This is a deep and probing selection of poems, which as a whole seems to cover more ground than the category of ‘pamphlet’ would suggest. The range on display is by turns geographic, tonal and formal. We travel literally from the parched desert landscapes of the Atacama to the suburban sprawl of England, and while this is a significant distance, the attentiveness and agility of the voice mean that the poems avoid the pitfalls of cultural tourism. Sometimes I would like to take a breather from the globetrotting, but I would certainly encourage you to keep those contrasts of mood and structure. To shift from the desolate grief of ‘Once Again No More’ to the tentative hope of ‘Coastal Sonnet’ is a rewarding and poignant experience. What’s more, the layout of those poems helps the reader to navigate the changes, with the rigid, short lines of ‘Once Again No More’ encapsulating the narrowed horizons of bereavement, and the breakthrough in the sestet of ‘Coastal Sonnet’ exemplifying a return of faith and courage.
It’s clear, in short, that you’ve developed an impressive level of competence as a poet. The nuts and bolts of these poems feel fairly secure to me, with a refreshing lack of narrative or linguistic loose ends – the sorts of minor mistakes or imprecisions that can hamper the work of many an emerging poet. (Still be careful on this front, though: there’s a moment in ‘Cold Call’, for instance, where a complex sentence falls apart as you try to manage too much information. It’s the sentence starting ‘Guided to the brink of ecstasy…’) These are, indeed, narrative poems, so in my view it’s important for the ideas, images and syntax to be tight and controlled; this isn’t the type of work where language might be experimental or subversive for its own sake, and that’s absolutely fine.
However, I do think that you could create a more open-ended experience for your reader on occasion. Sometimes the poems wrap up too neatly, reaching for a type of crystallised epiphany that might be better left unsaid. Trust to the power of implication, and trust your reader, as often they’ll be able to make that final leap of understanding without being told what to think. I’ll try to show what I mean here with a concrete example in the close readings that follow.
I wanted to look at this poem first because I think it’s a fine example of you writing a sophisticated poem of place. The setting is not named specifically, but the reader is able to pick up on all the necessary cues. The early-morning humidity, the soundscape of birds and animals, and the rich colours all suggest a rainforest – but not a generic one. We start with an imagistic fragment that gradually opens out to fuller sentences:
Mist along muddy bends. Speckled light
in caterpillar stripes, seeping through
the branches. This chrysalis will bud
and make the heat come heavy with the sun…
I love how these images build. Mist is a common but effective trope, creating instant atmosphere. The metaphor of light as a caterpillar could be rather florid but you control it nicely, by letting the image gently progress in the next sentence to a ‘chrysalis’. You don’t even need to name the butterfly that is the logical endpoint of the conceit, because the reader is following along and piecing it together for themselves. Overall, these four lines create a wonderful sense of the forest waking and coming to life. It’s a type of aubade, really – traditionally, a poem to a lover set at dawn, only you tweak the tradition to make it a hymn to nature. All this is excellent.
The poem sustains this level of control, broadly, throughout its eighteen lines. At the wider level it is fully achieved, with an almost filmic quality to the montage. I do notice a slight dip in quality when we turn back to the river itself. It’s just a case of the language feeling a touch more familiar, even cliched:
The brown ribbon slowly takes on lustre,
flowing through the landscape’s motherly
I feel like I’ve heard rivers being compared to ‘ribbons’ before – I couldn’t tell you where exactly, but the metaphor just doesn’t have the same freshness that the caterpillar-as-light one did at the start of the poem. ‘Flowing’ is also a disappointing verb to use to describe the motion of a river, when there’s such a rich array of options to choose from (e.g. ‘thrusting’, ‘drifting’, ‘slithering’ – you’d probably find a better one!). Moreover, I’m not quite buying the mix of metaphors here, with a ribbon being held in a ‘motherly / embrace’. So there are areas that could be improved, even if the overall movement of the poem remains elegant and well-turned.
A final word of praise for your ending. I’ve said that I sometimes find these a little too neat, but this is an example where you give the reader a moment of poignant closure without crowding them too much. ‘The river is homeless until it finds / its home. Light scatters low and rich to the west.’ These are simple, elemental images, yet they are filled with a type of grandeur that really clinches the themes of questing, consolation, travel and return.
‘Remembering your house’
This poem has much to recommend it, even though I think it’s currently one of the weaker pieces in the manuscript. Let’s start with the positive. Your handling of free-verse prosody remains skilful and confident. Here you allow yourself a slightly longer line than usual, but that suits the nostalgic, reminiscing tone – it’s almost as if you’re unbuttoning and allowing yourself to say all that you’ve been meaning to say to this long-lost love over the years of separation. There are occasional flashes of brilliance in the language, too, such as the line, ‘Your kettle wheezed inscrutably and clicked.’ I love how the strange, slightly mannered personification of ‘wheezed inscrutably’ contrasts with the mundane, very kettle-like action of ‘clicked’.
The reason why I think this is a weaker poem has to do with that problem I flagged in my overview: the tendency to pack things up too neatly for the reader. This begins with the opening stanza, which situates the speaker in their moment of recollection:
Sitting here on this battered wicker chair, in a hotel lobby
very far from home, my mind drifts to another place
I never felt at home, for it always had the spice of being
elsewhere for the night.
As always, there’s a type of stately elegance to your writing, but here all those precisely layered clauses feel ponderous rather than inviting. The sentence is working too hard to set up the different places and timeframes of the poem: the now of the hotel lobby, and the then of this other place of ‘spice’ and romantic excitement. The reader has to track these shifts, so the experience feels stage-managed. There are also a couple of small details I’d query on the level of accuracy, like the dangling modifier that introduces the first main clause. The speaker’s mind isn’t ‘Sitting here on this battered wicker chair’, but the grammar implies that it is. In this case it’s a simple fix, since all you need to do is change the subject of the main clause from ‘my mind’ to ‘I’.
From here, my advice for the rest of the poem gets a bit more open-ended. The second stanza contains a remembered litany of experiences that happened in the addressee’s house. It’s closely observed but starts from what feels like a false premise: ‘Every time we crossed the threshold, light would / fill the air. You’d touch my cheek unbidden and we’d kiss.’ Now, I may be making assumptions here, but I can’t quite believe that every time you entered this person’s house, light filled the air – what if it was a grey day? Did she (or he) always touch your cheek? This past continuous tense flattens out the specificity of the relationship, and it carries on across subsequent images: ‘The sofa would swallow us’, ‘You’d remove your coat’, ‘A mist would be unfurling in the trees’ (careful of that mist – here it feels like a trope).
I’d recommend rewriting the poem as a single, unfolding memory so that every image stays specific and true to life. Were you to do this, I wonder if the framing device of the speaker reminiscing from his chair in a hotel lobby would even be necessary. You could write in the present tense, and the reader would understand that this was an intense, lyrical experience being recreated as if it was happening now: ‘The sofa swallows us’, ‘You remove your coat’, etc. Much more dynamic and passionate!
At present, the poem’s ending sums up what I mean about packing things up too neatly.
This was your house, and that was
your body, secret and inviting as a letter.
I wish I could open it here today,
in this lobby where I long to be back home.
There are a couple of things I’d say about this. First is the slightly delicate matter of your simile comparing the body of the addressee to a ‘secret and inviting’ letter. This implies that their body exists solely for the notice and appreciation of the speaker, which brings in an unfortunate flavour of entitlement at the close of a poem that has otherwise handled sex in a tender and reciprocal way. But the other issue is just that danger of telling the reader too much. By returning to the lobby and explaining exactly what frame of mind has led to this reminiscence, you take away a crucial element of mystery and discovery in the reader’s experience of the poem.
Your writing is mature and moving, and I can see it finding appreciative readers among fans of traditional lyric verse. It demonstrates admirable qualities of compression yet the style is never terse or dry; a rich palette of emotional experience underlies these vignettes, and you have a knack for illustrating feeling through vivid imagery. The travelogue aspect of the manuscript is well-handled, though some readers might find the tour of diverse nations and environments a little brisk. Over the course of a longer manuscript, you might want to think about how you can anchor the reader, perhaps by allowing certain poems to unfold in a single location, or a less determined space altogether. Nevertheless, writing the poetry of place is one of your strong suits, so by all means you should continue to work in this vein. I’d recommend starting to submit to magazines like Magma and The North.
To improve the manuscript – and potentially appeal to an even broader readership – I would recommend paring back some of your instincts to provide a moral, an epiphany or a ‘take-home message’. I read an interesting line recently, in a review by Jeremy Noel-Tod, which claimed that ‘the salt of poetry is surprise’. I like this formulation because I think it applies to the best qualities in both traditional and experimental forms of writing. Even if the language of a poem is stable and lucid, and seeks to communicate a comprehensible experience of the world – as yours does, very skilfully – the writing still needs to have that quality of surprise to work. I get it abundantly in your depiction of the rainforest waking up, as light progresses from its caterpillar to chrysalis phase; but you close it off slightly in the return to a clearly framed moment of recollection in ‘Remembering your house’. It’s all question of balance, and I’m sure that as your writing deepens and develops you will start to strike it with confidence, while retaining all the essential craft and refinement of your style.