Saturday, May 01, 2010

Poetry Reviews by Sophie Mayer: Two Ways to Picture a Life by

The Joshua Tales
By Andra Simons

Published by Treehouse Press

Kendra Ezekiel, the illustrator of The Joshua Tales, calls her work ‘collagraphs.’ It’s an evocative description for Andra Simons’ texts themselves: short blocks whose apparent simplicity – and complicity with the paragraph, the prose poem – is insistently but subtly disrupted. There’s play with the font, kerning, colour, and repetition of words; wide gaps between phrases; a solitary word “rise” on the page at the centre of the poem.

The second poem, ‘Joshua’s Birth,’ is interrupted by an asterisk in the second of its three lines that points to an italicised headnote above the poem, and twice its length. The poem talks about Joshua’s birth, the headnote of colonialism’s. Throughout the book, the tensions between the individual and history will visibly divide the page, yet collide upon it.

That division/collision echoes the narrator’s relationship to Joshua, as described in ‘Joshua has Sex’:

Joshua, by my side/myside, watched as I made love to the copper man, mimicking every movement like a third grade ballerina. Joshua’s brown lips kissing the darkened centre of the room.

I, not wanting to teach him that love can only survive in cages, let my lover surrender Joshua. I by his side/hisside watched as he made love to the copper man.

Joshua opened his mouth. Arched. Reached out with his tongue. He Sang. Joshua raised his wrists and soared.

The / cleaves in both its senses. I (all we know about I is that they teach poetry) withdraws, as they do throughout the book, giving over space and sense to Joshua, who meets the President of the United States (in the book’s most deadpan poem: read it for yourselves!), flies a kite and generally enjoys the gifts of presence. After he meets Eve, Joshua sails home to the island of Pocaroja, and Joshua leaves the narrator to ‘train under her palms.’

What he learns in this final identification between the individual and history is pain: ‘Like her he aborted his babies like her.’ The next three poems are called ‘Joshua weeps for the first time’, ‘Joshua’s Rape’ and ‘Joshua’s Death.’ Presence, being in the world, has opened Joshua to pain. His rape is hauntingly described much like a self-birth, and it’s this act that brings Joshua and the narrator together.

Joshua meets many people on his travels, including God and Lucifer, but the most crucial is the Jazz Singer, ‘the darkest green sister’ whose singing ‘Bitter and softly’ gives the poem its tone, its musicality (as Joshua ‘Sang’) and its cyclical form. Like the mosaiced, textured, tessellated images, these poems build on each other by degrees and rotations. The final poem, ‘Joshua Here,’ returns cyclically to the words of the first poem, ‘Joshua’, but ends with the affective, elusive affirmation of presence and action (and an echo of marriage as a ceremony of love as union-in-duality): ‘I do.’

The Silver Rembrandt
By Kate Foley

Published by Shoestring Press

Ekphrasis – the description of a work of visual art within a poem – has been a hallmark of lyric poetry since the Romantics. Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ related poetic truth to visual beauty and even TS Eliot’s cynical reductio ad absurdum (‘In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo’) in ‘The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock’ couldn’t reduce the desire of poets to use the visual arts to write beyond language.

Kate Foley’s long poem sequence ‘The Silver Rembrandt’ is not Romantic-with-a-capital-r, or even romantic, in the conventional sense. It explicitly eschews the idea of the Genius whose gift surpasses ordinary human concerns, but at the same time searches for a more expansive definition of the self than ‘lover.’ In looking closely at Rembrandt’s painting, and particularly those that contain self-portraits, Lily, the poem’s narrator, searches for a way that is between life and art.

The sequence is formidable both for its narrative clarity, equal to Jackie Kay’s, and its intense release into moments of stilled lyric that offers us the opportunity to find what, in her first sexual experience,

Lily has begun to know

that to live in your matchless skin
you must leave simple, good enough bare
to find naked

Finding naked is the book’s work, shaped as specifically female and working class, as it looks for a place in contemporary aesthetic culture that defies John Berger’s astute observation that men in Western art are naked, women nude. What Rembrandt offers Lily is not just – or not so much – the inspiration to pursue her own art, which she comes to realise is mediocre, but what she encounters first in his work, when her teacher sends the class a postcard of ‘Old Woman Reading’. ‘It isn’t her face’ the description begins, ending: ‘what counts / is the glowing gospel of her hand.’

Through her relationship with Frances, the birth of their autistic son, the dissolution of their relationship and Frances’ death, Lily somehow has within her that ‘glowing’ kernel, but only activates it when she returns to Amsterdam and is adopted by two young squatters. They introduce her to mime artist Wim, who says he ‘will teach her Rembrandt’, and so she ends the poem as the silver Rembrandt of the title, ‘juggl[ing] light’ not on a canvas but with, and in, her body.

This bodiliness, in which the body is – and replaces – art and religion as belief systems, surfaces in the other poems that make up the book: the ‘iron, salt and a hint of honey’ in a lover’s post-running sweat in ‘Running Woman’ or ‘the Buddhas of Bamiyan / made part of our own flesh’ in ‘When the Buddhas of Bamiyan Fell’. So when old age’s ‘tender paradigm shift from words to touch’ is invoked in ‘Thrift’, Foley subverts the tragic narrative of ageing towards something elevated. Not transcendent: the material world that Rembrandt worked so lovingly in light and dark remains the book’s touchstone. In the final poem, ‘Prayer,’ the poet prays ‘to our piano / your hand strokes every day,’ the piano at once word and sound and image, and at the same time a body, a conduit of touch, as these poems are.

Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at



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