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 first 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
and why I imprison them
along margins. Abbreviated
but exhausted from labor.
Tonight they wreak revenge
On my mortal hand –
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 hairstyle
a clique of amis
who could handle theoretical smiles.
By contrast, Kaddy Benyon’s poems are darker, earthier, more sensual and much more tightly packed:
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, where there is a clear preoccupation with close relationships, unusually tight and mysterious ones like mother and child and lovers, who are bound together by tangled strings of emotion. 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.