Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Review: 'More Shadow than Bird' by Nuar Alsadir

The bio note on More Shadow than Bird tells us that Nuar Alsadir is training to become a psychoanalyst and this I can well believe after reading her poems. Her subject is the unknown self, fleeting glimpses into the hidden depths of motivation and personality. Her characters often have difficulty in understanding who they are and where they’re going. They are at the mercy of events, misunderstanding others and themselves, and yet a hazy kind of clarity emerges: “more shadow than bird”, it’s true, but the habitually invisible can hardly be held in easy focus.

The attempt to focus results in remarkably clear and striking images; the connections between them aren’t always immediately obvious but they aren’t arbitrary either. Some poets juxtapose outlandish images for reasons of humour or even stylish obfuscation, but Alsadir is trying to express things that aren’t ordinarily expressible. ‘The Ride Home from Mourning’ begins with the phrase, “My underwear is my backpack/ and I feel true” and later, with a desire for accuracy, “grey, with thin strings”. The mood evoked from such imagery is not self-pity, but a desire to express the impact of loss. The narrator asks the questions people ask at such times: “Where do we go when we go/ no more? The unmooredness puzzles”. There are no answers to such questions, but the narrator reflects on how we mourn:
the unintelligible inside us
and the accurate on our backs.

This final couplet clothing unintelligible unmooredness (which is nevertheless somehow moored deep within us) with the weight of accurate expression sends you back to read the poem again, and it’s true that these poems, like all good poems, need to be read more than once. Her images are perfectly clear but produce complexity in combination. The most similar UK poet I can think of would be Claire Crowther and, perhaps behind both, we might detect American poet, Lorine Niedecker.

‘Disquiet’ is a fairly riveting sequence of short independent prose paragraphs. They read like aphorisms but seem less certain of themselves than traditional aphorisms. It is about disquiet, but some lines could be read as describing Nuar Alsadir’s poetics:

What blooms does so in the space that breaks from knowing.


Reason is like light, it comes in quanta. There are no lines connecting thoughts, only packets and leaps.

Making the leaps and connecting without drawing hard-and-fast lines certainly brings rewards here. Most of these poems can’t be explained or summarised but I was always convinced that something interesting was going on. ‘Breakfast’ would be one example. Phrases repeat and echo throughout the poem – images of eggs, roads, and three characters (one man, one woman, and the first person narrator) having an argument are all jumbled up. Some change has occurred. Anyone who can write lines like

.............He thinks she’s a trail
of cigarette butts to something human


Morning. We crack eggs in the pan,
wait to see what creature will rise

has my full attention. The characters appear disorientated and curiously estranged both from their own selves and from those around them. The man’s perception of the woman as a trail is countered in the final line. He doesn’t notice, but “she’s not the path, but where it begins.” What exactly is being said here isn’t clear to me, but I find the poem intriguingly mysterious and strikingly well written, worth continuing to ponder on.

Other poems are more immediate, such as ‘Walking with Suzan’ and ‘Bats’, both of which you can read in full at Michelle McGrane’s Peony Moon site (along with several others). ‘Bats’ again may tell us something about Nuar Alsadir’s approach to poetry. The bats, “not like you/ or the other rodents” are unashamed and “share their darkness like a piece/ of delight”. The crawlers have to “rise for breath, belief”. In contrast:

The bats do not need applause.
If you clap, they will change direction.

Echoes of W.S. Graham there, of course, from the end of his famous poem, Johann Joachim Quantz's Five Lessons:

...keep your finger-stops as light
As feathers but definite. What can I say more?
Do not be sentimental or in your Art.
I will miss you. Do not expect applause.

The evasion of applause or indifference to it. An immediate change in direction at the first hint of populism. Art, not Commerce. So let’s not clap, at least not loudly enough to be heard. More Shadow than Bird is an extraordinary collection: beautiful, reflective and provocative in equal measure. It deserves readers and perhaps the turn of a page, that near-silent form of applause, is all that matters.

More Shadow than Bird by Nuar Alsadir is published by Salt, 2012, in paperback, currently £7.99.

No comments: