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12 August 2017 @ 02:36 pm
Review of The Empty Horizon by Paul Terence Carney, pub. Live Canon Ltd  
Well, this is organised so unlike most poetry collections that I think I'd better start by describing the premise. The introduction explains that the protagonist (who certainly voices most of the poems and may in fact voice them all) is a woman called Roisin, a writer and illustrator of children's books, who lives somewhat unwillingly with a dysfunctional family in Dawlish and is hindered in getting away because she has the progressive eye disease retinitis pigmentosa. Some of the poems concern the book she is working on, some the progress of her loss of sight, some are addressed to her editor Brian, whom she has never met but who has become in her mind a potential rescuer.

This feels exactly like being plonked down in the middle of a novel, so much so that I wondered if the material did not begin as one. The only other collection I've read which is anything like it in structure is Alice Notley's Negativity's Kiss, another narrative collection, which opens with someone trying to kill the protagonist. But Notley's characters are clearly allegorical and as such it doesn't really signify how they came to this point, nor do we need to feel for them as if they were real. Roisin is very much a real person, who actually comes alive pretty well and whose story is very easy to enter into, but it can be frustrating to feel that there are, as it were, whole chapters that happened before we came in. Those readers who demand closure may also wish to be warned that the end is as opaque as an episode of The Prisoner; it is not at all certain whether Roisin has escaped or merely dreamed of escaping.

However, there is no reason why all collections should have to be a series of tidy little lyrics or sequences and once one accepts that this one is different, the individual poems have much to please and interest the reader.  The deterioration of sight in an artist who relies on it so much is convincingly evoked.  Having a relative with Roisin's disease, I can recognise the anxiety about being out after dark that results from fading night-vision, also the enforced focus on other senses in "Pigeons After Dark:

With tennis-ball thuds,
clothes-brush sweeps,
pen-nib scratchings,

they punctuate
this ceaseless dirge
of sea and shingle

The transition from "when I could see across the lake" ("Bestiary for a Painted Earth") through faces that have to be plotted out geometrically by "a scaffold of lines" ("The Art of Self-Portraiture") to the point where she opens a familiar book and "every page/was white" ("A Room in the City") is subtle and skilfully done in a relatively brief space. The children's book she is working on also figures in the poems, and sounds intriguing – an Irish child on a mission to bring back the snakes Patrick supposedly expelled – but we hear tantalisingly little of it.

This is a short collection, 36 pages of poems, and I would, in fact, cheerfully swap the 15 pages of notes at the end of the book for more poems. I don't object to the idea of notes in poetry collections; I've used them myself and got a lot of pleasure out of reading others' notes when they give me knowledge that follows from the poems but doesn't belong in them. But in this case I don't think most of the notes are necessary.  A lot of them involve information one could easily enough look up if one needed to – a "Vargas girl pose", St Patrick's nickname "adze-head" – while others are clear from the context.  Reading "break the bars of Larsen traps and raise lost magpies to the sky", does one really need to know where and by whom these traps were invented? Some, like Branwen's starling, are literary references the reader is either going to get or not, and if not, reading it later in a note won't really help recreate the desired effect. Including a note describing Lego, just because the author once met a man who hadn't heard of it, is just OTT. And the note that says of one poem "Brian speaks. Or does he?" apart from sounding arch, comes too close to telling the reader how to read.  I'd already worked out that the poem, which appears to be in the editor's voice, could in fact very well be Roisin's way of imagining that voice; there are clues in it that point that way.  These notes, to me, indicate a lack of authorial confidence in himself to convey his meaning and in the reader to grasp it. It is a first collection; I'd hope that by the time there's a second, he will feel assured enough to trust to his skill in the poems and do without quite so much apparatus.

One reason this has happened, I think, is that having in effect created a novel-heroine about whom he already knows a great deal, and introduced the reader in the middle of her narrative, Carney feels obliged to bring us up to date on a lot of back-story, like what books she read as a child.  But what we need of this is already coming through her voice, and it is when he trusts this voice that the poems come most alive, as here in "An Hour from the River":

And after, when I cannot climb the oak
you climb it for me, as I feel my flesh
against the cragscape of its bark. You speak
from your all-seeing height, about the rooks
above the fields, the hedges and the haystacks,
the ream of something swimming fast below
the middle arch of Humpy Bridge. And last,
you even see and tell about the mayflies

rising. I close my eyes to picture them
the way I've dreamed them – coloured lithographs
in library books, made tiny, multiplied
a hundred thousand times, all swirling up
and up into the burning blue and white.

It's a change from the usual unconnected lyrical moments to read a collection with a narrative thread and a developing character voice (and incidentally, this male author does a female voice very well, mostly by not falling into the trap of thinking of her as a different species).  I'm all for collections that are not quite the usual thing. This one does feel in some ways fragmentary, like reading a part of a story rather than the whole. But better for the reader to come away wishing there were more of a book than feeling there has been more than enough.