Magma65: Review by Pippa Little

in Magma 65, Summer 2016

Doctor Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine Martin Figura (Cinnamon Press £8.99)
House of Small Absences Anne-Marie Fyfe (Seren Press £9.99)
Thomas Hardy Listens to Louis Armstrong Andrew Shields (Eyewear Publishing £9.99)
One of the pleasures of reviewing a trio of collections is the randomness of their proximity to one another, rather like being given a gerbera, a tulip and an orchid in a single vase. These books leave their own utterly individual presences lingering on after being read – and reading them together as a trio emphasises their singularities. Each has its own obsessions, preoccupations and intelligences at work. Their writers are assured poets confident of their own territory, whether it’s Fyfe’s dolls’ house facade of eerie windows, Shields’ cosmopolitan composings or Figura’s haunting mechanics of the emotional.

Of the three, I think Martin Figura’s will stay with me longest. As David Morley wrote of his previous book, Whistle, the poems here also “touch a place within you that will never heal.” On first reading they are deceptively spry, revelling in the absurd, even funny, details of ordinary life – a double woodwork class, a Nissan, the agony of sciatica. Various machines, engines and mathematical/philosophical systems are engaged metaphorically to try to make sense out of life’s baffling griefs and losses, yet are mostly found wanting. The machine gun, the father’s gift of a camera, the Mechanical Turk, the olive tree harvester, the life support apparatus, the army training which transforms a gaggle of lads into a fighting unit, all these and more shape an oblique criticism of a familiar, contemporary masculinity which can maim families and hobble sons, fathers, husbands. Families are a recurring consideration.

In Difference Engine No2, although much effort is expended trying to create a finite definition through mathematics, the poem finally accepts that “Families are like: / the flow of water in a pipe”, shaped by ever elusive forces. This tension between known/unknown recurs. How to Make a Family moves between realist instructions and interleaved italicised asides. The register throughout the collection keeps overstatement in check and so the telling details become more resonant as a result – the “first sweet candy cigarette”, “the picture charts / with Velcro symbols for household chores”, “an out of date road atlas” are just some of the poignant images which charge the poems.

There’s much to enjoy – the Paradise Street sequence which brings a keen political edge to changes in a Merseyside community over more than a century; a wonderful half paean, half rant to Washing Machine; two mirroring poems on the mechanical devices that are ears; a celebration of male dandyism in Brogues – and more.

The final two poems, however, set a sadder tone of coming to terms with the damage and violence underlying much of the collection. To A Grey Seal describes an encounter with one of these animals and concludes:

     but I’ve a wife on the shore with my towel
     and the key to our little caravan
     on a length of string. Tonight, over wine
     as the sun slips low and gold
     I’ll tell her again and again
     how far out I was and how wild.

The last poem, Waxham Sands, quoted here in its entirety, invokes reconciliation, the power of love and acceptance:
     Fold me into your dun coat of grasswort and cord grass,
     let my ribs become a small wrecked boat.

This is an impressive book almost childlike in its honesty, written from hard-won experience and crafted with great skill, tackling difficult themes with grace and a self-deprecating bravado which is very appealing.

Anne-Marie Fyfe conveys a wholly unsettling world glimpsed through a plethora of windows, whether barred, high-fanlighted, “fisheye portal” or “blacked-out… a thousand storeys deep”. Inspired by Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, a quotation from which sits as an epigraph to Pièces de Résistance, the poems are fascinated by Bachelard’s questions of inside/outside, past/present, their ambiguous spaces made to signify existential states of being. We encounter structures as diverse as a “winter’s boathouse”, a gravedigger’s shed, a museum and a memory palace as well as houses with unwelcoming characters (Pièces de Résistance again) and ominous structures which might be asylums/beehives/oratories/hospitals. Equally, city hotels and “another day, another Auberge” share a strange dreamlike hyper-reality. Travelling evokes a floating anxiety, a dread of anonymous spaces.

One of the best, because most slant and subtle, 9/11 poems I have read can be found in this collection, and takes the huge, myriad urban window-scape of skyscrapers as its dominant trope: The Window Washers delays until the final line the devastating context within which the high-rise workmen live out their last moments.

A disturbing thread runs through the collection of impending doom and high-flying collision, from the opening poem The Red Aeroplane to the last section’s From the Cockpit Window and the inverted invasion of Lower Manhattan, while both the father-pilot and Amelia Earhart emerge as unsettling presences. It’s all rather Alice-inWonderland: “Am I lifesize today?”(The Image of Sainthood), the lost key’s outline kept in a bar of soap – and the poems can take on a whimsical, funny register, particularly when dealing with the travails of being a tourist, as in Late Rooms and the half-found poem Guest Information Folder.
This is a lovely collection with daring sweeps between high and low, the tiny and the huge – “a hundred or so sleeping roofs” and “a million hospital sheets” co-exist with “a green carbolic soap-cake” (While You Wait) and the sharp point of a set of school compasses (Primary Seven). As if the collection itself were the “doll’s house… still in the attic” its poems allow us to investigate, even pry, and encourage us to make stories from the many fragmented, surreal, mysterious objects arranged so deftly in this
emporium with its inventories and lists. One of my favourite poems, No Second Acts, evokes the protagonist as “wind-burnished as Egdon’s reddleman”, and it’s this kind of attention to detail, these imaginative leaps, which make this book so deeply satisfying.

In contrast, Andrew Shields’ work is cerebral and ‘cool’ in both senses of the word, and being described on the back cover as “maestro of the sympathetic and the savvy” does him no favours. A serious musician as well as teacher and translator, music infuses every level of his collection, from the title poem where the power of a shellac recording might connect Hardy’s late Victorian memories of “fairs and weddings” with the jazz of the twentieth century, to imagining Osip Mandelstam’s tambourine playing, and on the way spans Radiohead, Talking Heads and the Grateful Dead. Not just human-made music, either, but the songs of birds such as nightingales and blackbirds feature throughout. It opens on a rollicking note: Hatter enjoys its metrical intricacies and revels in virtuoso sound patterning. Shields is a confident, theatrical poet and there’s much to enjoy, such as the seventy lines in Ars Conjectandi, a festschrift for his father’s seventieth birthday, and Dirty Hands with its repeated “Who’s looking at you?”

With a light touch Shields explores hypotheticals as in the unverified, always tangential connections between poetry and musicianship. Looking, hearing and remembering are key actions (as in Long Enough) yet they are nebulous, vulnerable, based on imagination and always in doubt, in flux. The final stanza of Long Enough supposes a kind of synaesthetic crossover between the senses:

     Two painted boys playing flute and a guitar.
     Though they’re just paint, I can hear the melody.
         If I look at them long enough,
         I’ll remember what they wanted to tell me.

Sometimes, however, cultural associations do not work as hoped to subdue the randomness and uncertainty of the poet’s world: birds and wild creatures ultimately seem to hold the deepest meaning. In Surf Scoter the poet wishes to be the bird, “to wake up and find myself gone.” In Grateful Dead Concert, “with all our seeking, we were nowhere.” Music is a source of ambivalence: powerful at times, peripheral at others, as in Busker whose lyrics “have long been drowned out by the years”, or even intrusive, unwelcome (as in Run). It feels as if the poetry’s stylistic displays attempt to contain the panic of “With his every breath, the universe / expanded, made him smaller” (The Seven-Year-Old Atheist).

The poems I wanted to revisit here (with the exception of Hatter which is a joy) tended to be less showy, more reflective: Edge for example, and particularly Circus Elephant. This poem goes for a different register of self-deprecating humour and pathos which serves well the theme of an American boy “become invisible in England” who tries, like the eponymous creature, to fit in, yet “Sticks and stones and blows and names all hurt / the same.” Other poems also deal with the ex-pat experience (Shields was born in the US but grew up in England), such as Catalogue where the “here” is always somewhere else, there yet not there.
Some poems feel too self-aware, in their filmic moments, their musical orientation, their rhyming ingenuity. I felt there was less at stake with this collection than with the other two, no urgent force or intensity that compelled the poet or that, if there was, it was subsumed too efficiently within form and style to reach me. While I enjoyed the richly distinct voices of each of these collections, it will be Anne-Marie Fyfe’s magical realist imagination and Martin Figura’s authenticity and flourish which will linger.

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