Secret Meanings: 3 Collections

The Man Who Spoke to Owls
, David H.W. Grubb (112pp, Shearsman)
Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth,
Adrienne Rich (112pp, 10.99, Norton)
, Kerri Finlayson (84pp, 8.95, Shearsman)

The Man Who Spoke to Owls, by David HW Grubb, the latest in his prolific career, is a collection shot through with religion, mining as it does his Christian upbringing for imagery, rhythm and subject. This manifests itself most often in the presence of angels, which feature heavily in the poems, called up to represent emotions, places and causal influences, featuring as metaphor 'Sunlight against the door like a stricken angel' ('Fire Sermons for James Agee and Walker Evans') or as the protagonists of the poems.

His use of the supernatural, as well as his exact descriptions of time and season, bring to mind the work of John Burnside, particularly the Burnside of The Myth of The Twin
. The collection exists in the same shadowy in-between world of nature and spirit which Burnside traverses, but the voice here is wilder. The sparse punctuation and long sentences give the impression of being talked at by a mad, muttering voice, but one that is both eloquent and captivating. This effect is augmented by the logic of the lines, at times surreal or seemingly random: 'sometimes it is so cold it makes me think of whales' ('Emily Dickinson and the Snow Days'), yet having the irrefutable quality of gnomic utterances: 'Every silence has its own gardener' ('Every Silence').

Although the voice is different, pieces such as 'The Colour of Angels' and the sequence of Blue poems later in the collection, recall Wallace Steven's use of colour:

         the brown angel, bark dark with slats of green
     and eyes like an early autumn morning

     the exploding parrot blue, the blue of the window that is not there
Secret meanings of nature, hidden things of the world, these are themes that recur, and his description of 'The Blue Dogs of Albania' sums up the poems nicely:

     packs of them dodging in and out of shades and shadows
     and things that have been, seeking the unexpected and hidden
     and used, a ghost here and a buried thing there

There were a couple of occasions when I had to pause to wonder if what seemed to me a spelling mistake or grammatical error was due to the author or the proof-reader. As nothing would have been lost by correction, I can only conclude it was a proof-reading slip. A very minor quibble with an otherwise highly enjoyable collection

Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth by Adrienne Rich is, like Grubb's, sparsely punctuated. However, unlike Grubb's, in which it served to heighten the manic voice of the poems, here it seems rather to be a confidence in the rhythm produced by language and the decision to allow the poems to do their work with a minimum of punctuation.

An interplay of delicate lyrical lines work alongside tougher more intellectual ones to produce the effect of a multi-faceted mind working through ideas, sifting images and thoughts and presenting them in a fragmentary fashion. This method of fragmentation and connection can at times seem confusing, yet even when a line or whole poem is not easily comprehended, there is still no doubt that a master of language is at work, and Rich is willing to break from the complexity for moments of quiet: 'kite snarled in a cloud / small plane melted in fog' ('Wallpaper') 'In the marine an allegro creaking / boats on the tide / each with its own sway / rise and fall' ('Skelton Key').

The abiding theme of this collection is of loss, and there is certainly an end-of-days feel to some of the pieces: 'In a desert observatory, under plaster dust, smashed lenses / left by the bombardments, // star maps crackle, unscrolling.' The Bush regime recurs, though never named, as a symbol of lost hope. A quote from Dick Cheney concerning working 'the dark side' sparks off one of the most powerful poems in the collection, in which 'tears down carven / cheeks track rivulets in the scars / left by the gouging tool / where wood itself is weeping' and 'truth scrubs around the pedestal of the toilet'. Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth
is a collection that needs experiencing over time, and the shattered nature of the poems will leave lines sparking through your inner-ear.

Rooms, by Kerri Finlayson is the most cohesive of the three collections, linked as it is by two stories running in parallel: a young women becoming involved in film, and the development of film itself. Perhaps paradoxically for a collection concerning image, language itself is often in the foreground.

From the opening poem, 'Cave Painting', Finlayson is playing with the etymology of the word camera: 'Pictures about words / Words about pictures / Stanza about camera / Rooms about rooms.' Scientific terminology is also put to good use: 'proximal heat' ('First Cut') 'Shucked geometrice' ('Hypatias') 'Atoms self sew to new shape. / A polytomic ion finding balance as plastic.' This last quote taken from 'The Epistemology of Nitrate', in which short fragments, some new, some recurring lines from earlier poems, are arranged on the page in the shape of chemical diagrams and this is not the only 'concrete' poem in the collection.

The writing is rich and words are weighed with care. Often, short lines draw attention to the building blocks of the poems:

     To prevent a blur

     insert a

          ['Persistence of Vision']

and Finlayson is willing to play around with styles for effect, for example using the language of a screenplay in the poem 'Rough Cut' to distance the reader from the emotive subject of a father beating his daughter: 'Cut to: / His belt: / Splitting seams.' of course, as the poet intended, this distancing and stark approach leaves all the more for the imagination to fill in, thus heightening the effect and producing a subtle but devastating poem.

On the whole, and despite the many positives, this was my least favourite collection of the three, with a couple of poems feeling less complete than the others. But this is only to be expected from a debut collection, especially when compared to the long-standing work of Rich or Grubb and I will certainly be keeping an eye out for this writer in the future.

          Ben Parker 2009