A blood-spatter or tainted x-ray? The vivid front cover of Daniel Sluman’s second collection from Nine Arches, the terrible, (even the title sounds cut from its meaning), alerts you that this volume deals with what Sluman describes as the ‘dark underbelly of our relatively comfortable lives.’ If the endlessly dividing cell that is contemporary poetry can be reduced to a single trope in recent years, it could be the Poetry of Bodily Trauma.
Whether in the physiologically overwhelming, as in Karen McCarthy Woolf’s Eliot-nominated An Aviary of Small Birds, with its focus on stillbirth, also the subject of Wendy Pratt’s Flarestack pamphlet Lapstrake; or Rebecca Goss’s loss of a child to Severe Ebsteins’ Anomaly in Her Birth; or in the underminings of the body, as host to our ‘enemies within,’ such as Crohn’s Disease (Matthew Siegel’s Blood Work); or auto-immune diseases in Hugo Williams’ dialysis poems from the recent I Knew the Bride, the failings and what Sharon Black calls in her review of Shulman’s debut collection, the ‘frangibility’ of the body, seem part of the poetic zeitgeist.
Sluman may be one of the youngest poets addressing life-changing trauma, but he has suffered disability since childhood, after a through-hip leg amputation due to bone cancer. The biography is important, as without context the poems alone only obliquely and occasionally, if beautifully, refer to ‘this lightning trapped in my hip/my strange weather’ (‘Doppelganger’).
The first poem in the opening section – this new collection is divided into three roughly equal sections – ‘Human/beauty’, lays out the stark territory like a mission statement, from ‘the sweat & bleach/of human delivery’ to the ‘fall into the cold/black earth’ of death. And no ameliorating god-head to ease the pain:
he never came never came for us
when we carved open our arms
on bathroom floors how he took my leg
& left her shivering in a cupboard at sixteen
we’ll gut his son scalp the holy spirit
& we’ll never kneel for him again. (‘angels’)
Reviews of Shulman’s first book, Absence has a weight of its own, use epithets such as ‘bleak’ and ‘unflinching’. The same can be said about the terrible. If there is a codocil to the anguish, it is in the love of and for his partner (also namechecked in a poem.) Even here, however, the sense that love is a contingent condition that can be swept away or lost at any time is ever-present, as in ‘my love is sponsored by the warmth of opiates’, where ‘the pills/spill through the blood to hush/the nerves a damp towel thrown over a pan-fire.’
This illustrates where Sluman saves the shocking and disturbing subject-matter from the risk of melodrama by counter-pointing its almost unfathomable severity (to the outsider), with grounded, down-to-earth images, precisely observed. Cigarettes become, ’twenty pale promises/pinched side by side bursting to be prized/from this cardboard theatre.’ This is minute and imaginative observation, locating the poetry of personal pain in the quotidian here and now. We see those cigarettes and feel their meager, but still essential, small comfort.
However, what is really striking is the form. Sluman says he owes this to readings of American poets, specifically Brenda Shaughnessy, James Dickey, C.D. Wright, and Rosemarie Waldrop. He gives us almost no punctuation, not even full-stops. Capitalisation goes. It’s as if the poet’s confessional style is furthered by deleting intrusive punctuation as mere ‘scaffolding’, an obstacle to expression that only adds stylistic obfuscation. The paradox is, of course, that to get rid of artifice requires skilled invention, or in other words, technique of another sort.
So we gain multiple space-gaps that stand in for breath-taking; for pauses; to emphasise; or make connections. The ampersand substitutes for ‘and’, as if the highly-worked poems are in fact ‘sketches’ prized from the quickly overwhelming pain of lived experience. Frequently, ampersands (as in the example from ‘angels’ above) come at the start of a line, often repeated three or four times within short poems. Even the title of a poem starts with one, as in ‘& this is love.’
I thought I understood this better when I read Sluman’s first interest was in music – the ampersand becomes like a treble clef in musical notation, at the start of a line, indicating changes in pitch or tone, just as an ‘and’ conjoins two phrases which relate to each other, with the second adding amplification, or clarification, or even under-cutting, of the first. In this light, the ampersand made more integral sense, rather than becoming a repeated, potentially irritating, ‘attention-seeker’ on the page.
Artificial space between words is sometimes indicated by a forward slash, as in ‘wonder/ful’ which like a paleographic minim in old texts, seems a means of identifying difference, of suggesting a ‘tic’ of the homogenized, twenty-first century writer in ‘Word’, where everyone’s writing looks the same.
To have two collections behind you at 30 is a great achievement for an interesting writer: Sluman mines the depths of his own humanity to make it visible for us all, and suggests that what it is to be ‘able-bodied’ is both a literal and metaphorical conjecture.