Calder Wood Press, 2013 £4.50
Reviewed by Richie McCaffery, Ross Kightly and Peter Daniels
There is an underlying contrast in Janette Ayachi’s A Choir of Ghosts between the substance and length of the poems and their incorporeal, often spectral, nature and subject matter:
Let me wake tomorrow
parallel in the mirror, no holes in my cheeks,
eggs in my womb, released from my oxidised bones
ready to rise out of this skin, the tenement skyline,
like a balloon that escapes a child’s grip in the street
All of Ayachi’s poems are marked by a strong sense of narrative, whether it is drawn from family, nation or speculation. Speculative poems are based on paintings and a sensuously – even lushly – gothic aesthetic of ghosts, tombs and period clothing. For instance, while some of the gothic poems are much more than ‘bodice rippers’, it is the ‘bodice’ that is repeatedly evoked as a two-way signifier of breaking bonds and restriction:
The swelter of the soldiers’ fingers press
in to the massicot fabric, her bodice
opening like a mouth releasing a breath
a flowers first bloom, the splitting of clouds.
One particular strength to Ayachi’s poetry emerges. It is a feel for, and an ability to get into, old paintings to provide alternative narratives. She draws on painters such as Vermeer, Munch, and the Scottish Colourist JD Fergusson. The setting of Fergusson’s painting ‘Dieppe, 14th July 1905’:
[. . .] is a dark box tied with carbon light
holding handfuls of lost memories
and unfolding fireworks of freedom
where neither God, nor King exists.
While many of these poems employ exotic and lavish locations and corresponding language, the impression this leaves is often one of Ayachi’s speakers playing a series of guises in a ghostly, but escapist masquerade. However, there are signs here of a more direct, emotive and affecting style, closer to home. In a ‘Room in Glasgow’:
I feel like when you left you took
the stairs with you and I am trapped
in this room in Glasgow
In the enigmatic ‘Hiatus’ we see the speaker coming to terms with the death of a lover or friend, ending the poem in a more limpid, personal style, which is rarely glimpsed in this pamphlet but keenly sought-after by this particular reader:
I held your hand until it filled with helium
and almost took me with you.
A quotation from ‘Passing Places’, the first poem in this collection, will serve to illustrate two things:
It was Berlin, just before the wall came down
and she sat in the front row eating cherries,
her mulatto lips already dark now stained orchid-purple
as she watched her mother pretending to be other people.
The things I hope are obvious here are first, the strength of the visual imagery and secondly, the obvious care taken with sound and rhythm. All the way through, this pamphlet supplies such rich fare to drool over and munch. By the end of the ‘Passing Places’, however, I have little idea where I am in those real terms of ‘what is the world I am visiting, who are the people and why should I . . . ?’ This feeling is too frequent for me in this chapbook.
I hasten to add that the first of these facts is pretty obvious and very lovely. The second may be more to do with my stupidity than any inherent defects in the work.
Some of the texts are based on paintings (for which there is a word I have had to track down because I couldn't remember it) and this may be a good or a bad thing depending on how you feel about ekphrastic poetry.
Richness of language is not especially fashionable, at least not in the way Janette Ayachi uses it, and I have found it hard to get used to in these poems. There is no biography but websites mention her Algerian father, and this relationship appears in ‘Clouds from Marseille to Annaba’, which makes creative use of spacing in its close:
and you not noticing the distance in between.
Some of the use of language reminds me of what I have read about Arabic poetry taking much delight in luxuriant texture of words: after the modernist century of spareness and scepticism about rhetorical fanciness, it takes some work to reclaim that in Anglo-American poetry.
Language in these poems is not developed into something as explicitly cross-cultural as Daljit Nagra’s Punjabi English, and perhaps his humorous approach makes it easier for a postmodern postcolonial idiom to work on us, jaded with our modernist simplifications. Alliteration is especially frequent, and in ways I think of as decorative rather than significant, although sometimes appropriately onomatopoeic as in “clutter of chatter and snippets of voice” (‘Ghost Linguist’).
Detail, imagery, colour and texture are mentioned by Tamar Yoseloff, John McCullough and Moniza Alvi in the endorsements on the back cover, and these aspects certainly feature. Colour comes in with a strong visual element, partly from poems about art; but all senses are present, as with texture and flavour in ‘The Procuress’, about a Vermeer, where the woman’s eyes are “as inky and viscous as caviar”.
Poems about paintings are not my usual taste but Ayachi writes them well, not only reproducing pictures in words (although ‘The Procuress’ achieves that) but also being in a relationship with what she sees (‘Watching the World with August Sander’) – “suspended in disbelief but halted by the holy”.
These praised characteristics can feel like too much richness and bring diminishing returns, especially with so much in a group of twenty-five poems. Some words feel like malapropisms when perhaps they are meant to be creative – “and not wield to dust”, “some I hindered on”. I am disappointed in the number of definite errors in the pamphlet (especially apostrophes).
Favourites for me: ‘Passing Places’, an attractive opening poem, does find a texture that genuinely works, while the elegy ‘Hiatus’ has the simplicity I was longing for.