Reading a new poet
Edited to add: There seems to be a formating glitch this week, and I can’t get the stanza breaks to show up in the quoted passages whatever I do. Quite frustrating as they are important in this case! I will keep trying to correct this.
Last week a new friend (thanks, Andrew) lent me a copy of a poetry collection by a poet I’ve never read, Carola Luther. So I thought I’d write this week about what it’s like to read someone new (to me) in a more honest and discursive fashion than is usually possible in a review or review essay.
The volume Andrew lent me is Luther’s first collection, Walking the Animals, published by Carcanet in 2004.1 I buy a lot of individual poetry collections, but almost always because I have read one or more of the poems — in a magazine or online or just flicking through right there in the shop. Less often, it’s because of an enticing review. Most reviews don’t seem to be good at making me want to buy poetry books: perhaps the problem is brevity — even in poetry magazines reviews are often very short — and also (ironically) because they all tend to be so positive. If everything is apparently wonderful, it’s hard to trust any particular recommendation.2 Occasionally, I buy an author I’ve read none of because of a critical endorsement, but this is quite rare and tends to be confined to poets of the past, not living writers — I first read both Basil Bunting and the American poet Robert Duncan (whom I’d never heard of at the time), because of passing references to them by Thom Gunn; and I bought editions of both Villon and Malherbe, years ago, after reading Bunting on them.
Back to Luther. To be honest, if I had seen this collection in a bookshop today, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up. I’m not that interested in literature about animals, especially anything at all whimsical or anthropomorphising (and Walking the Animals does sound a bit whimsical). In today’s context, too, I’d be wary of heavy-handed ‘eco-poetry’, which I often find a bit worthy. It’s a Carcanet collection, and Carcanet is one of the poetry presses who regularly publish poetry I particularly admire, so that would pique my interest. On the other hand, in recent years they seem to publish an awful lot — many, many new collections a year — and I feel the “brand” has been diluted a bit. I don’t assume I’ll be impressed by a new Carcanet poet now in the same way I did 20 years ago. (Though in point of fact, this collection is nearly 20 years old.) It has a strange semi-abstract cover, I think actually a blurred photo of model cows (?) in a line, and one of those vague sorts of blurb on the back (‘Carola Luther tracks journeys between disparate worlds’), which actually turns out to be quite fair once you’ve read the thing, but not at all calculated to make you want to read it. There’s also — more helpful — a proper eight line quotation and a ringing endorsement by Carol Ann Duffy (‘a wonderful new poet . . . Read her’).
So I approached this collection unusually neutrally, but it has won me over. Taken as a whole, it feels like the real deal: I mean that it is impressive and engaging in its formal variety — I want to see what a poet can do — and not constrained by a rigid or oppressive theme (I find a lot of contemporary collections much too worried about their thematic coherence, as if we read poems like fiction). But it feels curated — refined down — and not too packed: reading it, you can half imagine all the similar but not-quite-as-good poems that didn’t make the cut, and I really appreciated the lack of ‘flab’. With only 45 poems, I’d guess it’s fairly average for its time but slim by contemporary standards.3
I said the title of the book made me fear a degree of whimsy and actually the first poem (from which the title is taken) is rather whimsical. It begins:
She lets out her animals down by the canalwhen no one is looking. Opens the hinged
ribs under her coat saying come on now
sweethearts, out you come, come out quickly!
The poem describes a series of released animals, a sort of reverse Noah’s ark of singletons (‘It’s the giraffe she has trouble with’; ‘The parrot / and the carp, nippy little twisters’; ‘the cheetah’s weeping’). I don’t love the tone of this poem, but I was immediately arrested by the technical skill of that first stanza, and the control of the piece overall. This is a poet who knows just what she is doing. Matching sounds never quite rhyme but tie together the ends of lines 1 (‘down by the canal’) and 3 (‘come on now’), and 2 (‘Opens the hinged’) and 4 (‘come out quickly!’): the stanza has a real cadence and it sounds complete. The combination of a straightforward, even matter-of-fact tone and diction with moments of surrealism (‘hinged / ribs’) is also very effective, and quite typical of the collection as a whole.
But even though it’s the source of the book’s title, and some aspects turn out to be characteristic, this opening poem isn’t really representative of the collection. Luther’s poems are more often about landscape or interactions with landscape than animals as such, and the hint of whimsy in the opening poem is really confined to it. I didn’t find it anywhere else and I’m not sure why the press chose this poem to lead, and title, the collection. If I had bought the book hoping for lots of slightly fey and surreal poems about a woman and animals, I’d be disappointed.
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But that’s not at all the collection we have. The book is formally quite varied and ambitious, with poems of all lengths and shapes, from epigrams to sequences, and the characteristic tone is one of emotional restraint. Luther is very good at shaping poems aurally so that dispersed sounds in the opening parts of poem gradually coalesce. This excellent poem, ‘Landing near Halifax’, is a good example:
I know this sky. Its runnels, channels
thickets, its thorns of ice. The drop
to the moist grey mounds, the hiss
of space. I lean on an easterly, ride
its lithe spine. I watch the earth
slide round its stone. I await my exit
trail fingers in light. I could roll up
that stream, make ammonite.
Or hang that road over a stick
slack as milked snake. But I take
the descending spiral. The fall
is quick. Mass. The pull of my feet.
What I have come from shrinks, a gap
between hills. Weather swarms.
Wall looms. Furrows fill. A field
full of sorrows. Here it rains, weight
on my hair, wet on my face. I land.
Feel the stones grow in my space.
This is actually a much more ‘typical’ poem for the collection than the title piece. Several of the elements here — sky, water, movement; the pleasures of a distanced perspective; the pain of reentry — recur repeatedly. It’s precise and witty as well as beautiful. There’s a sense of literary depth, too, though lightly worn. I hear a hint of Wordsworth (‘rolled round in earth’s diurnal course / With rocks, and stones, and trees’) as well as a glimpse of the angel’s eye view on the descent to earth. (Or Satan, that fallen angel, in Paradise Lost: surely that fantastic image of the road, ‘slack as milked snake’, is not accidental.) In fact, the next poem, ‘Pull’, picks up on the implicit angel of this piece, beginning: ‘Few angels visit now. They’ve moved / inward and starward, and finally dropped / the myth of wings.’
I really enjoyed the clever, sad, wonderfully tight break-up poem ‘Pros and Cons’, which reminded me of several poets I enjoyed reading in the late 90s — people like Simon Armitage, Philip Gross, George Szirtes, Fleur Adcock and Helen Dunmore. This is another beautifully structured poem; like its narrator, it keeps itself carefully controlled. It’s quite long, but here’s the first half:
I watch the coloured roofs of six-inch cars moving,
and on the top floor of the tower block I understand
it is over. I still haven’t thrown away the typewriter
or the copper Impala clock made on the Witwatersrand.
The pros had been the sky, the tops of trees. Loving
takes more than a middling view — I heard this often
but it didn’t sink in, though we agreed about the kidney bowl
gleam of the lift, and the bleached beige landing. (Softened
I thought, by homely touches, for example the landing on eight:
personally, I loved the cactus and poster of the desert sunset
but here we differed.) The morning that she told me, she dropped
her coffee in her rush to get ready, staining the velvet
pyjamas I’d got her for Christmas. Being late
for work had always upset her so I carried on typing
beside the poinsettia with my wine gums and tea, thinking
Must clean up that coffee, get rid of that clock. [. . . ]
This poem is unusual in the collection for its lack of surreal or suprising metaphor — no rolled up stream ammonite or milked snake road here. Read alongside the other poems, that is part of its emotional and rhetorical restraint. But other poems are also pared back in different ways; a couple are almost epigrams. This one reminded me a bit of the short poems by Allnutt and Chappuis I wrote about a while ago:
The day before the war the sun
lies on the field quiet as cloth.If the wind blows, it blows gentlyleaving no trace of itself in the grass.Shadows stretch out reflectingblack wing-tips experiencing blue.Sun like hands upon the field.Quiet hands, washed, soft as cloth.
If there’s a central theme to the collection it’s not animals, but movement, especially unwilling or unchosen travel — displacement and migration. Late in the book, a sequence of nine poems, each a page long, with the overall title ‘Searching for the Point Marked X’ tells a kind of disrupted story of migration — census, departure, companion, crossing. I thought this sequence was interesting but finally a bit frustrating. The suggestive, implicit, sidelong ‘plot’ of the characteristic Luther poem is fascinating and moving encountered individually, but (for me at least) a bit frustrating when extended over a sequence of poems which all invite, but evade, a narrative interpretation. The sequence of poems suggest a ‘story’ that we’re not quite being given.
The collection doesn’t end, however, with this sequence but instead with a rather remarkable set of three poems called ‘What the buddha saw’. These poems hint, too, at displacement and dispersal, but their vantage point is (almost) entirely stationary: that of the statue of the Buddha in a semi-suburban setting, in a garden outside a house with a warehouse opposite. Various characters, some named and some unnamed, come and go regularly into the house and to and from work in the warehouse, but the Buddha’s only movement is to be turned round towards the end of the first poem, to face the warehouse and not the house. Here’s the poem from just before its half-way point:
They enter the warehouse, sign in, check mail, tease Lester Jack.
Through the office window, Jamila looks at the buddha’s round back.
In the break, Lester tells Jamila he’d do anything if dared.
‘It’s my personality,’ he says, while Liane raises her eyes
to the ceiling and Soraya shakes her head. ‘OK Tiger,’
Jamila says. ‘That buddha in the garden opposite. I dare
you to turn it round.’ ‘What do I get?’ asks Lester Jack. ‘No kick
in the butt,’ says Liane. ‘A little less flack.’ Next day the figure
of the buddha smiles straight into Jamila’s eyes.
‘Thanks Lester,’ Jamila says. At dinner she buys him banoffi pie.
The buddha sits on his green plinth. Now sees the dawn
whitening the east. Watches the gravel leading to the gate
in the concrete wall, and the black shoes of the neat man going,
his neat shod feet coming back. Watches the ivy
growing up the wall, and pink flounces landing on the path.
And then there’s the woman, knowing
what she knows, watching him through the window over the street
smiling at his stone smile, at his tummy, resting on his stone feet.
In this collection which is always on the move, the forced constraint of the Buddha’s perspective has produced something quite remarkable. Formally, this poem is in eight-line stanzas, with rhymes or partial rhymes linking lines 3 and 6, and the closing couplet (7 and 8), with a whole series of internal rhymes too. (Luther is particularly good at the perfectly placed internal rhyme.) There’s a hint here of the kind of “ordinary people talking at work” that Wendy Cope used to do so well. I think Luther had learnt from Gunn, too, whose long study of seventeenth century poetry stood behind his remarkable ability to put conversation into verse. But the poem goes somewhere much stranger and more profound than any of Cope’s best poems, much though I admire them, and the perspective is very different from anything in Gunn. I found this sequence, and especially this first poem of it, very moving and original, as well as remarkably executed.
As I’ve been working on this little essay, I notice that I have compared Luther mostly to poets who were prominent in the 90s and early 2000s, which corresponds with the date of the collection. That prompted me to wonder who is writing in this sort of way today. The collection that came to mind for me is an American one, Joshua Mehigan’s excellent Accepting the Disaster, which I only read last year but, having checked, I see was actually published in 2014. If you can think of other contemporary poets Luther reminds you of, I’d be very interested to know. For now, I will certainly be ordering her more recent collections. If you are tempted, I notice that several very affordable copies of Walking the Animals are currently available on Amazon in the UK, and you can buy it too in the US and in France for only a little more.
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Since first drafting this, I have looked her up and I see she has published two further collections. I am planning to get hold of them, but at this point I’ve only read this first collection so apologies to Carola if her work has developed quite differently since.
Though here the Friday Poem deserves particular commendation I think, and not just because I sometimes write for them. This is a platform that gives you the length you need for generous quotation and encourages honest responses. It is also (I can vouch from experience) edited with impeccable care and judgement by Hilary Menos.
Why have poetry collections got so much longer? It’s not as if even good poets write very many good poems. I asked this question quite recently. Someone gave me a good answer and to my shame I’ve forgotten what it was. Any ideas, please comment!