Peter Ulric Kennedy finds Kate Noakes’ new collection to be an invigorating compilation of open verse with Parisian overtones.
In this collection of poems filled with wisdom and humour, Kate Noakes shows a mastery of her craft. And the trick is, this is very much Paris; every poem has a Gallic flavour. The places are real places, the parks and bridges are Parisian parks and bridges. The artifice lies in the language, which is often liquid and melanged. In ‘Square Barye’ (a small park on the tip of the Île Saint Louis):
The statue is all muscle lion, male can be turned to dust in a few swift blows
In the same poem a hint of unease:
The water faces the wrong way, evening light caught on the wake, the pilot blind everyone somewhere else
The book is arranged in three ample sections, History / Tragedy / Comedy, and to read through the Contents pages is a treat in itself. Noakes has a skill in formulating her arresting titles: ‘I found an egg on the Metro’, ‘Fatbitchfrom-hell’, ‘Stay here long enough and you will start to feel cold’, ‘Save the feather for your hat’; there are so many such that Noakes could construct a whole narrative poem from the titles alone. In the History section we find ‘Fresh breath and confidence’ – the final stanza of which is:
I intrude into the mouths of three women waiting for the train. Their teeth are radioactive and that’s never a good thing.
This neat twist in the last two lines refers back to “The green drink, apothecary fluid” standing lurid in a pharmacy window, so al-though there is a hint of Comedy here, and almost Tragedy, we can assume that it did happen and is in fact History. On the page opposite sits ‘When the Troubadour’, a beautiful short poem dedicated to Seamus Heany. The blackbird is calling him:
You mistake its knell, it is harbinger of urgent words, irresistible – gold the ferry-price, gold its beak gold its molten throat, so you admit it choose unplanned verses in praise while its arrows dart your flesh go tell, go tell.
This is lapidary story-telling. ‘Sur l’herbe’ deconstructs Manet’s painting in crisp, knowing lines:
It’s bad enough being stripped naked before lunch so these hungry men can argue the toss about the fall of light on my breasts whether it’s clearer on the left or right but they’ve been long enough for the brie to run and the bread to dry to a crisp.
The melting brie is so pointed and comic, yet there’s enough irritation in the lines to exclude ‘Sur l’herbe’ from the Comedy section. More anger in ‘Anne Frank’:
and yes, the world is stone stone, stoned, the murdered and me still dead no matter how many rowans you plant or how jolly the bunting.
This is confident, self-assured poe-try. ‘Let me give you a tip’ lives up to its title:
One might ask why, but if you’re going to have sex on a hot day, as well as the curtains do close the windows.
Sometimes she feels that enough is enough, as in ‘Scold’:
All this blah blah is filming my tongue as if I’ve drunk a litre of full-fat
or in ‘Je suis une autre’:
My mouth’s full of cotton rags. I’m tone deaf. So, forgive me if all I can do today is hum a little, honey.
Of course Noakes is in no way tone deaf, as instanced by these poems which are at the same time free and easy and serious. They cry out to be read aloud. ‘Horses and clothes, Vincent’ is free verse as exquisite as a Van Gogh painting, it needs to be read out in a single emotional rush, it needs an audience to hear and see it all:
there are umbrellas, it rains, the sky is blue night black, light glows yellow, shadows fall
The enjambment here is doubly effective in its auditory and visual imagery. Noakes can be brief as well as subtle. The twenty-three words of the poem ‘The fattest wood pigeons in Paris live in the geranium planter on my balcony’ constitute a composition marginally longer than its title. Music and musical instruments – a fiddle, a huqin, a piano – also slip their way into her verses, still rooted in a Parisian ambience, while betraying a musicianly sensibility. She becomes angry “Thin light. You expect me to kneel down and put my head on the block” and then she’s laughing again:
… a pair of yesterday’s knickers black ones. They could be a cleaning cloth for sunglasses large ones. I stuff them back.
Her technique is jaunty, even when her tone is serious. ‘Rue pavée’ reminds us how Parisian streets are today having to be protected from terrorism :
Every day I pass within two inches of a gun.
Some mornings I turn to avoid it. Don’t spook the soldier, who’s slung it across his chest. Finger on trigger. Ready.
The very last lines in her book are
Come closer love the word you seek is yes.
Yes. What a collection. I am totally convinced. Noakes is a true poet.