Michael Bartholomew-Biggs reviews…
From the Dark Room by Sue Rose and The Very End of Air by Robert Stein
The title of Sue Rose’s collection From the Dark Room (Cinnamon Press 2011) might make us wonder whether these are poems about exposing or escaping from feelings and memories that have been lurking in the darkness. Or could we read it as “From the Darkroom” and look for sharp, photographic capture of emotion and experience? In fact the book contains something of all three; but it seems largely concerned with facing loss and regret; escape is usually more hoped-for than achieved.
The opening poem ‘Collector’ is a strong and brilliant piece about a woman who hoards bones and likes to see things becoming // the essence of themselves. As flesh dries and disappears, the snout of a dolphin turns into a facsimile of some power tool. Grimly, she watches herself in the mirror as she waits for her body to claim / this spare perfection. Is this a death wish? Or a kind of manifesto for anorexia? Either way it is a dark beginning which seems to be lightened by the second piece, ‘Rare old’, about Shackleton’s cache of whisky beneath Antarctic ice. But this is a very cleverly linked and coherent collection and the whisky & ice will reappear together in more sombre vein later in the book.
Rose’s poems often speak from a high vantage point: in ‘Globe’, for instance, she surveys both the world and her own history, giving a foretaste of some more personal elements still to come I’d frame it // with my hands – the way lovers later / would still my face. ‘Hemispheres’ also looks down, but on a town rather than a world. It is snowing – the sky dizzy / with flakes and children are packing / the cold into a man. This poem conveys a haunting sense of loss and displacement and leads into a reversal of viewpoint in ‘Taking Flight’ and ‘Migration’ which look upwards and speak longingly of flying away in a burr / of wings, joyous applause, / ascending into the blue. ‘Lost’, however, sinks back into a state of acceptance: things that are gone // are gone. Their ache is reliable.
The poems in this book are usually very accessible and ‘Miss Beckett’ is one of the few whose point I feel I may have missed. Nevertheless, I like days long and familiar / as razor shells and also a brief re-visit to the skeletal territory of ‘Collector’ – the skull of a rabbit, / licked clean and beaked like a bird. The mechanical imagery of the lines The year turns over / like an old engine and idles at her door is refreshingly original, even if anachronistic in a poem which otherwise reads rather like a Victorian romance.
A mood of rueful recollection is particularly well expressed in the strong sequence ‘Travelling light’. This begins with a child’s jigsaw picture of car headlights and moves on to reflections in a driving mirror: it’s as if the past has turned / hard and black like the road behind. And then suddenly we have moved through the back window of the car ahead to find it occupied by memories – the driver’s seat would know / the length of my leg just as my thigh recalls / the warmth of your hand. Yet at journey’s end each remembered image soaks into the road and is gone.
‘Fox crossing’ is also about driving and feelings aroused by the sight of an animal in the roadway. The tenderness of I wanted to // stop the car, bundle her / into my arms like laundry prepares us (but only a little) for what comes next – a group of deeply personal but remarkably good poems about conception and childbirth. Of these, ‘Labour room’ is (for the male reader at least) the most startling and ‘Minute Waltz’ the most poignant. Both deserve to be read in full and not trimmed here to a “soundbite” quote.
After this intensity comes a brief interlude including three fine ekphrastic poems and a rare light-hearted one, ‘Chinese’, which does for Cantonese food what the famous eating scene in the film Tom Jones did for Conference pears… After reading it, my attitude to spare ribs and seaweed has altered irretrievably.
The last third of From the Dark Room contains a series of beautiful poems about death and mourning. ‘Searching for “Sue Rose”’ is a brilliantly original way of dealing with a person’s struggle for self-acceptance after making an unbearably difficult choice. Its use of familiar internet terminology as a way of dealing with the too-painfully human is in clever counterpoint to the preceding poem ‘MRI’ which talks about a body-scanner’s magnetic-field in delicately naturalistic terms: Like the wind, unseen / but for sand strimming the beach. Throughout these last poems, the ashes of a loved one keep appearing – picked up from the parlour in a bag; in an urn as five pounds weight of variegated gravel; recalled during a concert as you whom we keep … in high rooms; and finally sent via the post office – pensioner’s queue, special delivery – to a laboratory to be turned into a gemstone fancy blue or yellow, octahedral, in the rough.
From a Dark Room is Sue Rose’s first collection; but it has all the maturity of a poet who has been working at her craft for many years.
Robert Stein’s The Very End of Air (Oversteps Books, 2011) is also a first collection in which there is much to admire, several things to be pleasantly surprised by and a certain amount of enjoyably teasing puzzlement.
Stein’s poetry, unlike Rose’s, seems largely focussed on ideas and observation rather than experience. He deserves admiration for his inventive and original imagery and language – particularly the odd apt but unexpected word. Examples abound. Men swimming together rip the water over each other in joy. / The water-spits are, in a blink, haloes there. A poem about the Annunciation, where we would traditionally expect a tranquil atmosphere, is interrupted by the kick and bash of emissaries. The art of Malevich is dismissed with I prefer haddock … It stinks out the modernists and their safe little right angles. A musical trill rings on like a recurring decimal. A poem inspired by sculptures of Richard Serra becomes a jagged verbal equivalent of his angular, hard edged or flexible structures: This disdainful crusting mucking ark / this arcing blether and smash of metal. ‘Boatbuilders at Larachbeg’ begins The shrouding sea hunts them, waits to haul them in – a neat reversal of men hauling in boats or fishermen hauling in fish. A woman says she has A needle for an axe / And an eyelash for a wing. The poet talks about leaves’ greening, / Their flip, send and rustle; / How they form their own pyres.
One of the causes for surprise is that the collection opens with several poems drawing on New Testament themes – hardly a fashionable subject. As a Christian, I welcome their presence – but I must also tell myself to beware of searching them for theology or testimony. What they do contain is energy and humanity – The Disciples have had enough of this. They’ve all gone swimming – and intriguing inversions such as If our eyes disbelieve us, shut them. They also contain questions which – if not new – have not yet become obsolete: What if the man said ‘Here is my blood’ – / And the whole crowd wavered and slunk away? (This actually is not so much a ‘What if’ – see the orthodox version in John 7: 53-66.)
Stein’s poems, however, often puzzle me in ways that Rose’s do not. Perhaps I should not be looking for an underlying narrative or “meaning”? ‘Happiness’, for instance, is full of the sharply specific and yet it remains opaque. When I fell over again it was ECT is perhaps a reference to epilepsy; but then what is one to make of Mary and all the saints cracking my red heart, ecstasy! a couple of lines later? Happily, the poems often remain on the acceptably intriguing side of puzzlement. Particularly satisfying are such “nearly-narrative” but enigmatic pieces as: ‘Scotland dead’ (In my craw / The names of two dreary, long-fingered English Lords); ‘A Despatch from the Nearest Planet’ (I thrust my hands in water but no splash.); ‘The Seasons’ (The world undoes a button, / Valleys lollop between hills.); and ‘The Clerk has not Called’ (I am very sorry for writing and for not writing too).
(Chance has provided me with my own “interpretation” for the poem ‘As if the Annunciation’. In the gallery notes for the Gerhard Richter exhibition, currently at Tate Modern, a series based on Titian’s (1535) Annunciation is described as one in which “the Annunciation dissolves into abstraction”; and a parallel is drawn with another series in which Richter similarly dissolves a photograph of a zoo-visitor killed by a lion. This rather eerily connects with the last lines of Stein’s poem I expected a beautiful daughter to come. / Only a leopard draws near.)
The book also presents me with some less-satisfying puzzles. These are associated with the poems whose titles seem to indicate quite specific historical connections – for instance ‘John Keats Replies’, ‘Turner at Porthcawl’ and ‘F.D. Strangled at Fairfield, August 1867’. These sit alongside others that are obviously fictitious (‘Beethoven in Camden Town, February 1911’) and some that are teasingly ambiguous – ‘The Visit (1938?)’. There are no notes to accompany these poems (an absence which has tempted me to question the authenticity of the supposed references). But if the references are genuine then Stein is either assuming (wrongly) that I will “get” them – or else he must believe I do not need to do so. If the latter, then I can only say that the titles act as a distraction because they make me want to “solve” the poems instead of reading them. This is a pity because they are often enjoyable to read. I liked the impulsive anxious sentences in the poems couched as letters – or perhaps as thoughts that lie behind the letters because they sometimes break off in mid-word or parenthetically comment on themselves. Interesting too are the recurring concerns about what it is, or is not, fitting to express: it was better not said; this must not be written of; I cannot say it. And, just as frequently, we also hear the poems summoning up the resolve to speak the possibly unspeakable: No let me say it later; So say it; I will say it.
For me, one of the most distinctive features of The Very End of Air is the persistent mention of God. Apart from the book’s opening poems, already discussed, many of the others are in voices from earlier centuries when Biblical language would have been more commonplace. But it is interesting that Stein has chosen to reflect this, since 21st century writers are too often inclined to put present-day sentiments into the mouths of supposedly historical characters.
It is by allowing religious language a place in their poetry that Stein and Rose arrive on a patch of common ground. Rose too is prepared to speak – at least provisionally – of the religious, although in a fairly oblique and understated way. As in Larkin’s ‘Church Going,’ there is mild regret in her description of an abandoned church: A pram crouches / flat by the altar, a dumb cricket; Burnt-out Renaults acquire / a crochet of rust; headlamps, dull / O’s like choir mouths. ‘Sample’ contains unexpected Biblical references: if this rain continues / … / I’ll still count as a pair / for the new ark; and you’d be / cloned back to me, child / and husband, when the waters fell / and the dove returned. In ‘MRI’ she describes a scanner working like faith coaxing blood from the eyes of a saint.
Stein is sometimes similarly understated in his references to the divine. The press of his absence which is greater love or O Saviour / You hold still in your wooden death might not seem out of place in an R.S.Thomas poem. But he is also prepared to “go for it” as in the splendid rhetorical catalogue Oh ex-Lord / help me now! Lion, lamb, ashes, fire, Virgin, unheard word / Rock, cross resurrection, flowering, water. Rose does not attempt such flourishes but the closing words of her poem ‘Arrival’ are no less powerful as they hold out a hope against hope of an afterlife reunion to redeem the suffering that has gone before. It’s all behind me now, the guilt, the blame – / I make my way to you and am reclaimed.
It is hard to think of a better ending.