Kevin Saving on
Bundle O' Tinder
Waywiser Press (2008)
88pp; RRP: £7.99
(obtainable via www.waywiser-press.com)
At long last! A recent poetry publication which this reviewer can celebrate in these pages without equivocation, qualification or, indeed, inebriation. And from an American too, by thunder.
Bundle O' Tinder is Rose Kelleher's first collection, published last November as part of the Anthony Hecht Award. It is arranged in sections under five thematic headings: 'God', 'Science', 'People', 'Love' and -somewhat perversely, the longest - 'Perversity'.
I like the fact that Mrs Kelleher is unafraid to speak her mind intelligibly and intelligently on matters which are of importance to her. I like the fact that she is unafraid to use an array of formal devices and, likewise, unafraid to utilise free-er forms when it suits her purposes. I like the fact that, whilst never prurient, she is -or at least appears to be - unafraid.
Her (Shakespearean) sonnet 'Mortimer' - about a ventriloquist's doll - contains writing of the highest quality. It commences
The dummy never sleeps. His body lies
inside a suitcase that his master locks
and all night long he stares through lidless eyes.
The sestet lives up to this overture in bravura style
Behind the boyish frame, a veteran voice
co-opts him as a witness on the stand
who's made to cover up -he has no choice-
the thrusting's of an uninvited hand.
And yet, alone, he thinks with longing of
those furtive fingers, all he knows of love.
Kelleher's compatriot, Emily Dickinson, claimed to know when she'd been in the presence of 'Poetry' by virtue of a sensation likened to the top of her head coming off (though I've since been advised that 'P.M.T.' can create similar effects). In sharp contrast to the preponderance of contemporary verse -which, granted, can bestow a headache - if 'Mortimer' isn't 'The Real Deal' then someone had best trepan this (self-appointed) critic, and quickly.
Kelleher's stance is sceptical and, occasionally, playful: surely the correct writerly approach to the modern world (in that full-on 'Disgust' just won't shift many books). Her imagery is unusually precise and applied aptly, sparingly, with the intention of enhancing the subject-matter rather than flashily displaying its own virtuosity. She may - already - be the finest American sonneteer since Edna st Vincent Millay. Her (Petrachan) octave from 'Rays at Cape Hatteras'
almost begs the use of the appropriate 'shades'.
The cownose rays are showing off today.
They flip themselves like flapjacks over pans
of California surf, and when one lands,
the splat reverberates a mile away.
sometimes you see the backs of their whale-gray
pectoral fins, outstretched like flipper-hands;
or else they show their bellies as they dance,
white slabs with grins carved out, as if from clay.
No, I don't know what a 'cownose ray' really looks like, either -but if I was on the committee of the Cape Hatteras Tourist Board, I'd sign Kelleher up immediately.
'Random Sestet' is, in fact, a rhyming sestina (minus its 'envoi') -and you won't see many of those on the high street. Invented by the twelfth-century troubadour (and mathematician) Arnaud Daniel, their formulaic, rotational patterns - each stanza must place its end-word in a particular sequence - are notoriously difficult to 'carry off' and (I had previously thought) display a tendency towards the nugatory. On this occasion, however, the poet contrives to stage-manage her egress from the still-spirralling helicopter with aplomb.
Though the quality of the 46 poems on display does vary - it could hardly be otherwise - there is not one which does not appear purposive (though I do not fully understand the intentions behind 'Love Sonnet'). 'Impulse' is a very fine poem marred slightly through the want of a more resonant ending. 'The First Uprising' works hard, but successfully, to square the circle linking 'Creationalism' and Darwinian theory.
The blackest plums are closest to the sun.
Eve, with a yen for something sweeter, stands
unsteadily, and with her furry hands
reaches up and plucks the ripest one.
Her brothers watch with envy till they learn
her trick of rearing up; [...]
With height, enlightenment. Now they can see
above the brush, across the burning plains:
a herd, a stream, a wolf that might attack.
But God knows what their legacy will be:
the shifting pelvic bones, the labor pains,
the feeling that they've strayed and can't get back.
Another sonnet, 'Neanderthal Bone Flute' would survive just as happily filed under 'Love' as under 'Science' (where it currently resides). And with equal poignance and truthfulness. This same observation applies to 'Lovesick', which seems to posit some kind of pathogen behind sexual attraction, and which is given an added plangency by the subtextual spectre of A.I.D.S.
If there are no egregious 'flops' to be found here, the scale of achievement within Bundle O' Tinder's 'top-quarter' is formidable. Rose Kelleher was born (as she tells us!) in 1964 - which would make her 44 at the time of debut. I hope that she won't keep us waiting until 2052 for Bundle O' Tinder's successor.
Kevin Saving © 2009