Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Troy Town

"La vraie vie est ailleurs," said Rimbaud, before he went elsewhere.

Sometimes, poets admit as much, as in "Hutt River Province," from Matt Merritt's Troy Town:

So I'll secede from the stutter
. . . . . . . . . and slide
of everyday. Make myself
one of those outback kingdoms
come of the refusal to accept the inevitable.

Some sad station of low scrub and stubbornness
way beyond the black swamp,
rough grazing by a stagnant bend of a backwater
that's all ox-bows and dead-ends,

with a sun fit to sear shadows
into the backs of my eyes.

It's not as simple as that, of course, as the "stutter / and slide / of the everyday" is at least in motion, while the landscape of this imagined, desired "elsewhere" is completely static.

This is not a representative poem from Troy Town, except insofar as it marks the way Merritt likes to shape his poems: with at least one sharp turn somewhere, and often two or three. These turns are sometimes logical (working with "but" and "or") but often temporal (marked by "then" and "until"). Such poems work best when the shifts do not coincide with the stanza breaks, as in "Paradise Tanager":

Suddenly it's there, presumably having roosted
somewhere about my person all the way home.
Certainly the first in these parts, a whole hemisphere

out of place, but seemingly none the worse
for its long confinement. No song, but no need
to announce its arrival to us anyway, in terms other

than a palette of primary colour daubed along
the bare branch. Already we can't think
how we lived without it, facing down the weather,

getting stuck into the DIY, or organizing
a full social life, yet it draws just a passing glance
from the blackbird wrestling a worm out of the lawn,

or the tabby dozing in the border. No matter.
The moment it alights again on the edge
of the kitchen roof, we decide it has an answer

for everything, even the questions we're not yet asking.
Like how will it cope with the British winter?
The sparrowhawk? The traffic? The council tax?

And will it ever sleep? And when? And where?

The movement of the lines and the stanzas and the sentences provide three different rhythms through the poem, and the surprise of a South American bird in Britain generates the surprising movement of the images and the shifting focuses of the poem.

There are a lot of bird poems in the book, as Merritt is a birdwatcher (with 87 posts about birds on his blog!), and that must have finally led him to write "Another Bloody Poem about Birds":

You ask me why
there are so many
birds in these poems

as if you don't know

but you're right, of course.
It isn't fair to ask them
to keep bearing this burden
when all they really want
is to sing, fly, or eat.
Most likely all three.

All we want
just now is a life
free from metaphor and simile

but still you insist on listening to me
with your head cocked
very slightly to one side.

This seems to me to provide an insight into why we use figurative language at all, and beyond that, into why we use it all the time!

I was going to type in the wondrously funny "Sex after 36," too, but I just decided not to. If you want that bit of bawdy comedy, you have to buy the book, and with it you'll get many more poems with birds in them, as well as sharply outlined scenes of life here (England, for Merritt) and elsewhere that highlight the play of the desire to be in both places at once.

No comments: