The Naming of Things Against the Dark and The Lane by C.P. Stewart (Lapwing Press, 2014), 74pp., £10. ISBN: 978-1-909252-68-4.
Reviewed by Phoebe Walker [Originally published in LP3, October 2014]
Many of the poems in The Naming of Things Against the Dark are couched, I think, to appear to the reader as small, stumbled-upon curios: a gemstone set into a walnut shell or ancient petals fluttering from a dictionary’s inner spine. Some do indeed have this fragile and (as the title suggests) talisman-like glow, but a proliferation of poems hushed and heavy with their own sense of importance makes this an at times ponderous collection.
These poems share an air of being deeply personal pieces; Stewart never strays far from the first person voice, and it almost always has a leisurely, contemplative quality, addressing a loved one or musing on a past event or on the quiet wonders of nature:
A poem might be written whilst plucking a duck,
on a fine September morning, nothing pressing
is a fairly representative piece of phrasing. I’m lulled by the tranquillity of the poems, and there are some wonderful, prayer-like lines in places. I particularly liked ‘Thanksgiven’ from The Lane:
[…] frosted mornings down the lane,
the prayer that I might see again,
in all their glory, one more time,
these dear, most stately works of thine,
nettles, docks and bright cow-parsley.
This is one example where Stewart’s clean simplicity and brevity is most effective. In general, I found myself preferring Stewart’s ‘nature’ poems, which proliferate in the far shorter collection The Lane, and which to me had a sprightliness and genuine elegance that I felt many in The Naming lacked. There is an overwhelming sense of the preciousness of this collection to the author, which is justifiable, but it is hard to make the case to the first-time reader that they should value these pieces as intensely as their creator. Too often, I found myself emerging from a poem irked, with a sense of not-getting-it which I hope wasn’t just my own obtuseness. Take ‘The White Album’:
she that was you,
he that was me,
from a cove of white rocks, bathed in light.
South Wales; summer; long ago.
You that was she.
Me that was he.
The North of England; late November.
Some readers might find this enigmatically charming; I failed to. While I appreciate the purity and brevity of the language and imagery, I find it, and other poems in this collection, frictionless, leaving no kind of impact, good or bad. Others do have traction: ‘My Uncle, the Babysitter’, a long, almost prose poem strikes an impressive, understated note of pristine recollection rather than cumbersome nostalgia. The uncle, with ‘the curious distinction of being/ both a shepherd and the black-sheep’, shares out pale ales and cigarettes and talks companionably of ‘God and The Beatles; his nephew wakes the next morning to find that ‘one of us had wet the bed’. The bite of ‘Detail (Treblinka 1943)’ was also very differently, jarringly welcome, with its quiet record that,
their cargo of 800,000 souls,
men, women and children,
down The Road To Heaven,
(the ‘tube’ as Stangl called it)
with such diligent efficiency.
Last, they planted lupins.
The tone of the collection as a whole is maintained, but this time to devastating effect. That last, lonely line is both haunting and vivid, but elsewhere in the collection last lines seem to be given a weight to bear that many simply buckle under, risking melodrama by neither bringing the rest of the poem into sharper focus, nor quite resonating on their own. It isn’t that I’m consistently searching for any kind of showiness, or epiphany, but again there’s that sense that something’s missing here, and it’s not a lack of effort on the reader’s part.
This atmosphere would perhaps be lessened if there were not such a proliferation of these kind of lines – used more sparingly and more judiciously, I think the effect of lines like ‘As darkness falls, I picture them – your shy feet in the halls of Heaven’ and ‘Out there the shape of you, still marching slowly off across the moor’, would be more striking – but the unvarying tone does start to become a little trying. I think, though, that this clearly absorbed and introspective collection is, in the purest sense, a book written for the author himself. In which case, I can understand the hint of self-indulgence, and it’s perhaps best to read these poems with an imaginative sense of being invited into the author’s study, sitting down and leafing through stacks of hand-written pages. That doesn’t necessarily make it, however, a collection to look to for broader interest or solace.