The following review appeared in The Gig #1, in November 1998.
The Gig, c/o Nate Dorward, 109 Hounslow Ave., Willowdale, ON, M2N 2B1, Canada;
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In the Net
Robert Archambeau, Citation Suite; Randolph Healy, Arbor Vitae, Flame and Rana Rana!; Trevor Joyce, Syzygy; Billy Mills, Tiny Pieces; Maurice Scully, Prelude, Interlude and Postlude. Wild Honey Press, 1997-98.
This clutch of titles from Randolph Healy’s Wild Honey imprint is a fine demonstration of the economical beauties of desktop publishing—with pastel cover-designs straight from the inkjet and sewn bindings—but its significance is as a sampling of where Irish modernist poetry stands. For North American readers, whose view of Irish poetry is probably mostly conditioned by the Faber backlist and the Nobel Prize committee, it is particularly instructive. In the most impressive work here—by Healy, Joyce and Scully—a range of contemporary poetic techniques is integrated into works of great formal achievement. A poem such as Healy’s Arbor Vitae, for instance, achieves great eloquence by drawing together the wry constellation of fact and linguistic abstraction.
Robert Archambeau is the lone non-Irish author here—Canadian, I believe. Citation Suite is a set of linked poems, in which passages are first quoted from Woolf, Plato, Forster, et al. then progressively commingled in new poems. A nifty idea, this sometimes works—as when Mr Ramsay is spliced into Shelley’s Ozymandias—but mostly trips up on slack writing and a fondness for rhetorical questions: “What god do you pursue in cities? / Do you see him, briefly, from inside a moving tram? // There—is that his name, those spray paint letters?”.
Healy’s Rana Rana! is a collection of shorter poems; they have their pleasures, but they mostly eschew the lively disjunctions which spark the long poems Arbor Vitae and Flame. The theme of Arbor Vitae is human deafness; its procedure, true to the arboresence of the title, is to branch out repeatedly from this central topic. Passages about heredity, deaf education and sign language among insects lie next to ones dealing with computerized tree-structures or the origins of language. Interspersed are riddles, anagrams and acrostics (of the word “ONE” and the names of chemical compounds), which seem to be Healy’s way of suggesting the conditions of sensory loss and human ignorance:
Clouds of yellowFlame is Healy’s most abstract text, a series of fragments spaced down pages which are mockingly numbered out of order. At one point an acrostic spells out “CARNALITY”, and the impermanence of the flesh and the world seems to be the poem’s thematic thread. As section V says: “Definition a matter of degree, permanence a gap in perception. Traceless waves constantly under renewal, the fractured world which you wake up every morning as much a construction as the One.”
Halt under branches as magnetic patterns chatter
Outside a box without hinges, keys or
Lid repeating repeating one syllable
Icosahedral capsid inside which latent images fix as
Negatives replacing original stone with digital codes
Embedded beneath the surface where spirits
Synchronised to artifical light decipher
That what they caught they threw away and what th
Ey didn’t catch they kept….
Trevor Joyce’s Syzygy is structured, the author says in a note, after the model of a crab-canon. Fragments of three quotations are threaded forward and back through a set of 12 poems called “The Drift”; these poems are then pulverized and rearranged as “The Net”, a set of 24 3-line stanzas. “The Drift”’s sober and precise lyrics deal with inhuman environments (outer space, the desert, the sea) and the processes of time; “The Net” is altogether denser and for this reader a real culmination:
grows to each there to recount spilling downBilly Mills’ Tiny Pieces is a miniature-format collection of very short poems. But their brevity doesn’t guarantee concentration, and they are formally thin: not machines made of words, just bland sentences printed one word to a line: “here / where // all / is // tiny / pieces”.
in measured orchard matter waters for cold
and dominations the nodding weakness leaves sky
the exaltation to take in by breaking through stars and through
broth though scarcely in the air and is it that this simply is words
devastation fell attending headbone the high
Maurice Scully recently celebrated the completion of Livelihood, a project begun in 1986 and organized into “5 books + 3 interstices”. The present three booklets would seem to be the interstices, though this isn’t made explicit. Prelude contains two meditative poems, the first describing a vine’s progress up and into the surface of a pillar; the second a visit to a grave. The collection is elegaic and calm in its treatment of death and memory, whereas in Interlude the present is cut across by death and “Order—the Giant / spinning in his / skin”: “Everything correct…. / Broken glass blood- / stains // spiked fences desklamps dream- / homes/I/Is it.” Even the cat wants “to brush your ankle / as you pass: mine: / keep out.” In Postlude the opening poem collages images of a painful livelihood: “the wearing repetition”; “the / crushing / vividness”; “sliding / down // the middle of the well-greased / chute”; followed by a remembered (it would seem sexual) encounter that stays a touchstone: “something lodges / obdurately (in / the net)”. The writing is strong and also self-questioning: its precise delineation of the natural world is also capable of being brought up short: “delete that oh // just another born-again / quietist waiting to / bite back.” The desire to dispose of the burden of “personality” (“shredding / the personal / rubbish”) coexists with the recognition of this project’s absurdity—as Prelude notes, to really listen and attend requires one to stop breathing. The publication of these chapbooks makes me eager to see the complete Livelihood in print; one volume, Steps, was recently published by Reality Street Editions, and one hopes the rest will follow.