Review- case of mis en abyme.

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Carla Scarano D’Antonio moved to England (Lancashire then Surrey) in 2007 from Rome (Italy) and started attending creative writing courses. She obtained a Degree of Master of Arts in Creative Writing with Merit at Lancaster University in October 2012. Her work was published in Shipwrights (an online Swedish Review), Purple Patch, First Edition magazine, Northern Life, audio Flax Anthologies: Vanishing Act (Flax 020), Flash Mob (Flax 026), Cake, the Beautiful Dragons Anthologies Heavenly Bodies and My Dear Watson, London Grip, Lighthouse, South and Poetry News. She self-published a poetry pamphlet, A Winding Road, in 2011 and won the First Prize of the John Dryden Translation Competition 2016. The prize was awarded for translation of some poems by Eugenio Montale that Keith Lander and Carla co-translated. She publishes recipes, travel journals and opinions on her blog: carlascarano.blogspot.co.uk/ She is currently working on a PhD on Margaret Atwood’s work at the University of Reading. Website: http://www.carlascaranod.co.uk/

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Poems in the case

Michael Bartholomew-Biggs

Shoestring Press, 2018

ISBN 978-1-912524-05-1

£10

The new collection by Michael Bartholomew-Biggs features both poetry and prose in the frame of a whodunit detective story. The narrative is gripping from the first to the last page with a good balance of humour, lyricism and well-crafted ironic undertones.

The setting is a poetry workshop in a remote and renowned locality, Weald Barn, in Kent where two famous poets, George Hamblin and Steven Prince, lead a small group of six well published and carefully chosen poets. The title of the workshop, ‘Delighting in the dark side’, sets the theme pointing out both the mystery story that is going to develop, and the mysterious ‘dark’ human side.

In the best whodunit tradition, the collection starts with the death of a poet, Eric Jessop, who fell from a cliff near his home by accident, we do not know if he was pushed or committed suicide. His partner, George Hamblin, was away, or so he says, and supports the suicidal theory reporting to the police that Eric was depressed and suffered from a writer’s block. Since the beginning the story specifies its main intertextual reference, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, in fragments of poems Jessop left on his desk before dying. They recall Winston Smith’s rebellion and O’Brien, where the two characters are linked in an undefined relationship mirroring each other and merging in one person, maybe Eric Jessop himself:

but I can only guess your fierce resentment

of the state we reached – both cheated by my own O’Brien

who after all and all the time has been in charge

The prose narration spells out the plot and the different characters, the leftist poet, the romantic woman, the experienced actress, the disillusioned man, the beautiful woman and her lover, and the solitary but attentive observer, Stanley Spenser, who is going to solve the case, or nearly. In a fascinating not at all idyllic world of poetry the two tutors reveal themselves to be fierce rivals both coveting a lucrative poet-in-residence post, jealous of each other’s work and reputation and competing on who is going to control Jessop’s legacy. There is enough motive for a murder, or two, while the speculations of the audience increase.

The relationships between the guest poets and the tutors and among the tutees themselves are tainted as well by jealousies and overstressed competitive attitudes, which show their weaknesses and ‘dark sides’. The poems are written in different voices that add characterization to the individual poets and reveal their secrets, exposing loneliness, isolation, sexual drives, petty revenges and murderous tendencies.

The majority of the story is told from the point of view of Stanley Spenser, who does not seem to be related to the famous painter, whose surname spells different. He keeps a low profile, witnessing and drawing rational and well reasoned conclusions, being a mathematician in his daily life, eager to put his QED (quod erat demonstrandum, what was to be demonstrated) at the end of his maths proof. He is shy and reserved, ‘quiet and invisible’, a man of few words but keen observations. More a Mycroft than a Sherlock Holmes.

Disturbing images of razors, knives, chopping boards and the infamous rat torture evoked in Orwell’s novel emphasise the heavy atmosphere of Weald Barn not only in words but in flesh and blood. All the poets, except Spenser who keeps at a distance and whose language seems to have dissolved in a ‘permanent uncertainty’, are fiercely attentive more to the success of the others than to their own. Their ‘dark side’ seems to be only a ‘mean side’, self-deprecating and incapable of generosity, rather than anything mysterious or unspeakable. The two tutors are precise examples of this thinking with their inconclusive skirmishes. It is a morally grim world of gifted poetry and well-crafted lines but poor feelings that reveal human flaws and fears in a relentless struggle of self-affirmation at the expense of others. The characters mirror each other reproducing similar attitudes, or similar ‘dark sides’, incapable of stepping back or of having a wider view, except for Spenser, who puts the pieces together. Finally, ‘fate’ entrusts him with Jessop’s lost manuscript, An Image on the Retina, that we can fortunately read in the second part of the collection.

Besides the engaging detective story, the collection features some outstanding poems that reflect the themes proposed by the story and go beyond them. In the witty ‘translation’ ‘In San Giminiano’, a poem that characterizes the ‘author’, Barry Wigfall, the handsome guy who makes a couple with the beautiful Abigail, the name of the supposed original author, Bartolomeo Grande (the great Bartholomew), an ‘obscure poet’, self-ironically alludes to Bartholomew-Biggs; word games and sexual puns follow supported by self-reflexive footnotes:

They have put their mighty erections

in every imaginable passage of our city

to prick the sky

The central poem of the collection is ‘Re-reading Nineteen Eighty-Four’ attributed to Eric Jessop. It is a re-interpretation of Orwell’s novel focusing on the main characters, Winston, Julia and O’Brien. It refigures the relationships in ‘Winston’s strange affection for O’Brien’ and in the couple’s reciprocal betrayal. The poem is a hall of mirrors where the characters reflect each other ‘cheated by the same O’Brien’ who is absent, displaced, and finally is identified with the subject, vanishing in it.

A similar sense of displacement is in the sonnet ‘Emotional Trajectories’ where the lovers are lost in an ‘empty darkness, stretched between them, hides them’. There is not a conclusive contact between them only a continuous revolving.

The poems of the final section, An Image on the Retina, emphasise once more the betrayals, suspicions, fragility and fights that characterize human relationships:

it’s still a mystery

the way in which these things all hold together.

(Adagio)

time grinds our truths to pulp – no jokes or gaps –

and guzzles what was us

(Double Entry)

The city is reticent about its past.

Too-many-to remember layers

of betrayals, failed alliances

and deals unrealised are locked

in legal boxes and confessionals –

or else denied as utterly

as an unmarked grave.

(Urban Concealment)

The ‘mirror-image doppelganger/ mockery of home from home’ is repeated in the images of the final poem, ‘An Image on the Retina’, where the bull’s eyeballs reflect the slaughterman, like Winston reflected O’Brien. We think we look forward toward the future but we only look back ‘too often at ourselves/mirrored in opinions and shop windows’, we are trapped in reflections, stack up accusations, and are lost in regrets. The conclusion is not joyful, but it is appropriate to a murder mystery where, as in life, death is the only final serious matter.

 

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