On Curiosity and Interconnection: Review by Rachel Chanter
‘A Bright Acoustic’ by Philip Gross, ‘Void Studies’ by Rachael Boast, ‘On Balance’, by Sinéad Morrissey
Review by Rachel Chanter
In 2014 the word ‘Anthropocene’ was formally codified into our language through its inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary. The term itself contains within it a radical suggestion: that we have entered a new era of geological time in which the predominant factors influencing the world we live in are dictated by human activity. Negative as such a revelation might seem, however, we may learn an important lesson from the Anthropocene. If the activities and fate of human beings are inextricably linked to the ecosystem of our planet, then we are challenged to acknowledge the profound interconnectedness of all things. While any solution to the global environmental crisis must necessarily be scientific in its underpinnings, the broader project of inspiring humans to a more ecological approach in our thoughts and actions is one which must engage us on an emotional and imaginative level. It is for this reason that culture – art, music, stories, and poetry – must play an important role in the challenges of the coming years.
Elision of boundaries, imaginative leaps and curiosity about all experience, both human and nonhuman: the tools which will serve us well in generating an ecological consciousness are found in abundance in the three collections here reviewed. No stranger to exploring uncharted territory, Philip Gross continues his pursuit of articulating in-between spaces that has been the hallmark of his work since his T. S. Eliot award winning collection The Water Table in 2009. A Bright Acoustic is a collection that seems interested in everything, its focus leaping dextrously from the eerie image of an offshore wind farm in ‘Windfarm at sea’ (‘as if we’d stumbled on the pale machinery // that drives the weather’) to observing construction workers in ‘Descaffolding’ (‘tipped-slipped from hand / to hand, one long trickling / cadence’). The joy and the challenge of Gross’s work is that its project is to make strange every image it presents, resisting language which, while it conveys immediate meaning, is complicated by all the attendant preconceptions and associations it gathers through use. Accordingly, the gulls in ‘Mew’ do not call or cry but are given a fresh onomatopoeia; a skateboarder’s low-slung jeans are ‘bum-hung britches’ in ‘A Cadence’; the notes of a wren’s song are ‘gloopy swags’ in ‘Wren Time’, part of ‘Time in the Dingle’, the long poem which forms the backbone of this collection.
‘Time in the Dingle’ deals directly with the slipperiness of the naming of things. Having already replaced the more recognisable word for a small wooded valley, ‘dell’, with the pleasingly cartoonish ‘dingle’ (a word with roots in Middle English, meaning variously dungeon, pit and abyss), Gross struggles to further circumscribe the physical space with language – ‘. . . cleft / cleave coomb chine’ – but ultimately acknowledges contradictory power of a name: ‘dingle – there, I’ve said it. Yap-dog in the leaf-mould. / We can call its name but it won’t come to heel.’
Running to 93 pages, this omni-curious collection – as preoccupied with a fragment from Heraclitus as with the weeds in a railway verge – can feel overwhelming, and rightly so. The relationship between word and object, sound and image, is tirelessly questioned from a multiplicity of angles, as in the ambitious ‘Specific Instances of Silence’, which flits from a child learning about the relationship between spoken and written language (‘he knew that ‘cancer’ has two Cs’) to contemplating the silence before the creation of the universe (‘before / the light there was the listening’). The resultant cacophony immerses the reader in an ecology of experience and impression that bears more than one reading to appreciate its full scope.
Similarly ambitious, though more stringent in concept, is Rachael Boast’s Void Studies, a realisation of ‘a project that the French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud had proposed, but never got round to writing’, as the blurb tells us. The Études Neantes were to be poems resembling musical études (short convoluted instrumental compositions designed for the practice and perfection of musical skill, usually on the piano) whose goal would be to ‘summon the abstract spirit of their subject’ rather than to convey any direct meaning. Within these parameters, Boast’s project succeeds admirably, and the resultant collection is a meditative succession of images which, through their multiplication and superimposition, begin to convey the titular negation Rimbaud presumably had envisaged.
Three quarters of the volume are taken up with the unvaried structure of the ‘Void Studies’ themselves – unpunctuated poems of five two-line stanzas – and these are followed by a brief sequence of twelve sonnets under the subtitle ‘Poems of the Lost Poems’. The sparsity of the poems on the page creates a curiously flat surface, upon which their archetypal language floats. No jarring descriptions or unorthodox subjects here: stars, snow, sunlight on water, doors, dreams, keys and mirrors form the palette. The first poem of the collection, ‘Afterlife’, sets the tone, opening with ‘Late nights like unopened letters’, a simile that amounts almost to a poetic commonplace. Yet this restriction of imagery is reserve rather than cliché, and serves to lull the reader’s mind into a state of open receptiveness, evasive of an active pursuit of meaning. The language is almost unvaryingly slow, heavy and sensuous:
Stepping through the last of the sky
Held by half-asleep mirrors
Of the rain storm along the path
By the river
The effect is hypnotic, almost soporific, and it’s easy to find that you have lost the thread of a poem halfway through. Each tends to set up a physical locale or anchor in the first few lines before evaporating into the abstract and it can be almost a shock to find that you have travelled from, for example, a riverside balcony into a contemplation of the transience of all experience in just a few lines, as in ‘Double Exposure’:
Looking from the other side of the river
Some hours later he recalls
. . .
the laughter of autumn, only half believing
How quickly all this can change
It would seem counter-productive to try and force any interpretation on Boast’s project, the merit of which lies precisely in its ambiguity. It is, however, a generously expansive collection of poems, the effect of which can only be described as a kind of Negative Capability, briefly embracing the subconscious rather than appealing to intellect.
In stark contrast to Boast’s languorous reverie, Sinéad Morrissey’s Forward shortlisted collection On Balance is, from the outset, urgent, vigorous and dynamic. Its opening poem, ‘The Millihelen’, is a satisfyingly clever re-enactment of the launching of the Titanic, which bowls towards its crisis with vertiginous energy:
for now a switch is flicked at a distance
and the moment swollen with catgut-
about-to-snap with ice picks hawks’ wings
pine needles eggshells bursts and it starts
The Titanic is just the first of several historical touchstones which Morrissey invokes to try to understand our present. Gugliemo Marconi’s invention of the radio, which he believed would convey messages from the afterlife, appears in ‘Receiving the Dead’ to interrogate what else we might be receptive to, should we listen. The reconstructed skeleton of Napoleon’s horse Marengo appears in ‘Articulation’, his empty eye socket a portal into the past. Morrissey’s view of history is, however, admirably broad, and alongside these symbols of great human achievement are more curious and obscure references. In the intriguing ‘Perfume’, the poet’s ‘Great Auntie Winnie’ cleans up an auditorium after a Beatles concert, at which every single teenage fan in the audience has apparently wet herself to the strains of Love Me Do:
take this river, each shower a gift,
intimate and articulate
. . .
. . . each stream of steaming
yellow a flower
In a playful sidestep, the same poem also references Patrick Süskind’s bestselling historical novel of 1985, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, mingling fictional past with pop myth.
The restless energy which drives this collection occasionally turns its attention to addressing the wrongs of history, as in the wonderfully bitter title poem, ‘On Balance’, which takes Larkin to task for his poem ‘Born Yesterday’. Larkin wishes, like ‘the mean fairy / at the christening’ that the newborn daughter of a friend will have ‘An average of talents: / not ugly, not good-looking… In fact, may you be dull’. Morrissey scoffs:
I wouldn’t let you near
my brilliant daughter –
so far, in fact, from dull,
that radiant, incandescent
are as shadows on the landscape
after staring at the sun.
As with Gross and Boast, Morrissey possesses an enviable ability to pull together the disorienting elements of human experience – the past and the present, consciousness and dreams, fear and guilt, love and hope – and shape them into a rich a complex representation of our world. It is from such broad-minded explorations of the human experience that we may finally begin to evolve and understanding of our place in the ecology of all things.