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What Darkness Covers by Tony Curtis, 87pp, £8.95, Arc Publications
The Street of Clocks by Thomas Lux, 67pp, £6.95, Arc Publications, Nanholme Mill, Shaw Wood Road, Todmorden, Lancs, OL14 6DA
A small, beautiful woman,
she turned heads on the street
and my heart on the pillow.
This extract from Tony Curtis’ poem ‘One Hundred’, is subtitled ‘A man on the radio talks about being 100 years old’. The collection is full of old people’s voices. The problem is that none of the voices seem natural. The extract above is not conversational language, but highly poetic. Another example is from ‘Currach’, when a grandfather is reported to have said
is a steady course,
Again, in ‘Juliet Sleeping’, a grandmother mentions that it is
and this child is dreaming
the brown into her eyes.”
Even if Curtis is using real voices, then he uses them in a contrived way. He uses monologues as a cover, to enable him to slip in poetic sentiments, which would otherwise be unacceptable. It is patronising to think that old people are given to sloppy, romantic musings. Coupled with this Curtis’ poem ‘The Weight of the World’ presents a woman as a figure of pity:
An old woman in the market asks
the fishmonger for a pound of kippers.
“Sorry love,” he says,
“we only do kilos now.”
“Alright so,” she says
“a pound of kilos please.”
He seems unable to engage with his subjects, except through the veil of his own preconceptions. The poem above is one of three ‘found’ poems, but found means searched out and carefully selected. He’s selected it to support his argument, which is given as an epigraph to the collection, from Samuel Beckett’s Worstward Ho: ‘All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ The poem shows the woman trying, and failing. The poems are forced to support this message, and the characters never allowed to speak for themselves – so the voices all sound the same.
Failure is not just for old people, though. Other ends-of-life are presented. There’s a war veteran, ‘Jimmy’, who spectacularly has ‘a glass eye, / a useless arm’ but ‘the gentlest soul’. There’s the fat woman in ‘Big’ who manages to find herself ‘gorgeous’. But the fact that Curtis singles these people out shows that he views them as freaks, and this stifles the message of acceptance and love the poems attempt to convey. He admits this in his poem ‘The Bateman Sisters’: ‘So what is it in me that cannot celebrate/their beauty’? We get Curtis’ hang-ups: he imposes himself instead of allowing the subjects to speak for themselves. Despite using quotations, monologues, and found poems, there is only one voice.
So in control is Curtis, that he leaves little room for the reader. For example, his sequence of poems ‘Gallery’ is ‘after Paintings by Lucien Freud’. This is a safe choice – the conceit of basing poems on paintings in an old one, and Lucien Freud is both a widely known and popular artist. Similarly, the truisms and lightly humorous poems – visible in the extracts above – are designed to be comfortably recognisable rather than stimulating.
In this collection, the reader is lulled, instead of being driven to think. Line breaks are unimaginative, often ending on nouns or even punctuation Similes are clumsily dragged in to support an idea, but are lifeless in themselves: in ‘Portrait’, wanting to emphasise the aesthetic aspect of the woman, he says her legs spread to ‘open’ her ‘like a flower’. And Jimmy’s problems forgetting the war leave him to speculate over nipples ‘smooth as bullets’ in the bedroom. Metaphors are so vague as to be impossible to picture: he’s ‘a keeper of stillness, /a moonface at the window,/a love gone to darkness’. Last lines clumsily try to give the poems greater significance: on footsteps he writes ‘As I woke, they died away’. Otherwise, the endings are similar to soap-opera climaxes: ‘I’m here in the dark. I would not go.’ ‘I am happy to be alive.’ ‘I cover myself in the word of God.’ Even rhythm is sedative:
Now when I call, she says
“Step close and let me see you.”
Curtis’ desire for control has meant the poems are predictable and flat.
Thomas Lux also uses narrative. For example, an extract from ‘The Man into Whose Yard You Should Not Hit Your Ball’:
…if a ball crossed his line,
as one did in 1956
and another in 1958,
it came back coleslaw – his lawnmower
ate it up, happy
to cut something, no matter
what the manual said
about foreign objects,
stones, or sticks.
The man is in his garden, so is cut off from the outside world. The impression is of a man straining against enclosure, with small acts of defiance – he’s ‘happy/to cut something’. But that the acts are small (making coleslaw of footballs), and that he was mowing the lawn in 1956 and 1958, suggest he’s not so keen to get out. Perhaps he’s afraid to – the saying ‘sticks and stones will break my bones’ is invoked by the final line. In any case, the conjecture raised by the narrative is complex and interesting – but the poem itself – i.e., how the story’s told – becomes superfluous.
Also, Lux’s images sometimes try too hard to be interesting, but end up seeming to be empty posturing. There’s a predictable oddness, which goes with soft surrealism or magic realism, in the title of the collection, The Street of Clocks.
Luckily, Lux is self-conscious. The fun in reading The Street of Clocks is how the poems plays with themselves in a slapstick fashion. In ‘The Poison Shirt’ there are ‘people slumping – shhump – to the sidewalk’ There’s a lot of unsuccessful language, words that are there like blocks tripping the poems up. Lux knows this and uses it comic effect. The phrase ‘Bye-bye, baby,/oh Lord, baby, bye-bye’ sounds ridiculously camp and false in ‘Baby, Still Crying, Swallowed by a Snake’. Rhyme, in ‘Thomas the Broken-Mouthed’, seems to lead to a dead end, coupled with the faltering line-break of the third line (brilliant comic timing) – but works in the end to produce a striking fourth line:
…Thomas the Broken-Mouthed has a mission
within which is a vision,
is a tiny black fire…
The poems are like big chunky Fisher-Price toys, inviting the reader to come and play. It’s this engagement which makes the reader notice and explore the language. In a poem like ‘Regarding (Most) Songs’ the idea is very simple – it’s nice to hear singing – but the structure very varied. The message is clear – but, like crystal, the effect is created by the cut. Take this extract:
The human voice can sing a vowel to break your heart.
It trills a string of banal words,
but your blood jumps, regardless. You don’t care
about the words but only how they’re sung
The hint of emotion in ‘break your heart’ is emphasised by the break of the third line on ‘regardless. You don’t care’. This emotion contrasts with the solid first line, a self-contained sentence which puts its argument clearly, in a punchy iambic rhythm. Then the second line creates a quick change of pace, with longer vowel sounds. Then the fourth line gives information as directly as the first. One minute the poem seems to be presenting a cold observation, the next strong emotion. Like looking at a crystal from all angles, it reveals only to be that; its complexity entices the reader, but not to draw conclusions. The poem is all there is, and so the reader returns it.
The collection works without emotional ostentation or grand metaphor. It is direct. Lux’s great ability is that his poetry can make the simplest observation entirely arresting. Perhaps, without the somewhat limiting effect of narrative, the poems could have been even more involving. If Lux broke out of this limitation, concentrated more on ‘how they’re sung’, his poems would be amazing. As it is, this is still an excellent collection – and his first publication in Britain. The poem ‘Regarding (Most) Songs’ is perfect, and the book’s worth buying just for that.
© Thomas White 2003