denim sends a signal similar to azaleas
hundreds of miles from here, and a blue
skirt from the sky looks red
These lines from The Scientist, My Wife, Explains Satellite Imagery by Bryan Walpert in his first collection of poetry Etymology. I heard him read on Thursday night at the Writers Read series Massey University hosts at the Wellington campus, and at the drinks afterwards (a nice touch at this event) I bought the book. As a creative writing tutor at the uni, I work with Bryan who is an award-winning lecturer in the School of English and Media Studies, although until Thursday I hadn't read a single one of his poems nor heard him read. I was very interested to hear what this man, who has a wealth of intelligent things to say about other people's poetry, would do with the blank page.
Needles to say, the poems are clever and - as the title indicates - involve some marvellous word-plays and layering and unlayering of words, but the palms of these carefully chosen words also cup sentiment and blow on it and make it flare. This was a surprise. In fact, Bryan talked about how the 'sentimental' isn't as acceptable as it once was in poetry and how he often uses the prism of science to view emotional stuff because it provides distance. Hence a poem like the one quoted above, which has four exquisitely-written stanzas on how satellite imagery works, and between each one the lines: (Take off/your clothes, my/love, turn out/the light.)
Opposite that poem in the book is one called Gravity which uses physics to explain gravity - something Bryan expanded on at the reading but I am still trying to come to grips with - and to explain (delightfully) lovers rolling together in bed.
Bryan is a science geek (in the nicest possible way) his gaze goes in with the surgeon's knife and out into space with the astrophysicist. He is also a romantic (in the nicest possible way) - there are many moons and many birds and many nights and dawns in his poems. He stills the world while he watches those things and language slips in. There is a lot of slippage - from word to word and line to line and idea to idea. As Bryan's colleague and poet Ingrid Horrocks said (in the nicest possible way) on the night, the poems are hard to read, but for that very reason they are also hugely rewarding.
Bryan writes tenderly of his father and his wife but those poems are also muscular and tightly formed [if I have any criticism at all it's that his poems sometimes feel too controlled and, now and again, too tidy at the end.] The reader realises early on that for Bryan language explains and justifies, and creates. It's as if he believes words came first, and then physics and then flesh, and even then I'm not sure about the flesh. It's as if, and you often find this with poets, without words there is nothing. [Look at this in the lovely poem Still Life with Gerund: 'A child would fill her/like thinking...' ] But even then Bryan questions that assumption - gently, quizzically, rationally, in the way you'd expect of a science geek.
No Metaphor is one poem that has stayed with me strongly since Thursday, having heard it read, and then reading it over now.
A tuba and a man stroll through
the grass, a pretzel of flesh and brass
you could say, I guess, except it's
only a man wearing a tuba ...
It's a skirl of thoughts and words and metaphor that twist and turn in on themselves, like -well - like birds ...
Enchanting [with references to Lorca perhaps? I will find the poem I mean when I have a minute...] You can find Etymology on Amazon UK, www.fishpond.co.nz , www.cinnamonpress.com , at Bruce McKenzie's Palmerston North and Unity Books Wellington. Recommended.
...no need for a word about
the blackbirds, which ripple to earth behind
the man like the folding of a fan --
just not as final or as fast as and,
overall, more like birds landing in grass
NB. Reading over this post a few hours later [as I do] I discover I've written 'Needles to say...' rather than 'needless'. I think I'll leave it - it's apposite given the poetry I am reviewing. Mentioning it to my 12-year-old daughter just now, she tells me she always thought it was 'needles' anyway. Hmm, as Bryan would say: 'Now that's a poem!'