15 December, 2007Issue 7.1LiteraturePoetry

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Gliss, Bliss, Umbles and Numbles

Matthew Sperling

Frances Leviston
Public Dream
Picador, 2007
50 pages
ISBN 978-0330440547


Two-thirds of the way through Public Dream comes a half-rhyming sonnet called ‘Gliss’ that bears out many of the strengths of the whole collection. It’s a love poem, but also a poem about music and about words. Waking alone on a Sunday morning, pleasantly surprised to be ‘the solo self I’d always been’, the speaker of the poem hears what must be her boyfriend or her husband tuning up in the living room, ‘bending every errant note back into shape’, then ‘troubling between two chords he loved’. These are the last four lines:

…that banshee of art-in-creation
they call a gliss: a slight imperfection’s
imperfect name, just shy of glitch or loss,
and not quite bliss, as it never quite is.

There’s something in this of Douglas Dunn’s great poem from Elegies, ‘Re-reading Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss and Other Stories‘, where a fly squashed in the book becomes, in the last line, ‘verbosely buried / in “Bliss”, one dry tear punctuating “Bliss”‘. Which is just the opposite of ‘verbose’; as Leviston’s poem also is. The ending of the poem treads a well-judged path between the slight imperfections of love and the imperfections of the language in which it’s possible to write about it. Something is being affirmed in the matching of the two to music, but something is held in reserve too: the reservations of ‘not quite… never quite’ are characteristic of the voice at work in many of Leviston’s poems, which are as concerned to be precise as they are to pull off more spectacular verbal effects. ‘View of a Tree’, another half-rhymed poem, ends with the line, ‘I hold this view for as long as I can’. Leviston’s reticent half-rhymes work to embody this sense that being alert to the contingent – the ‘just shy’, the ‘not quite’ – is better, in a poem, than being falsely definitive.

This sense is also embodied in ‘Gliss’ by the slide between words that stay just shy of being related. ‘Gliss’, from Italian glissando, from French glisser, ‘to slide’, comes one page before glitch in the OED (Volume VI: ‘Follow to Haswed’), where glitch is ‘A surge of current… in extended use, a sudden short-lived irregularity in behaviour‘, or, even better, ‘Astronauts’ slang‘: ‘A hitch or snag; a malfunction’. But the words are in no other way related apart from in their sound; as neither are loss, or bliss. Paronomasia, ‘Wordplay based on words which sound alike’, is a serious kind of play as well. The slide – the glissade – between gliss, glitch, loss and bliss recalls Hopkins’s speculations in folk-etymology in his notebooks (‘slip, slipper, slop, slabby (muddy), slide, perhaps slope, but if slope is connected what are we to say of slant’), and it shares with Hopkins’s poems the sense of words as entities with lives of their own which remain to be uncovered, and which might reside in unexpected places.

A number of poems in Public Dream share this feeling for the wordliness of words. A cave-painting shows ‘the auroch, the ochre-haloed / hand above a pony’s rump’ (if this were a Muldoon book he’d base a whole poem on auroch and ochre), while ‘Lampadrome’ takes a mistaken form from the dictionary as the spur for the reimagining of a possible world (somewhat like Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Man-Moth’). Lurking in Leviston is a poet whose imagination snags on such word-histories, such lexical curios, and I’d like to see this side of her given freer rein. She’s not in danger of getting egg-headedly stuck in the bookstack, but she could follow through more doggedly, more obliquely with the histories, imaginative fables and subversions written in to the dictionary. She has a good way with words derived from names: ‘In the Daguerreotypes’ gives us ‘tarmacadam under snow-drift’, reminding us that what we more often call tarmac was, and again still is, the method of surfacing roads attributed to the Scottish surveyor John Loudon McAdam (1756-1836), at the same time that we remember Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851), the French artist and chemist.

Although the fact is not acknowledged, ‘In the Daguerreotypes’ takes its form from Man Ray’s Lautgedicht, his ‘Sound Poem’ of 1924, which is in fact a painting of a poem with all the words blocked out (see http://www.phil.uni-mannheim.de/R1/Avantgarden/manray.htm). What begins as a technical exercise, to try to fill in the poem with words of approximate length in the right places in each line, becomes, in Leviston’s hands, a full-fledged poem that draws energy from the meeting of arbitrary formal constraint with a syntax bristling to get free. Here, as in several other poems in the book, the form is well matched to the discursive content: ‘Like a disowned daughter you / escaped the ancestor’s weight’; the dead weight of precursors, ‘men, wives, lacework / dolls’, presses on ‘a sled standing / still’ that might enable such an escape.

Just as form and content cohere, the poems make a coherent book. There are repeated images linked across poems, like the anxiety about dancing for ‘a paying audience’ that book-ends the collection, in the second poem and again four pages from the end: ‘They are paying, and I should perform / whatever dance confirms their little hopes’. And then there is the deft effect whereby a poem called ‘Oilseed Rape’ appears on the facing-page to ‘Incubus’, an unswervingly angry and clear-sighted dramatic monologue in which a different sense of rape is the one unspeakable, unspoken word which is always present, so that the material necessity of recto and verso becomes another vehicle for conveying subtleties of meaning. The first line of ‘Oilseed Rape’ again shows Leviston’s lexicographical urge: ‘Americans call it canola oil’, we find out, where canola is a syncopated form of the abbreviation ‘Can.O., L.-A.’, as in ‘Canadian Oilseed, Low-Acid’. It’s nice to see a bit of a political growl in this poem too: the crop disappears, ‘along with most of the profitable land’, making this poem a modest but telling contribution to the body of what Jonathan Bate has identified as ‘eco-poetry’.

Along with ‘Gliss’, there are several other poems which exhibit something like a genius for last lines. ‘Moon’ starts out – unpromisingly, for me – by zooming out to ‘the flag / still flying there’ and ‘the men whose lives are fastened to it’, but it ends by zooming in to our disturbing inner space: ‘There are bones inside my body I’ve never seen’. And ‘Sheep Skull’ moves from the still-life draftsmanship of the drawing-class (like Charles Tomlinson’s poem ‘To be Engraved on the Skull of a Cormorant’ and the line-drawing that goes with it) to a memory of ‘helping dip the sheep as a child’, before turning deadly at the end: ‘Some drowning in only a foot of dip as the other sheep trampled them down.’ Poor sheep! So we might think, but this rather Ted Hughes-like instinct for the brutal, brutalised life of animals runs throughout the book. ‘Humbles’, the first poem in the book, gives us exactly what its title promises (humbles:An occasional spelling of umbles (itself a later form of numbles), the inwards of a deer or other beast’), while ‘Clean’, the penultimate poem, presents a pheasant whose umbles or numbles also come unloosed, with the rest of it ‘tossed on the compost-heap’.

And it’s not just the animals who suffer. Public Dream is ripe with images of human bodies damaged, constrained, bleeding or broken. ‘Firewalker’ begins by picking out a modern-day Joan of Arc in the ‘school-bus stampede at three thirty’. But then the poem takes a darker turn:

I’ll tell you: she was blessed…

…as when a girl on a pyre
burns clear of particulars, the skin’s crack, the spit

and slob of fat along the thigh…

…until there is nothing but a twist of French bone
and the scent of frightful hair…

Lurking behind this might be John Donne’s ‘bracelet of bright hair about the bone’, from ‘The Relic’, a line whose ‘powerful effect’ Eliot noted in ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ and adapted in ‘Prufrock’ and ‘Whispers of Immortality’. It’s not clear whether Leviston’s poem has a genuine desire for the spiritual experience of martyrdom or just for the disturbingly erotic frisson of thinking about a twelve year-old girl being burnt alive. ‘French bone’ has a powerful effect of its own – I can’t decide if it sounds like something you’d buy from a posh deli or a posher sex-shop. Either way, Frances Leviston has a strange attitude towards the body! But the sensibility at work throughout the book is convincing and fully-formed in its strangeness. If I have any reservations, I’d say that a few of the poems (‘Atheist Lighting a Candle in Albi Cathedral’, for example, or ‘Immortality’) arrive at measures of closure that can seem a little heavy-handed, a little forced. The slightly longer poems in the book exhibit a combination of local attention and organizational intelligence that makes me want to see Leviston working on a larger canvas – I’d like to see her attempt a more sustained poem of parts where her variations of tone could come out fully, in the manner, perhaps, of James Sheard’s ‘Scattering Eva’, or Alice Oswald’s ‘Dart’. Nevertheless, Public Dream is a first book of remarkable talent, imaginative vigour and realized achievement.

Matthew Sperling is a Lecturer in English at Hertford College and a DPhil student at Corpus Christi. He is writing a thesis on Geoffrey Hill and philology.