London Grip Poetry Review – Martha Kapos


Poetry review – MUSIC, AWAKE HER: Edmund Prestwich admires both musicality and mutually illuminating images in a new collection by Martha Kapos


Music, Awake Her
Martha Kapos (with an afterword by Lawrence Kramer)
Two Rivers Press
ISBN: 9781915048189
126pp       £12.99

One of the great pleasures of Martha Kapos’ Music, Awake Her is the skill with which the poet orchestrates the movement of her lines. Her flair with metaphor is even more remarkable, and in many poems I found it a source of even keener delight, continually blowing the mind open to new ways of seeing. Two things about her approach stand out. One is that her comparisons are often deliberately far-fetched. Another is how often they involve not images of things but whole brief imaginative scenarios like snippets of film. In practice, of course, the gifts for handling the movement of the words and for creating active images work together. We see this in the first stanza of “The Sea Child”:

The sea was banging its crib.
It was rocking back and forth
in the small turmoil
of a child in a dark room alone.

Pounding stresses – ‘the SEA was BANGing its CRIB’ – bring that first startling image to life. In line 2, a rhythmic shift caused by a different distribution of stressed syllables – ‘it was ROCKing BACK and FORTH’ – gives a different feel to the words. There’s a weary flatness to the thumping. Saying or internally sounding the line we’re drawn into this sense of the tired hopelessness of the sea-child’s rocking. Then the shortness of line 3 emphasises a change of perspective. In ‘the small turmoil / of a child’, we’re seeing and thinking about the rocking from outside. The child wouldn’t see its turmoil as ‘small’. And finally the longer fourth line gives us time to look round the room, so to speak, absorbing its darkness and the child’s aloneness. The whole is made vividly strange by these changes in how we see things.

The life of the book is in its images. When abstract ideas are explicitly presented they’re presented in concrete terms, like this from the beginning of “She Dressed Him Entirely”:

Taking it down from the hook
with panoramic holes for his head and arms
she dressed him entirely

in the present moment 

‘Concrete’ is a slightly odd word to use, though, because Kapos’s metaphors are as fluid as they’re vivid, like a series of rapid cinematic cuts and dissolves. And the poet rarely offers interpretations or translations into abstract language. As a result, the term ‘metaphor’ also seems not quite right. Her poems project a sequence of images that shine through and are lit up by each other in a fluid, dazzling, open-ended dance of suggestions. What’s involved isn’t quite metaphor in the usual sense because instead of there being a hierarchy whereby one image or idea is explicitly a means of expressing or exploring another, all the images and ideas shimmer round and in and out of each other in a mutually illuminating but often elusive and mysterious interplay. Occasionally I found the elusiveness frustrating. More often, I found it alluring and imaginatively stimulating, my inability to decode the poem’s mysteries keeping it alive in the imagination.

The poet’s mind seems to be steeped in what used to be called ‘high culture’, with allusions to classical Greek and Roman literature and writers like Shakespeare, Proust, Bachelard, Rilke, Virginia Woolf and Wallace Stevens, as well as to near-contemporaries like John Ashbery and Robert Creeley and to visual artists. Her approach to such figures can have its own playfulness. “Albertine’s Mole”, for example takes up a detail from Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past when the narrator rather ponderously illustrates the fallibility of memory by his repeated failure to remember just where on her face Albertine has a beauty spot. Kapos plays with this idea by literalizing it – imagining the lover gazing at the sleeping girl’s face and actually watching the mole shifting about on it. But the playfulness is of a poker-faced, tonally elusive kind in which the poet’s attention seems totally focused on the precise articulation of the imagined situation and the series of wonderfully vivid images of people trying to find lost things in darkness that follows.

Music, Awake Her doesn’t merely mention music in its title, it’s actually organised along the lines of sonata form, divided into sections called “Exposition”, “Development”, “Recapitulation” and “Coda”, and has an Afterword by the musicologist and composer Lawrence Kramer. This is another link to the Modernist tradition of works like Eliot’s Four Quartets. Sadly, my own limitations mean I can’t really comment on how effectively this aspect works. My cast of mind very much predisposes me to focus more on details than larger patterns, individual poems rather than the shape of whole books, and I have no musical education. It will take a long time and many re-readings for me to get a properly living sense of the book’s overall shape.

What excited me was the sheer originality of the poet’s imagination as manifested in individual poems. I’d like to focus for a moment on one aspect of this originality. Many people have written poems based on Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne and her becoming a laurel tree. How many have as startling an opening line as Kapos’s ‘My fingertips are planning their escape’? The way the line brings Daphne’s fingertips to life as if they were people, making Daphne herself the wondering observer of the separate lives within her being, is just one example of a recurrent feature of Kapos’s writing. In “Lost in South Devon” we find

                               Spooling out
your eye unwinds your body
like a ball of string.
It goes about fast and far-flung.
It cruises the possibilities like a dog
let out first thing into the park.
Thought catching sight of thought
and pulling, it locks the mind
into being what it sees.

Now the world is entering your face ...

Everywhere in her poems, in fact, inanimate things, parts of the body and physical or mental processes spring to life in this way. That’s why the poems give such a strong sense of volatile, continuous activity, of moving in many directions at once, so that their suggestiveness is dynamic and open-ended. I expect to return to them many times, and always find new things in them.

I’d like to finish with one whole poem:

Night Music

Their voices are the muffled stuff of breath, a broken river

she can hear rustling its constant music behind walls

then hurrying their mouths through a door she can never keep

entirely shut, the whispering is running up the stairs

becoming louder more insistent on the landing

the flecked current bobbing half-submerged sofas and chairs

the sideboard, the mantelpiece, the dark theatre of the living room

where her parents sit: he facing her across the coffee table

the loud surface crowded with household goods rising

all the way up to her bed, never allowing her down

into the unseen where the stony sand hidden at the bottom

would be clear and yellow-lit – or so she’d like to think.

I imagine the literal situation behind this poem as involving a girl on the brink of sleep, trying to sink properly into it but kept half awake by her parents’ whispering. There’s a suggestion of some problem or anxiety in the life of the family, something she wants to escape in the peace of dreams, something perhaps to do with her parents’ materialism. The very shadowiness of this possible scenario makes it intriguing and because there’s no answer to the questions it poses it remains so. However, the real life of the poem is in the sheer suggestive force of its images and the vitality of language with which we’re drawn into the girl’s mind as the sounds she hears become what seem to be a series of hypnagogic hallucinations. The smooth, rapid, barely punctuated flow of utterance, undivided by peaks and troughs of emphasis or intonation, suggests how smoothly these hallucinatory images dissolve and reform. With normal spacing, they might have blurred into each other, but double spacing, framing each line as a distinct unit, holds each image to the light and lets the reader register them clearly. It also makes it easy to appreciate the beautiful rhythmic and phonetic shaping of the individual lines and phrases, and the masterly orchestration of the whole.