Review by Alan Garvey
I don’t like rave reviews. I don’t trust them either – they’re usually written by friends / college mates / those who are looking-for favours or about the living great whose every written word seems to be momentous, a part of history and an object of study – which is why I’m asking you to make an exception and trust this. I was asked to review Old Men, Girls and Monsters by Peter Schwartz and I’m raving about it.
The book is constructed of two sections: first things first, the anonymous confessions, a sequence of twenty-four individual poems (each of eight lines written in couplets) where each poem seamlessly slopes into the next. If there is something which I might describe as a refrain, then it’s the listing of various articles; at times it’s almost as if Schwartz’s pen is spilling out of control, words all-a-tumble but it’s very tightly written, giving the sequence a powerful sense of cohesion, unifying the narrator’s concern across the series, in order to:
I name you: virgin scavenger, incubus
totem, threshold, pod, shrine, egg
clock, flag and scissors, lotus farm
I’ll name you anything that will let me
get closer to you.”
This involves the casting-off of inherited notions of divinity, “I’ve boxed / the worst of you next to my old toys / no matter how hard / you’ve played”. The use of lists is a simple poetic device but one that’s mishandled all too often – here, it’s used in the right places at the right times. The narrator’s voice is gentle but insistent in its cadences; the use of enjambment is not slick or clever-clever but consistent and certain. Nowhere does the language feel contrived or artificial. Schwartz’s manner of naming illustrates the immanence, plurality and many contradictions inherent within the nature of divinity, sometimes unusual and surprising but always appropriate. The circular nature of each contained section seems the most apposite structure to represent infinity, a snake eating its own tail in twenty-four sections.
Most of all, this series unfolds a language of loss and reconnection:
“I’ve sweat and salvaged the music
of your plastic plateau
played archivist to the here-
after of your soft lightning
and irredeemable thunder
I’ve built museums in
your absence to remember
There are wonderfully simple and clear images to be found, “you’ve left me / sick as a parachute / with no passenger” in “the penny / alleys and troubled corners of / our partial extinction”. Even though this sequence maps the latitudes of grief, there is a very real warmth and fondness permeating Schwartz’s writing throughout. He displays an adept and extremely relaxed facility with near rhyme, alternately using assonance and alliteration to imbue the sequence with a gentle harmony. The individual confessions of this sequence are not confessional (in the narrow solipsism we tend to associate with the phrase, rather its exact opposite) or even in the Roman Catholic tradition, rather they are songs that become hymns through their (un?)requited and profound yearning for understanding and acceptance within a spiritual framework. All of which makes anonymous confessions a substantial and noteworthy achievement.
The second part of the collection is formed of individual but inter-related poems such as artificial light, a meditation on being a writer, and much more than that, being a writer who reaches out to humanity in its all-encompassing and beautifully-flawed fragility where, “if we were / guilty it was only of being / aerodynamic, of being living catalogs” – a sense of letting so much fly past us in our slipstream yet at the same time trying to catch as much of this fleeting life as we can, Kafka’s handfuls of the stream.
In portraiture Schwartz makes free and easy with the sonnet form in a five-poem sequence – but that’s not to say he plays fast and loose with it, look closer and you see a very tight control, the sort of deceptively simple manoeuvrings of mastery. please don’t name that reservoir reminds me of a line written about The Brothers Karamazov, that it is such a strange book that it must hold an almost irrefutable and uncomfortable truth,
“…a reservoir of objects and objections, of near and far
reaching paralysis, of defiled ambiguity, voyeurism, puppet
games, preservatives, hot-and-cold
hatred, and silencers.
of drones, blurs and tiny murders
of hypocrisy, pollution and bad artifice
but it is also a reservoir of strange power
slow fermentation, chances and mercy.”
At this point I feel like a pedant, the worst sort of critic who is determined to find fault or flaw, something I didn’t like or thought could be improved within this collection so I’ll give it, just one, and it’s a fault in Schwartz’s consistency; his use, or omission in this case, of end-line commas – sometimes it just doesn’t scan – it can interrupt the flow and makes the reader stop where they shouldn’t need to stop, as in artificial light, where we read, “hourly guerrillas / reinvented cynics”, which can be read over the lines making no sense in the context of the poem, unlike most of the examples where it is impossible to do so. Told you, real nit-picking.
If I had the time I could easily and willingly write 1500 / 2000 words on every poem in Old Men, Girls and Monsters, there’s so much meaning packed into each and every line and phrase; the writing is extremely dense which is not to say that it is in any way impenetrable – it’s anything but, being clear and accessible, layered in its valences. Part of me doesn’t want to say that this is the best book of poetry, and not just new poetry, that I read in 2010 (and will continue to read for years to come) but it’s a very small, curmudgeonly part tipping its hat to the ancients and stolidly-established, tiny in comparison to that part of me which is delighted to be made aware of this most gracious and humane voice emerging in poetry. Old Men, Girls and Monsters is a beautifully-wrought reflection of what it is to be human, to be no more than one of those “haunted stars / in a box of aching heirlooms”.
The book can be bought on the following link: http://achilleschapbook.blogspot.com/2010/02/peter-schwartz-old-men-girls-and.html