‘Medical section’s upstairs,’ she told me.
‘I think it should be in fiction.’
‘Then we don’t got it.’
Instruction Manual for Swallowing was Adam Marek’s first collection for Comma Press, a publisher remarkable for its consistent brilliance and commitment to the short story. Having spent some time promising to follow it up with a novel, this year Marek has instead published a second collection, The Stone Thrower.
Instruction Manual was going to be hard to follow for two reasons. In the first place it is an excellent collection, well structured and full of imaginative, perfectly paced stories. But in the second, the surprise of Marek’s style would now be expected. But neither of these are a problem.
I’ll admit early that I’m a fan. I think Marek’s Instruction Manual was the best short story debut I’ve read since Carver’s will you please be quiet, please? And like Carver – as with many writers on Comma’s list – the story ends just before you feel it ought to. In ‘Remember the Bride who got Stung’, for example, we trust and follow the conventional narrative over the fields and into the woods, antagonistic parents and child together, with Marek employing distractingly good observation. It’s a mundane storyline, but it becomes infused with horror and tension, and two steps before the tension is to peak… the story ends. Reading Marek’s work can remind you of prodding a favourite bruise.
But in spite of being black and blue I trust Marek’s abuse is for the best. The story not having a ‘conventional’ ending means that you are pulled back into it again to consider it better. You wonder what he’s up to, why he’s hurting you like this. Perhaps it’s an existential illusion he is breaking, of being led by the hand through the world. Marek takes your hand, leads you into the woods then abandons you like the boy in Blake’s ‘The Little Boy Lost’ who follows a corpse candle onto the mire thinking it’s his father. (I hope my analyst doesn’t read this. (I hope Adam Marek doesn’t read this either – I’m being creepy. (But how many readers is it safe to exclude? I’ll never be famous this way.))) Or perhaps Marek is drawing attention to the idea that the real story is not in the narrative. (Does this sound creepy too? (Again. (Again. (Now I sound like the Teletubbies.)))) It’s as though the narrative is a tool which the writer feels happy to put down and forget about, job done.
Whatever the reason, it is testament to the quality of the writing and the reader’s confidence in the writer that even though no ‘ending’ is given you do not feel that the ending is ambiguous. You do not feel that it could go either way – that the ending is open – it is just that you don’t know which way it has gone. Put another way, you do not feel that the narrative stops, even though the story has stopped.
Abused and abandoned by Marek I still look forward to the novel. His fablish sort of magical realism and instinct for horror would no doubt translate as intriguingly for Marek as it did for the Argentine, Julio Cortazar.
It may be unfair to compare Marek to writers like Cortazar, but I’m doing it partly because on the front of The Stone Thrower there is an annoying cover quote taken from The Independent describing the book (or Marek) as ‘Early McEwan meets David Cronenburg’. I can’t help feeling that this is unhelpful, and probably a marketing error. The people reading Marek will be people interested in great new experimental short stories, and to these people Ian McEwan lost his cool long ago. More than that, I think Marek’s writing is better, his imagination more exciting, and he more relevant.
So The Stone Thrower is no less exciting than Instruction Manual, but it is better structured. There are recurring themes which haunt the stories and make it a better sequence than the earlier collection. You will be hard pushed to find a better short story publisher than Comma Press, hard pushed to find a better constructed collection of stories than this, and hard pushed indeed to find a single tale so skilfully wrought as ‘Tamagotchi’.
(For reference, I did find Instruction Manual for Swallowing in the ‘Medical’ section of that Cardiff bookshop, with The Stone Thrower under ‘Occupational’.)
The Stone Thrower is published by Comma Press (2013). Buy your copy here.
Luke Thompson is studying for a PhD on the poet Jack Clemo at Exeter University. He has published stories, reviews and prose poems in many magazines, including Flash, Spilling Ink Review, Cinnamon Press’s Exposure anthology, and East of the Web. Luke is also a fishmonger.Read More
Myra Schneider’s pamphlet What Women Want is full of riches. The poems are textured with images that keep surprising – a chair has ‘a love affair / with mustard yellow’ (‘Le Vieil Homme Assis’); the speaker ‘sift[s] feathers of kindness’ (‘Need’). There is both attention to detail and an engagement with greater concerns. In ‘Copthorne Church’, ’rain [fills] puddle and sea’; the vast, unknowable ‘force which rolls through all things’ shares equal importance with ‘the strange beauty / of mathematics’. Everything, from the object observed to the personal experienced, becomes a part of the life of these poems. They are conversations, between the poet and herself, and between poet and reader.
An understanding of human nature, in all its forms, underpins the pamphlet. And, more particularly, the existence of suffering, especially that experienced by women. In the poem ‘Woman’ the speaker comes, as suppliant, to a ‘giantess among giant trees’. She is seeking ‘the mothering I’ve always longed for’. Here is the naked self, asking to be clothed. She is offered not comfort but an appalling history of brutality and degradation. Yet it serves its purpose; it takes the speaker out of herself, prompting her to cry, ‘What can I do?’ The reply – ‘”Woman, you have words. Speak, write.”’ – represents a defining moment. While introspection is useful and, at times, necessary, true selfhood is achieved through engaging with, and being in, the wider world.
The transforming power of witness lies at the heart of the long poem ‘Caroline Norton’. Norton’s experience of physical and mental abuse within her marriage led to her intense campaigning about child custody and the conditions of divorce. This determination to translate emotion into action resulted, ultimately, in changes in the law, but at great personal cost. It is clearly a subject the poet feels passionately about, yet the facts of Norton’s life – often shocking – are allowed to speak for themselves. There is a sense of contained anger, disciplined by the use of eight-line stanzas; the repetition of ‘What she did’ (with variation) at the beginning of many of the stanzas reinforces the notion of a determined mind. I found the poem fascinating, and necessary; at its conclusion the focus travels from the past to the present, broadening out into a telling comment on the violence, abuse and misogyny still experienced by women around the world.
Myra Schneider is a humane recorder of suffering and loss. She observes and participates in the hopes and fears of life. The shadow of elegy – for people, past time, childhood – falls across many of the poems; there is a real sense of being present in the past. And yet her outlook, though hard-won, is far from bleak. She refuses an inheritance of ‘bitter dissatisfaction’ (‘Piano’), choosing instead to ‘make sure every day is a finding’ (‘Losing’). There is still joy to be found in this flawed world, gloriously embodied by the two women in the final poem, ‘Women Running’, going forth with a clear eye and an unclouded heart.
In the beginning was milky skin
and the warmth of pits – her mother’s.
Later there were oranges in groves and red earth.
The sky wasn’t swathed in clothes,
it unrolled its cornflower-blue as far
as she could see, offered her the sun’s shining eye.
Mother had jet-black eyes
which held the darkness of a well.
Her words were heavier than buckets of water.
She loved her brothers who ran
barelegged down dusty roads.
Often she scampered after them, dipped toes in the river
and picked berries. Freedom
tasted good. It made her
stop her ears to mother’s bitterness, listen to her heart…
Today she is buried
up to her neck in red sand.
Hard eyes surrounded her and hands holding stones.
The blue sky stares down
on her covered head without pity.
It’s too late to start questioning the price of living.
Order your copy of What Women Want, from Second Light Publications hereRead More
I wanted to like all the stories here more than I actually did – in other words, while Nick Healy has definite talent in his short fiction, he doesn’t always employ it to the best use. Two of his ten stories here – “The Baroness” and “Uncle Ed’s Packard” – are first-rate, while others, laden with vulgar words and gratuitous lambering (people using the toilet, for example), describe “natural” behavior one assumes but would rather not read about. So why do this – or use vulgar euphemisms? Healy tosses it all in and lets it brew up – not always to an edible portion. He also uses clichés (“bust my chops”) and even split infinitives. Healy belongs to the school of writing who seem to believe getting the essence of human experience in short fiction can be done any old way. I’m trying to remember if Dorothy Parker or Virginia Woolf or Thomas Hardy or Helen Simpson ever wrote with such carefree abandon. (Of course, Simpson is the only one now living – born in 1959. So far, she hasn’t – and is one of the U. K’s most significant short-story writers.) As for Healy, from his photograph I’d say he’s near 40 or so and since this is his first book, perhaps we should “cut him some slack” – to use one of Barack Obama’s favorite trite phrases. (Don’t misunderstand; I voted for him!)
So now that I’ve complained a bit about Healy’s excrescences, there is “The Baroness” – gleaned from his six-year stint in St. Paul covering the state legislature for a now-defunct publication. Unlike one critic who did not read this book carefully (i.e., Anthony Bukoski, reviewing for the Minneapolis Star Tribune), I saw that the female character dubbed The Baroness is not a lawmaker but rather one of the protagonist’s reporter colleagues. The speaker also has a possessive girlfriend named Kayla, who discovers the Baroness in his apartment, although they haven’t reached intimacy yet. The Baroness is really Liz, unaware of her other moniker until the very end of the story. Here is the point-of-view, presumably the author’s, in response to being found out:
I’ve never been so screwed in my life, never been
served such a shit sandwich as this, and I could think
of no excuse or apology worth the breath. I stood there.
I said nothing. When Liz pulled on her jacket and strode
between Kayla and me, I didn’t try to stop her. I looked
at Kayla. Her reddened, tense-jawed face showed a
different beauty than I’d seen before. I looked at that face
and saw hostility and heartbreak – nothing masking them,
all wide open and honest. I looked at that face, and felt
happy Kayla still hadn’t walked away. Not yet, not yet.
As I said, my dislike of vulgar language comes from a lifetime reading authors such as Woolf and Parker. So when a contemporary writer indulges in “shit sandwich,” there is only resigned distaste. Still, Healy knows how to tell a story – and the general critical responses, aside from Bukoski’s error-laden notice, have been fairly positive. The M.F.A. program in Mankato (south central Minnesota) is where Healy got his “credentials” as a creative writer after leaving St. Paul. He and his family decided to stay in Mankato after he took his degree, finding solace and camaraderie in the small community of writers there. “Healy writes with enormous sympathy for his characters,” wrote Amy Goetzman in Minn Post (21 November 2012), “mindful that one’s 20’s are full of natural missteps – and sometimes the following decades, too. These are real people, sometimes kind and virtuous and often clumsy and unfocused and accidentally funny.” I’d say she’s right – and she didn’t complain about banal phrases or usage errors, as this one-time grammar and composition teacher is prone to do.
In sum, Nick Healy’s It Takes You Over has some fairly decent work – ten stories, 190 pages – and for a writer with St. Paul roots transplanted a bit south but still in Minnesota, his “poetry” emerges from his portrayals, as Ms. Goetzman said in her piece, reminding the reader of the unfinished and imperfect mortal within each of us.
Let me take the more recent of these books by Tim Nolan first. While he initially trained as a poet, taking his MFA degree at Columbia University, he had also married and knew he’d need a good job. His father was a lawyer back in Minneapolis and that seemed a good profession, so the newly “minted” poet returned and entered law school across the river in St. Paul. Along the way, he and his wife Kate became the parents of three kids – and so his law practice has provided a comfortable life over the years. Nolan’s poems were not gathered in book form until he was fifty-three – and then again more recently when he was a few weeks shy of fifty-eight. His observations are consistently fraught with the knowledge that we are capable of goodness as well as mistakes, that truisms reminding us we are only visitors on earth are still vividly, punchingly, true – and not without pain, longing, and inevitable sadness.
Nolan takes mixed joy in these pictures from memory. Here is the poet remembering his father in old age:
I have become him
And he is gone
At least for awhile
until someone else
Will be him.
It’s not just a way station –
This turning over –
he was a definite – he –
Himself – himself alone –
just like me
I wouldn’t burden
anyone with being – him –
It’s just that someone
One critic, Brett Ortler, observed that Nolan uses lots of dashes as if to re-energize the poem, leaving the reader to accumulate meaning more easily. Other poems are denser from line to line but usually quite clear in intent, bringing celebration of ordinary things to an almost magical tone. For example, while his daughter plays the piano, he offers her a piece of freshly baked bread. She says Yes and continues her music: “. . . . . … .There is / no ulterior motive to bread, other than / growth – from the yeast, to the smile // of your daughter, to the breaking off / of the heel, which you love best, / the rounded end, the way it comes around.” (“Bread”)
Throughout his poems, Nolan tackles small pleasures as well as not-so-pleasant realities – such as winter (“Cold Night”), the mild contrariness of an elderly bachelor uncle (“Cleaning My Uncle’s Gutters”), and memories long ago of a childhood illness leaving his mother to worry (“Fever”). With both commiseration and straight talk without unnecessary harshness, these poems are at once comforting and a reminder that nothing was ever promised. And Then is a disciplined performance, one I enjoyed from page to page, lingering here and there – and then rereading the book just to make sure of my first impressions. To say the least, I wasn’t disappointed – and wondered why I hadn’t seen his poems much earlier.
Nolan’s first book, The Sound of It, is a precursor, of course, to And Then. A few prose poems are included, as well as recurrent themes of family life, memories before marriage, his children growing into young adulthood, as well as the odd celebrity appearing without warning – here is the entirety of “Once in New York”:
I spoke to Greta Garbo – I said –
“Good evening” – she said – “Good evening.”
I was a young man – she was an old lady –
but she was beautiful in her actions –
rushing across the lobby – she was as fleet
as a doe – turning in the dark forest –
wary of everyone in the woods – but not me –
she was not wary of me – I was harmless –
Then I knew the quick connection to something
rare and passing – the only living example –
Helen – long after the Greek men found their way
home – and tried to remember her voice again.
This reveals something about both people. Again, Nolan’s dashes move the reader’s eyes along quickly and back again.
“Diamond Lake Bowling” recalls his parents bowling with friends, the atmosphere both nostalgic and detailed, as if through these crisply depicted three-liners, his parents might return as they were years ago – but no, the business of a poet is to be evocative yet clear-eyed. Another instance of this is when his growing children are watching Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ cinematic masterpiece filmed in his mid-twenties, never quite surpassed the rest of his career. (Welles died a quarter century ago suddenly at 70.) “The Kids Watching Citizen Kane” is one of many “best” poems in the book. More of this vibrancy is shown in “Cuttings” as the poet recalls a job he had in high school working at a hardware store. Again, dashes help convey energy. (One cannot help but wonder if Nolan uses as many dashes when writing a legal brief or a motion before the court.)
What sum? Tim Nolan’s poems are refreshing, energetic, and carry nostalgia frequently but as a light burden. Both collections display a superb command of craft and sensible portrayals of mortal limits. Indeed, after The Sound of It appeared in 2008, the few critics on duty were similar in response. “What seems on the surface a random collection of poems, daydreams, and reflections,” observed Keith Wain in The Corresponder (Fall 2008), “is really a collection of poems that portray the subtle mental maneuvers we all perform to keep from losing ourselves in the whirlwind of life.” I’d only add that not having a first book published until well after one’s fiftieth birthday (something I know about first-hand) isn’t such a bad thing. In both The Sound of It and And Then, the distilled essence of Tim Nolan’s poetry is a richly gathered beauty with mere words, the essential tools of the writer’s craft.
This delicately rendered collection has many durable insights conveyed simply, almost epigrammatically. These poems have clarity as well as many saddening, irrefutable truths, a mixture of both prose as poetry and poetry as prose, although the dominant genre is poetry. This is Jim Moore’s sixth collection. His first book, The New Body (Pittsburgh, 1975), appeared when he was thirty-two.
Full disclosure: I am a mere three months younger than this poet, so when he writes about the near-despair of aging, his own or those he sees in his beloved Saint Paul or in Spoleto (his adopted home in Italy), his insights have an unstoppable truth-telling (as Richard Wilbur once described Ruth Stone’s poems). The deaths of one’s parents, for instance, and later remembering them beset the poet, as in the opening part of “Love In The Ruins”:
I remember my mother toward the end,
folding the tablecloth after dinner
as if it were the flag
of a country that no longer existed,
but once had ruled the world.
Or later in the fourth part of the poem, whence the book’s title, there is a sentient theme that if the poet keeps busy at his craft, he will live and not have to die any time soon:
I vow to write five poems today,
look down and see a crow
rising into thick snow on 5th Avenue
as if pulled by invisible strings
there is only one to go.
The brief portrayal has always been a hallmark of Moore’s work ever since he began publishing his poems more than four decades ago. As such, Invisible Strings has many short though complementary parts, rendered into mellifluous sequences. In this vein, too, the poet has always been aware of injustices. Earlier in his career, he might have thought as a writer he could do something about inequities and wartime killing. Boris Pasternak’s admonition here is worth recalling: a poet, or any artist, must witness, describe what is seen. But to do more than this is to risk bitter disillusionment, even premature death. Moore serves as an eloquent witness. He may be in Saint Paul or Spoleto, but he’s fully aware of starkness and unbidden death elsewhere, as in “Poem Without An Ending”:
Listening to acorns fall
such a lovely sound
I thought it was the whole poem
until I saw the girl in the paper
with the mussed hair
the bombed bus
no one bothering yet
to close those two black eyes
For anyone who has experienced rejection after a long relationship, the memories can be poignant, lasting a lifetime. The following short poem, punctuation in the title, will allow perspective – maybe:
I have forgotten many things.
but I do remember
the bank of clover along the freeway
we were passing thirty years ago
when someone I loved made clear to me
it was over.
Rather than unremitting bleakness, Moore’s poems can also display wry insight and subtle humor. This volume is dedicated to his wife, the photographer JoAnn Verburg, hence the book’s epigram to her, and what a milestone means, as in the third section of “Anniversary”:
One bird, then another
begins to sing
outside the store
where you try on dresses.
The black is beautiful,
But so, too, is the blue.
To find love again after disappointment is always good. Moore can still recognize irony in one sentence toward the end of a long prose-poem titled “My Swallows Again” – written in Spoleto: “How can you not love a country where the meter maids wear high heels?” Except for this longer effort at the book’s end, Moore indents every other line in these poems, as if to slow down one’s reading, as Renee Emerson has suggested. Variance in poetic strategy is always a risk, but the reader does stop and think, even reread – and this has a salubrious effect.
Invisible Strings is a book of strengths, evoking the onrush of getting older – it’s always a rude awareness – and having to say good-bye to those one cherishes along the byways of mortality. Born in mid-1943, Jim Moore should have many poems and collections of this high quality still to come.
Invisible Strings was published by Graywolf Press in 2011. Order your copy here
An Elegant Illusion: The Polish Boxer by Eduardo Halfon, tr. Daniel Hahn, Ollie Brock, Lisa Dillman, Thomas Bunstead and Anne McLean
Deception, or at least, elusiveness and allusive obliquity, is much of the business of this enchanted labyrinth of a book, the first work of fiction by Guatemalan author, Halfon, to be translated into English. Its form is uncertain. On the face of it, it is a collection of ten short stories, though it may be a loosely constructed novel. As one of its five translators, Ollie Brock, explains, ‘it is a new work, combining five stories from an original collection of six, a novella split into its four parts and one previously uncollected piece as a sort of coda. However, the book was written by a US domiciled Guatemalan author and academic called Eduardo Halfon and features as its central protagonist a US domiciled Guatemalan author and academic called Eduardo Halfon. So is it, perhaps, a memoir?
If there is a unifying theme to The Polish Boxer, it is that of searching, for lost people, slippery ideas, a self, a personal history. In the opening story, Distant, Halfon, the professor of literature, tries to track down a promising student who has gone missing. The penultimate story, The Pirouette, which is the longest in the collection, and somehow feels like its heart (though it would be unwise to bet on this), charts Halfon’s journey to Belgrade in search of the mysterious gipsy pianist, Milan Rakic, a journey characterised by endless misunderstandings and culminating in a venture into a kind of Serbian gipsy ‘heart of darkness’, yet there is no Kurtz, nothing but tricks of the light and the imagination of things that are not there. ‘…the whole scene was shaded with a sort of forbidden tinge, a secretive tinge, the tinge of a speakeasy in 1930s Harlem. There was smoke everywhere…as though everything were made of smoke, begun in smoke.’
Halfon first meets Milan in a bar, during a music festival at which Milan is performing, (though he does not stick to his programme)and which Halfon is visiting with his girlfriend, Lia. Their conversation revolves around the meaning of the word ‘epistrophy’, which is the title of a work by Thelonius Monk and also of this story, and which may be a botanical term, a form of rhetoric…or nothing at all, a made-up word, a jazz improvisation on language.
Language, and other forms of communication, or possible miscommunication, is a recurring theme in the book. At the outset, Halfon is teaching literature ‘to a horde of college kids who were, for the most part, illiterate’. The one student who shows promise is the one who disappears, and whose fate is his fortune told by a canary. The canary picks a written fortune from a wheel. The boy reads it in silence and never tells Halfon what it contains. Lia does not talk to Halfon about their sex life, but she draws pictures of her orgasms. Though she shares the pictures with him, she never explains them. Milan sends Halfon postcards from his travels; on the backs of them he writes gipsy myths but, when Halfon finally goes in search of Milan in Belgrade, he discovers that Milan has made most of these up. What has he really been telling Halfon? Neither he nor we will ever know for certain. Tourists visiting the Mayan ruins at Tikal to watch the sun set from one of the temples there become preoccupied by collecting discarded drawings of the sunset, thrown away by the frustrated artist who cannot capture the essence of sunset. Nobody, in the end, actually looks at the setting sun.
Touched on so lightly in this welter of erotic, intellectual and often very funny miscommunications, that the reader is scarcely aware of it until the final chapter, Sunsets, is a story whose truth we cannot dispute, even though its possessor lies about it, and most of its details are never explained. This is the story of Halfon’s grandfather and the Polish Boxer who saved his life in Auschwitz, though we never find out how, except that it is by advising him of the right words to speak, not by exerting his boxing skills. We know the story is true because Halfon’s grandfather has a number tattooed on his arm. He has always told Halfon it was his telephone number, in case he forgot it, and, somehow, this persistence in pretending it is something other than what it is becomes a truth of its own. ‘I thought about the five digits…already perishing on my grandfather’s forearm,’ writes Halfon, of Halfon at his grandfather’s deathbed, listening to two old friends describe him as ‘a great Jew’. ‘I thought about Auschwitz. I thought about tattoos, about numbers, about sketches, about temples, about sunsets. I thought about telling the two old men they’d gotten it wrong, that first and foremost my grandfather had been a great whiskey drinker.’ He does not say this, but the last thing we see him doing at the end of the book is fleeing the deathbed and throwing the white paper skullcap thrust upon him by the rabbi, into the trash.
Are you aware that I have embedded my own clue here, my own small contribution to the idea that nothing about The Polish Boxer is what it seems to be? Look back to my quote from Ollie Brock, one of five translators who worked together to translate the book from Spanish into English. Despite this unprecedented collaboration, the book reads seamlessly. Meanings and interpretations have been skilfully negotiated. Or perhaps it is that the book’s fragmentary, elusive, slightly hallucinatory character suits the way it was translated. Perhaps The Polish Boxer wouldn’t exist without its translators. As Brock says, ‘we wrote a sort of fantasia for anglophone quintet – in a new key, for a different audience. Translations are derivative but they can also be new.’
The Polish Boxer is a new voice of note in anglophone translation, clever, complex, perhaps a little devious, always absorbing, entertaining and thought-provoking. Most of all, it takes accepted conventions of literary form and throws them in the trash.
 Brock, Ollie, New Statesman, 5th September 2012
These poems consider many themes, some light and tongue in cheek, others dark and grim. Underlying them, sometimes even the most hard hitting, is a sense of optimism and an on-going joy and delight in life and love and all the nuances and richness of language. ‘Amaryllis’ is a fine example of this with the opening line ‘I celebrate you, precious gift’ and the whole poem is scattered with words like blissful, joyful and miracle.
There is humour too, especially in the love poems, a lightness of touch and pleasure in the quirkiness of things. In ‘No Love Song For My Loveress’ (a twist of language even in a title) the poet says ‘Memories! They will make a songwriter of me.’ He depicts his muse and the gods as demanding ‘perfect brew sonnets’ and declares he hates Shakespeare for being a better writer of love poems. He then introduces his own perfect comparison ‘Shall I compare you then to fresh pumpkin leaves/dancing to the song of a rainy season breeze?’ There is much laughter in these poems and a limitless energy. ‘The Gift’ concludes with these lines: ‘Now you are all mine to keep, elegant gazelle/eyes glint by the night fire at our picnic. We cut/a hole in the world, step out into ours/the air stretched taut with desire/we roll in the sand like joyful canines/ … Then laughter./So much laughter that our sides hurt./What are we high on?’
As I read these poems I am increasingly aware of a sense of honouring, of giving homage and benediction. Many of them are praise poems. ‘Amaryllis’ ends with these words ‘You have healed me, and covered me/in your costliest marabou. I will honour you/with my faith through seasons green or grey.’ ‘Isuikwuato II’ is like a litany with the anaphora ‘This Village/My Village’ and the lines ‘This is where I wish to be when I grow old./Shed no more tears O land of my fathers/For even now I am getting ready to dance/On the hot sands of Nkwonta/Prepare the drums.’ Even in ‘Wake’ where there is ‘no sunshine’ and the devil is astonished ‘that I raise my hands to God in praise/at a time like this’, the poet says ‘Yet I must praise Him; He shielded you, though you fell by the roadside/from talons, and beaks, from bald birds of the wild.’
The poems in The Bridge Selection are lyrical, written on the ‘wings of songs’ and abound in a wealth of images. Some of my own favourites are ‘a voice like silk rubbing against a black man’s hair’(If I Don’t Write A Great Poem Before I Die), ‘I wake and rock like a zombie tree in a roaring storm’(Strings of Wilderness) and ‘O blessed memory live; night fire and roasting yams/moonlighting and moonlight tales/beast songs and hunting games.’ (Isuikwuato). A richness of tone as well: there are hints of fables, proverbs, sayings, prayers and a world with overtones of myth and literature but one that is powerfully everyday, urban and rural, British and African.
All this and more – the more being a world of violence, hunger and exile, where singing has stopped and given place to ‘a legacy of terror’, where people are ‘brainwashed’, ‘living by the gun’ and where both hoe and machete are the norm. Powerful poems these: ‘Dead Sun’, ‘Red Pastures’, ‘A Conversation with Sorrow’, ‘Mad Songs, ‘An African Tale’ are among the poems of anger, bitterness, regret and sorrow that tell the story of a people ‘now naked/in front of dusty mirrors’ who are living in a land that is not their homeland, wearing political and social suits made ‘by alien tailors’, where their dancing was described as ‘Jungle’ and ‘their names deemed unpronounceable.’ There is much yearning in these poems for the village ‘where in the thick earth/the trailing cord/from my navel was interred.’
Nnorom Azuonye has chosen to preface his collection with one called ‘If I Don’t Write a Great Poem Before I Die’. This, I think, sums up the spirit of the collection – to show the world ‘darkness cannot be the fruit of light’. ‘When it mattered,’ he says, ‘jaws unlocked, I spoke out loud’. He speaks out loud in every poem and this ‘dreampot’ matters in every one. In the penultimate poem in this fine collection, ‘A Poem About Flowers’, the poet is strong in his manifesto: he will not be regressed ‘to the age of darkness’; will not ‘be walked backward.’
The Bridge Selection (Second Edition) ISBN 978-0-9568101-4-4 is published by SPM Publications and is available here.Read More