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Alan Baker

 

'Lever Arch' by Mark Burnhope (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press)

There is a type of poem that allows the reader, after a certain number of readings, to completely grasp the meaning of the poem, and such poems often have an authorial voice that guides the reader and prompts them to a certain response. The poems in "Lever Arch" are not of this type; they are 'open form' poems which are different on each reading and full of possibilities.

In an epigraph to the first section, 'lever' Burnhope quotes Larry Eigner:

"I thought myself that immediacy and force have to take precedence over clarity in a poem... so the poem does become a thought process or arc or course of thought or trace or artifact of the same, maybe more than a machine made of words."

Eigner's poetry appears to focus on physical objects, but isolates them as disconnected nouns, in a way that brings the focus onto the words themselves as text, as sound and as visual elements on the page; he was therefore a significant influence on poets like Ron Silliman who worked on the assumption that language is a self-referential, closed system. Burnhope sets himself a challenge by quoting a master like Eigner, but in some poems at least rises to it successfully. As an example, the poem 'air show', looks up to a Red Arrow flying display, then brings the reader down to the speaker's immediate thoughts, on to (possibly) noise from the street, then through more internal dialogue, to this:

                                  fly on
                    white wallpaper

              couldn't have covered m
       ore                                            faster
     if                                               it tried
     here:  the                                  gruff throat

When I read this I found myself going back and forth (or left and right) between the words, making different combinations; as a reader I was left at the textual surface, treating each word as a visual and aural component. The next lines continue with the flow of thought and perception, and throughout the poem the movement is swift and skilfully handled, as it takes the reader with it on its journey through the speaker's mind. The distressed typewriter-style font gives a sense of urgency, as well as a feeling that labour was required to produce the poems, that they are artefacts.

Unusually for contemporary 'innovative' poetry, these poems engage with religion, specifically, Christianity, and include words and phrases associated with the Bible and Christian rituals. Sometimes, this is explicit, as in the poem 'the sprung purchased' in which the poem, beginning 'we will be / born as lambs' has woven into it the words 'kyrie' and 'eleison' - the Greek words for 'lord' and 'forgiveness' commonly used in Christian rituals. More often in these poems, words with religious associations are used in a post-modern mix with contemporary idiom:

a trinity of women
when she lowers the      lever
to draw water       my daughter

whom the messiah      thirsty      approaches

(from 'who she is')

because Bethlehem vanished in a blizzard
off correction fluid       and shoots       grown on
from p
alms crossed with shekels flowered

(from 'seasoned reasons')

The religious element of these poems works, because it doesn't sermonize; it just drops these phrases into the linguistic mix and lets the reader make of it what they may. This is the most obvious contrast with Eigner; the allusive mode: the references to Blake and Matthew Arnold, and, as mentioned, the use of Christian terminology. And yet, one might say despite this, the poetry conveys a sense of immediacy. Even a poem like 'the way of', about the burial and resurrection of Christ ('heave // ho the boulder/ after three days un / cove / r') manages to seem a record of direct perception, as it brings the scene back to everyday experience ('daffodils golding the grave' and 'nuthatch song the nail / squeaking') rather in the manner that renaissance painters placed biblical scenes in the northern European landscapes they knew. As a result of this, these poems give a sense, not of any dogmatic religious belief, but, as the poem 'was the word' puts it:

no conclusions        faith is nearer
now       to agnosticism

The sections of the book are named  'lever', 'ache', 'lover', 'arch' and 'leaver', and the obvious correspondences (lever/leaver/lover etc.) display an awareness on the part of the writer that the life described is wrapped up in text; that the poems are textual objects. The writerley self-consciousness found throughout the book makes the emotional force of the poems all the more powerful, as in the love-poem 'dedication', which begins:

               cause there is
     even a decade late
   r no text                 apt
     or plush                    en
     ough to

                        wrap you in

the line-endings in the middle of phrases, sometimes of words, as above, embody a nervousness and tenderness which frees the poem from sentimentality and allows the end of the poem to work as a simple expression of affection:

         you ask what
         I have writ
           en   and can
         you read it
           first            be
                 fore
                 any
         one               else

                    this

                    this

                    this

                and yes
               you can

The last poem of the book,  'Bournemouth Beach', a revisioning of Arnold's 'Dover Beach', adopts the tone of prayer, asking that we be 'for one another/all the poet wished we would    for joy    for love/for light'. Like other work in this collection, the poem undercuts the note of piety with broken phrases and switches of tone, to end on some beautiful lines:

listen again              faith's sea is at her full

(all of this        brindle synthesis
animal      human    st
one         st
illness)

she flings her bright girdle      and reclines

The poems in this book are remarkable in the way that they synthesise immediacy of perception with allusive and resonant language; a synthesis which allows them to effectively engage with past poetries and with spirituality, as well as with quotidien reality.

 

 

Copyright © 2013 Alan Baker