New Poetry

Some of the most criminally unappealing sentences have been written in the service of talking about poetry. Poems are like wine in the way they can lead their enthusiasts astray in language, and before you know where you are, poetry is reclaiming personal experience, or putting us in touch with the cosmos or singing the universal or celebrating the elemental or goodness only knows what. Which is ironic, given that poetry is there to make us think harder about language and what it can do. The older I get and the more poetry I read, the less I know what to say about it – which is a shortcoming on my part. However, I’ll do what I can for two collections of poetry by a couple of intriguing poets, Kaddy Benyon and Fiona Sze-Lorrain, which is at least give you a generous offering of their poetry.

 

When the Title Took Its Life

 

My saddest lines

Wish to know how they left

This pen

 

And why I imprison them

In corridors

Along margins. Abbreviated

 

But exhausted from labor.

 

Tonight they wreak revenge

On my mortal hand –

 

Erase me.

 

Write “I don’t know

Why I am sad.

Night is long. Like an empty house

With annexes of silence.”

 

Or bar with a slash

Words like “bleeding”

“persecution,” “exile,” and “loneliness.”

 

Like a blind judge, these lines

Doubt my sincerity.

Here is not life.

 

The sickle moon looks down.

 

What does it know? The storm

I heard when I meant

To be writing.

 

This comes from Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s collection, My Funeral Gondola. These are cool, spacious poems, often with a lot of white space to do your thinking in. Elegant or evocative sentences feel like they’ve been plucked by tweezers and laid on a white cloth for inspection. But there’s also a stark drama to many of her lines, and a little capsule of enigma left rolling about in them, too.  One of my favourites is entitled ‘Digesting an Academic Symposium, Some Months Back’ and it was a delightful mixture of the wry, the ironic and the observational. Here’s an excerpt:

 

To conceal jealousy, he wore dark glasses, took

Pictures with a pen camera. To be posted

On a blog, in a third-person account.

 

Is Foucault in season?

 

The most interesting lectures, from those who

Chose to stay the peripheral sort.

 

For instance, an American who studied nature.

 

Or the Irish dramaturge in awe of Brecht

And Buddhist grottoes

 

A professor emerita

Trying to seduce with her foxy hairstyles.

 

A clique of amis

Who could handle theoretical smiles.

 

By contrast, Kaddy Benyon’s poems are much earthier, more sensual and much more tightly packed:

 

Strange Fruit

 

Sometimes I have an urge to slip

My hands inside the soiled, wilting

Necks of your gardening gloves;

To let my fingers fill each dusty

Burrow, then close my eyes and feel

A blush of nurture upon my skin.

 

Sometimes I am so afraid my hurt

Will hack at your figs, strawberries,

Or full-bellied beans, I dig my fists

In my pockets and nip myself. Sometimes

I imagine the man who belongs to

The hat hanging on the bright-angled

 

Nail in your shed. I think about you

Toiling and sweating with him;

Coaxing growth from warm earth;

Pushing life into furrows. I am curious

About what cultivates and blooms

There in your enclosed, raised bed –

 

Yet I want no tithe of it for myself.

Sometimes I just want to show

You the places I’m mottled, rotten

And bruised; I want you to lean close

Enough to hold the strange fruit

Of me and tell me I may yet thrive.

 

This comes from the collection Milk Fever, and there is a clear preoccupation with close relationships, unusually intimate and mysterious ones like mother and child and lovers. This is an altogether more intimate voice, more insistent on the mind, recklessly pushing fragments of images onto the reader, bringing us up closer than is comfortable to the bodies, scents, experiences and perceptions in the poems. Where Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s poems are gently cloaked in spiritual ideas, Kaddy Benyon’s are grasping at disquieting feelings. I loved the start of ‘Undone’:

 

We had to run for the bus after confession,

Where waiting for Mother’s silence

I’d made imaginary idols of saints, illuminated

 

By twenty votives I paid for with flickers

Of prayer. We’d no time for my litany

Of lies and spite and rage so the priest winked

 

And told me Next time. I reached for Mother’s

Hand, already crammed with beads

Clacking together: a metronome for OCD.

 

I wish I could recall where I read an explanation of the literary as being ‘the place where the material is filled up with the ineffable’. For that seemed to me the perfect description of all poetry. I found so much to enjoy in both these collections and particularly those moments of reading poetry where you pounce on a line as if it were an especially gorgeous shell on the beach. ‘My skin takes thoughts/away from light’ stayed with me for a long time from My Funeral Gondola. And in Milk Fever, of a baby’s cradle cap: ‘I want to pick him clean: to preserve/him protected/from the ravenous urge to love.’ Gorgeous stuff.

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15 thoughts on “New Poetry

  1. It’s funny, I just wrote a post about not being able to talk about poetry as well. But you did a pretty good job here! I like the sound of Strange Fruit – quite a bold move to use that image, and immediately makes it darker from the title onwards.

    • Aw, thank you! I’ve had an incredibly hectic few days, but I’ll be visiting you very soon. And for the solidarity too! I loved the title of that poem too, and the way it twisted such ordinary imagery. I couldn’t write poetry if my life depended on it! :)

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  3. The comparison of people talking about poetry and those who talk about wine is so very apt.
    It’s very difficult, I agree. I feel picking a few poems as examples and just mention what they triggered in you is a good way.
    I like the title My Funeral Gondola.

    • It’s a great title, isn’t it? I think you’d like the poems, too. There’s a cool, assessing mind behind them, and they are very atmospheric. Made me think of the kind of books you like!

  4. we looked through our comments section again to see who to visit and there-you-were.

    so glad we came again.

    the poetry – and your commentary – brought cool thought on a hot day in southern california

    thank you.

    love your blog.

    _teamgloria x

  5. Like these a lot. Of course much poetry is difficult to write about as it it trying to get at what other uses of language cannot manage. It is often an oblique way of engaging with the evasive, our consciousnesses relation to things, to feelings, moods, others. You might put me right here, but it seems Proust was up to something like this in the beginning of Swann’s Way as he drifts in and out of consciousness, dream, sleep, trying to capture the mind in flight.

    In his elegy on Yeats, Auden was saying the same in his oft misrepresented line

    ‘For poetry makes nothing happen’

    where ‘nothing’ is our elusive experience and ‘happen’ its enactment into language
    and I love the ending which I think elaborates on this, and other things,

    Follow, poet, follow right
    To the bottom of the night,
    With your unconstraining voice
    Still persuade us to rejoice;

    With the farming of a verse
    Make a vineyard of the curse,
    Sing of human unsuccess
    In a rapture of distress;

    In the deserts of the heart
    Let the healing fountain start,
    In the prison of his days
    Teach the free man how to praise.

    I always think of poetry as the address on the envelope that gets to us the content waiting to be revealed by the letter inside. Course, then again, it could be junk mail!

    • What a fantastic image you end with, Bookboxed – I love that! And will have to borrow it shamelessly. I confess to having never read Yeats, either, but liking that poem you quote tremendously. I remember attending a paper years and years ago about poetry, in which the speaker was talking about ‘poesis’ being a word that meant bringing something into being. If only my memory were better – that may be an awful distortion. But it was something like that and I loved it as an idea. I also love your comment about Proust, who was definitely seeking to express a different level of consciousness by exploring that hypnagogic state (in apology for that term, I was researching a book on fantasy and dream when I stopped being an academic – might as well use the words up!).

  6. I wish I was a better poetry reader. I confess to not being patient enough with it–I’m never quite sure how I should approach it and what I should feel about it–doesn’t that sound silly. So posts like this–with a bit of explanantion are always helpful and interesting to me! I keep saying I should leave a poetry book by my bedside to dip into….and so I should.

    • I feel very much the same – poetry somehow doesn’t mesh easily with my comfortable speed of taking in words. But when I take the time and trouble I usually really appreciate having done so. But even so, it rarely happens! The anthologies I’ve liked most in the past five or six years are those edited by Daisy Goodwin (I can’t recall all their titles now, but there’s Poems to Get You Through the Day and Night, Poems to Keep You Sane, and so on). I found them to be really wonderful collections, accessible and properly dip-in-able! I really ought to keep a couple by my bedside….

  7. Oh, both these poets sound so good! I love the image at the beginning of Strange Fruit with the woman putting on her husbands garden gloves so she can imagine being nurtured. So sad but so powerful that.

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