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Slant by Linda Black (Shearsman Books)

Slant by Linda Black (Shearsman Books)

Reading through the graceful poems, the delicate threads of line that constitute this collection, I am reminded of a little essay written by John Hall and published by Shearsman in Necessary Steps, edited by David Kennedy in 2007. Writing about ‘Occasions of Elegy’ Hall refers us to some roots:

The Oxford English Dictionary gives as the etymology for occasion: ‘ad. L. occasion-em falling (of things) towards (each other). It is not just the things that fall towards each other, though there is always, I would say, a sense of conjuncture or convergence that marks something as an ‘occasion’, even for those with their attention on the ‘everyday’. It is also that occasions are marked incidents that cause certain people to fall together.’

In the Dictionary the word ‘slant’ has of course plenty of references to the oblique (‘having an oblique or sloping position’) bringing to mind that occasional sense of one thing leaning towards another: movement and balance. The delicate threads of Black’s lines lean in such a way that stasis merges into movement: the gesture is that of thought becoming fixed for a moment, and it is recognizable in ‘Earth’s spread’:

‘—legend
quickens outward
inward to the fine grit
sand sieved & airborne
scuffs the surface
into drills blows in
three wishes bows out
definition beaten by whether…
O fragile web!

The forward movement of civilized growth, that which in narrative terms creates ‘legend’, has a primeval thrust of life which is caught with the word ‘quickens’. The word itself has of course echoes of the Credo where the ‘quick’ and the ‘dead’ merge and in this present context it is promoted, propelled forward, with the gesture of ‘outward’ as if from a centre. With a leaning gesture forward there is also an awareness of what space has been left behind by the movement: the opposite of ‘outward’ is ‘inward’ and the ‘fine grit’ or ‘sieved sand’ is like the prehistoric substance from which the perilous slanting forward derives. The ‘fossils’ and ‘scavengers’ and ‘bones’ which appear in the poem’s second stanza are ‘far far lower’ than where we are now but they provide the essential backdrop for this surge of slanting forward.

A central sequence of poems in Slant is ‘The Seven Lamps’ and as Carol Rumens says on the back cover ‘This work is a kind of translation, and Black finds enrichment for her own rhythms and vocabulary by re-grouping and personalising borrowings from the original texts’. In Ruskin’s fourth chapter of The Seven Lamps of Architecture he had presented an aphorism that could well be borne in mind when thinking about contemporary poetry:

‘But symmetry is not abstraction. Leaves may be carved in the most regular order, and yet be meanly imitative; or, on the other hand, they may be thrown wild and loose, and yet be highly architectural in their separate treatment.’

Ruskin went on to explain how his ideas differed from many architects since many of them ‘would insist on abstraction in all cases’ whilst he felt that a purely abstract manner ‘does not afford room for the perfection of beautiful form’ and that ‘its severity is wearisome after the eye has been long accustomed to it’. In Black’s poem (‘after Ruskin’) we find

‘Long low lines rise soon to be lifted
& wildly broken’

And we are confronted with ‘pavement’ which ‘rises / & falls’ as ‘arches nod westward & sink not one / of like height’

The conclusion to this second stanza of ‘The Seven Lamps’, a remarkable poem, is central to Linda Black’s whole volume as she comments upon ‘These inclinations’ (note the pun on subjective desire):

‘the accidental leaning the curious incidence
of distortion – differences’

The presentation of each poem, with italicised words leaning against the rest of the text, is part of the whole exquisite design and ‘A life of custom & accident’ is held in a delicate balance.

Ian Brinton 13th May 2016

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