Hurt Thyself; Mercury, the Dime; and Sundial
[ poetry | bookreviews ]
Hurt Thyself, published by McGill-Queen's University Press, is Canadian Andrew Steinmetz's second collection. Steinmetz's poems are mostly written in the low style favoured by the likes of Michael Hoffman and Hugo Williams. A quotation from Williams - "What do they know of love / These men who have never been married?"- precedes the first and title poem, 'Hurt Thyself'. Like the afore-quoted Williams, Steinmetz's language is sometimes flat, always everyday, and yet his poems somehow avoid being at all prosaic. That infamous slasher of self-consciously poetic language, Ezra Pound, would approve of the title poem which contains not one single adjective, and a solitary adverb, the beautifully used exactly:
I hurt myself just by pretending you might
some day hurt me. Then I hurt you.
I pretended that you would not care
as long as I didn't hurt
somebody else, and as long
as we kept it a secret. Some day
you may forgive me, and we may
touch each other, again, exactly,
where it hurts. Until then
should I go on pretending
none of this has happened?
None of this has happened.
Steinmetz's conversational style sometimes leads him to tell rather than show. According to conventional poetic wisdom, it shouldn't work. But Steinmetz is a poet who creates disconcerting scenes, and tells strange little parables using words very carefully plucked from everyday speech. If he was a more rhetorical poet in the manner of, say, Ginsberg or Dylan Thomas, Steinmetz's poems would perhaps lack the scaffolding - the imagery and the metaphorical flourish - needed to hold them up.
His big themes are love, marriage and writing. 'Marital Sex', 'Worrying About The Neighbours' and 'Love Is Blind' are poems Robert Lowell might have written, if he'd learned the art of understatement. In 'Only The Barber', Steinmetz uses his barber's rigorous approach to cutting hair as a metaphor for his own quietly severe approach to writing poetry: "Scissors up his sleeve, / he flutters into rhyme. / In the salon, he knows what to cut / and what to leave / in quatrains on the floor."
'Confessions Of A Borrower' is a five-page meditation on the subject of borrowing library books, the sort of low prosaic subject Yeats or Lord Byron would never have touched with the proverbial barge-pole. But in Steinmetz's hands it works: "I forget all about them, I let them be. For a book / doesn't have to mean / anything, a book is. My books, my library books, sit quietly / on the bench in the hall. Dust to dust, let them gather / some real-life experiences". Steinmetz's poems are living proof that whatever your poetic style is, be it the highest of the high or the lowest of the low, the only thing to do is go all the way with it, without compromise. If Andrew Steinmetz had tried to be part himself, part Eric Ormsby or Leonard Cohen - two fellow Canadian poet of the high lyrical style - the result might well have been quite ghastly. But as a poet Steinmetz is mature enough to want to be himself, and only himself. And this is what makes this, his second collection of poems, such a profound pleasure to cherry-pick one's way through.
Mercury, the Dime, published by Six Gallery Press, is a long early poem by Michael S Begnal. It is published here for the first time. A seven-part sequence, it was written during 1992 and 1993. It is the type of poem men in their twenties write - Begnal was born in 1966 - although far more ambitious than most such attempts. The poet Begnal sets off in search of America:
All about the USA
lay thousands of earthen burial mounds,
shapes of bears, birds,
The Great Serpent Mound
tail coiled, mouth open,
the snake strikes
long ago people of ancient land,
tribes of lost-to-us names,
mound builders now called Adena,
land we now call
Like Andrew Steinmetz, Begnal is a poet whose language is sometime rather flat. If published separately in magazines, some sections of Mercury, the Dime might have appeared bland. But the loose form of the long sequence suits Begnal. It allows the effect of the poem to build until you are drawn into the narrative, which grows in power as the poem goes on. At a time when the well made one or two page lyric is the overwhelmingly dominant mode of poetic expression, it is brave of Begnal to experiment by publishing such a long poem. At 39 pages, it may not be Paradise Lost, but it is a very ambitious poem by contemporary standards. And it is an experiment which mostly succeeds. Begnal is Irish-American, and lived for many years in Ireland, where he became a fluent speaker of the Irish language and edited The Burning Bush literary magazine, before returning to the US in 2004. He is a poet profoundly engaged with the idea of identity, both Irish and American. His first collection, Lakes of Coma (Six Gallery Press) he described as his "American collection"; his second full collection, Ancestor Worship, (forthcoming from Salmon) promises to be his "Irish collection". And these concerns raise themselves here as well. However, for me, Begnal's most powerful poetry is that in which he describes those nothing places dotted all around America:
driving underneath train bridges,
cut on my lip, got from a girl,
here's train tracks,
an underpass for cars,
now on, past the garages, lots,
and it's hot out this Memphis night
(I'm wearing my old L.A. Angels cap,
But to quote an extract is, in a way, to do Mercury, the Dime an injustice. It is a poem which succeeds precisely because of its relentlessness. Unlike most of his lyric poet contemporaries, Begnal's work is far more impressive when gathered together in a collection than it appears to be when you come across individual poems here and there in magazines.
Sundial, published by Arlen House, is Colette Nic Aodha's first English-language collection. She has previously published three collections of poems in Irish, but until Sundial appeared, as an English language poet Nic Aodha had been knocking on the first-collection door for some time. Here in Ireland some critics like to go on in print about how easy it supposedly is for young Irish poets these days to publish first collections. This is more than an exaggeration: it is quite simply a lie. Like Nigel McLoughlin, Deirdre Cartmill and Paul Perry before her, Colette Nic Aodha is living proof of just how long the wait typically is between a talented young Irish poet beginning to be noticed in the magazines, and that same poet publishing his or her first collection.
Nic Aodha is a practitioner of the aforementioned one or two page lyric. Only one of the 56 poems in Sundial stretches to more than a page. But in the title poem she proves herself capable of doing much with few words:
After she died, even her kitchen mourned
shadows of chair legs elongated across floors
open doors cast tree trunks. Above us the clock
became a grandfather.
Teapots threw another spout on mahogany
the table dial told the time.
My pick of the collection though is 'An Open Letter To Billy Collins', a poem in which Nic Aodha comes clean about her obsession with the former US poet laureate. As we say in these parts, it's more than his poems she wants to get her hands on: "Rumour has it you only do one-night-stands, / several consecutively would do me nicely. / Pun intended." Many of Colette NicAodha's poems have a wry feminine humour. At her best she reminds me somewhat of Wendy Cope, or perhaps even Carol Ann Duffy.
Not everyone who is drawn to the expansive experimentalism of Michael S Begnal's work, will appreciate the witty lyricism of Nic Aodha's poems, and vice versa. But there is room surely for both of them in the big tent of Irish poetry. Sundial is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Like all serious poets, Colette Nic Aodha knows that the worst thing in the world would be to start taking herself too seriously. My kind of poet.