Sunday, January 30

Sifting Chaff

Review by Rupert Mallin

Translating Into Love Life’s End by Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke
The Weight of Cows
by Mandy Coe
The New Girls
by Sue Dymoke
Laughter From The Hive
by Kate Foley
(all from Shoestring Press, £7.95p each)

I was stood in the drizzle talking to young Ben, a delegate like myself to Norwich”s “New Writing Types Conference.” Ben and I agreed that a lot of English poetry is anecdotal, even whimsical, shy of abstract subjects and language. However, my new acquaintance was of the certain opinion that good poetry (his term) rises to the surface in much the same way as wheat and chaff are separated by sifting. Of course, many of us do not possess the correct sieve and we are not paid to sift.

I wish Ben luck in ending up as golden wheat. According to the Conference, it is not a matter of luck, education or who you know but a path (the holy grail to the sieve?) of progression - in form, voice and subject. Of course, every subject is available but “observation” is key to this progression - observation of a moment (breakfast), ones environment (clothes lines, bees, etc) and ones emotions (love, death, etc). Yet, perhaps notions of observation enshrine reservation?

Not only on “Exultations & Difficulties” has poetry-death reared its ugly head. Peter Porter and Douglas Dunn were recently in conversation on the radio relating how the early deaths of family members had moved them (obviously). To cope with their grief and terrible loss they wrote poems to their lost loved ones. Early deaths have touched my life too. Very many of us. I am stating the obvious: poetry isn’t death, it is life and the lament doesn’t just concern human loss but a perceived certainty that has been broken by death. We live in uncertain, breaking and deathly times.

There are two directions one can take in writing of - or out of - the present times: gather up the toolbox of craft, close the door, create an oasis of certainties and get sieving; or abstract outwards from this breakage yard of our age.

“Translating Into Love Life’s End” is an uplifting volume of poetry as Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke takes on death, lifts it like a dress and lives with it as if love. She takes “murderous sadness” and literally makes a meal of it:

The murderous sadness
when everything I loved that is still alive
and does not concern me anymore
I put through the mincer of time
and lightly sprinkle with concentrated sorrow
the evening meal called “life”
which is still being served

(from “A Recipe For Life”)

Her relationship with death also encompasses her work as a translator and poet crossing geographical and mythical borders. She is in conversation with her poetry and her soul and a male “other” yet her rivers and veins are universal and pulse with life. She makes poetry physical, as in “Translating Into Love Life”s End.” While she cannot physically touch that which has gone, like the dead, like a departed lover, she can imagine. Yet, her departed is also the text itself:

I want to know how you strip
how you open up
so I look for your habits
in between your lines
for your favourite fruit
your favourite smells
girls you leaf through...

Having decided she should not have “indulged in the luxury of nostalgia” (the writing of the poem itself) she concludes: “I am reading the gray sky now/ in a sun-drenched translation.” The play between her poem (which she dismisses), its translation (into other tongues) and the “reading” of the sky as a “sun-drenched” translation creates a contradictory conclusion, as open as a flower or a question rather than old covers on a book or the lid of a coffin.

Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke takes to the high-wire of her subject, risking absurdity and death (as Lawrence Ferlinghetti would put it), and speaks across the borders, while turning death itself into a question, rather than an all conclusive finale.

There’s a curious U.A. Fanthorpe comment on the cover of Kate Foley’s collection “Laughter From The Hive:” “...(her) candid Dutch gaze at everyday objects, with the riddling English way of not explaining what it’s all about till the end...”

It is the “riddling English way” (another sieve reference) which draws the fault line between Anghelki-Rooke’s book and the other three volumes in my opinion. Mandy Coe, Sue Dymoke and Kate Foley share in common a splendid command of language, a keen observant eye and the means to extrapolate from the everyday, together with an ear for the “riddling” habit of storytelling in that anecdotal, whimsical English way.

Also shared by this trio of books is a lack of questions and literal question marks. With one or two fine exceptions, most of these poems are wrapped up in a conclusion - either as a punch line or as a riddle solver. It is as if a certainty has to parcel these well made poems in the manner of a short story or a story for children. Such resolution in some poems read or performed is fine, but is the lack of questions a particularly English trend now? A manner of writing as a new writing type?

Who’s sifting out the questions?

However, Sue Dymoke’s “Space Invader” in her collection “The New Girls” sparkles:

a loomingness of colour
a gloom-glow-push-pull
powder red presence
soft chocolate shimmer
midnight blue-black manoeuvre

It is a response to a Rothko painting and here the poet doesn’t impose “the poem” over her response to this abstract visual. Instead, her response seems fluid, in the moment and visceral. Where Sue Dymoke lets this visceral, tactile electricity through the well crafted framework, her poetry is vibrant.

Mandy Coe’s collection “The Weight of Cows” is full of wonderful opening lines. Indeed, it opens:

We were nine years old when we killed Brendan.

Fantastic. However, for me the following lines kill off the poem as one knows, given its parameters, where the poem will take us:

An enemy sniper, shot
with a sawn-off broomstick...

It’s the broomstick. It’s a child’s make believe game. Death will be acted out but all’s going to be fine in the end.

What if the poem took another path:

We were nine years old when we killed Brendan.
An enemy sniper, shot with a sawn-off.

Now we don’t know where it’s going to go...

Kate Foley is an accomplished poet, obsessive in her observations and economic with her words. However, my favourite in “Laughter From The Hive” is her very long poem, “The Bleeding Key,” which tends to run in the opposite direction. Because of its large canvas, this poem carries elements of dramatic monologue and the poet expands her voice into the voices of her subjects:

Still dark, but dark as a lidded eye.
She sees the mummy case,
soft gleam of bitumen.

WaaaaAAAH!AlaaaAAA! A red cry,
furious, robust. IwannabreastbottlemiiiLK!

Brrum, brrrum, brUUM.
Heels on the empty shell.

The poem concludes tightly with: “dangerous dreaming/ our only key/ to home.” And it is here where there is “dangerous dreaming” her poetry becomes a risk rather than a recipe; where one cannot see a division between chaff and wheat, that she goes beyond “riddling English” in an exciting and engaging way.

© Rupert Mallin, 2005

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