Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Wednesday, 13 June 2012


Fabric Cover

When we constantly ask for miracles, we’re unravelling the fabric of the world. A world of continuous miracles would not be a world, it would be a cartoon. – Douglas Coupland

That ‘difficult’ second album has been the bane of a great many recording artistes over the years. The first album contains eleven or so tracks that they’ve probably honed to perfection over years and then, overnight, they’re discovered and, after the initial flush of success and two or three hit singles, reality dawns: the pressing need for a follow-up and sooner rather than later which, because of performing commitments they end up having to write on tour buses, in corners of dressing rooms and sprawled across anonymous hotel room beds. And the pressure is on: Do they have anything else to offer? Bob Dylan certainly did with The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan as did Nirvana with Nevermind and Oasis with (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?

And just as there are ‘difficult’ second albums there are ‘difficult’ second novels, seasons (I’m thinking TV shows), terms (politicians), films (The Matrix Reloaded anyone?) and poetry collections. A year ago Jessica Bell published her first collection of poetry entitled Twisted Velvet Chains which I reviewed quite favourably here. Towards the end of the review I inserted a comment made about the Australian poet Gwen Harwood—“ Whether the poems are written in formal metres and structures, or whether constructed in freer forms, they offer delights at the primal levels of their musicality and their ability to shift the boundaries between the verbal and the oral.”—and I followed this with: “I could well say something similar about Jessica. I’d love to underline that statement in twenty years time if she manages to broaden her palette but this is a decent start…”

I am pleased to report that with the publication of her second collection Fabric I see evidence that she has attempted to broaden her palette. The most noticeable difference is a veering away from “the kind of straight-talking poetry that I like” with solid punch lines that hammer home the points she has to make; there are Is and mes but these don’t feel like the earlier biographical or confessional poems. There was a narrative to Twisted Velvet Chains—the mother/daughter theme was strong, palpable—but this is missing with Fabric. That does not mean that Fabric lacks order because it’s very clear even from the most cursory flick through that this book is structured.

In the author’s note at the end of the book Jessica offers some thoughts. She opens with:

When trying to look at the bigger picture we tend to forget the individual. We also tend to forget that it is the individual that contributes to the bigger picture. We, each and every one of us, uniquely influence the moral fabric of society. The “framework” of society is us, the choices we make, the actions we take, and the beliefs we embrace. They may be significant to some, and not so significant to others, but they nevertheless weave the fabric of our world together, creating perpetual causes and effects, both big and small. We contribute to one big massive cycle of life. And we are important. We matter.

To this end the book is divided into four sections:

εγώ: me
εσύ: you
εμείς: us
αυτοί: them

The language is Greek and the frequent references to Grecian culture and society are deliberate; although born in Australia Jessica has lived in Greece for a number of years.

Each section begins with a graphic showing a building with seven empty windows (the eighth has someone looking out at us) followed by seven haiku in a 4 x 3 grid. In her notes Jessica talks a lot about numerology specifically how she views the number seven:

7To me, seven represents symmetry, reason, and order within the Universe. Even when life seems chaotic, there is an omnipresent fabric that is reassuringly homogeneous in its behaviour. We are all imperfect humans. We will be what we will be. And we are perfect just the way we are.

I know a little about numbers and I expect there will be a few who will nitpick at the particular significance she places on the number seven—most Christian groups accept one Archangel, not seven—but let’s not be petty; we’ll just call it poetic licence and leave it there. There were several instances she could have used from the Bible like the seven congregations in Revelation or the fact that the Israelites were said to have marched around the wall of Jericho seven times before they collapsed. It’s not a number I associate with perfection but rather with completeness which ties in with what she is saying. So, in what way are these 28 poems and 28 haiku complete?

As I mention above there are four sections to the book; in English, me, you, us and them. I therefore expected to find the first section full of poems in the first person, personal poems, and yet the third poem, ‘Mama’s Confession’ seems more suited to the second section since it’s a mother writing to her son in prison. The same with the third section; I only found one ‘us’ in ‘Goat Skin Beer Holder’ although three of the poems contained ‘we’ which made me wonder why the other poems were there. There was only one ‘they’ in the final section and it’s referring to tears, not people, and no uses of ‘them’ but on closer inspection the ‘they’ are represented by ‘hes’ and ‘shes’, ‘soot-dusted men’, Mamas, Papas, babies, an Athenian and a certain Mrs. Cuthbert. It’s a good way of structuring a book like this. Of course there is overlap and although personally I might have preferred ‘Mama’s Confession’ in the second section it also works okay in the first, especially given its title. As kids we learn how to conjugate verbs without realising that as we rattle them off by rote—assuming that’s still done—we are also learning about the four ways we are capable of perceiving the world.

The seven poems in the first section are an odd group. The seven ‘mes’ are an artist, a writer who has been suffering from writer’s block, the mother of a serial killer, “today’s personality”, the town of Monemvasia personified and the wife component of an eternal triangle. If you’re counting that makes six because I think that the mother in ‘Flesh’ is the same woman who narrates ‘Mama’s Confession’:


IRing drop my wedding ring
in holy water.
I hope it repels;
the years
of hate
and hope,
so I can finally relate
to the son we made.

It doesn’t have to be but as it’s the very next poem in that section it’s hard not to make the connection. I like this poem a lot. Not sure the semicolon and comma are absolutely needed but I’m not going to make an issue. Actually she’s a poet after my own heart in that respect and uses punctuation marks a-plenty. This is the most straightforward poem in the entire collection and probably my favourite. There are some stories here but much is missing and quite deliberately, I’m sure; these are postcards, not home movies. (She likes the word ‘vignette’.) Why the shift though towards a more lyrical, seemingly ambiguous style?

I’m not sure it was intentional. When introducing the book on her blog Jessica writes:

My poetry will not baffle you with phrasing that scholars award for academic genius and that can only be understood by those who wrote it. My poetry is for the everyday reader. In fact, it is even for those who don’t like to read poetry at all. Because it is real, stark and simple.

Some of it is but not all. Indeed the very first poem in the collection caused me no end of bother. I simply couldn’t get it and it wasn’t for want of trying. So I wrote to Jessica and asked her what she was getting at. I then sent the poem to my wife, who was in America at the time, and asked her what she got from the poem. She got something else entirely. Here’s that opening poem:


Feelings can be broken
when layered paint cracks—

white noise calcified to the tune
of poise and pleasure—Socialism

perched on a paint brush;
an election on canvas.

I snack on written woes;
electronic black mail slips

through automated slots—a grant
to an artist who sells reclusivism

to hermits in dusty boxes. pallette
I cut one open at breakfast,

patterns of hope discoloured
with yoke. And tears.

I purchased my own work.
Hung it on my wall.

Sometimes I like to touch it
with my eyes closed.

I spent a long time looking at this poem, a long time; days in fact. Briefly this is what Jessica said it was about in her first e-mail:

In a nutshell, it's about a painter, a recluse, who refuses to market himself because he's agoraphobic, and despite being granted money to paint no one ever buys his work, so he buys it himself and pretends it not his.

My wife thought this was a “decoder ring” poem and that all she needed was the key and it would all make sense. On receipt of that ‘key’ she found it didn’t. Carrie thought it was allegorical, that Jessica was talking about herself about how she felt about her work being neglected and rejected. I too got misdirected, in my case by the word ‘Socialism’ and assumed that this was a poem referencing the current economic and political crisis in Greece. Neither of us saw the artist as being agoraphobic; his clientele, perhaps. Also if he sells to hermits, who is it that’s not buying his paintings that he needs to buy back? Now there will be those who will say that both of these are valid interpretations but I disagree. I don’t think poetry is so different from prose that an author’s original intent can be so easily disregarded. Later Jessica sent me a detailed almost word for word breakdown of the poem and it’s clear that a great deal of thought went into it—‘black mail’ is two words for a reason, for example, and ‘yoke’ is not misspelled—but I suspect most “everyday readers” will struggle with this one; this is exactly the kind of poem I remember getting handed out when I was at school which I only understood after it was explained to me. The problem with poetry, and this is not just Jessica’s poetry, is that no one ever tells us if we’ve got it wrong and it’s easy to think that whatever we think a poem means is what it means. So how do you know when a poem is a bad poem?

Jessica writes:

I want more people to understand that not all poetry is scary and complex. Not all poetry is going to take you back to high school English, and not all poetry is going make you feel “stupid”.

I commend her goals. They’re mine too. But we writers are the worst judges of our own poems because everything that’s missing from a poorly constructed poem is in our heads and so, when we look at them, they all make complete sense.

There is another problem with many of these poems. ‘Mama’s Confession’ opens like this:

My nails aren’t strong enough
to scratch you anymore,
Antoni mou.

There is nothing to explain ‘Antoni mou’ and that annoyed me; a quick search of Google was not helpful. Okay, once I got to the appendix it was explained but I would have preferred a footnote there and then. Foreign expressions are off-putting. Even when explained, they are off-putting. (I associate them with writers like Ezra Pound—show-offs.) The problem is the damage has been done; we already feel stupid. I felt stupid. Here, by the way, is what the expression means:

daglis-005Antoni mou: This means “my Antoni”, which is in reference to the serial killer, Antonis Daglis (Greek: Αντώνης Δαγλής, born 1974), who was convicted of the murders of three women, and attempted murder of six others in Athens, Greece, on January 23, 1997. Also known as the “Athens Ripper”, he was sentenced to thirteen terms of life imprisonment, plus 25 years.

I’m a little puzzled how a man can get sentenced to thirteen life sentences for attacks on nine women but who am I to argue with Hellenic jurisprudence?

The second poem in the collection, ‘Breaking the Curse’, is no better than the first containing three expressions—‘Euterpe’, ‘Kolossus’ (no, it’s not a giant) and ‘gnidnib ym no gnitirw’—that all require explanations at the end of the book. Now, had I been reading the paperback, I might not gripe but since I was working from an electronic copy I couldn’t keep my finger in the back of the book. This is not so much of a gripe about ebooks as it is a cogent reminder for authors to bear in mind the limitations they impose on readers. This particular poem opens with:

My words create shawls—
they cloak the crazies
on empty nights

like this.

On her blog Jessica writes “if you read Fabric, you’re not reading poetry, you’re reading about people” and although I understand why she might say that, but the fact is this is poetry. When I was about eighteen I remember giving a poem to one of my workmates to read. I’ve tried to find it to get the quote right but I can’t locate it. The poem talked about a man pouring himself a crutch to drink, an expression I thought so blindingly obvious it required no explanation whatsoever, and yet this was where the girl pulled me up: she read the words quite literally and said, “You can’t pour a crutch.” Had she read Jessica’s poem she would have said immediately, “Words can’t knit shawls and who are ‘the crazies’?” I’m not saying that this is bad poetry—I don’t think it is—but what we poets think of as easy, obvious and accessible may not be to people who haven’t looked at a poem since they were forced to do so at school. The twenty-eight pieces of writing in this book are poems and there’s no avoiding that.

Another gripe I had with the ebook is that you can’t—at least I couldn't—turn my tablet sideways to read the grid properly because every time I move the thing it flipped the page; very annoying. Later she sent me the paperback which is lovely, solved all my problems and only marred by a typo on the otherwise charming front cover:

a rich collection of poems that take the reader on a deap tour of the psyche – Magdalena Ball

That would be the Persian flaw then?

Interestingly the poem I think most people-who-don’t-read-poetry will identify with will be this one from the final section of the book, which begins:


“I just can’t bear to lift my head
the world, it seems askew.
One more minute, here in bed,
then I swear I’ll comfort you.”

But baby wailed, hiccupped, cried,
and Mama did not move.
Instead she prayed her son might die,
knowing Papa would disapprove.

I’ve used this form once myself—a nursery rhyme about child abuse in my case—and it’s not an approach I think I’ll ever use again but it is a very powerful way of getting a point across. We’re all familiar with iambic tetrameters, that jolly da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM rhythm of childhood prosody and so it evokes before meaning has a chance to take charge of us. Sentiment, noun, “The emotional import of a passage as distinct from its form of expression.” It’s a word Jessica and I talked a bit about when we were discussing ‘Canvas’. Jessica said, “I know there's no way [a] reader will understand my intentions with it. But surely the sentiment?” This is the only poem in the collection where sentiment hits you before meaning. I believe, certainly as far as the written word goes, that feelings always follow meanings. In this poem though, its soundscape evokes before we have a chance to start interpreting the verses.

The first section of the collection is, as I’ve said, εγώ: me, and so I was surprised to find the poem ‘Monemvasia’ there. Again, unless you’re familiar with Greece, it’s a word that requires some clarification; it’s “a Byzantine town initially constructed on a rock that was separated from the mainland during an earthquake in 375 AD, is located on a small peninsula off the east coast of the Peloponnese in Laconia, Greece.” Not a person then.

monemvasiaWhite-capped tears
no longer soothe
the clefts and valleys
of my cracked skin.
Instead they sting
like pins and burn
away bruised years.

So anthropomorphism: a literary device giving an inanimate object human traits and qualities, such as emotions, desires, sensations, physical gestures and speech. Another perfectly valid poetic technique. But it’s most definitely poetry. The readers have to be willing to accept that a town could talk, cry and possess skin that could crack. And how can years bruise? Personification, similes, internal rhymes (skin/sting/pins) and metaphors, all in seven lines. In other words, poetry. ‘Once’ is a mirror poem, ‘We Need Women’ is an alphabet poem, ‘What You Found’ is a list poem and ‘Postpartum’ is a ballad.

The poems in this collection were written over a comparatively short period of time. In a recent interview she explains:

[I]t started when I printed up all the poems I’d written from the last year and tried to find a concurrent theme in order to put together a new collection. I realised that I had a substantial amount of poems that included a fabric of some kind … “ooh,” I thought, “that’s a pretty cool title.” Of course, a piece of fabric appearing in every poem was not meaty enough to base a collection on, so I brainstormed some symbolic links. That’s when I came up with “the fabric of society”. From then on the collection began to bloom. I wrote new pieces, tweaked old ones, and rewrote some entirely to fit the theme.

Of the twenty-eight poems in the collection, twenty were selected from what she had written in 2011 and eight were written to plug gaps. So the whole book serves as a snapshot. I’ve never written enough poems in one year to do something like this but I do recognise periods in my writing that could, if I was so inclined, be published as a group, that say something about me at a certain time in my life. Only in a few years’ time will we see where these poems fit into the bigger picture that is Jessica Bell.

Bottom line then. As I write this there are eight 5-star reviews on Goodreads and six on Amazon; nothing less and if the hundred-plus people who have it on their to-read shelf actually buy the thing then she can be a very happy lassie. I don’t give stars here. I do on Goodreads (eventually). It’ll be a while before I post a link to my review there, but it won’t be 5-stars. A poetry book is an odd thing. Few people set out to produce a book of poetry; rather they gather poems into a book. Really every single one of these poems needs to be reviewed in isolation because that’s how they were written and that’s how they should be read. Grouping them risks diminishing them. One beautiful woman in a crowd of beautiful women is never going to as eye-catching as she would be on her own, I don’t care who she is. The same goes for the plain Janes; they’re never going to look quite as homely, to use Arthur Miller’s word, in a crowd. There are a couple of stunners here and a few homely girls too. And some that I really couldn’t decide on, strange-looking creatures, unconventional beauties; as much as ‘Canvas’ annoyed me—and it did—I did keep coming back to it; that was not the case with some of the others. I found myself reading the collection in bits, a section at a time, in isolation. The haiku didn’t impress me—I didn’t feel the connection with the four themes although the first two groups work better than the second two—but then I’m not a huge fan of haiku-esque poems. The poets who have reviewed it have gushed over it. It’s nice to be nice and we all like good reviews but I would rather buy a book that had five 4-star reviews that a hundred 5-stars reviews; I wouldn’t trust them. Which makes me seem like a curmudgeon but if I tell any one of you out there that I loved your poem or your article or your book you’d better believe it. I liked this collection; I didn’t love it. I’m not a big fan of love at first sight, though. I prefer an affection that grows over time. I could list a number of great works of literature that I hated the first time I looked at them but grew to love and the same with people.

There is chaos, i.e. true randomness, and there is complexity beyond which humans can fathom any pattern. Jessica acknowledges that the characters depicted within many of the poems in this collection are full of flaws—there are hermits, crazies, murderers, abusers, failed parents, needy people, Nazis, sick people, the suicidal, the depressed—as well as the odd, sweet grandchild so this is no Persian carpet. This is a tatty, old rug, worn and beaten, but it’s our rug; it’s not perfect—far from it—but it does its job.

Let me leave you with the trailer for the book:


The bio at the back of the collection reads:

If Jessica Bell could choose only one creative mentor, she’d give the role to Euterpe, the Greek muse of music and lyrics. And not because she currently lives in Greece, either. The Australian-native author, poet and singer/songwriter/guitarist has her roots firmly planted in music, and admits inspiration often stems from lyrics she’s written.

She is the Co-Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and co-hosts the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop on the Greek Isle of Ithaca, with Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest.

You can read my review of her first novel String Bridge here and my review of Twisted Velvet Chains here.


Jessica Bell said...

Thank you so much for this review, Jim! I'm quite flattered. I'll have you know, that after your feedback about the flipping-to-the-appendix frustration in the e-book, I'm having it re-done, with hyper-links on the words, which, with one click, take you to the relevant bit in the appendix. Of course, the typo on the front cover is now fixed too. I have no idea how that got past me. :o) Ho-hum! I totally agree with you about the star-rating things. Though it's flattering, I can't really be sure whether they really liked it that much or are catering to karma! ;o)

Elisabeth said...

I couldn't resist this one, Jim and Face Book led me here. How wonderful to read a review of Jessica's poetry, Fabric.

I miss so much in the blogosphere these days, snowed under with writing outside in the 'real' world and work, but every so often some serendipitous prod gets me back to you and yours here.

One day I might go and study poetry. Strangely the thought terrifies me. I fear I would try too hard and fail. Prose always suits me better, but Jessica's poetry is wonderful and I enjoy the fact that she's trying to reach all of us, not just the other poets.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think that’s a wise decision, Jessica. It was a very different experience reading the paperback. I’m rather glad you sent it not simply because I’m old-fashioned and prefer paperbacks but so that I could compare the reading experiences. Novels are fine as ebooks; you start at the beginning and progress to the end and stop. Poetry, for me at least, is a different reading experience. Okay, when you’re writing reviews it’s nice to have a softcopy to cut and paste from and also to search through looking for common threads but, so far, I’ve not enjoyed reading anyone’s poetry as an ebook.

Don’t feel bad about the typo on the front cover. The first three copies of my poetry collection—which I rushed to submit to a competition not that that was worth the effort—got my name wrong. How can a bloke get his own name wrong, I ask you?

The number of five stars review out there—and not just for your books—is a matter of concern. You put it beautifully here, “catering to karma,” and it is wrong, plain wrong. I’ve just read an article by L K Watts (another Australian I have a soft spot for) which I have yet to comment on but, when I do, I’ll be referencing your comment. To answer her question, “Can someone slate the author if they have networked with them for over a year?” my answer is, “Yes, at least I can.” What kind of friendship would ours be if you only liked me because I said nice things about your writing? It’s hard online to build quality relationships—the whole place is so ruddy superficial—but it is possible. There are ways of slating though and there’s no need to be cruel. The thing about me is if I ever say to you, “Jessica, that [whatever you just wrote] was brilliant,” then you better believe it was BRILLIANT. I look forward to that day. No one writes brilliantly all the time. I don’t. But every now and then I produce something that I know works on every level. I think maybe a dozen poems out of over a thousand but none of the novels or the stories or the plays although there are moments in all of them that do shine.

I don’t get Harper Lee. Her first book was brilliant, so she stopped. Is the only writing that’s worth reading brilliant writing? I don’t think so.

And, Lis, yet another Australian I have a soft spot for. What is it with you Aussie women? Jessica’s book is a good place to start if one have an interest in moving up a notch in one’s poetry reading. Although quite different in style they remind me of something I’ve said to Dick Jones about his poetry: they’re the kind of poem we used to get handed out on roneoed copies and we’d groan as soon as we saw what they were; then the teacher would have one of us read the poem (badly) after which she would tease it open and reveal what was inside those words. Not obvious poetry but not that hard either once you got the hang of it. This is why I objected to Jessica’s marketing ploy of saying these are not poems. They are. Stand up and be counted or go elsewhere. These poems require effort on the reader’s part. I disagree with Eliot when he says all poetry should be difficult but if you get everything handed to you on a plate then you don’t appreciate it.

As far as studying poetry goes may I remind you what Larkin said in interview?

INTERVIEWER: You mention Auden, Thomas, Yeats, and Hardy as early influences in your introduction to the second edition of The North Ship. What in particular did you learn from your study of these four?
LARKIN: Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study poets! You read them, and think, That’s marvellous, how is it done, could I do it? and that’s how you learn.

One can, of course, take that to extremes but, in principle, I agree with him wholeheartedly. The first rule of writing is: Read. The second is: Read and the third is: Read. And that applies just as much to poetry as it does to prose. A lot of what I read I didn’t like. So I wrote what I did like. Failure is a natural by-product of experimentation. I ‘failed’ 452 times before I wrote a poem that worked for me.

Jessica Bell said...

Ha! I guess when I wrote up my marketing post, I forgot that others don't really think like me. I forget that what seems simple poetry to me, maybe isn't for others. I suppose I'm just wrapped up in my own perception of things! Thanks again for everything, Jim. And I appreciate your honesty.

Marion McCready said...

Great review, Jim. I don't trust all 5 star reviews either, that's what I like about your reviews - they are thoroughly honest! I can see why you liked 'Flesh', it's not unsimilar to your kind of poem, I liked it very much. I'm intrigued by the collection, as you well know I'm less worried about ambiguity than yourself and I like a bit of foreign language quoting and unknown references. I really liked the trailer, what a great idea.

Art Durkee said...

The decoder ring poem phenomenon is a problem when one deals with obvious but oblique structure. One can see that there IS structure, but it's meaning is hard to tease out, and you're never totally sure the poem means the same to you as to the poet. Ia free with Carrie that there is some of that going on here, even if it's unintentional.

Having said that, as you know I experience little anxiety that I've teased out the "correct" meaning from a poem. We've taled about that before. I'm okay with an undefinitive interpretation. In fact, I enjoy it when readers find things that I wasn't aware were there.

Having been given a taste here, I do feel like these are decider ring poems. They're obvious to the poet, but baffling to others. That doesn't mean they are bad poems, but let's be honest: if you have to explain a poem with footnotes, is it really strong enough to stand on its own? One definition of poetry that I've heard is that a poem cannot be paraphrased; on one level that's not true, but it does speak to poems needing to be able to stand on their own two feet and not need supporting materials. If the artistic experience isn't self-contained, if it needs those teachers guides like in the classroom, the place most people learned that much poetry does seem to need to be decoded, then there's a problem with claiming open meanings when in fact they're not as open as you think they are. I'm NOT saying that meaning in a poem needs to be obvious, or singular, and Jim you tend to want singular meanings to poems when I tend to prefer layered meanings which is a fundamental aesthetic difference. However, it's clear here that what was obvious to the poet isn't to anyone else. And that does make them more like decoder ring poems than not.

As a haijin of long standing, I have difficulty calling these poems haiku. I'm not talking about formal structure, I'm referring to the movement and "hinge" structure one sees in most haiku, which isn't evident here. I could accept these poems as senryu, but not so much as haiku. Sorry to be picky. I'm not actually averse to experimental versions of haiku, or variant forms. But I think you can stretch the definition of a formal label past the breaking point.

Jim Murdoch said...

You’re quite right, Marion. I would have been quite happy to add that one to my canon. (Actually having a good spell since I came off the aspartame, three poems since Friday and a fourth in draft.) I think you’d like this collection. It has a lot going for it and clearly a great deal of thought has gone into organising it so that it’s not simply a bunch of poems but a meaningful collection. What I noticed with my own collection—and the same goes for a friend’s I have yet to review—is how poems change when in close proximity to others; some lose a little, others gain. I’m pleased to learn that she’s reworking the ebook so that the foreign expressions are supported by hyperlinks. We’re all learning.

And, Art, I think you may have misread my review. I didn’t quote any of Jessica’s haiku in this article. At the start of each of the four sections she has a 4x3 grid in which she has typed seven of these tiny poems; the remaining cells are left empty. Here are a couple of examples from the first grid, the ‘me’ section:

    summer leaves
    float in muddy voices
    dry confessions

    a drink of breath
    a shawl to dance
    in my own touch

I didn’t say more about them because I had already written a lot and as I’m not especially crazy about the form. I also think packing haiku in like this takes away from them. I have one haiku in my big red folder and it gets a page to itself as I think they all should.

I can see why you might think that Jessica’s poems are decoder ring poems but without asking her to explain every one of them neither you nor I will know for sure. The first poem that Carrie and I struggled with is, according to Carrie’s definition of a decoder ring poem (although she’s never reduced her definition to a pithy one-liner; this is my doing): a poem that needs a key or a clue to unlock it. That hint, in the case of her own poems, has invariably been a few words, e.g. “That’s about you and your daughter,” and not anything amounting to an explanation. In the case of that first poem Jessica’s initial brief ‘clue’ didn’t unlock the poem for us; it suggested that there was more of the poem still in her head than had made it to the page. If that’s the definition of a ‘bad’ poem then ‘Canvas’ is a bad poem.

Now, ‘Flesh’ requires no explanation. Who the mother is here is not essential information for the poem to work. If it happens that it is the woman from the previous poem then so be it. It’s proximity to that poem helps one in that direction because the ‘taste’ of the precious poem is still in your mouth when you read ‘Flesh’ but ultimately it doesn’t matter.

I am not entirely opposed to layered meaning. I actually aim to incorporate layers in my own poems. Perhaps the primary meaning is so strong that few look deeper but that’s why poems are something that need to be lived with and not simply read once and then stuck on a shelf marked ‘Done’.

As for Jessica’s use of footnotes, here I have no problems with them. Who says that poetry has to have universal appeal? I imagine no one in Greece will need them. Her notes don’t explain the poem, simply the foreign or unusual expression. I have a personal dislike of them but I’ve still used them where appropriate.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Jim .. I think this post will enormously help us non-erudite poetry readers get into Jessica's skin a little from where we can attempt to understand what is making her tick ..

Jessica has obviously learnt a great deal from you here - and now I can get Fabric and won't feel so lost - I may not fully understand .. but at least I'll have a feeling ..

Great post - cheers Hilary

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve only touched on a few poems in this collection, Hilary. Be assured there is plenty for you still to get lost in. And that’s not a bad thing. Part of the reason to read and not simply poetry is to lose oneself in a good book. This is not a book that you can—or should want to—flick through and assume that you’ve got each poem after a single cursory reading. This is why I went to some pains to point out that this is poetry; her intentions were honourable in that she wished to write material that was accessible—and it is but it is accessible by poetry standards. Compared to the avant-garde that academics produce this is indeed straightforward stuff but don’t assume when I say that that it requires no work; that would be to do it a disservice. All good poetry requires some effort from the reader. Indeed all good prose does the same. This is why I think that the Internet is such a good place for poetry because you usually get a single poem and nothing more presented to you. I virtually never write more than one poem in a day and so that’s all my wife has to consider when I hand them to her for her rubber stamp of approval , one poem on its own which stands or falls on its own merits. This doesn’t mean I’m anti-collections but they encourage us to read poems like prose and it’s not.

This attitude that a lot of people have—“I may not fully understand ... but at least I'll have a feeling ...”—troubles me more than a little. Some just give up to soon and are content when they’ve only got the gist of a poem. But more worryingly I think many people assume that they’re incapable of fully understanding a poem (or that any poem should be capable of being understood is perhaps a better way to put it) and make more of it than what’s there. There is always the assumption too that if you don’t get a poem then the fault is yours. Very few people have the confidence to stand up and say, “I think that’s actually a bad poem.” I see poems praised all the time online that are mediocre at best and I don’t get it. In some cases I think poems expect too much of their readers but mostly I think that they’re too close to their own words to realise that they’ve not done enough to guide their readers in the direction they want them to go. I think of these as ‘iceberg poems’ where only a fraction of the poem ends up on the page; the rest is still in the poet’s head which is why when they look at the words they’ve written on the page they always make perfect sense. No poem is ever complete when it leaves the poet—it is the reader’s job to complete it—but I sometimes wonder about whether or not we’re being asked to build bricks without any straw a lot of the time.

Dave King said...

I am much drawn to this book - well, to Jessica's poetry - by your review. I do really enjoy a poem that stops me dead in my tracks, as Canvas did, and no doubt for much the same reasons that it gave you cause to reflect. I shall return to it, you may be sure.

In the meantime, would I be right to assume that Jessica sees it as in some way a pivotal poem for the collection
(fabric / canvas)?

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m not sure, Dave, that ‘Canvas’ is a pivotal poem. It is the first poem and so it sets the standard and the tone for the rest of the collection. Ordering poems is hard. It’s one of the main reason I dallied so long in trying to get a grouping of my own poems out because I could neither decide on which poems to pick nor what order to present them in. After talking to Jessica in e-mails about this poem I can see that I’ve made her doubt if this was the best poem to start off with. I honestly can’t say. Many of the poems reference cloth in some way so it’s not a standout piece in that regard. As I’ve said in my review I think it’s a weak poem and one that will give readers with little or no experience of poetry some difficulty. It might even put them off going further or make them think that other poems later on are harder than they are. The same argument could be levelled against the opening open in my collection. It is not the strongest poem there but that’s the only place it works and, of course, if I swapped it out then I’d be faced with renaming the whole group. Reviews can only go so far. You can check out the others out there and see what they have to say. None that I read went very deep I’m afraid.

Art Durkee said...

I guess I misunderstood about the haiku. Thanks for clarifying that.

Who says that poetry has to have universal appeal? Or even broad appeal?

Well, Jessica does, for one. :) At least, that's what I get from reading the quotes and excerpts you've provided here, regarding her ideas about her poetry being plain and easy to find meaning(s).

For me, this comes down to poets walking their talk. I totally agree with the ideas about poetry not being deliberately obscure or arcane. But then I find poems that seem to need footnotes and explanations. And that creates a cognitive disconnect: I mean, it's one thing to talk about clear and straightforward meaning in poetry, but if the practice doesn't follow the theory, then, well, there's a disconnect.

I am in no way suggesting that one pander towards easy meanings and simplicity. What I don't like about poets like Billy Collins is that they DO pander, which often leads to a lack of depth and resonance. Collins once proudly said that he has a litmus test for his poetry: he gives each poem to his secretary to read, and if she can't get it in one, then the poem's too obscure. I'm not sure that that's a litmus test one ought to proud of. (Not knowing his secretary, either.)

But when the poet knows what's going in the poem, and no one else does, without explanations or footnotes, I'm sorry, I DO think that's a problem. You can't claim to be transparent then need to explain, and expect people to be impressed. That's what leads towards the feeling that one needs a decoder ring, and the feeling that the poems can't stand on their own without explanations.

As you say, it's a clash between intentions and results. That isn't inherently a problem. My main point here is about poets walking their talk. Not that everyone has to be perfect and totally consistent; but that if one makes a point about poetic clarity then presents poems that are not clear, that creates dissonance.

Jim Murdoch said...

Glad we got that clarified, Art. You are quite right, of course, there’s no need for poetry to be anything it doesn’t want to be and even I’ve written poems that have an intended audience of one (other than myself) and if anyone else gets anything from them well good for them. I doubt if many people write poems for a wide audience. They’re aware that there will come opportunities for others to hear them read aloud or to read them themselves but I suspect most poets write poems because the urge comes upon them; something moves them—even if it’s just a writer’s prompt—and the words come. So I doubt if Jessica dumbed down her poetry in any way; this is just the way she writes.

Billy Collins I can’t speak for nor his secretary. I never let anyone read one of my poems that’s not been rubber-stamped by my wife but then my wife is a poet and she’ll tell me right away if it works or not. I don’t need her to explain it. And on occasion in the nicest possible way she will tell me that it’s not good enough and needs more work. Invariably she’s right.

When to annotate and when not. It’s an interesting question. I just learned a new word today: lagniappe. Never heard it before but I understand the practice. I immediately drafted a poem which probably won’t survive the day but what title should I use? I could call the poem ‘Baker’s Dozen’ but would even British readers understand what I’m getting at? These days when I go into a bakers they give me twelve rolls when I ask for a dozen and would consider me impertinent if I asked for an extra one for free. Someone from New Orleans would get it immediately. Do I or do I not add a footnote? It’s an delightful word and custom which I’d like to introduce people to and really there’s no point to my mind writing the poem if I’m not going to use that word. I don’t think in that case—and this goes for all Jessica’s footnotes too—that that would be wrong although if that’s the title I still probably won’t; let them google it. Now a couple of days ago I wrote a poem called ‘Subcutaneousness’ and there is no footnote. It’s a word that some will have to look up but I don’t think the word is so unusual that it needs explanation and—hopefully—the context will take them in the right direction anyway.

Explaining one word and explaining a poem are two different things. A decoder ring poem is designed to keep people at bay unless they have—and I will emphasise this point again—a simple key, a single word or a short phrase. Here’s a decoder ring poem I wrote:


The destiny that a man chooses can be a dangerous thing.

It is easier to believe in
the impossibility of crows
than deny The Crowman his place.

Standing immutable waiting.
Waiting for the birds to come.
And they do come; they have to.

He’s not the boogyman,
he doesn’t lurk in cupboards
or the imaginations of young children.

And children like to be frightened.
Don’t they?

But what are you doing out here among the corn tonight?

19 July 1996

The girl I wrote this for hadn’t a clue what it was about until I told her. After that she wanted to frame it and stick it on her wall so perfectly and forcefully did its message come across. The key wouldn’t work for you. It was not written for or about you. And since I promised her I would keep her secret that’s all I’m going to say about that. I can’t imagine though that there will not be others who read this and shudder a little when they get to the end. I do, every time I read those awkward stanzas.

Decoder ring poems are not for public consumption. They are gifts. If they are published sans explanation then they become something else; they become what the readers can make of them. Does this mean they are ‘bad’ poems because the true meaning is lost? No. They will have fulfilled their original purpose; anything else is gravy.

Milo James Fowler said...

An in-depth review, Jim, with a fellow poet's analysis. She's got to appreciate your devoting this post to her work. And you're right about the second books being a challenge -- from what I hear/read, anyway. I'm still trying to get my first out the proverbial door!

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m sure that she does, Milo. I hope you had a look at the review of her first poetry collection too. As for your own I’m not sure what to advise. It took me years not that I didn’t have enough poems—I had hundreds, literally, to pick from—but I could never find a way to organise them. It’s like listening to a Best Of album when you’re familiar with all the band’s other albums; the order just never sounds right. And that’s how I felt. In my head my poems have one order, the order I wrote them in. I got used to the collection once I had the shape—that helped immensely—and that what I liked about Jessica’s collection: there was structure. Work on that first. I could, for example, have decided on a collection of love poems but once I sat them all together they didn’t work and there weren’t enough good ones. I tried Love, Sex and Death which was better and that led me to the final Seven Ages of Man idea. There will be broad themes that embrace some of your poems. The others, no matter how good they are, need to get pushed to the kerb for another time.

seymourblogger said...

Thank you for this Jim. there's nothing wrong with just "feeling" a poem. Letting is settle inside you. Perhaps memorizing it, saying it to yourself or out loud when it has puzzled you. The fact that you can't grasp its meaning right away is important. That means it means something important to you.

Try Rabinow on Foucault: Michel Foucault Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics.

Art Durkee said...

Eh. I read all these comments, and I see that still no one has satisfactorily addressed the issue of cognitive dissonance. Maybe it's the elephant in the room no one wants to talk about. Which is fine, I suppose. I'm okay with a little dissonance. It's just that sometimes the gap between theory and praxis is so wide that theory comes across as false advertising. Okay. I'll shut up now.

Jessica Bell said...

Actually, Art, I've been able to convince a lot of people who don't read poetry to give my collection a go with the way I've advertised this. AND they genuinely enjoyed it, and have decided to start reading a bit more poetry too. So whether it's false advertising, or not, (which I don't really think it is because there are plenty of very straighforward poems in this collection as well), I think it's doing the job I had intended it to do. Get poetry read, and to stop some people being so intimidated by it. And I think that's a wonderful thing.

Jim Murdoch said...

I agree, seymourblogger, that there is nothing wrong with feeling a poem. It’s the ‘just’ qualifier that I have problems with. We are hardwired to try and make sense of things. We look at an inkblot or a cloud or the stars in the sky and ‘see’ things that aren’t there. It’s the same with words. Words are, if not exactly containers of meaning, then prompts for us to assign meanings to them. As soon as you see a single word on a page your brain does this. That word or a combination of words may evoke feelings in us but these comes after an attempt at least has been made to make sense out of the words. There are, I suppose, poems where after that attempt has been made all that is left is the feeling—and not just a feeling of frustration—but I cannot imagine writing a poem where my only aim was to make my readers feel; it might be my primary aim and getting an emotional response from my readers is much higher on my agenda than I expect people imagine but it really is important to me. I frankly need the perfect coupling of meaning and feeling for a poem to work properly.

I don’t think it’s too important that readers grasp the meaning of a poem after a single read. I would worry if even after a cursory read they didn’t have some idea what the poem was about. What I go for is a strong theme, if I can use a musical term, and that should hit you right away. Rereading will let you get in touch with the harmonies and overtones. Those only come out when you spend time with a piece and think about it.

Jim Murdoch said...

Art, there is cognitive dissonance and there are exceptions to the rule. I think over the last thirty years I’ve written one poem with a footnote. I am basically opposed to them. I believe that a poem should stand or fall based purely on its content. So why the footnote in this case? Because the poem was written in Scots and would be almost unintelligible to anyone living outside Scotland. The footnote is, in effect, a part of the poem and is written in such a way that it underlines the issues raised in the piece (which are all about the antipathy that exists between the Scots and the English). I have a poem entitled ‘Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin’ for which there is no footnote. Now there was a time when the writing on the wall would have been known to every schoolchild in the land but I suspect that’s no longer the case but I still chose not to explain or even reference it. This is me. Jessica is entitled to do as she wishes. I don’t recall her ever taking a stand for or against the use of footnotes. I would have no problem including a common French or Latin expression in one of my poems but Greek?

In my novels I include dozens of cultural references without including footnotes. I treat them like Easter eggs; picking up on them adds to the meaning of the text but the text should still work without them. It’s like I say about my Beckett-inspired novel Milligan and Murphy: You don’t need an in-depth knowledge of Dante to understand Beckett—it won’t hurt but it’s not essential—and the same is true of my work. The more you know about Beckett the better, yes, but if the book required that knowledge then it would be a weak offering indeed. Do you need to know Romeo and Juliet to enjoy West Side Story? In my novel there is a scene where one of the brothers is sent off to look for kindling and I discovered a lovely Irish word ‘brus’ but all my beta readers thought I’d meant ‘brush’. I could have included a footnote but I chose to change the word instead. ‘Spone’ I kept but explained what it was in the text: “a plausible—and cheaper—substitute for tobacco.”

And, Jessica, in my article I wanted to underline the fact that this is a poetry collection not a collection of aphorisms or flash fiction. I applaud you intentions. Too many of us were put off poetry by what we were force-fed at school. As you yourself acknowledged though what you think of as simple and straightforward is still a kind of writing that most people aren’t used to reading. It’s not the hardest poetry anyone will be asked to read but they will have to raise their game just a little to fully appreciate these poems. And maybe those who have enjoyed them haven’t fully appreciated them but if they’ve got something out them that encourages them to seek out other poets and stretch themselves a bit then you’ve done as much as you could have hoped to do.

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