Review by Richard Lance Keeble
The Ventriloquist Dummy’s Lament, by Colin Pink (with woodcuts by Daniel Goodwin)
Available from the publisher
Against the Grain Poetry Press
£11.50 including postage
Reading Colin Pink’s poetry is like exploring a treasure trove of cultural riches. His first, extremely well-received collection, Acrobats of Sound (Poetry Salzburg, 2017), draws inspiration from a wonderful mix of myth, fairy tales, films and art works. His latest, The Ventriloquist Dummy’s Lament (Against the Grain, 2019), similarly, utilises a dazzlingly eclectic range of sources: such as graffiti scrawled on walls during the 1968 student riots in Paris, the venerable Bede’s History of the English Church and People, the work of African American conceptual artist Adrian Piper, the thoughts of Judith Butler, Hegel and Heraclitus, the poetry of Philip Larkin, Rilke and Hölderlin – and a Rembrandt painting.
Pink is daring in his new collection to branch into (for him) a new poetic form – the villanelle which, compared to the ode, sonnet, elegy or the epic, is relatively unknown. First used by the French poet and satirist Jean Passerat (1534-1602) in 1606, one of its most famous expressions is in Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ (1951) – though it has also been used by writers as diverse as Edmund Gosse, Oscar Wilde, W. H. Auden, Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop. Its 19 lines have a very tight structure: five tercets (three lines of rhyming verse) followed by a quatrain (of four lines). With two refrains and two repeating rhymes, the first and third line of the first tercet is repeated alternately at the end of each subsequent stanza until the last stanza, which includes both repeated lines. Thus the power of each villanelle lies in the tensions that emerge as the poet’s free imagination tussles with the form’s structural constraints.
In a Preface, Pink says he is concerned ‘to explore the potential of the villanelle form, its repetitive hypnotic quality and the ways in which, through the shifting context of preceding and succeeding lines and changes in punctuation, one can keep changing the meaning of the repeated lines without changing any of the actual words’.
‘Hymn to the alder’, Pink’s homage ‘to a magnificent tree I can see from the windows of our block of flats’, captures the elegance, special music and, indeed, the hypnotic quality of the constantly rhyming lines: ‘Stately, in every season, implacable, you remain/Growing imperceptibly each year. Your limbs/Reach up to the sky. Teach us to praise our domain … As naturally as every leaf unfolds through every vein…’ The end of each tercet flows into the next like an ever-evolving melody – culminating in the final quatrain where the lines are slightly tweaked to convey both the change and continuity of nature: ‘Love where we are, whether in sun, wind or rain./Then we too can echo you, growing rich within:/Stately, in every season, implacable, and remain/Reaching up to the sky, praising our domain.’
Pink, who also writes fiction and drama, lectures in the history of modern art. And in ‘Ox Carcass (after Rembrandt)’, inspired by the Dutch master’s painting of 1655 on display in the Louvre, Paris, his reflections take in both the life force and death: ‘Though you hang from a rail, your body suspended,/Legs stretched apart, chest cavity splayed to our gaze,/I can still sense your life force your power upended.’ And he ends stoically: the carcass shows us ‘death heavier than we pretended/But we must forge our path and not let it hold sway’.
‘Lyric Suite’ draws on the title of the string quartet Alban Berg composed after beginning an affair with Hanna Fuchs-Robertin in 1926 in Prague – its notes based on their initials with hidden lyrics declaring his love (as Pink explains in the excellent notes at the end of the text): ‘It was a secret love, unseen, hiding in plain sight/It was Prague in spring, sultry and full of flowers/It was a lonely love, interrupted by broken nights.’
Other villanelles take in urgent, global communal issues such as the mounting numbers of refugees and the ecological crisis. In ‘Sedate and suffocate’, he explores the impact of media-saturation on society and the myth of freedom: ‘Every evening we flip the channels on the TV/There must be something good for a change/We live the universal illusion that we are free.’
In ‘Manifestations’, the nightmares, the panic, the ‘furies’ take over: ‘I keep seeing things that aren’t really there/The doctors tell me that nothing is wrong/Listen to footsteps slowly climb the stair.’
Indeed, an underlying theme running throughout, according to Pink, is ‘the process by which we are all manipulated in ways we don’t fully comprehend’. This is particularly evident in the poem which gives the collection its title, ‘The Ventriloquists Dummy’s Lament’ with the metaphorical dummy spoken through rather than speaking itself: ‘But in slips my blade, greased with humour, to pare/Away empathy for the displaced, degraded, forlorn./Can you tell if I’m grinning or grimacing? You declare.’
Occasionally, while tackling Big Issues, the writing can fall flat as, for instance, in ‘Double-entry Bookkeeping’: ‘Every debit must be balanced by a credit that brings/In profit; for banking and the triumph of capitalism/Was invented in the renaissance, along with other things.’
But overall, alongside the powerful, abstract woodcuts by Daniel Goodwin, this collection makes for a beautiful and highly original package from the publishers, Against the Grain.