Question: what’s so distinctive about this stanza?
Nature painted this morning
as a thorn in untried pigment,
a mad night in turpentines, or
the turning points in a dream…
And about this one:
I sat, solemn.
I saw time open one poem.
It was in me, lost as I.
Answer: the first makes each line an anagram of the others; the second is a palindrome. There are some writers who, as if writing weren’t already hard enough, set themselves extra hurdles out of sheer fun, ambition, masochism, or a kind of liberation-through-confinement. This collection is in that tradition, alongside Oulipo’s various jeux d’écriture, Christian Bök’s best-selling Eunoia, and most recently, say, Luke Kennard’s ‘The Anagrams’, and it’s something of a masterclass of constrained super-formalism. There are sonnets in monometer and dimeter, tautograms, pentograms (only five-letter words allowed), pangrams, aelindromes (a type of complex palindrome actually invented by this poet), lipograms including beaux présents (only the letters in its title can be used in the poem), acrostics, visual poems, homovocalics (each line uses the same vowels in the same order), and even a villanelle in dimeter. And amazingly, combinations of these. A sonnet that’s also an anagram. A palindrome that’s also an ottava rima. Poems that are anagrams of each other. Poems encased within other poems. A ‘trionnet’ which, depending on the line-breaks chosen, can become either a triolet or a sonnet.
One hard, or rather impossible, goal of such extreme restriction would be still to produce something not only grammatical but meaningful, sensible, beautiful, witty or profound, and in such natural English that the constraint, when spotted, would be like an icing of astonishment and awe. Anthony Etherin, understandably, has forsworn that literary Eldorado. He calls his constructions ‘wordscapes’ as well as ‘poems’ and in the explicatory notes offers an alternative aesthetic to the usual primacy of textual content: ‘the book’s subject is form itself […] the art of form for form’s sake’. As such one additional pleasure is that of a puzzle-book. You scan the poem for its formal devices, then check the notes at the back to see how many you spotted.
But if you did treat it as poetry? Well, the subject-matter is traditional: nature, Gothic and mythic predominate. The diction likewise is formal (‘Profusion is but paucity’s repose’) in a faintly old-fashioned way. Full rhyme is used, with the occasional plural, albeit unspectacularly; it’s heavy on staple monosyllables of the white/ light/ night grade. The titles often corral a scrabbled meaning, while odd phrasing gets mitigated (or justified, or enriched) by a prevalent dreamlike tone. The strengths of the content are especially in the mastery of rhythm, with deft caesuras and enjambments, nice wit (an anagram of ‘This is Just to Say’ begins ‘I have confused/ the letters/ that were in the poem…’), and cheeky originality (a poem whose ‘lines’ are silhouette lines of mountain ranges). My favourite one-liner was ‘A zig. Now one zag. Gaze now on Giza!’ which, besides its rhythm and soundplay ‘reflects’ its formal subject-matter: the drawing of a ‘palindromic’ shape.
As with a lot of very involving writing, I emerged from the book finding the world stranger – I began expecting palindromes and anagrams everywhere. Hey, that unusual word ‘Etherin’ on the cover: is it ‘In there’? Or ‘Therein’? Or neither? Not any hint here, as Anthony Etherin might put it.
Guy Russell 7th November 2021