Scaffolding, Eléna Rivera, Princeton University Press, 2017, £14.95 (paperback)
Playing the Octopus, Mary O’Malley, Carcanet, 2016, £9.99 (paperback)
Eighty-two sonnets, which comprise Scaffolding, Eléna Rivera’s third collection, are the result of her project to write a sonnet every day for a year. Each piece is titled with the date it was composed (and, in some cases, the date it was revised) and chronologically ordered, bringing to mind Adrienne Rich’s principle that poems must include their date of composition ‘to allow the poems to speak for their moment’. An insistence on dialogue underpins the fabric of Rivera’s collection: in many sonnets she recounts an exchange between self and world. This world shifts between physical and personal phenomena: while literal ‘scaffolding confronts this hometown’ (‘July 14th from 80 La Salle’), ‘emotions make museums of our thoughts’ in ‘Aug. 27th’. Beyond their inclusion of composition date, these poems can be seen to ‘speak for their moment’ in the way they speak with past canonical figures in literature – employing, challenging and re-appropriating texts often through quotation. Indeed, Rivera states that her poems “are ‘in conversation,” directly or indirectly’ with thirty- six poets ranging from Shakespeare to Gwendolyn Brooks and all named in her acknowledgements. Committed to such literary self-reflexivity, Scaffolding becomes an engaging dialogue with the sonnet form itself – at times Rivera is so self-consciously self-reflexive that her poems suggest an ars poetica, on other occasions her attitude to the sonnet is revealed through the dynamic breakthroughs she makes in the literary form.
The first poem of the collection, ‘July 14th from 80 La Salle’, lands the reader amid the ‘syncopated noise’ of New York: Rivera’s current home:
Beep! Vehicle backs into street
veers round the corner – listen, take note of this
city waking, summer moistened with sirens,
syncopated noise –beats anticipate stress
as skyscraper’s vibrate – “All’s well,” you say, “All’s
Here” – a car idles, shakes, feeds the vertigo –
water the balcony’s garden, hear children,
hear the blaring radio counterpoint to
the modest breeze this morning – back inside then,
at the desk the sawed railings of the poem
The jarring sensuousness of the urban scene, coupled with the poem’s broken syntax and imperative force, echoes the work of Mark Doty as well as Jorie Graham’s commitment to ‘port’, rather than ‘report’, events. Subtly, Rivera’s reflection on poetic composition emerges with the line ‘beats anticipate stress’, which deploys language associated with poetic metre to measure the ‘city waking,/summer moistened with sirens’. As it turns out, ‘beats’ are central to Rivera’s endeavour in Scaffolding: many of the poems adhere to an eleven-syllable line. In an interview published on the Princeton University Press blog, Rivera explains that this choice, inspired by Oulipo writers, ‘veered away from the pentameter line we’re so used to hearing; it added unaccountable rhythms below the surface of the lines’. While this is one technique Rivera utilises to escape from the confines of traditional sonnet forms, there are more ambitious and immediately noticeable ways in which ‘the sawed railings of the poem’ are brought to the fore of her work. The sonnets written in August begin to demonstrate a curiosity in taking out certain words of a line, leaving an underscored space and placing the words at the outermost edge of the poem, as if marginalia. The second stanza of ‘Aug. 15th for William Shakespeare’ reads:
The self in this has no grace, ____________ gratitude, ———————–no
thinks boredom the barrier when it’s ___________gold, ——————— pure
energizes ____________ jumps hoops just for grace ———————– matter
if sweet ____________ our fellow gardenias and herbs ———————- gives
In this case, Rivera’s displaced words begin to form poems of their own. Under these conditions, the text possesses an unstable identity and a strange agency in its ability to make new versions of itself. In ‘Aug. 31st’, the reader is prompted to participate further:
What does it mean “the poem unfamiliar”?
What about the new they ask what is the new
Rimbaud frozen in the desert some ate him
It’s a ping-pong game of familiar patterns
We need intimations of (plug in the word)
To take advantage of other routes today
A birch tree in winter illuminated
By sunlight I mean taking advantage of
Such an order to ‘plug in the word’ (italics added) and not ‘a word’ suggests there is only one option. Might this then depend upon deferring to Wordsworth and his ‘Intimations of Immortality’? If so, the assertion in the first stanza comes to fruition. After the unnervingly unfamiliar line, ‘Rimbaud frozen in the desert some ate him’, ‘intimations of ’ seems all the more recognisable. Rivera might show herself as a self-reflexive poet, but she also makes us self-reflexive readers, aware of our possibly passive tendencies.
The scenes and situations Rivera recounts are familiar – in one poem, the wind ruffles flowers, in another we examine the artifice of theatre. A disenchanted experience of sex and childhood memories of parents’ arguments similarly work themselves into the poems. However, in each case, Rivera’s style of recounting these experiences creates an intriguing uneasiness that counters recognition:
The doctor told the woman not to worry
No cause yet I couldn’t understand the rest
Sandals and the movement of the feet in them
The man on the high wire walked back and forth
Smiled when seeing revealed the unexpected
Had requested a thing without naming it
The t’ai chi teacher spoke in Chinese and kicked
She expected something more from her father
(from ‘Aug. 29th’)
Rivera’s choice not to punctuate many of her poems (some pieces rely on capitalisation at the beginning of lines) creates an extraordinarily productive slippage in the text that brings to life the ‘sandals and the movement of feet in them’. Each line glimpses a narrative, yet as the poem moves on it is impossible to ignore the movement within the poem as lines jostle, inform and elaborate upon each other.
Given Scaffolding comprises eighty-two sonnets, it would be misleading to say that this choice to exclude punctuation is always effective. On occasion, this method generates confusion on a scale that outweighs excitement. Likewise, while the eleven-syllable line does introduce engaging rhythms, it also has the tendency to introduce contortions in syntax and oddities in vocabulary. Although these introductions serve to disrupt and/or complicate the sonnets in a striking manner, not all instances are successful and, over the course of the collection, this can be trying. Although a shorter selection of these sonnets could make for a more consistent and therefore perhaps more compelling collection, Scaffolding demonstrates an impressive energy at work. Rivera’s reflection on literary forms and forebears drives her experiments, resulting in a confident poetic departure that thrills as it provokes new thought on the structures we encounter in the written world, if not the world.
Mary O’ Malley’s eighth collection, Playing the Octopus, takes its title from her poem ‘Uilleann’, which recounts a witty anecdote about a boy becoming a musician:
He avoids the pipes. He has his reasons.
He has heard the story
Of the octopus who was locked into a room
For a week to practise.
When they let him out the pipes had learned
To play the octopus.
O’ Malley gives us a story inside a story: in the first half of the poem, the boy is a baby whose cries are woven into a musical piece by his father who ‘started playing him along with two fiddles’. We are drawn into this Irish musical tradition with humour and sensitivity: ‘Somehow in all those tunes/He learned to listen for his own note’. This sustained narrative makes the final lines of the poem all the more startling: ‘The thing about musicians is/They respond to glory’. The Uilleann pipes are known for their difficulty and so perhaps offer little reward for those who try to play them, in which case O’ Malley is possibly alluding to another reason why the boy might avoid the pipes. However, the sweeping quality of this comment on musicians suddenly moves us outside the narrative world so carefully crafted, ending the poem on a rather glib note.
Such a comment might be an attempt to avoid sentimentality with regard to Irish culture. After all, sentimentality is not to be found in Playing the Octopus. The tragic tale of Sweeney has a recurring presence, most notably in the three-part sequence named after the mad Irish King. Sweeney’s doomed demise in which he is ‘Cycling the air wildly to get ahead/On what preys on him’ is brought unexpectedly and effectively into the present day: ‘Now his tribe are everywhere/Destroyed with needles/The not- good-enough boys’. Also compelling in their political rhetoric are poems such as ‘What Ireland needs’ and ‘Occupation’ – the latter a short-lined sonnet that rallies ‘we only need/to win once … with a song that blows the house down/or up, if that’s your tune’. Such pieces show O’Malley to be a remarkably straight-talking poet concerned with identity, culture and the social landscape.
O’ Malley’s agility in creating music and metaphor are best demonstrated in her poems that focus upon the physical details of the natural landscape. A sequence of tree poems warrants particular praise. Strikingly alliterative, in ‘Beeches’ we find the trees ‘lock light out’. Evoking the long-life of the beech tree, her vowels and fricatives heighten meaning as she describes how ‘Time trudges through them’. Similarly memorable is the portrayal of an old tree that ‘stood too long/Old and sickening, half alien/Half thundercloud. Now it is down’ (‘The Tree’). Science fiction and gothic elements successfully meet in this chimerical image. Yet, given the following stanza begins with a ‘chainsaw-juggling acrobat’, a question remains as to why the poet includes the short sentence ‘Now it is down’? Not even the slight rhyme would seem to support such an aside. This recurs in a number of poems. Depicting a daily routine, O’ Malley impresses with the startling phrase ‘Words become audience’, only to follow with ‘They are in those ways odd’ (‘Breaking into Silence’). Likewise, too much explication serves to blunt an otherwise exceptional simile in ‘Harvest’: ‘Days taken in like a consumptive’s skirts./I’m all for letting out, March/ The gear shift of the vernal equinox’. Fortunately, a novel approach to metaphor continues throughout the collection. Returning to ‘The Tree’, it is the poet who begins to assume the role of acrobat as she skilfully reverses the conceptual domains of her vehicle and tenor so that the tree-cutter fells the tree ‘with the precision/Of a rocket launch.’ Ground and sky are also dextrously turned upside down when ‘That night stars sprang//Like daisies where the great beech/Had been’.
A subtle and satisfying moral is delivered in the conclusion of ‘The Tree’ as ‘A bad dream dragged into daylight’ is ‘hewn into a table and chairs’. The transformation of the wild into the practical quotidian is a tale that reappears in ‘Tree III’, which, with an arresting first line, begins:
When I was small trees grew wild
In saltwater. They came in on the tide
For roof beams, a chair for a child.
Such a quasi-creation myth takes a sinister turn in O’Malley’s portrayal of more malevolent relationships with the environment. ‘Dominion’ reflects upon current re-wilding practices that are meant to preserve ‘their trammelled wilderness’. This oxymoron, smacking of sarcasm, presages a more polemical stance: ‘Such pain as we punish the animals/with our notions. Some fools/are starting it all again like gods’. Indeed, re-wilding is understood as a return to the promises of Genesis, and the poem ends on a Blakean note: ‘The snake…Ignorant of the first separation/Of light from dark, air from water/The comet from the eye of the tiger’. Knowing how O’ Malley succeeds in providing intimate portraits of trees and animals (a sequence of poem titles include ‘The Hare’, ‘The Raven’, ‘The Rat’ – the latter curiously spoken from the rat’s perspective), why in this case are we confronted with such narrative distance? It seems to allow a general overview of economic and environmental crises in ‘Scarce’, which appears almost as a partner poem to ‘Dominion’:
The future is water – plastic
famine drums, a dented kettle,
A brushed steel tap
Set in tombstone marble
In a slim kitchen.
Water, cleaned, dirty, chlorinated,
A dry river. Heat waves at the Arctic.
Cut off means war.
It is oil, it is diamonds.
The poem and the soil demand it.
This uncomfortable integration of elements – the ‘steel tap’ set against ‘a slim kitchen’ – makes for a forceful piece, but other aspects detract. The pun on ‘heat waves’, for example, creates a surprisingly cheery personification of climate change – unless this is understood to be a nod to Stevie Smith’s ‘Not Waving but Drowning’.
While questions might arise concerning O’Malley’s rhetorical stance and the level of hand-holding she provides for the reader, there is much to celebrate in Playing the Octopus. In direct contrast to Rivera’s exercise- based collection, this compilation of poems demonstrates an exhilarating range of subject matter and poetic form. These are poems that tussle profitably with landscape, culture and identity, leaving the reader with a series of enduring images.
Isabel Galleymore’s first pamphlet is Dazzle Ship (Worple Press). In 2016 she won the Basil Bunting Prize and the Jane Martin Poetry Prize. Her work has featured in Poetry, Poetry London and Poetry Review. She is currently undertaking a residency in the Peruvian Amazon.