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Narratives Real and Surreal

Tim Murphy

What Planet, by Miriam Gamble, Bloodaxe Books, 80 pp, £9.95, ISBN: 978-1780374840

The photograph by Annick Gérardin on the cover of What Planet, the third poetry collection from the award-winning Belfast poet Miriam Gamble, shows a dog and a cat side by side as they look out of a window together, seemingly at some specific incident or event. It’s an incongruous image, and the absence of the expected question mark in the book’s title along with the epigraph ‑ “If this is not the truth, it is also not a lie” (from Claudia Rankine’s 2014 book Citizen: An American Lyric) ‑ adds to the surreal effect. The effect is compounded somewhat by the dream imagery in the collection’s first poem, “The Landing Window Is Unspeakable” (“The recurrent dream of a cat walking a wall, / a provisional touching your father’s hair.”); and by the style of the second poem, “The Oak That Was Not There”:

The oak that was not there was not there
and the sands went walking under the sea.

The clocks went forward, the clocks went back.
Someone lost their temper with me.

There are shades in all this of Surrealism with a capital “S”, but the collection remains better considered in terms of the lower-case version: these are poems, as the publisher’s description puts it (while quoting from “Person”), that “journey surreally through scenes and landscapes at once of the world and the mind, finding little, as they go, that ‘can be claimed self-evident’”. While the unconscious, dreams, hypnosis, and other Surrealist tropes are referenced throughout What Planet’s forty-six poems, the book’s experimentalism and quirkiness never quite detaches itself from the reason and logic that André Breton and his colleagues eschewed. In some poems, the logical narrative trajectory may be obscure ‑ “The Oak That Was Not There” is one example, with its clocks constantly going back and forwards; its penitent begging forgiveness from “a round god whose / presence we had proved”; its “grave leader” urging responsibility; and its “round god” ultimately falling “from the sky like a fish” ‑ but in all poems the trajectory is present.

What Planet’s outstanding characteristics are its formal and thematic range. The former is signalled early on by the calligramatic “Time Ball”, and also by “Betty Staff’s”, a sestina in which octopus imagery is used in describing (and defending) the poet’s maternal grandmother, who was all-Ireland ballroom champion and a dance studio proprietor in central Belfast:

She was a wan child when she came here to work, but by the 1950s
Betty’s living the life: she’s like something out of Octopussy 
or some such yet-to-be-invented model for glamour . . . 

Some of the collection’s thematic range derives from its intertextuality. The first of the book’s prose poems, “Wonderland”, for example, responds to the work of Lewis Carroll; “Odradek Returns” to Franz Kafka’s “The Cares of a Family Man”; and “Feldspar” (the poem for which Gamble won the 2018 Mark Ogle Memorial Award) to “Coastal Walk: Islay” by Mark Ogle. Ogle’s work is not widely known so many readers will find it difficult to situate this poem’s intertextuality ‑ its narrative deals with finding a woman (“the one-time / queen of posture”) inappropriately carrying supermarket shopping bags (“the pained / labour of her gait”) near a roundabout. This is the poem from which the collection’s title is taken: “What planet / is he living on that he can think / there’s nothing wrong with her?!!!”

“The Canal at Fountainbridge”, “Moths” and “IndyRef, 2014” were all written in “collaborative conversation” with poems by Nerys Williams. Williams is Welsh and lives in Dublin while Gamble is Northern Irish and lives in Edinburgh. Gamble notes that the two poets “were interested in attempting to explore displacement without nostalgia”; and Gamble’s ecological concerns are evident in her commentary that the history of the peppered moth, which features in both “Moths” and “The Canal at Fountainbridge”, is a “prominent example of unintended human interference in species evolution: the relative success of the two forms of the moth fluctuated dramatically during and after the Industrial Revolution”. The poet’s signature humour is present in “Moths” in the way she uses grand rhetoric with reference to the damage of moth-eaten furniture and fabrics (“Grain locusts of my heart, my ding an sich!”); and “The Canal at Fountainbridge” includes reference to the recurring theme of memory and forgetting (“what is to be kept, and what forgotten, / and in what order”), and also to the poet’s “own small past” that others “will smash and squeeze”.

“IndyRef, 2014” is a poem about voting “Yes” in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum that opens with the image of a mare “who won’t / ford streams but will only jump them”, and mares feature in several poems. In “Mare at Large”, a mare breaks free from one farm into the next; in “Credentials” dried fodder is “taken in / and deliberated” by a mare’s jaws; in “Holograph” a mare is “filled out with summer fatness”; and in the prose poem “Madeleine”, lathering a mare’s behind and “shit-tasselled tail” bring to mind the “dissolved stick sugar” of candy floss. “Madeleine” is one of many poems that show Gamble to be a truly imaginative writer; in “Plume”, to give another striking example, the creamy-white heads of meadowsweet are compared to the “creamy wigs” of Dangerous Liaisons, to “the shape of Scotland”, and to “the colour of fat gathered in the top of old-school milk bottles”.

The collection’s range of themes includes clusters like the death-related “Urn” and “In Memoriam Your Stuff” as well as poems that deal with adolescence and others that successfully anthropomorphise different animals and insects. “Gutties” captures the quintessentially adolescent image- and status-related hopes of a school-goer upon purchasing a pair of plimsolls:

And now you tie it onto you, you admire
the clean white leather with the emerald flashes,
imitation Adidas out of Dunnes but
its credentials are neither here nor there;
it is the only hope for you . . .

“Girl with Book and Rubber Bands” is a charming poem in which a girl uses elastic bands to catapult a paperback as bored drivers in stalled cars “watch transfixed / as it buckets through the air”; on another day the girl would be a brat to the drivers, but today she is “magnificent” and “we watch her and we like the cut of her jib more than / anything”. “Parotia Displaying in a Forest Clearing” describes a six-plumed bird of paradise as an “un-defrocked” cleric “crazy on laudanum” who “hates his parishioners with a village hate / and seeks to bring pestilence down upon their heads”; and in “Enkidu’s Worm”, after Gilgamesh has waited for days by his friend’s dead body, unwilling to accept his death until finally a worm crawls out of Enkidu’s nose, the worm “nods a civic ‘hello’” to the watching king as it descends back into the outside world “from the mouth / of the crater down the sloped sides of the pimpling scree”.

Gamble possesses a confidently original poetic voice and each poem in this collection is skilfully crafted; it is no surprise that What Planet was recently named as the winner of the 2020 Pigott Poetry Prize at Listowel Writers’ Week. Like many (if not most) contemporary poets, Gamble has a background in the academic study of poetry and the challenging nature of several of these poems means they demand repeated readings, but overall the volume’s broad range and powerful imagery ensure the reader is duly repaid.

1/7/2020

Tim Murphy is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Art Is the Answer (Yavanika Press, 2019) and The Cacti Do Not Move (SurVision Books, 2019).

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