Thursday, 29 August 2013

Subject and syntax to fear and enjoy

Helen Ivory, Waiting for Bluebeard, Bloodaxe
Ira Lightman, I, Love, Poetry. Knives, Forks and Spoons Press

“I would like to extend my thanks to everyone who has ever liked my poems,” writes Helen Ivory in her acknowledgements. This is an eminently sane remark for a sane, witty and slightly discomforting poet. If you are both attracted and repelled by her subject matter, so you should be. The first half of the book is about women and death, and women's conspiracies with death, and the second half – dealing with Bluebeard – is about, well,. Women's attraction and repulsion for death.

Written concisely and in short poems and stanzas (with the occasional equally short prose poem), it is all about subject with Helen Ivory. The book can be read as a horror story or as single poems which would often be hilarious but for the creepy draught of skeletons,suspicions and omens. These controlled and detailed poems, fearlessly dealing with human and physical small sufferings.

Each poem shows a mastery of nerve as layers of survival are unravelled. Matchboxes are coffins too small for their content: skin comes off people ion layers. Even the colours are sinister: lemon, grey-silver. Ordinary things like “a decent cup of tea”or waiting for buses have us looking over our shoulder in terror; the television walks out of the house with Bluebeard. Vertebrae can be unbuttoned, jelly rabbits come to life. Nothing is as it seems, and after a few of the poems nothing seems able to be trusted, either.

Helen Ivory is also an artist. There is something neo-Victorian in the kind of miniature assemblages she produces, from photographs and objects. They are fascinating and precise. Her poems are exact reflections of this outlook. You can hardly get more Victorian than your female ancestors' submission to Death, nor the Jekyll-and-Hyde, Jack the Ripper type of Bluebeard whose wives disappear. We can all; imagine how, but not as precisely and chillingly as Helen Ivory, whose incongruous mixture of sadness and humour can freshen the dusty corners of our muddled fears. I can see why she has been compared to Stevie Smith in this respect, and there are time when her conciseness brings Emily Dickinson to mind. Those are fine women masters, indeed – and look at our language there – for who would dare call Stevie and Emily mistresses?

Another connection with her art is the awareness of the human (or animal) body – often expressed as parts. There's the little girl padding out the bra of the ball gown, and even the “thinly sliced tongue sealed up in wax paper” from the butchers. Indeed, in this way of anatomy, she links people and animals – there's that flash of insight where she is filing her nails “so they wouldn't catch on things. She wasn't, after all, a beast.” She can even turn the earth and stars into creatures. In What the Stars Said, she tells us the stars

heaved themselves under the bed
and began to burn holes in the rug.

What does the author make of men in this book dedicated to women? She makes Bluebeard a privileged man with a leather desk – the old master-of-the house image, divorced from the women's life as they are divorced from his. There a re constant suggestions of the werewolf. Gender relations are so relatively equal nowadays, it is salutary to be reminded of the ancient confederacies of women who, excluded, exclude men.

Helen Ivory's impact is all in the content, rather than the language itself. Not a word is out of place. Language is used superbly to obtain the effects she seeks.

When you look at the work of another poet/artist, Ira Lightman in I, Love, Poetry, also a book of predominantly short poems, you'll see a total contrast in the use of language. Ivory entertains and instructs by what she's saying. Ira Lightman's work is all in the language. It's about how what you think or see is affected by the way in which you say it. Full of grammatical hiccups, puzzles, tricks and puns, Lightman's work defies translation (a great definer of poetry) and provides collections, strings and blocks of words that dazzle and confound with meanings that could not be got without these exact words. And to take the meaning you have to absorb the words as the poet gives them: you must be receptive to poetry. Take a simple example, Restorant:

on our tablecloth
the besuited drops /
leatherbound tomes
for madame, monsieur
to raise, consult
weigh with frown
on page five,
smile at fifty
as if that's
all the order
they can sustain

It's a simple grammatical sentence describing the waiter as “besuited” and the menu folders as”tomes” adding weight and formality to the small incident of choosing from the menu, taking you right there as they choose their numbered course, and “restoring” sense (the pun).
A few pages on, As the petal splashes also takes you to the heart of a tiny incident, this time even less concerned with intrusive complex syntax:

Chins down, the roses are
(stems blithe children) picked
into air, car, bath
and (seabound river's) bed

Yet these and other statements in the poems, the contracted, their essence extracted, are precise. One needs to get the feel of such nuggets from Lightman before embarking on larger pieces where the language is seen to work the same way. Snack on meaningful evening is a sonnet (well, fourteen lines) in four sentences. Each convoluted sentence is packed with information on a summer evening walk round Leicester. Not just any walk: this particular walk: the nitty gritty of the sentence identify it overwhelmingly, and fix it as unique. The first sentence runs:

in Leicester, hardworking deco New York
shops marketry fonts the fronts that
want money not serfdom from the super
economics under English June evening.

The sound crackles in all these poems. Sound is more primary than syntax, though syntax is never lacking even when it has to be hunted for. However I set out by giving examples of the more traditionally well-behaved syntactically of these poems. Others, having gathered their confidence on how to proceed, give a whole lot more ammunition for any surviving fossils of the old schoolteacher mentality to grumble about. Here's how Air on A starts:

It stood dum dum for groin dum dum
their ver-er-er-er-er-tices' tether,
to peg there
and be, dum dum
the tie that fixedly dum dum dum dum
bound the crotch up dum dum dum dum with animal skin.

In this poem you can see how much Lightman is enjoying the sounds and rhythms, so that it makes sense he is now regularly writing songs. His writing is surprisingly sexy. This is poetry to enjoy rather than understand. The vivacity and freshness of Ira Lightmans poetry is a direct result of the verbal freedom to which he has laid claim.

The invitation to enjoy rather than understand poetry has to be got across to readers before we can regain a general readership for poetry. There's a general belief out there (not discouraged by review writing) that you always have to understand poetry. This is already resulting in people only buying what poetry they are told to like, and/or baby poetry.

So, Ira Lightman is a poet and artist who, a rebel with words and sound, makes you listen and hear what you weren't expecting. He offers invigorating and different poetry, putting words together in a jolting, unnerving but highly enjoyable way and taking you to the heart of language. By contrast Helen Ivory, equally poet and artist, comes over as well behaved, sticking to simple form and traditional syntax, while actually having unnerving (and secretly enjoyable) things to say. Thus she tales you to the heart of her subject.

Both these poets are highly contemporary in outlook and offer important ways forward for the current poetry scene.

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