Penumbra Editions, 2009 £4.00
Reviewed by D A Prince, Helena Nelson and Tia Ballantine
D A Prince:
Alistair Noon has a refreshingly wide subject and geographical range: Berlin (his current base), China, Islington supermarkets, karst landscapes, the satisfaction of long Russian novels, and much else. He is an explorer of ideas, not a writer content to settle into one point of view; he seems always on the lookout for a new angle, or a fresh conjunction of images.
It’s the same with form: this collection reveals no set patterns, but a willingness to try out rhyme inventively, and line lengths that range from two words to a relaxed and looping line too long for the page, curling under to fit when it hits the margin. For example, “Believe in the Lord of Real Estate. He hath created all you see, and on the seventh day” is the opening line of ‘God loves Islington’, a riff on tastes and travels, with a nod to religion. I’m not sure what it means—or whether it’s intended to have meaning—but verbally it is one of the more successful poems: it has its own fluid rhythm and momentum, and reads well aloud. Noon can be cheerfully irreverent about religion and literature, and then bound off to tackle another subject; there’s a lot of mental energy flying around here.
Reading aloud is a good test of any poem, and this is where I had difficulty with some of Noon’s poems. At times there’s a stiffness and lack of movement in the line that works against the intended lightness of tone. He’s attracted to end rhyme, but this sometimes forces the choice of word, resulting in an uncomfortable syntax allied to uneasy scansion. The spread of subjects was exciting and original—perhaps the language was trying too hard to match it.
In People’s Park is the first pamphlet from this publisher and a pleasure to hold: cover of thick card (like white felt) with a pattern of soft blue lines suggesting an abstract overcrowded forest, and deep indigo end-papers. But please, next time can we have a contents page and page numbers? I like running my eye down a list of titles, watching them play with each other, and Noon’s range deserves that.
I loved the cover of this pamphlet, the textured cover, the abstract trees, and even the title, In People’s Park, appealed to me. I think ‘Alistair Noon’ is a lovely name for a poet, come to that, even though such things are a matter of luck. So I approached this publication wanting to like what was inside.
The reading experience was not plain sailing. I liked some poems very much. Others failed to draw me in, while a few struck me as creaky in their construction (because I was predisposed to liking, I kept feeling faintly guilty about this). The title poem, for example, with which the collection opens, struck me as metrically uneven, especially in the third line of each of the second two stanzas. It’s a formal poem and that bumpiness made the last line—which is an understated climax—clunk into place, rather than click. I wondered which ‘People’s Park’ it was (there are lots of them, round the globe) and while I went looking on the net came across this self-same poem (first published in The Wolf http://www.poetrymagazines.org.uk/magazine/record.asp?id=18346) and this (presumably earlier) version is much better. My ‘bumpy’ lines follow a perfect cadence. Why? What was going on?
I like formal writing. Many don’t. It occurred to me that someone might have nudged Noon into less regular metre, with (to my mind) regrettable consequences. Perhaps he’s open to suggestion—perhaps too open? Perhaps he’s just experimenting.
In this small publication there’s a wide variety of approaches to poetry. I didn’t like them all. ‘Extinction’, for example, the ambitious final poem (8 sections spanning four pages), lost me by the end of the first page. I’m not quite sure why I didn’t care enough to find out what happened next, but I forced myself on. When I got to “A male writer lurking at a literary barbecue/ would explain the aphodisiac properties of tofu/ to female vegetarians . . .” I found myself with that life-is-too-short mindset which spells death to poetry.
But let me write about the bits I did like, because there were poems which wholly compelled my attention—not through dramatic style or content—just because they worked simply, directly and effectively. ‘After the Show’ was one of these. It’s a modest little poem but it dives straight into the action and takes you with it:
And that same night we kicked out Duncan,
the band in need of solid drums.
Mac nearly faltered. I talked him round—
‘We planned this out, man. Don’t bottle it now.’
‘Careers in Geology’ worked for me too. It paces itself well, each line unfurling confidently, a pleasure to read. ‘Houdini’ catches what feels to me like a true moment—it is a delight and, again, perfectly paced. I loved ‘Report for a Magazine’ and I spent a lot of time on ‘Spacewalking’, which is a sonnet about a suicide, and a fascinating little poem. The marvellous first line “When spines hit concrete, movement doesn’t cease” creates expectation of formal iambic pentameter, and that’s continued by the next three lines. But not the fifth, which diverges into an 8-syllable line out of keeping with the whole of the rest of the poem—why? Actually I found the imagery in that line very interesting (“red grease”) so barely noticed metrical/syllabic shortfall. My unease was more with the last line of the octet (“this tired mid-summer has revoked its lease”) and this has such a Shakespearean ring to it (“Summer’s lease hath all too short a date”), and even a hint of Keats, that I began to wonder whether I was missing deliberately planted allusions. I hope not. I liked the development of the poem, thought the abruptness of the short sentences in the penultimate line absolutely right. I even liked the oddness of the metre in the final phrasing, not to mention the sequence of monosyllables, the oddly disrespectful language, the clarity of the image:
Ignition. No siren. The door slots shut.
A dog trots off with a glove in its gob.
I’m inclined to think this is a poet flexing his muscles, experimenting, playful. Some of it works for me, some doesn’t. But he’s alive and kicking, intelligent and involved.
I should imagine when Alistair Noon takes to the street he walks with a bounce in his step, greeting every bush and tree with a jaunty wave and every passer-by with a kind word. If any fall or trip across his path, I might bet he would reach out a hand to help. The poems of In People’s Park reveal this poet to be a thoughtful man with a lively and sometimes quirky imagination who feels acutely the seriousness of our age but refuses to allow the steady violent thrum of the 21st century to interrupt his dance. Instead, that noise provides a jazz beat that keeps his feet moving and his tongue wagging.
As one who has lived in Berlin and briefly in China and who has translated Russian, German, and Chinese poems, Noon is comfortable with the overlap and intersection of both culture and voice. His well-crafted poems reveal his comfort with form and the sound of language. He uses both as delicate architecture, allowing him to climb above and beyond other perhaps more sturdily constructed examples of formal poems. The quatrains of ‘The Faceless Saxophonist’, for example, contract and stretch out in rhythms that seem to flow from the horn of the unseen saxophonist, playing beneath a bridge, and the rhymes that support those rhythms are as complex—and as direct—as notes trilled out and then left to hang in air.
If under the bridge, on railway land
a hidden saxophonist
shakes a wrist
and flexes a hand
to skip up scales
danger and care, precise
as sleepers and rails [ . . . ]
Then, the listener hears that saxophonist “lay down sets,/ bolt sharpened sevenths, minor thirds” but also sees the written word blossom forth “while southbound birds/ write ragged alphabets” overhead. This overlap of language, of music and the world, twists the reader’s world-view to one that refuses complacency.
Indeed, without being didactic, many of Noon’s poems offer sharp focus that allows readers to re-examine their own worlds. ‘Extinction’, for example, examines truthfully human responsibility for the overwhelming environmental global disaster we now face as the twenty-first century kicks into gear. The poem begins with imagined dinosaurs positioned neatly against “a leafless canal bank” where “grain wharves whine and clank”, and after exposing the human clumsiness of war, consumerism, religion, greed and all the rest, the poem ends with “toppled reptiles” around which run “the gnawing rats.” It doesn’t take much shifting to re-imagine the reptiles with human faces.
Alistair Noon asks important questions that have no clear solutions, but he also offers readers sometimes quirky, sometimes delightfully funny, observations of human life, and because he places beauty back-to-back with despair, he reminds us that we—the men and women of this world—are responsible for our own happiness and the continuance of this beautiful planet. I like that, especially as he accomplishes this with a clear intelligence and humour that is never haughty or stubborn or mean.