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Timing
Anne Rouse








Timing
Anne Rouse
Bloodaxe
Newcastle upon Tyne 1997
64pp
£6.95 1 85224 404 6




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This is a true story: a poetry editor once told me that as a way of speeding up the process of sifting through new work he would give a stack of manuscripts to his secretary, with the instruction that any poem using a given word should be discarded; one month, that unfortunate shibboleth was ‘shard(s)’. Unfair? is ‘shards’ a ridiculous word? What is the moral of this story? Callous and cynical editor deals arbitrarily with the painstaking work of abused poets, perhaps? Or: poor, put-upon editor acknowledges the plight of new writers in seeking to efface himself from a process he knows to be painfully subjective? Or even: poetic diction has a brief shelflife; once a word has had currency, it must change itself by ironic or other means, or else risk belatedness and parody?

It’s embarrassing, at any rate, to come across the word ‘shards’ in Anne Rouse’s poem ‘Skirmish’. The word triggers for me a private readerly embarrassment, in which I catch something of the troubled cynicism of the said editor, and something of his cavalier humour also. There is a problem of diction in this collection; my unproven allegation is that Anne Rouse lapses on occasion into ‘poetic’ diction. Self-consciously meaningful epithets like ‘neural, giddy, ecstatic’ are redolent of strain. ‘Skeins’ and ‘caul’ could well be further evidence. Also ‘fragmentary’; consider these lines from ‘Blitz’:

‘In ’41 it got so bad
every city morgue was full.
We couldn’t unload our lot,
burned most of ’em, poor
buggers, and fragmentary.

That fifth line of the poem appears to me to switch from hunched, grimly humorous, salt-of-the-earth wartime Cockney to late 1990s poet over the space of one comma. Anne Rouse is an American who has lived in England for a long time; but the attempts here at English vernacular are horribly strained. I cringe to read ‘Gissa quid‘ and ‘Yeah, cheers mate’. Dramatic occasion, in either first or second person narration can likewise be mannered and stagey: ‘I guard a temple that is bare’; ‘The walkers swerve around you.’

What is subsequently interesting about the poem ‘Blitz’, however, is its sense of the body – the deconstituted body-parts shaking and rattling in improvised lumber-room storage. Materials, stuff. The body is in sharp focus in many of the poems from Timing; the body as a thing in process, a thing in motion. In particular, Rouse has a fine sense of the body’s relationship with time, the somatic often brushing shoulders with the temporal, (living) corpses with clocks. The body in Rouse’s poetry registers the uneven pressures of the moment, measures and is measured by: epiphanies, shouts, orgasms, haircuts. Its ineluctable decay is read both with brutality and with tenderness. In a startling poem from a death, ‘Testament’, Rouse gives voice to a postmortem sensation, as a woman imagines her own cremation:

My leaving do’s a blast, a whirl,
I’m a party-girl,

Nude and ablaze like a tree,
one spectacular xray.

‘A party-girl’ – wonderful; I wish there was more writing like this in the collection. The satirical voice in Timing is nothing like as good; there is some feebly belated satirical poetry here – on the cult of celebrity, on the use of sex in advertising, on oversexed but underperforming men. And yet possibly the most distinctive poem here, ‘Spunk Talking’ (which the backcover blurb says began life as a performance piece) breaks out of the stagnation of spent satire with a yawp of joyful, lyrical hooliganism:

Before time began the void revolved, as smooth and bored
as an egg, when a tiny ragged crack appeared,
and the world exploded like an umpire’s shout,
as the primal spunk of the cosmos bellowed OUT.

Like Gillian Ferguson, Anne Rouse contributed poems to Maura Dooley’s Bloodaxe anthology Making for Planet Alice; unlike Ferguson, I feel she is still in the process of developing a voice. Timing, Rouse’s second collection, is uneven and anxious, very much devoted to the pursuit of voice or voices. None of the ventriloquistic pieces here seem to me to step out of the poet’s regular lyrical-dramatic ‘I’; yet in this ‘I’ there is much which is received and undistinctive. Part of the joy of that ‘OUT’ quoted above is that it marks a moment of escape, a little victory over the more constrained and constraining style of the collection at large.

Reviewed by Michael Bradshaw

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