Monday, March 21

Some Strawberry Flan; Some Coffee

Review by Luke Kennard

Apology for Absence by Julia Darling (Arc Publications, £6.95)

Let us begin with ‘Impossible’:

to understand the way a teenager hears questions,
like a whine, disturbing their inner hum.

This is a lovely image – and is particularly apt as there are several lines in “Apology for Absence” that disturbed my inner hum. It was disturbed by the gaggle of g’s in “They stagger amongst the giggly girls”; and ruffled by the vague exaggeration of “we made a thousand detours.” The self-consciously twee, “Come eat strawberry flan / while we can, while we can” had me storming up to my bedroom in a huff and slamming the door so the paintings shook – shook on their hooks like little frightened animals.

Such moments are not characteristic of Darling’s style, but there are enough of them to leave one feeling rather irritable and sulky. Be that as it may, there are people (among them lovely, courteous people whom I know and love) who will consider the poems in this collection playful, delightful and celebratory work – and I have been severely clipped round the ear for complaining about that before, so allow me to assert that I harbour no grudge against light verse. I feel just the same about light verse as I do about strawberry flan. I can take it or leave it. I’d rather have a coffee.

As ‘Impossible’ suggests, Darling is actually a much better writer than this. “We are an English family in an endless terrace.” is the understated, assonant conclusion to ‘Probably Sunday’, wherein Darling captures an essential ennui of English life and renders it poetic instead of mundane. Furthermore, some of her images are delightfully unusual – in ‘Night Sweat’: “You wake up with your face melting, / An evangelical bird calling you.” Gotta love that “evangelical bird” – at once summoning the over-enthusiastic grace of its song and the protagonist’s curmudgeonly stirring from sleep. And later in the same poem:

You attempt to plead
with night. You make a promise.
You say that if he lets you go

you’ll give him all your furniture,
sew up the armholes in your clothes,
donate your family to science.

According to the blurb, Darling is both a surrealist and a realist. This made me laugh when I read it, but it actually holds water. The best poems in the book are the result of the two poles combining. ‘My Thumb in Leeds’ begins with the wonderfully plain statement: “My thumb is on holiday.” Elsewhere, old coats smell of “snails and unwashed flannels” and “there was music in the folds / of a pensioners skirt.”

‘My Complicated Daughter’ explores the theme of familial alienation with tact and subtlety. “What can I do for my complicated daughter, / my terror, my dark heart, so lost in this house?” asks the narrator. “We collide in the bathroom, by the terrible mirror, / so apart, so unable to give or receive.” There is real poignancy here – and that’s rare in confessional poetry – and I think it comes from the implications of the “terrible mirror”. In other poems there may well be poignancy, but I feel apart from it – as if I had just identified poignancy in a field-guide. ‘Days of Terrible Tiredness’, for instance, is a tired person talking about being tired:

These short days, when I try too hard
to get there, to make myself,

to sit and push, to pull in words,
pull up weeds, take vitamin C...

The reader may reflect that s/he has his/her own family to empathise with about this sort of thing – and, being a dutiful son or daughter, I’m sure they do so regularly. I’m not sure how it functions in poetry. Actually, yes I am. It functions to annoy me. This is where good writing meets flan. You can probably tell I don’t usually pick up books with paintings of vases on the front cover. They tend to contain poems called ‘Phone Call From the Hospice’:

You know when it’s Sunday
because the chef isn’t here.

Other days are the same,
Pop Idol, magazines.

Anybody who reads poetry in any great quantity has probably had the dubious pleasure of reading a poem about a waiting room whilst sitting in a waiting room. The feeling is not as uncanny as you might imagine – it is rather a recognition that, hey, the poet is right: the duller, more painful passages of life are, indeed, dull & painful; accompanied by the urge to hurl yourself against the automatic doors whether they open in time or not. All of us have this stuff – tragedy and suffering befalling ourselves or our loved ones – and maybe it’s more helpful to write poems about it than it is to read them. Personally I find it rather depressing even to write about it, but I guess I’m an escapist. ‘Weight’ begins:

I am weighed down by carrier bags
of duty, cans of obligation.

Think about your own writing. Are the notes you make while waiting for a train ever about a train delay? I mean, unless you’re filling in the complaint form. Poetry should make the familiar strange, not render it all too familiar. And Darling can make strange – in fact she does it in the very next couplet:

A bowl sky hangs above my head
It’s like sitting in a tent in the rain.

Unless we’ve chosen lightness (which, as Kundera argues, has its own hardships), we’re all weighed down by carrier bags of duty (and even the unbearably light still have to go grocery shopping). So why not keep the title and start the poem with the bowl sky? It’s a good image, but it gets crushed beneath the cans.

There are poems in "Apology for Absence" that confirm Darling’s admirable ethos with eloquence and warmth:

we all matter, we are all
indelible, miraculous, here

There are also several which don’t – and that’s mostly because they’re written in strict accordance with the Realist Poet’s Code. ‘My Old Friend Hospital’ charts the boredom of charts and temperatures, “humming lifts”, tiresome sorts like “Fionas, Paulines, Marylins and Dots” and ends portentously,

Whoever would have thought
I might love a hospital, but I do:
you know me now, and I know you.

“Whoever would have thought”? Actually it’s a voice most readers will have come across time and again – exactly the kind of irritable, knowing voice that would half-ironically say it loved a hospital. Just as we’d expect a hard-line Language Poet to cover the same ground by writing the word “hospital” backwards with commas between the letters. I’m sure our narrator actually finds the hospital as much of a drag as the unwell Marilyns, Fionas and Dots do. (Note that the narrator sort of looks down on these gals, and I find that sort of troubling – the poet’s innate superiority is another common element of anti-esoteric urban realism – and I’m always sort of left thinking, “Egalitarian, my arse”).

However, in my less irked moments, I think many of my opinions are just category errors. I’m admonishing a table for not being more like a bicycle and feigning surprise when I can’t ride it to the newsagents – and I’m sorry for doing that. I guess it’s just that Julia Darling, without the occasional jangly rhyme and the domestic/sarcastic elements all too pervasive in contemporary poetics, would be a writer I could really like. As it is, there are plenty of people who enjoy the very qualities I find annoying – and I suspect their boat will be rocked just barely by the collection’s more dynamic moments, exactly the way they like it.

© Luke Kennard, 2005

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