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Baby Patricia Debney Liquorice Fish Books (Cinnamon Press; www.inpressbooks.co.uk)

Baby  Patricia Debney  Liquorice Fish Books (Cinnamon Press; www.inpressbooks.co.uk)

In Julian Barnes’s novel Flaubert’s Parrot the narrator, Geoffrey Braithwaite, refutes the role of historiographer and explodes what could have been a singular history into infinite fragments, interminable possibilities. Even where there are well-documented sources such as the Greek journeys of Flaubert and Maxime Du Camp the story-teller presents the reader with contradictions as accounts differ, journals disagree and, in conclusion, Braithwaite tells us “What happened to the truth is not recorded”.
Patricia Debney’s new collection of poems and prose focuses upon the edge of vision, that which can be detected out of the side of the eye, and the often quite imperative tone confronts us with a sense of responsibility for what seems to be hiding there:

Things Which Had I Stopped to Consider –
Really Consider – Or If I’d Been Older –
Might Have Been Clues

‘That time we took Violet the cat – who had six toes on each front
paw – up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. You said she would like to
get out of the city. We opened the car door and she ran away, right
into the rhododendron up the side of the mountain. We called and
called – Violet! Violet! – but she never came back.

The time you locked yourself in the bedroom. I screamed – don’t
do it, don’t do it
– but you still didn’t come out.’

On the back cover of this remarkably disturbing volume of memory’s fragments Simon Smith mentions the ‘desolation of Hopper’ and there is an eerie exactness about this reference. In the 1939 painting ‘Cape Cod Evening’ (National Gallery of Art, Washington) a man sits on the doorstep in front of a house and a woman stands with folded arms looking downwards at his hand which is offered out with something in it held there to attract a dog. There is a kind of serenity in the scene except that the dog is peering alertly away from the man and, with ears pointed and tail sticking out horizontally, is staring at something (some thing) off stage. It is a very unsettling painting as one becomes aware of the importance of whatever is there, just out of sight!
Carrie Etter’s comment raises to my mind another source for this collection of ‘fragments, prose poetry, and white space’ (Jane Monson):

‘In her compelling new collection, Patricia Debney deftly fractures narratives, lines, and syntax to evoke a daughter’s struggle with an unstable mother. Baby intelligently renders their fraught relationship in all its emotional complexity.’

I am drawn back here to Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved which opens with the uncompromising statement ‘124 WAS SPITEFUL. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children.’ The epigraph Toni Morrison chose for her novel was from the letter Paul the Apostle wrote to the Romans and the nine sections of Debney’s poem ‘Armour of Light’ take their title from a reference to Romans 13:12. Whereas Morrison’s reference presents us with a contradiction concerning who is beloved Debney’s has a positive assertion of the day being at hand as the night is far spent. In these fragmentary shards of writing the poet sifts through ashes, picks ‘through remnants / of fires / in which not everything / burned’:

‘fragments
of bone
mostly yours
evidence
of kindling
not caught

and horded
secret hopes’

Just as History isn’t what happened but is instead what Historians tell us happened, the story of our selves is an accumulation of fragments upon which we place narrative sequence. Patricia Debney’s eerie and moving collection presents us with characters whose story is made up of what happens between the lines and just off the stage.

Ian Brinton 6th October 2016

Robert Vas Dias’ Arrivals & Departures (Shearsman Books, 2014)

Robert Vas Dias’ Arrivals & Departures (Shearsman Books, 2014)

From the same series as Patricia Debney’s Gestation and Anthony Rudolf’s Go into the Question, this chapbook of prose poems effectively uses the literary device of arrivals and departures for a pared down and celebratory poetry. It is at once joyful and thwart with potential danger, and sustains a wonderful balance between narrative voice and literary effects.

She arrived with the woodpigeons. That is to say, she arrived
and they left. Not that she had anything obviously to do with
it. Of course she did. She kept on arriving and then she left.
They appeared to be constantly fleeing the roost at her, at
his, at anyone’s approach, though clearly they had to have
returned in order to flee again. He never saw them return but
they always fled. She came to stay with him and then she
went. They – or more usually one of them – would explode out
of the treetops with a clatter of wings against foliage that
sounded like falling buckshot, and hurl themselves down to
the field below the house.

The sequence works on the binaries of things lost and found, presence and absence, meetings and disappearance. There is an abiding sense of mishap not far from joyfulness within relationships and social life. Vas Dias, though, elevates the binaries through the use of fresh language and unpredictable detours leavened with humour.

His darling sent him in the garden to deadhead the petunias
but he mistook the limp, budding flowerets for dying ones
and twisted them off. You’ve ruined my petunias, she
wailed. Don’t be upset, we’ve still got the weigela. It’s
not the same, she cried. We’ve still got the fuchsia. It’s
not the same, she sobbed. We still have the lobelia,
hibiscus, morning glory, wisteria, agapanthus,
trachelospermum jasminoides, honeysuckle, grape vine,
Japanese maple, pieris forest flame, hydrangea, camellia,
geranium, agave, anemone, hellebore. And you have me. Go
fuck yourself, she complained.

Vas Dias’ humour is essentially rooted in realism slowly unfolding into an absurdism, as in ‘The Cabinet of Husbands’:

You would have to say the cabinet was in need of restoration.
It was an antique – 175 years old – and was getting shabby,
but she was not one for restoring it. She was not one for
restoring anything, except perhaps husbands. He was her
fifth, older than her by fifteen years. All her husbands had
been older than her, they had a certain patina. She bought
antiques only when she was certain about their genuineness.
Her husbands had been genuine though they had not worn as
well as her antiques.

This is an uplifting sequence of prose poems probing the nature of symbiosis in various relationships here and what is required to be life giving there. It is necessary reading for anyone following contemporary developments in the prose poem.

David Caddy 12th November 2014

Gestation by Patricia Debney Shearsman Books

Gestation by Patricia Debney Shearsman Books

When I first came across the poetry of Frank Samperi, friend of Louis Zukofsky, I was struck with an overwhelming impression of whiteness on the page; space as if words were like bird-tracks in snow; words so laid out that they seemed as if they were yearning upwards to get to a rarefied world beyond the page. I remember being struck by Will Petersen’s short collection of Samperi’s poems, Of Light, published in Kyoto in 1965

going out
to
the backyard
to shovel snow

away from
the
cellar door
an old man

looked up
at
a shadeless
window

blinding
in
the sun
setting

behind the
homes
beyond
the freight yard

Patricia Debney’s new Shearsman Chapbook, Gestation, reminds me of those Samperi spaces. The nine sections explore fragmentation, delusion, and parental ageing and they form part of what will be her next collection, Baby. I think that what I was most struck by in these spare pages, these gaps for reflection, these spaces within which one is asked to pause and contemplate, is the bodying forth of a sense of identity: ‘Somewhere…….begins……the point when…….you know me…….a lifetime after…….I dig in……..hermit crab……..to your shell’. I have avoided quoting this poem as it appears on the page for fear of losing that enormous sense of margin which we are given and I urge you to go and buy a copy of this book to see the context for yourself. The opening of section five gives us a movement of growth which echoes the return of Persephone in the Spring. In Debney’s poem ‘the body grows / what the body grows / I am root vegetable / in rich soil / rain falls / a kind of sun shines / and I push past / the first feeble skin: / shed like dust brushed / away, blown glass’ . If I were still teaching I should want to place this exquisite passage alongside the description David Almond gives of the return of Persephone in his novel, Skellig:

She took wrong turnings, banged her head against the rocks. Sometimes she gave up in despair and just lay weeping in the pitch darkness. But she struggled on. She waded through icy underground streams. She fought through bedrock and clay and iron ore and coal, through fossils of ancient creatures, the skeletons of dinosaurs, the buried remains of ancient cities. She burrowed past the tangled roots of great trees. She was torn and bleeding but she kept telling herself to move onward and upward. She told herself that soon she’d see the light of the sun again and feel the warmth of the world again.

I recall asking Charles Tomlinson if he liked Samperi’s work and in an unpublished letter from February 2006 he wrote

You say you love the white spaces, but my world is so full of spaces of one kind or another, I love a bit of syntax. There’s something unsatisfying, I find, about poetry which welcomes what to me seems like a sort of arbitrariness in the way Samperi lays out things. Where is the anchor? With respect for syntax one knows where one is. Maybe I’m just too old to adjust to those spaces that refuse to notice that syntax exists.

Nearly thirty years earlier Donald Davie had written to Michael Grant about a similar topic concerning some of Grant’s poems which had been sent to the Grandfather of Grammarians:

Well! As you warned me, and as I suppose both of us knew in advance, your poems do indeed live at the opposite side of an impassable gulf from mine and from me. After all, what have I been from the first if not Doctor Syntax?—whereas your writing depends upon suppressing syntax, or leaving it carefully indefinite.

Both Davie and Tomlinson belong in a world which is rooted in a different approach to poetry from that presented by both Frank Samperi and Patricia Debney. Without wishing to present myself as sitting on a fence….I have a high regard for the work in both camps!

Ian Brinton, August 30th 2014

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