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Old 10-16-2017, 07:25 AM
Terese Coe Terese Coe is offline
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Location: New York, NY
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Default Poetry Book Reviews published in New Walk Magazine: Stephen Payne and Simon Currie

Stephen Payne: Pattern Beyond Chance
Happenstance Press 2015
ISBN: 9-781910-131176

By Terese Coe

In Stephen Payne’s new collection of poems, Pattern Beyond Chance, ‘Chronology of the Heart in Two and a Half Rhymes’ gives us the heart according to Aristotle:

In the fourth century BC, Aristotle declared it the seat /
of reason and the source of body heat.

Payne brings us to a meditation on the ‘thinking heart’ in a playful and epigrammatic style that alludes to Galen’s, Leonardo’s, and William Harvey’s underpinnings of cardiology. In Payne’s hands, profound anatomical studies are not only painless and provocative but never far removed from the Romantic tradition.

Payne uncovers reason, profundity, and undulating metaphors all around him, eg for shadow, reflection, and puddle. In his attempts to measure the visible and invisible, the vast and the unknowable, a shadow may be a metaphysical quandary.

Pattern Beyond Chance is divided into four sections: Design, Word, Mind, and Time. These would-be categories seem rather interchangeable, and intentionally so. Aphorisms and parables become universal and center-shifting, and many of the poems have a long reach beyond surface matters of loss, solitude, comfort, and the emptiness, no doubt Buddhist-inspired, in which one may find peace and resolution.

In ‘Fly Flying’ relative imponderables are pondered. Another poem, ‘Statistical Inference’ zeroes in on imponderables that seem more absolute, such as people on earth or ‘in the sky’ who are said to be dead:

just seven billion survive and some of those
at imminent risk of being reclassified.’

It occurred to me, reclassified or recalcified? Is this a game anyone can play? But juxtapose those two lines with some from ‘Anger Management at the Open Day’, for example, and you may wonder whether death itself is as unsteady and impermanent as Jorge Luis Borges’ compass needle in his metonymic poem ‘Compass’. For Payne’s speaker, the subject is ostensibly anger management—or foxes hunting rabbits, or a chemical liquid, or sine waves, or all of the above:

‘Its colour darkens through amber to metal blue,
then oscillates between the two’.

The plethora of interlocking subjects here recalls that mystical nugget of Sixties philosophy, ‘Everything is everything’. Bittersweet humor makes it work. Science or no science, it’s playful enough for almost everything to come off as conjecture.

And then there is the ubiquitous Tardis. Payne tips us off in his poem of that title, from ‘my coffee and my cereal’, moving through the neighbours’ and his mutual dividing wall, unfolding the ‘film crew,’ and progressing seemingly inevitably to a friend and his backpack, the latter known as The Tardis. If you learn more than you thought you wanted to know, it’s because Payne’s amiable juggernaut of curiosity seduces effortlessly. He opens out again with:

I might as well try to put snow back
inside a cloud, or any other snow machine.

If that tricky cloud is a snow machine, what are we?


Also in the section Time is ‘After the Tram Crash’. It moves forward in time but simultaneously its waves are moving backward:

I laughed it off as an accident waiting to happen
and slept beside her, leaving it till morning
to revisit A&E, not dreaming
that later the same winter I would lie
in that bed and cry, because I was alone
or else because I was alive.

There’s a towpath in ‘Model’, and soon we are all on the towpath, pulling, finding our strengths, working, breathing, balancing—things a sonnet is reputed to do. With that most elusive of rhymes, slant, he transforms, this time via memory and the elements, a simple worldwide feature, a path, into epiphany. Time is turned back on itself, folding, emptying.

In ‘To: Linda’ he refers to ‘an open ending’ with an enigmatic line that is also a non sequitur, partly because it is an open ending. And now cannot be closed. It is slyly endearing, with a title that has the formal opening (and with good reason, as you will see) of an office memo. In what we by now bewilderingly refer to as reality or space-time, it proves to be a memoir about the future as well as a throwback to certain shyness, tenderness, elegance. Not coincidentally, it is a skilled elegy unlike any other, and evidence of mastery.

Stephen Payne’s previous collection was The Probabilities of Balance, and that subject is still very much in evidence in his new book. ‘Meme’ encompasses memes, eulogies, and schemes; all of these replicate and seem to move on their own. ‘Equinox’ is written in full-rhymed triplets of tetrameter and pentameter, and is another meditation on the planet, the sun, day and night, the difference between March and September. If there were no mind to contemplate the Equinox, would it still be a form of balance? Mind, Time, and Design ‘sections’ overlap, but no matter.

Stephen Payne celebrates what is mystifying and magnetic, ‘haphazard and accidental’ [from his poem ‘Secondhand’]. Pattern Beyond Chance required from the poet, and deserves, high honors.

Published 2015



Simon Currie, The Isle of Lewis Chessman
Smith/doorstop
9-781906-613853

Few readers will remain untouched by The Isle of Lewis Chessman. In this Simon Currie is more successful than not. The poems are potent and rewarding work, if not always for the faint of heart.

Currie knows how to cast a spell, both geographical and historical. This recent collection deduces suspended conclusions and can also suffuse with the lyrical. His imagery involves us in humanity’s most ancient habits and ways of passing time, or dying, or facing life’s archetypal markers and rites of passage.

In his poem ‘Itálica’, the first three stanzas begin with Cavafy, Emperors, and Hadrian, respectively. Each stanza relates, in three lines, something imagined about a kind of love or longing. Although he returns to the present, the present could also be the past, as the first eight lines could also be the present. Currie speaks of time without acknowledging its existence, without mentioning its name. Itálica’s pleasures and beauties are tempting: ‘Hadrian longed to arrive/ where no barbarian frost would cut down love or leisure’; the final line adds ‘Upstairs the rooms are shuttered’. A connection between Itálica and the Guadalquivir River, and thus with Garcia Lorca’s death, is not possible to dismiss, though it is never mentioned.

Similarly, ‘Collioure, La Côte Vermeille’ uses the contrast between different times to explore motifs of death and quiddity: ‘I did not plan this journey back,/ the place disconcertingly unchanged’. The changes that have occurred, though, may be as difficult to face as the overall stasis. The startling isolation reaches us gradually, and everything is foreshortened by memory and place. Currie’s detachment is no doubt that of a lifelong neurologist. It can be chilling or, as in ‘Imagine a Forest’, almost blood-curdling, although here the fact of war extends one’s understanding of what constitutes ‘normal life,/ what goes for that…’

A hallucination occurs in ‘Figure in a Landscape’: an image of his wife. With the final line, ‘The site—its traders, drivers, every itinerant /scurrying head down—remains indifferent’, some vacuum becomes more evident. ‘Ohanami: ‘Look-at-Flowers’, spare and vacillating, has a narrator not merely unreliable, but tricky.

Quite seemly: tradition hallows anything.
But I don’t plan to go. That day,
I’ve arranged to meet a Japanese man.

Since the speaker has previously laughed ‘pleasantly’ at the idea that she, a ‘…Beautiful English girl’, should ‘take care you not meet mad Japanese man/ who wants to kill you’, the final italicised lines above elicit a sense of inauthenticity or enigma.

Mr Currie is at his best in ‘The Revenant’, which is spare and creepy, extraordinary and eerie. The subject, a stillborn child, becomes frightening, but the power of the images and reactions makes this poem thoughtful, even useful. There is no break in meaning; the reader experiences it whole.

‘The Bay-trees at the Villa Engadi’ makes encouraging and disturbing allusions to the greening and denuding of trees. A villa has been razed, but there remains a ‘broken façade where the gardens and fountain survive’. Horace’s past inheres, and in the final stanza a nightmare leads the speaker to ask to what extent the comforting nature of unreality may influence us.

‘The Easter Island Statues’ channels the statues. They have been there long enough (1100–1680 CE) that the bleakness they excite in the speaker becomes all but unbearable. He identifies with them, feels abandoned, and mourns losses we cannot fathom despite the pronouns ‘we’ and ‘us’. Is their fate mournful? Do they have spirits? Do we mind their having been left to fend for themselves for the last thousand years, give or take a few hundred? The standing stones, with or without spirits, are displayed as fraught in their hermitage, yet they are not alone.

--Terese Coe, New Walk 2016
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