Gapping the Bridge / Bridging the Gap: Review by Clare Shaw
‘There Will be No More Nonsense’ by Lorraine Mariner, ‘The World Before Snow’ by Tim Liardet and ‘Fauverie’ by Pascale Petit
Review by Clare Shaw
I like the sound of Lorraine Mariner. I like a woman who appreciates a cup of tea. And I loved Furniture, her first collection. I loved the freshness and confidence of her writing; how that collection trotted up onto the high stage of British poetry and danced like no-one was watching. Mariner’s second collection There Will be No More Nonsense came weighted with high expectations.
It suffers under that weight. Imagine having a blurb that advertises you as ‘one of the sharpest and most distinctive new voices to have emerged in English poetry for years’, which claims ‘penetrating psychological insight’. It’s easy to fall short, and poems like ‘February’ do.
The direct evocative question in the first stanza ‘What does that bird / have to sing about / at 3.30 in the morning?’ is weakened by the end and the impulse to tie the poem up and finish too neatly: ‘…Oh green! / Green, green, green. Recollect with me.’
I’m similarly unconvinced that the acrostic ‘Tea’ –
is anything other than a moment of inspiration in a workshop, or a line in a longer poem. But I don’t want to be the poetry equivalent of the dinosaur who doesn’t get modern art. It’s too easy and well, stupid. So I went back for an eleventh go. And maybe because I was sitting in a playground and the sun was shining, I started to get it. It started to work.
It’s not all my fault it took so long. There Will be No More Nonsense is not Furniture. It’s less direct and fresh. It’s slower, sadder, more reflective. It lacks the punch and consistency of Furniture.
But I think she has been wrongly described. ‘Waterloo East’, ’02’, ‘Strangers’ and ‘Tollbooth Attendant’ were never intended to be ‘psychologically penetrating’. Instead, they are heavy with love. Moving away from a deadpan lack of affect, in these poems Mariner is a contemporary romantic, finding beauty and poetry in unexpected, everyday places.
Those people who talk
who make eye contact
with absolutely everyone –
their souls have a lid
perhaps or lashes
some form of protection
When you deal in simplicity and reportage, there will occasionally be moments of ‘so what?’ which is how I initially felt about several of the poems. However, in these poems, the colour isn’t on the surface. You have to stare for a long time. Sometimes, the so-what-ness is exactly the point, because the joy and poignancy of life is played out in the small moments, in the interactions between people and things and nothing in particular.
Lorraine Mariner’s skill of choosing which slices of real life to offer up to the reader with little translation or embroidery – relying only on their placement and dissection – lifts this collection. It will stay in my memory longer than its apparent lack of imagery first led me to expect.
Tim Liardet has nine previous collections and a string of awards, and with a New and Selected Poems on the way, his place in the canon of literature is well established.
In the image-laden The World Before Snow, I am back on familiar territory. Language this rich and carefully sculpted is undeniably poetic. But the landscape of this collection is anything but comfortable. Describing a love affair which begins in a Boston blizzard, in ‘one thousand five hundred squares of uncertainty’, the poems are dense with sensation, image, metaphor. It is easy to get hopelessly lost, and I did.
Described by Carcanet as ‘a book of passionate extremes’, ‘Self-Portrait with Goffstown Deep Black and Sun-Up Intensity’ and indeed the largest part of the collection, speak of how ‘love / is the havoc at which you cannot balk’. This havoc is addressed, prodded and illuminated in a series of portraits. Liardet speaks of extraordinary experiences with an extraordinary level of attention and caution. Every word is weighted; sometimes, this leaves the poems caged.
Let me hesitate, simper, be afraid, who heard
you speak of your death dream, how you were coming awake,
startled awake, uncloistered in that state, by the thought
of something white exhaling its last exhalation,
a whiteness, simulacrum, a death, you said it was,
a death that made you afraid to ever go back to sleep.
‘Self Portrait with Dreamwhite and the Ignominy of Dying’
Again and again, Liardet does not evoke the great passions of which he speaks, but rather, the confusions, the abstractions, the circular obsessions which the passions give rise to. These poems are frequently misted, the quick contradiction and indirect linking of thought and imagery leaving the meaning just out of reach: as the poet says in ‘Self Portrait with Blind-Hounding Viewed in Panoramic Lens’, ‘something between yellow and yellow’. This is a long collection, and after seventy seven pages of mist and confusion, I was hungry for more clarity.
The obscuring of narrative and meaning translates to loss of impact. Though the writing is undeniably skilful, many of the poems function like an out-of-focus photograph, like beautiful music which cannot quite be heard, as in ‘Self-Portrait with Aquarium Octopus Flashing a Mirror’
… I don’t know what it is I’ve got
but here’s the centre, the centre where it is. And you a man, a woman,
it says, and you neither or nothing at all—a smudge in need of an apogee.
Whilst having your head blown off by poetry is not always the point, Pascale Petit’s Fauverie blew mine off nonetheless. Heavy with the most intense emotions, the collection traces the death of her abusive father through a sequence of fifty-four poems. Throughout her writing career, Petit has written about the most difficult subjects, drawing on many of the resources offered by language to bridge the gap between the reader and what might otherwise remain inexpressible.
That does not mean that her writing is simple or ever banal. The world of imagery and mythology which Petit draws from is astounding in its range, colour, life and density. At points it is almost unbearably rich. If you like your poetry pared back, this collection will probably give you indigestion. And whilst many of the poems left me breathless and shaking, they were worth it.
There are secrets only a father can tell you –
how your heart is a creature
that must not be startled, and your lungs
its wings beating in your chest.
‘Lungs (Father Speaks)’
Neither is Petit’s storytelling anchored to image; rather, imagery lets language take flight. Whilst at times the flood of imagery seems to veer near loss of authorial control, on closer reading the poems are tightly controlled and highly structured. Petit uses rhythm to create structure and on those occasions when she doesn’t work within the music of the language, the effect of that apparent loss of control is intimate and revelatory. You feel you’ve been let into a secret, as in ‘Lapin a la Moutarde’
I’m biting into my apple tart as you announce
You no longer have a mother.
There’s the story to work out of how you know –
the phone call from my brother when he couldn’t reach me at home
and had a hunch I’d be here, my three secret days alone
in Paris before I revealed my arrival.
There’s a reel in my head of a leopard
who doesn’t know what to do with the gift of a rabbit.
The narrative of this collection is terrible, and witnessing it is viscerally painful. What holds this story together is a level of skill even more astounding for its lack of obviousness; poems appear as random moments but, in their focus and placement, inexorably move the narrative along, sometimes inching, sometimes leaping, from the letter which arrives and ‘keeps on arriving’ in the opening poem, through to
my father’s tongue
wet on my neck
as I fell into a gulch,
the blackout of his mouth.
‘Black Jaguar at Twilight’
Throughout the book there is a slowed and interrupted chronology towards the terrifying inevitability of his death
They are hungry, and you
only have one hour left of that wick
in the centre of your being
‘How to Hand-Feed Sparrows (Instructions to My Father)’
and to the extraordinary denouement of its consequence and resolution. And so the reader is rendered active in creating the story – and the father.
The songbirds in this collection are frozen and are part of a long list of brutalised and silenced creatures but Petit continues to sing, sing, sing. In doing so, she allies herself to a tradition of writers who achieve the alchemical transmutation of pain into something beautiful.
Petit marks her father’s passing with one of the most extraordinary declamations of loss, celebration, courage and compassion I have ever read. And what, and why is poetry? This.
I tolled in Sabbaths. I raised
my father’s life to its hoists and rang him until I was deaf.
I proclaimed peace after bloodshed.
THE WORLD BEFORE SNOW by Tim Liardet, 77pp, £9.99, Carcanet, Alliance House, Cross Street, Manchester M2 7AQ
FAUVERIE by Pascale Petit, 72pp, £9.99, Seren, 57 Nolton Street, Bridgend, Wales CF31 3AE