Although very different in tone, the recent collections by Kathryn Maris and Maitreyabandhu have more in common than first appears

God Loves Youmaris god loves you
by Kathryn Maris
Seren, 2013
ISBN 978-1-78172-035-6
pp 64 £8.99

 

 


T
he Crumb RoadMaitreyabandhu_Crumb
by Maitreyabandhu
Bloodaxe, 2013
ISBN 978-1-85224-974-8
pp 80 £9.95

 

 

It is rather unusual to come across a contemporary English poetry book where God appears in the title and in many of the poems.  By calling her new collection God Loves You, Kathryn Maris confronts her readers with a take-it-or-leave-it statement of orthodox Christian doctrine. The theology inside the book is somewhat less orthodox(!); but it is elegantly, intriguingly and colourfully expressed.  And her frequent – bold, subversive, irreverent – inclusion of God in her poems does at least admit the possibility of a transcendent component to everyday life.

Maitreyabandhu in The Crumb Road makes a similar acknowledgement of the existence of a spiritual dimension to everyday life: but he does so in more understated meditative ways, befitting his Buddhist background.  His poems often work by being quietly contemplative and proceeding from the outward appearance of an event to an exploration of what might lie behind it.  Such exploration may include – as it does for Maris – an element of self-examination and an uncovering of matters that might have remained private. (It should be remembered in this context, however, that poetry may or may not be autobiography.)

The opening section of God Loves You declares itself to be mainly concerned with lateral relationships between neighbours.  God is, however, often present as an observer who takes a view on human behaviour and is probably aware of any shortcomings:

 I love my neighbours and I think God would love me for this.
But I covet my neighbours too and God might proscribe this if he had laws

“Confessional” remarks like this reappear in several of the poems, often in a rather conversational tone with long loose sentences.  The looseness is deceptive, however, because Maris’s writing is actually tightly and knowingly controlled even when it expresses anxiety and ambiguity.  A fine example is ‘Darling Would You Please Pick up those Books’ with its tumble of grievances:

                              …  NO I don’t “feel
like I need more medication” it’s the books
don’t you see don’t you see it’s her
why don’t you listen to anything I say
and for God’s sake books on the floor
are a safety hazard….

This poem is a well-crafted sestina which deserves great credit for not making itself obvious until well into the poem (unlike many instances of this form which declare themselves crashingly and ploddingly from the first few lines of the second stanza!).

We also learn from the poems in the first section that the mere existence of neighbours carries with it the possibility of loss (‘On Returning a Child to her Mother at the Natural History Museum’) and even betrayal (‘Why I Will Gladly Take Your Man Away’).   But, in spite of this, Maris seems to find them strangely indispensable: in fact Hell could be… ignorance of the proximity of our neighbours.

God is much more in the foreground in the second section which begins and ends with prose poems set out columnwise in numbered verses, as in an old-fashioned Bible.  A single extract shows how Maris skilfully hovers between mystery and pseudo-mystery

5.    The next sign,  too  was  full  of
meaning.  It was a sign.  And it was
revealed to me thus: The Danut Estate.
And in that name I read these words;
‘Deus te amat’

Notwithstanding this Latin encouragement, fears of loss and abandonment keep resurfacing.  For instance, in ‘Iconography’

      The woman feared that the man
would walk away, but the man feared not
that she would walk away.

Maris creates unexpected overlaps between human activity and divine associations.  ‘Doubting Thomas’ is about emotional confusion in a romance rather than uncertainty in faith.  ‘Last Supper’ is not a preliminary to resurrection but rather a meal which ends with the poet finding I could hardly rise from the table again after being battered with such questions as did I know I have a limitless need for affirmation.  Unfortunately, God seems to be of little help in dealing with either guilt or anxiety.  In ‘My Father Who Art in Heaven’ He sits under the umbrella that is his firmament but which is not much shelter to anyone / but him.  Even in ‘Why’, which pictures Him planning the act of creation, God seems not to be wholly in charge of events:

There was no time
and then there was –
too much time –
and as I have eyes
on the back of my head
I saw it all:
the beginning, the end
and all the carnage
in between.

The book’s final section continues to draw on themes from what has gone before without breaking very much new ground.  ‘Legacy’ returns to cosmology and creation (The Lord said / “Let there be / imperfection “/ and there was). Insecurity and fears of loss re-assert themselves in ‘The Devil Will Find Work for Idle Minds’ (On the beach, every blonde is the girl / he’ll leave me for) and again in ‘If You Relive a Moment You Cannot Outlive It’ which is perhaps the strongest poem in the last third of the book:

Is it possible to sue the past for medical damages?
I hope so because I have an ulcer
from the love I felt for you and …
… the prolonged stress and anxiety over what
you felt for me, which seemed to be nothing

Maris writes highly readable but enigmatic poems which seem to invite interpretation rather in the way that scripture does.  The reader is teased with a sense that there must be an underlying narrative that can explain, for instance, the periodically-mentioned guilt and grief of the woman described as The One Who Came Before You.  Maris is clearly concerned with serious subjects: the loss or theft of love; uncertainty about whom to trust; and even doubts about one’s own trustworthiness. And yet, within the poems, there is also a puzzling tension between seriousness and playfulness.

Playfulness appears in the strangely wordy titles and in the diversity of forms and styles. Besides the quasi-Biblical numbered paragraphs Maris also works with very short lines {‘Legacy’) and very long ones (‘Angel with Book’).  She offers one poem based on car number plates and others which work with permutations of words and phrases (‘The Tall Thin Tenor’ and ‘Variations on Melissanthi’s Atonement’).

In the end, however, in spite of such seemingly jokey elements, the chief impression left by these clever and original poems is one of gamely persistent hope meeting recurring disappointment.  This is summed up in the final poem ‘Street Sweeper’ which concludes The sweeper smiles at me lovingly // like the silent god,/ the one with the message I cannot hear. (And we note that by this stage in the book God has lost His capital letter.)

Maitreyabandhu’s The Crumb Road is less varied in mood and style than God Loves You and most  of the poems feel calm and controlled, by virtue of their regular stanza patterns. The collection opens with a stream-of-consciousness reflection beginning at a concert and proceeding, by a chain of free-associations, to childhood memory and a half-remembered story about a Polish village. The memories are intriguingly elusive and leave the reader to wonder what untold stories might be implicit in such fragments as his pockets full of tissues where we’d later / find the keys.

The childhood memories in this poem are picked up as the main theme of the book’s first section. ‘Burial’ is a strong – in more ways than one – recollection of a bizarre incident; but recollection undercuts itself towards the end:

But that isn’t right,
I’ve made it up or rather I’ve mistaken
my father’s story for the thing itself.

‘The Coat Cupboard’ also consciously subverts another cliché of childhood – the magical story which begins in the familiarity of one’s own home (e.g. in a wardrobe).

You don’t push your way through to discover a landscape
where beavers can talk.

 Instead

… Your fingers, which have become
unaccountably small and white, ferret in the pockets
of a waxed raincoat …
And there are shadows between the coats, long scarves
of shadows that disappear when you touch them.

(Later on, we learn that You find a set of keys and thus we are reconnected to one of the mysterious lines in an earlier poem.)

Maitreyabandhu beautifully sustains a mood of half-understood reminiscence and the poems reveal more about the poet’s complex relationship with a father who had a passion for reclaiming abandoned artefacts. Using regular and metrical stanzas, the poet ‘tells good stories’ whose details are sharply captured: each spade full reeked of rusty tin; a carved owl has wild, dartboard eyes. And yet the questioning keeps returning: … unless that was later, when we kept chickens …?

The first section ends with the layered and dream-like piece ‘The Small Boy and the Mouse’ which is one of several prize-winning poems in the book. This leads very effectively into a second group of poems which are essentially meditations triggered by contemplation of an object or a place. These range from delicate miniatures like ‘Still Life with Geranium’ to the long dreamy narrative ‘Rangiatea’ with its intriguing opening line The sea was grey but the island was missing.  Sometimes the contemplated object  is a painting; and there is a thoughtful group of poems about Cezanne.

The mood changes in a sequence of four prose poems where the stillness of the earlier pieces gives way, rather surprisingly, to a more unsettled atmosphere. ‘Mariner’, for instance, begins peacefully enough with He set himself the task of finding perfect neutral without exaggeration or colouring-in ; but it ends with a man running down flight after flight of metal steps until he reached a smoke-filled engine-room.

From time to time, Maitreyabandhu’s ouward -looking meditations move inward into self-examination.  In ‘Sierra Aitana’ he observes

this bird among the branches
constantly glancing up
like a foreigner dining alone
in a strange hotel;
and me sitting in the sun –
a narrow text of rancour
running through my heart.

This confessional element – much milder than anything in  God Loves You – prepares the way for the book’s final section, entitled ‘Stephen’, which deals with  a boyhood relationship that was both secretive and eventually tragic. In telling this story, Maitreyabandhu deploys the very distinctive narrative and descriptive skills he used in part one. A brook sounded like someone filling in a form, / writing all the answers with a pencil and an aviary is filled with budgerigars like multi-coloured child size owls.  His repetitions of unfamiliar place names – Crockett’s Lane, Lodder’s field – make us feel Included in the recollected experiences.

The poems in this final sequence work in the same way that memory works.  They are fragmentary and nonlinear.  The climax to the bare, factual version of the story comes about half-way through; but it is surrounded by verbal snapshots of instants and incidents whose accuracy and sharpness of focus are never quite taken for granted.  Moreover the glimpsed recollections are authentically interspersed by what-ifs and attempts to make sense of – or even find compensations for – the sadness in the story.

This powerful closing sequence includes one of only a few poems which make an overt mention of anything “religious”.   ‘The Garden’ (an oblique reference to Eden?) deals with what happened after we did it under the hedge.  The last verse begins that night I prayed to Jesus and ends I prayed no one would ever know.  It is interesting that, by the very fact of being written, the poem declares that the time has come to countermand that boyhood prayer.

                                                                                                          Michael Bartholomew-Biggs