Seeing Is Believing

Faber and Faber / ISBN: 9780571206674 / Published: 19 March, 2001 / Pages: 96pp / Price: £7.99

Reviewed by Laura Steele

The age of cardboard and string is, one immediately presumes, the age of those very small cats one does see sometimes often playing with string and jumping about in boxes. So it turns out, though it is not cats but children playing in a box.
Wait! We brought you back a secret,
but we're going to tell it to the zebras first -
the black one with stripes painted white,
the white one with stripes painted black,

who sleep on the landing,
leaving just enough room to squeeze by.
Most of the poems seem to slip past glancingly. The poem-equivalent of a polite cough, or when they do raise themselves up, they suddenly back down at the end, embarrassed, happy to be slight, and sometimes lightly melancholy in a bemused way. Whatever the poem was doing, it was all over before we got to the end - where the zebras, who have not appeared before, go to sleep is of little interest, other than that they are.

The most exciting moment in the book is when the poet licks someone's nipples while they read from "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." There's also a short poem about Jean Follain, and another one in which the glittering sea is described as "like the several million beating wings / of a plague of locusts heading inland." There is a whole series of poems which pick up on something amusing written by Stendhal, in order to extend it whimsically.

'The Break' plays on the idea that the break for adverts in the middle of the ITN news is actually the brief gap between life and after-life. After the canned laughter of a sitcom,
the doomy Big Ben toll of ITN news
came as a relief, in its way: bailiffs failing again

to evict protestors, frescos in Assissi damaged
(delivered, this, with a palpable sense
of affront) by small Italian earthquake.

The twins upstairs - the one bunched up,
the other splayed to the world, postures habitual
as signatures - slept on. A car's beams swept up

and through the room, and when I came back down
to you - that, and when We'll take a break now,
said Trevor, and after the break - the afterlife,

it seemed, could be this: this sitting around, late,
watching ads for panty liners and macho cars
and worrying what's to become

of the boys and girls in the trees tonight,
maybe wafted so high
by whatever they're on, their lives

of wind and wild berries, some poisonous, some not.
So the poem slips away, but then it slips back again with a nagging unsettled quality. Domestic peace - with its anxiety and care - as a detailed heaven? Or anguished vision that we're all dead already? What to make of the closing reflection on the "boys and girls in the trees" - and the last line, backing out with a remark on berries, daring you to read it as an ending at all.

Boyle notices a spelling mistake - "I pass by the row of horses on the north side of the square. Henry James was born in one of these..." - and he writes a poem about it; Boyle opens the Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry and notices his own name in the entry for 'The Wellington Group', "The term refers to a loose association of New Zealand poets in Wellington, in the years between 1950 and 1965 . . . Certainly James K. Baxter and Louis Johnson, both Wellington residents during the period, seemed to draw a number of poets around them: Alastair Campbell, for example, and the immigrants Peter Bland and Charles Boyle." So he writes a poem about it, which seems spectrally to be making fun of Doris Lessing and similar -
Remind me, Peter,

what was on the agenda - weren't we trying to prove a point
to the eggheads up in Auckland

about truth to experience, the sacredness
of where and when and who?

Since I returned to London in nineteen-whatever
to start all over, to write my bildungsroman

of a wild colonial boy
in the new Elizabethan age, I seem to have lost touch

almost with my own life: my children look at me
as if across a genetic barrier,

and did I really sleep with Miss South Island
'63, or was that something else

I made up for the c.v.? But sometimes, Peter,
after lunch with my agent

in a restaurant where not even the cloakroom attendant
pretends he knows me, I'm there again -

among the bottles and books and rhyming voices
in a draughty upstairs room

where James K. Baxter holds me on his knee.
I am four years old. I don't want to go to bed.
I think there's an enormous amount of poetry in the world which one can tolerate and enjoy reading once, and this book contains some of it.

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