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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

To the Paparazzi of the Soul

I was wondering aloud the other week about the fine line being negotiated between apparent and actual inconsequentiality in the closing sequence of Vona Groarke’s Spindrift. Perhaps inconsequentiality is the wrong word, more a principled abstention from ornamentation and a no logo rebuff to personality as poetic product-placement.

Thomas A. Clark’s The Hundred Thousand Places falls into much the same category. It is a book-length sequence devoted to the landscape of the Scottish east coast around Pittenweem, entirely innocent of punctuation and painting in primary elemental colours of time and space:

once again
for the first time


a sea mist closing
every distance
cliffs falling away
from the edge of a world
only half accomplished

feel your way out
into what might
wave or rock
take form


you are not sure

there where you hover
over yourself
stay there

Lapwings call to the poet to confuse him. When he departs ‘brightness /takes your place’. All is throughther, in Hopkins’ word, meshing and merging into something else: ‘What you see /you will become’. Steven Gerrard (cracker of a goal against Hull City at the weekend, eh) once expressed his dissatisfaction with a poor performance by saying ‘We’re a long way from where we are’, an insight whose philosophical depths pay off here when Clark stumbles on the ‘continual revelation’ that ‘you are not where you are’.

This is rewarding work, and without being in the least obscure or knotted nevertheless seems to me as far from the guileful, irony-laced colloquial register of Armitage or Duffy as any amount of Keston Sutherland. Consequences of this? Are these poems small standing stones in a Scottish field, best left where they are, or are there legs in this style, for its readers? Suggestions, please.

By the same post comes Richard Price’s Rays, which makes three collections in four years now after Lucky Day and Greenfields in 2005 and 07. I’m pleased to see Price’s work from Lute Variations (Rack) and Earliest Spring Yet (Landfill) collected here, but the alphabet poems of ‘little but often’ are something else again, with their tickling rhymes and abecedary zest:

absolute beginner,
a little shy

asked directions –
so did I


blame the books, blame the bees

blame the feathered creatures, the boyish features,
the emblem on the tree –

blame me


course you can,
daily and late at night –

any time and many the time
is perfectly alright


These are fantastic poems of love and desire. Is Richard Price the best Scottish poet of recent years? I should think so.

It’s very easy, reading aphorisms, to imagine all that genre’s historical practitioners sitting round the same table arguing. In which case someone has just made room for Peter Robinson, whose Spirits of the Stair (Shearsman) is an agreeable addition to company. Ah, the structural grammar of the aphorism. The truth-is-in-the-exactly-opposite-place-from-where-you-think-it-is aphorism:

‘One way to avoid ending up like your parents is consciously to imitate them.’

The semi-colon d’adieu, dispatching a sentence as briskly as an over-attentive waiter being waved away:

‘Good poems resolve emotions; bad ones provoke them.’

The fiat veritas definition:

‘An aphorism is a well-used dishcloth waiting to be wrung out.’

Much wistfulness on the subject of pobiz:

‘Self-promoting authors must be volunteering to become canon-fodder.’

Homeopathic doses of return-to-the-scene-of-the-crime reflections on a previous marriage:

‘Back in Cambridge, years ago, some people would sometimes refer to my then wife and I as an ideal couple. I should have known from their use of that word there was something dreadfully wrong... and not only with us.’

Age-of-Muldoon ‘itself’-construction-sponsored quasi-prose poems:

‘An Italian summer: every postage stamp of beach jam-packed with shame taking a vacation from itself.’

The wan smile, fading, fading:

‘For a dedication: “To the paparazzi of the soul.”’

I recommend these books.

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