Monday, November 12, 2007

Review: Travelator by Steven Waling

Impossible to classify, the poems in Steven Waling’s Travelator (Salt, 2007) flit between the experimentalism, play, shifting tones and unexpected leaps a reader might expect from the New York School, and an earthy, northern English, lyrical vernacular that wouldn’t sound out of place in an early Simon Armitage collection. One aspect they share is a reluctance to tie-up all the loose ends, or close with the force of aphorism, and there’s little straight, linear narrative. Instead, images juxtapose and gradually form a picture, often punctuated by gaps and missing links. The best poems almost seem to push beyond their own limits, very much like the sailors of The Prospects navigating towards a place of blessed happiness they’ve heard about, who finally touch land and find that:

whatever it was we were looking for
on this bare headland out in the ocean
has jumped ship to the next blessed isle
or the next or the next after that.

The collection is split into two sections. The first comprises a selection of ‘sonnets’ (some people might debate use of the term as the 14-line poems are unrhymed and without regular metre), which took their inspiration from a sequence by American poet, Ted Berrigan. The poems often use a ‘cut-up’ technique in which the lines in a poem are reordered. They don’t always make conventional sense, but most are compelling reading nonetheless. The cut-up phrases convey fleeting impressions. The poems leap from one impression to another, line by line and often across lines, using the vocabulary of the lyric poem, slang conversation, advice columns, and responses to news of tragedy by telephone (some of these may even be partly 'found poems', made up up of overhead conversation snippets or chopped-up phrases from newspaper articles). Phrases recur from one poem to another too, lending a tenuous unity to the sequence. An example from Advice Column:

Don’t let it get you down .... Madness is doing
the same old things
.... Since he stopped drinking
nothing about it seems funny except the way
you’re looking at things .... Poetry should contain
coffee and croissants .... Fold it up .... put it away

The artful arrangement of phrases is humorous and absurd in equal measure. The unexpected juxtapositions lend themselves to irony, but can also be utilised to explore feelings of unease, such as in The All-Purpose Stars where a relationship appears to be threatened both by what’s currently unspoken and by what should have been left that way.

Steven Waling’s poems stand at an angle to much contemporary poetry in the UK. Linear narrative isn’t a feature of many poems in this collection, although I should emphasise that they are not absurdly ‘difficult’, abstract or obscure. Waling has an ear for the music of words, a willingness to steer the poems by force of an untamed imagination, a sense of humour, and a connection with real human concerns at an emotional level. Cod, probably a cut-up poem, uses the technique not as an end in itself, but to get to the emotional heart of the matter:

on their way from Iceland emptying cargo
on the deck at Fleetwood less and less
shoals departed smaller the hunger as deep
eaten with fingers washed down with loss

The second section of the book doesn’t evidence cut-up technique with great regularity, and employs fairly conventional syntax for the most part. However, the juxtaposition of surprising images that don’t quite connect (at least, not at first) is still a strong feature in some of these poems. Other poems are nostalgic and lyrical, often beginning from a situation of sadness or alienation. I particularly liked the ‘bus-stop epiphany’ of Catching the 22, in memory of Kenneth Koch.

The characters in many poems are complex and not quite comfortable in their environment: the man commuting to a job interview who feels ill-at-ease in a world where “the lighting of lamps/ on fogbound stations breaks my heart” and “professors speak like newsreaders/chatting theology” (Through the White Hole); the vulnerable Romano outsider wandering Prague with his dreams and love of the arts – “Don’t wait for time/ to give you her hand. Go out, find/ a name for yourself: I call myself home./ My name means Gorge crossed by a bridge” (Ghosts on the Wall); the boy and his sisters looking on as a leather-clad biker, a “roaring streak of Black Lightning,” rides off with his delicate girl, the same man previously described as “reading aloud from the paper,/ that old-fashioned chivalry arm/ gentled round her waist – unnatural/ and stilted” (Before). I won’t give away the ending.

A couple of poems, Trade is Increasing and That Summer, were perhaps just too Ashbery-esque, but quite enjoyable all the same. Gorgeous, the final poem in the sequence Three Poems about Love, contained such a ham-fisted metaphor that I wondered if it had been meant as an ironic joke (but I don’t think so!). However, this collection is generally very strong, and I wouldn’t want to dwell on the few poems that didn’t hit the mark. Travelator is quite different from most collections you’ll read this year. I thought it would be the kind of book I would enjoy, but even I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

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