SUSAN UTTING: STRIPTEASE
The Poetry Business
Bank Street Arts
32-40 Bank Street
ISBN 1 902382 37 4
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|SUSAN UTTING: STRIPTEASE|
The majority of the poems in this collection (although by no means all) reveal a failed attempt to disentangle themselves from the more mundane concerns of everyday life. In fairness to Utting this is merely the latest symptom of the ever growing trend in poetry towards a more prose-like and prosaic register. In FLOOD we can see this in the opening stanza with a description of the affects of rain:
The lawn is a lake and still it comes down, it lashes and sluices down gutter and glass, the yard is an eddy of flowerbeds and dross and I am reminded of stories of sandbags stacked on a river bank, four deep, ten high, the unstoppable Ouse, lost fortunes and lives, bulb fields and orchards, whole nurseries of glass swept along, swept away in the rush to the sea.We see it also in SALT where the protagonist
poured the salt in a steady stream into cellars, a glass row of thimblefuls, measured for morning, then brushed what he spilt, over the table into his cupped hand;Each of these two descriptions would not be out of place in a work of prose fiction. But as examples of poetic writing they fall short of the mark. This is not to say that they are not well written — as indeed they are. But they fail to do what poetry should attempt, and that is to provide a lexis which allows for a multiplicity of meanings. The function of prose fiction is the converse of this in that it attempts to limit the multiplicity of meaning, so as to better serve the requirements of plot and character development. And I'm afraid into this latter category these two poems must fall.
Alongside the prose-like register of the poems in this volume is the equally prose-like requirement for accurate observation and faithful description of objects and events. This is evidenced in ON THE EIGHTH DAY where she describes the affect of dust falling on everyday objects:
they saw it profile objects, cloud the mirrors, turn black into grey, they saw a lacquered box grow dull, the cuts and facets on a crystal bowel fill up and soften.This is a lucid and quirky description of the way dust engulfs its surroundings. Yet, unfortunately, it is so effective in its lucidity that it leaves nothing for the reader to imagine.
It is interesting that Utting utilises quotations from artists, writers and poets interspaced between her poems. One such is Coleridge's statement from BIOGRAPHIA LITERARIA regarding his conception of "the fancy" :
The Fancy is indeed no other than a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space.This quotation appears on a page by itself giving the impression (to me at least) that it is in some way relevant to her poetry. If its relevance is to do with the idea of memory then all well and good, as many of her poems are do deal with recollection. But it would be a mistake for us to assume that in this quotation Coleridge is championing the fancy as some sort of poetic ideal. If this is Utting's purpose in including this quotation then I'm afraid that she has misunderstood Coleridge.
His ideas about the fancy grew out of his wider theory on the nature of the imagination. He conceived of the imagination in two parts: the primary imagination, and the secondary imagination (an examination of which would take too long and distract us from our main point of interest). From these two categories Coleridge further subdivided the imagination to posit the concept of fancy. For him the fancy is the lowest form of imagination because it 'has no other counters to play with but fixities and definites'. In other words the fancy involves no act of creation, it is merely a reconfiguration of existing ideas — unlike the primary and secondary imaginations.
Another quotation of interest is the following by Louise Bourgeois:
The sculpture speaks for itself and needs no explanation. My intentions are not the subject. The object is the subject. Not a word out of me is needed.The inclusion of this quotation seems to suggest the preferment of the object over the subject. And in so doing to synthesise the two: whereby subject/object become unified — or at the very least interchangeable. In other words the subject (personality) fuses with the object (phenomena) to form an indivisible whole. To be successful such a fusion necessarily precludes a relationship with the reader of the poem. To enter into such a relationship would entail a more ambiguous poetic lexis which, as I have indicated, is not an option for Utting.
In the poem CONDENSATION we can see an instance of this subject/object fusion in practice. In this poem she observes that her inability to cry at certain everyday aspects of life (such as weddings) becomes objectified and replayed through memories of her father who was able to cry at
everything the Queen said and when people won big prizes on a quiz show and whenever any kind of goal was scored by anyone on either side at any matchShe can never cry at
marriages or royalty, at TV jackpot winners or at sports events unless I am reminded of the way my father always did.We see here the way in which the subject (herself), via memory and experience, and then reflecting on these two elements, has fused (in this instance via empathy) with the object (her father). The fusion is rehearsed through the circular nature of her experience. She cannot cry at the actual events that made her father do so, nor can she cry at the memory of the actual events. It is only her memory of 'the way' her father cried that makes her cry.
Indeed, the first stanza of the poem where we are given a skilful description of raindrops fusing into one another as they slide down a window can now, in light of what we have discovered from the rest of the poem, be seen to be a metaphor for this fusion. Similarly, the word for word repetition of this description directly following its first appearance can be seen as a metaphor for the circular nature of her experience. We as readers, unfortunately, have been excluded from this process by necessity and are only allowed to be observers to this union. Our emotional involvement and imaginative collaboration has been short-circuited.
That Utting is a talented writer is beyond doubt. Her use of simile, metaphor, and description are skilfully executed. But she is at her best when she allows herself to be free of the constraints of what I call "the creative writing workshop syndrome": the obsessive desire to introduce into poetry the techniques and tone of prose-fiction. Utting excels most when she allows herself to be lyrical and elliptic. It is in poems such as THE ART OF FALLING, THE QUIET MAN, HERE LIES, THE EMPEROR'S LAST NIGHTINGALE, to name but a few, that her real talent can be seen.
|reviewer: Jeffrey Side.|