3 minutes reading time (622 words)

POETRY, OPOIs AND MOON-WALKING BEARS

Fact: you don’t see one thing when you’re looking for another.

You’ve probably seen the famous proof before. But if you’ve missed it, here’s the link:

http://bit.ly/1XihtP2

I vividly remember the first time I watched it. I couldn’t believe what I hadn’t seen.

But in poetry, the moon-walking bear is less likely to get away unnoticed. When reading poems, you’re not so easily distracted by the obvious, because you know there’s something else afoot, something harder to see. Or even several un-obvious things.

Sometimes this is also what drives people nuts: that poetry can be so devious. (Why can’t she just say it?) But poetry is rich text. Reading for buried treasure is part of the joy, and why you read more than once.

On the Sphinx website, which focuses on everything to do with poetry pamphlets, I’ve just launched the OPOI reviews. These are short responses to pamphlet publications, focusing on only One Point Of Interest. I hope in due course that some publications will attract several  reviews, each picking up a single aspect, in the manner of an interesting conversation. ‘But did you notice the bear?’

I can't review HappenStance poetry myself, because I’m self-evidently involved. However, the last pamphlet of the year is just out: Helen Evans’ Only By Flying, so I thought I’d make an exception in its case, to illustrate the OPOI approach.

Helen started gliding as a hobby in 1988. I don’t mean flying those little balsa-wood planes in the park. I mean the great big ones with people inside them. For nearly a decade she was editor of Sailplane & Gliding. But rather than focus on the detail about flying in her poems, I’m interested in the way they make you aware of movement—especially the movement of the eye following the text up and down the page.

For example, there’s a tall thin one I love about a spider. The poet is tracking the creature’s minute movements, and the shape of the poem traces the action: she ‘slides down / the filament / she unspools / and scrambles up again’.

I think all poems are aware of themselves as shaping mechanisms. Sometimes it’s overt, and sometimes hardly apparent. But in a debut collection, it’s almost always clear. Up. Down. Up. Down. Up the page. Down the page. Sideways. Turn over. That little spider is the poet, and the reader. (And a spider, of course.)

In ‘Yet I will wait for the light’, though avoiding the prepositions ‘down’ and ‘up’, the poet writes about an ancient tragedy: seventeen people thrown into a well, and the act of recovering the bodies. The reader goes down the page, down into the well, and up again with the painful, but tenderly handled relics.

In ‘Boundary Tree’. the tree is growing slowly taller, up towards the sky with ‘twists of metal in its heart’. In ‘Hallway, ‘you’re walking / down the stairs / into the hallway’ when something astonishing and uplifting happens. In ‘I Realises He is a Romantic Lyricist’, ‘I’ is ‘distracted by a male sparrowhawk near the bird feeder in the back garden, which glances up at him, launches itself low across the lawn and disappears behind the yew tree’. If that’s not a moon-walking bear, I don’t know what is.

I haven’t mentioned the poems about flying. There are many of them. Their downs and ups are graceful and airy, and the closest I will ever get to being in a sailplane. This set of poems, as no other, has made me delight in the page as sky, the vapour trails moving up, down and across, the eye tracing the movement, the ear following the sound of the words, astonished by the clarity and beauty of distances.

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Tuesday, 27 October 2020

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