Simon Travers, Anatomy, (Stackhouse Jones, 2013), 63pp, £5.00. ISBN 9780992703202
Reviewed by Kyle Cooper
[Originally published in LP6/7, Jan/Feb 2015]
Love and poetry have been bedfellows since poetry began, and love poetry is a well-established and often over-used form. Many a heartbroken adolescent – myself included – has scribbled a few angst-ridden lines onto a discarded Valentine, or tried to think of a decent rhyme for ‘heart’ (‘horse and cart’ didn’t go down well). However, the relationship between the two has become troubled in modern poetry. Prufrock certainly didn’t want to write a sonnet, and both poetry and love seem to be going through a bit of a rough patch at the moment.
In Anatomy, Simon Travers explores a relationship between a modern couple, asking what a loving relationship means in the 21st century. Travers channels one of the oldest collections of love poems: the biblical Song of Solomon. Travers refers to this explicitly in the introduction to the collection, one of several essays that accompany Anatomy. This may provoke some mixed responses – some readers like to be left alone by the author – but I think it adds structure and purpose to the collection, preventing it from being dismissed as ‘just another collection of love poems’. Travers is exploring the roots of love poetry, and asking whether such a subject is pertinent in today’s world – if old poetics and modern love can be reconciled, maybe the two forms are stronger together than it may have appeared in recent times.
The collection has the same feel to it as the Song of Solomon. The cadence and rhythms are similar, and there is more than a passing resemblance in the lines – the Song’s “How beautiful you are, my love” is reflected in Travers’s line “Clever you! To come home to me through the rain.” The effect of this is a strange calmness to the collection – it deals with intimate relations, but the narrators’ emotions are quietened. Most of the challenges within it are resolved in the comfort the two narrators share. The poems are deeply intimate, and the reader is given a candid view into the shared life of the couple. However, their relationship is not reduced to a mere fairy tale romance; in fact, Anatomy opens with “Say it’s simple and you lie /about circles and heart shapes, love and π”, and towards the end makes sure the reader knows “It’s not like the adverts”, “It’s not like a rom-com.”
The collection is at its best when the poems are powerful enough to break through the calmness of the biblical rhythm and confront the reader with the problems of a relationship in the modern world. The Song of Solomon is effective because the love between the partners is relatively untroubled (at least superficially). This collection has a more complicated subject matter, and I feel it works well when it operates beyond the calming cadence of the song; most dramatically when the woman dreams of a barroom flirt which goes wrong, of being followed on a “trip to the toilet” and attacked: “he chokes me / and he laughs and says, ‘I bet you / like it best when you get it rough.’ / But I don’t, I like my husband.” This incident is one of the most powerful instances in the collection because it causes the reader to question the poem; is the woman being punished for her imagined infidelity, drawn back to heteronormative married life by the souring of dream into nightmare? Is this even a question we should be asking? What are Travers’s intentions here?
Other instances occur because the couple’s circle is intruded upon by everyday life. Travers evokes the everyday with uncommon grace – I particularly like the lines “I do not have enough battery on / my phone to capture any of this; so no status update tonight [….] just a woman and / her man, this now and a memory.” Here Travers successfully deals with the unrelenting chatter of modern life in a poetic manner. However, this is not always so fluent; a poem that uses a software crash as a metaphor for an argument seems a little more clunky and forced. Mostly, however, Travers evokes the contemporary world with an elegance that is rare. Against this constant stream of status updates, bright screens and blaring noise, the relationship is barely a whisper; and because of this, it is successful. Another notable poem has “my boss, my brother, the woman / behind the chemist’s counter, / Gladys Knight” and a host of others follow the couple to bed, only to disappear: “Unsurprised / that we are now alone, I whisper my / secrets in the comfort of your dark.” The whisper returns later in the collection: “It is an almost whisper; insubstantial and unheroic […] Do not call the news or post this / excitedly to your online friends.”
However, the couple are not removed from the outside world. There are some interesting moments in which the couple deal with the roles of men and women; the woman calmly tells her husband “Please, I want to be / a wife, not a work / of art. I do not / want an airbrush to / distort and tell lies.” The man criticises those who “wiped themselves on my sexuality, / said you should buy me / a pair of high heels”, and states “I am a man, but / the privilege is being here, not asserting a right.” These two stand in negotiation with the common gender roles ascribed to them, and attempt to construct their relationship around them. Travers, in one of his accompanying essays, ties this to the relationship between Adam and Eve. Perhaps, if the subject is modern love in light of ancient religion, it seems to be a bit of an oversight not to include a mention of homosexual relationships. However, while such topics are worth pursuing, it is not Travers’s intention to do so, and the negotiation of gender roles is enough for what is a short series of poems.
Anatomy is a collection which meanders gently through turmoil. The tone of the collection is often at odds with what it discusses, but Travers allows this in order to separate his protagonists from the hubbub surrounding them. It is tranquil and loving, and occasionally brutally thought-provoking.