Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Me and the Dead

Katy Evans-Bush. Me and the Dead. Salt, 2008.

Not only reviewers and endorsers but also the blurb of Me and the Dead proclaim its transatlantic marriage of styles, so I suppose we have to take it seriously. And it is discernible in the poems' yoking of contrary forces, for instance in 'The Bog of Despair', where a New York Poets-y focus on the minutiae of everyday cosmopolitan life (it starts, 'We'd lunched on Greek salad and coffee') is the vehicle of a quite traditionally English elegy (for, obliquely, Keats, and more generally and directly those who died young). But I'm not sure that this geographical view is the most useful one – it makes the cosmopolitan element more noticeable, and I rather prefer the poems where it is less prominent.

But Katy Evans-Bush's style does, well, contain multitudes. On the one hand she is interested in high culture and the classics (there are two or three opera poems in here, and a version of Catullus X which switches the point of view to the girl, to winning effect), in elegance and rhetorical formality. On the other, the poems are mainly chatty, and interested in the immediacy of life, whether in its urban context or elsewhere.

The rhetoric is manifest in the use of conceits, for example in 'To My Next Lover' and the first poem in the book, 'The Only Reader' whose formality and lyricism and slightly uncharacteristic lack of contemporary reference give it a timeless aura – dangerous to aim for but worth having if it turns up:

As the Canada goose honks serenely, unaware
Of foreign towns below him – as only the sky
Has meanings and tones – where foreign people gaze
through open doors at his leaf-and-cloud-coloured flight,
And the Amherst woods carried with him as he goes,
And the air momentarily clearer where he was[.]

There's also an apostrophe to a dish, which is half a Grecian urn poem and half a meditation channeled through an object. The collision of colloquial tone with high rhetorical form is particularly successful here. Its effect depends partly on accumulation, but quoting may give you a flavour (notice the bathos in the second of these quatrains, which both punctures and underwrites the rhetoric):

Dish, you're my talisman,
my lucky charm, my incantation, my potion,
my memento mori – that is, of the death of my heart –
you're my past, my future, my darling Valentine.

You arrived as a surprise,
a kind of benediction, given away
impulsively my my friend Helen. What I love
is the medallion image at your bottom[.]

The book's variety is impressive: as well as elegy, monologue, conceit and apostrophe, we find found poems, a list poem/sound poem, a really tight prose poem ('An Operation in New York'), narratives and epistles and family dramas. Many of the poems I like less are about relationships, although one of these,, 'The Crash (a Love Letter)', I like a lot. The voice is urbane, quick, difficult to get hold of (the book forms a coherent whole, but not in the monolithic way some poets are blessed, or cursed, with). My favourite poem here is 'The Escape Artists', an odd and original meditation on parenthood, growing up and the imagination:

You don't need a tour of the whale,
its pink sitting rooms and corridors drizzling with damp,
to show you someone lived there
and what they made of it. You've seen the sword
furled in the umbrella stand.
And that metallic plate hanging over your fireplace:
wasn't that once a dragon's scale?


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