-Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey-
These two poets inhabit entirely different worlds, not just because they come from different generations, but in their approach to poetry, Topping’s being more traditional and De’Ath’s experimental. The overall word that comes to mind when considering Topping’s chapbook is ‘clarity’. She focuses on objects that have a symbolic value for her and personal experiences, such as ordinary day-to-day moments with loved ones; the loss of a long-time poet friend, Matt Simpson, and also of her parents. The collection opens with two quotations, one by Simpson: ‘the disorder of gulls in a pleasure of words/the glint of the mullet, the pigness of pigs’. This sets up an expectation. In her opening ode, ‘I Sing of Bricks’, she describes ‘Warm cakes of baked clay/exact corners/strictly rectangular/correct and/all the same/yet each one/slightly different.’ So far, ‘the pigness of pigs.’ But in spite of the assertion in one poem that ‘there is no order’, for this reader at least, there is not enough ‘disorder’ here. Thankfully, there is the pleasure in ‘Bricks’ of ‘your masculine charms’ and ‘little loaves/you make up the smallest/pig house’, which redeem the poem for me.
However, not many of the poems allow the reader to ‘let your eyes gaze out of focus’ (‘Snakewatching’). In ‘Kitchen Ghosts’, the suggestion of a presence is beautifully conveyed with the seemingly last lovely lines: ‘Each morning, I hope for/lemon drizzle cake, two/pieces missing,/two empty cups.’ But turn the page and you discover three more lines, which spoil that last image: ‘Fool. They’re both long gone./Ghosts in the kitchen?/If hope could only make it so.’ When clarity becomes over-explanation, there is nothing left for the reader to imagine.
To my mind, the pleasure when reading poetry is in discovery. The poems here are for the most part straightforward, so it’s a delight to find a striking image, such as with ‘The Cook’s Tale’: ‘I select each vegetable and fruit/by the intimacy of touch, weight in the hand’ or with Three Ways of Snowdrops:
‘Their folded hands commit
Small white prayers
In the night’s confessional.
Mea culpa, mea culpa, they say
Nun-like heads bowed,
In the blankness of winter gardens.’
Similarly, ‘Gardening at Sylvia’s’ has some magical images: ‘The lilies are white cups of wine…Yellow crocuses burn in the grass/like eyes. Around the white beehives/the air hums with secrets…Pale moons of honesty/need harvesting for seed, but the heart’s/ gone out of it.’ Her nature poems, in fact, are where Topping’s imagery becomes alive; in ‘Heron’, her apples are ‘wormy windfalls, bruised and tart.’
Andrew Duncan once wrote that in defining why a poem is attractive, ‘we realise that there is an overall feel that emerges from the decisions about phrase and line juncture, that it is like the camera-pen (camera-stylo) which Alexandre Astruc posited as personal style in film.’ In the case of a collection or chapbook, these perhaps unconscious choices frame an overall consciousness and give a poet’s work its individual quality.
The danger of straightforward poetry is that it loses its power to occupy the mind. It arouses very few associations because it is straightforward. In some of these poems, however, the reader also senses a grief that goes beyond the mourning of a friend. One poem, ‘Johari Whispers,’ hints at secrets: ‘a whisper here would be too loud’. It also stands out as being one of two poems with the layout of a double poem – or one across two columns – so there is an invitation to read it both down the page and across, suggestions of double entendre. The second poem in this form, ‘Each Blade Singly’ also mentions ‘secret life’ and ‘order’: ‘there is no order’. So while Topping’s poems generally offer a plain glass view of the world, these latter poems have a welcome ‘strangeness’ to them.
If ‘clarity’ defines Topping’s work in general, ‘strangeness’ defines De’Ath’s’s debut chapbook. Her opening series of ‘Poetry for Boys’ opens with an oxymoron:
‘That the Joy will soon come and make you suffer!’ The first poem is an unexpected play on words, conveying atmosphere rather than sense:
‘Lay low in the words of the wood
very subtle, not immune,
lay down in the snow and incline…
…the screwing over, resin delight
delightful residual meaning, still night.’
Exciting syntax pulses through these poems, sustaining our interest and attention. Of course, attention is a voluntary thing; in my opinion, we are interested if the poet seems interested. Here, embedded in the chaos is a bizarre sense, which claims its space. There is a strong consciousness of the poet’s engagement with this work, as well as wit and a lightness of touch:
The house is full of dehumidifiers. Behind the house
a warm damp world enlarges itself, puffs
leaves and shelled birdsong along in it, and a baby crying
and deeds of courage.
Just as you are beginning to feel that this is a logic that can be followed, De’Ath throws in dadaist-type oddities – to keep us on our toes:
‘If the sea is the swan road you can
Appropriate the lake-lady just by laughing.’
Of course, the natural human tendency is to seek a narrative seam; to hunt for the sense and latch on – and thankfully in these poems there is a central concept holding them together. The title, Erec & Enide, comes from Chrétien De Troyes’ twelfth century Arthurian romance, and many of the poems are love poems – although even tenderness is disguised with ironic anti-romanticism. One such poem – one of the most accessible – is ‘David’:
Man obscure and B sharp. Sympathy
Forever for living in a wheelchair, the man
Who on reaching critical mass is shot
Out of a Mossberg 12ga. and into my
Mouth. David leaves my mouth/
Sedated but soon he rocks down
To the Costcutter to buy beans.
David, reign in your keynote speech
At the Costcutter. David made of
Oak. David diamond.
Other poems are sunk further in obscurity – sometimes too much so: ‘I believe a readable face as crickets/swallow gleaming buildings full of/living banking hearts,/ I believe the grand ineloquence of/summer’s glue talking to you as if/pink axes in our reach,/and you, a click-clack landscape now/your thundering hero-organs chime a way into my laundry tub.’ (Sonnet). Where the risk for Topping is to be too overtly explanatory, De’Ath’s is to be too obfuscated. (Also, De’Ath’s line breaks are often risky, many lines ending with conjunctions or prepositions, contributing to the sense of instability.) Such poems appear to give over instead to the pleasure of soundscape, as with ‘Lisa Jarnot’s Rabbit’:
‘How to glide on promise
hunted hunted honed the sky
alone lacking ground a sky
alone on the border of a shadow
of a cloud betrothed and hunted
De’Ath plays music all the way through the side-stepping of logic. Yet in the apparent randomness of many images, repetitions and loops emulate the patterns of activity in the brain. This is De’Ath’s strength. Her poems are attuned to the body, to language, and most of all, to multiplicity. Ultimately, she knows what she’s doing:
‘Stranger, it’s a hunger I’m looking for.’ (Part 4 of Five Exits – Imagination.)
Simultaneity is the key to suggestivity, which permeates this collection. This, as well as De’Ath’s qualities of pitch and timbre, the oscillatory swellings up or vanishings to nothing – these give her surreal montages a subjective yet stylized sense of contemporary reality: ‘everyone endeared to the lyrics and here for proof’. Now her challenge is ‘how to glide on promise’.
These poems reflect our ‘folded times’ and introduce an exciting new voice.