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Poetry in Practice – Contained Waywardness
by Jane Monson

Jane Monson reviews Inventory by Linda Black (Shearsman).

For readers who consider the prose poem to be poetic prose, a genre without its own identity or status, or worse still, badly written prose, then Linda Black’s Inventory is not for you. It is, however, for you if you want to acquaint or reacquaint yourself with the genre and learn about the language of the prose poem at its sharpest and cleanest, of a prose poet at her most perceptive and original, and of the form as a container of the strangest aspects of the ordinary. In this respect, Custodian, speaks for the whole collection:

Mind me. I am the keeper of cracks, the server of thin air. I note how the dust sits, how breath creases, folds inwards. I log the spaces, the bounty of nothing…. I heed where a lip leaves its mark, a footprint crosses an empty table, a hollow where a head once lay and then I wipe it away. Dents do not escape me, nor welts, straps, ridges. I record it all. Punctiliously, for all my wayward ways.

One of the things I look for in these very rare UK prose poetry collections is precisely this: contained waywardness. At its best, the prose poem focuses on one particular thing (object or subject) from a variety of angles; compass-like, it does not stray from whatever it decides upon from the outset, so the end result is a dense and thought-provoking ‘story’, often of an ordinary object, image or line of speech. Every word, sound and image servesthe central focus with complete fidelity, and the prose poem as a result reads either like an intimate conversation between two people, or between the poet and the subject or object. In the case of Inventory, I mean specifically object – the everyday thing we can hold, break, twist, burn, scratch or contemplate.

Inventory, as described by the poet Esther Morgan, ‘is indeed a collection’. Where Morgan illustrates her point by citing “etchings and flypaper”, “a jar of ginger with a mother locked inside”, there are many more ordinary objects like these that are intrinsic to the subtle narrative of the author’s unusual and gritty take on reality. Using recurring images of stains, shoes, milk, legs, feet, and walls, Black kicks sand in the eye of the mundane while making economically razor-sharp comments about people through their relationships with objects. Not only does she put her mother inside a household object, but true to the dark humour that runs throughout Black’s toying with people and things, she threatens her with music, “something with a thump to it”, while listening to her “battling with the lid, trying to hump herself out of the sickly liquid” and watching her “tugging at her roll-on”.

Aside through portraits of her parents, the reader does not get a clear sense of who people are in this collection. More often than not, the human subjects are referred to in pronouns, not names. In this respect, things have more of a role and status than people in terms of details. For a prose poet who is interested in the sub-genre of the form, the object-poem, this collection is therefore intriguing and engaging. However, for some (observing the five sections that compose the collection, Furniture and Things, Pictures, Legs, Garments and Stuff, Walls, Doors and Windows etc), the poems may appear somewhat devoid of a humane narrative. You might ask: why aren’t there more portraits, stories of people? But they are there, just simply told in slant or observed in various guises. On the one hand, the objects in this inventory are used to actually tell the narrative and explore the histories, thoughts, traumas and eccentricities of people, and on the other the reader is hard-pushed to find clear boundaries between people and objects themselves. Aside from “the useful stuff like jam, sage, nuts”, for example, this is what you will find in the author’s “pantry”: “out of the ox-blood climbs a little man, he. Out of a bottle of fingernails, she… Both are unclothed, apart from something wispy and not very discernible”. These juxtapositions between the ordinary and surreal not only appear in the poems themselves, but are beautifully echoed in a handful of the author’s illustrations, all of which suggest a meeting between Hieronymus Bosch and Quentin Blake.

It is precisely because of these strange encounters between the domestic and something close to Alice’s wonderland that make the few poems about the author’s past so moving. At one point, the author says “I hate people seeing into me” and yet when we do get glimpses, the book becomes something else again. For example, My Father. In just ten short sentences, we are given a vivid and well-crafted insight into the author’s family, and once again, the economy of the language is unnerving in relation to the painful and difficult subject matter:

My father wore braces and shat in a bucket under the stairs. My father sat on a low stool lighting the boiler for hours. He sat on a high stool eating bananas and bread…. My father took me to the playground in Potternewton Park. This was before he had an iron leg… My mother milked my father. My father opened the door to ‘uncle’ Charlie. My father nodded and shuffled. My mother’s stepmother liked my father. She told me this in a car outside Chislehurst caves.

And in line with the author’s economical use of the form, there are prose poems within the prose poem itself:

If he were here I think he would be standing, staring at nothing. I think he would be leaning backwards. I think he would look like he might fall over. My father had hollow legs.

If collections like this continue, the prose poem will stand half a chance of making a new name for itself in the UK. Inventory, at the very least, will turn various heads towards the form and provoke discussions of the prose poem as a sophisticated, agile and demanding genre in its own right.

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