The High Window: Reviews

reviewer

*****

Don Paterson: The Arctic Kim Moore: What the Trumpet Taught Me • Sarah James: Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic • Matthew Hollis:The Waste Land a Biography of a Poem • Diane Seuss: Frank: Sonnets • Ange Mlinko: Venice

*****

Don Paterson’s The Arctic reviewed by Ross Thompson

paterson arc

The Arctic by Don Paterson. £10.99. Faber. ISBN: 978-0571338184

Arguably one of the most beguiling poets working today, Don Paterson has carved out a consistently impressive career by following the muse wherever and however they lead. Have a cursory look at his oeuvre and you will soon notice that, to paraphrase that earworm from Sesame Street, each of his kids is doing his own thing. Take, for example, the much celebrated Rain (2009), a deeply melancholic yet ultimately hopeful meditation on mortality that was followed by 40 Sonnets (2015), in which he both adhered to and wilfully tore apart the titular form. This was in turn succeeded by Zonal (2020), an eerie and labyrinthine collection of longer, almost-but-not-quite prose poems inspired in part by Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. Much of the excitement when picking up a new Paterson book is, unlike the metaphorical box of chocolates, not knowing what you are going to get. Other than craft and form, that is, because while Paterson puts the verse into diversification, he is a writer who always works with laser-sighted precision: no word, image or indeed usage of punctuation is ever wasted. In a recent interview he claimed that it is “important for a poet not to think you have a voice that is fixed”, and while this may be true in terms of his experimentation with poetics his North Star will always be his innate ability to balance the equation of meaning and form to produce coherent and satisfying writing that can bear the pressure of its own artifice.

Which brings us to The Arctic (2022), another book of collisions and contradictions, of personal intimacies and universal observations on the fractured state of our world. The stylistic approaches and thematic concerns are so varied that it might appear that Paterson is barely in control of the vehicle – or at the wheel at all – but it makes for a thrilling ride through the unlit dark. The collection opens with a series of elegies for the poet’s late father, a sequence that is disarming in its raw, emotional power. Take, for example, ‘Snaba’, its title derived from the Scots for “Snowball”, in which the speaker laments:

But perhaps one doesn’t ever really mourn
those obliged to leave us by degrees;
our last tears are relief, if there are any.

The honesty here is disarming, more so because the loss is clearly so fresh. Anyone who has experienced the cruel slow theft of a relative to such a condition will find these initial poems resonant with empathy and love, more so if they are familiar with Paterson’s previous depictions of the same man in poems such as ‘Heliographer’ from his debut book Nil Nil (1993):

My father decoded the world beneath:
our tenement, the rival football grounds,
the long bridges, slung out across the river.

Here, we see the parent as the archetypal authority figure, the personage of both affection and wisdom, whereas in The Arctic we see the universal truth of the parent becoming the child. The short piece ‘Air Guitar’, whose very title suggests transience, recalls:

God only knows the chords that lie below
the vague reflexive clutching that he makes
when I put the neck into his severed hands.

These poems are wonderful in their humanity and accessibility, closer in tone and style of Ian McMillan’s ’04/01/07’ or Mel McMahon’s ‘Ties’ than Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Kaddish’. But there is something else going on also, namely a reflection on the creation of art. Paterson, an accomplished jazz musician, has been here many times before such as in the concrete poem ‘The Box’, arranged on the page to resemble the guitar for which the speaker has both admiration and contempt, and ‘Little Corona’, which recounts a conjuring trick performed by fashioning an ocarina from a goose egg:

This this scrawny
Orpheus, as soon as he knew we were all drawn into his
magic, crushed it in his hand, as if out of pure scorn for us

It is a fascinating metaphor, not only for the fear of silence that comes with a person’s absence but also for the creative process itself. Like the apocryphal village boy crushing an egg, Paterson is equally skilled at deleting and abstracting. While at times he is an unashamed formalist, using language in the same way as Robert Frost where phrasing appears simple and straightforward until you actually try to grasp the meaning and it comes apart in your hands like wet paper, at others he vibrates blank space and the text that disrupts it like a tuning fork. The poem ‘Dot’ is a case in point, if you pardon the pun, a perfect circle containing text that is unreadable to the human eye without the aid of a magnifying glass or microscope. On one level it’s a good gag that echoes Paterson’s famous ‘On Going To Meet A Zen Master In The Kyushu Mountains And Not Finding Him’ that consisted entirely of an empty page. However, on a deeper level we are reminded of an analogue world that is in danger of being usurped by the digital one, of the sensory pleasure of holding a physical book and turning its page. The box unstrummed, the eggshell smashed into musicless smithereens, the stairs that turn the climber away, the hands severed… there is a recurring motif of emptiness and silence in Paterson’s work that he defies through the act of writing itself.

Elsewhere in The Arctic, the pendulum swings towards the political, unsurprisingly given the omnishambolic period of time through which we are still living. ‘Saudade For Brexit’ and ‘Easter 2020’ are blisteringly angry attacks on governmental incompetence, particularly the latter’s perceived mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic:

the headless chickens count themselves
but miss the standing duck
while the goats survey the goatscape
for just where to pass the buck

Paterson’s use of the balladic form gives the poem swagger and heft but it does not conceal his rage at the equivocation and gerrymandering that accompanied the coronavirus. He was on equally bilious form on ‘The Big Listener’ from 40 Sonnets but this is something else: a deep-rooted sadness experienced at the sight of one inhumanity inflicted upon the world after another. It is not Paterson tilting at windmills from a moralistic high horse; rather, it is joining in solidarity with those who are suffering at a time when “the news is all the wheels are coming off,” to borrow a line from ‘Spring Letter’. This poem is an extended, heart-heavy deconstruction of the Russian invasion of Ukraine features buffoonish power-grasping politicos who remain unnamed though we all know their identity:

I saw exactly what would happen next.
Homunculus. White dwarf. Dead star. Black hole
and then the pause before he hits the button,
then with the radiance of a thousand suns –

Yet even here there is humour as a palate cleanser: humour that is as black as a pint of stout maybe but there are great gags about Bono, Butlins and one about a microwave that is better read than explained.

Paterson’s latest collection reaches its apotheosis with ‘The Alexandrian Library, Part IV: Citizen Science’, the latest and presumably final instalment in a sequence that he has been writing for thirty years – an admirable feat in itself. A sizeable chunk of the poem takes place both inside and beneath The Arctic, a longstanding pub in Paterson’s hometown of Dundee (Succession fans may recognise the location as the birthplace of both actor Brian Cox and his Logan Roy counterpart), where a band of survivors “huddle from converging apocalypses” in a dank cellar, safe from nuclear annihilation and rampaging zombies. In this ludicrous take on the best films of John Carpenter, Dundee becomes Undeid, to use an old joke, as the weight of our world’s recent woes are taken to a cartoonish extreme:

I scratched out a clear square of earth in the rubble,
set up my pup-tent and Primus and satphone
and had started to upload my stats to the cloud
when the cloud disappeared.

Again, the reader is faced with the fear of erasure, of silence, of emptiness, of the possibility that family, music and the written word are not enough. It is a chilling prospect, one to which The Arctic returns time and again. But let us be hopeful, for what will we become without hope? One of the closing poems in the book ‘A Winter Apple’, a distant cousin to Simon Armitage’s ‘The Catch’, that speaks beautifully of:

those bewildered late bloomers, tough and small
and sweeter than they’ve any right to be,
as green as Eden, the re an afterthought

It is a poem about small mercies and trivial but not insignificant gifts, tokens of love and kindness at a time seemingly dominated by chaos and cruelty. We are all doing the best that we can, and that, surely, is good enough:

I make no great claims for this little thing
but I promise only good will come of it.

Ross Thompson is a writer from Bangor, Northern Ireland. His debut poetry collection Threading The Light is published by Dedalus Press. His work has appeared on television, radio, short films and in a wide range of publications. Most recently, he wrote and curated A Silent War, a collaborative audio response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He is currently working on several projects including editing a second full-length book of poems.

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*****

Kim Moore’s What the Trumpet Taught Me reviewed by Wendy Klein

kim moore trumpet

What the Trumpet Taught Me by Kim Moore. £10.99, Smith Doorstep, ISBN 978-1-914914-14-0

Seldom have I agreed to review a book with as much enthusiasm as has been the case with Kim Moore’s recent publication. I had already read it cover to cover and enjoyed it immensely, and I knew I would not be able to resist reading it again. It is a small book in physical size (approximately 11½ / 16 centimetres), but I would not have minded had it been the size of a coffee table book. I confess that I am already a fan of Kim’s poetry, have enjoyed her teaching in the past and support her stance on women and class, but this book is of a different order.

What the Trumpet Taught Me is set out initially as a chronological memoir. Full of lively descriptive detail the author writes of the characters she meets in her life as a music pupil from the time she picked up her instrument at age 10, to the time she laid it aside to focus seriously on writing. Along the way we meet all manner of music teachers, conductors, pupils, both recalcitrant and eager, her father, determined to make her want to succeed, and ultimately a poet who helped her by using the key metaphor that connected writing poetry to trumpet playing.

Kim’s characterisations of the people in her music world are witty and vivid down to the last physical details. Of her first teacher she comments ‘Mrs M’s voice is ‘harsh and nasal. She can cut through twenty squeaking recorders and out-of-tune violins without even standing up from her piano stool.’ In one memorable scene her father returns home from work ‘covered in dust from the building site’ to discover that his daughters are not practising. Moments later they find him packing up their instruments to return to the band, telling them if they can’t be bothered to play, he will take them back to be used ‘by children who will appreciate them.’ It is such a vivid moment of recognition, the tears, the remonstrations, for any parent who has been involved in music lessons with children.

There are some delightful moments of insight throughout the book: her recognition of the importance of the conductor who although it doesn’t seem as if anyone is looking at him, or noticing what he is doing, ‘he is important – that the weather of the room starts and finishes with him.’ When she stays behind after her junior band’s rehearsal to hear the senior band, she experiences a moment where the music ‘turns’ at the entrance of the lower brass playing the theme from ‘Rocky’, she notes how she begins to understand what ‘yearning’ feels like, later realising that it is the key change that brings about the effect. Her description of how to make a sound on a brass instrument is perfect in its unsuccessful attempt to explain in language and her conclusion that ‘It’s better just to watch someone doing it, and then copy without thinking.’

It is apparent that Kim takes huge joy in collecting nuggets of information about the trumpet in history and in literature. She returns several times to the lore of Tutankhamun’s silver trumpet, discovered in the famed tomb in 1922 by the British archaeologist, Howard Carter. She imagines picking up the instrument, balancing the weight of it in her hand: ‘of the journey to the mouth, of filling it with breath for the first time in centuries.’ She follows on with a report about further attempts to play the silver trumpet, including the story of a bandsman from the Egyptian army who shattered the trumpet by trying to get a better tone from it by using a contemporary mouthpiece.

She describes her own trumpet with lyrical fondness, her care and lack of care of it, noting how ‘The lacquer is eroding everywhere…’ adding that human sweat has lacquer in it that eats away at brass instruments, and that though warned of the potential damage by another trumpet player, she has never wiped her trumpet down after playing. While allowing that she may not have looked after it well enough, she likes to think that if someone picked it up, they would feel the marks of her hands on the metal. She notes: ‘I don’t want to wipe the sweat, the work away.’ In and amidst so many moving vignettes, this short personal essay on her trumpet is a stand-out.

In her poetry Kim has made no secret of her experience of an abusive relationship. Her debut poetry collection features a compelling central sequence on the subject. (The Art of Falling, 2015, Seren Publishing Co.) She approaches the subject of skewed relationships in this book, using the traditional ‘once upon a time’ motif which creates an allegorical quality. One such piece is a tender coming-of-age tale beginning ‘Once upon a time a girl and a man walked for two days in the wild.’ A story emerges of the man’s desire for her to play her trumpet for him ‘in the open’. When she is reluctant to bring her own instrument, he buys a second-hand trumpet, telling her that he wants her to teach him to play it. She recalls their two days together with ‘great love’ having introduced a note of foreboding whenthe relationship shifts: ‘The girl turns into a woman, and the man tries to change from a teacher-father friend to a man.’ The chilling line ‘inside the girl is broken, or if not broken, made still, left in shadow…’ forms a link with a later piece about her abusive relationship with ‘The man she met in Germany’. She begins the second piece: ‘Once upon a time a ghost lived in the middle of a city in a tall tower that reached up to the sky.’ There follows a tale made powerful by the delicacy of the writing. The ‘ghost’, clearly the author, owns a precious silver trumpet that the lord of the tower threatens to destroy, but in the very moment of his doing so, she realises it is her own body under threat and begins to extricate herself from the relationship and to shield herself from being trapped into any such relationship again. Kim’s skill makes it easy to believe that this moment and all that preceded it are achieved with the assistance of the ‘silver trumpet wreathed in gold’ that was made only to fit into the hand of the ghost, herself, and was only allowed ever to be played by her.

There is everything in this book from pithy sketches related to the author’s learning and teaching, the care and maintenance of the trumpet itself, and the history and culture surrounding it. It could easily be a manual for anyone who has ever attempted, successfully or not, the study of a musical instrument. However, in the end, it is the story of this author’s journey from being a musician to becoming a poet. When she ceases to practise every day, she recounts a sadness inside her, but also relief: ‘as if a hand on the back of her neck has been removed.’ A fellow poet offers her the metaphor ‘that writing can be like trumpet playing,’ that it can be approached with the same discipline: a reassurance and a validation which enables her to move on. Kim’s trumpet is so much more than a trumpet; it is a route to maturity and self-knowledge for the author, her companion on the journey. However, it is the pure pleasure of an uplifting and wonderfully written book which, for all that it is not poems, has the ring of the best of poetry, for this reader, and it rings true.

Wendy Klein was born in New York, but left the U.S. in 1964 to live in Sweden, and on from there to France, Germany and England where she has lived most of her adult life.  A retired psychotherapist, she is published in many magazines and anthologies and has two collections from Cinnamon Press:  Cuba in the Blood (2009) and Anything in Turquoise (2013). Her most recent collection is Mood Indigo published by Oversteps (2016). Out of the Blue, her selected Poems is available from the High Window Press

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*****

Sarah James’s Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic reviewed by Rona Fitzgerald

bllood sugar

Blood, Sugar, Sex by Sarah James. £10.99, Verve Poetry Press. ISBN 978193917111

Sarah James is an award-winning poet and writer also published as Sarah Leavesley.
In the forward to her collection, James has written about her life as a diabetic where every aspect of daily life becomes more dramatic. Getting the balance correct means life or death. Hence the title focusing on blood sugar, sex and magic.

One of her aims is to promote both awareness and understanding of living with type 1 diabetes. For me, the poems do a good job in explaining and graphically outlining practical issues. From early poems about siblings and loss, James spans a range of issues about being a diabetic in the world.

The poems are tender, poignant wide in their scope from grief and loss to concerns of a diabetic about life expectancy. James is a skilful and accessible poet. Her craft opens the poems to easy reading, yet, like the central issues of blood sugar, the poems linger.

In ‘Diagnosis’ the child is on her way to hospital, an unknown place where she will be left as her parents drive home. The poem captures the anxiety of the unknown with images that are beautiful and ordinary:

‘I don’t remember much else, except that I am ill and the
hospital will make me better. I know there is snow though,
because its winter and there’s always snow.

Because my world suddenly feels frozen as the garden when
the grass and flowers are smothered by white, laying to a
think blanket as bleached as my nan’s bedsheets’

In the poem ‘Prognosis’ James asks her doctor about life expectancy:

‘It takes me twenty-six years to ask.
My GP can’t answer. It’s not a question
of life expectancy…he tries to reassure me
(though studies suggest
diabetics takes off ten years)’

In the title poem,’Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic’, James uses incense as a metaphor for burring energy. She also uses the full page plus a fading type face to chart her bodies response to exertion and excitement:

‘First, I check my sugar levels are good.
He chooses the tunes, I set incense burning.
The Red Hot Chilli Peppers throb;
Gentle smoke unwinds its sensual magic.
One long kiss, tongues and breath
Entwining. A touch or two and our bodies
Lose both scent and music. Our blood pulses
Faster and louder that the room around us.’

The lines of the poems then begin to fade petering out to almost nothing but we can make out the second last line with the word burning and the last line with sugar on its own.

James talks about diabetes as a disability but one that is hidden. When I trained in pharmacy in the 1970’s, diabetes was considered a long-term illness. By drawing out the disabling effect of type 1 diabetes, James demonstrates how disabling it is. This is important for the poems, for the author but also, for our understanding of how lives are shaped by disability and illness. I recommend this collection. The poems are informative, thoughtful and full of life.

Rona Fitzgerald was born in Dublin; she now lives in Glasgow. She writes poetry and prose.
Her highlights include The Stinging Fly, Oxford Poetry and the Blue Nib Magazine. She was a finalist in the Lonely Voice short story competition in 2011 and the 20 words for Twenty/Twenty in 2020.

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*****

Matthew Hollis’s The Wasteland a Biography of a Poem reviewed by Alan Price

wasteland

The Waste Land a Biography of a Poem by Matthew Hollis £25 (Faber and Faber) ISBN 978-0-571-29721-4

A poem rarely has the distinction of having a biography. Apart from Matthew Hollis’s book on The Waste Land the only other book I could trace was Ian Sampson’s about Auden’s poem ‘September 1 1939’. We are used to case studies, educational notes and collections of essays. But to be considered as a biographical process sets a piece of writing apart. As if a poem could be evaluated and equated with a person’s life: a psychological portrait of a well known man and woman’s successes, failures and a history of their times. A poem as a kind of sympathetic human entity, replete with contradictions, and consequences that affects our lives, not just those possibly revealed by a novelist, but even say a politician, scientist or philosopher is intriguing.

Yet not that surprising when its T. S. Eliot’s epic – beginning life with the name ‘He Do the Police in Different Voices’ (a quote from Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend) and ending up re-titled as ‘The Waste Land’. Over the last 100 years this poem has become not just an important icon of modernism but an international artefact profoundly influencing our perception of civilisation and literature. Irrespective of whether people have actually read ‘The Waste Land’ it appears to have always been around. Reading it we join iconic company, becoming a Robinson Crusoe; journeying through The Odyssey or experiencing a War and Peace. The poem’s stark title now exists independently as a cultural nametag as much as the journalistically over applied ‘existential threat.’

Mathew Hollis’s authors are not only the nervous poet T. S. Eliot but the astute critic Ezra Pound and sympathetic reader Vivien Eliot. Through a biographical account, from 1914 – 1922, Hollis skilfully fuses these three personalities with the gestation, writing and publication of ‘The Waste Land’ which after reducing the text by one-third Ezra Pound declared it to be ‘the longest poem in the English language’ (434 lines).

It took six months of Pound pestering Eliot before ‘The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock’ was published by Poetry in Chicago in 1915. That poem’s free verse was praised by some (usually other poets) and ridiculed by a number of critics. ‘Here I am considered by the ordinary Newspaper critic as a Wit or satirist’, Eliot confided to his brother Henry, ‘and in America I shall be thought merely disgusting.’ So Eliot was a controversial poet who even by 1921 was regarded, by the press, either side of the Atlantic, as undoubtedly a supreme literary critic but unlikely to become a major poet. Outlook magazine even accused Eliot of being ‘merely clever, very very clever.’

The controversy didn’t go away with ‘The Waste Land’’s publication. But whether people liked the poem or not it was acknowledged that something significant had happened – an explosive cultural landmark:

‘the finest poem of this generation.’
New York Tribune (5 November 1922)

‘remarkably disconnected, confused’
Nation (6 December 1922)

‘the greatest poem so far written in contemporary literature.’

Chicago Daily News (14 February 1923)

‘The Thing is a mad medly…so much waste paper.’

Manchester Guardian (31 October 1923)

And yet in January 1921 the first two opening lines, of the long poem that Eliot had been planning, where originally: ‘First we had a couple of feelers down at Tom’s place, / There was old Tom, boiled to the eyes, blind.’ Thankfully Ezra Pound cut out such knockabout lines and Vivien Eliot tuned up Eliot’s ear for working class speech –several local pub outings achieved that! The right cadence had to be found and Pound was ruthlessly correct in his critique of Eliot’s first drafts.

Pound was severe. Of part of ‘The Fire Sermon’ he said it was ‘too loose…rhyme drags it out to diffuseness.’ Whilst ‘Death by Water’ had the opening lines and much of the first page cancelled –ninety three lines cut down to ten. It was only the final part, ‘What the Thunder Said’ that Pound had almost nothing to criticise, marking it up very lightly beyond some typing errors.

‘The poem had become an event occurring in both men in unison, in creator and critic, in poet and reader, in two halves of a combining mind. Pound did not of course share the same life experience as Eliot…but he understood how to experience the force of those feelings in the poem in which they were converging, and, crucially, he understood how to transmute them into an experience that others might comprehend.’

Hollis is insightful on the intellectual and emotional energy spent writing The Waste Land as we know it today. His monthly account of events makes for a gripping read: much breathless excitement getting the poem ready for its first publication by Boni & Liveright in America. At the eleventh hour Horace Liveright is complaining that Eliot’s material is too short and could he add anything. In desperation Eliot wants to place, at the end of the typescript, three short poems. But Pound says ‘leave ‘em, abolish ‘em altogether…Don’t try to bust all (longest poem) records by prolonging it three pages longer.’

There are also parallel dramas occurring in 1921 / 22. Eliot is unwell and advised to rest from writing (at one point he goes to Geneva to seek medical help) and his wife
Vivien reports, ‘Tom has had rather a serious breakdown. I have not nearly finished my own nervous breakdown yet.’ The Eliots’s nerves make for a memorable contribution to the anxiety and tension of The Waste Land! (Matthew Hollis notes that in 1960 Eliot was writing by hand, and from memory, his poem for a London library. In the ‘Game of Chess’ section he restored seven painful words that spoke of his troubled marriage, The ivory men make company between us.)

Superbly researched, exciting and eloquently written is an indispensable book on Eliot’s masterpiece. Or in Pound’s words, ‘A damn good poem.’

Alan Price’s film and book reviews regularly appear on the websites Magonia and London Grip. His screenplay A Box of Swan was produced by BBC 2. He has published fiction, poetry chapbooks and three full collections among which are two published by The High Window Press: Wardrobe Blues for a Japanese Lady and The Trio Confessions. His latest book of poems Bewilderment (a collaboration with the paintings of Herve Constant) was published by the Martello Press in 2022. His latest collection, The Cinephile Poems will be published this year by the High Window Press.

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*****

Diane Seuss and Ange Mlinko reviewed by Ian Pople

frank son     venice mlinko

Frank: Sonnets by Diane Seuss. £12.. Graywolf. 978-1644450451
Venice by Ange Mlinko. £15. FSG. 978-0374607821

Diane Seuss and Ange Mlinko are two very different faces of poetry in the contemporary United States. Superficially, they might seem to be pointing in the same direction. Mlinko is a famed formalist using metre and rhyme to craft precise, softly witty poetry. Diane Seuss’s Frank: Sonnets won her the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. And while the title proclaims the poems to be sonnets, Seuss’s fourteen liners, eschew both metre and rhyme, and contain some very hard-hitting writing. The contents of Seuss’ poems focus either on the hardscrabble upbringing she had. Or they depict the effects of AIDs on the life of the person whose picture is on the cover, Mikel Lindzy. For Seuss’ poems are frank in the sense of confessional directness. Mlinko’s poems, too, present the ‘I’ of the poems as close to the author. However, as you might gather from the title, Venice, there is the whiff of the grand tour about Mlinko’s new book. But, here too, there is the sense of pun, as Mlinko’s book is as much about Venice, Florida as it is about the European models that she does more than reference and nod to.

Let me offer two short quotations from the two writers to show their differences. The first is from Mlinko:

Morning glory folded in the scrolls
of columns dissolved in their claims
to mass in bisque-blue apparition;
dusk would blue the ink on rolls
recording their angelic names:
Fra Lippo Lapis, Azure-Titian …
like the boaters with their poles,

[‘Sleepwalking in Venice – San Marco’]

and the second is from Seuss:

OD’d on his suboxone and not on purpose, opened in the kitchen dark a bottle
I thought was my own trifling med and took his drug instead, stop signs he called them,
helps you stop without insane withdrawal, but tells me now he just used it to deepen
his high, heighten his depths, ‘[OD’d on his suboxone]’

Of course, there is the clear difference in the scenes the two writers are depicting. Mlinko’s scene is, firstly outdoors, and the narrator/viewer looks up at the outside of one of the world’s most famous buildings, St Mark’s in Venice. Seuss’s scene is inside. The scene is part of a narrative involving the use of medication, and, as the final phrase suggests this is medication in the service of getting high. Seuss has two people who interact, firstly through the drug use, but then in the conversation. But when we look at these a little more closely, we can see that both writers are looking and looking hard. Mlinko’s scene is very carefully particularized in terms of not only shape but also colour. Mlinko’s columns are viewed through a kind of contrast between the ‘morning glory’ depicted on the columns but also how the scene might change at dusk. The camera pans in and then out, and in turn shows the limits of viewing, ‘in bisque-blue apparition.’

Seuss, too, shows how perspective changes. The perspective changes not only in the two uses made of the medication; one medicinal, one recreational, but the perspective changes between users. One use is ‘trifling’ and the other ‘helps you stop insane withdrawal’; one use limited and small, and the other helping to soften something much, much larger.

There are clear stylistic differences, too. It is not simply the closely metered, end-stopped lines and full rhymes in the Mlinko, it is also willingness to use latinate vocabulary, ‘apparition’, ‘angelic.’ And the use of ‘blue’ as a verb. Seuss’s syntax is more obviously rolling, sentential; the commas create clause boundaries within complete lines. Mlinko’s sentence runs across the whole of the seven lines I’ve created, and actually runs on for another five lines in the original. But Mlinko uses the semicolon and colon to form ‘mini’ sentences within her original. Seuss’s sentence, I suggest, feels more like the kind of sentence we might find in a prose narrative. Its length feels part of something, whereas Mlinko’s sentence feels more part of a collection of sentences that offer towards something more ‘poetic.’

Both writers offer the reader that sense of deep engagement with fully particularized inner and outer worlds. So, it would be doing both writers a huge disservice to set them in some kind of opposition. If Seuss is often more ‘in-your-face’, then that does not mean that Mlinko’s inner and outer worlds offer any more ‘classical’ stabilities. Seuss, too, can tackle metaphysics, as in the sonnet that begins ‘The patriarch of Jesus Camp is dead!’ in which muses on the death, it seems, of the father of a childhood friend, who had died young. Seuss rails against these untimely losses, and does it in a way that establishes the very real presences of the father and the child, Charity. And that name is punned upon, but again in ways that establish her very real existence. What Seuss also deals with is that sense of needing to believe.

Ange Mlinko is also very aware of that need to invest in experience and report that investment as part of the making real process. The final section of Mlinko’s Venice is called, ‘The Psychic Capital of the World’ and concerns Florida. This is the Florida which, in contrast to Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘state with the prettiest name, is one whose physical and psychic stability is clearly in question. Hurricane Florence waits like ‘the way the fitful mind awaits / the moment thought will strike.’ A tango record is one of ‘scratches and scuffs.’ Mlinko records the sinking of a ‘ship of cows’ in a storm off the coast near Beirut; this latter woven into the tapestry of this ostensibly Florida poems as ‘Our labyrinthine lives, hybrid / of economy and transport.’

All of this might seem to make two books of slightly contrasting misery memoir. But what takes both books far from that notion is their absolute need to get inside the experience, to make it weighty and, in turn, complex. As such both these books make very strong cases for the way in which a lot of poetry from the contemporary United States reaches through and outside itself to grab hold of universal truths.

Ian Pople‘s Spillway:  New and Selected Poems is published by Carcanet.

*****

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