By Jon, in Magma 58, of Animal People, by Carol Rumens, Bird-Woman, by Em Strang, and The Number Poe
Animal People is not an easy collection - not because of its difficult subject matter (aside from autism and Asperger's, it tackles, variously, schizophrenia, homelessness, war, ageing, loss and death). The real challenge for the reader is linguistic.
On her website, Rumen's muses: "Am I a poet? I'm not sure. I am someone who loves language". Elsewhere, she quotes Brodsky's description of a poet as a person who "falls into dependency, the way other fall into dependency on drugs and alcohol." There is such a quantity of almost compulsive delight in splashing about in language that it almost becomes a barrier to communication. I felt as excluded at times as a teetotaller at a booze up.
There are poems in every kind of form and register. There are words and expressions borrowed from Yorkshire dialect, Welsh, Greek, Ukrainian and Russian (including Slavic owl hoots). The tone varies from intimate wry, direct ti circumlocutory. The whole gamut of language is run, from the demotic to the obscure, homely slang to the lexicon of vertiginously educated erudition. It requires much Googling by the reader despite much glossing by the writer.
But what of all this obsessive linguistic variety and effervescence? Could it be we're seeing a dramatisation of Asperger's, conscious or unconscious, not just in On The Spectrum but throughout the collection.
When the language-fest gives way to plainer fare, there is plenty of simple beauty and clarity to be enjoyed. Take, for example, the touching Laundry Blue, in which a line of poetic prose comes singing out of the poetic: "That's how poor women love - /with pegged lips and an ounce of indigo". Or "Coastline of caravans, neat as graves, but quieter" (The Homeless Ship).
In her first full-length collection, Em Strang also makes use of bird calls. Cheekily, even the epigraph is given to the blackbird: chook, chook, tchink, tchink, tchink (Author's punctuation, I guess). And it soon becomes clear, as heralded by her title Bird-Women, that birds rather than language are Em Strang's obsession. Indeed, she herself has observed that "birds and horses feature in almost all my poems". There are a good few horses in Bird-Woman. But they are greatly outpopulated by birds. For this reader, the strongest poems in this curate's egg of a collection are set in a more human habitat.
There is the simple joy of Paris Hotel, in which the text spreads across the page, expansive, filled with space and light, like the hotel room and the lovers within it. There is a lyrical beauty of Getting Ready to Dance, a small masterpiece, which is as successful a stab at defining eternity as I've seen. It's a poem that offers deep consolation (and seems to know it does). Waiting to the Water the Ponies has the pastoral sublimity of a painting by Millet.
There are some highly percipient, even numinous moments. In Oars, for example, the essential instability of the nature that supports us, and that of our own relationships, is depicted in. the metaphor of rowing out to sea: "I row and row out to nowhere / to the deep grey // that keeps changes places with itself".
But perhaps the greatest strength of this collection is just its fresh observations:
Every strawberry is bloow and muscle,
small as a swallow's heart
with pip eyes on the outside of the fruit
(In Esther's Garden)
its orange-rimmed eye
like the bromide ring around the moon
There are also some startlingly fresh individual lines, such as "The path takes a sharp turn / Like a changed mind" (Bird-House) and "It's quiet with the fence gone" (Opening Up the Back Field).
By choosing the title Bird-Woman, Em Strang seems to put herself front and centre of this collection. And rather like DH Lawrence's snake, which can't be simply observed without us having to see the author in his "pyjamas for the heat", she seems sometimes too present in her poems; a kind of bucolic Mother Theresa, rescuing everything in sight.
Occasionally her zeal can lead her to questionable decisions. Poets need o be cautious when appropriating news stories, ensuring their use is sensitive and fitting. In her poem Hare, dedicated to the memory of Jyoti Singh, the young woman who was fatally assaulted and gang-raped on a. bus in new Delhi in 2012, Strag evokes this personal tragedy and subsequent political storm through an account of her own tender burial of a hare accidentally killed by a school bus.
Strang teaches in prison (as evidenced in I took God with Me to the Prison). And it seems she, too, is caught behind bars. She has fenced herself in with the beasts:
My mind's less able, less sure
that what I've chosen is the right choice:
to live in a place where there are more animals than men.
Finally, the tones slips from self-doubt to self-conscious piety, as she continues:
It's a kind of prayer to the earth,
no matter how stange that sounds.
Bird-Woman seems to suffer from the creeping obesity of the once slim poetry volume. There is a fine pamphlet-length collection contained within this uneven book.
Matthew Welton's obsession in The Number Poems is, as you might guess, numbers. In his note on the title, as opposed to his note on the note on the title, or his note on the note on the note on the title, he says that maybe the idea of this collection was "all about taxonomy". But he also admits that maybe the"taxonomy was flawed. Maybe in putting together poem whose construction depends on the number of sentences they use, poems whose construction depends on the number of metrical feet and poems whose construction depends on a basic word count, the mixture of methodologies was sure to result in confusion. And maybe the idea of number wasn't appropriate anyway."
Quiet an own goal there, but I'm afraid I would hasten to agree with him. As e e cummings says: "since feeling is first / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you" (A look at the Poem).
The Number Poems may be a bold experiment, but my interest in the project flagged long before the author's did. I remained unkissed and unmoved.
Despite some wit, and pleasing sound-play and repetitions, I often felt as if I were trapped inside a Rubik's cube, unable to fight my way out. Take this first stanza from the poem Abstraction with Instructions, which put me in mind of RD Laing's Knots and TS Eliot'sFour Quartet's at the same time:
A thing at this itme is a continuation of itself, and a thing after its time is
a continuation of itself; a thing is continuation of the things within it,
and a thing is a continuation of the things around it.
For me, I'm afraid, The Number Poems quickly disappears up its own abacus, the lateral bars of which form the inventive cover design of this attractive edition.
Perhaps thre are some wider points to be made here. The current fashion of mono-themed poetry collections seems often to push poets to work within a narrower compass than is natural to them, resulting in books that feel forced and, as Lacan might say, "increasingly demanding and endless."