Reviews

John Burnside, The Asylum Dance, Cape Poetry 2000

Sharon Olds, Blood, Tin, Straw, Cape Poetry 2000

Derek Walcott, Tiepolo’s Hound, Faber and Faber 2000

 

I have no doubt that some critics will declare Derek Walcott’s new volume, Tiepolo’s Hound, a masterpiece that consolidates his earlier work and concerns, as well as opening new territory, but such declarations won’t bear close scrutiny. A long quasi-narrative poem that follows the movement of the painter Camille Pissarro from his birthplace in St Thomas through to the firmament of Impressionist Paris, and the poet’s own artistic and creative quest, we move with the narrator in an exploration of artistic awakening, and processes that parallel and connect with those of the artist. This is a complex work about identity, place and time and the problems of reading history and empire ("He was Art’s subject as much as any empire’s") through the narrative we construct out of memory. The guilt of leaving, the guilt of betrayal, and of self-justification, burn as background. The political points are there ("We are history’s afterthought"), but their presentation lacks vitality. Attempts to segue speech and writing into the field of the canvas as well as the page, to examine the rebus nature of visual thought, become repetitive and overplayed. Walcott doesn’t do metatext and self-referential poetry particularly well. We get too much of this:

"the stroke, the syllable, planted in the furrows

of page and canvas, in varnished pews ..."

It goes on and on: "its apostrophe/poised like a gull" and "My pen replaced a brush". There is often interesting palimpsesting of places, and the play on the doubt of the apostle St Thomas, on the artist (and poet’s) self-doubt, is in tension with a secular reading of the world. In the poetry itself, there is none of the excitement that the narrator senses on first glimpsing the "vermilion light in a hound’s thigh". The movement through memory, place, and history, is steady rather than emphatic, but there is a deft awareness of the limitations of art: "except Time is not/narrative".

Clearly, the versifying is the work of a craftsman – the pentameter rolls across the page, the interconnected couplets rhyming abab to maintain the narrative flow without closing off as traditional heroic couplets might; but there is a lack of vitality that, on occasions, drags the work into the doldrums. The Walcott paintings included with the text are competent, but as dated and drab as the verse technique, and their inclusion bewildering except in terms of the aims of a gift book.

It would be nice to see more rage and less quiet. Stillness and poise and grace centre the European eye – a more persistent paranoid vision might better reveal the deep obfuscations and abstractions that inform the great wrongs of colonial history, the evils of false social contracts. Walcott knows this well. And he knows about the fragility of authority and the narrative voice:

My inexact and blurred biography

is like his painting; that is fiction’s treason

to deny fact, alter topography

to its own map...

Not a masterpiece, but had it been half the length and a little more intense both in form and language, it might well have been.

John Burnside has the potential to produce a masterpiece. His language usage is recognisably his own, and his sense of the line is accomplished. His new volume The Asylum Dance carries a number of flawed and indifferent poems, but, in the main, is a stunning manual of the lyrical art. While Pissarro guides Walcott, it’s Munch that Burnside summons up. This is a book of halflights, wraiths, and ghosts. It’s the in-between world of "presence" and "absence", concepts that in some ways correlate to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s "inscape" and "instress", but in the main capture an ambivalence, an edginess between the real and imagined, the at-home and wandering. The apparently straightforward lyric is underpinned by cerebral concerns about the way language works. For all its poise and control, this is a book of guilt and pain. The reader is taken on dark dances along the edge, the place between home and away:

In school

we were taught to admire

the homing instinct

animate and sharp

behind the eyes

ignoring this vast delight

this useless motion.

Certain words occur in poem after poem – "ghost", "snow" (as guilt and purity), "traces", and so on. The book builds like therapy. There is a need for security but a hungering for instability. This transforms most often into the geographic, but centres on relationships:

and I waited for my father to begin

unravelling

like twine.

Tensions abound. You can draw schematic diagrams over the pages of this book. Between the Pagan and God, the purgatorial and the preordained, the "hints and traces" of other possible lives, the lists of objects and plants. Lists anchor identity, give the stability that’s craved and rejected. "Ports", "The Hay Devil", "Roads", "Fields", and the title poem are astonishing works. In these poems, nothing is as simple as believing or not believing.

Sharon Olds’s Blood, Tin, Straw continues the themes she has explored in her previous books. Explorations of the self through sexuality, familial relationships, and the exposition of the private, feed these poems, divided into five sections – the three of the title plus "Fire" and "Light". There are some vintage Olds poems in there, but the language rarely lifts off the page. If Olds’s poetry is confessional, it’s of the variety that is about "witness" more than locating the authentic self. There are poems of escape, "I want to be a baby,/I want to be small and naked...", of love-hate filial relationships: "but my sperm king/fished me back, and gave me to my mother/to strip and towel-dry, to burnish", and sex. The associations between sexual pleasure, need, crisis, death, and birth, are unrelenting. The highlight of the volume comes with Olds’s self-ironising (or defensiveness) in "Take The I Out":

...I love the I,

frail between its flitches, its hard ground

and hard sky, it soars between them

like the soul that rushes, back and forth,

between the mother and the father.