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January 22, 2011
Arlene Ang’s poetry was new to me, but her surreal and sometimes gnomic language surprised me out of my resistance to the apparent novelty of the jump-cuts of its surface images. Counter-intuition and the confounding of logic play their roles in releasing energy from the winding words of any poem. Obliquity is the risk: there are simply places so dark of sense that the reader may not choose to follow, or simply cannot follow. Seeing Birds in Church is a Kind of Adieu (the title offers a flavour of the language to follow) is more ingenious than it is benighted in extremes. This is a likeable, self-aware voice whose charms are those of surprise, poise and tone. I’d occasionally prefer more pressure to the triangulation of her line, voice and image - but as Arlene Ang writes:
This is not a poem
you want to read
if you’re looking for red squirrel,
found wisdom in stainless
pots, held hands
under a hot-air balloon.
The metre is uneven,
like the road to disco bars.
There was a time I called her
iambic because this was
how her small hand slipped
snugly into mine.
I choose my words with care:
she never liked my advice,
her etchings on the piano
grew fangs, we scheduled
the cat for therapy.
This is not the poem
you’ll enjoy if you’re after
a still life with apples.
Curious bystanders shouldered
each other to catch the last
scenes of that Saturday night.
Everyone was speechless.
Here’s the sum of a girl’s life:
mini-skirt, ecstasy, blue scooter,
shattered brick wall, blood on asphalt.
All brought with her allowance.
Her etchings on the piano grew fangs…The truth is Arlene Ang prefers to gain some frisson of response from her readership (she has published four previous collections) and this poem, for all its prosodic nonchalance, is gently devastating. Although her language might sometimes dare expectations, it never severs itself from some form of perceived reality. Arlene Ang does not create opaque poems. She writes poems that have the interior, and sometimes scarily clear, logic of dream:
The wheelchair restructures the landscape
outside the window. One’s neck movements
cause the steel handrims to plant a glimmer
in one’s eyes. A blink is a practice in flinching.
Some readers might feel that the impression left by such sentences is more like the sensual crossword puzzle that dreams leave weaving through a waking mind. Nevertheless, on the evidence of this book, Arlene Ang is a wide-awake writer and is certainly worth your attention.
Arlene Ang’s Seeing Birds in Church is a Kind of Adieu is published by Cinnamon Press, a publisher based in Blaenau Ffestiniog that has developed a broad and genuinely attractive list and which should be celebrated for its seriousness, tenacity and daring. The saints who run the small poetry presses are often under-praised or ignored even though the vitality of the poetry world is dependent on their labours. I’ve admired the work of Cinnamon since they started out.
Seeing Birds in Church is a Kind of Adieu, Arlene Ang, Cinnamon Press, pb., 80 pp., £7.99, ISBN 978-1-907090-06-6
Thank you to the editors of the magazine Magma, in which this piece first appeared.