A Taster-Plate Full of Possibilities: Paul Summers reviews ‘Water Mirrors’ by Nicholas Powell

Water Mirrors by Nicholas Powell. UQP Poetry Series. 2012

water mirrorsThe hyperbole of publishers’ back-page blurbs is deserving of a critical review section in itself. UQP are in fluent overdrive here, proclaiming this debut collection to be: exceptional, luminous, dazzling, extraordinarily forceful & ruled by a gentle but masterly technique.

As a critical (& slightly cynical) reader i’m now anticipating one of two things: A work of astonishing genius or the disappointment of yet another over-egged or over-hyped pudding. I’m happy to say that this slim collection veers cautiously toward the former but does on occasion take recourse in the latter. Ultimately though it left me more hopeful than disappointed & to someone who scans as much contemporary poetry as i do, that counts as a notably good result.

To be fair to the UQP marketing department, there are many moments within the covers when the writing, or phrasing within the writing, more than lives up to its hype. Powell has a deft eye & ear for intimacy & vulnerability, & a strong, sensual , poetic vision of landscape & situation. Although in this reader’s opinion, he is better at documenting intimate moments or poetic ‘flash fictions’ than he is at maintaining more extended narrative.

In Dip, the book’s second poem, we encounter the protagonist’s seeming reticence to allow himself to be poetic, to trust in the validity of his ‘felt’ language & not let it be domineered by the language of ‘thought’.

Launching the miniscule canoes of frangipani leaves,
He thinks to say, the tree grieves, and thinks

Better of it, focussing on how the breeze
Feels on a cleaned body, and happy to have
Not shot his mouth off.

Perhaps this is a clue to the niggling demon which haunts some of Powell’s work in this collection, a confidence to trust in the economy (& obliqueness) of his own poetic language. There’s a lack of thrift sometimes, a prosaic intruder which infiltrates his phrasing, which is frustrating knowing how well he can condense & control. He needs to trust in his undoubted skill as a poet more, be confident & within that confidence, extend the parameters of his world & the ruthlessness of his economy.

Despite the pan-continental back-drops these are insular poems, inward looking poems from his own ‘little window’. They can occasionally feel slightly devoid of a ‘punctum’, nice vignettes but surprisingly empty of emotionality but when he writes well, the poems dance & the moments are well & truly nailed. My only other minor criticism is that it sometimes it feels as though ‘The Poet’ is a little too present, too pre-occupied with being a poet, whatever that actually means.

Powell is at his best when the language feels instinctive, honest & not overly wrought.

Light caught your tongue, & your tongue, sun

(Wild apples)

.

History is made by how we speak

(Line for the new year, Lithuania)

.

The pleasant pain of making
slowly

(Sepal)

.

…the tincture of bedsheets

(Blue hour)

.

Clubbed by sunlight we have fallen
asleep in the cheap seats dreaming
ceasefires

(The Flag)

Late Winter is a truly beautiful little poem, my favourite in the collection – it marries the minutiae of domestic detail with the vastness of an external natural almost metaphysical presence; it’s beautifully observed & is one poem handled with an incredible degree of economy.

Water Mirrors is inarguably a strong debut for which Nicholas Powell should be applauded, but it is, for me anyhow, glowing with promise rather than dazzling; it is generally strong but not exceptional. What Powell gives us with this offering of 42 poems is a taster-plate full of possibilities. I look forward to reconvening for the next sitting; I’d be backing him to get better & better.

– Paul Summers

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Paul Summers is a northumbrian poet who lives in Central Queensland. his poems have appeared widely in print for over two decades and has performed his work all over the world. A founding co-editor of the ‘leftfield’ UK magazines billy liar and liar republic, he has also written for tv, film, radio, theatre and collaborated many times with artists and musicians on mixed-media projects and public art.

Water Mirrors is available at http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/book.aspx/1207/Water%20Mirrors

Gossamer and Robust: Paul Summers reviews ‘Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks’ by Jean Kent

Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks by Jean Kent. Pitt Street Poetry 2012

The cover of the paper-back edition.

We learn to shy away from certain adjectives in the columns and rows of our review copy. Beautiful is one such, and it is only right that we demonstrate care in its overuse or in diminishing it to a passé superlative. However, I’m sat here with the limited-edition, hard-back version of Jean Kent’s new book, Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks and I’m finding it difficult not to employ it.

The book is, in every way, a sensory delight; from the incredibly high production values imbued in the embossed, sanguine, Indian-cloth cover, and for which Pitt Street Poetry should be congratulated, to Oliver Watts’ sparse yet captivating pencil drawings and that’s before we even hit upon the words.

Jean Kent’s poetry is both gentle and powerful. It is tender and brutal, gossamer and robust, like ‘an argument with air’. The palette of her reference shifts effortlessly between continents, between epochs and psychologies, from Rilke to The Animals. She is a poet ‘swinging on the ropes of curiosity and hunger, gifting us distilled studies on belonging and separateness, on trauma & repair. They are studies which are painterly in their detail, filmic in their exactness but always affording us with the luxury of space in which to think and share, to absorb the weight of meanings, ‘like the still spaces we enter when music moves us’.

It is a book borne in the historicism of Soviet-era Eastern European displacement & persecution, a time of gulags & mass graves, but it belongs very much to the present. It represents an act of understanding, of reflection and translation, of love and empathy, of our vicarious ownership of the trauma of others. There are also the beginnings of a sense of healing or reparation, of acquiring a fortitude and momentum to keep us moving forwards rather than being anchored into stasis by the dead-weight of our mutual ghosts.

                          …..There is a waft

of cooking kugelis from the kitchen –
a comfort of sour cream and potatoes so thick
it is a snowdrift over all the blood and damage,
the graves under the birches, the faces swept off,
snarled away to Siberia or foreign
safety…  There is a waft

of rotting apples and the woman’s incinerator,
disposing of everything no longer wanted.”

‘The Old Family House’

Wringing out innovative imagery from the mundane and familiar, Jean Kent is a genuine lexicon-whisperer taming language, creating for us a feast which is incredibly rich but never sickly.

This is a book of love and of loss, of empathy & compassion, of celebration and remembrance, of trauma and attempted reparation, of bewilderment & understanding. It is a struggle to learn the intricacies of a language not quite your own. Within its pages, Kent humbly summons the ghosts of bitter history and explores the rawness of their legacy on others without ever been moribund or hopeless, without ever falling into the traps of the saccharin or the sentimental. There is palpable sense of her ownership of these stories, however vicarious, and like the most compassionate of nurses she tends to the wounds of the narratives which have made us, and in this case, our lovers, who we are.

The streets of Paris and Lithuania are carefully animated into life, although her Australian home is never far away. She addresses, full-on, the tangle of past and present, of meme and gene, of the forgotten or denied, the familiar and the alien, and in doing so she has created a volume of intricate and moving correspondences from a place few of us are equipped to travel, let alone make sense of.

It does not attempt give us answers but is flawless in pursuing the inquiry.

So much gets lost
Between the words on one page with their scythes
And floating hats, the letters alive like the air in the forest
With gnats and bird swoops and antler hooks

And the words on the other, those cubes of ice
With small bodies trapped inside…
So much

Gets lost

‘My Father-in-law Translates a Lithuanian Poem’

Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks is a rare thing. It is a poetry book in which there are no low-points, no pauses for breath. It is a beautiful thing and I strongly recommend you get yourself a copy.

– Paul Summers

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Note: Paul was reviewing the limited edition hard cover version of Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks. This edition consists of 276 signed and numbered copies, with drawings by Sydney artist Oliver Watts. It is a sewn cloth bound volume with a red/ silk bookmark ribbon.102pp. 230 x 145 mm. There is also a paper back version available. Both versions are available from Pitt Street Poetry http://pittstreetpoetry.com/emporium/

Paul Summers is a northumbrian poet who lives in Central Queensland. his poems have appeared widely in print for over two decades and has performed his work all over the world. A founding co-editor of the ‘leftfield’ UK magazines billy liar and liar republic, he has also written for tv, film, radio, theatre and collaborated many times with artists and musicians on mixed-media projects and public art.