Vol 94 No 1
Review: Ann Sansom In Praise of Men and Other People; Carolyn Forché, Blue Hour, Bloodaxe Books, £7.95, ISBN 1852246189
Review: Ann Sansom In Praise of Men and Other People;
Carolyn Forché, Blue Hour, Bloodaxe Books, £7.95, ISBN 1852246189
As its title suggests, Ann Sansom’s new collection is densely populated. The men come in many different guises: friends, brothers, uncles, dentists, sons, absent lovers, porters, policemen-turned-driving-instructors. The women, too, are many and various, ranging from fifteenth-century nuns to a convict’s wife to the outrageous grandmother Nancy with “the corrugated hair, / the pearl-drop earrings, her fingernails a set of tiny pillar-boxes” and “her final word on everything . . . . arseholes”. The poems bristle with the catch-phrases of an extended family. Yet familiarity here does not mean safety. Although Sansom wrily declares, in “Crooks”, that “Good fences / make good neighbours, especially if / they’re your uncles, brothers, nephews”, what is tribal is elsewhere seen as narrow and constricting, as in “Pedigree”, in the comments passed on an educated, runaway cousin:
They wonder how you manage to survive, exiled,
way off your own patch. No word. Not hide nor hair.
The little bitch. And I wonder what you’ve taken
from their wisdom. Keep your head down
when you can’t keep your nose clean.
Like so much of the advice offered in these poems, this is not necessarily helpful or relevant when put to the test. Uncle Jack’s comment on playing patience both inhibits a later relationship and becomes a comment on its failure: “Place Your Lousy Rotten Cards Girl / in Some Frigging Sort of Order”. “How to Survive at Sea” begins with relative confidence, “It’s tricky so make sure you have the book to hand”, but discovers that in practice the guide reduces to a handful of garbled phrases, and concludes urgently, interruptedly: “Don’t have your kids aboard Don’t”. These poems are characteristic in the way they fuse multiple narratives. Sansom rarely sees less than double – and frequently more. In “Water Feature”, for example, the fountain improvised from “a green brass H tap out of his shed”, a central heating pump, “a couple of nuts off a boiler he was saving” and quarter of the landing mirror, is first a matter of pride, a showpiece for the writer’s ingenuity, inherited from the unnamed “him”. It quickly shifts to a source of anxiety, as a blue tit takes his reflection for a tantalizingly unavailable mate – “a minor tragedy … he won’t give up”. But just as this seems to have established itself as the true subject of the poem, the focus shifts back to the writer:
You say out loud to an empty room
the stamina of love. But then again,
it’s late, you recognise a hopeless cause.
Hard luck. You drop the blind
who’s crying, who gives a flying.
Which is when he rings. You hesitate.
This is the writer’s ingenuity in a whole new guise: each part of the narrative is correlative, none is objective, and the balance between them reveals an improvisation that is both physical and emotional.
In the face of such uncertainties, there are poems – like those for Sansom’s son – which read like protective charms against a hostile or indifferent environment, poems that delight in a moment’s communication without words. Yet there are also traces of an almost feral independence; a remarkable number of Sansom’s women speak openly of having children as the event which most restricted their choices, and their view is echoed in the first person in “This is the life”, where, for thirty or forty minutes between trains, “This is
the life / in which I never fell in love. // This steamy idleness is all my own, / a life in which my children were not born.” However, it is echoed with a difference. The enjoyment of the interlude is real, but it hinges on the fact that it is an interlude. A liberating exhilaration at the downfall of habit recurs in one of the last poems in the book, “Idling”, where Sansom records a house fire so obliquely that it creeps up on the reader as subtly as on the unsuspecting inhabitants. It opens as a domestic idyll: “A last peaceful cigarette. The bottles rinsed, / lined up in the crate, the cat browsing the step”, and in a strange way remains so, as it comments on the unfamiliar beauty of the wreckage – “the gold-threaded ostrich egg of your melted phone” – to reimagine the beginnings of the conflagration in almost cosy terms: “wires undress under floorboards … your wardrobe warms towards its contents”. Yet in face of this danger that quite literally begins at home, the final poem offers an incantation: “… a form of words / to drive it out and keep it out. Enough.” Asking, like Eyam, “too late, / a miracle and just this once”, this compelling volume of conflicting advice, conflicting loyalties, and skilful ventriloquy ends unambiguously on Sansom’s own voice: momentarily, something solid, perhaps.
Carolyn Forché’s fine collection is an extended meditation on the
multiple resonances of her title, Blue Hour.As she explains in a note, its origin is the French phrase, “l’heure bleue, the light between darkness and day”. This is also the first meaning in the title poem, which opens with the poet’s young son asleep in Paris,“wrapped in a towel of lake scent”, the summer of the Paris bombings. But as is quickly apparent from the interweaving of other recollections, of the poet’s own childhood, of her mother, and her mother’s mother, shockingly dead in an asylum fire, the literal sense is only a springboard for a complex of other meanings. In Forché’s use, as in Tibetan Buddhism, “the hour before dawn is associated with the … ‘clear light’ arising at the moment of death … not a light apprehended through the senses, but … the radiance of the mind’s true nature”.
It is this meaning of the title phrase that is foremost in the long poem “On Earth” which constitutes over half the book. It is a work of extraordinary difficulty and still more extraordinary lucidity.Modelled on Gnostic hymns of the Middle Ages, it consists of a series of short images, thoughts, and perceptions, for the most part only a single line in length, each more – or less – complete in itself. The ordering principle is that of the abcedary: the first phrases begin “a b…”, and the poem runs through the alphabet, from “a barnloft of horse dreams, with basin and bedclothes / a bit of polished quiet from a locked church / a black coat in smoke” to “your mother waving
goodbye in the flames / your notebooks, the sorrow of ink // your things have been taken / your things have been taken away // zero.” In between, in strict order, come phrases beginning with every letter of the alphabet. This is, purposely, not an easy read. It is almost impossible not to seek out connections between adjacent phrases, attempting to link them into some kind of narrative or pattern of association. Occasionally, the attempt shockingly succeeds, as when “a bullet clicking through her hair” is followed by “a bullet-holed supper plate / a burnt room strewn with toy tanks / a century passing through it”, or when “a hotel haunted by a wedding dress” is followed, just ten lines later, by “a little hotel in the city with its windows open”. The first sequence suggests some kind of cause and effect, the second a mind circling round and revisiting a particular image. Yet the poem consistently resists such reading habits. Its epigraph speaks of “the recollections of a whole life” in “the immediate vicinity of death”, and the poem finds a way of expressing this “unaccustomed order of sensations”. By adopting a “mechanical” order, it subverts our expectation that words take place in time; it is as if the whole experience of the mind were presented at once.
Like Forché’s earlier work, Blue Hour is both intensely lyrical and
politically engaged; in “On Earth” in particular, the two are inseparable as the public and the private:
a white road billowing behind the relief trucks
a white road ending in one’s own life
a whitened eye clouded with gnats
a willow vase, more bedsheets flaring over the furniture
a wind lifting washed linen
Each of these things has been observed, equally. But although the poem forces the reader to read in a new way, it is highly aware that that is no answer to some of the conditions it describes: “and it is certain someone will be at that very moment pouring milk // and it is supposed that we are describing the world / and its corresponding moment in the past” are revisited in the negative: “someone will be pouring milk while another perishes”. On occasion the work seems to fear the chronological disintegration on which it depends: “meaning did not survive that loss of sequence”. It is true that “On Earth” ostensibly reflects the mind’s imminent loss of identity in death.Yet because it is alphabetically rather than narratively or chronologically ordered, the poem’s conclusion, “zero”, is not necessarily the “real” conclusion. Forché’s concern throughout the volume is less with an absolute loss than with the process of passing and the awarness of it. Only “Nocturne” is announced as “an elegy”, but many of the poems here are elegies for life and the urgent, incessantly recurring need to make sense of its accumulations: “The people of this world are moving into the next, and with them their hours and the ink of their ability to make thought”. In this, as much as in its more direct political engagement, Blue Hour is a shocking, exhilarating, and necessary work.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
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- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
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- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
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- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The