The Facts by Therese Lloyd (Victoria University Press, 2018), $25; Punctuation by Rogelio Guedea, with translations by Roger Hickin (Cold Hub Press, 2017), 48 pp., $25
If you favour a kind of poetry that behaves itself, that plays it safe by treating difficult subjects with kid gloves and always opts for easy resolution, The Facts is not the book for you. It is brutal, disquieting, and in parts downright heartbreaking. It is also unflinchingly honest, intelligent, wise and beautiful. Therese Lloyd’s second full-length collection is the creative component of her doctoral submission, a dissertation on ekphrastic practices in the work of Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson.
In the notes to the collection Lloyd writes, ‘Quotations from several of her books and a liberal borrowing of some of her rhetorical strategies are threaded throughout The Facts.’ I’m somewhat late to the party as a reader of Carson. I’ve only read two of her books: Beauty of the Husband and Float, and therefore I was worried that the extent of her borrowing was likely to be lost on me. Thankfully Lloyd is mindful not to obfuscate the traces for her readers; she leaves us many clues. Just as the figure of Eros is something of a pet obsession for Carson, in many of the poems in The Facts we are shown the kind of emotional turmoil that can be wrought in the life of someone hit by his arrows. Let us not forget Eros is blind. He is also (according to Hesiod) the son of Chaos. We all walk the earth as his moving targets.
The book is divided into three sections (Time, Desire, Absence) and prefaced with a mysterious proem, built around the striking image of a pinned butterfly freeing itself from the velvet lining of a specimen display case. It also reveals the author’s intention to write, not from a place of fear, but one of hope. A brave and humane place to commence from, given the majority of the book charts the dissolution of a marriage. But that is not all the book is about. We also find God and art in these poems. I hope I’m right in saying that God is to be found here in the sanctity of making and responding to art:
I moved all the holiday reading
to the spare room
to keep the literature and art books
(‘Mr Anne Carson’)
What do we do when we serve?
Offer little things
as stand-ins for ourselves
I quote here the first stanza of an early poem in the book, entitled ‘Blindsided’, because I believe it provides the reader with a possible entry point into the theoretical concerns of the poems:
Anne Carson says that eros makes her blind.
Despite the height, she gains no view from the balcony of
her writing studio –
trapped inside her like some kind of riddle
is the triangle of desire – a distinct shape, constructed forever
of three sides: desire, lack, desiring lack.
It makes less sense each time she thinks of it.
What is eros anyway apart from sore backwards?
Notice the decapitalisation of the proper noun ‘Eros’. In doing this, Lloyd (like Carson before her) has transfigured Eros from a mythical entity into a tangible psychological condition, or affliction – one we are all susceptible and vulnerable to. Among Lloyd’s many gifts as a poet are the pertinent timing and freshness of her humour (how good is that last line of the quoted stanza), which can act as a necessary counterfoil to the often difficult content of her poems. Carson’s triangle of desire occurs again in the titular poem of the collection:
Carson tells us exactly what desire is, and isn’t.
It isn’t love letters received and replied to. It isn’t
first and second dates. It isn’t
meeting family members and weekend trips.
It isn’t even passion.
It is a blackened triangle of three equal sides.
It holds its shape in a clutch of fear and longing.
It woos and shames and gnaws. It beats
a retreat at the first sign of failure
only to return the next day for more of the same.
It is a perfect lack of abundance and an abundant lack
When we met,
the triangle collapsed.
The poems seem to triangulate the relationship between the poet, the theory and praxis of art, and an ‘other’. Lloyd’s poems bravely show us how we negotiate the absence of that other, and how to prepare ourselves for its return. At times, some of her images approach the austere consubstantiality found in Beckett’s poetry. Get a load of some of these beauties: ‘the exploding doneness of the pōhutakawa’ (‘Pastoral’); ‘My humanness gives me dark thoughts / of cruel behaviour’ (‘Y2K’).
Aside from Carson, many other tutelary spirits have guided Lloyd through the writing of The Facts. We find the wisdom of John Cage, Jorie Graham and Jack Spicer. I find it endearing when a poet connects their work to others, and this sentiment is perhaps best expressed in a quotation Lloyd has lifted from Jack Spicer:
Poems should echo and reecho against each other … They
cannot live alone any more than we can.
The Facts is (among many other things) a poetry of survival: one of endurance, and ultimately, of transcendence. If transcendence occurs within a poem, it has most likely occurred within that poem’s maker. Many times I was reminded of the poet Donald Revell’s line, ‘An opened eye opens the heart.’ There is no bitterness or blame to be found in these poems, only an enduring and transformative love – a rare accomplishment in confessional poetry
Rogelio Guedea could easily pass for a character in one of Roberto Bolaño’s elaborate fictions. A celebrated crime novelist, poet, journalist and academic who spent a decade teaching Spanish at a university in the lower antipodes, Guedea produces a dizzying output. His bio note tells us he is ‘the author of more than fifty books of poetry, narrative, interviews and translations’. I’ve long been a reader (and sometime poor translator) of Latin American poetry. I admire the unabashed romanticism, the ad hoc surrealism, and the fearless (often life-threateningly dangerous) political consciousness expressed. Poetry in these parts of the world, it seems, is as vital to life as air and bread and butter.
Punctuation is a bilingual collection of twenty-one poems, gracefully translated into English by poet/translator and publisher of Cold Hub Press, Roger Hickin. Guedea writes in a simple, declarative language. Reading him, I’m reminded of the same emotive power found in the late Jack Gilbert’s work. And while philosophical in nature, these are deeply felt, accessible poems:
I have nothing in my hands
and yet all things
I have nothing in my heart
and yet in my heart
who do not suffer.
There is a hand that writes our
story from somewhere else.
Even if we hide under a table
or under the bed, our story written
by that hand will go on being written, regardless.
In one of the collection’s bravest poems, ‘The dead of Colima’, Guedea addresses the political corruption in his homeland and the genocidal murders perpetrated by drug cartels, members of which the government both empowers and seems powerless to stop:
If we lined up all the dead who’ve been murdered in Colima in the last four months,
the head of each one touching the feet of the next
et cetera, et cetera,
there would be enough of them to encircle the whole state,
as if they were a wall or a rampart.
This is exactly the kind of unflinching commitment to exposing political injustices as found in the works of Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo and Ernesto Cardenal. Guedea’s lines show a measure of restraint too, even when the emotion guiding the poem is anger, as evinced in the poem’s concluding lines:
Many things can be made with death, it seems:
walls and ramparts, bridges, ladders, strikes and protests.
Perhaps that’s why nobody does a damn thing to stop it.
Guedea is mindful of the futility of the poetic moment to define reality in words. Many poems are concerned with the implicit gap between experience and language:
My words seek reality
but only sometimes does reality seek my words.
What reality is is not well known
nor is what my words are made of,
but sometimes my words and reality are found
in a place that resembles my body.
(‘Words and reality’)
Still, other poems infer that the source of poetry is some external, and at times intangible, force:
The word is full of the infinite:
or at least of a measure
made from something higher
than the clouds.
But this is a love poem, too. And this perhaps is where Guedea is at his finest – deftly tethering his metaphysical concerns to the world of the actual:
Perhaps that’s why when I write your name
the world shimmers.
Perhaps that’s why when I let
a few of my words fall
on your shore
I’m hesitant to draw comparisons between Guedea’s and Lloyd’s books because they are so different, but both authors seem to be guided by a need to set down their unique poetic truths with honesty and empathy. Both have succeeded in this pursuit, and our poetry is richer because of it.
MICHAEL STEVEN works as an electrician. He is the author of Walking to Jutland Street (Otago University Press, 2018). He lives in West Auckland with his partner and baby son.