Thursday, October 09, 2008

Me and the Dead

For some time, I’ve been meaning to say something about Me and the Dead, debut collection from Katy Evans-Bush, a.k.a. Ms Baroque from the blog, Baroque in Hackney. This isn’t a review in the normal sense. I know Katy. I’ve even slept on the Baroque Mansion sofa after a memorable evening in London earlier this year. But it’s a very good book, so I thought I’d say something about it.

In the title poem, death is “an assemblage of fragments” with a sting in the tail, as life at times can feel like an assemblage of death-fragments. The poems in this collection have such variety in form and subject-matter that the collection might at first appear similarly fragmented, but it’s held together by clever sequencing and an eloquent, definable tone.

The subject matter ranges from narrative poems on love and friendship to an exploration of real and metaphorical eggs to a theological sweep through the history of London under the long shadow of its cathedral. Katy does narrative very well. In 'Cosi Fan Tutte', for example, the reader knows there’s an affair going on. The narrator walks off, leaving the man and the other woman to argue over her, and the resultant clash between innocence, guilt and upfront world-weariness spills over into the surrounding environment:

.................…Somewhere I heard a radio,
a different world. A sudden restaurant light
and a couple drinking under a pleated shade,
hands raised around thin stems, her bracelet gold
in the peach glow as she looked out at me.
Our eyes met and the moment froze. The crystal
set – I mean, the set-up – I mean glass coffin –
lurched, and out popped my particular poison.
She looked away and I went on, awake.

The poem is in blank verse, but the controlled variations in rhythm shift the narrative along like a page-turner. The narrative unfolds in a permanent state of tension. There’s a cinematic element to this and to many of the poems, a sense of being rushed from one image to another in rapid succession, each brief moment marking out its individual appeal to memory. ‘This is Happening’, a poem about a bus journey through the rainy city a few days after the narrator and her companion had visited the grave of a mutual friend, is a good example of this. The descriptions reflect more than the surface of what they describe. They make up the “sound of the universe” (there’s a risky phrase(!), but it works because its sense is so grounded in the quotidian), the constant living and dying and loving of the moment:

.....Beyond the teary windows of the bus
random elements form and unform themselves the shapes behind a theatre curtain – which always,
once it’s lifted, turn out to have been the stagehands
.....who set the whole thing up – and the city
peels back behind me as the bus cuts through puddles,
.....breaks reflections open, makes a noise
like the sound of the universe. We’ve never been closer.

Highlights of this collection for me were the lyrical chill of ‘Imitating Life’, the juxtaposition of astonishing scientific discovery and the amusing inability to find language to measure up to it of ‘Or Something’, the sheer ambition of ‘The Cathedral’, and the poems I’ve already mentioned above. You’ll find humour, irony, eloquence and death – plenty of death – in this book. And much that can’t quite be summed up in ordinary words because good poetry never can:

The snowball is hollow. Inside
is nothing and space for everything.
In the print of a painted pixel, that pixel holds
the pupil of your eye, and your eye holds me
as if I were hollow, as if I were a snowball,
as if I were a feather on a canal. (from ‘Imitating Life’)

What the poem says is clear, but not simplistic; the words and syntax are ordinary but not prosaic. It’s like an invitation to any casual reader, and says, “Read this. Read it again.” That’s what I’d recommend of the whole book.

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