely shared. Discussing a book in relation to its author has been epitomised dismissively as “what the artist had for breakfast,” but certainly most reading will benefit from some additional knowledge about the circumstances surrounding a book.
Abiding Chemistry for me comes into this category. I, and many others (though not the poetry establishment), know a good deal about the background to these poems. We remember the author as the first woman Professor of English Literature at Glasgow University, as the poet of her first poetry book The Candlewoman’s Trade (2003). We recognise her as a scholar of Southern American literature who has travelled the world as professor, examiner, speaker, and as an American lady who has very much settled in England and Europe.
It is from her poems that we know of her Louisiana childhood, her extraordinary and at times traumatic family (here shown compactly in a few poems on pages 13-20), and in them that we read through these expertly sequenced poems, her memorial and tribute to her husband, who died unexpectedly at their newly acquired Sussex country home, less than three years after their relationship began.
This story too is already in the public (though not literary) domain. In an amazingly open, intense and moving blog, The News on the Street, followed by many people all over the world, Susan Castillo Street wrote of the crisis when her husband fell in their home and suffered a head injury, and of the weeks of uncertainty while he remained in a coma. That blog came to its end and Susan writes a new blog now, but it is all still available.
Abiding Chemistry is a book about recovery. The voice of these poems is independent, charting a deep and important relationship and looking round to the world of family and place, before and after these events.
The poems are not limited by national traditions. They are not in either the current English or American style. Though she now lives in the south of England and has made contact with poetry groups there, and the author seems to regard Sussex as her home, her previous academic stint in Glasgow brought her into contact with Philip Hobsbaum and major Scottish poets. Where does an international writer fit in?
The voice is intellectual and often catches parable-like conclusions. In the first and title poem:
Perhaps love is its other name,
this abiding chemistry
that binds the fragments close.
and in Question:
I point up at the sky.
“The Big Dipper” I tell my child.
“A question mark,” she says.
There is droll humour elsewhere:
the rope gravediggers use
south of the Mason-Dixon line
is springy bungee cord.
up the shadows burst once more
in showers of dark soil
You always used to steal the duvet.
One day when we lie together
deep in Sussex soil, you’ll be up
to your old tricks.
and daring in some:
They say that at the moment an atomic bomb explodes
outlines shimmer, colours radiate out
shadows of what was imprinted on the walls
time slows, stops, crystallised
in all its fractures.
Moving from an awareness of her early family at the start of the book, to closeness with her granddaughter in the last poem, the poet places the three year love affair in the context of her adventurous life with success and dignity, in a clear poetry that smiles out from every line.
The actual publication is American in style, and the project has been completed with alacrity and practicality, presenting as it does an essentially memorial volume, while also being worthy of an academic and a poet.
Order your copy of Abiding Chemistry by Susan Castillo Street, published by Aldrich Press here