Thursday, 26 August 2010

One language or two?

Just back from my latest trip to West Sussex, I've been catching up on reading and have encountered a thought-provoking piece by Michael Hofmann in the Guardian in which he discusses the value for a poet of speaking a second language. The following quote is central to his argument:

"We think and are and have our being in, and in and out of languages – and where's the joy and the richness, if you don't even have two to rub together? If you don't have another language, you are condemned to occupy the same positions, the same phrases, all your life. It's harder to outwit yourself, harder to doubt yourself, in just one language. It's harder to play."

Reading this article, I immediately recalled Larkin's Paris Review interview and his statement "A writer can have only one language, if language is going to mean anything to him."

In my early years in deepest Spain I was the only foreigner in town. Before internet access and cheap telephone calls, I would often go for two or three months without talking to a native speaker of English.

That period of my life was key to my development as a poet. It firstly forced me to get writing if I wanted to find an English-language outlet, but it also then provided a counterpoint for my previous experiences back in Blighty. My views of U.K. society and the English language were challenged and enriched by my immersion in Spain and Spanish. Thanks, Michael Hofmann, for reflecting that idea so well!

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Review: The Rain Diaries, by Rosie Garner

The Rain Diaries (Salt, 2010) might be Rosie Garner’s first collection, but it’s a book that’s steeped in life and poetic graft.

The work of many years is on show here, as is demonstrated by blasts from the past such as Iron magazine on the acknowledgements page. The poetry itself, meanwhile, backs that impression up. Never showy or flash, it earns our attention with honesty. By this I don’t mean anecdote, nor am I using critical shorthand for confessional verse. I’m referring to the way The Rain Diaries deals with emotions and events unflinchingly and thus involves the reader.

In one section of the book, for example, Garner invites us to accompany her on a journey that starts with an idiosyncratic depiction of a child’s conception on a campsite in “How To Begin a Person”:

“Take a night where the canvas rips,
where something stumbles outside in the dark
and plastic chairs somersault in sheeting rain…”

She leads us through children’s growing pains and on to scenes where those initial characters seem to reappear in very different circumstances, as in “Cleave”:

"…And so, at the end of the marriage,
clinging to the axe that found the line of weakness,
the fool of a woman,
this idiot man."

The strength of this journey is that its contradictions, inherent melancholy and even celebrations are juxtaposed and sequenced in such a way that we travel with Garner throughout. Her poetic generosity enables us to share and therefore be enriched by these pieces.

However, The Rain Diaries doesn’t just focus on the personal. Its honesty also extends to its sketches of other characters. These depictions aren’t built on flimsy imagery. Instead, they build up via scrupulous observation and understanding of social workings. A excellent example of this is “Football on Vernon Park”, in which a coach observes his Under Eights. The poem ends as follows:

"…You can see, in their cool appraisal of their game,
their shrugging acceptance of missed goals,
like shadows standing behind them,
the men they’ll grow into.
He watches from the centre,
almost smiles, sees them now."

Garner doesn’t stand aloof from her subjects: this astute poetry works by sharing their perspectives and consequently helping us to do so too.

In summary, The Rain Diaries is a very good book that shows the benefits of working away at a first collection over a lengthy period. Experience, both of life and verse, runs through every page. Rosie Garner’s achievement lies in gifting it to her readers.