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Poems 2004 -2014 Harriet Tarlo (Shearsman Books)

Poems 2004 -2014 Harriet Tarlo (Shearsman Books)

In January of last year Shearsman Books published a delightful collection of poems by Harriet Tarlo and I do not use that adjective without some consideration. I remember reviewing her Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry, The Ground Aslant (Shearsman 2011), when it first appeared and being struck by the sharp focus of the poet’s introduction in which she wrote ‘Language is a form in which landscape can come alive’. The quiet and perceptive intelligence of this brief statement was brought back to my mind yesterday when I was reading Madame Bovary in preparation for a talk to be given to Sixth-formers in a couple of weeks’ time. Flaubert’s understanding of the world as seen through the eyes of the sentimental Emma is placed, at one point, in terms of landscape:

‘She liked the sea only for its storms, and greenery only when it was thinly scattered among ruins. She had to be able to derive a kind of personal advantage from things; and she rejected as useless all that did not immediately contribute to her heart’s consummation—being of a temperament more sentimental than artistic, seeking emotions and not landscapes.’

Also in her introduction, the editor accounted for the diversity of texts by Wendy Mulford, Peter Larkin and many others as juxtaposing differing arrangements of prose blocks, found text and stanzas of poetry, ‘each within their own spaces.’ She then suggested that ‘these diverse texts speak to each other across the space, allowing readers to enter the poem and speculate over their relationship to each other’. I think that that it was the importance of this last statement that came back to my mind when I was looking at Harriet Tarlo’s Poems 2004-2014 and I re-read Gillian Allnutt’s comment on the back about this being a poetry ‘that thinks through time and place’.

I was looking closely at the concluding sequence of eleven poems, ‘insurmountable chasm’, many of which were originally embedded in an essay entitled ‘An Insurmountable Chasm?’: Revisiting, Re-imagining and Re-writing Classical Pastoral through the Modernist Poetry of H.D.’ which had been published four years ago in Classical Receptions. The first piece is what Tarlo terms ‘original’ and I think that it is very striking indeed in the different ways it can be read.

found words over space list
shunting sound leaf dust under
learning to hesitate leave it
long and longer over-creepage
ivy

The way that this poem is laid out is central to the manner in which it can be read and I am hoping that the spaces will have come over okay when my little piece has been transferred to the website blog. If not then readers will have to write out the twenty-one words for themselves or, much better, buy a copy of this delightful collection: it will repay many hours of focused study as one appreciates how language is a form in which landscape can come alive.

In his essay ‘Four Different Ways of looking at J.H. Prynne’s Chinese Poem’ (Quid 7), Li Zhimin wrote:

‘To judge whether a classical Chinese poem is successful, the first and most important question is to see whether it creates an integrated Yijing, which refers to the overall effect of a poem, a sort of picturing imagination fully including the poet’s genuine understanding of life at large, of human beings, of nature and the universe…The appreciation of a good classical Chinese poem often runs beyond explanation. In many cases, it is simply unexplainable. The more one explains, the more its beauty will be blurred for readers…’

Li Zhimin goes on to tell us that the usual way of reading a traditional Chinese poem is (i) from right to left vertically downwards. A more modern Chinese way, more familiar of course to us, is (ii) from left to right, horizontally. A third way of reading (iii), combining the two cultures could combine the traditional Chinese-right-to-left and the English-horizontal and one might even be compelled to try (iv) the English-left-to-right and the traditional Chinese-vertical way. Looking at Harriet Tarlo’s first poem in ‘insurmountable chasm’ the effect of these different ways of reading can be felt immediately and I just want to point out a few of the delights which I came across while leaving the continued and continuing reading of these poems to you.

In (i) watch how the pun on ‘leave’ (leaf) is followed by the thrust forward of ‘over-creepage’ to ‘over leaf’ which hesitates before the enclosing growth of ‘ivy’ becomes language.
In (ii) watch how ‘space list’, a white page perhaps(?), seeks space ‘over’ language, words which are that ‘dust’ of accumulation under ‘leaf’ can be given voice ‘shunting sound’.

This beautifully put together book of poems sheds light.

Ian Brinton 17th January 2016

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