By PETER RILEY.
By Tiny Twisting Ways
by Ian Davidson.
Aquifer Books | 68pp paperback | £10.00
Buried Gods Metal Prophets
by Maria Stadnicka.
Illustrated by Antonia Glücksman.
Guillemot Press, undated | 104pp, card-bound | £12.00
by Maria Stadnicka.
BY TINY TWISTING Ways contains two sequences, “Lumps and Bumps”, and “Three Cauldrons and Two Saints”. A third, “From a Council House in Connacht”, was published as a pamphlet by Oystercatcher Press earlier this year (briefly reviewed here). All of these have narrative functions which necessitate abandoning, however episodically or reluctantly, the techniques of experimental poetry and saying plainly what the issue is. Stadnicka’s Buried Gods Metal Prophets confronts the same kind of task in a different way. Two of Davidson’s narratives are episodes of the poet’s direct experience, of which one is a crisis; the third concerns the stories of two Irish saints, as much a crisis as any other.
“From a Council House in Connacht”, which I take to be the first, deals with the process of moving from Dublin to a working hamlet in Connacht as something like sinking into a long past which faces you at every turn. It’s a history mainly of deprivation leading to a national catastrophe, and the poetical account is of confronting the barriers between two dialects which comprehend these events in different ways.
This is mostly told quite straightforwardly in prose paragraphs which break into poetical tags at their endings without any change of substance, so the contrast is between two forms of description: accumulation of significant detail (prose) and a more static thoughtful discourse which finally breaks out in two poems of socio-political accusation, the misdeeds of landlords and agents. None of this, prose or poetry, is really “linguistically innovative” and it contrasts with the tone of his previous book, Partly in Riga and other poems (2010), where a lot of the writing is not unorthodox in itself, but is involved in a political anger which roughens the discourse, reinforced by the irregular metrics. The lines get a sharpened edge to them, which aren’t simply caused by others.
The centrepiece is “Lumps and Bumps”, the central crisis, which poetical language at first avoids but is drawn as if magnetically towards. The poet’s partner is under treatment for cancer, and this is what the sequence is “about” — but out of 21 poems, the first mention of cancer is in number 12, and is not specific. Most of this quite substantial poem is a meditation in a shore landscape, emphasising the great bulk and power of the sea which can destroy great cliffs and boulders and so should be able to demolish such a small thing as a cancer with no difficulty. This Lucretian confidence is not only offered but dreamt into a structure —
How can disease prevail as
each wave heads to the shore as
fresh fall of rain becomes a
river of light, as mountains
when called upon responded.
which gradually develops into a recognition of duplicity in nature —
other mountains lurk,
Behind skin an
drops its guard,
building cell walls,
Behind the surface
of the snow
So here cancer forces an entry into the poetical structure but remains more a concept than an event, a token of the potential personal threat always concealed behind normality. Cancer is referred to as a kind of emblem of harm and death, the detail against which the width of nature is powerless, until he suddenly lets in the immediate reality casually in a reference to Father Ted —
Will you take some chemo to go with your radio now?
Go on now. Take some chemo. Go on.
Cancer. Can’t go round it can’t go under it can’t go over it.
— but doesn’t entirely turn to the particular until poem 20 (“lumps and bumps”) which returns to seascape but with the hurt of the particular embedded in it and ends with a conceptual alliance of bodily and psychic pain. It would be distorting to quote the plunge into realism here without at least the two verses preceding it, from which it is launched —
…the Atlantic all at
sea in a heavy swell. River
keeping things safe, flowing
in one direction like a
She has three drains, like bullet
wounds, a trinity, arranged
as the shamrock
she lifts her shirt her body
has valleys and hills in an
hands her names head back from the
coast through townlands and bald hills…
and the sequence ends with a blaze of sunset over the sea — rather Wagnerian, but from what I remember the west coast of Ireland is like that. The two main scenarios are brought together by a calm which over-rides both forms of anguish, the personal and the terrestrial.
But there is a complication, for it is natural for any reader to want to know what happened on a novelistic level, and what the outcome was. The poet doesn’t want the sequence to be involved with this for obvious reasons: it is not the more popular anecdotal or journalistic kind of poetry which offers authentic accounts from poets who have had “events” — accidents, bereavements and so forth — and, elegantly sometimes, makes sure we get the whole story, what it felt like to be in a car crash, etc.1 That would be to capture the reader’s attention by a singular event without any reach beyond the occasion. Davidson gets over the need for this vicarious element by one sentence in the dedication which precedes the text: “This sequence is for Elizabeth, who survived the cancer this work finally describes…” This is a subterfuge really, stepping over the gap between poetry and prose in a footnote, but I’m nevertheless glad of it.
THERE IS NO wrench or clash as the writing moves from the seashore to the damaged body in one step. For all the contrast in subject they both occur in the same kind of language, the same poetical rhythms and suspensions, and conceptually they are united in being concerned with the hidden reality behind the serene surface, and with human intervention (channelling) as response to very different forms of threat. Each theme can have a poem to itself or they can engage with each other in one poem, overtly or implicitly; each is a figure of the other.
Ian Davidson has worked with these concerns about correspondence and hidden threat for a long time, mainly driven by socio-political concern and cultivating an awkwardness of address, sometimes like a sustained and suppressed anger which distorts the language, defining ”poetical” as a refusal of detailed explicit connection. All the matter is thrown directly at the reader, often very effectively. These new sequences are all open to a less-constricted discourse without any loss of impact, marked by the turn to anecdotal and descriptive prose and a succeeding sense, above all, of calm while weathering various storms. I think an important agent of this is the quantitative metrics, though this involves elements of historical and nationalist intervention which I find puzzling, if intriguing.
The preface states, “Many of the poems […] are written in a seven-syllable line, a quantity often used in early mediaeval Irish and Welsh poetry.” Zoë Skoulding comments (on the back cover) that this “…knocks English off-centre, brilliantly wrongfooting illusions of power and transparency.” This is a lot to ask of a syllable count in English, which is often difficult to define and to which British speech rhythms do not always draw attention. Whether there are six, seven or eight syllables to the line (and it is sometimes impossible to say which), the effect is primarily of a quite free three- or four-beat line recalling ballad metre. I also thought that in a lot of very old poetry, wherever it came from, the syllable count was just one of a whole cohort of demands, amounting to the mastery of a distinct poetical diction adaptable to different occasions.2 Much more striking than the syllable count is the intensive deployment (for instance, in “Lumps and Bumps”) of a triplet or quatrain in which the last line is a species of thump: a one-beat line most commonly of one or two words. To me this has a distinctly mediaeval feel, though invoking things in middle English rather than in “Celtic”.
We all know that if you’re employed in an academy in connection with contemporary poetry, or indeed if you anticipate any public success as a poet, you are more or less obliged to act out the part of the marginal rebel within whatever territory you can claim, which you do by interlinear expertise in the Uni., or more loudly in the electronic streets. Ian Davidson does not need this, he has more pressing needs of a different order, and has developed a verbal skill in referring experience to a potential elsewhere. What the syllable count does is encourage a deliberation in the choice of words and a resulting enrichment of the fabric. He takes full advantage of this in these sequences.
The last of them, “Three Cauldrons and Two Saints” is (nominally) in triplets and (nominally) seven-syllable lines throughout and departs entirely from both the present and the self. The saints are Patrick and Brigid, two of the three patron saints of Ireland, and the text is a selective retelling from the seventh-century sources with interpolations. The title refers to a sixteenth-century mystical treatise in which the interior “cauldrons” represent stages of the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom, as part of the education of the bardic poet.
There’s no need for me to rehearse these stories, which represent the convergence of the two saints’ contrasting weaponry, Patrick’s rhetoric and Brigid’s dreaming, through a handful of miracles and one or two murders, everything sailing smoothly downstream on Davidson’s syllable-count. It is here that I felt most aware of how the relaxation into the tiny, twisted ways of narrative poetry had not only normalized a lot of the usages, but also admitted a more-or-less gentle humour into the telling. In From a Council House in Connacht his own naïve misreading of the local provincial attitudes carries a lot of it; in Lumps and Bumps it is interruptive and ironic; but in Three Cauldrons and Two Saints there is a feeling that most of it is probably not taken seriously at all. With the exception of Patrick’s procession through the disciplines of the three cauldrons, which is translated into abstract terms as, almost, a creative writing course leading to the power of metamorphosis, the power to convert, it is all recognised as “tall tales” in a tone of gentle self-mockery which feels peculiarly Irish.
Brigid who shut her eyes as
Patrick preached and dreamed of ploughs
and ploughmen in white robes, their
furrows filled with clear streams and
well springs. Patrick saintsplainer
of visions and tall tales was
ready to interpret. No
opportunity lost. Saints.
I THINK THAT the form of intellection implied by Buried Gods Metal Prophets, which is the latest and most achieved of these two books by Maria Stadnick, is a startling compound of telling detail and width of understanding, in handling severe political and social harm of kinds which might feel remote from our (“western”) experience (but are not).
The author is Romanian now living in UK, and the central concern of the book is with the enforcement of excessive social and economic control under the communist regime there. Among the results of this which were acknowledged after the revolution of 1989, were an epidemic of AIDS among children under four, and the notorious conditions of Romanian orphanages, which became a news item all over the world. In the central narrative, Stadnicka faces this double-headed monster through the experiences of a girl born in 1977 who was both institutionally orphaned and an “AIDS child”, and this is done so convincingly that it is tempting to wonder if she is not herself this child, who has somehow escaped it all and fled to England, and has written these books. We can’t of course know and it is better if we don’t — though one sentence in her acknowledgements list refers to her having gained “…the courage to approach and explore my experiences during the Cold War”. The writing could not be more authentic than it is, as the story of simply “the child”, who isn’t named except as “dog”, which is how most people referred to her, and “Bed 27”, which was the name given her on entry to St Joseph’s Home.
The ground is covered in various ways during the course of the book, but principally and most memorably through the individual experiences of the child in the orphanage: memories of hurts, moments of incomprehension, false hopes, momentary escapes… mostly told in a faulty learner’s English whether spoken or written, lineated or prose —
I figures out from what others say that I needs to avoid playin by the swings, in case I gets cuts, and bleeds over others. The same, I cannot use knivez-nd-forgz; for soup and such likes…
Why this child language is in English is not explained; it is taken for granted as necessary for transmission of the conditions the children had to live through. In the central narrative of the book, it occupies short items of poetry or prose very sharply grasping the felt contradictions and abuses of her imprisonment in anecdotal glimpses, but also pushing the writing towards the seriousness of poetry as it follows her life before and after the orphanage. The main point is that there is only her personal testimony; everything is seen through her eyes and felt by her body.
Her language is itself referred to in a catalogue of her defects as seen by the sister who announces to the class that she has AIDS:
Medical charts told her I’ve got a defect;
head too big, eyes too wide, hands grip
wrinkled words, build foggy stories
out of brother’s muteness. A beast,
not a girl. She repeats to the class, Beast.
This simple reporting, present or past tenses, readily slides into non-rational formulations (“hands grip wrinkled words”) which have not been crafted for the purpose but seem a natural resource of her limited repertoires; it may be a poetry-derived mode but the vocabulary, strong in physical terms, conveys what is meant unambiguously, and the clipped unelaborated manner identifies the speaker3 and it conveys exactly the experience of routine hurt. She calls it “long conversations between old and young wounds”. The naivety and apparent fidelity of the self-account empower the language towards abstraction or possibly a tense kind of symbolism, when it comes into contact with the wider world. But at its most serious the tone is allowed to develop towards the comedy of innocent misunderstanding which is inherent in the entire chosen mode, as in this exchange of gossip with her special friends (“Bed 28”)—
At the Showers, Bed 28 whispers to me
she overheard Father Michael sayin
to Sis’ Loretta we’ll have foreinayd soon.
We ought to be clean, best behaved,
in case foreignayd-people take pictures
of us for the papers.
Dunno, she replies, it must be
somefin good cause the kitchen floors
got dizinfected. …
Inserted into this storytelling of imprisoned children are quoted items of documentation which represent the whole political and bureaucratic exterior — the world, itself damned, which is responsible. Many of them appear to be state decrees which I’m sure are genuine, such as the banning of abortions (1966), and instructions to doctors never to diagnose HIV/AIDS, the existence of which is an official secret, its actual identity replaced by “occasional vascular dystonia” which is virtually meaningless.
There are also scattered through the book letters and documents, both public and private, with words blocked out by censors, representing the eyes of authority always trained on you. There are authorial interventions, especially as time passes, which look beyond the orphanage walls without delivering any actual hope, such as the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986, and Garry Kaspanov, the world chess champion from 1985, evidently a hero of hers (“I hopes that one day I gets better at chess and takes Kasparov’s place…”) who fails to retain the title in 2005 for reasons treated in the final text of the book as existential (realising that you are alone). There are also various diagrams, shapes, or pictures all probably classed as “illustrations” that punctuate the text throughout, mostly either very simple, like a blank square, or very complex.
Always the condition of the orphan child informs the expressive scope of the writing, which gains in strength both before and after the central orphanage section, without losing its grip on the pathos and absurdity of the writing. Sometimes the tension bursts out into techniques associated with the current Anglophone avant-garde, such as poems with about half the words blocked out in grey, though the effect is more of struggling to reach a working conveyance than of trying to avoid it.
All this forms an anti-context to the child’s life which is followed intermittently from birth (a failed abortion) to some sense of adulthood as the speaking voice of the poems (not all of which can be taken to be authorial) sheds its childhood tones and bears responsibility for the discourse. At both of these sites, before and after the orphanage, real poems become possible, free of the exceptionality (actually typical but concealed) which determines the anecdotal miniatures.
It is obvious, then, that as a book of poetry Buried Gods includes within its function a strong documentary responsibility, to reveal, or remind us, of the acts of one of the most disastrous national European policies of the cold war period, but almost entirely focused on the orphan child’s story. To a large extent this is delivered in damaged language, especially in the very touching struggle with English of the orphans, but this doesn’t class the poetry as “experimental” because there the damage is intended by the author as, among other things, a masking of and mystification of a coveted reality, and here it is a product of the conditions themselves. The quoted documents from Bucharest, meticulously correct in English, also use damaged language because they are intended to deceive and falsify, and to destabilize the concept of truth. At its wildest the language in Buried Gods has nothing to do with the wilful obscurantism and authorial claims of much “experimental” poetry.
The evidence against the regime piles up behind the life we are being shown, but does not transgress into other contemporary matters, such as the Soviet space programmes.4 We get to Chernobyl because, like the revolution, it did impinge on the child’s life in terms of suddenly disappeared persons. We don’t get any open denunciations of “communism” because the poetry refuses to quit the focus on particulars, including the locality, which is the strength of the whole project. An advantage of this closed scenario is that it is more difficult, when it comes at you in a show of pathos and courageous resource, to dismiss it as a finite issue. Bound to particularities, it steers clear of parallels. We are not referred to Mexican children torn from their families at the “wall”, we are not reminded of recent discoveries in the grounds of Irish Catholic orphanages. Such connections remain possible on the strength of the very uncluttered and specific nature of Stadnicka’s account but beyond that it is up to the reader.
This narrative cannot have a settled conclusion. Once you have been through the central crisis it is always with you. The final text in the book is an elegant retrospective centred on Kasparov, the former world chess champion, playing on without realising that the game ended some time ago, and suddenly noticing he is alone. This opens, as her writing sometimes does, into an Apocalyptic declaration—
I drink to my demolished house. My killer instinct plays the harp behind curtains. I am a dog reaching its hermit age. Shaped bones chase after me in the playground with rusty swings. Father, we don’t end up in paradise. We keep moving… I stop halfway across a bridge to witness the birth of new cities…
But this dynamic tension is not simply climactic. One of the finest moments is the second poem of the book, which is one of the few glimpses of her pre-orphanage life and is a simple scene with complex implications. I quote it entire —
On the way home, we walk
through a building site
with half-bricked houses. My shadow
hops alongside his, fireflies
light up the top of a church.
Look, the clouds, little girl playing
mummy and daddy between metal cranes;
she hums lullabies, her dolls float in the sky.
Let’s take her with us, she’s barefoot.
Father5hurries ahead. His boots
drag the field’s mud. His work-tools
in a satchel over my shoulder.
Let’s bloody leave it and go, he says.
Let’s climb up, give her some fudge;
she might be hungry.
Father hurries ahead: Come along, dog, it’s dark.
Before and long after the orphanage, she is still “dog”. Every detail of this poem stands there in its own significance and at the same time stretches its mental inquiry into the far reaches of our lives though the story of Bed 27. I’m surely justified in finding this unity of lyrical and dramatic skill exceptional.
THE EARLIER BOOK, Somnia, is more like a collection of poems such as we get in Buried Gods before and after the orphanage section. That is, for the most part, poems directly addressed to the reader in a range between anecdotal and emblematic, and a language usage that comprehends plain statements as readily as a figuration reaching to the edge of transmission. But there are some very strong common features, one of which is a persistent movement in the poems towards a sense of overpowering wrong, a sense that to stretch language towards a totality is to reveal a fault in the entire structure of perception. Stadnicka is not devoted to difficulty for its own sake, but it is as if the movement of the verse is inevitably led into it by having to face realities which cannot be explained or recognised in any other way. While with some poets a highly wrought manner is evident from the first line, Stadnicka’s first lines tend to be problem-free while her last lines ask you to encounter a strong resonance, often connected to disasters such as car crashes.
Thus, the poem (“Kafka”) begins, “The other day, during an afternoon nap…” and ends “…a pair of handcuffs / and steel neck chains dropped on my chest. ” And “I used to know a man who lived in a windmill…” which leads to “…a breathing child tucked in his breast pocket.” “I always wanted mother’s nightdress…” leads to “…and her nightdress turned into snow.” This is not the only kind of movement in the poems; sometimes you start in the thick of it or jump into it after a brief scene-setting. But the sense of relentless movement towards an apotheosis of contextual failure or the simple grimness of living on, is prevalent.
The level of seriousness and skill are both unquestionable, but compared with Buried Gods, the poems ask for a context. They rely on singular events, accidents, personal failures, undisclosed occasions of despair, etc., which may or may not become lyrical in the end. The wish for a larger structure is evident in the ordering of the book, which divides the poems into four “movements” named after the movements of the traditional classical symphony or sonata (allegro, largo, scherzo, finale) but this is the wrong kind of context – both generalised and remote. On the other hand, the poems of Somnia are bound tightly into the Romanian narrative, all the more so as they refuse generalisation. The disasters are recurrent or permanent, they imply each other and can be invoked in a single word (such as “playground” – see below.)
Nevertheless, the poetical texture in Somnia does get very close to that of Buried Gods, and indeed four poems occur in both books. One of these is “Father’s Dog”, entitled “Playground” and the first of a set of three, otherwise identical.6 It is not merely within the ambience of the orphanage poems — it clearly is one, but, standing outside (or on the edge of) the larger structure, cannot quite project the sense of omnivorous threat which resounds through the narrative. The third poem of the set, which was not transferred to Buried Gods, has actual orphanage scenes — “The first to snap a bird’s neck/ gets a lollipop from Father Michael” … “We give it a burial/ behind the Laundry Block.” It’s a very effective poem, but perhaps the progression from “I” to ”We” was too precipitately risked at this early stage.
Note: Shorter reviews to follow of books by Steve Ely, Elisabeth Bletsoe, Peter Dent, Peter Robinson, the reissue of 1970s books by Andrew Crozier, John James and JHPrynne… and others (probably).
Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry (including The Glacial Stairway [Carcanet, 2011]) – and some of prose. He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.
Peter Riley’s Collected Poems, containing work from 1962 to 2017, was published in two volumes by Shearsman in 2018, followed by Truth, Justice, and the Companionship of Owls from Longbarrow Press in 2019. An earlier book, Due North, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize in 2015. A collection of his ‘Poetry Notes’ columns has been collected in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, and published in 2015 by Odd Volumes, our imprint. An archive of his Fortnightly columns is here.
- One of the best of these is Lure by Alison Lock, published as a pamphlet by Calder Valley Poetry in 2020 — the story of falling into a mill pond followed through the successive year of recovery.
- See for instance the fairly mind-boggling mass of rules and prohibitions explained by Brian Ó Cuivin in The Linguistic Training of the Mediaeval Irish Poet, statutory lecture 1969, School of Celtic Studies, Dublin 1983
- The reference to “brother” is probably to her young brother, occasionally mentioned, who is apparently in the same orphanage and cannot speak. Indeed, Guillemot Press’s author page notes, “Maria Stadnicka’s latest poetry collection…is inspired by the experiences of her brothers, who lived in a Romanian children’s home between 1978-1987.”
- Except, that is, in a chronological list of salient points of Romanian history and politics from 1945 to 2005, weighted towards the stories of the book, which appears as an appendix. This is a useful way of relating the book to a real history but should not be used to supply definitive readings of particular items.
- There is here a gentle and momentary play as the word “father” is manipulated grammatically so that it may be “father” (the current meaning) or “Father” (foreseeing the orphanage).
- Except that in line 6 “little girl” was originally “like a girl”. It is typical that the word “playground” can recur here, or anywhere else in either book, as in my previous quotation “Shaped bones chase after me in the playground”. The whole miniature tragedy takes place in the playground.