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Slate Petals (and Other Wordscapes) by Anthony Etherin (Penteract Press)

Slate Petals (and Other Wordscapes) by Anthony Etherin (Penteract Press)

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

Frances and Martine by Hilda Sheehan (dancing girl press, 2014)

Frances and Martine by Hilda Sheehan (dancing girl press, 2014)

Hilda Sheehan’s follow-up to her first collection, The Night My Sister Went to Hollywood (Cultured Llama, 2013) develops the domestic imagery of earlier work into a sequence of short prose poems based on the relationship between two female characters who share their home together. Part of the dancing girl press limited edition chapbook series, Frances and Martine, resplendent with drawings by Jill Carter, more than adequately fills the series remit of being work that is fresh, innovative and exciting.

Frances and Martine effortlessly combines magical realism with absurdist humour in sharply defined prose poem vignettes. Written retrospectively, in a matter of fact manner, the narrative employs short precise sentences without recourse to excessive baggage. The poems are cut to the grin.

The Arm

Martine had an arm off. Frances was worried. How would
Martine ever get repaired? She was never a looker, as it
was, and relied on her second arm to make up for her lack
of beauty. How will you ever get repaired Martine?
Or get a man, or another job without it? I have two legs
and I can cook. You can’t cook, not without your
second arm, because you will never control onions or slice
carrots. You are much less with one arm. I will get
something that one-armed women can do and I never planned
to marry. You are now enormously difficult, Martine, not
owning up to the disability one armed ugly women face.

The sequence works through to its exact use of domestic detail and what is not said. By withholding information the reader excitedly reads on for the next instalment of the odd couple. It is a form of the magical prose poetry, as recently developed by poets such as, Luke Kennard, Linda Black and Ian Seed. After ‘The Arm’, first published in Shearsman, comes ‘The Goose’, first published in Tears in the Fence 58:

Frances bought a goose. When she got it home she discovered
it was far too small for her. I can’t take it back, this
was the biggest goose in the shop, she told Martine. What
would that say about my weight gain? Just wear the beak,
suggested Martine. I don’t wear beak, not without the whole
goose body. Then eat the thing. I can’t eat goose! That
would be like eating my dog. Does the dog still fit you?
That’s not the point. It wouldn’t be right. Are you sure
they haven’t sold you a chicken? It looks a bit small to be
a goose. Or is it a size 10 duck?

The use of unadorned domestic detail deceptively ground the prose poems in a well known setting to produce a sense of identification which, with its deadpan ordinariness, produces the laughter. The prose poems are joyously funny whilst simultaneously discussing disability, animal rights, racism, size, the menopause, love, female relationships and other issues. It is comic writing with bite and the collection repays rereading.

David Caddy 5th November 2014

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