James Womack, On Trust: A Book of Lies (Carcanet, £9.99).
On Trust: A Book of Lies goes out of its way – on the jackets, author biography, and notes – to tell you that none of the book’s contents are true. Or, as the Colonel in the epigraph says, may “not have happened quite this way, or at quite this time, or even to quite these people. But they’re all true.” The cover art is a painting called The Fortune Teller. I braced myself for a term paper set to verse, or meditation on the over-demonstrated lability of truth and identity, and realized, from the first poem, how utterly wrong I was. Don’t be deceived like I was; better, wait to see how.
Auden wrote in The Cave of Making he “…wouldn’t dare speak to anyone / in either a prophet’s bellow / or a diplomat’s whisper”, and Womack, who wrote his doctorate on Auden’s translations, would seem to have taken that sentiment to heart. On Trust is as varied in terms of poems as it is in the tenor of its addresses, and in it you’ll find a series of ‘Notes to Self’, letters to no one (or stars), short erotic poems, the Marquis de Sade, and translations from Russian poet Marianna Geide and German poet Marie Luise Kashnitz. The interlocking of time, place, figure, and perspective makes for a strange, captivating sense of dislocation. The poems a kind of open-eyed dreaming. So it wouldn’t be fair to say the book is about, real or imagined, an affair. But the book is about an affair. And it is in those poems more than anywhere else that the subject of truth enters the collection.
If for Eliot night reveals “the thousand sordid images / of which your soul was constituted”, here memories provide the images from which other souls are composed. An affair subdivides the already divided private self in a “private” and a “secret” compartments. In Womack’s poems these do not represent aspects of a united self, but selves possessed of their own life that are contained in one body, under one roof – or as he writes, “The calls are coming from inside the house”. The end of the affair doesn’t mark the end of its memory, any more than the dissolution of the transgressed relationship means the self that was shared can be divided with the pots and pans. Womack’s collection tends to these disparate, dislocated selves through all stages of affair and crumbling of the primary relationship, and his choice to employ ‘lies’ and to change masks and speakers reads like a natural, and masterful, expression of this state.
Womack has made a shift as a poet since the publication of his first collection Misprint. In a poem like ‘Aisling’ the stanzas, here quatrains, demonstrate a new skill with and attention to poems at the level of the line. If in Misprint there were times were I wished Womack had stepped in a little more to curate the content and language of his poems, ‘Aisling’ is not only a stand out poem but emblematic of a movement, and evolution, of Womack’s poetry as a whole – a new deftness and control.
strange distilled rainbows,
she came to me, not as I had dreamt,
but as I lay dreaming.
She was tiny, and vast as a country,
a ragged comb stuck in her loose hair
her legs dusty to the calves
her dress, impeccable.
It is an evolution not only of technique, but of approach. Misprint was divided into two sections: one more of play, masks, ekphrasis, and the other, as one reviewer put it, “more direct” and barer in terms of delivery on matters of love and loss. In ‘On Trust’ Womack has fused these elements, and reads as if the heart of the latter has been placed in the forms of the former. The result is both a sense of a poet deepening in their craft, and a rich collection of poetry.
Questions of truth, mistakes, or what the speaker in the poem ‘Dust and Apples’ calls “error” is, in Womack’s treatment, also the source of the collection’s often profound sense of intimacy and bitter sweetness: that as, for example, memory returns to the present a completeness that might have been lacking once we might get what we wanted, but not the way we wanted it. Further, that who enjoys the sense of fulfilment might not strictly be ‘us’, but a reflection, copy, or ghost like the one in ‘Oliver and Glass’ who “lifts his hand under the showerhead, / wanting to catch and hold the warm transparent lines”. In On Trust, what the dream of truth is often the more real, and what was not complete completed, if only briefly, in time:
is not the same as you
it is in fact love, it is love.
Write that often and it will be enough.
If you loved me we would have apples the speaker’s lover in ‘Dust and Apples’ says before he leaves and heads north on the train. There he goes to a grocery store where he finds her favourite (winter-white calvilles) but the broken scale only registers that their “fluorescent vacuum showed a couple of grams”. The soul was once thought to weigh about the same, none was found, which meant either there was nothing or something of a different substance. A mistake? Perhaps. But mistakes, in On Trust: A Book of Lies are part of what makes it a beautiful collection. For the speaker of ‘Dust and Apples’ they are, after its loss, a remnant of love:
the weightless apples floating in my hand.