Tuesday, December 08, 2009

'The Flowering of Flint' and 'Prop'

The deadline for ordering Salt Christmas bundles (postage free within the UK) is 15th December. There are five bundles to choose from and each represents a great saving on the books’ cover prices. My book is in the bundles ‘for the deep thinker’ along with Alexander Hutchison’s brilliant ‘Scales Dog’, and also Peter Abbs’s ‘The Flowering of Flint: Selected Poems’, a book I reviewed for Orbis magazine all the way back in 2007, well before I had become a Salt author myself. I thought I may as well republish it below, and you also get a review (written for the same issue) of Peter Jaeger’s Prop thrown in for good measure.

The Flowering of Flint: Selected Poems by Peter Abbs, 172pp, £14.99 hardback, £11.99 paperback, Salt, 2007.
Prop by Peter Jaeger, 66pp, £12.99 hardback, Salt, 2007.

People may debate whether publishing hardback poetry collections is a good idea, but there’s no doubting the quality of these books as physical objects and both cover designs are beautiful.

The Flowering of Flint selects from twenty-eight years of Peter Abbs’s poetry, giving the reader ample opportunity to view its development. The poems find common identity in the author’s quest for shifting truth, for glimpses of sense in an often baffling world, for words to express them. Peter Abbs mines his personal memories, which rarely yield themselves without struggle, and aims to ‘spill a brief life writing/ to allay the ache of it’ (‘It’). His subjects range from childhood and memory to love, justice, transience, death and loss.

In his 1991 poem, ‘Loss of Faith’, Peter Abbs sets out preoccupations that resonate through his work: ‘On Sheringham sands I can connect nothing/ With nothing. The spray lashes into the dark,’ a poem which ends on the memorable couplet:

.....God created the world ex nihilo. And withdrew.
.....Then, one day, the nothingness seeped through.

Throughout the collection, that nothingness is much in evidence, together with rage that finds an apt metaphor in spray lashing into the dark. I don’t mean this in a negative sense. These poems are clearly the result of a refusal to accept conventional answers. From ‘Who I Am’:

.....Filament by filament, inch by inch, I make
.....This architecture: a bound and limited life.
.....What I have struggled with is who I am.

Death is part of the struggle, not only the need to make sense of transience, but also confrontation with the deaths of his father and mother, dramatised in two sonnet sequences. I didn’t find these among the more engaging poems in the book. This lyric from ‘A Girl in Sepia’, which looks back at his late mother’s life in photographs, isn’t untypical:

.....I still wince before your flawed, excessive love;
.....Yet now, far too late, beyond the grave,
.....Ache to thank you – for the life you gave

This idea is echoed in a later poem about his father, ‘Out of Touch’, which finishes on the phrase, ‘Father, forgive me for arriving late,’ a stronger poem, but one which illustrates how these parental death poems tended to cover similar ground. They felt real, the product of deep experience. However, they rarely surprised me at either an emotional or linguistic level.

Peter Abbs is best when most lyrical, rhythmic and musical, and he negotiates complexities with admirable lucidity. A sequence based on the last years of Nietzsche was one of the book’s strongest sections. ‘Under the Bell Tower in Genoa: Summer 1877’ begins with bell-music that conveys meaning:

.....So audacious there are no words. It pinpricks the skin,
.....Snuffs out the light of the intellect, up-ends the quotidian.
.....It was always waiting like this – bright as the glockenspiel

.....In a child’s garden.

That’s fine writing, de-familiarising experience and yet unveiling its unsettling intensity. These are words which “cast a further spell/ Until we enter an estrangement which feels like home” (‘A White Dark-Scented Rose’), and the best of Peter Abbs’s work does just that. His anger at the shallowness of modern life is obvious: ‘Platitudes jostle in the gaps. The healing word takes flight/ In the daily battle-ground of microphones and hype’ (‘At Cuckmere Estuary’). His response is an unflinching gaze and a falteringly human quest for words. The final poem, ‘Finding Words’, closes with:

.....Blaise Pascal walking with anguish

.....under the haphazard stars…
.....and sown in his crumpled coat his testament of fire.

Peter Jaeger’s Prop is a very different proposition. His untitled poems are composed of fragmented impressions gleaned from journeys through Japan, India, Canada, Italy and England, although the location of each poem is not always clear. Similar imagery recurs throughout the collection – landscape images of wetness, mud, thorns, clouds, doors and roofs, body images of bones, palms, and skin. There is no narrative and the syntax is twisted until it no longer resembles conventional structure. A casual glance may be enough to put many readers off exploring the collection further, but a closer look brings rewards.

Many poems exhibit great fluidity of movement. As an example:

.....warm head pointing
.....east, pointing at migrant

.....pearls – where eyes meet
.....river, river bends to

.....mist, where stones meet
.....pale, pale whitens

The shift from the head pointing east to the specificity of ‘pearls’, and the focusing in of the eyes to river, mist, stones, and whitening pale (which brings pearls to mind again) may not make conventional sense, but has an almost hallucinogenic quality, that of one landscape continually opening out onto another. Peter Jaeger’s language and rhythms operate hypnotically and can be beautiful:

.....fern a lonely thorn the thorn
.....leans firm against the wind

.....against that blowing, leaning
.....into song, a wren

It’s refreshing to read passages displaying such musicality and compared to the flatness of much poetry, I’d prefer to grapple with the difficulties of Prop, just to encounter lines like:

.....…sometimes juniper
.....droops, juniper droops & the bridge
.....washed out by monsoon rush, spanned
.....by the rain-slick sheen of a log
.....underfoot, then only monsoon log, only
.....log – bodhi hung with clouds

A number of poems began mid-sentence and several ended that way too, as if reluctant to embrace completeness. Such technique can become convention, a method of avoiding engagement with the claims of definitive meaning, but used judiciously, it can work well. One of my favourite poems was this:

.....skin a vine the steady plain
.....a night stretched to small
.....still tanks & smaller quartz
.....of healthy skin a vine

.....near a roof where the door
.....creaks low from a gust
.....removing every thought –

.....a vine removing, how it
.....loosens everyone the wind
.....& how through leaves

That shift from the wind’s effect on the door to its effect on thought and the final broken-off ambiguity of its action on leaves is astonishing (bringing to mind an earlier poem with ‘specific sunlight slanting/ through a thinner leaf’), and I’m always grateful when poetry astonishes me.

Some poems I found almost impenetrable. I got the impression of a wilful desire to disorientate, at times to muddle syntax even at the poem’s expense, and to distance words from their referents by making the context as hazy as possible. This poem, possibly a self-effacing joke at Peter Jaeger’s own expense, contains a barb of truth:

.....“your work makes no
.....sense” she laughed

.....stopping so bright so
.....poor but then they snap

.....so often every bit
.....by bit & every

I’m not going to rehash the arguments on the tensions in poetry between communication and disorientation, open-endedness and closure, and the responsibilities between writer and reader, but anyone reading this book will find themselves reflecting on them. It’s probably best to avoid this collection if the excerpts above have reaffirmed your belief that avant-garde poetry is hermetic self-indulgence, but for anyone interested in engaging with it, Prop contains very good, thoughtful writing.

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