Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Review: Troy Town by Matt Merritt

Matt Merritt’s excellent pamphlet collection, Making the Most of the Light, was published in 2005 by HappenStance and it’s no surprise that he has gone on to produce a debut full collection this year, Troy Town, published by Arrowhead.

Birds flit through this collection, literally and metaphorically, as he explores the intricacy of love’s beginnings, middles and endings, the tension between desire and routine, the gift of unexpected happiness and a often latent sense of un-ease, the vitality of the present moment coupled with an awareness of not being in control of it.

The writing is very strong. There’s rarely a superfluous word or out-of-place phrase. In The Meeting Place, Matt Merritt quotes Tomas Tranströmer’s “…within us, balanced like a gyroscope, is joy,” and his poems are successful through achieving a difficult balance; what they say is never imposed on their subject matter but is sourced naturally from it. When I say “naturally”, I mean the poems give that impression even as they take you a little beyond what you thought you always knew.

The Meeting Place is a good example of Matt Merritt’s strengths. It begins, “Nothing leads up to it.” Nothing remarkable is going on. “Traffic lights maintain their sequence.” The world continues as it always has. And yet:

…she is there
at the junction of all things, and at once

the better part of you is persuaded
out of balance. Moments fray to a fine thread.
The past is startled into a sudden eloquence.
Nothing need follow.

That “persuaded/ out of balance” is indeed in perfect balance with Transtromer’s line – its contradiction and fulfilment at the same time. The joy of the balance couldn’t come unless out of balance. The final line is also brilliantly double-edged because, of course, the high point of meeting can’t promise anything other than a longing for something to follow, but isolating the moment gives a different, tension-filled perspective. That kind of complexity written with compressed (and seemingly effortless) precision makes this collection one not to miss out on reading. Other pieces that also achieve this to particular effect include Winter Saturday, Attenborough and Poem, which maintains its tension and keeps the reader guessing right up to (and, to some extent, beyond) the final line.

Knots is a bird poem, but a metaphorical one, beginning with the enticing “Only now does it occur to me/ as something unseen, maybe a dog in the dunes/ beyond (although in the poem it will be a peregrine,/ probably).” The poem works through the well observed descriptions of the knots and the transformative vitality of its metaphors. The knots (wading birds) begin as spirals of smoke;

first black as a cloud of summer gnats, now silvered
as the foil they used to fool radar

and then stand “Calidris canutus” (their real scientific name)

king’s men all, commanding the waves to turn back
or else making a point completely lost on history.

The grand claim of the first of those lines, tempered humorously by the second, is characteristic of Matt Merritt’s writing. He refuses to reach beyond the capability of his images, but he isn’t afraid to extend their possibilities, revealing those possibilities as inherent all along. The poem closes:

And they’re airborne again,
only now they’re more
...........................a shimmering shoal of sand eels,
dissipated in a second, disappearing momentarily,
a stubborn collective thought of explosive energy.

There were a few ‘passengers’ in the collection, but not many, and even those poems weren’t bad, just not as good. On two or three occasions, I noticed the presence of colloquialisms, as if from an anxiety to fit the lyricism into spoken speech patterns. In First Draft, “You’ll go to the window, your eye caught by a seagull, say” and in Loons, “you catch them/ in the corner of an eye, perhaps.” Both of these are good poems, but the “say” and “perhaps” broke the spell and invited comparisons to certain popular poets from the north of England. But these are small complaints.

It’s hard to get attention for individual poetry collections if you’re not on a major press (and sometimes even if you are). But I wouldn’t want to think that a collection like this one would go un-noticed. It’s much too good for that.

Troy Town is available on hardback from Arrowhead Press for £8.99 (post free in UK).


Matt Merritt said...

Thanks so much for that, Rob. I can't tell you what a wonderful surprise seeing the review was.

I think you've been more than kind, and the gentle criticisms are spot-on. In fact, I think the thing I like best about the review (and getting an enthusiastic response from a fellow poet on a well-read blog is pretty thrilling in itself) is that you've articulated a whole number of things about various poems, both good and bad, that I couldn't quite put my finger on myself. I don't think a writer can ask for a review to do more than that.

JYE said...

I am curious about these poems now... I leave from the US for Africa in a few days and wonder if there is a way to purchase an electronic copy of any sort?

With warmth:


Matt Merritt said...

Unfortunately there's no electronic copy available, J, sorry, just hard copies from Arrowhead or myself. I did have a PDF copy of a first proof, but it was really rather rough.

Unknown said...

Sounds like a collection worth getting - I'm a looking :)