Sheenagh Pugh (sheenaghpugh) wrote,
Sheenagh Pugh

Review of "From the Dark Room" by Sue Rose, pub. Cinnamon Press 2011

The title "From the Dark Room" is a phrase from a sequence of poems called "Travelling Light". Some unexpected things happen with light and dark in this collection. In "Rare Old", whisky abandoned in Antarctica and "protected by the freeze" is "brought into the damage of light". Nesting house-martins in "Hemispheres", by contrast, are pictured "sliding the dark around themselves" in an act of protection, while "Globe" ends with the sinister volcanic image of
what might ooze if the egg

of the Earth were cracked, light
hatching from the world's blown sphere.

It will already be clear that verbal interactions are being carefully considered in these titles. "Hemispheres" and "Globe" are juxtaposed; the "Dark Room" and "Travelling Light" are susceptible of more than one interpretation, as is "Birth Rights". Rose is a professional literary translator, and it is tempting to see in her method of composition the translator's constant awareness of how many shades of meaning one word may contain, and how it may be nuanced and slanted by its context.

A translator also needs to preserve a certain amount of detachment from the material with which he/she works, and Rose seems unusually able to do this with her own original material. Some of this is very personal, like the old age and death of parents and the unfulfilled desire for children, but it is handled with a remarkable lack of sentimentality, an ability to stand back and create the distance that makes for accurate observation (and, incidentally, licenses the reader to feel the emotion the writer has suppressed). In "Hard Skin", the relationship of mutual dependence between a mother and daughter is expressed entirely through their care for each other's feet:
She rests her legs on mine. I massage
her bunions, rub the lump on top of her foot.
She kneads my protesting arches, the corrugated bone
of my ankle

We may certainly read into the practicalities of this event something about the relationship – "brusque and careful/though we both sometimes draw blood", but it is not dwelt on. The most powerful example of this method is perhaps "Making a Gem", in which she combines the ashes of her parents and dispatches them to be turned into a diamond. From the mundane details of queuing at the post office to the dispassionate account of the refining process in "a hot oven, three hundred centigrade", this distance is maintained, with the result that the one phrase capable of a less literal interpretation, "Matter breaks/under such forces", acquires a great poignancy.

Such material could be grim, but Rose often allows a sense of humour to come through. "Sample" may seem an unlikely scenario for a poem – a woman, on her way to the clinic in pouring rain with a sample of her husband's sperm, speculates that if the Flood were to return now, she'd be well equipped to board the ark as a pair – but it works beautifully, and in "Minute Waltz", a sense of ageing and loss are treated with a rueful self-deprecation that ends in a genuine punchline (which obviously I'm not going to reveal, but it is both funny and moving). This collection combines universal themes with a care for exact language and dispassionate observation that is far from universal.

Tags: book reviews, poetry, sue rose

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