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Alan Baker

“The Cost of Walking” by Shannon Tharp (Skysill Press, 80pp, £8.95 / $15.00. ISBN: 978-1-907489-06-8)

When I received this book, the latest from Skysill Press, I opened it at random and saw this:


       as a flower
a split lark's

To present a six-line poem in which four of the lines consist of a single word is a brave move; there's nowhere to hide, so the words have to be right. In this case, 'graphic' is a striking adjective for 'flower', and even more so for the song of a bird. The word 'blooms' being a verb, serves to push the poem forward and 'split' is again, a striking word, applied to both the lark - where it suggests pain or parting, or some less definable rift - and to the stream of its song; which is 'minor' as in musical key, but with suggestions of smallness or insignificance. The title, 'Poem', suggests to the reader that this may be a poem about a poem, a piece of language, an object, which, in WS Graham's phrase, is "an addition to the world". This adds an extra dimension to the piece, where the word 'graphic' for example, implies a whole poetic ethos (which is distinctly American), from imagism onwards, and where the word 'minor', alluding to music, has a different sense when applied to poetry.

I was so impressed by this gem of a poem, that I thought maybe it was a one-off. But this book is full of such pieces. On the facing page to the poem above, we have:


is a cut

that doesn't
close, dove.

Your birthday

every time
you turn


This little poem, sixteen words in all, has an expansiveness that belies its length. The opening word 'discomfort' sets the tone and its understatement - suggesting as it does, the pain of the almost inevitable rift between mother and child - makes it all the more powerful.  I could analyze this poem word-for-word, as I did with the one above, but there's a limit to how far this will get you. Poems like this are more than the sum of their parts, there's a luminosity about some of these poems which results from the combination of words, the images selected and the composition, which is actually quite difficult to explain. I just know that, in this book, it seems to work every time.

These poems are in a tradition, and the antecedents can be traced in the dedications we find in the book; to Jack Spicer, William Bronk and John Taggart; and lest we think Tharp is a woman working in a male line, the epigraph to whole book is provided by Hilda Dolittle (HD):

Better the wind, the sea, the salt
in your eyes,
than this, this, this.

Wind, sea, salt - named, physical things - and 'this' the pronoun referencing the as yet unnamed, provide a fitting epigraph to Tharp's combination of concrete imagery and linguistic constructions.

But this book is more than a collection of polished and carved short poems; it's a coherent whole. The tension in the book is between the physical and the psychological manifestations of 'weather'. As John Taggart puts it in his cover endorsement, "We live in a condition of weather, a fact so blatant that we are startled to be reminded that this is, inescapably, the human condition". The opening poem of the book, "Dusk", sets the tone, with opposition between the "...crucially useless circus / in which I rehearse the bruise / I miss you" and "fire's immediacy / sharpest in frost". As this poem states "There will always be / a hand beyond / the weather-". This large theme is addressed by grouping short poems into sequences that explore the toll taken by the distance and separation - both from people and the physical landscape - that life imposes on us; this is "the cost of walking":

When we


you speak
of a barge

at night,

a hospital's

to rain. This
has taken

years, this
admitting -

the cost
of walking


(from "Chasing Landmarks":9)

Meditative poetry which closely observes the natural world can sometimes become too impersonal. Tharp's poems however, have a distinct human presence; the characters are only implied in the poems, but in a poem like "Travelogue", as in the poem quoted above, the relationship between characters is sketched in a few words, and, as in many of the poems in this book, a sense of personal loss is invoked.

These poems are irreducible, and cannot be paraphrased (a definition, some would say, of poetry itself), but they have room for dry humour ("A map’s in / the wheels of / her drawl" p17), and they have a sense of space, by which I mean that they don't feel cluttered. They are also able to encompass philosophy and abstraction. Tharp can skilfully modulate between abstract language and concrete imagery. On the one hand, we have a pure imagist poem like 'Drain'. Here's the whole poem:

an eyelash in
an otherwise white sink

While, on the other, we have the four-poem sequence for Jack Spicer entitled 'Practice'. These short
poems are concerned with Spicer's approach to poetry and its relation to his life:

To record
more convincingly
the force behind motion,
you’ll walk through
a posture of

The sequence comments on the philosophical aspects of Spicer's poetry ("Down / every road / there’s always / one more system—") while successfully conveying the an impression of Spicer's biography in the most succinct manner ("You lose the / radio in a / basin / and / listen / to decay."). 'Practice' is a considerable achievement.

The world has room for many types of poetry; Robert Sheppard's poetry, also featured on Litter, has a broad scope that encompasses the many, sometimes jarring, discourses of contemporary life. By contrast, Tharp's focussed poetry has a quiet concentration, a connection with the physical world of the country around Seattle, where she says she can “usually be found”, and of the wide open spaces of Wyoming and Montana. The poems have a human dimension, which is all the more compelling for its understatement; with their carefully chosen words and light construction, they teach us

to love

seen before



Copyright © Alan Baker, 2012