Pathos of the Once Organic: JL Williams’ “Locust and Marlin”

"Locust and Marlin" by JL Williams

“Locust and Marlin” by JL Williams

Myths are our most basic stories. They attract us in, reach far back in time. For JL Williams, New-Jersey-born, but living in Edinburgh for over a decade, they are a key part of her work. Indeed, many of the poems in her first collection, Condition of Fire (2011) are drawn from that great history-of-the-world-through-myth that is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Her second collection, Locust and Marlin (2014) is similar and different from her first book: it feels like a deepening, a development and a moving forward from that book.

Like Ovid, like Condition of Fire, Locust and Marlin is full of animals. Most obviously, this is in the title, and indeed on the cover. The marlin recurs in a poem about the poet’s father; the locust—and it’s worth remembering that the grasshopper metamorphoses into the locust, echoing her first book—in an epigraph from the Book of Revelation, in that same father-poem and in the strange apocalyptic sonnet, “Locust King”, which may, or may not, also be a love song. There are others, like the mysterious and striking heron that opens and closes the book. The first poem, “Heron”, in particular, is a seven-line tour-de-force that begins:

Imagine a great silence
whose wings touch no branches.

Imagine a space demarcated
by lack of sound.

The word “imagine” opens the book as a liminal space and from the start, it tries to do the impossible, to describe something beyond the powers of description. After all, silence is not physical, it cannot literally have wings; and space cannot be practicably demarcated by the absence of sound. But the metaphor works so well: this paradoxical description creates a ghost-like figure of the heron that is present, unobserved, undetectable, an object of meditation, in its liminal habitat between water, earth and sky. And like so much in the book, it hints at, does not directly describe, implies.

This in-between space, these things in flux is similar territory to Condition of Fire. There are poems of transformation, like “Flutter”, that begins “They broke upon her ribcage / to let out the birds.” But this isn’t a retreading of Ovid: there is a “they” behind the evident violence that occurs in a number of the poems—this calls to mind fables, stories of witches. And the same poem contains multiple, cyclical transformations.

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Kitsch and Linguistic Tricks: Paul Stephenson’s “Those People”

“These People” by Paul Stephenson

There is a well-known story about W. H. Auden (I came across it in Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry) and a conversation he had with a boy who said he wanted to be a poet because he had lots to say. The moral, or perhaps the punch line, is in Auden’s frustration at why the boy wants to be a poet: the most important thing is playing with words. Paul Stephenson, in his pamphlet Those People, seems to be following Auden’s advice. The first thing you notice about the poems here is the nimble use of language.

This is immediately obvious in the pamphlet’s found or overheard poems. There is a page-long list of questions called, appropriately enough, ‘Do You Have Any Questions?’. This is the last question before an exam begins in British schools and what follows is a vertigo-inducing compendium of questions, as if there all the thoughts going through someone’s head in the split seconds before the exam really begins. In ‘Gare du Midi’, Stephenson collects phrases overhead (and some thought, I think) at the Gare du Midi in Brussels. The title repeats that of Auden’s political pre-World War Two poem of the arrival of an insidious briefcase, but today the station is full of the worries of travellers and tourists, as well as the anxiety of some of not being let into the UK.

Other poems play around with language even more, and most especially with sound. In ‘Wake Up And’, Stephenson takes the cliché wake up and smell the coffee and works through the phonetic implications of coffee—coughing and cacophony are just the first two. In a lot of ways, the poem seems similar to the aleatory N+7 practice of the Oulipo group, but it is more wilful. Mostly the sequence of words follows phonetics rather than the alphabet: there is a stanza of words beginning with k and a great couplet in “wake up and smell Cavafy / wake up and smell Cefalonia”. Depending on how you pronounce the c, these are not only close phonetically, but geographically as well: Cephalonia lies next to Ithaca, the name and destination of Cavafy’s most famous poem. For the reader, it feels like having a window into a process of free association.

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On Mariano Marovatto and His “Casa”

“Casa” by Mariano Marovatto

The book is named House and many of the poems are set there, but it is hardly homely. Houses are concrete, present, but this is more about absence. In Portuguese Casa can mean house or home; in English it feels right for the title to be about the solid material of walls, bookcases, tables—the house—, rather than the emotional presence, the non-absence of the home.

The book is divided into two sequences of unnamed poems. The first, “O mundo cabe na gaveta” (“The World Fits in a Drawer”), subtly hints; something is wrong. The second, “Acordar amanhã” (“Wake Up Tomorrow”) is more direct; someone is gone:

if we had a baby
you love dogs
if we ate a peach
you seem like autumn
I’ve just chewed autumn.

This is from the first poem of that sequence. On first glance, it seems to divide into two halves of if… then… that break down on a closer look. The first two lines here feel verbatim: it’s one of those unconnected hypotheticals of break-up. The second two feel closer: peaches come in autumn both in Brazil and Europe. But you can’t eat a peach in a poem without a nod (and not the first among contemporary poets linked to Rio, both Matilde Campilho and Ismar Tirelli Neto have nods in the same direction) to Eliot’s Prufrock and, by extension, the not-daring and sexual frustration of that poem. And “chew” (“mastigar”) is from the right semantic area of a fair amount of sexual metaphor, but it’s also so wrong. Something is not right here.

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