Recent Reading: June 2021

Love on the Isle of Dogs, Jude Cowan Montague, Friends of Alice, 2020, ISBN13 9781916030671, £11.32

Courtship of Lapwings, Maggie O’Sullivan, if p then q, 2021, ISBN: 978-1-9999547-7-2, £15.00

Bone House, Moyra Donaldson, Doire Press, 2021, ISBN: 978-1-907682-81-0, €12,00

By Bus, Erica Van Horn, Ugly duckling Presse, 2021, ISBN: 978-1-946433-73-2, $20.00

Under The Cliff Like, Tim Allen, if p then q, 2017, ISBN: 978-0957182790, £8.00

Portland: a Triptych, Tim Allen, Norman Jope & Mark Goodwin, Knives Forks & Spoons Press, 2019, ISBN 978-1912211319, £11.00

Jude Cowan Montague’s Love on the Isle of Dogs is a book that takes me straight out of my reviewing comfort zone. It’s a kind of graphic memoir of a marriage in 1990s London that succumbs to the severe mental health issues of her partner. The story is told twice, first vias an extended graphic treatment, then in prose. The two versions are somewhat different in the order of events, but there is a kind of visual overlap, with the graphics incorporating text and the prose using visual techniques such as indentation, double line breaks and caps lock phrases to good effect.

It’s a sad story, but with a happy ending. The narrator falls in love, marries, has a child, watches her partner sink into psychosis and ultimately leaves under the threat of violence and the need to protect herself and her child, who we learn at the end are survivors. The story is summarised in two brief extracts, one from near the beginning, the other from near the end:

The first emerges from an introduction that talks of the narrator’s childhood desire do find an undiscovered star:

When I found a star, it fell into my hand.

But it burnt me, so I let it go.

The second is a moment of realisation that emerges from a conversation with her husband’s therapist at the London Hospital:

Denial is a form of collusion.

This insight is really at the core of the story; pretending nothing is wrong doesn’t make things any better, and it’s only when her partner almost kills her that the narrator snaps out of denial, realises she’s part of the problem, and leaves.

Between these two phrases, a shouted ‘WHO ARE YOU’ acts as a kind of refrain. Ostensibly it’s the partner failing to recognise the narrator, but it evolves into also being the narrator asking the same question of herself, a question that is answered implicitly by her survival.

The prose version is nicely done, but the graphic version caught my interest more. Cowan Montague draws in a kind of naïve style, I think, but my knowledge in this area is scant (click on the link above to see some sample pages). What is striking is the way she uses the power of the comic format to be both sequential and simultaneous. The frames or pages move us forward one to the next, but she uses the ability of the individual image to show us a situation where everything is happening at the same time, with the eye creating its own order each time an image is viewed. In this, her drawings reminded my untutored eye of the paintings of Chaïm Soutine. As I said at the outlet, it’s a book that moved me out of my comfort zone, but I’m glad I took the step.

The marriage of verbal and visual is equally central to Maggie O’Sullivan’s Courtship of Lapwings, albeit in entirely different modes. An A4 hardback, at first glance it has the look of a book for children. Inside, poet and publisher have deployed the full range of typographic tools to create a minimalist feast for the eyes. Font size, colour and bold/italic formatting along with a range of punctuation marks and other symbols create an effect that is not unlike a partially damaged manuscript or the Anglo Saxon ‘Ruin’ come to mind. It’s impossible to quote, so here’s a more-or less random page to illustrate:

It’s tempting to consider these typographical elements as some kind of score for sounding the poems out, but if you listen to O’Sullivan reading the work, this is not the case; the visual and audio aspects of the work exist in parallel, separate but complementary.

The poems draw on a number of sources, including John Clare, Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe and Bill Griffiths, but the results are her own unique soundscape. This is evident in this passage that draws on Clare, but is pure O’Sullivan (the original is in a shade of purple):

quag edge, ear lone

Quakes mute,

Sittest invest

Thriving swell, hilling thy

bill, Suited doth jellied

mayhap, dressed desolate mystic

oceans,

thread remotest stag pervades.

ear unventured gazed

dread breath Hiding wild

restless ever most

tempests each sight,

power heartens roughest wave.

 As is so often the case, she is exploring the power of language to evoke what lies under the surface of perception. It’s interesting to compare these lines with the Clare original, ‘To the Snipe’. By looking at the first four quatrains of the Clare set beside the extract above, what becomes evident is a process of mining the original for its sound patterns, so that the O’Sullivan text enters in to the bird as a maker of sounds as a poet making patterns of sound.

Lover of swamps

The quagmire over grown

With hassock tufts of sedge–where fear encamps

Around thy home alone  

The trembling grass

Quakes from the human foot

Nor bears the weight of man to let him pass

Where thou alone and mute  

Sittest at rest

In safety neath the clump

Of hugh flag forrest that thy haunts invest

Or some old sallow stump  

Thriving on seams

That tiney island swell

Just hilling from the mud and rancid streams

Suiting thy nature well

The shift from right to centre alignment emphasises the idea that we are being presented with a core, the carved-out spine of Clare’s original. It may be significant that the snipe, like so many other birds is much less common now than it was in Clare’s time, much less of a lived presence for O’Sullivan’s readership than it was for his. It may not.           

This entering in is an aspect of O’Sullivan’s poetry that is often referred to as ‘shamanic’, but I’m not sure that this is quite the right word. O’Sullivan seems less interested in altered states of consciousness than in a heightened condition of what, for want of a better word, we might call a normal state, and this heightening is achieved through an intense version of the language medium. In any case, it’s plain that she takes the role of the poet as a linguistic explorer seriously; her work doesn’t describe and isn’t about, it is the creation of language ‘things’ that evoke the things of the extra-linguistic world. This volume is a welcome addition to her body of work, and in if p then q she has been fortunate in finding a publisher that treats the poems with the care they so richly deserve.

If the lyric ‘I’ is radically decentered in O’Sullivan’s work, it tends to be front and centre in Moyra Donaldson’s Bone House. In an article in the Irish Times, Donaldson discusses the importance of her Presbyterian upbringing, a childhood formed by fear, in the making of the poems here. In her introduction to the book, Paula Meehan points to the centrality of mother/daughter relationships. While it’s true that both these overlapping elements are present, it would, I think, be a mistake to think of Donaldson as a purely Confessional poet in the mould of Plath or Berryman, focused on her own suffering to the exclusion of the outside world. There are elements of this, of course, but Donaldson never really loses sight of the wider context.

This wider context includes the natural world, myth and, as elsewhere in her work, the numinous presence of horses. In ‘Rock of Ages’, a title that echoes a popular Calvinist hymn of redemption, we see two of these elements come together as a kind of antidote to the guilt and fear:

My poor mother envisioned me in hell, eternally

gone, like Persephone in her dark god’s lap, but worse –

no possibility of coming back.

A living god

has always been

a fearful thing.

The choice of Persephone here explicitly refutes the mother’s fear, as spring always returns and the linear world of the ‘living god’ is replaced by the cyclical, solar time of the dead gods. Later, in a poem called ‘Helenium Autumnale’, this cyclical, natural time is brought to focus on an image of how the patriarchal treats both women and the natural world:

until now in late autumn,

finches come to feast on their seeds

and I’m still sitting, looking, thinking

of how the earth has been salted,

watered, fed by women’s tears.

This interlacing of the autobiographical and the environmental is what, for this reader at least, moves the poems here beyond the limits of the confessional, away from the human-centred to a more eco-centric mode. For instance, in ‘Wildfire’ the poet presents women as both guardians of nature and victims of our accidental, willed destruction of the natural balance. In ‘Samhain’, named for the Old Irish festival when the doors to the otherworld were believed to open up, we are offered an image of reconciliation, as the speaker’s animals return home for the night; first the dogs, then the cats and finally those horses:

When the moon had fully risen,

the horses came galloping,

their hooves unshod,

their breath pluming the air.

They had forgiven us everything.

This is another fine book from a distinctive poetic voice.

Erica Van Horn’s By Bus is another trip out of my zone. Listed by the publisher under Travel, this set of short prose texts chronicling Van Horn’s experiences using local and national buses around Ireland could just as easily be filed under Social Anthropology. Van Horn is an acute observer of the everyday strange who writes a prose that is both idiosyncratic and transparent, conversational in tone, yet somehow maintaining sufficient detachment.

On one bus, a man polishes his boots, elsewhere a roadside sign seen from the window calls out a rapist. People take the bus in search of love, companionship, shopping, or just to pass the time. People get left behind and the bus has to turn back, buses get lost, arrive hours late. Through all of this, a common note is the end or loss of a sense of privacy; as Van Horn puts it ‘We were already hearing much more than we wanted to hear.’

In one sense, the buses are places of transient community, where people come together in a confined space with shared goals and experiences, and the benefits of this are highlighted here, for instance in the final piece which highlights the importance of thanking the driver when disembarking: ‘To describe someone as a Get-Off-The-Bus-With-No-Thank-You Person is a harsh criticism.’ While this is a simple observation on a pattern of exchange the community expects, there is greater communal worth displayed in the piece called ‘No Luck’ in which the entire bus is determined to ensure that the ‘young man from the Indian sub-continent’ gets off in Fermoy successfully.

However, Van Horn observes the dividing effect of such simple factors as window or aisle seat, left/right side of the bus. One of the most poignant observations here, ‘Get the Sheep’, closes with a group of friends entering Cahir, the town nearest to Van Horn’s home base:

The man and the woman behind me saw the river and the weir and the steeple of the small John Nash church in the curve of the river, but they missed the castle. The people on the far side of the bus missed the view downriver. They had the castle but not the river. They were friends who were travelling together, but not together.

In the end, this together/not together observation is the kernel of Van Horn’s study of the bus people. Fascinating book.

The easiest way to describe Tim Allen’s Under The Cliff Like is to simply quote the note on the text at the end of the book:

‘Under The Cliff Like’ is constructed from the ‘Title And First Line Index’ in the 1962 edition of ‘Granger’s Index To Poetry’ (Columbia University Press. U.S.A.) which I found in a junk shop. It was written in 1996. In alphabetical order all entries beginning with ‘Like’ are juxtaposed with the equivalent number of entries beginning with ‘Under’. There are no alterations other than elimination of commas and the capital letter of the juxtaposed line plus the insertion of full stops at the end of each pairing.

The resulting collage sentences are presented here as pairs, the ones beginning ‘Like’ at the top of the verso and those beginning ‘Under’ at the bottom of the recto’, a mirroring effect that becomes part of the rhythm of reading. This arrangement, apparently suggested by publisher James Davies, is impossible to reproduce in a review, but integral to the way the book functions as a book.

Through his source material, Allen is collaborating here with the entire tradition of English verse, in a kind of nonce surrealist game that becomes, on one level, an interrogation of the simile as a device. If its function is to illuminate by analogy, then what is illuminated when the process of selection is transferred from the poet to the procedure? 

Like a chained brute beast howling in the heat under a lonely sky a lonely tree.

Under a sky of azure like a clamorous flock of startled birds.

This example pair, from early in the series, is reasonably representative of how it works. The alphabetical nature of an index means that frequently nouns or adjectives in the recto will recur in the verso, so that, for instance, ‘sky’ gives at least the impression of coherence, encouraging our instinct for meaning to see the link between the chained beast, sky, tree and startled birds. The process is one that encourages slow reading, the way one might read a haiku or koan. The simile structure becomes less direct, more implicit. The reader is invited to concentrate on the analogies that emerge from the conjunction of the disparate elements involved:

Like snow under the viaduct by the hot canal.

Under the violets like snowflakes or like petals of sweet flowers.

The note quoted above also advises that a ‘full list of the lines’ original authors is unavailable on request’; however, one additional pleasure is recognising the occasional source, and seeing a line you know well open up in its new context:

Like a skein of loose silk blown against a wall under my feet the moon.

Under my keel another boat like a sleeping swine upon the skyline.

The happenstance flow of congruence and incongruity on page after page results in a poem (and I read the book as a single work) that achieves the Ciceronian ambition, Docere, Delectare, Movere, by the most unusual means. Fittingly the ending is not an ending, just a single recto reading

Like the pippin blushing high underfoot…

An index may be finite, but poetry opens on the infinite. The temptation is to go on quoting all the pairs of pages I stuck post-its in, but it would be better if you read the whole thing.

Allen is involved in a somewhat more conventional collaboration in Portland: a Triptych, a book comprising three interfolded texts around Portland Island by him, Norman Jope and Mark Goodwin. An introduction and three authors’ notes fill in some background, most interestingly, perhaps, the fact that these poems were written at different times. Allen’s ‘Pontoon’ sequence in the early 1990s, Jope’s ‘Veästa’ towards the end of that decade, each quite separately, and Goodwin’s ‘Portland Mix’, a set of concrete block poems, in the 2010, as a response to the two earlier sequences.

Allen was born and raised on Portland, and his contribution is kind of autobiographical, what the introduction calls ‘experiential abstraction’. He deploys a three-line stanza as his main formal device, but with prosy sections in italics and more fractured lyrical sections in a larger, non-serif font. The triplets are frequently accompanied by marginal notes that call to mind the 1817 version of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.

There are outlines of sexual and cultural awakenings set against a backdrop of the geology, military and prison histories and present of the island an insider’s eye that embraces and rejects simultaneously:

I never grew up in a landscape. It wasn’t a city either

                     I grew up in a comb on an isthmus. The experience of being

                                surrounded by the sea can be likened to looking at radio

For the insider, Portland is a place, not a picturesque destination, as is called out in the distinction between tourist groups and local transport:

Landscape was seen from coaches not busses.

                Taut trips…Retinal foundations…Lacanian charm…

This insider/outsider conflict underpins Jope’s sequence, named after a local mythical sea-monster who is the ultimate outsider, and who, in the poem, takes on something of the nature of the King under the hill, albeit the hill is replaced by the sea. In the poem, Veästa is seen walking the island and other, similar limestone outcrops in Gibraltar, Malta and Aden. It also takes on something of the nature of the rebel Shelley. But the land rejects the incomer, and at the end he leaves:

Beneath a dark blue sky

with indifferent stars, he bows

before vanishing once again

for five hundred years or a day.

Jope’s poem interrupts Allen’s, like geological strata, and Goodwin’s blocks of text intrude throughout the book. Portland is famous for its stone, which is the material for many famous London buildings. Many of Goodwin’s pieces consist of the names of these, echoing the role of the capital in Allen’s poems as a place of escape. It is, ultimately, this folding in of the disparate elements that gives this book its great interest. If I have one criticism it is that the small, cramped page size fails to do justice to the visual impact of the texts, but that’s a minor cavil.