Your Guilt Is A Miracle by Ryan Dobran

Reviewed by Stuart Calton

Your Guilt Is A Miracle, Bad Press, 2008, £4.50

Ryan Dobran’s Your Guilt Is A Miracle comprises 17 poems. They are for the most part relatively short and dense, with only one exceeding a single A5 page in length. The majority are fixed in a serrated form, not strictly adhered to, but stable, with local variations of indentation.

The remainder are shorter still (the shortest 17 words in length) and held in a freer form, ornate and gnomic. They draw their interest from the careful placement of small words (predominantly monosyllabic) in varied winding forms across the space of the page, and from the counterpoint between these aerated forms and their blockier, chewier neighbours. They convey the impression of two distinct voices, reports from two distinct sites. As in Astrophil and Stella (from whence the epigram is taken) the counterpoint between contrasting forms holds the sequence taut. It’s a neat strategy, one that pays immediate formal dividends, lending the volume a kind of stately, plotted grace.

Changes in poetic tone generally impact locally, rather than being sounded across the whole volume as form. So a fragrant turn of phrase such as “to soften the aleatory by which meant as / sure as lite errancy” runs into the more speech-like “but nowhere really have you / the whole tour on mug”. Some of the longer poems contain stretches of monosyllabic speed which lay across the lyrical waviness like hair straighteners, a hot bar of heightened tension:

“to be less then not what you and no nor
             of what we fine less than the pair”

There is considerable local turbulence, yet the overall tone is one of relative stability, rarely does the spike of an incongruous term threaten to puncture the surface of the language (‘though “your doing blunt can / drive a fuckin car” comes close). And whilst the syntax is frequently conflicted and ambiguous, possible meanings slide and become elided rather than cutting each other off or generating the kind of eruptions that dramatically upend or derail the experience of reading. Typically, spikes of pressure are ironed out by each poems resolution. Many of the poems narrow to a resonant phrase, closing themselves up, rounding themselves off, bracketing themselves into discreet units in a manner redolent of White Stones era J.H. Prynne: “the glossy jar tanked in the bit”, “work to your detour”, “crisp as an elevated entry”.

The book opens, the epitome of in medias res, “Now”. The opening poem closes, again with “now”, as if the poet were steadying his thoughts and laying out the scope of his endeavor: “of violence now in discussion.” In between it begins to set up parallel sites where this violence may play out as “cozy stereo points of rest” are “no longer sought”, instead giving way to “the double hammer” and later “the twin pistons”.

Despite this opening promise, overt violence (“the brutal flicker on the estate tube” as one poem puts it) doesn’t figure in most of these poems. Where we might expect smashed words, busted syntax and hacked passages of war-talk, instead we find a trail of inexplicit pointers: “incision”, “splinter”, “punch in your offer”, “the cudgel / of our arraignment”, none of which strikingly disturbs the rolling out of these verses as verses. There is little of the discomfort with writing as “literature”, that is a defining characteristic of much new poetry. There are, for example, none of the split words, neologisms and noise (visual and sonic) that characterize violence in, say, Sean Bonney’s work. There is something in the controlled resolve and reserve of these poems that suggest these effects are consciously refused, rather than simply not chosen. These poems deny themselves those more demonstrative freedoms, so that the violence is made fugitive and appears in its strong form only at moments of formal importance, high-water-marks of tension in the book.

One of these moments is the thirteenth poem, one of the key poems in the book. Poem thirteen is a nasty piece of work. It drops bone splinters and cordite as it spins out across the page: “trauma... cast into the skin” and “startled ancestors” hint darkly at inter-tribal or inter-racial tension. Elsewhere Dobran reconfigures damaged goods, invasion and stabbing into a mordant shop-notice: “no returns but sharp re-entry”. In one of the most memorable passages, spittle figures as bullet-spray, the saliva that encases the words peels off as shrapnel:

...charged in mouth, hands instant
off or strips of cored likeness all voluble lobes
             the spit curdling against the tongue leaks
to warring spray factions inchoate
             as blind curs with presumption tidying
the worn edges of windshields...

We pass from this longest poem, the chaotic summit of the book, to the shortest. It reads, in full:
Do not same
             held in agate
      as had led you
                       holding loose
             but still
             hello shouters.
This is more-or-less characteristic of the shorter poems. Syntactically, they cohere around an implied core of conventional sense making, but gently reveal themselves as broken up. They open up a space in the book. They unfold in slow-motion down the page, uncovering glimpses of argument or narrative line, suggesting missing links through their line-breaks.

Back in serrated form, the final poem rolls out in metaphors of transformation, exchange and return. The violence is reflexive, liable always to stretch behind and in front, and to bend back to strike the striker. The “brutal flicker” is built in from the first flame. All targets are “pretargets”, blows issue (or “reissue”) from “receipt fists”, and “terror” is not just wrought but “restitut[ed]”: business as usual. But restitution also means, of course, giving an equivalent for any loss. Terror as restitution for loss: “the twin pistons / avenge the catacombs” blindly, loss blotting out all reflection, “contention purged from rage”.

Your Guilt Is A Miracle refuses to give up its haul easily. It’s not unusual in that, we are used to modern poetry’s particular difficulty. Where it is unusual is in its restrained potency, it refuses to sit up and perform for the reader, it takes its own path firmly, regardless of the expectations placed upon it. It is, in this sense only, quite sedate. But we must scratch any period-drama-drawing-room connotations: this is tightly-wrought work, coiled and buzzing precisely because it holds itself in abeyance, simmering but refusing to boil over, on its guard.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

  • Twitter
  • Intercapillary Places (Events Series)
  • Publication Series
  • Newsreader Feed