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Blog Review 30 – Katherine Stansfield Reviews ‘The Elephant Tests’ by Matt Merritt

Almost all the poems in Matt Merritt’s third collection, The Elephant Tests, are concerned with the outdoors. The landscapes in question are sometimes urban but more often rural, though that’s not to suggest that these poems are concerned purely with ruminations on flora and fauna. Coursing through the collection are The Sopranos, computer programming, proverbs, encyclopaedias, ancient history, biblical references, and Tweets (of the Twitter variety). And there are plenty of birds tweeting too, which isn’t surprising, given that Merritt is the editor of Bird Watching magazine. The birds of these poems are approached with a knowledgeable, loving eye rather than being employed as generic symbolism.

Merritt’s birds, however, do have a habit of not showing up. Patience and faith must be essential qualities for bird watching; a number of poems focus on intense moments of waiting for birds to appear or move, which Merritt couples with meditations on the nature of thought and memory, as demonstrated by the wonderful ‘The Capercaillie’ in which the titular birds “can convince you they’ve frozen/ harder and faster than any January frost”. The watched Caper is both there and not there, a physical presence that works its way into the mind:

The days are short, and sooner rather than later
it will get dark, or we’ll get eye-weary, cold,

bored enough to blink, look up, and find her gone.
And already, she’s a shadow of herself, a last held breath
away from slipping out of sight. It’s easily done.

This cusp-like “breath/ away from slipping” recurs throughout the collection, with seasons on the point of changing but not quite, a butterfly heralding “the day swung wide open”, and the promise of tomorrow when “there’ll be time to say what needs to be said/ and more”.

Such slight, hinge moments are contrasted with more expansive physical and psychological journeying through shifting, uncertain space. Added to which is a marvellous sense of humour and surrealism. In ‘Svalbard’ the couple having sex next door are mistaken for geese flying “out/ over the flow country, Cape Wrath, the firths, calling to/ maintain contact”. These central themes of potential, travel, and surrealism meld neatly in the title poem, as you might expect, in which the elephant dances out of certainty:

You’ll surprise it, somewhere, on a back-road at night,
a shadow sipping at the edge of your pool of light, or else
it will call at the front door, unabashed.
You will consider pretending you’re not at home.

There are three elephants in the collection, each put to a different purpose, which is reflected in the diversity of forms: prose poems, lists, instructions, collage, spare couplets, fragmented lines, meta-textual poems, and, interestingly, poems that are variations of others included in the book.

The collection could be tighter in two ways. Firstly, in terms of expression. There’s a tendency to rely on a number of well-worn poetic staples for anchoring imagery: the sun, stars, horizons, summer and the sky, although with the latter Merritt does include the poem ‘Azul’ which reflects on “the inadequacy/ of the word for blue” which helps diffuse this somewhat. There’s also a great number of compound phrases that begin to jar with their frequency: death-still reptile-bask, ant-snaffle and sun-dapple all appear in one slight eleven line poem, for example. Secondly, some poems could have been pulled from the final running order due to their shared and rather flat subject matter. For example, ‘Saltings’ in the sequence ‘West Sussex Interlude’, ‘Smoke’, and the sequence ‘Three Days on Stanage’ don’t move much beyond descriptions of landscape and light that really need to work a bit harder to surprise. Ultimately though there’s a great deal to enjoy in The Elephant Tests; in particular the collection is lacking a sense of artifice, of the poet being showy with ideas or images to impress. Instead, the reader has a sense that Merritt is inhabiting these moments himself, as encompassed in the final lines of ‘Starlings’:

               The day’s first blackbird, and the last,
both performed as though he meant it.

Katherine Stansfield
Katherine Stansfield is a lecturer at Aberystwyth University. Playing House, her first poetry collection, will be published by Seren in 2014. The Visitor, her first novel, was published by Parthian in 2013.

The Elephant Tests
The Elephant Tests is published by Nine Arches Press, 2013, £8.99

(to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘reviews’ tag immediately below)

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