Thomas Ovans finds some good things in two recent small-press pamphlets

 

jeremy younghouses of the deadHouses of the Dead, Fawzia Kane,
Thamesis Publications
ISBN 978-0-9927040-6, pp 32   £6

 

The Wind’s Embrace, Jeremy Young,
Acumen Occasional Pamphlets 24
ISBN 978-1-873161-42-5,  pp 32    £3.50

 

 

Fawzia Kane’s Houses of the Dead comes from a new poetry press, Thamesis, and is an elegantly produced and well-conceived collection.  It is built around a pleasing and promising concept:  seventeen of the poems (written in a variety of styles) have titles of the form ‘House of the …’; and these are interspersed by half a dozen prose poems in the cool and world-weary voice of ‘The Surveyor’.  There are also several pages of photographs of architectural interiors.  Some of the poem titles are wonderfully imagined:  ‘House of the Penitent Bookseller’ and ‘House of the Vicar who Loved Too Much’ are just two of many intriguing examples.

Kane is an architect by profession and hence it is unsurprising that the poems are full of spatial awareness – There are no corridors, the rooms lead into more rooms. / Doors face other doors, this goes on for some distance.  But the reader will not always find the clarity that would normally be aimed for in plans and specifications.  Instead the house particulars and the surveyor’s comments are often teasingly oblique.

The apparent precision of the poem titles might lead us to expect narratives or mini-biographies.  But in fact the poems seldom tell us anything very specific about each house’s former occupant.  What, for instance, are the artefacts that pedestals with inscriptions classify in the House of Scholar’s Stones?  Or why, in the House of the Woman who could taste The History of Words, is the true shade of the walls … crimson, mottled like dried blood?  ‘House of the Doppelganger’ is a rather rare example where the linkage with the title is quite obvious:

So we expect this to be a house of mirrors
endlessly repeating views
into nothingness…..

Likewise, in ‘House of the Sculptor’ we learn that the house was an ill-fitting suit, it rattled her soul and this explains why the occupant first began to chip and comb the surfaces, until the shapes / slipped smoothly around her.

In a few cases, the notes at the back of the book give us some insight into a real identity behind an enigmatic title.  Would we otherwise have guessed that the Vicar who Loved Too Much was based on John Donne?  But then we come to the figure of The Surveyor; and what are to make of his underlying situation?  He seems inexplicably victimised or put-upon.  I do not know if my steps are followed, my sleep is watched, he writes in one of his later interpolations; and among his final words he regrets that your father, brothers, close ranks turn their backs on me.

Clearly we have to look for something else in these pieces besides miniature stories or puzzles-to-be-solved.  Perhaps we need to approach the book in another way.  For me, its calmly elusive language puts me in mind of the experience of leafing through a book of old, slightly fuzzy, black and white photos.  Indeed several of the poems, together with the atmospheric monochrome illustrations, seem actively to encourage and collude with this impression.  ‘House of the Man who was like One of his Specimens’, for instance, describes how

Photographs of the house and its rooms line the walls of
its corridors. Each image contains an image of itself, yet
in all there is something unique; replicas with errors in the
copying process.

This enigmatic collection is short enough to read at sitting and then return to.  There is much to enjoy in its haunting language and imagery.  Yet after several readings I was left feeling slightly at a loss. Perhaps this is what Kane intended.  But I remain troubled by a suspicion that I have failed to pick up various allusions I “should have” got and that I have missed some significant unifying thread between the poems.

 

Unlike Kane’s book, Jeremy Young’s The Wind’s Embrace consists of poems that are largely independent and free-standing; but they are also linked and well-ordered.  There is a clear trajectory to the collection: it begins with poems which look towards the world of nursery rhyme and myth and passes via some reflections on contemporary experience to a closing group of meditative and prayerful impressions.

Among the earlier poems, the optimism of the Ugly Duckling story is contrasted interestingly with darker thoughts aroused by an etching of Leda and the swan. This in turn leads into an evocactive reflection on how our age has lost something valuable that was in the classical myth-related view of astronomy.

Heroes and gods no longer run
through forests of stars

The mental tapestry
hung from the walls of heaven

has been chewed threadbare
by rationalistic moths.

The Greeks knew well enough that the earth is round, but Young points out that others among our forebears held beliefs which we have still not entirely shaken off even though they have been discredited.  If we think of death as a black ship that sails without a wind / into in uncharted waters then most of us are flat-earthers who visualise an edge that must fall off and hence  few volunteer for that journey.

Young is quite concerned about the power and the limitations of words.  In ‘Green Eyes Looking at Matisse’, he says I long to make the paper shout as loud as red but is forced to admit that words dress in black like soldiers’ feet.  Elsewhere he leaves us to muse on what he means by words are the mirror of silence and to wonder how this holds true alongside his memory of biology lessons at school when words were knives used  / to dissect a corpse.

About halfway through the collection Young begins to make more use of form and rhyme, often in connection with prayerful or meditative poems on spiritual themes.  Among the best of these are ‘Prayer for Peace’ (a villanelle which makes interesting use of punctuation in ringing changes on its repeated line  grant to us the peace of wild things) and the Lazarus/resurrection poem ‘When the Graves Opened’ whose intriguing final couplet  returns to the poet’s interest in the nature of words:

Words belong to the life before –
imagine the smile of a person fully alive.

Among the book’s closing poems are two which deal with the process of writing poetry – a topic which, I have to say, seems to have been rather over-worked by too many authors.  But while on the subject of poetic technique it does seem appropriate to mention that a good impressionistic piece ‘After the Storm’ is weakened by too much diffidence. The strong and promising lines

…. Between dark houses a square
of vivid cream coloured sky throws a spotlight
through early cherry blossom…

seem to me to be rather let down by what comes next:

…. making it seem
almost translucent like the tissues of a baby’s ear.

Why the seem?  Why the almost?   When not go for it and say making it translucent as the tissues of a baby’s ear?

There is however little diffidence in the collection’s splendid closing poem ‘The Secret Life of Books’ which contrasts with the relative solemnity of much that has gone before and reveals what books get up to when not being watched: I have surprised / staid volumes copulating on open shelves… And heard soft moans of passionate novels / breeding a second edition.  Here’s a splendid reminder that poetry doesn’t always have to take itself (too) seriously!

houses of the dead