Published by Carcanet
Three very different books recently landed on my desk leading me to ask the fundamental question as to what it is that makes a poem. Turning to Terry Eagleton for advice he reminded me, in what he admits is a rather dreary definition, that “a poem is a fictional, verbally inventive moral statement in which it is the author, rather than the printer or word processor, who decides where the lines should end”. 1Morality is a surprising word in a modern, secular context, but Eagleton goes on to explain that the word “before the advocates of duty and obligation got their hands on it, is the study of how to live more fully and enjoyably; and the word ‘moral’ in the present context refers to a qualitative or evaluative view of human conduct and experience…. Poems are moral statements, then, not because they launch stringent judgements according to some code, but because they deal in human values, meanings and purpose”. It was bearing this statement in mind that I read these three books.
There is a special responsibility to reviewing a collection by someone who has recently died. It is, in effect, a final word. There are no future chances for the poet to change directions or to have another go. Linda Chase, the American poet, who died of cancer aged 69, lived in Britain for 40 years but her essential American spirit continued to colour her work and life. Growing up in Long Island, New York she studied English and creative writing before moving to San Francisco. Her influences were home grown: William Carlos Williams, Frank O’Hara and the Beats. A child of the 1960s her poems are infused with the values and insouciance of that singular decade. Deceptively informal, her verse is colloquial and uninhibited, at times deeply moving, on other occasions inclined towards bathos. The range of material in this, her last book, Not Many Love Poems, is wide ranging and includes: teenage sex on the sofa, a relationship with a new lover, illness and radiotherapy. Chase tells stories of friendships, love affairs and relationships with family, celebrating the gift of “numberless, glorious, blessed days”. The first poem, Our Life, poignantly reduces a shared life, and a single death, to seven two-lined stanzas and five decades beginning: “In the 40s we swam/like fish in the water-turtle lake”, and gets as far as the 80s when “I buried you.” Its power lies in the small incidentals remembered: “In the 70s I threw you/an apple from an upstairs window” and the unsettling fact that these unembellished, almost throwaway, fourteen lines stand for a whole lived existence. Elsewhere there is youthful passion to be found in an Airstream Bubble Trailer where “the table is never up/since the bed is needed day and night”, and there are poems about betrayal, love and illness including the stark and bravely feisty Pronouncement:
Love is an important theme, as in Dare, where a couple innumerate the ways that they would mourn the other’s demise. “Let’s talk about death, she said. You first.” Not all these poems are of equal magnitude, not all of them are strong enough to stand alone but as a collection they exude warmth, tenacity and guts and are, therefore, more than an adequate testament to one life richly lived.
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2012
Images maybe subject to copyright