David Tait, The AQI
Beverley Bie Brahic, The Hotel Eden
Niall Campbell, Noctuary
(Bloodaxe Books, 2019)
Kate Behrens, Penumbra
(Two Rivers Press, 2019)
The AQI is the Air Quality Index which records levels of air pollution in China, where David Tait works. The opening part of this powerful collection is positively disturbing:
A text from the embassy: the air today will not be good,
If possible I should stay indoors.
If possible I should wear a mask.
In ‘Smog’ the invasive poison is everywhere, driving the poet to wear a face-mask and sit next to an air purifier, while those outside have lungs ‘like the bottoms of an hour glass’. Tait captures the visual effect with an image in a later poem of the city as ‘vague as Monet’s London’.
There is another hazard: this is a surveillance society. Day to day living involves harassment; the men in light blue tunics hover. When the poet is drawn to a crowd who are watching a distraught man on a pagoda roof, ‘The police keep asking to look at my passport. They keep checking my phone for a camera.’ ‘Why that Building is Red’ reveals a building with a sinister purpose; ‘Two Vans’ suggests something even worse.
Life here is a weird combination of the futuristic and the traditional. The future is accelerated in poems such as ‘Window Cleaners’, with its empty office blocks, and ‘The Traditional and Virtuous Green Zone’, where tradition is the creation of a morning’s work.
Another terrifying theme of The AQI
is the abuse of LGBT people. ‘After Orlando’ is a long and rightly angry poem in which the massacre of gay men in Florida and the reaction is interwoven with an account of depressing episodes in the poet’s own relationship. There is outrage at how that ‘carnival of love and fear’ is treated in ‘After Pride’ and, in ‘Chechnya’, fury at the murder of a gay man by his family and ‘this deeper creeping knowledge: that some would have us crushed, that out there are millions who would wish us dead. This is why I fight.’ There is humour, too, in The AQI.
Never having read Brahic’s poems before, I assumed from the Hope Gangloff portrait on the cover that they would have edge and certainly attitude. Yet Brahic seems more the flâneur
of the back cover, and The Hotel Eden
is largely an engaging, very well-observed and quiet affair. The best poems validate Eavan Boland’s remark on Brahic’s earlier work about its craft and music and her ‘collected vision of life’.
She opens with the sunny, cheerful ‘Madame Martin and I’:
Madame Martin will throw back her shutters at eight
One arm will scoop up sun
She will brush her hair on the stoop using a small pane
as a mirror
Cap of hair like a well-scoured pot
Because this is garden talk, the widow’s insouciance might almost go unnoticed. Yet the sense of something a little darker is more overt in ‘The First Memory’, which dips into the past to retrieve the good and bad, but then is drawn up short by the missing. Similarly, ‘Answering Machine’ turns from inconsequential but not unpleasant chatter to a sad dénouement
‘In the Luxembourg Garden’ and ‘Winter Pears’ Brahic captures French life with some wit. In the former it is the Fantin-Latour of the flowers:
Alas! No undressed
Bourgeois gentlemen discoursing – on what? –
Their penises as silky as cocoons.
His dewy roses are for looking at.
‘Landline’ and ‘A Community Garden’ offer relaxed times outdoors, though communication is hampered by a reticent elderly father in one and affable foreign intruders in the other. Tension is generated in the title poem, ‘The Hotel Eden’, which puzzles over the lack of narrative in a Joseph Cornell collage:
On the tip of God’s tongue, the bird waits to be named.
The Hotel Eden
Profoundly silent, the taxidermist’s shop. ‘If only,’
thinks the bird.
If only what?
would make a better French movie than an American, I thought – adopting Brahic’s comment on C.K. Stead’s novel, The Necessary Angel
– given a tendency to resonant slightness. Occasionally, however, a poem will wander through the poet’s day without arriving.
is Niall Campbell’s night journal, written after the birth of his son. He has a way of opening out the love (and the inevitable fears) of fatherhood – often via dreams or their imagery – which has the effect of universalising the experience of his ‘night watch’ without the recourse to autobiography alone.
In ‘February Morning’ he is a ruined bridge completed by his son. In ‘The Disembarked’ the imagery is more indirect:
It’s midnight and I’m dismantling a railway,
bend by bend, straight by straight. The passengers
who shuttled all throughout the provinces
of imagined lavender and imagined wheat,
must find a place to settle for the night
The baby intrudes into the poet’s sleep in ‘The Night Watch’, with its fine use of metaphor:
It’s 1 a.m. and someone’s knocking
at sleep’s old, battered door – and who
could it be but this boy I love,
calling for me to come out, into
the buckthorn field of being awake
There are, inevitably, the addresses of little wisdoms to the son himself (‘Horseshoe Crab’ and ‘Other Branches’) and then the last two poems bring the collection to an end with some tenderness. Campbell is ‘the lamplighter of some old city’, in ‘Good Night’, whom love guides home. In ‘From the Spanish’ he captures love’s paradox:
earlier I left his dark bedroom –
but still, it’s true, I’ve never left;
and look, he isn’t in my arms,
and yet he’s all I’m carrying.
These poems also involve movement, often unsurprisingly to do with returning home. There are foresters and poachers who take ‘the ownership of things’, their motive trespass. Perhaps these are threats to the undeserved riches of parenthood. Not that being the watcher is without its desired arduousness, as we learn from ‘Packhorse’ (‘Bring on the bit and curb, the saddle, the saddlebag’). There are also engaging poems on other themes (‘Thinning Apples’, and the introspective ‘Tightrope’ and ‘Thirties’), plus poems on the poet’s childhood in the Outer Hebrides, where he describes what one poem calls his ‘brief long happiness’. ‘Blackberries’ captures the period well. An enjoyable collection.
– Kate Behrens’s third collection – explores continuities and dislocations at the death of a father (the painter Timothy Behrens). What is at issue is maintaining their relationship beyond his death. Diction and syntax are sometimes difficult to make sense of, I have to say, but the poet’s intentions are clear enough throughout.
Poems deal with memories of a bohemian childhood, of living abroad, of a charismatic parent (‘yours, one form of freedom in wild flights from time, mine, shackled to information’). In order to keep the dead alive within us we have to confront their ends as well as their love, and this Behrens does in poems like ‘Two Stages’ and ‘Tiny Thistles’. Some confront the pain directly as in ‘I Sat in the Chair for Measuring Breaths’. ‘Before & Thirty Years On’ articulates that need:
I can’t desire
to rid myself of your suffering,
since that’s how you make yourself known.
In fact I fear forgetting
its toxic glow under my skin.
‘At Last’ is an effort to recognise that the gift is passed on after a death, that love and life are in the blood (‘He asks me to be freed – not that I should free him’).
Love and death is certainly not the only theme of Penumbra
but it does ghost the collection. There are a number of poems that deal with other living things, particularly birds, whose tenacity Behrens admires. There are poems that capture pigeons, a thrush and a robin, all carefully observed in their daily struggle. ‘Hidden Birds’ records this:
Stifled from kisses of snow,
the earth has sucked out thought
to all but the thought-free
exactitudes in not dying
Intent on reclaiming her dead, the poems in Penumbra
bare the poet’s soul and we are left to acknowledge both the need and the results.