Noticing Life: Review by Stephen Payne
‘Alive Alive O’ by Greta Stoddart, ‘Yarn’ by Maitreyabandhu and ‘Careful What You Wish For’ by Peter Sansom
Review by Stephen Payne
Being at the same time mortal and self-conscious is a tough gig, and if literature evolved to help us cope with life’s challenges, it’s perhaps unsurprising that so much of it concerns death. The thirty poems in Alive Alive O all explore this biggest of themes, but they are not unvarious. They range from elegy through allegory to more abstract metaphorical speculations.
Both elegy and allegory, I think, is ‘Lifeguard’, whose central figure becomes important to the narrator only after his motorcycle accident. It begins:
Of course I know he meant nothing to me
alive, why would he, a part-time lifeguard
at the local pool I’d only ever glimpse
slumped in a plastic chair or standing deep
in a cupboard leaning his chin on a mop.
Such easy-to-picture description continues through the poem, and the details sum to a provocative story about the lifeguard’s premature death, and the very irony of such an event, given his job:
drugged and disaffected, unfucked and aimless
and I marvelled with some bitterness how someone like you
could ever be sleek and forgetful and strong
Death, the poem seems to say, is what makes us notice life.
Another elegy is a sonnet for Seamus Heaney (‘Poet’), although only a quote from one of Heaney’s translations of Rilke gives the game away definitively. Stoddart trusts the reader to recognise the white hair, the post-stroke delicacy and the phrase ‘blown open’, derived, perhaps from the end of Heaney’s ‘Postscript’.
The opening poem, ‘The Curtain’, takes Shakespeare’s metaphor (from As You Like It), ‘All the world’s a stage’, and expands its relation to the everyday expression ‘curtains’. If life is a play – ‘blinded as you’d been out there / in the onslaught of lights’ – then death, the poem supposes, is a stepping offstage through the heavy curtain ‘without so much as a glance up / to the gods’.
In the final poem of the collection, lighting a ‘Fire on the beach’ is, I suppose, a kind of rage against the dying of the light. It can’t last, of course, and the poem ends with the fire-lighters feeling themselves pulled
by our own long shadows, back up to the car
leaving behind us the hiss and grate
of the sea on the stones.
There’s formal as well as strategic variety here, but not so much in terms of metre or rhyme. Rather, it’s the visual shape and punctuation of the poems that Stoddart plays with. There are two concrete poems, a pear-shaped poem about a pear (which is also, cleverly, a tear-shaped poem about a tear) and a poem about four square windows arranged as a 2×2 grid of prose squares. Alongside fully punctuated poems, written in standard sentences, and poems with no punctuation at all, are some ten poems that eschew full stops.
Maitreyabandhu’s Yarn also exhibits considerable formal variety, as one might expect in a collection of over seventy poems. Maitreyabandhu is interested in metre and rhyme, as well as prose poetry. As in his first collection, The Crumb Road, blank verse is a frequent mode, and I admire the way Maitreyabandhu deploys it, with plenty of rhythmic variation overlaying relatively strict metric consistency. ‘Lanterns’ begins:
The hot air balloon my brother built was made
of white crêpe paper with a balsa fireguard
to keep the flame away. It had a wire
cross and circle to hold the plug of meths-soaked
cotton-wool that Robert lit with John,
or was it Peter?
This extract reveals some explicit questioning of the reliability of memory (as do several others), which was also an important device in The Crumb Road. It’s interesting to wonder what it adds to the poem. I’d say a certain sort of modesty, a surrender of authority. And indeed Maitreyabandhu’s voice is modest and quiet.
It has a definite characteristic tone that I find pleasing but can’t quite put my finger on – it somehow combines modesty with a kind of stateliness, a near-formality, almost old-fashioned (although I don’t mean this at all as a complaint). The tone of voice is not so far removed, perhaps, from Robert Frost’s.
Several poems rhyme, or half-rhyme. For example, ‘Two Birds for Kabir’ begins:
A tree was growing in the sky
on which two birds were darkly perched.
The air was blond; the earth was grey.
The tree was silver, like a birch.
I enjoy full rhyme and varieties of part rhyme, but prefer the latter, usually, when the final consonant is preserved. So, I prefer sky/grey to perched/birch because the former creates a stranger echo, makes the sounds of the words come alive, whereas the second risks seeming incomplete, and pop-song-like, as when ‘rest’ is rhymed with ‘guests’, to give a further example.
There are as many personal elegies in Yarn as there are in Alive Alive O, and although death is not a consistent focus, lessons about mortality may be, with stories about Buddhist monks and teachers, and an implied instruction to attend – to our loved ones and to our natural and human environments. The poems move from England through Sweden and India to China, and in all the places there is a great deal of natural detail, lovingly named and described. Over forty poems contain at least one plant name, over twenty at least one bird name (blackbird wins, robin might be runner up). There is also reverence for the artificial, from ‘the temple bell, its ring’, to ‘milk bottles left on the doorstep with plastic covers on the top’, and for poetry itself, with Coleridge, Wordsworth, Cavafy, Thomas (Edward), Frost, MacNeice, Tranströmer and Hass all name-checked.
Only after the final poem, the half-rhymed, short-lined sonnet, ‘Owl Night’, can the poet’s attention finally rest:
Nature’s apple colours fade.
I wash my cup and scrub a saucepan,
then go to bed. The debt is paid –
consciousness is overrun.
The owl’s one hoot tells night to come.
Speaking of Wordsworth and Frost and their own published aesthetics, it is nowadays a commonplace to describe certain poets as using ‘plain’ or ‘everyday’ language. And it does seem a reasonable description, to me, of writers like Peter Sansom, but only inasmuch as a tempting but false inference is resisted. The false inference is that poetry in everyday language is less interested in language per se – that the poetry only uses the language to get to a meaning, rather than (additionally) to relish the language itself.
Careful What You Wish For is certainly written in an everyday, spoken voice, and it does afford the reader ready access to rich images and thoughts. But the charm extends from what is being said to how it is expressed. Sansom’s language reveals how compressed and communicative and interesting the syntax and vocabulary of everyday speech can be.
Another way of coping with mortality is to pay attention to life’s passing and Sansom’s poems present as memoir, full of reminiscence and ‘a sort of nostalgia’. Even when they seem unpromising in their concerns, they confound expectations. What could be more workshop-like than a poem about an old straw hat, called ‘A Straw Hat’? The hat is introduced matter-of-factly enough, but notice how smoothly the syntax elides any distinction between perception and memory:
On a hook by the window, with another
that the youngest grew out of. Here it is
knocked off by the wave I didn’t see,
laughing, a mouth full of sea.
So smoothly that it’s all the more touching when the writer breaks all the workshop rules by drawing attention to the fact and then turning on the explicit emotions:
… It bobs like a cork in the past
and present world. I take it off to you,
love of my life, light of my life, willing
to walk with me even in a hat like this.
‘Lava Lamp’ is formally adventurous, using white space to interrupt lines and even words. It’s a concrete effect, of course, modelling the ‘soun d less gloo b le / and gl oop’ of the lamp, which the narrator received as a gift ‘before the boys’. Perhaps it’s intended to tease such visual poetic techniques, aligning them with something as faddish as a lava lamp.
Another unpromising topic: ‘Diary of a Night in Matlock Bath’ lasts for about 130 roughly five-stress lines describing the narrator’s observations and thoughts as he wanders around the town. Here’s how the second section begins (after a brief walk among the tourists, and a dalmation with ‘its head in a vet cone like a song’ – think on that image as long as you like, it will reward you):
Up to the rock-rose of Orchard Road,
a breather now by the row of sash windows
across to Riber Castle, a zoo no longer,
with its scattered hamlet of dots of sheep.
David Hockney would five-minute iPad it
and his screen would last forever, being now
the sum of what he sees and who he is.
Exactly so. For Hockney read Sansom, for the Brushes app, read pen and notebook (I’m guessing). Buy a print for a tenner.