Nothing Lingo-Arch or Campy

Birds and Fancies
, Elizabeth Treadwell (96pp, 8.95, Shearsman)
The Wife of the Left Hand, Nancy Kuhl (64pp, 8.95, Shearsman)
Stretch of Closures, Claire Crowther (103pp, 8.95, Shearsman)

Elizabeth Treadwell's is a difficult but deeply rewarding poetry. It has a precision and a tenderness all of its own. It's rare to find what one feels to be an absolutely perfect poem but '(firstborn)' strikes me as just that:

     chance is a grass sequinned
     mine is a heart unpinned
     for you are a love unend

To leave 'unend' hanging is a beautifully judged twist: intelligent, touching and unpretentious. Elizabeth Treadwell excels in these shorter poems, which are some of the best I've read in a long time. And she's not without humour either. Which is good: increasingly I find subtle humour rewarding in the more linguistically innovative work around at the moment. There seems almost no excuse for omitting it in an essentially playful art-form. And one can be playful without being flippant or losing sight of a seriousness of thematic or technical intent. It's also possible to be self-knowing without becoming lingo-campy or arch, as here:

     the prison of no past ,
     a christ in every literature.

     the floating grimace
     of personal despair.
     it's just a perspective
     that's all
     it is

     (thanks, thin goons of the mood police.)
     in the curse lots
     foreign words like little pets,
     with genders,
     & curls.

     the little words step down,
     in the windows of a church

      rub the idealist,
     the bulbous theme:
          ['(ii.)' from 'The false transgressive evangelista']

And there's an evocative synaesthesia at work in these poems too. Take 'starling compline': 'in the shape of a meadowlark the moon is singing'. It's hard to go wrong when your ear and eye are so exactly, delicately elliptically, attuned.
The book is made up of 5 sections, some of which contain 'collaborations' with the poet's young daughter, Ivy, who is a presence throughout.  In less skilful hands this could be mawkish but here it is simply beautiful. Take this excerpt from the opening prose poem 'in cabbage rose; or the mercy & glorie of Halcy':

     Remember, yes, in the day us say. Oh daughter
thou shalt grounde
     & playe, in these sweet days, happy happy shall you be, dressed
     like the sea, in cabbage-rose. In cabbage-rose.

This first portion of the book is called 'Long legged waders (or A History of English verse)' which sounds and, in the context of the sequence that follows, reads like a reference to Yeats' 'Long-legged fly'. Yeats' metaphor for inspiration is transformed by a sleight of hand animal-substitution into a symbol for the more conscious picking and choosing inherent in the creative processes Elizabeth Treadwell seems to favour. Treadwell's idea of incorporating conceits from earlier poetries into an uncompromisingly postmodern style in this section is a brilliant one, and perfectly judged, as the early English echoes of the above extract, I hope, demonstrate. To make this material into a prose poem is a stroke of genius. It's far from the only one in the book.

Nancy Kuhn's The Wife of the Left Hand is a different sort of beast. Her poetry is more sonorous, more discursive and almost Romantic. It focuses on romantic love and is consequently sensuous and alive to the minutiae of the moment. But again it retains a playfulness one would not always associate with such subject matter. In a neat Yin to Oscar Wilde's Yang Salome stares at the sun rather than the moon:

               It is easy
     to look too long. Eyes
     slip out of focus, things

     blur from shape to
     color. Before the world burns

     white, she sees the familiar curves
     of lip, hip, shoulder,

     the form she loved
          [from 'Salome Stares at the Sun']

The historical and mythological personages invoked in the book serve to illustrate what Nancy Kuhl terms in 'The Catherine Wheel' 'the persuasion of a thing left behind, forgotten'. This gives the collection an almost elegiac feel. The future tense is rarely employed and love, as the primary emotion explored here, exists in the present and the past. So the senses and memory take precedent over the imaginary but not, I hasten to add, over the imagination. The language and imagery in
The Wife of the Left Hand is nothing if not inventive and accurately-pitched:

     I am. I am. Falling. Like the downward
     stroke of a paintbrush, like a river turned
     cataract. People who fall

     find each other by bends where
     bones didn't heal right, by scabs,
     by swellings and scars...
          [from 'Pyramid']

There's a deceptive simplicity in Nancy Kuhl's work. She doesn't mess with punctuation or syntax and she has a refreshing directness of address, which is nevertheless tautly managed and never lapses into the merely conversational or mundane. I reckon this is a book with very wide appeal, and one that deserves it

Turning from this to Claire Crowther is to return to England with a pleasant bump, and a very slight sense of the confusion associated with jet-lag. Everything is similar but relationships with speech and space are subtly different. For a start Crowther's poems are, for the most part, set out more conventionally than either of the above writers and often employ a vernacular speech that seems quieter and rather like she's there speaking to you. It's a comfortable feeling, and I'd like to hear her read sometime: the poems seem well-suited to performance (by which I don't mean let's-all-take-our-clothes-off-and-shout-about-politics-performance: don't ask). She too writes extensively about relationships, and has an eye for detail, but her metaphorical world is decidedly English; even at times approaching Martian in its zanier moments:

     The sun earmarks the moment before
     coats fly out like quilted moths
     to nibble lanes and stiles...
          [from 'Divested Days']   

The poems I liked best in this collection were those that juxtaposed prose poetry with verse poetry.  The tension in the alternating rhythms creates some fascinating effects, and makes clear both the focal images and sonic points of pause and particular importance. Take this from 'Untethered':

     Seabirds are making chains, clattering white beads against the neck
     of the steeple, each bead winged to keep it high and circling.
     The red balloon rolls upright on the bank of the Elbe.
     Collapses several times.
     Your scalp shines as you climb in.

     I feel like a loaf baking.
     I cool my hand on the polished willow sill.

It's very well judged, like all the poems in this book. I sometimes wished for a bit more 'zing' here and there, but maybe I've been spoiled by the excitement and perhaps exoticism (I'm writing this from the Welsh borders, you know) of Elizabeth Treadwell and Nancy Kuhl.

         Nathan Thompson 2007