Smith/Doorstop, 2013 £5.00
Reviewed by Trevor McCandless and Matt Merritt
This book quotes two reviews inside its back cover, providing a kind of ‘authorised reading’. One mentions ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ and imagism as models for these six poems. The other mentions their “less than conventional syntax”.
These are like poetry written in a foreign language you can only read after the violence of an online translation tool. To me, the ‘real poems’ always feel out of reach. For example, ‘Ways of Looking at a Church’ begins with the numbered stanza:
A glass whisper in another language
as the images begin to dress your mind
or undress your doubt and what is said
seeks no answer and will not simplify.
I cannot see these poems as imagist. They are abstract, otherworldly and often lack a single coherent, concrete image. They are certainly not about ways of looking. I assume the title is ironic, as is its reference to Stevens. Some of the stanzas provide a mirror ball of images crushed together. But I assume the images are secondary to the feelings the juxtaposed fragments might inspire as you work your way through them, as in ‘Ways of Looking at a Lost Farm’:
Most nights we share our dreams. Smell of nettles
and the way a pig can stare you out and fields full of
voices and shadows and the way the boys never came home;
sometimes a fox lies under our bed.
The one clear poem is ‘Ways of Looking at a Very Old Lady’. This is written from behind the eyes of an old woman with dementia. That this is the collection’s most syntactically regular poem, given its theme, ought to provide pause. Such a perspective is always fraught. This is not a way of looking; this is a way of guessing.
David Grubb has long been one of those names whose presence, on scanning the contents page of a poetry journal, I note with pleasure and anticipation – a quietly but utterly distinctive poet.
So, while the prospect of a sequence of poems taking Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways Of Looking At A Blackbird as their starting point might have been less than appealing with many other names on the cover, simply because it’s so hard to avoid comparison with Stevens’ original, I had an inkling that in Grubb’s hands it might amount to a lot more than a writing exercise.
He doesn’t disappoint. Each of the six poems here uses a structure of 13 numbered stanzas, and each of the stanzas encapsulates a single image, train of thought, or occasionally, narrative (albeit an unfinished, open-ended one). The way these are set apart as discrete entities feels important, too, emphasising that there are countless more ways of looking at each subject, somewhere in the space between each stanza.
Grubb’s familiar subject matter – loss, landscape and place, and memory – is present, as is his concern for the overlooked and ignored.
His first poem, Ways Of Looking At A Lost Farm, is perhaps the most successful in pulling these strands together, with lines such as “Selling the fields was like selling the sky” telling of the enormity of the loss without ever overplaying it. And those loose ends I mentioned are hugely effective, too – when the final stanza talks of “the way the boys never came home”, you’re left to infer just who the boys are, exactly, and why they stayed away.
Ways Of Looking At A Church is equally fine, with a superb final stanza:
What remains is what we attempted to be and what
we made with wood and stone and the way the
church rose into the sky and the clock timed us all;
these hours and days, these endless tapestries.
Finally, there’s Ways Of Looking At A Poet, dedicated to Peter Redgrove. It’s full of sound advice for anyone who writes (“It seldom ends in the way you expect / and at any moment meaning may / come to destroy everything; / too clever by far.”), but it’s far from being a poet talking to other poets. Instead, it re-emphasises what Grubb does throughout this little gem of a book, finding poetry anywhere and everywhere, and so making an insistent case for its vital importance.