Sheenagh Pugh (sheenaghpugh) wrote,
Sheenagh Pugh
sheenaghpugh

Review of Part of the Dark by Scott Elder, pub. Dempsey & Windle 2017



The title phrase comes from the poem "Drifting Slowly East and Filling":

The man at the helm is no

exception. He's just part of the dark steering you home.

There are quite a few ferrymen in these pages, and indeed boats, piers, harbours, halyards. It is one of the strands of vocabulary that recur, fugue-like, throughout the collection, as do variations on light and dark, snow, the moon, birds (about 10 different species, though blackbirds feature heavily) and the figure of a "lady". There are some clues to the genesis of this latter in the notes at the back. As often happens, she is a composite: in this case, of personal experience and the influence of art, a series of paintings by Maljen Sanchez. One of these provides the cover picture and an ekphrastic poem, "Portrait", which does not so much seek to "explain" the picture as enjoy being bemused by it:
Nothing will come of this, she muttered in Finnish.
Don't worry, he whispered, apart from the pink

all is utterly perfect
. She looked aside.
The sky wilted for an instant.

As you can see from the quotes, he makes interesting verbal music, and never more so than when he is indeed at his darkest. The end of "Captive",

The moon was a glimmer in the stem of her glass,
her look tender as an open wound

is a satisfyingly edgy surprise. There is another stratum of language running through the poems, which is not so much dark as moonlit, and this works less well for me. It includes refrain-words like moon, moonlight, pale, feather, tremor, whisper: the sort of words poets use to heighten emotion. I am not one of those who want to ban particular words like shard or gull from poetry; as can be seen above, "moon" works perfectly well in the right place and with a hint of menace, but context is important and so is cumulative effect. I do think "pale as the moon", as a comparison, is tired enough to be worth avoiding, and in the line "the tremor in my pencil's whisper", I would like to lose either tremor or whisper, because both in one line strikes me as one emotion-heightening, slightly "poetic" word too many.

Much more intense and memorable, to me, is the darker, sparer language of "The Trade":

I saw you in the fields trading the wings.
What did the crows leave in return?
A claw? A broken beak?

And what was that shriek?
You were staring at some furry thing,
small and grisly in your hand. Dead still it was. […]

And the harbor too.
All the freighters are sunk but one

Of all the poems in the book, this is the one I keep going back to; it is haunting because it contains, not "poetic" language, but plain language being used by a poet.

There are a couple of features about the layout that puzzle me. About a third of the poems are double-spaced, and I cannot work out why; they do not have anything special in common that I can see; also three titles are in italics for which, again, I can't see a reason (I don't think they are quotations). I'm not averse to unconventional layouts, but I do like to be able to see some rationale for them; otherwise I tend to waste time looking for one. The book, which is the first I have seen from this publisher, is well produced, a pleasing artefact.

You will be disappointed if you want poems to be like crossword clues that can be solved and filled in; there are plenty of enigmas and ambiguities here, and I suspect some are too personal to be easily decoded. Think of them as word-pictures and you will be closer to the mark. I don't know how many are actually ekphrastic poems, but several sound as if they could be, and gain their power by etching an image on the mind.
Tags: book reviews, poetry
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