JOSEPHINE ABBOTT: TRYING NOT TO LEVITATE
Blinking Eye Publishing
PO Box 549
Tyne & Wear
ISBN 978 0 9549036 5 7
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This page last updated: 1st September 2009.
|JOSEPHINE ABBOTT: TRYING NOT TO LEVITATE|
Myth, Roland Barthes said,
has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal.In MYTHOLOGIES he compared it to a servant whose discreet preparation of the dinner table renders invisible all trace of the work involved. In myth
history evaporates ... all that is left for one to do is to enjoy this beautiful object without wondering where it came from.In her essay AGAINST DRYNESS, Iris Murdoch agreed:
The temptation of art, a temptation to which every work yields except the greatest ones, is to console ... by myths or by stories.Poetry can be a prime culprit here, truth giving way to sound and feel and shape.
I was excited that among the myths Josephine Abbott chose to treat in her collection TRYING NOT TO LEVITATE was that of King Canute. Far from giving an historical intention a natural justification, the legend of Canute lays bare its own contingency. This is so because there is not one eternal version, but two. In one version, Canute is a vain blasphemer who believed his commands would be obeyed even by the sea. That tale is used as a caution against trying to fight the natural order of things. The second version is that Canute wanted to instruct his subjects in humility and wisdom.
Abbott gives Canute the benefit of the doubt. Her telling of the story is precise and elegant, but I could not help wishing she explored more the raggedy edges and muddy roots of this strange story.
Precision, elegance and formal clarity are qualities that Abbott possesses in abundance. THE PATIENCE OF SNOW is an assured sestina in which form perfectly suits function. Conversely, this makes UMPTEEN NAMES FOR RAIN all the more disappointing. It smacks of a creative writing workshop exercise.
Thankfully, formal clarity does not always render invisible complexity and difficulty. One of the opening poems, ECHT, stumbles over a failure of the language:
I need a better word for real than real.And again, in TO A CORMORANT ON A ROCK:
If there's a word for your stillness; your willingness to hang motionless in the face of the fidgeting sea and unsettled clouds, I don't know it;— and once again in the elegy for the Old English word wit to mean the two of us, there is this delicious sense that the world is too incorrigibly plural for poetry to create a simple, pleasing object of it. I liked TRYING NOT TO LEVITATE best when it was tentative like that, recognising plurality. When weather broke out, uncontrollable, all over. When the book talked science with a beloved, more knowledgeable you. As if the world were one long puzzle with an answer. As if, in love, we could puzzle it out together.
|reviewer: Ailbhe Darcy.|