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January 22, 2011

Seeing Birds in Church is a Kind of Adieu

Sketches

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.

‘One’

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.


January 20, 2011

Martin Figura: 'white light and the loose flapping sound of a film escaping its gate'

Patrin in Kerala

I’ve have a high regard for Arrowhead Press, a small but vital publishing outfit operating out of Darlington whose production values exceed those of many major commercial publishers. Arrowhead has produced a range of fabulous poetry books (very often in hardback) and their choices of poets – among them Linda Saunders, Matt Merritt, Jennifer Copley - is always astute. Their publication of the late William Scammell’s Selected Poems was notable and welcome.

Once again, Arrowhead has chosen expertly in publishing Martin Figura’s spellbinding sequence of poems, Whistle (I prefer to call Whistle a single, total poem, in the same way that Paterson or Gaudete or What the Water Gave Me are total poems). Whistle is a nightmare of domestic violence and highly recognisable reality. I think this poem is magnificent and genuinely haunting. While the story is simple, the storytelling is elliptical, spare and fearless. The real-life narrative explores the poet’s childhood, his cross-cultural parentage and upbringing, his father murdering his mother, and the consequences of the killing on the whole family.

Figura writes the story in fragments (fragments that work as independent lyric poems). What the poet chooses to scrutinize is significant but what he chooses to leave out achieves a greater resonance for the whole cycle of observations. For example, the murder is not described but only imagined - and only then in passing (in all honesty to a child’s perception and memory). The feelings of the child are realised through the recollection of perception; they are not vocalised; this poem does not scream and shout. The writing is not attention-seeking, but it is attentive - even to ‘the uncertain image’. This is the whole of ‘Vanishing Point’ which takes place shortly after the mother has died, the father arrested, and an uncle is taking the children – temporarily, we find out – under his roof:

The rear window flickers into life as we pull away,

the uncertain image of a boy on a bicycle appears,

behind him a painted backdrop of the avenue,

its sycamore trees and pebble-dashed houses:

Piggotts, Mitchells’, Mrs Donnelly’s with all

its confiscated footballs, her poodle yapping

at the fence. Children’s games are caught

in mid-air, at the height of their action.

Uncle Philip turns onto the busy road. The boy

pedals like mad to stay with us, but we stretch away

and leave him stranded, disappearing.

Then there is just white light

and the loose flapping sound

of a film escaping its gate.

This is scrupulously expressed and rewards even further re-reading as a description of how it feels to have your childhood wholly destroyed; how it feels to be aware of the finality of that obliteration; and how it feels to stare across, as through a film, to a far shore from which you’ve departed forever. Yet it is all rendered true by the image of those confiscated footballs. Of all the books of poetry I read last year, Whistle is the one that haunts me most. It touches a place within you that will never heal. You push it away like a ghost. You pull it towards you in memory.

Whistle, Martin Figura, Arrowhead Press, hb., 76 pp., £10.00, ISBN 978-1-904852-26-1

Thank you to the editors of the magazine Magma, in which this piece first appeared.


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