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Martin Stannard

The River and the Black Cat, James Sutherland-Smith (Shearsman, 74pp, £9.95

Here are 64 poems that use a river and a black cat as their recurring motifs while the poet contemplates aspects of life and love; so that’s the title explained. What the poems contemplate might primarily be love, but that’s life, although language is also a concern. The first lines of the first poem set the tone for pretty much all that follows:

      It’s the most baroque of times,
      It’s the least classical of weathers.
      Nobody’s been promoted;
      some have gone to remote housing estates
      to open cardio-vascular fitness centres.
      All of us are to lose a belovéd friend
      in three subsequent volumes.

      (from “Twenty Years After”)

I’m not sure that second line is supposed to start with a capital I, and to judge from subsequent poems it shouldn’t; perhaps the first line should end with a full stop. We might never know. It’s a bit of a drag to have a typo at the beginning of the first poem of a full collection, but who’s going to notice?

One thing I enjoy about these poems is that they insist upon existing upon their own terms, in their own world, and by their own rules, yet still for the most part allow the reader in as, alongside the personal, they acknowledge and to some degree investigate the part language and ideas play in our daily lives. The poems are not paraphrasable (which is good) but they are almost always interesting enough to provoke thought. An unsettled air hovers over them, and one senses a variety of uncertainties.

There is a range of language here, from the provocative quasi-surreal

      All our vocabularies are unicorns
      firm to the touch as radiators.  

                   (from “Material Evidence”)

to the more direct:

      The spring river roars onwards
      to join a greater, its ochre waters
      now flicked by the driving rain.          

                   (“Too Many of Us, Too Few”)

and, reading, one can find oneself moving backward and forward between comprehension and something related to a mild bewilderment, although the tone of the poems is almost always one lurking in the regions of melancholia. The blurb suggests that all the poems are “in some measure” love poems, and I would concur. More importantly, one should, I suppose, address the way the river and the black cat are used as central motifs, but this sounds worryingly like an examination question and I’m not big on exams. One might begin with the stock idea of the river as something that’s always unchangingly there but never the same river twice, and the black cat with all its magical and superstitious associations. (Discuss, but try and keep it down to a couple of neat sentences; this is a review, not an exam.) Whatever their intended and respective roles — and one must assume, I think, they are to be seen at least sometimes as metaphors, although not necessarily always for the same thing — the river in the poems is a constant yet often subtle and unobtrusive presence. I think this is because, for all its physicality, it’s primarily passive: choosing instances more or less at random, it is “too shallow to drown in”, it is “concentrated by the levee”, “rain punctures the river surface with silvery glints”, “where the railway/ beside the river led to seventy years ago”, “ice on the river polished to a half shine” and so on. On the other hand, the black cat is a physical presence that comes with character of a sort. It’s generally active. Again, at random: “the black cat trots/ with the first song of spring in her jaws”, “the black cat sheltering in the shed”, “The black cats furry hind legs push on the pedals”, “The black cat knows all there is to know about/ the four hundred thousand years before the Big Bang”, “The black cat hasn’t forgiven me/ for trapping her and taking her to the vet”, “the black cat, surely the essence/ of pure heat, emerges from the shed”. To a large extent the cat is a spooky, disconcerting presence, which perhaps is my answer to the exam question, along with several caveats about how I’m not sure, and “on the other hand”…. Reading the river and the cat as metaphors opens things up to a variety of interpretations, I think, which is fair enough.

What’s more to the point is that I can’t help feeling that inside this book of 64 poems, composed (it says) between October 2015 and February 2016, there’s a better and stronger “slim volume” waiting to get out. I know most people wouldn’t read a book of poems like this from cover to cover, and reading for reviewing is a slightly (or more than slightly) impractical and abnormal way of encountering poems, but I set out with the intention of going from cover to cover and didn’t carry it through. I didn’t carry it through because after a while the black cat kind of got on my nerves, and I felt he (or she) was sometimes being shoehorned in, whereas the river seemed much more of a natural looming presence. They both appear in every poem (oh wait, maybe not: there’s no cat in the first poem….) but somehow I started to get a bit irritated by the cat, which was a shame, because I like cats, and it (he or she) shouldn’t detract from what are actually mostly pretty good and interesting poems. If you feel like reading the book cover to cover, then fine; but for me, it’s more of a dipper. But a good dipper, all the same.

 

 
Copyright © Martin Stannard, 2018