Thursday, 29 March 2012

Review: The Probabilities of Balance, by Stephen Payne

I first came across Stephen Payne's work in Issue One of New Walk. I remember encountering a lot of excellent poetry in the magazine, much of it by well-known names, but Payne's poem, titled Journey Home, stood out for me. It enabled the reader to grasp a new truth that seemed obvious once it had been revealed, and that is a quality that I very much admire in poetry.

I was consequently keen to read Payne's Smiths Knoll pamphlet, The Probabilities of Balance, and it didn't disappoint. His background in science (with a job as Professor of Human-Centric Systems at the University of Bath) plays an interesting role in the book, informing his work, but more of a counterpoint to experience than as an invasive presence. By this, I mean that Payne seems at his best when juxtaposing dispassionate observation with the vulnerability of feeling, as in Dyslexia:

A hard thing to explain to an eight-year-old.
How to lift from everything we know
a clutch of truths by which he'll be consoled.
I keep to what it doesn't mean, name
the famous cases. Hard to answer no
when he asks quietly, Are you the same?

Throughout the poem there's an intriguing interplay between an analytical, scientific perspective and implicit doubts over just how "truths" and "explanations" can be defined when applied to the often inexplicable and unscientific nature of human experience and interaction. All this effect is especially heightened by the presence of a child's viewpoint.

Payne's verse may be rooted in the everyday, but it's constantly looking beyond, playing off what can be calculated and what can't, as in Infant Weight:

...I paused, let the feel of your infant weight
fill my mind, so as to take the measure,
knowing the moment held in that one thought
I'd carry with me everywhere thereafter.

The poet is again inviting comparisons between what can be exactly measured in terms of pounds and ounces (the infant's physical weight) and what cannot (the significance of the moment).

Stephen Payne's The Probabilities of Balance is a throught-provoking read. As explained above, I feel he has an idiosyncratic, subtle and eye-opening way of exploring the role of science in our lives. Never hectoring, his technique develops poems gradually.They reveal themselves to the reader bit by bit, rewarding repeated readings more than the grabbing of individual quotes. I very much look forward to seeing more of his work in the future.

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