The Small-Talk of Poetry

by Joseph Turner

Poetry, Wallace Stevens once said, is ‘the renovation of experience’. In Sasha Dugdale’s forceful interrogations, Daisy Lafarge’s oblique experiments, and Angela Leighton’s virtuosic wit, we encounter poets who are energised by poetry’s double capacity both to lend artistic form to experience, and to expose the deformations that underlie art. These poets are enlivened by the ability of what Leighton calls ‘the small-talk of a poem’ – its repertoire of tiny formal devices – to get to ‘the heart of things’.

Deformations declares an interest in the potentially damaging or destructive effects of art, in the discomforting reality that the shapely, beautiful formations which it specialises in making might also involve deformation – not only of the artist, but of others too. Dugdale has described art as ‘the resting place of trauma, disaster, hard things and high feelings’ which simultaneously works to ‘cover those things over’, and such a sense of its possible concealments runs throughout her collection. Its first sequence, ‘Welfare Handbook’, draws on the life of Eric Gill, the English sculptor, printmaker, and visual artist who, we now know, sexually abused his daughters. Such difficult subject matter never manages to overwhelm or sensationalise the probing interrogation of aesthetic subjectivity done by the poetry. Dugdale places trauma in the painfully familiar world of everyday life. Her conversational manner deftly captures moments of quotidian unease – ‘but I understand now, / because in that offering of tea and the chaste kiss / he makes the unthinkable consistent with the thinkable’ – as well as more overtly disturbing episodes in the life of the artist, as in ‘Sexual Antinomianism’: ‘the mystery of the silent nights when / the mysteries of sex were illuminated / and they turned out to be the usual / mechanical insults’. The agility with which the poems move between the familiar and the horrifying enacts the terrible consistency being evoked. ‘Unthinkable’ acts of violence and abuse are shown to be grimly predictable in a cold and soulless language of ‘mechanical’ intimacy.

Dugdale is careful to make clear that ‘the voice in the sequence is not Gill’s,’ but instead, repurposing a line from Valerie Mejer Caso’s This Blue Novel (2015), ‘is the voice of water which is good for recording disaster’. Liberating the sequence from the constraints of a monolithic narratorial voice, such vocal fluidity perhaps accounts for the formal diversity of ‘Welfare Handbook’. ‘[A]n experiment’, a long list, stares blankly at the reader from the page, placing people and things into numbing equipollence as the contents of the list are revealed to be the very contents of Gill’s life, moving from ‘a chapel in the house’ and ‘a vase of foxgloves’, to ‘a handful of daughters’, ‘a pony and trap’, and finally ‘a spaniel’. One of the most striking poems, ‘An Interview with the Keeper’, vexedly reflects on the relationship between art and artist. Its conclusion unsettles in a moment of horrified self-recognition:

Sometimes, I continued, I feel that I am the beast

And I am confined. Sometimes, I finished, I feel

The seaspray of spittle on my neck as I shovel,

And it is me spitting.

As this passage fluently vacillates between the keeper and the beast, so Deformations as a whole moves nimbly between blunt informality (‘Fucking hell, Pitysad, if you won’t berate us / at least play us a tune on your bastard lyre’), audaciously bald statements (‘sex with children upsets us / more than it used to’), and occasional flashes of quiet beauty (‘the water sparkling in the regatta sun’). The collision of heterogeneous registers accords with its principled refusal neither to be overwhelmed by the brutality of subject matter, nor to allow that brutality to be painlessly supplanted by a sense of aesthetic beauty. On the contrary, both the brutality and the beauty are left to stand in uncomfortable juxtaposition in poems which repeatedly situate themselves in scenes of ambiguous feeling, with all of the ethical difficulties of striking a balance between contending states of being that such ambiguity entails.

The last poem in the collection, ‘The Fall of the Rebel Angels’, manifests a hard-won sense of the possible recuperative and restorative work that can be done by poetic form:

Daily trespassing

angels, angels who walked, and fell

from grace into mountain streams

forgive us our lack

of dreams, we have forgotten

how to rebel.

‘fell / from grace’: Dugdale puts her line-endings to work in enacting such a fall. This is the poetry of ‘endless small tracks’, richly attuned to balance alternative perspectives and reconcile contrarious trajectories in its tiniest details, rather than in grand gestures. Splitting ‘lack of dreams’ across two lines enacts a gain and a loss, as the dreams whose lack is being lamented at the end of one line are tangibly put before our eyes at the beginning of the next, while the series of internal rhymes and echoes strung together by Dugdale (‘angels’ / ‘fell’; ‘forgive’ / ‘forgotten’; ‘streams’ / ‘dreams’) gestures to a world of acoustic relationship and harmony that contends with the state of loss and incompletion voiced by the lines. The ‘renovation’ of experience neither requires nor precludes the reparation of such loss, but rather allows the verse to grasp longingly towards it, hauntedly conscious of what such grasping might miss: ‘dreams, we have forgotten’.

Elsewhere, ‘Intimacy’ unfolds as a series of unrhymed couplets which gesture towards the duplicities and deceptions of the poem’s titular state. But Deformations is perhaps at its best when its poems decline to content themselves with such pessimistic declarations. ‘Intimacy’ continues:

Even so let fools rehearse it while they have

breath. The shiver when a touch catches us unaware

you carrying me to bed curled in your arms,

the still-warm mess of sheets, limbs, hair.

As the poem reaches its end, the reader, too, is caught unaware by the unexpected rhyme across ‘unaware’ and ‘hair’, and more surreptitiously by the visual half-rhyme of ‘arms’ and ‘warm’. The postponement of ‘breath’ beyond the line ending momentarily denies the reader such breath before the word’s arrival creates its own alleviating breathing space.

A concern with breath is a common thread in the work of these poets. Lafarge takes her title from Louis Pasteur’s description of fermentation (‘la vie sans l’air’), describing a process in which ‘he discovered that some organisms perish from a lack of oxygen, while others are able to thrive in states of airlessness’. Life Without Air is characterised by its own investment in rendering such states of airlessness forcefully present — for instance, the asphyxiating pressure of social occasion. At a dinner party described in ‘Fossil Dinner’, ‘[n]o one speaks as an atmosphere pulls itself together’. The collection specialises in establishing poetic atmospheres — both those described in the poems and produced by them — that are at once discomforting and organic, pulling themselves together on the page and in the air. In ‘infrastructure air,’ a depiction of a social life richly defamiliarised by Lafarge’s luxuriant treatment of the mundane leads into a self-conscious sense of poetry itself as an aerated form:

and if the ground falls away, it is still always air

pent between the lines, a chain-throat

contaminant of life.

These poems, like the figure in Lafarge’s ‘desecration air’, construct ‘maladaptive / breathing patterns to survive / the air, patterns in which you are now / architecturally invested’. In its fluctuating short and long lines, echoing sonic arrangements, and complicated relation with the human voice, poetry too finds itself architecturally invested in patterns of breathing — both the metaphoric breath of inspiration, but also the literal breath of the poet behind the poem, and afterwards of the reader in front of it.

The poems in Life Without Air display a restive alertness to their own fragile modes of existence and meaning. They repeatedly warn themselves and their readers against interpretative complacency, against easy answers. Reference to ‘the competitive economy of poetry and prizes’ dares a reader to identify the speaker with the poet herself, or somebody like her, before the very next page cautions against such an identification:

I have spent these past weeks trying

to convince my students of the distance

between the poet and the speaker

These lines are brilliantly unsure of their own self-consciousness: the ‘distance’ they seem to insist upon is undone by the intimate, conversational framework in which they are inscribed. This scepticism acts upon the reader too, with the admission ‘I can’t help but tell you this in cadence / it is the only way I know’ establishing a confidential intimacy at the same time as carefully distinguishing things imparted ‘in confidence’ from those told ‘in cadence’. It is as if the poetry asks the reader to recognise that the confessions afforded in verse are also always worked upon by its rhythms, and so become something else, something less candid. Lafarge dwells at length on the knotty link between experience and form, self and voice.

In Angela Leighton’s One, Two, such self-reflexivity manifests itself as a wondrous sense of what poetry can do. In ‘Brick Wall,’ the poem itself becomes a concrete architectural structure, with its own ‘walls’, its ‘shadowy depressions, mortared holes / reticulated lines’. This revelation of the structural fragility of verse embodies the notion, common to all these collections, of the essentially precarious nature of poetry as an art form which is

marked by vanishings, arrested absences,

stored with the form-

lessness of forms[.]

Leighton’s enjambment here encapsulates the doubleness of form: the way in which it comes to knowledge by multiplying and preserving alternative readings and secondary possibilities in the mind of the reader. In Lafarge’s words, the poem balances ‘currents of the possible / and possible not.’ This consciousness of poetry’s ability to blur the possible and the impossible is in keeping with Leighton’s sense of the essential gamble of writing: that in rendering abstract things in concrete particularity on the page, it opens them up to the possibility of fracture, damage, or simple insufficiency. If, to use a phrase from ‘A Counting Song’, a poem is ‘the architecture of a wished intention’, then it also risks being nothing more than that: a faint sketch of something that never manages to materialise. In ‘Brick Wall,’ ‘form’ is made to turn into ‘formlessness’, but the word’s internal rhyme, its precise sense of having been formed, seems to counteract the formlessness being described. The bifurcation of the word across the hinge-like line-ending creates a new word in ‘lessness’, which, as the curtailed remnant of ‘formlessness’, is the embodiment of depleted meaning — apt in a poem concerned with ‘the force-lines / of lives long lost’.

Poetry is, to use another of Leighton’s phrases, an ‘art of space’: it involves the judicious arrangement of words into unexpected and unprecedented formations on the page. The poet is tasked with arresting ‘the timed sentence of a life’s work’, as ‘A Lighthouse,’ a charming poem dedicated to the memory of Anne Stevenson, elucidates:

Now I watch this metronome of light

swiping across the absent-minded stars –

their nearly nowhere, like homing cats’ eyes –

and dream some Ariel still flutters free

of the heart’s two-feet, the mind’s last rhyme.

One, Two delights in such moments as these, when form and formlessness are brought into contact. The dream of Ariel’s fluttering freedom is momentarily made to come true as the word ‘free’ itself flutters at the end of the line, unconstrained by punctuation, but the possibility of flight is then coldly despatched by its collision with the pressing reality of our formal existences, ‘the heart’s two-feet’.

Form, as Leighton suggested in her monograph On Form (2007), can be a ‘kind of knowing which is an imaginative attitude rather than an accumulation of known things’. So when ‘Barn Owl’ ends with this stanza:

Idling so near

it shames us, cast us into shadow –

while a drifted whiteness comes to mind,

wing of the moon, or whitsun crosswind