On Reviewing

I’ve recently added two reviews – Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler and All the Colours of the Town by Liam McIlvanney – to the ‘Reviews’ pages, with links to their online posting in the literary ezine, The Literateur Magazine. Out of these contemporary studies of the modern male, I much preferred Tyler’s wry character-driven story of retired teacher Liam Pennywell’s attempts to reconnect with his family to McIlvanney’s  plot-driven exposé of Scottish religious and political tensions as seen through the eyes of Gerry Conway, a hard-nosed journalist with a soft-centre.

I have to admit my partiality to Tyler’s fiction. I’ve read and enjoyed almost all of her books. Although there are gaps, such as The Tin Can Tree, I’ve read everything from A Slipping Down Life (1969; reissued by Vintage, 1990) to Digging to America (2006) and consider her Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1998) one of the best books ever written.

This is McIlvanney’s fictional debut but not the first time I’ve come across his work. In my ‘other life’ as academic researcher I’ve read and disagreed with his monologue, Burns the Radical: Politics and Poetry in late Eighteenth-Century Scotland (Tuckwell Press, 2002). In my ‘good reads’ review I gave it 3 stars: “McIlvanney’s book is thoroughly researched and well-written. He offers a lively new interpretation of many of Burns’s poems, well-known and the lesser known ones. It’s hard to agree with his views on Scottish contractarianism but that aside it’s a good addition to Burns scholarship.” 

My disagreement, such as it is, is with McIlvanney’s view of presbyterianism, the Enlightenment and how they affected Scottish society and not on his writing style.

Do I still have this in mind, though, when reading his fiction?

I worry whether my preference for Tyler over McIlvanney is down to gender? Would a male reader find the same things to disagree with in both texts?

Enjoy, but approach the reviews with all the above in mind.

On Reviewing III: poetry

the looking houseI reviewed Fred Marchant’s The Looking House (Graywolf Press, 2009) recently – a beautifully produced and eloquently argued collection. This slim volume of 66 pages is the equivalent to reading a novel of 250+ pages. It’s actually more than that, about three or even four times that amount because The Looking House is a collection that covers a range of topics, such as war, ageing, death, torture, and autobiography.

Poetry is a distillation of ideas. You have to enlarge the ideas, unpick them, see how they ‘work’ and make them up again before you can write about them. Writing a poetry review is like making a jigsaw. First, you look at the bigger picture.

I read The Looking House as a whole, in sections, and then individually, to work out if there was an overriding  theme or image and to get a sense of how they fitted together (if at all) and to get an idea of Marchant’s style and tone.

 Next, I separated the edges from the inside, or picked out certain elements, such as

1.  language – is it formal, colloquial, archaic, etc ?

2.  form  – how is arranged on the page, first as a collection (it’s in three sections with a ‘prologue-poem’), secondly, as poems, are they in  rhyming couplets,  narrative verse, sonnet-form, modern, set stanzas, etc ?

3. – description – does the poet use  metaphor, imagery, symbol, motif, etc?

I got a sense that Marchant’s tone changed. He becomes more strident as the collection goes on. By answering the question of why the tone changed I found I had a starting point to look at the whole collection. Because as he becomes more strident he also injects moments of light to create a paradox.

In The Looking House Marchant picks over his life and questions the decisions he made during the Viet Nam War. He reveals both how they impacted and still impact on his life and also on the lives of those around him. From his autobiographical experiences he also makes some strong points about the senselessness of war, of the abuse of power and about how decisions are made. As well as pondering on war Marchant also looks at the human condition. For all the bleakness and wretchedness in his poems, Marchant always finds that glimmer, that chink of hope in the hopelessness. He does it through recurring images, such as the ‘heron’ and through intertextual reference to other poems and poets, like GM Hopkins.

By unmaking Marchant’s collection I discovered his range and depth and startlingly unique poetic vision.

Here’s just one poem from the 35 in the collection:

‘Pickney Street’

A view from the crest of Boston to the river—

a walk and my friend stopping to say that

for three weeks each year

and beginning tomorrow

this will be the most

beautiful place in the city—

our respite in the brick-faced buildings

blushing in sunlight,

in star magnolias swelling,

about to burst into bright badges,

medallions of tangible life and light

the shook “foil” Hopkins wrote about—

the minutes we have of grandeur, hope, gratitude.

from The Looking House (2009), p. 60.

Click this LINK to the Graywolf Press page on The Looking House for more information about Marchant and his poetry.