Describing Absence: Review by Kim Moore
‘Painting The Spiral Staircase’ by Anne Caldwell, ‘Releasing The Porcelain Birds’ by Carmen Bugan and ‘Brother’ by Michael and Matthew Dickman
Review by Kim Moore
Painting the Spiral Staircase by Anne Caldwell begins with a poem called ‘Losing the Language’. It explores what happens when a childhood language is lost. This is a startling poem to begin with and sets out a theme that is explored elsewhere in this collection – that words are powerful, powerful enough to conjure up memory and images. Each word remembered is an ‘amber bead, each with a trapped creature / longing to flex its wings.’
The collection is bookended by two sequences, ‘After Image 1’ at the beginning and ‘After Image 2’ at the end. These two sequences were first published in a limited edition art book of 30 copies for an exhibition at the Emerson Gallery in Berlin in 2013.The first sequence explores Aberdeen, and the second Berlin, through the eyes of the poet, who retraces her father’s footsteps, visiting the places that he photographed.
Both sequences paint vivid pictures of the two cities. In ‘ii. The Docks’ we read ‘Dad photographed / three submarines moored in the harbour’ and ‘the herring fleet with his Leica / and a wide-angle lens, his feet slipping on blood and fish guts.’ By the time we get to ‘After Image Two’ these detailed descriptions have become more insubstantial, more fleeting. This sequence starts ‘My father’s city is full of gaps’. The gaps are both the way the absent father, who we learn died whilst the speaker of the poems was young, the traces of the life he lived there, and also the way the city has changed as well. It is a startling statement when contrasted with the many physical details the poet relates in the sequence:
Here’s the manhole cover
pungent and oddly sweet
The absence of both the father, and other men is a theme that runs throughout this collection. This is seen most clearly in the sequences about the father, whose presence is drawn through the urban landscape that he took pictures of. In “vi. I Spy’ we read ‘Gran says, sit still in church, / your father’s gone to a higher place’.
In ‘Blackstone Edge’ Caldwell writes ‘There was a time on the moor / when you said you loved me and meant it’ before the ‘you’ climbs back into his van and drives back to ‘Samantha in Milnrow’. The poem is no only concerned with this, but also with things that were not said and what might have changed if the truth had been spoken:
If I could travel back in time
I would argue for love,
state my case for the defence
Many of the poems in this collection brush against pain before swiftly moving on. In ‘Pennine Watershed’ the middle stanza reads
Here’s the bridge where I sat down and wept
as my husband packed a rucksack
stuffed with woollen things,
quietly pulled the backdoor shut,
its frame swollen by the winter rains.
Anne Caldwell chooses to use photography to examine the past. In Releasing the Porcelain Birds Carmen Bugan uses thousands of secret police files kept on her family when they lived under Romanian secret police surveillance. Poems are interspersed with excerpts from secret police files and the tension and pressure of living as an ‘Object of Observation’ (‘We are museums’) is explored in these sinister and exacting poems.
The collection is divided into three sections. The first section ‘Found in Secret Police Records’ is extraordinary, and the collection would be worth buying for this section alone.
In ‘We are museums’ Burgan writes ‘The inside of our souls / Was turned out like the lining of coats hung out to dry’. The strength of this poem, and the collection as a whole, is the mix of this more abstract language and philosophising on the damage to the soul, and the focus on the real and practical things that happened during this time:
There are records of us eating sour soup and polenta, drinking linden tea,
Mother knitting sweaters at two in the morning to exchange for eggs
And flour; you will find her sitting on the bed ‘alone by herself
Talking to no one for many hours,’ framed forever in the state archives.
As well as the police transcripts, the past is recreated through letters between her family and her father while he is imprisoned. There are many instances where Bugan admits she has no memory of the day detailed in the police transcript. In ‘Found in secret police records’ the transcript records, through the use of secret microphones inside the house that her father had a pain in his heart. The poem finishes
I see us in our small kitchen that first night standing around each other
Not knowing what to say. The image disappears into these thousands of pages.
I no longer remember the pain in my father’s heart. It was long ago.
In 1989 the five members of the Bugan family were allowed to leave Ceauşescu’s Romania with one suitcase each and death-threats in their wake. The second and third sections of the book deal with the aftermath of what happened, and life outside Romania. My one caveat with this collection is that the rest of the collection does buckle a little under the weight of this powerful first section. The poems in these sections are more expansive and contain some beautiful imagery, but I found them, possibly inevitably, less compelling than the first section. Having said that, perhaps one of my favourite poems in the collection is the last poem, detailing a conversation between the speaker and her son, when he asks her ‘to buy the whole apartment, with walls and windows,’
The speaker says
‘… There will be other windows
That will show us other things, don’t worry about owning
One. In having none we have all of them:
Like countries and like languages.’
I’ve been looking forward to ‘Brother’ ever since I heard about it. In the competitive world of twinship (and I should know – being one, but thankfully, my sibling does not write poetry) this book, divided in half with each twin using half the space to write about the death of an elder brother by suicide seemed like an extraordinary act of generosity. I was interested to see how this would work as a collection, as the two brothers have quite different writing styles – Matthew’s poetry is often wildly exuberant, falling down the page in long rushing columns, with images that leap off the page:
It’s the kind of music to make love to
a tall skinny woman who works all day at the public library,
her breasts roaring like the two lions outside.
whilst Michael’s feels more measured, more careful, with the use of space being as important as language:
I wish I could look down past the burning chandelier inside me
where the language begins
to end and
The extraordinary poem ‘Trouble’ by Matthew Dickman is a list of the nature of the suicide of various famous people: ‘Marilyn Monroe took all her sleeping pills / to bed when she was thirty six’. The poem cycles through the deaths of Marlon Brando’s daughter, Stanley Adams, Kathy change, Bing Crosby’s sons, Gilles Deleuze, Ernest Hemingway and more before reaching the death of his brother: ‘My brother opened / thirteen fentanyl patches and stuck them on his body / until it wasn’t his body anymore.’ This is followed by at first a line that seems flippant: ‘I like / the way geese sound above a river’ but for me, echoed the way the mind works when trying to deal with trauma, leaping off into distraction.
In both Michael and Matthew’s poetry, the older brother is mythologised into a hero, albeit a flawed hero. Matthew does this through aligning him with various celebrities. In ‘More Than One Life’ he writes ‘John Wayne is looking down at him and so is Greta Garbo’. But he also writes ‘In this life / nothing inside him wants to pull a knife, load a gun, open a package / of pain killers.’ Michael also makes his brother into a flawed hero – in ‘Dead Brother Superhero’ he writes ‘His super outfit is made from handfuls of oil garbage blood and pinned / together by stars’.
Matthew Dickman’s poetry often tries to walk in his brother’s footsteps, to understand the compulsion. When he writes in ‘I Feel Like the Galaxy’:
‘You have not died yet. Instead,
you are walking down Thirteenth Avenue
drinking your coffee,
thinking about death, all the different ways,
all the opportunities glimmering
ahead of you, thinking about the woman
who poured your coffee’
it is both shocking to read it, and a revelation, that death can be thought of as an opportunity, rather than an ending.
I didn’t expect to enjoy Michael Dickman’s poetry as much as Matthew’s, but my mind was completely changed by the end of this collection. There is an obsessive circularity, and if you like your poetry surreal, then you will enjoy his work. The image of flies is developed throughout the book. Each section in ‘False Start’ starts with the line ‘At the end of one of the billion light years of loneliness’. One continues ‘My mother sits on the floor of her new kitchen carefully feeding the flies from her fingertips’ and another continues ‘My father trains the flies to walk from one end of his fingers to the other’. The flies are a strangely benevolent force, and part of the process of coping with grief, and this unusual idea is developed throughout the collection.
This is extraordinary writing, full of compassion and grief, but not without humour. The two books meet in the middle, but there are many ways that they knit together, through the absent brother, the recurring imagery of superheroes and celebrities, and through the two different approaches of coping with grief.
Kim Moore’s first full-length collection The Art of Falling was published by Seren in 2015 and a poem from this collection was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Published Poem. Her first pamphlet If We Could Speak Like Wolves was a winner in the 2012 Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition. She received an Eric Gregory in 2011 and a Northern Writers Award in 2014.