Learning to Read #13
What a contrast. At the same time as I was reading Olivia Gatwood, I was also reading this book. On the one hand; street wise, personal, straight talking oral poetry. On the other hand; complex, compelling, crafted, dense poetry that you kind of have to keep a dictionary on hand to get the most from. Well, I had Urban Dictionary on hand for Gatwood, but that’s because I’m not half as street as I think I am 😉
My first reaction to Langley was to marvel at how long it must have taken him to firstly research the subjects for his poems, and then to put the words around that knowledge. This is acutely observed and keenly constructed poetry. Part way through “In Raking Light” – a poem about how an angled beam of light can reveal subtleties in a painting that are otherwise unnoticeable – we have a section that reads “And in the beam’s fetch / the urgent silt sits up / Its sketch lifts; it shifts / makes surge-lines break, and drift.” There is a depth of thinking here about the subject – does the raking light show up mistakes, corrections, subtle changes in the artists thinking or hidden meanings. Does the poetic form act as a raking light across the subject, teasing out something previously hidden? There is also a depth of writing here, to express these ideas in a engaging and readable way.
There is a lovely run towards the end of the first section of “Albada – Pigeons on Pink” that I won’t attempt to quote in full here. It has a repetition of the phrase “he thinks” that give you the flow of an internal narrative, and builds a sense of drama into the poem. You can understand the timing, the tempo, of these poems more clearly on the page that you can for some of the more performance focussed modern poets. I’m really impressed by how he does this. Sometimes his sentences run and run, rolling over line breaks, diverting via punctuation and pauses for breath that he still manages to control just through the natural pattern of the words. Look at the first section of “Glanced” for example. “My flighted hope: that bird cracks glass, and tumblers / beakers break on painted grapes // on picture plane or bounce back / deflected, as mote on float // reflected. Map the rebound ’cause /I am sore astound and all amazed”
He does list poems as well, and poetic prose, and plays with formatting and spacing and there is a lot of variety in what he does here. The technique is noticeably strong throughout and it covers all manner of subject matters from the personal to the abstract. I like that in a collection – it’s not all about the author, there is a world beyond the self.
You could argue that some of this is a bit too clever for it’s own good. Pentimenti has a bunch of lines that are crossed out, some lines in dark type and some in a faint type. If I’m honest, I’m not entirely sure that this works for me but I can see how it gives you a train of thought, an audit trail for the writing of the verse. I’m OK with this within the context of the book. The fourth section of “Divided – Back” for example, is built around a split line structure, it has echoes and repetition that bounce between the splits and makes it feel right, even to a grumpy traditionalist like myself.
Honestly, you might need to have that dictionary to hand for some of this, but it is worth it. It’s clever and memorable, with a lot of style. I’d be interested to see how he does it in a live space.
You can read about Eric here, with a very dashing photo, it has to be said.
Raking Light is published by the rather splendid Carcanet Press