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Steve Spence

"An Arbitrary Line" by Sarah Cave, pub. Broken Sleep Books

This is a fantastic collection from a young writer, her second in a year, and this new book shares with her first, Like Fragile Clay, a concern with theology allied to survival in extreme circumstances. There’s an almost mediaeval sense of stoicism here but this is tempered by Cave’s interest in modern poetics and a playful outlook which permeates the whole collection. There are poems stimulated by visual preoccupations, poems re-worked from existing texts and a range of experimental pieces which are nevertheless approachable and very pleasurable to read. ‘Slava is a religious hermit living on an archipelago / in the Russian Arctic where the coastline is shaped / by millions of years of heavy weather, erosion and geological disruption’. This ‘narrative’ is juxtaposed with extracts ‘transcribed from Lady Franklin’s Archive at the Scott Polar Institute, Cambridge’, quotations from Chekhov, John Webster and Dostoyevsky, including (from the latter) this epigraph which I both wanted to debate and at the same time ponder deeply: ‘The Christian who is a socialist is to be dreaded / far more than the socialist who is an atheist’. It’s difficult to indicate the strength of the ‘visual poetry’ included here without reproducing individual pieces in their entirety, which is tricky to do, but suffice to say that Bob Cobbing may well have had some influence and Cave’s
typographical ‘balancing acts’ have arguably taken concrete poetry to new heights of aesthetic achievement. I was particularly taken by ‘the outline of streets’ on page 77. Despite what I’ve said above there is no sloganizing here but a series of meditations on what I take to be quite profound issues, filtered through a ludic and at times, absurdist set of propositions which mesh together in a very satisfying manner. The closing paragraph, four short prose sentences, apparently a quotation from Korotki (Russia) has an intriguing sense of ‘throwaway casual’ while also being about as deep as it gets: ‘I don’t think about death. When my time comes I won’t care. Life’s fine as it is, why think about death? Why spoil the time you’re given?’

It’s worth quoting a few extracts to give some sense of the diversity of these poems, as a reader may approach them in a variety of ways:

          Bewick’s Swan

          Lines in wood
          the block is carved
          the word is written
          the swan watches
          back the last migration
          in fascination before
          pressure is seizure

          of white space    


          desert. Coastline


          mist                      horizon concealed            mist

          against face       solitude              silence

                              solitude              silence

          the tower          mist                   the tower      mist
          a bird alights       long legs           a bird alights


          Watching the Clock #3
          3 am (transcribed from Lady Franklin’s Archive at the Scott Polar
          Institute, Cambridge)


          Now the night will soon
          be past and the day begun.
          Let all be banished
          who wish to make us sorry.
          The clock has now struck three.
          O great father assist us
          and grant us thy love.’

The use of an archive as a starting point for this series of poems, combined with an exploration of extreme geographical locations where life is hard to sustain, reminds me of the anthropological writings of Tom Lowenstein (Ancestors and Species) and Norman Jope’s poetry relating to both the desert and arctic. The balance between the obvious spiritual aspect of Sarah Cave’s writing and the playful, often humorous tone she employs is so well managed that you can work your way through this collection quite quickly, pausing to think and admire, for sure, then read through again more slowly, taking time to make connections, to consider more carefully and appreciate the depth of its
achievement. In terms of construction I’m thinking again of J.R. Carpenter’s recent Penned in the Margins collection An Ocean of Static where the whole is greater than the parts and where different registers and formal devices come together to suggest a coherence from what might appear to be fragmentary, dislocated texts. Yet in both books there is also an hermetic element which appears to be connected to geographical distance and isolation. It may be that there is a certain tendency in modern poetics towards this form of writing, perhaps within an academic or scholarly framework which could be explored more thoroughly. It may be that the work of the Canadian poet and scholar Anne Carson also has an influence on such an emergent field of study.  Whatever the background, Sarah Cave is a rising star in this firmament where even the title of her collection suggests that the power of chance and a playful, almost blithe, approach can have its serious side. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, its provocations and stimulations are utterly life-enhancing.


Copyright © Steve Spence, 2019