Review ‘Somnia’ / Alan Baker for ‘Litter Magazine’

SOMNIA Knives, Forks, Spoons Press / Sep. 2019

“Somnia” by Maria Stadnicka, pub. KFS. 74pp. £10.00

Maria Stadnicka was an established poet in Romania before moving to the UK and gaining a reputation as an English-language poet. This collection is therefore resonant with European and modernist echoes; the text references Camus, Symborska and Emil Cioran, among others, and the influence of surrealism is evident throughout the collection. The poems are written in the plainest language, without much rhetorical embellishment; and yet, as in the best poetry, the meanings are hard to pin down and the poems have a depth of field which stays with the reader after the book has been put down. The poems address war and dislocation in an unnamed land which could be many places, but reminds the reader of the Balkans conflict of the 1990s. The encounter between everyday life and shock of conflict is presented in a dead-pan tone:

On both sides of the frontline,

orchards bloom.

People buy and sell goods,

occupy central squares…

Business as usual.

Gunshots, grenades, mortars.

(from “Landscape with Buses”)

Everyday scenes have a sinister air, enhanced by surreal imagery:

I went to town and took pictures

of people in queue at the shopping mall…

The sun kept in its corner and watched

the autumn busking indoors

when a beggar stopped, asking everyone

for directions to the nearest abattoir.

(from “Particulars”)

The poems are clearly ‘about’ something; the encounter between warfare and everyday, often banal scenes from normal life, and the trauma of flight and dislocation. But this is not plain reportage, and whatever political message it carries is delivered with a lightness of touch that doesn’t propagandise or browbeat the reader. On the contrary, these poems are understated and retain an air of mystery; they give us insights into lives and experiences that couldn’t be delivered in any other way except in poetry. They also encompass the guilt and powerlessness of those viewing events from a distance:

…to become responsible

for a bullet wound, though we have

no memory of ever using a gun,

in the name of each person wishing to be free.

(from “The Gift’s Legacy”)

Many contemporary poetry books have a ‘theme’ – maybe it’s something suggested in creative writing classes – and so often the theme becomes more important than the poetry, leading to predictable and programmatic writing. That’s not the case with “Somnia”. The poetry remains poetry, its light lyricism and pleasure in words defeating attempts at literal interpretation. Here’s the complete poem “Mundane Evil”:

There was a wake going on

in a floor crack. So much old wood

talked back in mother’s tongue

through the opening that I thought

to wait longer for the right moment

and then a close friend pointed out

the rupture took shape, got wider.

My womb coughed out pieces of rubble.

This is a strange poem. The last line could be seen as a metaphor for the perpetuation of violence from one generation to the next, but that’s only one interpretation, and in fact the line, and the whole poem, is elusive and mysterious and strangely compelling. The remarkable thing about this collection is that it tackles the very specific issues of violence, dislocation and trauma in language that is as elusive as that in the poem above. It is poetry rather than documentary.

Stadnicka is not a native English speaker, and it’s interesting to speculate on the properties of poetry written in a second language. In an email to the reviewer, Stadnicka had the following to say in this subject:

“I suppose … my poetry is ‘other than British.’ The metaphoric range is different, the feel might be different, even though I use the English language when I shape my poems.”

What might “other than British” mean? One thing already mentioned is the influence of European modernism and of surrealism, that latter being a movement that never really took firm hold in British culture (the poetry of David Gascoyne notwithstanding). Another feature might be the quality of the language. The flat tone and plain expression make the description of the subject matter that much more powerful and lacking in any sensationalism. There are no poeticisms, and that may be one of the benefits of coming to the language afresh, from a different linguistic basis. It’s hard to imagine someone raised in the UK having written poetry like this. In the same email, Stadnicka says:

“It is impossible to discuss my writing without considering the impact oppression and dictatorship had on me as an individual. Once you experienced life in an orphanage with children dying of AIDS, or you are woken up at midnight to take part in a practice drill for an eventual nuclear attack, once you experienced dictatorship, there is no turning back when writing.”

This is outside the experience of most UK-raised poets; it inevitably affects the poetry, and therefore adds something new to British poetry in addition to the cultural influences mentioned above.

The poems are short and have individual titles, but the collection has a broader architecture; it’s divided into four ‘movements in F minor’ and has an epilogue and a prologue. The overall book is dedicated “to Cain and Abel, and all their neighbours”. The prologue is in the form a witness testimony, and the epilogue is also addressed to “your Honour”. So the book – to put it grandly – is putting humanity on trial. The four movements have distinctive features. The first movement, allegro, introduces us to world of dislocation and conflict, in which “the bullet hits the edge of my book / then sinks into earth like a poem”. The second movement, largo, slows the pace down and shows us a more personal side to these experiences: “When I collected my father’s ashes… I thought to keep them hidden in a pencil case”. The third movement, scherzo, addresses the ways in which art confronts the experience of war; there is a poem called “Kafka”, and another, “Lieder for Two Pianos” in which “half-swallowed lullabies found you / growing hazel-eyed whispers inside my body”. The last section is called “finale” and deals with consequences:

         Orphans but free, the cloth says

then keeps talking to me

about the people I once loved,

who vanished during a blast

as if they had never existed.

If the description of the four movements above makes the collection seem formulaic, this is certainly not the case. This poetry is mysterious, and individual poems can have an almost spiritual effect, like  Zen koans or proverbs. In the last movement, the title poem “Somnia” gives us an executioner falling asleep “with his back against a sharp blade”. In this poem, the violence comes from sleep and dream, and therefore from the human sub-conscious. The poems throughout the collection have a dream-like quality, and despite their directness and plain-speaking – or maybe because of it – offer a sense of mystery, and psychological insight.

© Alan Baker 2020, ‘Litter Magazine’ 1st March 2020.

Somnia is available at Knives, Forks and Spoons Press and pre-order here.

 

Orbita – Reconfiguring Contemporary Dialogue

Orbita: The Project, Semyon Khanin, Sergej Timofeyev, Vladimir Svetlov, Artūrs Punte, translated by Kevin M.F. Platt with colab. (166pp., Arc Publications)

Orbita is a creative collective/group of Latvian poets writing in Russian which attempts and succeeds to reconfigure the contemporary dialogue between culture and creative genres. This refreshing poetry collection is an unpredictable Latvian cultural project rather than a straightforward poetry anthology; a cross between concrete poetry, poetry installation and art gallery.

In terms of historical anchors, Orbita invites me to revisit directions proposed by the Black Mountain School and then look back at the British movements like the Gloucester Movement, the Westminster Group and the Scottish group headed by Ian Hamilton Finlay. However, the achievement of this innovative and remarkable anthology comes from the precision with which the four poets define, as Tony Ward mentions in the preface, a cultural path ‘the UK poets of a half a century ago dreamed of but never achieved.’

Semion Khanin, Sergej Timofeyev, Vladimir Svetlov and Artūrs Punte write in Russian and their work is translated by Kevin Platt in collaboration with many other translators and academics. A mark of the project’s complexity and relevance, as well as its polyphonic orchestration.

In Orbita, nothing should be excluded; each poem, photograph, installation are equal attributes in an unitary aesthetic discourse. The humour is dark, with vibrant tones reflected in linguistic choices:

do not think he is homeless
he simply lost his keys
and for the past four months he’s been sleeping
in front of a furniture store.
(Semion Khanin, p 28)

Khanin sets the anthology’s visionary axiom placing the reader at the centre of his preoccupation, as both reader and poet are  ‘surrogate brothers and sisters / related by reason.’ (***, p. 18) His intention is to ‘tell you a story from when I was still a burglar’ (p. 19) but the story unfolds ‘in state of zero gravity’ when ‘motionless on the sofa / and everything within fogs up with your breathing’. (p. 30)

The deictic centre expands with Sergej Timofejev and becomes spatial deixis. The locative space is the world where:

a dog softly barks
at a passing cyclist.
With restraint, the weather grows worse
and the barn falls apart.
Water pours modestly from the tap
not splashing and disappearing in the drain almost at once’
and where during a radio interview ‘a pianist answers every question
with ‘yes’ and no.’
(‘Morning in a Land of Introverts’, p.35)

Timofejev’s preoccupation to formulate the daily existence’s boundaries emerges, indoor again, when observing the quotidian. The present is defined by isolation, routine and angst:

I got to my own place and went to bed.
Woke up in the morning; it was Monday; and I lay face down
On the pillow and waited, but nothing special was happening;
So I got up, showered and went to work.’
(‘Quiet God’, p.36-37)

And so is the literary world:

Write me a novel
That will tell of another novel
All the same I’ll read neither one nor the other –
I’ll depart for Manchuria and perish for nothing.’
(‘Popular Song for Ukulele’, p.45)

Vladimir Svetlov who focuses his poetics on the practical aspects of consumerism similarly negotiates this metaphysical drive:

like a gift for loyalty
to repeat customers
we have been given these days
(‘Hit Parade’ p.63)

Svetlov’s discourse is direct and urgent, placed as critical question about the meaning of our contemporary socio-cultural preoccupations: ‘have you noticed we use the word “to tell” about posts in FB?’ His irony poses a destabilizing threat to our hierarchy of values…[the full review, in Stride Magazine.]

©Maria Stadnicka, 2018