Arundhathi Subramaniam When God is a Traveller (Bloodaxe) £9.95
Brian Bartlett Ringing Here and There: A Nature Calendar (Fitzhenry & Whiteside) $19.00
Arundhathi Subramaniam’s When God is a Traveller is both a PBS Choice and, as a result, is on the T.S.Eliot award list. Brian Bartlett’s Ringing Here and There has received a slew of very good reviews in his native Canada. Both these books bring a kind of exoticism to their composition. In Subramaniam’s case, it is that the sights and sounds of her native Indian are worked with a vatic, sometimes gestural sense of what is ‘important’. Bartlett’s sense of composition is more contemporary in that the prose poems – a term Bartlett resists – in the book were originally Facebook entries, ‘rooted in the paragraph more than the fragment of the sentence’. Not only that but Bartlett’s pieces are often collages of entries from other writers’ notebooks – from the very well-known, Thoreau, Chekhov, Emerson, to other nature writers less currently celebrated. They are collected as a form of daily journal, and each is labelled with the month and a date.
There is a lot of ‘you’ in Subramaniam’s poetry. Sometimes this is a beloved. And at those moments the poems can attain a kind of fixity, a fulcrum around which the poems turn. One such is ‘You and I that Day in Florence’, ‘What were we seeking,// two poets in the mood/ to get lost, as a world// unravelled graciously – / bridge, cobbled street and canal, careless// effusion of silhouetted cathedral,/ the endless melancholy// of the Arno, and the shimmer/ of trade on the Ponte Vecchio?// We asked for a coffee with a frisson/ of alcohol.’ So we don’t exactly find out what the two poets were seeking, other than a half-decent coffee. But we do get some elegantly turned couplets with some strong descriptions of Florence.
But there’s an awful lot in this book of the reader’s buying into a rhetoric and address which actually side-lines much of the response the reader could make. In other words, there is a great deal of telling and not showing in these pages. An example of this is in ‘And here’s middle age again’; ‘When you spring up again,/ temple builder, house builder, empire builder,// thickly spreading the spores/ of that old need -// unsurprising,/ tepid as beer at beach picnics -// the need/ to consume,/ belong, be loved.’ It is a sentiment with which many of us in late (or even later!) middle-age can sympathise, and the phrase ‘spreading the spores of that old need’ feels good and right. But am I alone in feeling that that last group of verbs needs to be particularised and strengthened and that the writer has a duty to create that strength.
Brian Bartlett is much more content to lay his texts in front of the reader. In part, this, too, is a result of the collage method, and his desire that the texts are seen as ‘field reports, sketches, commentaries, tributes, laments, micro-narratives, quotations, & collages.’ Thus, there is an empirical feel to many of the pieces. This is from September ‘29’:
‘I found a paddle abandoned in the woods, but no boat or raft – rusted tin cup, but no jug of water or wine. Later, suspenders hanging from a tree, minus the pants. Farther on, a weather-bleached page -torn from its book- caught in a bed of ferns.’
There are some who might find this rather too unadorned, too plain to gain the purchase to which ‘poetry’ might aspire. This is all showing, with no telling other than selection of the details. And after this, though, Bartlett places a gloss on his detail: ‘All those findings weren’t clues to a single story, but bits of many stories. Not much joined me and the strangers except the place we’d all passed through.’
But there is a wide variety in the entries in this book, which never last more than six or seven lines. And it never feels like a poetry scrap-book, more like a necessary celebration of ‘things being various’ which can be returned to and dipped into with deepening pleasure.