The Sadness of Animals
San Marco Press, £9
One has to welcome a poet who prefaces his first full-length collection with “It’s only words – Barry Gibb after Mallarmé.” It’s an acknowledgment of both of the Janus faces of poetry, the need for a singing contemporary line and “the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings”, although Morre makes it a matter of fencing with foils rather than sweaty person-on-person grunting. His is a poetry to be read under my apricot trees with “tall glasses clinking / with ice cubes” as he writes in Happy Hour. I wouldn’t take the likes of Jorie Graham there.
The Sadness of the Animals is a large collection of ninety pages, although its readability makes it seem shorter, and it is made up of an opening section of uncollected poems, occasional poems resulting from a meeting of writers where texts were written to prescribed themes, translations, and poems from three pamphlets of his work. Despite these divisions, there is a unity of tone over a range of themes ranging from poems about his family, to European adventures either real or made up. The poems have a surface dazzle, but are never frivolous, with moods various as weather, sometimes a scorching satire, often meditative and autumnal, occasionally grief mediated through elegiac forms. And, dammit, the poet lives in Venice.
The first part has a mixture of poems whose occasions are either personal or literary and artistic. The irony directed at Ernest Hemingway posing on a duck shoot “with the grappa / in a dapper holdall” is feline in its precision. The first three poems preceding this are equally elegant in their organisation of language, line and mimesis, as in the sibilance of the fourth stanza of the title poem where a medusa jellyfish floats into Morre’s scuba-diving view:
“For that instant though we knew it a
rubbery insensate processor of plankton,
it assumed all the sorrows of the ocean,
in a glassy precipitation of grief.”
That fourth line is very fine.
The next poem, Suburban Perseids, a personal favourite of the reviewer’s, contrasts the bizarre behaviour of a young neighbouring couple with his own sedate behaviour. They drink miniature liqueurs and throw the empties from their balcony. There is no comment on their behaviour, but the whole poem is built round images of light with the central image of the miniatures as shooting stars. The closing two and half lines clinch a poem which has taken a trivial incident and made it a notable addition to the theme of the contrast between youthful irresponsibility and sober middle-age:
“and a thin sun
illumined our kempt lawn,
iridescent with miniatures.”
The Occasional Poems and Translations, Mistranslations sections are all of a piece in tone with Morre’s original poems. The Sweet Kingdom and Home is Where I Hang my Hat are respectively equal to James Fenton and Kit Wright at their brilliant witty best:
“Home is where we await the hearse
a glass of wine, a book of verse:
many waiting rooms are worse.
Home is where we await the hearse.”
Morre’s versions of Philippe Jacottet led me to re-read a poet whose translations by Derek Mahon I’ve found somewhat dour, and in the first of the sections with poems taken from pamphlets, Fond Adieu’s dismissive scorn might make the Roman poet Martial envious. The poems hangs on the conditional “would”, beginning:
“I would like to tell you the cypresses
Grow a little taller round your plot,”
and going on to list a set of possible agreeable remembrances until the clinching finale
“that you’re missed …
such store by the truth.”
The quality of the poems never falters in this excellent collection, which concludes with an Epicurean postscript in the philosophical, not popular, sense that death is the end of both the soul and the body, and therefore should not be feared:
“Once your crib
nudged theirs from the nursery: they went
with fair grace. Now it’s you. Be content.”
Careless and Calculating
The Forgetting and Remembering of Air, Sue Hubbard,
Salt Publishing, £12:99
Sue Hubbard's third collection must be one of the last in the recently suspended series of individual collections of contemporary English-language poetry from Salt Publishing. It comes in their characteristically handsome hardback format, which failed to catch on despite publishing some outstanding work. Like all Salt poets, Sue Hubbard has a vigorous way with words, which is a desirable quality in any poet. It is always easier to refine material than augment it. However, she is also a careless poet ("blousy" in the poem, Over the Rainbow, should be "blowsy") not only technically, but in her choice of subjects. Some of her poems, particularly in the second section, re-open the question of decorum about matters which might be better passed over in silence.
The collection is ordered in three sections, the first, A Meaningful Speech, a miscellaneous selection encompassing personal relationships, nature and ekphrastic poems, which might be expected from an art critic. This section contains a number of fine poems. Klein's Blue enters into the imagined consciousness of the painter and performance artist Yves Klein, who worked entirely with a blue pigment of his own invention. Hubbard concentrates on the externals of Klein's art. Yet it is difficult not to detect Hubbard nudging the reader towards a view of Klein as some kind of sexist deviant: "Young girls, / their breasts and pubic hair //smeared in ultramarine / pinned down his sky / as he orchestrated them // in tuxedo and white gloves." There is also a gratuitous reference to Simone Weil in the phrase of "gravity and grace" which signals a larger problem with Hubbard's work.
The most satisfying poem in this section is Symmetry, a portrait of a neurotic control freak, where the couplets and frequent enjambment create a rhythm all of a piece with the subject. The last seven couplets are one long sentence whose expansion from the details of behaviour into a larger metaphor, "and lay our palms edge to edge / to measure the span of friendship, // its exact alignment, as Galileo once / measured the distance between sun and moon," lifts the poem to a larger significance with a compelling conclusion, "disrupting the precise symmetry - / like this, like this." In the title poem, Hubbard's ambition over-reaches itself not only in a portentous title of syntactical ambiguity but in a central long sentence, which fails to yield any sense: "How often we speak of the imperceptible gaps / between people and trees and clouds / as empty space, take for granted the air, that continual flow, in and out, feathering / the nostrils so there seems no connection / between inner and outer, the world and skin, / as we forget what is invisible, the richness / of the present and now." So not only is the reader to imagine the nostrils as oars, but also distinguish the difference in meaning of "the present and now."
The third section (I will discuss the second section later), The Idea of Islands, consists of poems based on Hubbard's visit to islands off the coast of south-west Ireland. It's not unusual for poets to hare off to remote spots in Great Britain and Ireland in search of their roots in windswept landscapes or to gain a perspective on the dark urban heart of Britain. Hubbard conjures a bleak pastoral vision out of a landscape whose presence on the web seems quite inviting, with cottages to rent, cliff walks and even an arts centre on Cill Rialaig where, according to Hubbard, "A drunken wind blew all night, / banging at doors, rattling windows / ill fitting as old men's teeth." There are noticeable debts to other poets, Ted Hughes in the phrase "anthracite dark" in The Idea of Islands and "a crow pecking / at bleached bones" in New Year, Seamus Heaney in the spare lines and the physicality of the description in St. Fionán, Dylan Thomas's "green fuse" in Possibility and R.S. Thomas's Iago Prytherch in Jimmy Murphy, where a striking image is ruined by a needless "like": "his flock, / their woolly backsides smeared in Day-Glo pink / like (my italics) muddy go-go dancers shimmying up the tussocked hills." Why not simply insert a comma after pink? Once more there is a gratuitous reference, in the phrase "rings of bright water" in Ballinskelligs, to the Scottish naturalist Gavin Maxwell's famous book. Glenelg, where Maxwell lived, is probably even further from London than Ballinskelligs. And Hubbard should pay more attention to the sense of individual lines, otherwise what is the purpose of writing in verse rather than prose? In Bólus Head we read at one point the risibly ambiguous "and brown shivering behind" which runs on to "the dry stone wall." Heaney wouldn't make that mistake.
All these negative points might have been cleared up with rigorous editing. Certainly there is enough time between acceptance of a manuscript and publication for a poetry editor to go through poems line by line and ask the poet to fix weaknesses. However, the poems in the second section, Over the Rainbow, have more serious failings. It contains nine poems on famous suicides by women. Of these, Over the Rainbow, about Judy Garland's death, despite the spelling mistake is the most successful, but Note for Ted and Black Widow demonstrate serious failings in Hubbard's sensibility and, in my opinion, should not have been written. The first of these is spoken in the voice of Ted Hughes's second partner, Assia Wevill, who committed suicide and took their child with her. Hubbard writes in Assia's voice and accuses Hughes - "you never loved us enough for me to leave her here" - through his guilt at the death of Sylvia Plath. Writing in the persona of somebody who actually lived and died in such traumatic circumstances is a risky strategy even though such details as "you always gave off a butcher's smell" are taken from accounts of friends of Assia. The last line - "I can smell the Vosene in her new-washed hair," - whatever its origin, seems to have designs on the reader and is sentimental, in this context obscenely so.
The failings of Note for Ted pale in comparison with those of Black Widow. Like Note for Ted, the poem is written in the suicide's voice, this time that of a Palestinian woman suicide bomber. The motivation of the woman is revenge for the death of her husband rather than political or religious reasons. This puts it in to the realms of melodrama rather than being an attempt to understand such desperation, and is not helped by the calculating wit of the title. Nor is it helped by Hubbard getting a detail completely wrong. She writes "binding the belt beneath my hijab". The hijab is a veil which covers the head and shoulders and is usually a delicate garment rather than one capable of concealing a bomb. Later, after she has committed suicide, Hubbard has her driver laugh "God is great, the stupid woman did it." This is merely an offensive attempt to win feminist sympathy. No extremist Muslim terrorist, man or woman, would say this. The Muslim paradise may be a sensual masculine garden, but a hadith of the prophet Mohammed states, "Paradise is under the feet of our mothers", implying that paradise for women is an unimaginable wonder. This poem brings into focus reservations about the collection as a whole, with its carelessness over versification, inappropriate references and calculated effects.
Hubbard should in future write poetry which does not attempt to push the buttons of received responses, but which is in service to the language in its effort to understand the world.