Disinformation, Frances Leviston, Picador, 2015, 80pp, £9.98 (paperback)
Kim Kardashian’s Marriage, Sam Riviere, Faber, 2015, 112pp, £10.99 (paperback)
These two volumes of poems, each a second collection following a much-praised debut, are both laudably ambitious and share a preoccupation with life in the age of the infinite archive. The formal means they employ couldn’t be more different, however, Frances Leviston often goes in for long-lined, two-or-three page state-of-the-nation poems in what Paul Muldoon once called ‘stadium stanzas’. This is the type of confident, well-upholstered poem that goes back in a very male line from Sean O’Brien through Derek Mahon to Auden and, ultimately, Yeats. In it the gaze on the world is often chilly, often remote and sometimes a little too self consciously disabused.
In Disinformation they tend to begin from an elevated position of some kind: ‘Up here, the highest vantage point for miles’ starts ‘Hill Top Fort’, while ‘A Shrunken Head’ is in ‘the cargo hold/ cruising at thirty thousand feet’. Or they start small and open out to vast scales: after minutely describing its eponymous object ‘The Paperweight’ eventually arrives at ‘tall violet chrysanthemum gates/opening through interstellar emptiness/ on boiling horizons’. Such portentous moments are often immediately undercut with irony, but they are hard to shake off completely. In other poems the irony is more thoroughly integrated: ‘GPS’ signals a concern with mapping in its title, but the orb it surveys is a snow globe. As this suggests Leviston’s attempts to grasp and organise the world’s information usually end in disenchantment, and here we have the rationale for including ‘Bishop in Louisiana’ in the book, a homage to the writer of ‘At the Fishhouses’, that magnificent poem about history, landscape and the limits of knowledge to which Leviston’s text alludes.
Elizabeth’s Bishop’s poem takes off from a piece of unprepossessing vernacular architecture, the fishhouses of its title. Architecture is important for Leviston too, though of a rather more canonical variety: Greek temples, Roman baths, ancient buried cities. I may be wrong, but here I detected the influence of some of the outliers of the Cambridge School of poetry, that dreaded den of pretension that Don Paterson (Leviston’s publisher) once regarded as anathema. Poets like John Riley and Kelvin Corcoran use landscape and architecture to meditate, in a melancholy mode, on the relationship, or loss of relationship, between self, world and culture. A poem like ‘Propylea’ seems to catch at a similar mood:
It is properly
the gate before the gate,
the entrance before the entrance,
a huge tautology
made of marble
and the old ambition
to be understood in a certain way.
Sam Riviere’s Kim Kardashian’s Marriage inhabits a different kind of space, one that seems halfway between the virtual image-world of celebrity culture and a Ballardian landscape of swimming pools, monorails, hotel lobbies and ‘stunning views’. One of the questions the book poses very effectively is where exactly we are, what kind of world is being described, is it real or un-real. The title of the book seems deictic, referring to an actual living person. But this is not the case: it isn’t Kim Kardashian herself that we are pointed to, but her marriage, which is (or was) simultaneously a condition, an event, a legal contract and a branding operation. Finding where exactly Kim is in there will not be easy, bottom or no bottom.
And so it proves. Many of the poems are in the first person, but the confessional and the affective are noticeably absent. Rather the tone mimics the anomic intimacy of the status update and the instagram account. Often there are small solecisms or grammatical mistakes and this, together with the banal and repetitive nature of many individual lines again replicates the experience of social media. At the same time the lack of visual images that usually accompany posts on, for example, Facebook, creates a strange, attenuated quality to the work, so that the voice or voices of the poems seem to speak out of an echoing digital void.
Having said, that, the poems are capable of producing pleasures of a more traditional kind. Here is ‘thirty-three dust’:
Dark shadows melded with the night sky,
making it difficult to tell
where the land met the heavens.
Egypt. This rigid regime.
Black & white photos, zonal winds.
The three most dusty summers.
The inventor of Rock & Roll, among others,
allowed to dry in a gentle stream of clean air,
then stored in a dust-proof container.
The use of tactical ambiguity and juxtaposition here is familiar from the rest of the collection and many another experimental book. But there are careful formal strategies at work too. The central stanza’s end-stopped lines, lack of verbs and repetition of short vowel sounds set it off from the other two stanzas. The latter are more conventional and, in themselves, relatively straightforward descriptive passages, forming a clear opposition: myth, mystery and the past in the first stanza, popular culture, technology and the present in the last. The central stanza forms a kind of hinge between these two, bringing them in and out of contact in intriguing ways. The single word sentence ‘Egypt’ suggests a correspondence between the Pharoah entering the Land of the Dead and the cryogenically preserved star; ‘this rigid regime’ suggests both a dietary or exercise routine and an authoritarian power structure, ‘Black and white photos’ bring together the blackness of the desert night and the whiteness of the lab, and so on. Interpretations proliferate but always in ways that resonate with the preoccupations of the book as a whole. In this sense the distance between Riviere and Leviston is not as vast as it might initially seem.
By Conor Carville