Saturday, 2 February 2019

Book review: You Should Have Told Me We Have Nothing Left, Jessie Tu (2018)

This tiny book (12cm wide by 15cm high, 34 pages) containing poems that are largely about the domestic sphere of experience is of uneven quality. The title is clever because it sounds like something someone would say at the end of a relationship, but as soon as you hear it you understand why the other person had decided to call it a day. An alternative way to say the same thing would be to say nothing at all. Two of the poems in the book got my attention.

‘We make a tiny crease in the universe’ is written in the first person and it is focalised though the person of an author who writes novels. She is talking to a person who is presumably a man, and he plays an instrument in a band. Different sets of recounts of events alternate. One set is prefaced with “You sit me down and say …” and the other is prefaced with “I sit you down and say …” as though there were a conversation going on that takes a long time, possibly a period of years. The cognates used are domestic and ordinary but the way that the recounts alternate establishes the kind of dialogue that people use when they are talking about a relationship that has ended, and when accounts are being tallied of injustices and favours done by parties on both sides. It’s a neat little poem that goes on for two pages.

The second poem that appealed to me is titled ‘The hotel’ and it tells part of the story of a woman who has gone to a hotel to meet someone, presumably a lover, with a suitcase that is too heavy for her to easily carry. She gets to the building’s front door but the automatic mechanism operating the door does not open for her at first until she works out what she has to do to make it work. When she does it’s something of an epiphany, and this has resonances that filter through the rest of the lines. It’s a very good poem that has a single point of focus but that encapsulates within its purview a lot of backstory, using a few words.

Tu has a certain economy of style in her poetry but it doesn’t always work as well as it does in the two poems mentioned above. In other cases, the referents are so unclear as to prevent full comprehension. This kind of shorthand is unfortunately not just limited to Tu, other poets do the same sort of thing and it’s a shame. This kind of writing is part of modern poetry and you find the same problem even in well-known poets. I found it to be a problem with the poems of Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize winner, and I have come across the same failing in other books of poetry in recent years.

It is a failure of a particularly fundamental sort, as poetry by its very nature relies on apparently casual congruities for the creation of meaning. But you can’t afford to lose the reader. Subtle consonances and juxtapositions of referents set up vibrations of meaning in the best poems, but if there’s no comprehensible story and the poetry itself is just lacking you can end up with gibberish. It’s a very delicate thing indeed.

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