Pattern, Form(e), Song: Review by Fiona Moore
‘Interference Pattern’ by J.O.Morgan, ‘The Print Museum’ by Heidi Williamson and ‘Say Something Back’ by Denise Riley’
Review by Fiona Moore
J. O. Morgan’s Interference Pattern lives up to its name. A description of its unusual structure might be the best way in. Poems alternate between plain type and italics; there are gaps between them but no page breaks or titles. Let’s take a sample. An early poem is narrated by a swimming-pool guard rolling back the pool cover, remembering girls who drowned, wondering:
what may bob into existence
as I slowly turn the wheel to roll the dripping plastic back,
unlidding the water; how such a face might look, floating
framed within that soft flicker of blue;
The next poem starts:
it’s like the lights that flash across the face
of a fruit-machine so many colours that flare up
and go out so fast it’s as if they are all lit at once
all options coexistent till at a thumb’s punch just
one is picked out
The poem after that recounts a conversation with a man who doesn’t believe in the Big Bang.
Looking for connections, you might think of fate writ large and small and then very large indeed; or light flickering on water and in fruit machines. About what’s true and what’s real, how the mind constructs… and tries to make connections.
An interference pattern of form is set up too. Plain-type poems are presented as anecdotes or reminiscences in iambic, easy-flowing lines. The italic poems form meditations on pattern in paired verses, left- then right-justified, unpunctuated, heavily enjambed. Each first verse of these italic poems begins with ‘it’s like’ (what’s like?) while each second verse begins with a contradiction. The best of these (grain passing through a funnel, layers of chalk on a blackboard) read like gnomic fragments from some ancient philosopher.
Just as the reader gets used to this, the pattern’s disrupted; the italic poems change form and some become anecdotal. Individually some of these work well. I especially like one in which sheep turn into clouds and another in which a team researching the universe (the oddity of string theory!) loses its grant:
just try transporting eleven-dimensional furniture
in an incontrovertibly three-dimensional van.
But I feel that tension’s lost in the middle of the book; and poems such as ‘It’s not the aim..’ (golf) are less thought-provoking. Both pattern and tension return towards the end, for example in an environmental parable about a sea-raft of mysterious birds, or how much we don’t know:
… an oil slick, an ink blot, a leather
patch upon the ocean, slowly rippled
by the movement of water beneath.
Human behaviour is a common theme; in particular there are several sinister, violent poems about contradictory impulses to help and harm. The final poem is a Wildean fairy tale: at the cinema, a king experiences the mystery of human touch.
I expected Interference Pattern to be another narrative(ish) book-length poem like Morgan’s Natural Mechanical or Casting Off. I confess that, despite immediately loving some poems, it took me time to really get into this strikingly original, universe-spanning book. When I did it was very, very worth it.
The front cover of Heidi Williamson’s The Print Museum is in mirror writing – locked-up type in a frame ready for printing. It’s a good gateway to an approachable, engaging second collection which uses the history and rich vocabulary of printing to address questions of existence and human relationships.
This book makes you think about books, too, from the first lines of the first poem, ‘Out of print’.
The tree that haunts this page
spreads into place in your palm.
Here’s an opening both physical and in the mind; the book as spreading tree with leaves; the destructive origins of paper. Williamson finds many metaphors in printing, grounded in detail: ‘Once even the gaps between words / were leaden,’ she writes in ‘Furniture’ which invokes the ambiguous substance of tweets or Kindles and concludes ‘All absences hold their own / weight’.
Williamson’s father was a printer and the poems in the first half take printing as their primary subject matter, in homage to him and his nearly-lost world. His hands in ‘Span’
develop chemically-pitted crevices; split pink chasms.
resemble a repeatedly bombarded planet.
Several poems describe the sheer physicality of a profession which took seven years to learn – until after World War II when ex-servicemen, allowed to serve two, were known as ‘dilutees’, slang for unskilled workers who takes a skilled one’s job. That’s in the interesting glossary, half-a-dozen pages of printing terms, needed for this four-liner ‘Em dash’:
Dashed Emily Dickinson –
As printers we despair –
Of your disruptive pig bristles –
That strike apart the air –
‘Pig bristles’ is slang ‘for excessive hyphens and dashes in a text’.
There’s a nice typo in ‘The Case’: ‘For Plato’s cake / read cave’.
Williamson writes in free verse with some use of rhyme and easy, fluid line breaks that reinforce the thoughtful tone. She is versatile with form: couplets, tercets, long blocks, a sonnet or two, a J-shaped poem about a bridge. Sometimes she plays with text, notably in ‘Newton’s Rings’, an O-shaped poem halfway through the book marking a shift of subject to family relationships, though the use of printing terms as poem titles continues. The O represents a black-and-white sonogram of a baby in the womb, hard ‘to imagine… in full colour’ and the rings are a circular photographic flaw. Shape, title and subject matter come together strikingly.
In general I found my interest caught less by the second half. The first half’s printing theme works very vividly both in itself (detail, vocabulary, sense of a lost world) and as a source of metaphor; it makes things new. The conventional full collection length perhaps doesn’t suit The Print Museum. But there is strong writing in the second half. This is from ‘Lineage’:
I dream the child swallows beads,
and I’m mining her throat for a chain
that extends, cartoon-like, beyond
the length of her small frame.
When ‘A Part Song’, Denise Riley’s 20-part poem in response to the death of her son, came out in the LRB non-subscribers passed around photocopies, in awe at its scope and bravery. Mine’s still folded into her Selected Poems. We needn’t keep it that way now – the poem’s in Say Something Back, placed almost first so we read everything in its context.
Part xix begins ‘She do the bereaved in different voices’ and so Riley does: from that double echo of Dickens and T S Eliot to Shakespeare, Victorian hymns, Dickinson, Blake, W S Graham (from whom the book’s title comes) and even Lewis Carroll. Part xix characteristically contains different registers. After a not-quite-classical underworld reference, ‘finding any device to hack through / the thickening shades to you’ it ends:
Won’t you be summoned up once more
By my prancing and writhing in a dozen
Mawkish modes of reedy piping to you
– Still no? Then let me rest, my dear.
The poems convey tenderness, pain, desolation and random madness, but also grief’s absurdity and embarrassment. Language, rhythm and syntax often shift to match the changes. I can’t think of anything else that does it like this, with such relentless self-observation. That’s what’s brave about ‘A Part Song’ – and the whole book. Here’s three-fifths of ‘An awkward lyric’:
It sits with itself in its arms. Out of
the depth of its shame it starts singing
a hymn of pure shame, surging in the throat.
Riley may incorporate many voices but no-one writes like her. The Forward Prizes website (Say Something Back is shortlisted) suggests she’s the UK’s answer to the New York School. Her distinctive modernist voice, colloquial and highly intellectual, amused, lyrical and cool, still runs through this book. So does her interest in painting and colour. Part xi of ‘A Part Song’ addresses a bee bumping into the ‘clear garnet glaze’ of a fuchsia (with a typical pun, ‘Oh bee!’ almost pleading Oh be!). You don’t know what you’ll find next: a long poem on the absurdities of illness or a sonnet ‘Composed underneath Westminster Bridge’.
In ‘Death makes dead metaphor revive’ Riley examines the cliché of stopped time using cold, hard imagery. Ice and end-stopped lines work against rhyme’s forward flow:
I parrot under feldspar rock
Sunk into chambered ice.
Language, the spirit of the dead,
May mouth each utterance twice.
The strong iambic beat and full rhymes echo Victorian hymns. I was hearing ‘Time like an ever rolling stream’; Riley mentions Isaac Watts to Kelvin Corcoran, interviewing her for Shearsman magazine in 2014.
After reading most of Say Something Back, this single experience of bereavement fills the world. But the book ends with poems about the first world war dead – expanding one mother’s grief into thousands, and thousands.
It’s as though Denise Riley pulled various literary pasts to her in order to write into the grief, not in mitigation but to be able to go on living with it. ‘A Part Song’ begins
You principle of song, what are you for now ..?
while in the Shearsman interview she says: ‘The only constant is a commitment to the thing that is song. This is in some way linked to the persistence of hope.’