Marion McCready, Tree Language, (Eyewear Publishing, 2014), 77pp., £12.99. ISBN978-1-908998-24-8; Tedi López Mills, Death on Rua Augusta, translated by David Shook, (Eyewear Publishing, 2014), 191pp., £15. ISBN 978-1-908998-22-4; Rufo Quintavalle, Weather Derivatives, (Eyewear Publishing, 2014), 71pp., £12.99. ISBN 978-1-908998-37-8
Reviewed by David Clarke [Originally published in LP3, October 2014]
As a relatively new press, Eyewear Publishing is fast gaining a reputation for publishing a range of high quality work in beautifully designed volumes. Their high standards of presentation are in evidence with all three of the collections to be discussed here, with their striking, stylish covers and expensive-looking bindings. For the most part, the work inside lives up to that presentation, especially in the case of the two debut collections from Marion McCready and Rufo Quintavalle.
McCready’s work is characterised by strikingly original language, often inflected with imagery from her home on the Firth of Clyde. Her poems, which often consist of quite brief stanzas of thirteen or fourteen short lines, or of less than a dozen spare couplets, have a visionary quality to them, and often find the poet confronted with natural phenomena which seem to open out under her gaze into the reflection of some other, underlying reality; a reality which is often characterised by violence and mortality, whether real or potential. So, for example, in ‘The Animal in the Pot’, the closely observed process of preparing a joint of meat re-etablishes the connection between its materiality as foodstuff and the death of the animal it once was (‘The pot sizzled with blood and scum / as she turned the dead meat with a spoon.’) All the while, the sound of a young woman singing in the next room oscillates between music and screaming, connecting somehow with the animal’s suffering. Such uncanny, unsettling effects are a feature of the best and most effective poems in this volume, such as ‘Brambles’, which turns the eating of these fruit into a kind of bloody ritual (‘death fruits bloods of Christ […] we fed on the purple tears’).
McCready is ready to take risks with some of her word-coinings, too, with a frequent and creative use of hyphenated compounds, a trick which hasn’t been fashionable in British poetry for quite a while. McCready has the good sense to know that it does not matter whether this is ‘the done thing’ if you can make it work: So here we have ‘sun-carved’, ‘frost-flower’, ‘crackle-comb’ and even ‘fish-O’clock’, to name but a few.
It is symptomatic that one of the poems collected in this volume is called ‘Transfiguration’, although for me the trick does not always come off: there are some ‘transfigurations’ of landscapes and plants which are not quite surprising enough in terms of their vision or language to let us beyond the surface of phenomena. However, any poet who describes the Firth as ‘punk-black’ has got to be doing something right.
For me, though, the poem that stands out in the collection, precisely because it is so different from the others, is ‘The Girls’, where McCready describes a group of (presumably) nearly teenagers having manicures:
Chubby palms smacked flat on the table,
uncharacteristically patient and composed
with their necklaces, badges and rainbow hair clasps,
they admire the tide of nail polish bottles before them,
the limitless possibilities of the colour pink.
They watch their hands transform into something beautiful,
their tipped fingers glowing like lit matches.
The final four lines of the poem remind us how these girls will soon be wearing dresses ‘that will one day consume them’, juxtaposing their excitement at their soon-to-be-womanhood with the traps which are associated with such beautifying. This is a rare moment when the poet turns her gaze from the natural world and her imaginative relationship with it to the social world of human beings. Although it would be unfair to pigeon-hole McCready as a ‘nature poet’, I was struck by the fact that, after reading and re-reading this collection, it was this poem about other people (as opposed to other things) which stayed with me the longest. I hope we will see more of this in her next collection, which I will look forward to with interest.
Tedi López Mills’ verse novel Death on Rua Augusta, translated by David Shook, was the least satisfying of the three books discussed here, although I think that Eyewear deserve praise for their readiness to take on translations of contemporary foreign-language poetry, and for offering readers the original version and the translation as parallel text. Even those who cannot read this Mexican author’s Spanish, and that includes me, can find it helpful to be able to compare the shape and sound of the original with the English version on the page.
Mills is widely published in Mexico and has won a number of prestigious prizes for her collections, including this narrative about a Californian who is going through something like a nervous breakdown, caused at least in part by his wife Donna’s affair with their mutual friend Ralph. I had two chief problems with the book as a whole. Firstly, although I would not demand a page-turning narrative from what is essentially a meditation on the collapse of a man’s psyche, the book feels oddly static. Gordon, the anti-hero of the piece, starts out close to mental collapse and then edges slightly closer to it over the next thirty-four chapters until (spoiler alert!) his death. This would be fine if, over the course of the book, we gained some deeper insight into Gordon’s state of mind and were able, for instance, to make some connection between his malaise and the society of which he is a part. However, we learn fairly early on that he was an accountant with a boring job whose wife has rejected him, and this point is then repeated without much further elaboration. This is obviously sad, but I kept asking myself why this tale was being told. What insight can the poet offer us into this man’s life and its significance in the wider scheme of things? I found this a hard question to answer. Part way through the narrative, a voice in Gordon’s head called ‘Anonymous’ appears, presumably a kind of Doppelgänger or an aspect of the protagonist’s split personality. Yet ‘Anonymous’ never says anything of very much interest, apart from being rather vaguely critical of Gordon, so that this interior dialogue does not seem to lead anywhere. Apart from his professional life, which is sketched in only briefly, Gordon seems to have no past to speak of, which seems curious in what is essentially a discussion of mental illness.
Secondly, I was not convinced by the necessity of the poetic form. Various kinds of stanza are used throughout, both regular and irregular, with shorter or longer lines, and the final chapter centres the text. Sometimes, the use of shorter or longer lines and different layouts works effectively to alter the rhythm of the narrative, but at other times this can feel like variation for variation’s sake, especially in that last chapter with its centred text. Also, although there is no reason why ‘plain’ language cannot also be poetry, there are significant chunks of the narrative which might just have well have been (pretty decent) prose. For example:
The first time Gordon saw the sea
years ago at Newport Beach
it impressed him so much that he could no longer
think about anything else that day or night.
I am not convinced that the line breaks do enough work here to justify the poet’s having opted for a verse form, and in many ways the book would have worked just as well as a piece of (in places) poetic prose.
Finally, Rufo Quintavalle’s Weather Derivatives offers a bracing engagement with contemporary realities in language which is both subtle and infused with a dark humour. Quintavalle’s work has already appeared in two pamphlets for Oystercatcher Press, which gives some indication of his vanguardist heritage. On the one hand, he draws on European experimental traditions: There are echoes of Oulipan approaches and concrete elements, for example, as in a sequence of poems about the sea in which the text is literally washed away over the course of several iterations. On the other hand, he often adopts a more conversational, American-sounding voice, which is fearless, funny and bleak in a way that reminded me of Tony Hoagland or even Frederick Seidel. For instance, in the devastating ‘The country’, he describes his reasons for not moving out of the city:
fifty percent of the world is here
sucking on the petrochemical tit
and until that changes
my place is among them.
Nevertheless, despite the unflinching nature of the poet’s gaze, there is still room for wonder and joy in the world, as in the opening poem ‘A year, a week, whatever’, which describes (and in doing so enacts) the process of poetic creation using the few impressions that reach the writer from the street outside his house, which ‘really is everything’.
My over-riding impression of Quintavalle’s work, for all of his highly enjoyable formal experimentation, is that he is a poet who is willing to look at the world square on, for better or for worse, not because he can necessarily change it, but because the poet has no other choice if he is to be a poet at all. This is a sophisticated, witty and engaging debut.