Wednesday, March 17, 2010

These Days by Leontia Flynn

Leontia Flynn’s These Days is an exciting book. The opening poem, “Naming It” not only does the work of placing her immediately, but not subordinately, in the realm of Longley/MacNeice and their concern with lists and names of things, but grounds the collection in its self-deprecatory and curious voice that is comparable to no other writer I can think of. Granted, Jen Hadfield springs to mind, particularly in their interest in Morgan, but Flynn is far more steeped in urban (suburban?) life, more wrapped up in the elaborate mundanity of being (variously) a student, a godmother, a waiter, a lover, and – very strikingly – a clued-in reader of poetry. There is a cluster of four poems, “When I was Sixteen I met Seamus Heaney” (“I had read The Poor Mouth – but who was Seamus Heaney?”), “My Dream Mentor” (“don’t write about anything you can point at”), “Snow” and what feels like its partner poem, “Nocturne” (“Whaddya mean already written? What? / Louis? Louis who?”), that make up something not unlike a centrepiece to the collection, a kind of hub from which the others radiate. Behind the humour is a playful up yours to her poetic forebears, a desire to evade the long shadows of Heaney and the rest. Flynn handles her influences lightly – besides the impulse to name and include everything, she also adapts Longley’s preoccupation with extremely short poems: “Doyne”, “Bridges”, “April, 7 P.M.” and “The Morning After Ruth’s Going-away Party” all clock in at six lines or under, while the book's first twenty-four are variations on the Longleyean ten-liner, in which his otters and herons are subbed for pints and pick-up lines. They are no less lyrical or gracefully poised for the change in subject matter. The collection is also littered with poems of one or two long, syntactically complex sentences that throw the reader off at odd angles. Look at “The Furthest Distances I’ve Travelled” – “why, if I’m stuffing smalls / hastily into a holdall, I am less likely / to be catching a Greyhound from Madison to Milwaukee // than to be doing some overdue laundry / is really beyond me.” Lingering only briefly on how sumptuous a platter of rhymes is likely/Milwaukee/laundry/beyond me, this poem is probably the best, or at least most memorable, of the collection, and bears a closer look.

It cracks off with “Like many folk”. This is a lie. Leontia Flynn is not like many folk, no matter how she might try and signal it. The poem’s delicate play with rhymes, line-breaks/lengths, its exotic vocabulary of places (“Krakow / and Zagreb, or the Siberian white / cells of scattered airports”) make it tricky to take everything in at the first go – the impression remains of a landscape shrinking, becoming intimate, finding uncommon nooks and hideyholes after the initial motions toward escape and dispersal and anonymity. That the poem breaks that particular word over a line doesn’t seem like a cheeky reach for rhyme – “anony / mity” feels rejected as a concept in what becomes a strong tribute to home, however mutable that concept might become during the poet’s “routine evictions”. The last few stanzas are the most formally consistent in the poem, and look and sound more recognisably like metric quatrains than the slippery early ones. Here they are in full, again, just two sentences draped over multiple lines:

when, during routine evictions, I discover

alien pants, cinema stubs, the throwaway
comment – on a Post-it – or a tiny stowaway
pressed flower amid bottom drawers,
I know these are my souvenirs

and, from these crushed valentines, this unravelled
sports sock, that the furthest distances I’ve travelled
have been those between people. And what survives
of holidaying briefly in their lives.

“[A]lien pants” might be my favourite thing in any poem. While you could argue that the last couplet sounds just a touch neat, I think it earns it. It feels more like an addendum – the full stop (rather than a comma) after “people” should be the end of the poem, but it keeps going, makes room for the scraps and physical memories of time spent trying to escape.

The collection has a heap of great moments. On the other hand, the brevity of each individual poem (and maybe the collection itself – 54 pages) makes it feel occasionally, if only momentarily, bitty or shallow, or lacking in broader significance. But Flynn seems alert to this as a potential difficulty – in “Satis House” she describes “[her] usual gift for avoiding ‘the issues’ with humour” – and provides too engaging and energetic a voice, too various a critical mind to let these instances detract from the book at large. Who knows what’s coming next?

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