(This review appeared in the Spring 2016 Poetry London. This is a slightly longer version – by two bonus paragraphs – with a proofing error corrected. (Instead of the lemniscate itself, ‘∞’, we read ‘[insert infinity symbol]’, which is in some ways an interesting title, just not for the work under consideration.) This was of course entirely my fault.)
Rebecca Perry, Beauty/Beauty (Bloodaxe), 87pp, £9.95; Jack Underwood, Happiness (Faber), 54pp, £10.99
What is the purpose of pattern, particularly symmetry, in a book of poems? Reflective structures imply parallelism may be as important as progression: like metaphor, they subvert hierarchy with an implied equivalence. This can be a kind of an antidote to narrative, to the idea that the only meaningful shape our lives and therefore our art can possess is the arc of a story. In just this way, both of these debut collections work with the tension between the event – including the apparently autobiographic event – and its aesthetic consequences.
Both poets resist the idea that our self is like a character, defined and developing through its response to a dynamically paced succession of events. As Jack Underwood puts it in ‘Letter of Health’:
If I were in a novel you’d travel three days
by horse to see me. If you were in a novel
I’d die somewhere in these middle chapters.
Instead we find the suggestion that the shape we form in the poem is a choreography of our ideas of the self with our ideas of others, as well as with objects, moods, and ideas themselves, and that this shape has the potential to be symbolically if not emotionally complete in itself. One purpose of a book of poems, it follows, is to form a larger composition from the ordering of such shapes.
In ‘Flowers, Love etc’, for instance, Rebecca Perry proposes that, rather than us being at the centre of our world, ‘All living things are busy imitating each other’, and the most exciting aspect of her work concerns itself with the unsentimental exploration of such a position.
This is of some importance in a culture where the story of the life is always threatening to usurp the life of the poem. We see it in poetic biographies which focus our attention on those few figures, such as Hughes or Plath, whose lives resemble or can be simplified into drama. It is also prevalent in the accounts of poetic careers which publishers prefer, in which, again, only a few writers can achieve pre-eminence, marked by the plot climaxes of prizes and festival appearances.
In such spectacles, we are invited to read (or skim) the poetry as being illustrative of the life, or even secondary to it, in the way that readers may presume Casaubon’s Key to All Mythologies to be about as interesting as Clark Kent’s journalism. Both of these collections strongly resist this idea by presenting their respective ‘I’s as figures in a landscape organised as much at the level of the collection as the individual poem.
The pattern is particularly striking in Jack Underwood’s book, where the first poem divides an onion, and, in an echo of Rebecca Perry’s mirroring title, ‘call[s] one half Perfect/the other also Perfect.’ Similarly, the book falls into two halves around the central poem ’13 Say’, with each half featuring a sequence of four poems, plus two poems in the same relative position with the same title, ‘∞’. This is, then, a version of expressive form: the positioning of certain poems foregrounds their possible thematic significance.
The subject of that central poem, death, provides us with the counter-theme that will jar through all Underwood’s careful capturing of his titular subject, happiness. A characteristic gesture is the lovely diffusion of intimacy into the context of that intimacy, as here:
There was the happiness of my mother as we sat on
a London bus, her having travelled alone to visit her son,
and she seemed more present which might have been
the luggage I was carrying for her that weighed heavy
as her happiness, or was her happiness.
The emotion is rendered bodily, and registered against that later moment where the poet is ‘staying death’. This embodiment of almost simultaneous delight and anxiety is played out in terms of both structure and subject matter, for instance in the distension of the moment through an act of syntactic focussing at the end of ‘Some Gods’: ‘God as a dead robin; God as the eye of a dead robin; God as your barely visible reflection in the eye of a dead robin.’
Similarly, recording all the subtleties of a momentary response leads Underwood into an echo of O’Hara’s sly use of camp (seen in ‘The Day Lady Died’ in the phrase ‘after practically falling asleep with quandariness’), as in ‘Inventory of Friends’: ‘…with a predictability/that would be cuteness if it weren’t honest first,/my thoughts turn to you…’. These responses are often wittily attuned to our acquiescence in our vulnerability, as in the pair of poems about guns and the bomb, which both end submissively: ‘I don’t think I’m a bad person when I admit/I lent down and touched my face against it.’ (The bomb)
But the point of this attentiveness, and indeed the patterning throughout, is to nudge us toward a realisation summed up at the beginning of ‘The Ashes’, that, often, what we think of as merely an approach to reality may be the only point of access we have:
…and a voice on the radio is describing
the atmosphere here at Lord’s without realising
that his voice describing the atmosphere
on the first day of the second test
is the atmosphere…
This is a collection which carries its subject with deceptive lightness, as in that central poem, where the dead are relocated to the Moon: the terrible weight of their loss is somehow mitigated by the relative lightness of lunar gravity – they ‘bounce weightless and bemused’.
It is also a collection which wears its awareness of antecedents lightly, mentioning a toad or a hammock without demanding that we recognise Larkin or James Wright. When there is an explicit allusion, as in ‘The Good Morrow’, we find Donne mock-translated into a register which plays surface against theme, exemplifying Underwood’s use of tone and patterning to undermine our more hopeful certainties:
I’m not sure I remembered what we did
before we LOVED. Were we gherkins bobbing
in our harmless jars, with vinegar and seeds?
Or were we stuffed in a tube of sleep for years?
Probably; but that kind of life is carbohydrate.
If I enjoyed anything then it was feeling FULL.
Rebecca Perry’s collection is divided into seven six poem units, creating a sense of equivalence operating between these groupings, which is reinforced by the way motifs are sometimes returned to from differing perspectives. Just so the ‘Wasp’ of the first section, referred to by a series of unsettlingly intimate diminutives (‘little nuzzler, nuzzling a neck./little alien, little feeler, little zebra./little dinosaur legs…’) becomes the girls’ hands of another, ‘hovering/like hornets’ over their own swimsuited bodies, while in a third, ‘The last wasp is sinking through/the gloopy green water of a garden pond…’.
Images and their varying themes play out in these oblique series, relating to each other as the tenor and vehicle of a metaphor relate, but flipping roles as the poet’s focus shifts. That dinosaur allusion reappears as ‘a fossilised dinosaur dropping’ in a museum, ‘pink and grey like a pork pie’; in another poem the imagery flips: ‘an avocado on my desk/is playing dead and prehistoric’. Then, in the middle of the book, the dinosaur seems to become the subject of ‘Dear Stegosaurus’: ‘Bus-sized and gentle, you are master of peace,/diplomacy, berries, grass, perseverance, pace.’
One effect of such mutations of role is to question the primacy of one interpretation over another: we are left with a number of resonant symbols, the true significance of which we must assess by re-reading. This effect is reinforced by a number of poems where the series is the dominant structure: ‘Alabaster Baby’, quoted above, reiterates ‘in front of’ and challenges us to discover why each confrontation in each museum leaves the speaker ‘almost crying’; ‘immortelle’ uses the repeated phrase ‘at the time of writing’ to induce a sense of inescapable provisionality: ‘at the time of writing/the glasses in the cabinet have never been quieter//the writer is thinking of eating her own hands’.
Perhaps the most disquieting use of recurrence is the deployment of definitions which, instead of providing resolution, induce further emotional complexities in their unraveling speakers. ‘Pow’ carefully distinguishes between what words say and what they imply, particularly gender-specific terms. It opens up a gap between the literal and the figurative that enables Perry to conclude ‘Though I am listing flowers I am not thinking of flowers.’
In ‘A Guide to Love in Icelandic’ and ‘Kintsugi 金継ぎ’, the two devices come together in poems which use repetition – ‘When…’ ‘And when…’; ‘There is a Japanese word…’ ‘ There is a German word…’ – to create an oddly ecstatic helplessness, stranded at an equidistance between phenomena and meaning, experiencing affect without resolution:
There is a Cheyenne word for the act
of preparing your mouth to speak.
The months spent readying mine
tasted like metal,
food was unpleasant to chew.
As with Jack Underwood, Perry is allusive in a low-key but precise manner, allowing resonance to build up through the use of found text, principally from Tennessee Williams and Anne Carson, but also freely borrowing from online sources as in ‘The Year I Was Born’, where, in a delirium of the factoids, the random becomes recognisably her own:
May, blossoming month,
poor weather wipes out over half of Britain’s beehives.
From this month onwards all new phones
will have push buttons rather than dials.
A radioactive cloud
from Chernobyl reaches England.
Both poets find distinctive ways of rethinking the connections and disconnections between life and their art, both express that particular disquietude of existing between types of knowing, including the textual in all its manifestations, and the bodily in all of its. Both books, by eschewing narrative, achieve a compelling totality, as in Rebecca Perry’s striking image of her grandfather’s gestation: ‘It is not/a slow process of growth, but his bones coming together/like synchronised swimmers, slotting into place perfectly.’