The incentive of the maggot
by Emily Berry
[ bookreviews ]
Ron Slate is great at one-liners. Or at least poetry's equivalent of a one-liner, which isn't necessarily one line. His poems have an immediacy that seems at first rather shallow and possibly self-indulgent - ironic after-dinner banter about the state of the world. And Slate, not just any poet but a poet who has also worked for twenty-five years as a business executive in global communications, must have had his fair share of after-dinner banter. But of course the poems are more than that. Slate's profession affords him a world's-eye view that situates individual experience in the context of the global, where everything that happens is happening at the same time as something else, and minor absurdities - such as an old woman choosing between seven brands of blueberry jam in a supermarket - represent the larger flaws of a world with a use-by date on it. He speaks in the voices of the economist, the corporate businessman, tourist, commentator and, in the slightly more personal pieces, son - voices that come together seamlessly yet create the tensions that give the poems their striking quality. In 'The Demise of Camembert', one of the few pieces that sustains a central metaphor throughout, he opens by homing in on a memory of his "mother squeezing / the camembert", which she bought "five days / before unwrapping", unwrapped "two hours before she served it", going on to lament a society increasingly impatient for things which are not instantaneous, which can't be transported across the globe in a moment. In a Las Vegas hotel a man eats the same 'engineered salty snack' as he does in Narita Airport, Japan. It's a clever, ironic poem not unaware of the bourgeois pitfalls of using an expensive French cheese to illustrate a wider social decline, but while it might seem a little reactionary, it contains a deeper political message about patience being a form of compassion, without which, humanity is doomed:
So hear me. Compassion begins in the pasture.
Adoration of cow breed, grass strain,
the certain season for milking,
the way a curd is cut and pressed
and salted and cured and shaped,
the time and temperature at each stage.
There is an emotional sensitivity in these lines that the poet holds back from in the pieces that seem to address more personal material. If there is love in this collection, it is contained to the point of repression. Sometimes the poems seem too clean, too corporate, where all emotions are neatly ironed and put away. In 'Warm Canto', the poet describes the death of a friend or relation: 'I don't know how to behave / in the face of ultimate things.' Like most of the poems in this collection, the piece is full of statements; but it is one of the few that seems uncertain in its intentions - hardly surprising, given its subject matter. As it deals with some of the only overtly emotional material in the book it is telling that Slate's confidence falters a little. He writes: "Today at 100 degrees the smell / of burned grass sharpened because I watered / the yard uselessly, invoking the essence." This is perhaps a metaphor for the pointlessness of attempting to soothe grief by writing; the act of writing only evokes the essence of the death it is attempting to dispel - just as the relief of tears is also an admission that there is something to cry about. Not admitting that there is something to cry about - or admitting it, but not crying about it - seems to be part of Slate's subtext. 'Warm Canto' ends with the lines: "The heat kills / the reverie that kills the real." If "the heat" is emotion, then this is another version of Wordsworth's theory that poetry is "emotion recollected in tranquillity"; for Slate, the poem, or 'reverie' cannot exist unless emotions are under control. But if 'the reverie kills the real', then a poem is always an artifice, and taming the emotions means taking refuge in unreality.
Slate's arch tones are witty and enjoyable to read, but there is a danger of overusing that tone at the expense of something deeper. His poems impress, but they don't always move. The one-liners that he is so good at can make a piece easily successful, but there is a danger that the wit is only there for show, rather than illumination. 'Belgium', the third poem in the collection, looks at the absurd details of international relations and the wider consequences of "a relation of men dominating men", describing them in a series of ironic statements. It's funny and well written, but it's hard not to wonder what all this irony is actually saying:
Invented by the British to annoy
the French, so said De Gaulle.
The Belgians are rude but live to please,
live by pleasing. [..]
They're not rude, they just drive that way.
We dress for dinner
but the ambassador dresses down.
The western nations don't understand each other.
Sometimes the poet could dare to take a more violent approach to his material - twist it rather than slant it. The same goes for his more personal poems - he could afford to make himself a bit more vulnerable. 'Ritorna-Me', an elusive poem that seems to be about an old friendship or relationship, is one of the more affecting pieces in this collection because it abandons archness in favour of a more intimate, almost yearning tone, with its Eliot-esque first lines: "Open the gate for me / at the hour of the closing of the gate." The poet remembers: "You and I used to find everything / worthy of our best banter." Slate finds many things "worthy of his best banter", but his most touching poems are those which have the confidence to let the banter go.