Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Paraphernalia by Joanne Limburg (Bloodaxe, 2007): a first sharp look

I still haven't finished that Polley review. It's not some gleaming epic. I just can't seem to get my thoughts about Little Gods into any sort of coherent shape at the moment. It's probably the house move looming, all the tedious arrangements I have to tackle, such as actually finding us somewhere to live. Right now, anything that takes me too far away from my desk is a complete pain in the fundament. And moving house certainly comes into that category.

However, I received a copy of Joanne Limburg's second collection with Bloodaxe today. It's entitled Paraphernalia and is a handsome book with a cheery-looking cover painting by Liz Knox, a domestic scene featuring a kitchen table, but one suggestive of clutter and disarray. I'll probably look at it again in some depth next month, when perhaps hidden virtues may be revealed, but on a first read-through the book has proved disappointing enough to merit comment straightaway.

If this was a first book, I might be inclined to say, well, these poems are rough around the edges and a little dull, but she's not untalented and will no doubt improve. But Joanne Limburg started writing poetry at roughly the same time as I did, about ten years ago. And, to complicate matters, 'Paraphernalia' is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. Which leaves me utterly astonished, when I can find lines of the following standard throughout this collection:

Every two hours,
20 by cup,
a little of me,
a note on a chart.

This is from a poem called Milk, about expressing milk to breast-feed a baby. It is by no means an unusual example of Joanne Limburg's work, nor is that topic unusual in a collection dominated by highly personal and domestic poems written so flatly and repetitively that I wonder whether the PBS were looking at the same book.

Perhaps it's intended to be light or comic verse. That might be possible, though I didn't personally find any of these poems funny. But I find it hard to believe that this is meant to be comic verse, as Limburg's poems - especially as you move further into the book - seem pervaded by an ever-deepening sense of malaise and disconnection from reality.

I take no pleasure in not being able to praise this book. Normally I would sidestep the review rather than write something very superficial, feeling unable to say anything positive about the book. Some of you may even be surprised to learn that I no longer possess the same taste for the jugular that got me into so much trouble back in the nineties.

But not wishing to be unkind doesn't mean I can't question the bestowing of a PBS Recommendation on a collection as weak as this. I am a member of the PBS and I don't expect to pay them a tidy sum of money every year only to be sent 'recommended' books through the post which I would put back on the shelf in a bookshop. And, after all, their website declares that 'The PBS offers the best new contemporary poetry to its members.'

Now, I'm perfectly open to hearing opposing points of view about 'Paraphernalia': indeed, I would welcome a debate on the book's merits. And I understand that all these PBS choices must be personal - that's a given in a highly subjective field like poetry - but I'd still be interested to know which selecting poets approved so highly of the poems from which the following extracts are taken, and precisely why:

One trip to the bin is all he needs
to put the lid on a season of chaos.
Now tell me that isn't better! It's better.

(final stanza of 'The Man Who Tidied His Wife's Handbag')


I have no mind for anything
but you and the gunge in the sink.

(from 'Nimbostratus')


Of course I could still change things - get off this sofa
and, you know, really do something about it.

(from 'Bubble')


O Night and Silence
why should I complain?

For though I am empty, and pale as veal,
surely your servants are good.

(from 'Psalm')


Despite our attempts
to resolve this matter
you fail to give us
the right response.

We are forced
to take action.

Now we are coming
to cut off your phone
to cut off your power
to cut off your water
to sever your every connection.

(from ATTENTION!, the title underlined and in capitals, a poem 'generated' by unpleasant letters the poet received by mistake from a mobile phone company, which were then apparently 'blend[ed] with a Cherokee "Spell to Destroy Life"' to produce this poem: I apologise for not being able to slightly indent the final lines as they appear in the book)


We shall not win security
by offering vermin security.

Sit back. Relax. Our marshals are trained
to handle cabin security.

Through the hissing fast flow teat
he's drinking in security.

(from "Security!", which repeats this end rhyme pattern for 9 couplets, possibly a 'ghazal', possibly not. If anyone knows the correct name for this poetic form, please leave a comment below.)


There was a husband - I suppose he left.
Now I'm poor, and sad, and home with mother.
I trudge between my bedroom, and the toilet,
don't even go downstairs until it's late.
I can't be bothered working for my 'A' Levels,
but if I fail again they'll keep the baby.

(from 'Late', a poem of 7 stanzas in the same voice, which is so consistently flat and prose-like that it makes me wonder why Limburg would choose to include it in her collection and why her editor didn't intervene. Perhaps they thought the drearily PC subject matter was enough to warrant its inclusion.)


Yes: I use this service.
No: no contact at all.
Always the minimum payment.
My signal is faint to poor.

Often: I think it's important.
My skin is slightly dry.
Whichever is the softer.
Citrus is better than pine.

(from 'Respondent': the conceit is explained by the title. It's an old trick, not particularly amusing, and although I hear and cheerily applaud many similar poems every month from open mic poets, it's hardly the standard of work I expect from a PBS Recommended Bloodaxe collection. Or is it?)


I'll stop there. I've had personal contact with Joanne Limburg, who is a perfectly delightful person, and I genuinely wish her all the very best with her writing. I am also convinced that many people will be fans of her work, otherwise she would not have got this far.

But when I read new poetry - particularly, perhaps, when I read other women poets, who have so much lost time to make up - I look for the hard, the ambitious, the unusual, the challenging, the witty, the powerful, the undaunted. So I am naturally disappointed when I find a collection by a woman poet of reasonable prominence which has been singled out for praise as Limburg's Paraphernalia has, yet which appears to possess little to recommend itself beyond a certain wacky modern sensibility and a taste for quirky, repetitively rhymed poems - I counted six poems in total which use the same couplet and end rhyme pattern throughout, a trick which soon palls. Where is the challenge in all this, where is the ambition?

Let me be clear. I am not looking to be needlessly unpleasant here, to trash Joanne Limburg's latest collection for my own purposes. When I get a new book like this, I turn to it eagerly, hoping to be excited and inspired. I desperately want to find strong mainstream women poets with whom I can identify and from whom I can learn. The fact that I'm still struggling to do so after ten years in poetry is one of the quiet everyday despairs of my life. So when I implore women poets like Joanne Limburg to be more inventive, more ambitious and more creatively independent in their poetry, I am also reminding myself of the gap between my own aspirations and the reality of my work.


Bo said...

Interesting. The sections you quoted were indeed weak, in my opinion. Ever read any Gwyneth Lewis? She's good. Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, too. (Forgive my Celtic bias!).
Hope the move's going well!

Bo said...

And good God we share a lot of books....

Jane Holland said...

I know! Well, probably the astrological ones more than anything else, except perhaps poetry ... and I haven't actually got round to loading anything other than the most obvious books that struck me as I was typing. It took me several minutes to recall Stephen Arroyo's name - one of my all-time favourites. God, then there's all that medieval and Celtic stuff too. We'll be sharing a sort of print umbilical by the time I finish loading my library in to the database ... which could take some time.

Hi, by the way!


N.B. For bewildered readers, we're discussing LibraryThing, the new blogger's craze, to be found in the sidebar of this site.

Jane Holland said...

I heard Nuala read once but couldn't afford her book at the time. She was very good, yes. I have a Gwyneth Lewis lurking somewhere. May have packed her already (moving house). I don't remember being bowled over by her work though. Gentle lyricism? You know me. If it's not pure, raw, visceral poetry, the sort that shoots you in the back while you're trying to get away as fast as possible, I'm not interested ...


Bo said...

No I thought they were quite raw, myself. She did a good line in which she noticed that people in bombings and disasters always seem to lose their shoes, and end up sitting on the pavement wearing 'blood slippers'.


Jane Holland said...

Ugh, yes, that isn't gentle, is it? I can see I must reassess Gwyneth Lewis, which is a bit of a mouthful.

You should join the Poem forum. I could do with an ally. Except you're always disagreeing with my opinions. Hmmm. Maybe not then.


Bo said...

lol! I agree with you most of the time! Where do I go?

Ms Baroque said...


Maybe I'll stop agreeing with you all the time if that's how you feel!

I'm about to quote part of this post, btw. I mean, not this minute...

Jane Holland said...

You just go to and click anything that says Discussion, then Register as a member once you reach the forum. The forum's a bit mad though and is always refusing to load, and people sometimes fail to get activation emails when they apply to become members. But it's worth a shot!

We're all great friends there, naturally, but it's best to take some sort of weapon in with you, just in case everything suddenly kicks off.

Like the Green Knight's holly club. That should shut 'em up.


Jane Holland said...

After all these exchanges, I think perhaps some introductions are in order:

Ms. Baroque, meet Bo, dear friend from Oxford days.

Bo, meet Ms. Baroque, dear friend from London poetry scene.


Jane Holland: Editor said...

Okay guys, Joanne Limburg has been hitting the MySpace messenger and would like me to confirm that the repeated-rhyme couplets form she uses so frequently in Paraphernalia is indeed a 'ghazal'. It seemed likely to be that particular form from my Googling, but she has said yes, indeed it is. She enjoys using the form and finds it as good to work with as a sonnet. I hope I'm not misrepresenting her there.

Whatever works for you, I suppose. Form and I were not born to be together. I nearly always prefer to let the poem dictate its own form from the very beginning. And if I may indulge myself by quoting here from the sci-fi western film Serenity, 'I am a leaf on the wind ...'


Ms Baroque said...

Jane, as I said to someone else the other day, yeah, and I'm Audrey Hepburn.

I find that extreme formalism can tip into crossword-puzzleism, which is only tedious. I read a poem the other day which was a cross between haiku and a sestina. But I do essentially enjoy form.

Hi Bo! Thepoem's been impossible the past twol days, but armed with your holly club you should be okay once it's up again.

Jane Holland said...

Well, you do look like Audrey Hepburn.

So, a cross between a haiku and a sestina. Is that a sesku? Or a haikina?

What is it with the Poem forum these days? The guardians at the gate of contemporary poetry need to be assassinated. I volunteer to wriggle in there on my belly, poison-dart pipe at the ready ...

Bo said...

hi ms baroque! great, thanks!